- The Fierce Humanity of Morgana:Welty's The Golden Apples
A sense of terror underlies the seemingly uneventful daily life of Morgana, Mississippi. Terror—surprisingly, perhaps, one of Eudora Welty's favorite words—governs much of the psychological existence of human beings in The Golden Apples, and Welty's central concern in the novel is the difficulty of comprehending its causes and dealing with its effects. The widespread sense of anxiety among the characters in Welty's writing can be traced to the fact that human society, as Welty comprehends it, would appear to be an illusory structure of polite discourse that barely conceals an underlying strata of violence. Beneath the genteel fabric of middle-class social interaction there lies a savage world of selfishness, spite, and ambition. Given the force of these primal motives, the conventional social rituals that are meant to contain them appear to be little more than hypocritical gestures. In light of Welty's depiction of the ineffectuality of human social rituals, it is not surprising that more profound values of truthfulness and creativity should be fundamental in her writing and that those who strongly assert these values should be among her major protagonists; yet among the many characters in The Golden Apples who are motivated by underlying primal fears, only two figures respond in a truly creative and self-conscious manner: Miss Lotte Elisabeth Eckhart and her pupil, Virgie Rainey. [End Page 16]
Miss Eckhart's teaching, which amounts to far more than the conventional small-town schooling in one of the "feminine arts," attempts nothing less than to awaken in her pupils an awareness of the momentous importance of their lives within a world of opportunity and risk. As one learns in "June Recital," the most important occasion for enacting this knowledge is through the annual piano recital that Miss Eckhart organizes for her students. Like Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, or like another, less appealing character of the same name in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Miss Eckhart controls every detail of her fête, including the costuming. She insists that, like a bridal gown, the recital dress must be new and cannot be displayed prior to recital night, and even that it rarely be worn again, "certainly not to another recital" (68). Although Miss Eckhart "disregarded her own rules" (72) in regard to recital dresses, she displays a quality of glamour and a surprising sensuality in her previously worn gowns. As she intends, the recital marks the passage not only into summer but into everything that summer's ripeness connotes. Welty writes that "Miss Eckhart pushed herself to quite another level of life for it. A blushing sensitivity sprang up in her every year like a flower of the season" (70).
Certainly Miss Eckhart's powers as a teacher involve an element of the magical. After the concert, Miss Eckhart goes about with her foreign-sounding cake, her "kuchen," insisting that the girls eat it "to the last crumb." "A decoration of slipping flower garlands and rowdy babies" (75) revealed on the empty plate points to the rebellious and uncontrolled potential of the occasion, and the girls under her charge surrender themselves to Miss Eckhart's direction as they sense its significance. Even for the cautious Cassie Morrison, Miss Eckhart's recitals were the highlight of her year, especially the recital performance at age thirteen of Virgie Rainey, wearing a white "Swiss dress" with a red satin band in her hair and a red sash in front. The life-affirming and sensuous implications of Virgie's performance are suggested by Welty's description of the sweat running down Virgie's face, a salty elixir of life that "she licked . . . in with her tongue" (74).
Unfortunately, in reward for her heroic effort to introduce her students to life's mysteries, Miss Eckhart is condemned by the better society of Morgana to live forever in the role of a pariah. As Suzanne Marrs points out, "the community fears Miss Eckhart because she seems to accept the unusual, the extraordinary, the terrifying aspects of life and does not try to hide from them" (121). Only in the case...