Delta Wedding


I've been writing a lot lately about feminist musicologist Susan McClary and her ideas about the need for an alternative narrative practice. McClary goes in search of a mode of storytelling that does not dwell in a land of perpetual desire, of constant striving for a climax or resolution which, once achieved, spells the end of the story (the so-called "phallic" or "heroic" narrative arc), but that instead stresses pleasure over desire, that glories in what McClary calls a "voluptuous 'being-in-time' quality" - an examination of what we have and who we are, rather than what I want and who I would rather be. Understandably, when I've written about this in the past certain people have commented thusly: "That's a cool idea, but what would a "non-phallic" novel look like?" Well now, my friends, I can tell you: for a heartbreakingly beautiful example of prose that savors its own moment, its voluptuous being-in-time, look no further than Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding.

The plot of Delta Wedding is so simple it's basically contained in the title: Welty gives us subtle, lush, yet endlessly dynamic portrait of a large family in the Mississippi Delta, preparing for the wedding of their second daughter as the bustle of life goes on around the group and its individual members. The Fairchild clan is always in motion: "there's always so much - so much happening here!" cries an aunt delightedly, and Welty excels at capturing the lovingly oppressive whirl of the packed plantation house, bursting at the seams with arrivals, departures, personal legends and their aftermaths, cross-currents of conversation, momentary crises and unlooked-for delights. Yet many characters realize, or feel, at different moments, that for all the whirling bustle of the Fairchild life, there is a way in which their constant state of iridescent change is itself an unchanging landscape

Robbie put her hand up to her head a minute as she danced, against the whirl. Dabney was dancing before her, by herself, eyes shining on them all...Indeed the Fairchilds took you in circles, whirling delightedly about, she thought, stirring up confusions, hopefully working themselves up. But they did not really want anything they got - and nothing, really, nothing really so very much, happened! But the next moment Miss Primrose and Miss Jim Allen arrived with so much authority and ado that she almost had to believe in them.

Throughout this novel, Welty plays with the tension between the changing and unchanging, the momentary and the perennial. In describing the Delta twilight, she writes, "It was not yet dark - it would never get dark." A baby is about to be born who will carry the name of his dead war-hero uncle, long remembered by the family. And at the close of the book, one of the youngest children tells her cousin "My secret is...I've seen it all afore. It's all happened afore." Welty situates her narrative at a day of transition - a wedding, after which Dabney Fairchild will leave her parents' home. Change: and yet, Dabney and her new husband Troy will still live in a house owned by the Fairchild family, only a short ride away. This seeming change is just another step in the process of perpetuating the close Fairchild family ties into another generation. The clan as a whole functions as its own character, and yet individuals walk their own paths within it - sometimes honoring the status quo, sometimes rebelling against it; sometimes craving the attention of the Fairchilds, and sometimes longing to escape. Even Dabney's marriage is conceived as a kind of rebellion - she is marrying "beneath her" as a gesture of independence, to the dismay of much of her family. But at the same time, many of her other family members have also married out of their class, including the favorite son, Uncle George, on whom everyone fawns. So Dabney is simultaneously challenging the family structure, and yet fitting in perfectly with it; moving away from it, and yet forming its next branch. Delta Wedding catches her at that exhilarating, headstrong moment of youth when her passionate resolutions have yet to be tested or compromised:

The eagerness with which she was now going to Marmion, entering her real life there with Troy, told her enough - all the cotton in the world was not worth one moment of life! It made her know that nothing could ever defy her enough to make her leave it. How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it - oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth....

"I will never give up anything!" Dabney thought, bending forward and laying her head against the soft neck. "Never! Never! For I am happy, and to give up nothing will prove it. I will never give up anything, never give up Troy - or to Troy!" She thought smilingly of Troy, coming slowly, this was the last day, slowly plodding and figuring, sprung all over with red-gold hairs.

Like Virginia Woolf (of whom Welty strongly reminds me), Welty astounds with her ability to communicate the unexpected yet crucial importance of certain crystallized moments in time - the tiny catalysts that prompt a blaze of emotion or insight out of all proportion to the initial tiny spark - and the deep, quiet pools of reflection that unfurl within her characters at the oddest moments - while picking up a piece of cake at a rehearsal dinner, or waiting for the photographer to get everyone posed in a line.

"Not for me, not for me," she murmured, stunned at the sight of George at that moment offering the loaded [cake] plate to her. It seemed to Shelley all at once as if the whole room should protest, as if alarm and protest should be the nature of the body. Life was too easy - too easily holy, too easily not. It could change in a moment. Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples' lives should be shattered now. Dabney at the moment cutting a lemon for the aunts' tea brought the tears to Shelley's eyes...

