Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
Clyde Wade's insight allows us to extend our appreciation of American manners by recognizing the romantic inherent in the culture itself.
This sense that the stuff of American life was insufficient material for literary development seems to have driven American writers either to romance or to Europe.
Much of Welty’s humor can be seen as drawing- room comedy, updated a few centuries, shipped across the Atlantic, and transplanted into Southern small towns and backwoods.
Comedy of manners affirmed what Harold Watts has called “marketplace values,” which maintain social stability.
"Lily Daw" is a sombre variant on comedy of manners.
It presents drawing room comedy in a run-down, windowless house as three proper ladies try to negotiate a proper solution with a young woman who, though mentally handicapped, has her own sense of manners.
All of their attempts at persuasion are premised on their own Bible-Belt manners.
Despite varying styles, the three ladies’ behavior is united not merely in a superficial prudery but rather in a deep though conventional conviction that it matters a great deal whether or not this marriage has already been consummated.
The continuing costs of Lily's marriage create somber overtones which are not overcome but rather heightened by manners.
“Much deeper than literature, affecting men who scorned novels and poetry, was the romantic spirit that subtly permeated the society of the Old South. . . ." W. J. Cash
The river dragging is a pro-forma response of a culture which has built its manners around chivalry.
In "The Wide Net," chivalry dictates a grand display of pageantry and male heroics reminiscent of a medieval tournament.
The group William Wallace collects creates a distinct social order with its own protocol based on family and race, community rank, and relationship to the drowned:
The heroics themselves in all their epic grandeur are manners.
William Wallace’s relationship with his wife has been set in manners from the beginning.
Lady Hazel's parody of medieval feminine idealization is not in the writing but in the culture itself.
We must anticipate the continuing cost of a long, low-grade battle of the sexes.
Romanticism is no longer a literary convention. It is a way of life.
“It is the way [Southerners] are born, to love a good tale." Nell Ann Pickett
We miss half the fun if we do not recognize the colloquial narration of "Why I Live at the P.O." as mannerist.
Sister’s account is part of a larger backwoods convention— the family feud.
Ironically the family feud is perfectly adequate for maintaining the status quo: a constant, low-grade, parochially self-absorbed war.
Welty weds manners and wit.
Democracy has not deprived American culture of manners.
Comedy of Manners and a Sombre Sense of Regain in the Stories of Eudora Welty
Presented at the Sixth Annual Midlands Conference on Language and Literature
Omaha, Nebraska, 1993
Edited for web publication
The great variety of style, mood, texture, and humorous techniques in the stories of Eudora Welty lends her work to analysis from a variety of perspectives. One that tends to be underrepresented, however, is the perspective of comedy of manners. Most discussions of Ms. Welty’s humor and comedy tend to ignore comedy of manners altogether, while Elmo Howell’s likening of Welty’s Delta Wedding to the work of Jane Austen only begins to appreciate Ms. Welty as a mannerist. Yet it would be hard for anyone to deny Ms. Welty’s adeptness at chronicling the manners of Southern culture.
Perhaps this oversight stems from the same critical view as James Tuttleton’s omission of Faulkner from his very careful and thorough discussion, the Novel of Manners in America. Tuttleton makes this exclusion because of Faulkner’s symbolic and romantic characteristics. Clyde Wade at the1991 conference of the International Society for Humor Studies, however, convincingly demonstrated that Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” granted all its romantic elements, can be argued to fall under Tuttleton’s own rubric of manners. Wade’s insight not only elucidates Faulkner, it suggests a perspective on Southern literature in particular and American literature in general which rather than insisting on a marked distinction between manners and symbolism—between realism and romanticism if you will—allows us to extend our appreciation of American manners by recognizing the romantic inherent in the culture itself.
The manners of American culture have not always been appreciated by American writers. In the nineteenth century Richard Chase complained that “There are no manners in America to observe, compared, that is, with Europe” (Tuttleton 3), and Marius Bewley bemoaned the writer’s deprivation of “that richness of nuance and tone which a traditional society alone can provide.” (Tuttleton 4). American writers found their own society lacking in social strata, rich cultural history, and a well-developed upper class. This sense that the stuff of American life was insufficient material for literary development seems to have driven writers either to romance or to Europe and created a sense that there is a chasm between romance and realism.
