In Eudora Welty & Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence, Suzan Harrison examines a rich literary relationship which has been touched upon briefly by other critics, but never fully examined before this work. As Patricia Yaeger has done before her, Harrison uses the work of Mikhail Bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination as an appropriate model for considering the subversion and reinvention of narrative practices accomplished by both Woolf and Welty. Contemporary critics such as Yaeger and Wayne Booth have noted how Bakhtin’s work ignores considerations of gender. Harrison joins these critics in reformulating Bakhtin’s ideas into a more complete understanding of how the very nature of the novel form, as “a dialogic multiplicity,” is a form particularly suited to women writers who seek to disrupt traditional narrative constructions of gender. Harrison’s study is lucidly written, her theoretical base is solid, and she gives a fresh reading to the selected texts.
In the foreword written for a 1981 edition of To the Lighthouse, Welty says that reading this book “opened the door of imaginative fiction for me.” Harrison structures her study upon the dialogic relationship that Welty developed with Woolf’s work, pointing out, for example, how Delta Wedding is a response to the experiments in narrative undertaken by Woolf in To the Lighthouse. It is a more complex relationship than one of influence: “Welty’s creative engagement and imaginative dialogue with Woolf’s fiction becomes one of the forces leading to Welty’s development as a novelist.”
Harrison looks at four different pairings—a novel by Woolf and one by Welty—and considers each in relation to the principle narrative strategy that characterizes them. First, she discusses Delta Wedding in relation to To the Lighthouse. Both novels reveal similar strategies: “the decentering of narrative authority and point of view, the use and critique of a pastoral setting and world view, and the construction of feminine identity and subjectivity.” Woolf and Welty use what Carolyn Williams refers to as “a concentric system” of narration. The subjectivity [End Page 497] of various characters—mostly women marginalized in a world defined by men—surrounds the activities of the male principles, creating a dialogic engagement between patriarchal control and a female state of becoming.
Next, Harrison considers Orlando and The Robber Bridegroom as works which appropriate “masculine” genres—biography and historical narrative respectively—while at the same time challenging the cultural assumptions embedded in these narrative forms. The Robber Bridegroom “is a parody of a fairy tale”; through a mixture of humor, fantasy, and frontier myth, Welty undermines the expectations of the form and rereads both the Grimm fairy tale and Mississippi history. In Orlando, Woolf undercuts the idea of biography as a presentation of unitary, comprehensible identity by disregarding conventional historical time and creating a fluctuating gender identity for Orlando.
The third pairing involves The Waves and Losing Battles, which as epic, multivoiced, comic narratives “transgress boundaries and challenge expectations at every turn,” creating tension between the epic’s drive for unity and the novel’s “inconclusive and partial present.” Finally, in chapter 5, Harrison looks at The Optimist’s Daughter and To the Lighthouse and the ways in which they construct new images of the female artist and explore the struggle of a woman to fulfill her vision of herself as an artist while she negotiates the cultural expectations of her as “woman.”
Harrison’s exploration of this unique writing relationship concludes with a look at the stylistic inventiveness shared by Woolf and Welty—their willingness to create new forms; the exuberant play of their imaginations; their reveling in the pleasure of language, both oral and textual. In her foreword to To the Lighthouse, Welty notes in Woolf the very qualities that illuminate Welty’s own work: “‘a vaunting, a triumph of wonder, of imaginative speculation and defiance. . . . She has shown us the shape of the human spirit.’”