Tag Archives: Eudora Welty

Comparison of Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” and Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man”

“Balloon” – “As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes.” (606)

“Petrified Man” – “Mrs. Pike is a lovely girl, you’d be crazy about her, Mrs. Fletcher.” (1097)

Both “Balloon” and “Petrified Man” embody the common phrase, “everything is not what it seems.” In “Petrified Man,” the characters’ are opaque; their perceptions are masked by gossip and temptation. Mr. Petrie is the epitome of this idea; he appears to be a simple man performing in a freak show. Digging below the surface, however, allows Mrs. Pike to realize that he is a hidden criminal wanted for rape. The perceptions of the characters throughout this story are open to reader interpretation, infused with a slight bias coming from the gossip of the beauty parlor. It is not until the end of the story that Mr. Petrie’s identity is revealed. In addition, the perceptions of Mrs. Pike vary as well. Leota originally believes her to be a kind woman, while Mrs. Fletcher is a bit more skeptical. In short, the view of each character is tainted by biases infused throughout the story.

This perception is similar in “Balloon.” Barthelme devotes paragraphs to explaining the diversity of reactions after he first blows up the balloon and places it onto the streets of Manhattan. The meaning of the balloon varies for each character in the story, but also the reader as well. He illustrates the deeper meaning of language throughout this story, using one word and branching the meaning to broader ideas. For example, when a man associates the term “sullied” with the balloon, Barthelme expands on the idea that this man sees the balloon as an interloper between “the people and their sky.” He complicates the idea further by suggesting that the January sky is a worse sight than the underbelly of the balloon, and this renders the man annoyed yet pleased with the sight of the balloon. Barthelme uses this as evidence for his underlying point that communication of true feelings is very difficult. In addition, the narrator illustrates that the imagery representative of the balloon to him varies for every person that comes into contact with it, and their opinions vary highly from his original intention. They give meaning to something he otherwise cited as meaningless.

These two stories relate in their perceptions. Just as the views of Mr. Petrie and Mrs. Pike change throughout “Petrified Man,” the perceptions of the balloon vary from individual to individual. However, conveying your true feelings towards someone, such as trying to get a word in in that bickering beauty parlor or illustrating your thoughts and reactions towards the balloons, is difficult, challenging, and impacted by the viewpoints and opinions of those around you.

Introduction to Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty was born in 1909, and she constructed an impressive body of work throughout her long life which cemented her place as one of the most important southern writers in American Literature and earned her many prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in Literature for The Optimist’s Daughter.  Welty found inspiration in literary figures including Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.  She also found a productive relationship with her mentor, Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote an introduction for Welty’s first short story collection, A Curtain of Green.

Welty also found inspiration a great source of inspiration from her father, Christian, who encouraged Welty’s literary interests and introduced her to photography.  Eudora Welty adopted her father’s love of photography as her own and pursued the art in her young adulthood.  Many of Welty’s photographs deal with capturing the effects of the Great Depression on her community.  Her subjects largely consisted of working-class African Americans.  Welty said of her photography, “I learned in the doing how ready I had to be. Life doesn’t hold still. A good snapshot stopped a moment from running away. Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had.”

Elements of Welty’s photography bled into her written work as well, especially the need to “capture transience”.  Welty’s use of dialogue demonstates her desire to maintain an honest depiction of a moment within her short stories in much the same way that her photographs preserve a moment.

“Aw. Well, honey, talkin’ about bein’ pregnant an’ all, you ought to see those twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself” (Welty 1096).

Welty illustrates the crass environment of Leota’s parlor stall. Oafishly, Leota encourages Mrs. Fletcher to treat herself with a view of the Traveling Freak Show’s Siamese twins. The bodies of which, are assumably bobbing in a jar of formaldehyde, poised on some staged shelf for added attraction. The conversation is hauntingly evoked by the confirmation of Mrs. Fletcher’s own pregnancy. “They was about this long – pardon – must of been full time,” she notes, “Kinda pathetic.”

Welty winks at the reality of the reader’s higher intellect, as well as her own. The “pathetic” pickled twins are paralleled with Leota’s pickling of Mrs. Fletchers hair, while pinning on her own person, a badge for being worldly; or knowing the in’s and outs of the town freak show. Welty provides additional nudges throughout the text through means of similar moral deficiency and Mississippi twang.

The scene comes across as common, or everyday, but simultaneously the portrayal of the characters leaves them somewhat un-relatable. While Mrs. Fletcher and Leota are the main characters, they aren’t necessarily the focus. In this scene and in the bulk of the narrative, the focus is instead on the business of alternative characters. This angle supplies more logistical information on Mrs. Pike or even “Billy Boy,” but allows only the moral compass of Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs.Pike to be seen through an un-skewed lens.

“No, I despise freaks, declared Mrs. Fletcher.” (1097)

I find this quote to be one of the most ironic quotes in the story. One of the main themes throughout this story is that everything is not as it seems. All the characters portrayed have underlying personalities that the reader must decipher. The real “freak show” lies within the beauty shop itself. Mrs. Fletcher spends her time criticizing and judging others, just as she does with Mrs. Pike. Leota runs a beauty shop that fuels itself on gossip. Leota is a flaky character; she appears to defend Mrs. Pike in the beginning of the story but turns on her later when she identifies Mr. Petrie, seemingly jealous of the fact that Mrs. Pike used her magazine to find the ad and make some quick cash. And of course, Mr. Petrie appeared as another act in a freak show, but he turns a wanted criminal and rapist. This story is a series of illusions. These women plan their lives around Lady Evangeline’s readings; she determines how they make decisions. The harsh language used here, especially the word despised, indicates Mrs. Fisher’s denial to acknowledge her inability to fit within societal norms. She lacks confidence in herself and her marriage, masking it by jesting at others and pointing out their flaws. For example, she becomes infuriated when she realizes someone in the town gossiped about her pregnancy. The only character that seems exempt from this freak show is the young child Billy Baron, who serves as a voice of reason within the story. He has not yet been damaged by the society of these women.

