- The Chiasmic Embrace of the Natural World in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding
In southern literature, interactions with the land have often defined the people themselves. Although Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding has been labeled as a southern pastoral, the natural world in the novel doesn’t operate solely on a symbolic level; the environment Welty creates is thoroughly palpable. The heaving shoulder blades of birds in song, skin wet with bayou water, the heartbeats of kittens, the sting of a bee—all are examples of how non-human forces interact with her characters to create a natural world that is tactile and animate. Furthermore, characters’ sensory contact with the natural world shapes the novel’s themes of finding community and coping with the pain and loss necessary for new growth, as well as destabilizing hierarchical relationships between different classes and races of people. Understanding how nature functions as a physical presence in the novel is critical to recognizing Welty’s critiques of the society living within it. In her autobiography, Welty explains, “[t]he outside world is a vital component of my inner life” (One 76). Similarly, her characters, particularly Laura and George, gain new insight into their relationships with other humans and the land through embodied encounters with the environment. The philosophy of ecophenomenology illuminates how Delta Wedding intertwines humans within [End Page 88] “the flesh of the world” (Merleau-Ponty Visible 144)—in this case, the daily symbiotic union of humans and the landscape of the Mississippi River Delta, portending the slow evolution of positive change created by sensory interaction and small variations in repeated cycles of life. Thus, an ecocritical approach to Delta Wedding troubles reductive readings that oversimplify how Welty characterizes the rural South and reveals the novel’s subtle disruption of social hierarchies.
Recent critical analyses of Delta Wedding are recovering the text’s complexity, rescuing it from initial reviews that tended to depreciate the novel by reading it merely as an attempt to justify a southern lifestyle. Paul Binding notes that “despite the insistent loveliness of much of the writing about the pattern of life at Fairchilds—we read only superficially (as Diana Trilling must have done) if we are not aware of all the time pressures from without, and the disruptions from within, threatening, almost certainly eventually combining to destroy this seemingly impregnable, peaceful place” (127). More nuanced readings of the racial aspects of Delta Wedding are also gaining recognition: “Though many of her characters may view southern racial traditions uncritically, I believe that Welty herself did not” (Entzminger 65). Even those who still critique Welty’s treatment of race cite Toni Morrison’s claim that Welty was one of a small number of white women who were able to “write about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write . . . not patronizing, not romanticizing,” and acknowledge that “what she cared about most . . . was the deeper mystery of individuals” (Flower 332). Yet, what has not been recognized is the extent to which Welty’s prioritization of sensual experience within the natural world grounds most of her social critiques. Further, her embodied treatment of the environment not only uncovers the tensions and lurking violence inherent in “the southern problem” of racial inequity but also incorporates wider modernist concerns of challenging traditional systems of knowledge.
Critical articles examining Welty’s treatment of nature in Delta Wedding often analyze it as pastoral literature (Hardy 77, Westling Sacred 65). Admittedly, there are some obvious tropes of the pastoral in the novel, ranging from literal references to formal devices, including Shellmound as a “fairy world” in the “season of changeless weather” (291), Dabney’s shepherdess crooks for the wedding, the privileged leisure of the Fairchild family masking the labor of the servants around them, and even Laura’s providing a movement of retreat to the green space of Shellmound and then an imminent return to her father in Jackson. Unlike earlier critics, John Hardy’s analysis of the pastoral in Delta Wedding acknowledges that [End Page 89] Welty demonstrates “that double attitude of the pastoral which William Empson has defined, as well as . . . a more practical sense for...