Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

Reading Delta Wedding is one of the most delightful experiences I’ve had in a long while. It is a rarity to completely fall into a novel and experience its slow unfolding almost as though one were a character oneself but, with Welty’s masterpiece, this is exactly what happens. The action is relayed through the various perspectives of the extended Fairchild family and, indeed, sometimes the same events are seen through more than one set of eyes with inevitable, subtle shifts of emphasis and interpretation. Even within the best of families there will be tensions, and there certainly are with the Fairchilds, some of whom have a grip on reality that is tenuous to say the least. Nonetheless, through it all, there is a real spirit, a kinship which overcomes all. This is a family that is rooted in its Delta homeland and that looks after its own,l and the result is that the reader is swept up in the embrace of this close, happy family. It is as though we have been privileged to stay with them for those few days before and after the grand family wedding and, at the story’s conclusion, at the end of our stay, we are forced to bid them an unwilling farewell.

On a simple reading, Delta Wedding could perhaps be considered Faulkner- or O’Connor-lite – Southern eccentrics doing lovably eccentric things, but without the underlying tragedy of Faulkner or violence of O’Connor. But this would be to grossly underestimate the novel and to overlook, amid the genuine warmth of its vision, those hints and portents of the darkness of life. There is a remarkable subtlety to the novel which, for me, marks it out as certainly superior to the didactic O’Connor and right up there at the pinnacle of southern fiction. This is not southern gothic: the Fairchilds, although strange indeed, are not freaks. Nor do they dance to their author's tune. They feel like real, breathing human beings.

The novel revolves around the extended Fairchild family, but in particular focuses on three characters. Firstly, nine-year old Laura, whose mother has just died and who is staying with her aunt and uncle and cousins, ostensibly for the wedding but possibly for good, as the Fairchilds decide whether to close ranks and embrace her to their bosom. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, there is Laura’s uncle George, the only person in the family seemingly untouched by southern eccentricity, and someone who is idolised by the family. And thirdly, Laura’s cousin Dabney, who is to marry (beneath herself, as is frequently hinted) the farm overseer Troy Flavin. Besides these, there is a cast of rich and beautifully described family members - mother and father Ellen and Battle, George’s wife Robbie, who has run away and left him, but who returns because she adores him, the remaining children, ranging from the toddler Bluet upwards, each with his or her own character, and a range of eccentric aunts and uncles who lend humour and warmth to the action.

But it is the family as a collective unit, though, that is perhaps the principal character here. Welty establishes a wholly credible family whose kin-loyalties leave them devoted to one another but also insensitive to the needs of others. Robbie, for example, George’s wife, struggling to gain acceptance in the family, complains to Ellen at one point: “Once I tried to be like the Fairchilds. I thought I knew how,” and ends with the devastating critique: “You’re just loving yourselves in each other – yourselves over and over again!” And there is, indeed, a cockiness, even arrogance, about the Fairchilds, demonstrated most tellingly in the novel’s most dramatic moment, told several times in the narrative from different perspectives. On a family outing, they are dallying by the railway line and one of the family, the slow-witted Maureen, gets her foot trapped in the tracks. George calmly tries to free it, while the rest of the family jump clear. A train approaches them but George, although he could have escaped, remains resolutely on the trestle, as though facing down the train. Ultimately, the train stops just short of them and the engineer shouts his apologies from the window. It becomes a grand, humorous family story. ‘Inevitable,’ Ellen describes it to herself later, while acknowledging that non-family members would have seen it as ‘conceited.’ George Poore, in his contemporary review, sums this moment up neatly: ‘To the was an amusing episode; to outsiders it was a piece of reckless quixotry typical of the Fairchilds, the essence of Fairchildism.’ But then again, it might be argued this was the nature of the Delta people in general. As Dr. Murdoch states at one point: “But – can’t do a thing about Delta people... They’re the worst of all. One myself, can’t do a thing about myself.” The family are summed up best, near the end of the novel, from the point of view of the matriarch Ellen: ‘Passionate, sensitive, to the point of strain and secrecy, their legend was happiness. “The Fairchilds are the happiest people!”’

Throughout, the novel is told in subtly changing voices, from a range of points of view. It is remarkably controlled and beautifully handled, giving each character strength and individuality. However, Paul Binding observes that:

In the novel's overall movement there is rather too little overt tension for its theme to emerge as sharply above its context as it should, and again, there is insufficient concentration on one viewpoint. We forsake Laura for Ellen, for Dabney, for Robbie, and a certain dissipation of attention results.

I simply do not agree. The theme emerges from the whole, from the gradual revelation of the family in its various misconceptions and misperceptions, its prejudices and partialities. Throughout, there is a sense of excitement and anticipation and of a tremendous vitality, as everyone awaits the forthcoming wedding. There is the bustle of ordinary family life, given fresh breath by the ensemble nature of the characterisations, and with each shift of point of view we see a subtle change in the narrative frame, are given a slightly different impression, offered another interpretation. In just the way that Faulkner uses different voices in The Sound and The Fury to help establish theme out of narrative, Welty uses her characters to ensure Delta Wedding is more than just a snapshot of an idyllic life. Without these shifts the novel could easily have become bucolic, a comfortable despatch from arcadia, but instead Welty ensures that we see this family as it really is – fine, happy, but as flawed as everyone else’s – and we see the world in all its dark reality. The beautiful girl who, unlike simple Maureen, is indeed knocked over by the train and killed, ensures we do not lose sight of that.

And so Eudora Welty creates something truly memorable. Delta Wedding is a remarkable novel because it is a slice of typical southern realism relayed through characteristically fine dialogue and strong characterisation, and at the same time it manages to convey something deeper, a glimpse of the realities of human nature, in all its good and bad.


Carolyn said...

I just re-read Delta Wedding after not having read it for thirty years. I recommended it to our book club and began wondering, before I read it again, whether it could possibly be as good as I recalled its being. It was and is. The writing is beautiful and I was interested in Poole's review which you quote because he agrees with my assessment that Welty is much like James; neither was concerned with strong plot, but on illumination of character especially as defined within the context of a circumscribed "society"; in this case, family. I enjoyed your review. Thank you.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hello Carolyn, and thanks for commenting. Yes, I think it is a wonderful story. I read it a while back now, but it still resonates with me while other books I've read since have disappeared from my consciousness. I think Welty does a brilliant job of creating this closed community and bringing it to life. You do feel, at the end, that you've been with them every step of the way. Lovely writing.

thanks again for replying. I hope your book club enjoyed it too, and enjoyed the discussion afterwards.