“Oh!” said Mrs. Fletcher. “Oh, is Mrs. Pike a beautician too?” “Sure she is,” protested Leota.

Welty’s use of enthusiastic exclamations throughout the story make the text read like a play. The use of consistent dialogue incites the type of back and forth one would imagine on stage. The active words and use of exclamation points gives the phrases and sentences more feeling that the reader can comprehend.

Welty establishes a very contained and well defined setting for the story: a southern beauty shop. One could imagine this type of set-up on a stage in a theater. This creation helps to reinforce what she establishes through the writing of her dialogue. It is an intimate place where the ladies share personal information and gossip in a very engaging way.

Along with the use of emotional exclamations throughout the story, the dialogue is written phonetically to reflect this idea of live-action. All the women in the beauty shop are excited about the gossip, and are jumbling their words and speaking in colloquialisms. When one reads passages that use this tactic, he often imagines what it would be like to actually hear the words being spoken allowed. Again, this is a very theatrical structure. People in shows always speak colloquially as opposed to formally.

Also, by focusing on the back-and-forth conversations between the characters, Welty allows what they say to be the driving force behind the story. The narration takes a backseat to the dialogue. By focusing on these passionate expressions and exchanges, Welty really rounds out the idea of a live-action story that acts itself out right in front of the reader.

“Mercy!” said Mrs, Fletcher. “Where was he?” At some time Leota had washed her hair and now she yanked her up by the back locks and sat her up. “Know where he was?” “I certainly don’t,” Mrs. Fletcher said. Her scalp hurt all over. Leota flung a towel around the top of her customer’s head. (Welty 1101-1102)

In Petrified Man, Eudora Welty guides the reader through the gossipy, chatty, dialogue-heavy text by utilizing consistent and immensely descriptive interjections that revolve around the process of Leota doing Mrs. Fletcher’s hair. These continual interjections serve to make Mrs. Fletcher’s head the main focus of the text within the context of everything else, so that the reader realizes that there is some sort of significance surrounding Mrs. Fletcher’s head. This stylistic use of descriptive interjections to break up the dialogue and bring focus to Mrs. Fletcher’s hair is made even more interesting in how the descriptions are very much characterized by violent and forceful imagery. There are countless examples of this imagery surrounding the descriptions of Leota’s beautification process for Mrs. Fletcher’s hair. Leota “puff[s] and press[es] into Mrs. Fletcher’s scalp with strong red-nailed fingers” (1094), she “drenches Mrs. Fletcher’s hair with a thick fluid” (1095), she “stuff[s] cotton balls into [Mrs. Fletcher’s] ears” (1099), she “[digs] her hands into [Mrs. Fletcher’s scalp” (1100), she yank[s] her up by the back locks and sat her up” (1101-1102), and moving down from the head to the neck, Leota almost chokes Mrs. Fletcher “with the cloth, pinning it so tight” so that “she couldn’t speak clearly” (1100). The control over and abuse of Mrs. Fletcher’s head is very evident – especially in the yanking her up by the back locks of her hair, which is very reminiscent of a puppeteer pulling the strings of his puppet. The violent imagery that characterizes these stylistic interjections serve a profound purpose in relating to the reader the stupidity and ridiculousness that is the petty gossip these women chatter about. Throughout the story, Mrs. Fletcher’s head, as seen through the interjections, takes a large amount of abuse and is very much controlled by Leota, which serves as a subtle commentary on how petty, seemingly harmless gossip can actually be dangerous in the way that it can abuse and control the mind.

“All I know is, whoever it is ’ll be sorry some day. Why, I just barely knew it myself!” cried Mrs. Fletcher (Welty 1096).

By far the most striking feature of Welty’s style is her use of dialogue. Throughout the story the reader learns about the characters almost solely through conversation. There is no external action in the short story and the real “action” or drama of the story takes place in the dialogue. This style of writing contrasts sharply to Ernest Hemingway’s, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In this story, Hemingway uses only very short snippets of dialogue and we learn most of what we know about the main character through long dense sections of prose. Welty however, is able to capture the sharp details of the triviality and pompousness of life in this town through the dialogue between Mrs. Fletcher and Leota.

From the first lines of the story we are immediately thrown into a beauty shop with these two women exchanging banter about nonsense. The colloquial use of language helps add to the gossipy nature of the conversations. Upon hearing that people have been gossiping about her, Mrs. Fletcher becomes furious and demands to know who said she was pregnant. We can see by the reaction of Mrs. Fletcher that public opinion shapes everything about the lives of these self-centered women. From this time on she remains very defensive about her own life. The idea of being shaped by public opinion surfaces again and again throughout the story. For example, Leota tries to organize her life around the way another person, the fortune-teller, said her life was going to play out. This clearly shows that she is not a strong or independent woman but instead tries to conform to the way someone else says her life will be. Another example comes from the fact that they believe in stereotypes and are concerned with horoscopes. Nothing is unique about their conversations. Their lives seem purposeless and adjust themselves according to outside influences.