One of the things I most treasure about both Woolf and Welty is the subtle and perceptive ways they both portray human communication. A lot of modern, and modernist, writing focuses on the ways in which our standard modes of communication fall short: a husband and wife are unable to say "I love you"; a supposed mourner feels nothing at his mother's funeral; two lovers make wildly erroneous assumptions about one another's feelings; a gulf grows between a father and mother because they cannot discuss their dead baby. Welty and Woolf explore these truths as well, but they also portray the flip side: the fact that, just as communication often fails when we try for it directly, so too it often succeeds in unexpected and unlooked-for ways: the glance of empathy that connects two sisters across a room full of family; the way the minds of two old friends can flow easily in and out of each others' thoughts; the unexpected welcome of an errant daughter-in-law by a family expected to reject or punish her; a favorite uncle's genuine compassion when his niece steals his pipe in order to give it back to him as a present; the self-sacrifice of two maiden aunts, giving their most precious possession to a headstrong young bride. Welty seems to argue, here, that although we can none of us predict or wholly understand ourselves or others, and although our attempts at connection will seldom work as we intend, there are still moments of true, loving communion available to us in the world, and they will come to us unexpectedly, as gifts.

It seemed to Ellen at moments that George regarded them, and regarded things - just things, in the outside world - with a passion which held him so still that it resembled indifference. Perhaps it was indifference - as though they, having given him this astonishing feeling, might for a time float away and he not care. It was not love or passion itself that stirred him, necessarily, she felt - for instance, Dabney's marriage seemed not to have affected him greatly, or Robbie's anguish. But little Ranny, a flower, a horse running, a color, a terrible story listened to in the store in Fairchilds, or a common song, and yes, shock, physical danger, as Robbie had discovered, roused something in him that was immense contemplation, motionless pity, indifference...Then, he would come forward all smiles as if in greeting - come out of his intensity and give some child a spank or a present. Ellen had always felt this about George and now there was something of surprising kinship in the feeling ... In the midst of the room's commotion he stood by the mantel as if at rest.

(Delta Wedding was my fifth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1940s.)


  • This sounds absolutly lovely. Thank you - I'll have to locate it soon. :)

  • I'm afraid I've never read Ms Welty, but your premise in the review, about a feminine narrative, is a really interesting one, and has me pondering (I went back and read your review of the musicology book as well). The idea of a voluptuous form, rather than a phallic one actually reminds me of Herland, which I read recently, where the basic premise of the successful world-populated-entirely-by-women is that they see motherhood as the basis of their whole society, and therefore are able to make reasonable, long term decisions to benefit their children and society as a whole, rather than short term decisions to benefit themselves.

    I wonder, however, at this idea - I mean, I hope this doesn't sound facetious, but women do have orgasms, both literally and figuratively. When you look at women writing in the middle ages, for instance, you have people like Teresa of Avila, who wrote about these intense, somewhat orgasmic spiritual experiences. So, I'm not sure that this is simply a 'if women ran the world, books would not have a peaked narrative form' thing. But then, you can't totally discount the idea either - some of my favorite books by women authors tend to be more 'voluptuous' than 'climactic' (Anne of Green Gables comes to mind, for instance, or the poetry of Emily Dickinson). But, then, it's worth pointing out that alot of the more 'phallic' novels by women ALSO have a lot to do with grappling with a patriarchal society that maybe demands that? Jane Eyre, for instance, or again, Teresa of Avila grappling with a patriarchal god, or of course, The Awakening. AND, then there are books by men that DON'T follow the narrative form, at least in my limited understanding: James Joyce, for instance, doesn't seem terrifically intent on climax, nor did, say, "On the Road". But then, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and maybe I just missed it :). I don't know...

    • Jason: YES! You make some VERY good points; I totally agree with many of them. I'm so glad you've been dropping by!

      I'm actually really uncomfortable with how feminist lit-crit bandies about the term "phallic" (as you probably noticed in my review of McClary's actual book); her sexually-based analyses of the hero-quest or striving-to-climax form are actually less convincing to me than her points about the politics of narrative - the way in which, musically, striving-to-climax forms took over right at the dawn of modern capitalism and imperialist expansion, and of COURSE they're going to seem very appealing to a society embroiled in struggling to conquer other peoples & lands. And the imperialist project is one that both men AND women have been very involved in since Day 1. So I've kind of just been going along with McClary in her designation of the now-traditional climactic narrative form as "phallic," even though I don't really buy it, because I find her articulation of its opposite, the "voluptuous being-in-time quality," to be so useful.

