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DON JAMES McLAUGHLIN University of Pennsylvania Eudora Welty’s Sleeping Medusa THROUGHOUT HER CAREER, EUDORA WELTY BORROWED, DISASSEMBLED, and revised ancient mythological narratives in her fiction and personal correspondence. Several critics who discuss the feminist implications of her work therefore begin by addressing a related question: Is it possible for an author to write from a feminist perspective and also saturate her work with allusions to ancient myths when such myths tend to rely on misogynistic renderings of gender and sexuality? The question stems from an ongoing feminist debate. The use of ancient myth as an illustrative medium has been central to the work of prominent feminists, especially Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard observe, “Instead of creating new genealogies,” such writers have attempted “to revivify ancient narratives to arm contemporary struggles” (2). Unsurprisingly, this trend has struck some as curiously backward; such allusions would seem to lend themselves not to the production of unconventional epistemologies but to the reinforcement of paradigms already in place. Fully cognizant of this suspicion, Zajko and Leonard contend, nevertheless, that feminist manipulations of myth may be defended as efforts to confront past archetypes, precisely in order to disrupt the logic behind the patriarchal assumptions accompanying them. Critics have made this argument regarding Welty’s fiction. Patricia Yaeger, for instance, has suggested that Welty’s work may be understood in Bakhtinian terms as a site of “dialogic” struggle where interaction with myth “not only reflects” dominant myths but actively combats the implications or “intentions” buried within them (“Because” 562, 567). Rebecca Mark has argued similarly that while it would be naïve to suggest that an author is ever in sovereign control of her “intertextual” exchanges, Welty permanently alters what myths may signify through her “direct engagement” with them (259). Both of these studies provide ways to acknowledge the intentions myths carry over time and to explore Welty’s ability to use them subversively. While this work has greatly contributed to the way we understand Welty’s feminism, there is a need to distinguish further Welty’s appropriation of myth and to 526 Don James McLaughlin challenge the idea that it is always by “direct engagement” that the author alters what mythological characters might signify. Using Welty’s allusion to the myth of Perseus and the Medusa in her personal correspondence and in The Golden Apples (1949), I will demonstrate that omission—an indirect means of engagement—is integral to her appropriation ancient myth for feminist purposes. Essential to reading Welty’s fiction is not only what her allusions make visible but also what they leave out. Critics have often read Welty’s references to Perseus and the Medusa as an effort to deconstruct a hero/monster binary upheld by earlier versions of the story. The problem with this reading is that Welty does not refer to her Medusa as monstrous. A letter Welty sent in 1947 to her estranged love interest, John Robinson, may shed light on the significance of this omission. The letter indicates that Welty’s thoughts on Perseus and the Medusa were largely influenced and perhaps inspired by a painting on an attic vase from the fifth century BCE that portrays the Medusa not as a monster but as a comely maiden sleeping while Perseus prepares to decapitate her. As Kathryn Topper notes, the vase image corresponds to a tradition that depicts the Medusa’s death as a “perversion” of an “erotic abduction” motifcommoninancientvasepaintings—“perverted”inthatPerseushas come to kill the Medusa, not rape her (86). The vase thus accentuates the figure’s apparent status as “victim” at the moment of her death, the same characteristic Welty explores at length in her writings. By omitting the horror of the Medusa’s infamous appearance, Welty does more than revise the mythical figure she references; she lifts the Medusa fully from her customary context. That this method of adaptation is rather inconspicuous—the product of omission as opposed to explicit modification—is an important feature of Welty’s allusive technique. In an analysis of Welty’s use of allusion, Harriet Pollack has likewise called attention to the author’s tendency to deviate from conventional readings of “referent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 525-548
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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