The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 89-106
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Untangling The Wide Net:
Welty and Readership
Eudora Welty has written extensively about the responsibility that writers have to be mindful of and to establish connections with their readers. "At the other end of the writing is the reader," she says. "There is sure to be somewhere the reader, who is a user himself of imagination and thought, who knows, perhaps, as much about the need of communication as the writer" (106). She notes that "looking at short stories as readers and writers together should be a companionable thing" (85), a process in which both parties participate, a friendly dialogue in which the ultimate goal is textual understanding and meaning. But, declarations of affection for readers notwithstanding, Welty's fiction often belies her avowed closeness to readership and reveals instead an entirely different and problematic paradigm for discovery. To be sure, some of Welty's fiction might be said to offer a kind of companionable read, but much of her fiction challenges readers in peculiar and disturbing ways and imposes on them an obligation to make sense of the implications that reside in those texts. Perhaps more than other collections, The Wide Net contains stories that demand a genuinely difficult readerly commitment. These texts seem so experimental and vexing that, in the process to discover meaning, readers may well become the subject of the experiment. Indeed, the nature of the relationship between reader and text thematically connects the uneven and otherwise disparate pieces of the collection. [End Page 89]
Welty's fiction often challenges readers to think about the ways of being that characters demonstrate while, at the same time, exploring the methods by which readers can apprehend texts: the ways of being and seeing that allow readers to engage with the texts and the specific level of being and seeing that Welty's texts themselves allow. On another level, these same stories present real obstacles to readers who unwittingly become the subject of an experiment on ways of knowing or understanding the texts, on how to determine what texts mean, on how we come to know what we know (as the stories in The Wide Net certainly do). Although the natural inclination of readers might be to involve themselves with a text, Welty's fiction often distances the reader/companion and provokes an examination of the extent to which readers are allowed to participate in the co-creative process. An exploration of the two stories which bound The Wide Net reveals Welty's thematic experimentation with the function of readership and her primer on the nature, obligation, and experience of readership. "First Love," the collection's opening story, evidences this theme, one that resounds forcefully in the final story, "At the Landing." In both stories, while Welty presents fictional characters who act as models both of readership and of texts to be read, she imbues them with limitations or defects which condition not only their ability to read texts, but also our ability to apprehend meaning of the texts in which they appear. These stories particularly confront and vex readers—assault their senses, at times—and establish a significantly less-than-companionable relationship between text and audience.
Michael Kreyling notes that "the writing of the stories of The Wide Net had proven much more difficult, even alienating, than the writing of the earlier stories, which, Welty has said, went in a rush and were scarcely revised" (596). Welty's struggle with this collection may have something to do with the fact that, more than her earlier stories, these pieces explore what constitutes reality (for both the characters and for the readers of the texts), how human beings see and engage reality, and what kinds of confinements and restrictions control their gaze and cause their vision to be perverted in some way. By providing access to the consciousness of characters whose ability to see and to understand is necessarily restricted by the peculiar physical and emotional ailments that define their human condition, these texts unsettle and displace expectations of normalcy...