- Race, Nature, and Decapitation in Eudora Welty’s “A Curtain of Green”
Winner of the 2015 Ruth Vande Kieft Prize Awarded by the Eudora Welty Society
Harriet Pollack notes how critics have for decades labeled Eudora Welty as “callously unaware of or ambivalent toward racism,” especially that racism as practiced in her still-segregated American South (1). This view is demonstrated perhaps most famously by Diana Trilling’s 1946 response to Delta Wedding, wherein the critic admits that it is difficult to separate her distaste for Welty’s novel from her “resistance to the culture out of which it grows and which it describes so fondly.” Indeed, for Trilling, Welty had turned toward “that part of the Southern scene which is most available to myth and celebrative legend and, in general, to the narcissistic Southern fantasy” (578). Pollack’s 2013 essay collection, Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race, is a notable example of the revisions of this view in recent Welty scholarship. Welty’s work is seen now as at least oblique criticism of the fantasy of white racial superiority, an approach that provides alternative discourses to assumptions of racial essentialism in the South. In her essay in Pollack’s collection, “Parting the Veil: Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and the Crying Wounds of Jim Crow,” Susan Donaldson finds such to be the case in the early story “A Curtain of Green” as expressed in its main character Mrs. Larkin, a figure Donaldson claims as representative of “the mythic white woman, whose cultural stature is maintained through constant surveillance and brutal violence” (58). Although “A Curtain of Green” is often read as a commentary on nature, it can certainly also be viewed as a critique of race relations, especially as the two concepts are so thoroughly linked in Western culture by centuries of a tradition that views nature as a mechanism of defined order expressed in supposedly essential categories. It is this same categorized view of nature that makes the protection of white womanhood, in Donaldson’s words, “the central rationale for segregation itself,” white women existing under this model in a privileged, separate class which must be kept safe from the advances, gazes, and transgressions of black men (56). Welty’s critique of that version of nature, and the concept of the [End Page 45] “mythic white woman” who—to her peril and the peril of those around her—inhabits it, is evident throughout “A Curtain of Green,” which stresses not a categorized but a unified vision of the natural world reminiscent of that found in the traditions of Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. A key image in the story is Mrs. Larkin’s lifting of her hoe above her own head, poised to “strike off, intentionally” the head of her garden helper, the young African American, Jamey (134). For Donaldson, this “sudden impulse to behead her hired laborer is a measure of her misplaced sense of entitlement—and the security afforded by whiteness” (59).
I argue, however, that Mrs. Larkin is presented as a complete inversion of the usual, stereotypically entitled white woman of privilege. By adopting this version of white womanhood, “A Curtain of Green” supports an alternative discourse on race, nature, and entitlement in the South, and the extent to which it does so can be highlighted by the story’s intertextual conversation with white female figures encountered in literary works by two other Mississippians, William Faulkner and Richard Wright, struggling over similar issues—including the issue of decapitation—at around the same time as Welty. Although it is commonly considered one of the more baffling stories in the Welty canon, Pollack, Donaldson, and the scholars in Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race open ways of reading against the grain of commentators such as Trilling, to reveal in “A Curtain of Green” a strong critique of the narcissistic fantasy supporting racism in the South.
In broad outline, “A Curtain of Green” concerns a young widow, Mrs. Larkin, whom we encounter one year after the death of her husband. The story is related for the most part by a third-person limited narrator who filters events via the internal state of Mrs. Larkin. Mr. Larkin has been killed in...