- “As if a rabbit had run over her grave”: Gothic Girlhood in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding
Winner of the 2017 Ruth Vande Kieft Prize Awarded by the Eudora Welty Society
Eudora Welty, then a “tall, large-boned, gray-haired woman,” when interviewed for The Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” in 1972 insisted that of historical and gothic novels, she knew nothing (74, 80). She was adamant that such genres were too far removed from real life, and she was trying to bring realism to her readers. It is a surprising declaration, considering that Welty’s 1946 novel Delta Wedding offers a rich portrait of the last vestiges Southern plantation life. And the work, steeped as it is in a very particular time and place, is also one in which Welty “is summoning the presence of the gothic,” as Sarah Ford comments (“Nothing” 441). The novel is set in the Mississippi Delta during the fall of 1923, a year in which Welty determined “nothing very terrible had happened in the Delta by way of floods or fires or wars that would have taken the men away” (“Art of Fiction” 82). Instead, the novel focuses entirely on a week in the lives of the Fairchilds, a wealthy plantation family, as they prepare for their second eldest daughter, seventeen-year-old Dabney Fairchild, to wed their overseer Troy Flavin.
In Delta Wedding decorations are chosen and cakes delivered, senile old aunts speak to dead relatives, strapping patriarchs make demands, and children perpetually get underfoot. Ellen Fairchild, “mother of them all,” presides over the family in a state of preternatural calm, pregnant with her eleventh child (98). It is, at a glance, a humorous and loving portrait of a southern plantation family, half a century after the Civil War. Their African-American field hands and house servants, lingering at the edges of the narrative, only hint at the origins of their indulgent lifestyle. The world of Delta Wedding is a seemingly peaceful, stable version of a barely reconstructed South. But for the young women of Delta Wedding, it is also a fraught, labyrinthine, haunted world.
The southern gothic genre requires haunting. Flannery O’Connor famously called it “Christ-haunted” in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” and further advised, “Ghosts can be very [End Page 113] fierce and instructive” (818). To this, the contemporary photographer and native Virginian Sally Mann adds, “death-haunted, pain-haunted, cruelty-haunted—just haunted, period” (235). In the introduction to The Palgrave Handbook of the Southern Gothic, Susan Castillo Street and Charles L. Crow elaborate:
Indeed, the South is a region that has always been obsessed with crossroads and boundaries, whether territorial (the Mason-Dixon line) or those related to gender, social class, sexuality and particularly race. In the South, ghosts and men in white sheets are real, as are shackles and clanking chains, and the Southern Gothic is a genre that arises from the area’s often violent and traumatic history.(2)
One such deeply haunting aspect of the southern gothic genre is the experience of girlhood, one that is intrinsically that of transgressing boundaries. Consider the following scene from Delta Wedding: “Sometimes the circle was for you, sometimes against you, if you were It. Sometimes in the circle you longed for the lone outsider to come in—sometimes you couldn’t wait to close her out. It was never a good circle unless you were in it, catching hands, and knowing the song” (161). On the lawn of their ancestral plantation home, the Fairchild sisters and cousins play “In and Out the Window,” a game without end. In turn, they are individually drawn in and cast out; they know the song or else they are excluded. The scene is one of female society—only the boy who is the very youngest Fairchild, left to the care of his sisters, is included. In this child’s play rests a lesson about female society; it requires knowledge of its intricacies in order to be accepted, and all other action is considered disruptive, potentially ousting the player from the game. Not a crossroads, perhaps, but nevertheless a fraught space.