In the Twentieth Century, Tuttleton is much more charitable toward American culture and much more sophisticated about the relationship between romanticism and manners, acknowledging that the difference between the two modes may came down to a matter of emphasis. Wade has further demonstrated that an analysis of manners can elucidate a work with clear romantic elements.
It is from this stance that I approach Eudora Welty’s stories, and then not merely from the rubric of the novel of manners but from the more narrow scope of comedy of manners. For much of Welty’s humor can be seen as a drawing-room comedy, updated a few centuries, shipped across the Atlantic, and transplanted into Southern small towns and backwoods. While “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” can easily be argued to be indebted to traditional comedy of manners, “The Wide Net” can be seen as incorporating the romantic itself into Southern manners, and even “Why I Live at the P.O.” can be argued to create a comedy through the manners of story telling.
Comedy of manners traditionally took place in a limited societal environment and concerned itself for the most part with outward social behavior. Characters tended to represent social classes or types. Comedy of manners affirmed what Harold Watts has called “marketplace values,” common, societal, often superficial values which work to maintain social stability and the status quo. In the end, Watts notes, such comedy creates a “sense of regain,” a reassurance of the adequacy of established societal values. The role of humor in such comedy is twofold: to laugh off-stage those elements that would ultimately threaten society’s equilibrium and to gently laugh at highlighted manners in such a way as to recognize their weakness and at the same time reassure us of their durability.
The Drawing Room of Lily Daw
In this light, “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” can profitably be analyzed as comedy of manners, but in a somber variant. The story creates a darker “sense of regain” than was typical of traditional manners comedy. This unexpected turn of mood, however, does not invalidate the comedy of manners. Rather the somber mood is enhanced by its contrast with traditional comedy, and at the same time it suggests the significant continuing cost that is paid for social stability. And it is this significant on-going cost which, according to critic Paul Grawe, makes a comedy somber.
The story recounts the attempts of three middle-aged small-town respectable women to persuade a mentally retarded young women, their unofficial ward, to enter an institution before she falls victim to sexual hormones, her own or someone else’s. As soon as they receive the OK from the institution, they head off to find Lily, and none too soon, because Lily has just announced that she intends to get married. They find Lily packing her hope chest with a washcloth and two bars of soap, not very inclined to be convinced that Ellisville would be “nicer” than marriage. When it comes out that Lily’s intentions to marry are not some hopelessly unrealistic dream but a promise made to a traveling xylophone player last night, the ladies begin to hyperventilate. Distressed by the distinct possibility that the marriage may have already been consummated, they determine to ship Lily off to Ellisville immediately. Lily would prefer marriage, though she’ll accept Ellisville if she can take her hope chest along, which the ladies readily agree to. But as Lily boards the train, the xylophone player steps off, returning for his bride. As if faced with the inevitable, the ladies unload Lily, the pastor’s wife calls for an immediate wedding, right in the train station, and the hope chest rumbles off to Ellisville.
The delightful scene in which the three ladies try to persuade Lily to enter an institution is a fine example of Ms. Welty’s comedy of manners at work. Here we have drawing-room comedy in a run-down, windowless house as three proper ladies try to negotiate a proper solution with a young woman who, though mentally handicapped, has her own sense of manners. W. U. McDonald has noted that this scene demonstrates the three women acting in “choric” movement at the same time that it establishes a clear hierarchy in the trio, with Mrs. Watts at the top (in the double swing, Mrs. Watts “led the rocking” (9)) and Aimee Slocum on the bottom (she was unmarried). The ladies descend on Lily armed with an entire repertoire of conventional persuasive techniques proper to women of their stature, and Lily’s responses defy convention:
“’Well, we’ve thought of something that will be so much nicer,’ said Mrs. Carson. ‘Why don’t you go to Ellisville!’
‘Won’t that be lovely?’ said Mrs. Watts. ‘Goodness, yes.’
