- Of Trains and Relativity: Einstein and Perspective in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding
From the opening sentences of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, “The nickname of the train was the Yellow Dog. Its real name was the Yazoo-Delta,” the train that acts as a central image in the stories of the Fairchild family has a multiple existence (91). Officially named the “Yazoo-Delta,” the train is nicknamed the “Yellow Dog” by the local community. What you call the train depends on who and where you are. That the identity of the train is relative to the person viewing it foreshadows the story of a near-fatal train incident told and retold by Fairchild family members according to their differing viewpoints. The train incident does not simply furnish the occasion for various characters to pass along a good story; it signals the novel’s engagement with the dramatic revelations of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the resulting focus on perspective. Einstein often used an example involving a train to introduce relativity to lay audiences, explaining that a traveler on the train and an observer on the embankment would see two flashes of lightning differently, with the observer seeing the flashes simultaneously and the traveler seeing them in sequence. The theory not only provided a scientific basis to the subjectivity of perspective, it extended this subjectivity to time, previously thought to be a constant. Welty’s train story builds on the insights of Einstein’s train story to show that one perspective is not better than another and thus to expose the faulty privileging of perspectives based on race or social status. The result is a fictional exploration of relativity’s implications both for Welty’s time and for the novel’s historical context.
Writing in 1945 about a white aristocratic southern family in 1923 may seem more like nostalgia than exploration. Critics from Diana Trilling in 1946 forward complain about Welty’s overly positive depiction of the family members, who are oblivious to the outside world and to the African Americans who serve them. More recently, scholars have argued that the novel is instead [End Page 354] critiquing the family’s nostalgia by exposing it as highly constructed.1 My reading of the novel’s engagement with relativity extends this line of thinking by dramatizing how Welty highlights the subjectivity of any perspective regardless of the race or class of the viewer. Each character’s story of the train incident is limited by the character’s physical location and, more dramatically, by the character’s location in time, a location not shared because time is relative. Although the family members retell the train story to reify the power of the family hero, George, the piling on of different perspectives undermines the story’s validity and the Fairchild family’s power.2 The family may ignore the perspectives of the African Americans in their midst, but the novel’s attention to subjectivity challenges the valuing of a perspective because of the subject’s social status.
The implications, however, extend beyond the microcosm of this one family. That Welty also includes a train story told by a photographer and an outsider to the community allows her to test the implications of relativity by placing it in conversation with the discourse of photography. Photography’s ability to capture a moment in time and thus document its subject without bias may seem to give it a claim to objectivity. In Delta Wedding, though, photography simply provides one more perspective as even the selection of a subject to photograph involves the photographer’s subjective agency. In wielding modern technology the photographer’s status may at first seem superior, but, for Welty, neither his camera nor his outsider status brings his perspective closer to objective truth.
Welty’s use of relativity to undermine the privileging of perspectives based on status certainly explains its presence in the novel, but Delta Wedding’s investment in exploring relativity takes on greater weight when we consider that when Welty was writing the book in 1945 questions of who owns the truth were fought by armies. The dropping of the atomic bomb in August of 1945...