- Alternative Corporealities in “June Recital”: Eudora Welty’s Queering of Virgie Rainey and Miss Eckhart
At the beginning of Eudora Welty’s “June Recital” in The Golden Apples, the child Loch peers through his telescope and observes a woman inside the house next door: “Here came an old lady. No, she was an old woman, round and unsteady-looking…. She went inside, and he saw her through the beady curtain, which made her outline quiver for a moment” (340). We later learn that the “she” is Miss Eckhart—a strict, unmarried, German piano teacher in the town of Morgana, Mississippi. In this moment, however, Miss Eckhart’s shaky stance and distorted silhouette render it impossible for Loch—or the reader—to grasp any sense of her identity.
Throughout The Golden Apples, Welty’s female characters defy intelligibility, coherence, and stability. From Geneva’s “kitten-like teeth” in “Moon Lake,” to the “fat, at least plump” woman in “Music from Spain,” to Virgie Rainey’s ethereal movements in “The Wanderers,” Welty’s women exhibit what Robert McRuer calls “alternative corporealities,” or what Judith Butler calls “queer bodies”—bodies that exist outside of the regulatory norms of cultural intelligibility (Welty, “Moon Lake” 421, “Music” 476; McRuer, “Composing” 47; Butler, Bodies xxix). While queerly embodied characters pervade The Golden Apples, I focus here on “June Recital,” a text in which Welty grants her female characters, Miss Eckhart and her young piano student Virgie Rainey, bodies that depart from clear categorizations of gender, sex, selfhood, humanness, and ability. Welty had a particular affinity for Virgie and Miss Eckhart; she wrote that Virgie “might have always been [her] subject” and that Miss Eckhart was “a character with whom [she] came to feel oddly in touch” (OWB 946, 944). In “June Recital,” Welty foregrounds the transgressive corporealities of these women and offers a radical, queer re-imagination of, to use Butler’s term, “bodies that matter” (Bodies xxiv).1 I argue that the fictional Virgie Rainey and Miss Eckhart reflect not only Welty’s feminist resistance to southern patriarchal ideals of womanhood—confinement, docility, and respectability—but also her radical, queer imagining of bodies that resist identification or categorization altogether. [End Page 69]
In recent decades, critics have produced groundbreaking work on gender and sexuality in Welty’s fiction. Marta Caminero-Santangelo and Sarah Gleeson-White point to moments in which Welty highlights the oppression of her female characters in order to illuminate the repressive patriarchal ideologies of the twentieth-century American South. Other scholars observe moments of female agency or resistance in Welty’s fiction.2 Patricia Yaeger was the first to offer extended discussions of the female body in Welty’s fiction. Arguing against critics such as Louis Rubin, who writes that Welty’s Mississippi represents a “tidy, protected little world” (in contrast with Faulkner’s Mississippi, which Rubin describes as “larger than life”), Yaeger points to the gargantuan female figures in texts by southern female writers, including Welty’s “A Memory,” “Moon Lake,” and “June Recital” (Rubin 131). She argues that the excessive female figures of characters such as Miss Eckhart (who possesses a “great lump of a body”) reflect Welty’s refusal to make her women fragile and dainty and her determination to have them “usur[p] a power reserved for white males” (“June Recital” 366; Yaeger, Dirt 123). Yet, however transgressive these female bodies are, Yaeger argues, they are often punished by members of their society for their gigantism and power.3
The dynamic framework of queer theory provides a tool not only for conceptualizing alternative modes of gender and sexuality, but also for problematizing stable notions of selfhood, identity, intimacy, and corporeality altogether. A queer theoretical lens reveals Welty’s radical interrogation of gender and embodiment and brings into focus moments in which bodies resist stable gender presentation, defy legibility and restriction, and at times surpass the category of the human altogether. Despite the explosion of critical interest in queerness and twentieth-century literature in the last few decades, it is only recently that scholars have begun to engage in queer studies of Welty’s work.4 While some have explored Welty’s sympathetic treatment of homoerotic identities...