‘It’s a lovely place,’ said Aimee Slocum uncertainly.’
‘You’ve got bumps on your face,’ said Lily’” (10).
The ladies try false envy: “I wish I could go to Ellisville” (13). They glorify institutional routine: “O, yes, indeed, they will let you make all sorts of baskets” (13). They try bribery—a pair of hemstitched pillow cases, a caramel cake, a souvenir from Jackson, a Bible, and a “pink crepe de Chine brassiere” (12-13). This last item offered by Mrs. Watts brings mild protest from Mrs. Carson, but Mrs. Watts reminds her, “Well she needs it. What would they think if she ran all over Ellisville in a petticoat looking like a Fiji?” (13). Even the mentally handicapped ought to have good manners. Finally they resort to God. “We’ve asked God, Lily,’ said Mrs. Carson [the pastor’s wife], ‘and God seemed to tell us—Mr. Carson too—that the place you ought to be, so as to be happy, was Ellisville’” (13). All of their attempts at persuasion are premised on their own cultural manners.
Even the ladies’ response to Lily’s disclosure, while not dignified, is within the dictates of Bible-Belt manners:
“There was a gasp from each lady . . . . Mrs. Watts stood up and balanced herself . . . .’ Did he—did he do anything to you?’ Mrs. Watts asked . . . . ‘Oh, yes’m,’ said Lily. ‘What?’ demanded Aimee Slocum, rising up and tottering before her scream . . . . ‘Don’t ask her that,’ said Mrs. Carson . . . . ‘Tell me, Lily—just yes or no—are you the same as you were?’ ‘He had a red coat,’ said Lily graciously. “He took little sticks and went ping pong! ding dong!’ “Oh, I think I’m going to faint,’ said Aimee Slocum, but they said, “no, you’re not!’” (10-11).
Despite varying styles, the three ladies’ behavior is united not merely in a superficial prudery but rather in a deep though conventional conviction that it matters a great deal whether or not this marriage has already been consummated.
In this story a force seemingly greater than convention threatens to unglue a small part of society, and the caretakers of social equilibrium respond exactly as convention would dictate, just as we expect in comedy of manners, and not surprisingly, because for years comedy-of-manners plots have revolved around managing human sexual hormones. The irony is that from a comedy-of-manners perspective, Lily and the xylophonist are more conventional than the ladies. The lovers want to get married. Lily had bought a new hat and is packing her hope chest. In one sense we have a standard comedic plot: young lovers meet, overcome obstacles in the older generation, and marry.
The continuing costs of this marriage, however, create somber overtones which are not overcome but rather heightened by manners. We cringe even as we laugh when Mrs. Watts coos to the xylophonist, “So you’re the young man we’ve heard so much about . . . .Here’s your little Lily” (19). Obviously manners have not restored the hope chest which has taken off on the train to Ellisville, nor have they created any real hope for Lily. In fact, Mrs. Watts’ formulaic greeting, the band which plays presumably to send Lily off to safety, and the xylophonist’s own conventional manners all underscore Lily’s insufficiency. Yet at the same time, recognizing the comedy of manners in this story should prevent us from too severely condemning the three ladies. To argue as Alfred Appel has, that Lily “has become the vessel into which all of their sexual repressions are channeled, and the story is ultimately about the pathology of goodness—the ugly private motivations that may lurk behind the charitable impulse” (45)—to argue such is to deny the comedy-of- manners spirit that runs throughout the story. The ladies, after all, finally affirm Lily’s sense of what is right. The story is about the limitations of manners, but not about their perversity.
Medieval Pageantry of "The Wide Net"
I have chosen to deal first with “Lily Daw” because its tone, plot line, characterization, and manners most closely resemble drawing-room comedy. However, our appreciation of manners in Eudora Welty’s writing can elucidate other works which are considerably farther removed from the English drawing room and which contain predominant romantic elements. “The Wide Net” is a case in point. As we examine manners in “The Wide Net,” it is crucial that we recognize the extent to which romanticism informed Southern culture and manners. Roland Osterweiss documents the pervasive effects of chivalry in antebellum Southern manners, describing in detail and in particular the ring tournaments, in imitation of medieval jousts. Osterweiss further argues that the “myth of the lost cause” kept chivalry alive many decades after the war. W. J. Cash writes, “Much deeper than literature, affecting men who scorned novels and poetry, was the romantic spirit that subtly permeated the society of the Old South. It made men touchy of their honor and impelled them to do things that were the negation of economic realism” (245-6).
