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  • Eudora Welty Blows the Whistle on the Landowners
  • Jan Nordby Gretlund (bio)

Eudora Welty’s short story “The Whistle” (1938; revised 1941) explores poverty as a merciless sentence for life. The story argues that the tenant farmers Jason and Sarah Morton are victims of their natural and political environments during the Depression. The narrator knows exactly what is going on in the Morton house and describes whatever happens, as if she had lived there. She has a gentle tone and seems to influence the story with her own words. Everything about the Mortons and their lives is gray; even their tomatoes are gray and featherlike, and “appalling in their exposed fragility” (70). We are free to speculate about the color symbolism of pure white, disappearing and distant, and murky gray, spreading and obvious. It reminds us of film noir with its desperate white light illuminating all the solid grayness, which signals hopelessness and depression. The references to “the darkest shape of all” (70) and, appropriately, “A disaster too great for any discussion” (71), echo the hardships of the Great Depression. Symbolically, the word “depression,” as it becomes clear, suggests both their states of mind and the economic crisis.

The cold climate they live in is thematically forecasted in the opening line of the story: “The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that has been worn and worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones.” It was cold “like a white pressing hand reached down and lay” over the house (73). The reader can almost feel the cold coming off the page. The Mortons are poor tenants, worn out, cold, and silent, “their lives were filled with tiredness, with a great lack of necessity to speak, [and] with poverty” (71). They seem cast out by the society they live in, but do not look for sympathy. Without much success, they grow tomatoes, a highly evocative crop. [End Page 34]

The story takes place in a few hours during an unbearably cold night in the spring; it starts “Night fell” (70), and it is “long before morning” when Jason Morton starts his fire. At the opening, the light is the most important actor in the picture: “A farm lay quite visible, like a white stone in water, among the stretches of deep woods in their colorless dead leaf” (“Haunted House” 27). We learn that the moon is “intense and white,” but even with its “searching eye,” its light does not find the Morton farmhouse very easily. “The moonlight covered everything, and lay upon the darkest shape of all, the farmhouse where the lamp had just been blown out,”—which is ominous (70).

Relevant for an interpretation of “The Whistle,” Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, also published in 1938, tells of Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist, who experiences nothingness and concludes that he is unable to apply any meaning to objects; they just are in all their meaninglessness. As in the cold and whiteness of “The Whistle,” despondency permeates Welty’s story. The Mortons’s lives are beyond logic; they merely portray a community. Their fellow tenants, who have probably also lost their properties to Mr. Perkins, the broker, or someone else with money, are the men and women who “ran out into the fields and covered up their plants with whatever they had.” As Welty emphasizes, it was not an enviable life to be a tomato farmer in Copiah County during the Depression.

The crop has both economic and thematic significance. A tomato is a relatively time-consuming product to farm, compared to faster harvested vegetables such as peas, okra, and carrots. The Mississippi tomato varieties—Better Boy, Celebrity, and Mountain Pride—have an average growing time to harvest of approximately seventy to eighty-five days, according to the 1938 Works Progress Administration (WPA) Guide to the Magnolia State. While the tomato was a source of income during these hard times, it was also the cause and source of hardship and suffering. The French expression la petite mort, notice the word mort, the small death, is relevant for a reading of Welty’s story since the Mortons have suffered so many small deaths, from the few moments...


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pp. 34-46
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