William Wallace’s wife, Hazel, is pregnant, due in six months, but she “acted exactly as though it would be tomorrow” (34). In his frustration, William Wallace stays out all night drinking and returns home to find only a note from Hazel saying she has gone to drown herself in the river. Despite common knowledge that Hazel is deathly afraid of water, William Wallace is convinced she has jumped—jumped backwards—and accordingly gathers the neighbors and a wide net to drag the river. While William Wallace heroically searches the river bottom, the rest of the party assist him and encourage him. Along the way they encounter eels, alligators, and the King of Snakes (with a capital K and S). At day’s end, they parade, wet and triumphant, into town with a huge catch of fish but no Hazel. William Wallace returns home to find Hazel quite fine—she had, as we suspected, never jumped, backwards or forwards, but had merely been hiding under a table. Hazel serves William Wallace his dinner, he summarily spanks her, and she promises never to do it again—well, then again, she will if she gets ready.
Much has been written on the epic quality of William Wallace’s quest for his wife, its heroic grandeur and Dionysian celebration. This epic quality, however, can never be taken too seriously because of the humor which surrounds it. Structurally the story is a comedy of manners. The river dragging is a pro-forma response of a culture which has built its manners around chivalry. William Wallace decides almost instantaneously to drag the river, without looking for Hazel at her mother’s house, knowing full well that she fears water. It is Doc, however, who owns the net and who directs and rationalizes the entire operation:
“’My advice remains, Let well enough alone,’ said Doc. ‘Whatever this mysterious event will turn out to be, it has kept one woman from talking a while. However, Lady Hazel is the prettiest girl in Mississippi, you’ve never seen a prettier one and you never will. . . . I’ll come along with you’” (47).
Common sense tells him Hazel has not drowned, but chivalry dictates a grand display of pageantry and male heroics reminiscent of a medieval tournament.
The dragging of the river for Lady Hazel is fitting. It is necessary for form’s sake. It is also fitting that William Wallace gets to decide who to enlist for the event:
“’This is my day with the net . . . . I recon some Malones, and the Doyles, will be enough. The six Doyles and their dogs, and you and me, and two little nigger boys is enough, with just a few Malones’”( 941).
The group he collects creates a distinct social order with its own protocol based on family and race, community rank, and relationship to the drowned:
“The Malones with great groans swam and pulled near the shore, the Doyles swam and pushed from behind with Virgil to tell them how to do it best; Grady and Brucie with his thread and pin trotted along the sandbars hauling buckets and lines. Sam and Robbie Bell, naked and bright, guided the old oarless rowboat that always drifted at the shore, and in it, sitting up with his hat on, was Doc—he went along without even touching water and without ever taking his eyes off the net. William Wallace himself did everything, but most of the time he was out of sight, swimming about under water or diving and he had nothing to say any more” (51).
As protocol dictates that each play a certain role in the pageant of male prowess, so protocol further requires that certain things will be said. Doc regularly intones, “’Don’t let her get too heavy boys’” (51). And every time William Wallace catches an eel, the Malones yell, “’Rassle with him, son!’” (51).
In fact, the heroics themselves in all their epic grandeur are manners—a fitting tribute to the prettiest girl in Mississippi. It is fitting that when the party parades into town, William Wallace (whose dragging it was) sells the enormous catch of fish for a mere three dollars; it would be poor manners to profit from his wife’s suicide. Doc sums it all up at the end: “’All in all, . . . I’ve never been to a better river dragging, or seen better behavior’” (67).
The river dragging, however, is not the only evidence of manners in this story. William Wallace’s relationship with his wife has been set in manners from the beginning. He tells his friend Virgil that when he first met Hazel, he “’spoke to her with real nice manners,’” and she responded, “’Mind your manners’” (37). Evidently he did. He tells Virgil, “’I always behaved before’” (39).
Hazel, too, is sensitive to manners. Her response to jump in the river—at least imaginatively—is fitting for the prettiest girl in Mississippi. Because she is the prettiest girl in Mississippi, and pregnant to boot, certain things are incumbent on her. When William Wallace enters the room, “she would not speak to him, but would look as straight at nothing as she could, with her eyes glowing. If he only touched her she stuck out her tongue or ran around the table” (34). Lady Hazel’s crude refinement is a humorous parody of medieval feminine idealization and distancing just as the dragging of the river is a rustic reenactment of the medieval tournament. The parody, however, is not in the writing but in the culture itself.
Ms. Welty’s comedy of manners assures us all the way through that Hazel really has not drowned, that we will have a sense of regain in the end. And we do. The couple is reunited, and Hazel is back in the crook of her husband’s arm but also on her pedestal: “She took him by the hand and led him into the house, smiling as if she were smiling down on him” (72). Welty depicts for us a type of rural Southern society that structures relationships around an updated form of chivalry.
There is a vague tension built into this reconciliation, and it is based in the reality that while everyone has behaved properly—in fact extraordinarily (except for William Wallace’s lapse)—manners have not really solved the problem of relationship between William Wallace and Hazel, nor does Hazel’s exalted behavior address William Wallace’s frustration, and William Wallace’s heroics seem silly in light of Hazel’s unwillingness to really jump, and of course, really jumping would have been overkill. After all his heroics and symbolic victories, William Wallace still needs to do something to save face. So he spanks Hazel—which is, of course, bad manners—and Hazel promises not to do it again—until she is back on her feet and on her pedestal smiling down on him. Thus in our sense of regain, we must anticipate the continuing cost of a long, low-grade battle of the sexes.
Even this extended battle, however, we anticipate with light hearts because Ms. Welty has created for us a light comedy—a comedy of manners. We have witnessed a closely structured society which operates on chivalry, transplanted from medieval Europe to the South, transformed into an Old Southwest variant suitable for Mississippi swamps. Romanticism is no longer a literary convention. It is a way of life.
Story Telling at the P.O.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” isn’t nearly as romantic as “The Wide Net.” In fact, the key issue seems not to be one of romance but of sanity, ever since Kathrine Anne Porter pronounced Sister “a terrifying case of dementia praecox” (Welty Curtain xx). While the majority opinion is in favor of some sort of neurosis or psychosis, a cogent case has been made for Sister’s common sense (Herrscher), a diagnosis which a manners analysis tends to support.
At the outset it must be granted that the first-person colloquial narrative is not what we normally think of as drawing-room comedy. However, in the South, story-telling is conventional. Ms. Welty herself comments:
“’It is the way [Southerners] are born, to love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers and letter savers, history tracers and debaters, and—outstaying all the rest—great talkers. Southern talk is on the narrative side, employing the verbatim conversation’” (Pickett 560).
Constructed entirely on verbatim conversation, “Why I Live at the P.O.” is a monologue in which Sister justifies leaving her family and moving into the China Grove post office, where she is the postmistress. According to Sister’s account, everything was fine until her younger sister Stella-Rondo and child returned home, separated from a Northerner, Mr. Whitaker, and proceeded to systematically turn the family, one by one, against Sister. In fact, Sister had gone out with Mr. Whitaker first, until Stella-Rondo broke them up: “Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same” (89). By the end of the story, half the town has sided with Sister, and the other half has “quit buying stamps” (110).
Whether or not this rollicking account can be called formally a comedy, I will not argue at length. But we miss half the fun of the story if we do not recognize the colloquial narration as mannerist.
Nell Ann Pickett, in her analysis of Ms. Welty’s colloquial styles notes that the short-story writer is careful not to mix or confuse the numerous different lower-to-middle class dialects which she employs. Pickett’s classification of the humorous colloquial devices in “Why I Live at the P.O.” need not be repeated, only commended. However, for this study it is important to recognize that many of these devices are themselves manners. For example, the use of euphemism (“precarious condition” for drunkenness) and heightened language (“a deliberate, calculated falsehood”) are typical of certain Southern dialects. Ms. Welty even makes a colloquial mannerist joke with the reader: wondering if Stella-Rondo’s child can talk, Sister tells us that she said to her mother, “’Do you realize that she hasn’t spoken one, single, solitary word to a human being up to this minute? This is the way she looks,’ I says, and I looked like this.’” Much of what is humorous about Ms. Welty’s colloquial style is not that it is farcically exaggerated, but rather that it is so typical, so wonderfully representative of a certain manner of communication.
Sister’s account, however, is part of a larger convention—a convention which is not in itself Southern, though it is backwoods. And that is the convention of the family feud. Though not particularly good manners, the family feud is a recognizable cultural phenomenon, made famous by the Hatfields and the McCoys of Ohio and Kentucky. This scholar has studied more directly the Western Wisconsin variant of the Borks and the Drazkowskis. Sister’s account contains many of the common elements of the family feud: taking sides, refusing to listen, putting words into people’s mouths, getting even, refusing compassion or compromise—and most notably, telling your side of the story to anybody who will listen. Each time the story is told, the feud is reinvigorated. And Sister’s account has certainly done an amazing job of dividing the critical world over this backwoods family feud!
To suggest that such manners and conventions create a healthy society is, of course, dubious. But ironically the family feud is perfectly adequate for maintaining the status quo: a constant, low-grade, parochially self-absorbed war. In this sense, “Why I Live at the P.O.” looks remarkably like a comedy of manners. The sense of regain that comes with Sister’s decision to live at the P.O. is minimal and a bit grançant, but it must been seen in the context of the society we are given.
Comedy of Manners and Humor
It is important that we distinguish between the depiction of manners enlivening Welty’s works—and for that matter, any comedy of manners—and the humor and wit with which she portrays those manners. Welty’s observant eye allows social conventions to be the medium for humor and wit. It is the wit of the surprisingly accurate, the only slightly exaggerated, the unadornedly true that creates such delight for the reader.
Thus Welty weds manners and wit. But each component serves a different function. The patterning of manners dramatizes the marketplace values which hold the society together, assuring some sense of regain in the end. The effect of Welty’s humor, however, is both to buffer what could be very sombre resolutions and to temper idealism. Without humor, we might be too painfully aware of the continuing costs of these stories’ outcomes: Lily Daw’s marriage to a man she has only just met, the gender battle we can expect to continue in the Wallace household, and the family feud which seems destined to simmer in Sister’s community. At the same time humor tempers idealism without totally undercutting it. In “Lily Daw,” we laugh at the three ladies’ expressions of propriety at the same time that we laugh with their sincere struggle to look after Lily. In “The Wide Net,” our laughter at the medieval pageantry brings chivalric ideals down out of a rarified atmosphere where they could not survive and places them within convention—manners—where they can function as marketplace values, maintaining social stability.
But what allows us to classify these stories as “comedy of manners” is not their humor but rather the insightful attention to the details of social convention which keep the society intact. Welty is a master of Southern manners. Stories like “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “The Wide Net,” and “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” not only demonstrate that Eudora Welty is a master of manners. They also assure us that democracy has not in the least deprived American culture of manners. Rather it has fostered numerous and wonderful variants of manners. American manners may be backwoods, lower-class, destructive, or only partially able to answer the questions of human existence. But they are manners, and they are American. And perhaps more important for literary theory as well for the health of the culture, they can be imbued with idealism. Eudora Welty’s mastery of manners allows us to see American romanticism as not merely a literary style but as a major formative element in Southern culture, to the point that romanticism creates manners.
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_______. Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South. Glouster, Mass.: Yale University Press, 1964.
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_______. “Why I Live at the P.O.” The Curtain of Green and Other Stories, 89-110 in Selected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: The Modern Library, 1943.
_______. “The Wide Net.” The Wide Net and Other Stories, 344-72 in Selected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: The Modern Library, 1943.