      Also, just like with any feminist criticism, I think it's important to distinguish between a)patriarchal vs. non-patriarchal forms, and b)forms produced by women and men. In other words, women totally love the traditional format, at least as much as men do. Witness: romance novels! There could not BE a more perfect example of the striving-to-climax plotline than romance novels, and that's a hugely female-dominated industry. But I also think (apologies to my romance-reading friends) that a lot of those books do much to prop up the patriarchy, even if they are written by women. Likewise, I think Joyce and other male modernists who diverged from the traditional narrative structure (Beckett, CĂ©line, Proust) were interested in challenging established structures of power in one way or another, even if I might not exactly call them "feminist."

      There's also the issue that, although in music this type of narrative dates to the 17th century, in literature it's obviously much older than that - many of the oldest surviving stories are exactly hero-quest narratives, hence Jung & everyone being so excited about them. I mean, The Iliad and Beowulf obviously way pre-date modern capitalist imperialism. So I think McClary's argument doesn't hold up universally when applied to literature. But it's still interesting to think about.

  • This is one of the all-time greatest American novels. Her use of limited third person - swiftly moving from one character's thoughts to another, sometimes just for a line or two - is unparallelled. Her sense of the workings of Southern history is deeper than Faulkner's.

    Note how I turn everything into a competition. Typical male. But I love this book.

  • I agree - I'm not a very experienced literary theory person, OR feminist, despite a strong affection for both, but to me, the politics of gender seem more compelling than the biology. I've actually kind of been wondering lately if the problem with a lot of outsider theories - feminism, queer theory, etc - is that they tend to isolate the world's groups into these very, ironically, patriarchally understood groups of us and them - women and men, gay people and straight people. I don't know that the theorists and deep thinkers really INTEND this (but again, I'm not very experienced), but this seems to be the net effect on the larger public. In fact, I have been wondering if the real work to be done is simply humanity against the old patriarchal system - whether it be because you're religiously oppressed, gender oppressed, artistically silenced, too gay to be accepted, whatever, is to some extent irrelevant in identification with the larger cause of human progress. But, I don't know, because there ARE very valid complaints to be levelled between countercultures as much as against the ruling partiarchy - a different book blog I read recently talked, for instance, about how male gay books frequently take a fairly belittling stance of women - the whole 'fag hag' idea, you know, where a woman is still just an object, even if you don't want to have sex with them (I hope that doesn't come across to crude...). It kind of reminds me of a scene from Ragtime, where Emma Goldman is speaking to a group of labor agitators, and there is almost a fistfight between the anarchists and the socialists, despite (perhaps even because of) the fact that at root they wanted the same thing, just in different ways.

  • AR: I agree; I totally adore the swift movement from one character's thoughts to another - another shared technique between Woolf and Welty. I haven't read enough Faulkner to give the two authors a fair comparison, but I have to say I prefer Welty's more understated approach to the incredibly ponderous, epic mood of a lot of Faulkner. But I'll be re-reading The Sound and the Fury before the year is out, so maybe I'll feel differently afterward.

    Jason: Yes, I think what you said about "net effect on the larger public" is right on the money. The folks I know who are deeply engaged with either academic feminist/queer studies/diaspora studies, or with activism, are all working on moving beyond these divisions and looking at ways to take, say, strategies developed by feminist critics and apply them to diaspora studies or vice versa - working for simultaneous solidarity and respect for differences, rather than the anarchist-socialist fist-fighting you mention. But on "level one" of this stuff, I think the take-away is too often "us against them" - which sucks, for sure.

  • Well, the Welty novel sounds great. I've only read a short story or two, but I think I'd enjoy this novel, particularly as I'm such a Woolf fan. I'm also suspicious of associating the different forms of narrative with gender. I have Infinite Jest on my mind these days, and that most definitely is a novel with an "alternate narrative practice" and not the so-called phallic sort at all. I like the idea of thinking of these forms in terms of politics rather than gender. The difference is important, I think, but to make it a male and female thing just doesn't make sense.

  • Dorothy: I agree. (And if you're a fan of Woolf I can't imagine you not loving Welty.) So, I wonder what would be a better short term for "traditional narrative method involving long rising action to a climax or resolution," since it seems like none of us are wild about the term "phallic." "Climactic"? "Mountain-shaped"? I've occasionally been using the phrase "striving to climax," but I think it's fraught with the same gender-based baggage as "phallic." Hmm. I'll keep pondering!

  • Nothing really to add. I just love the discussion in these comments.

    I agree with Dorothy above, though - is there really anything inherently masculine or feminine about different narrative forms? I think the primary attraction of the traditional "phallic" narrative is that it's simple. It basically tells you how your narrative should play out.

  • The link between Welty and Woolf is a particularly interesting one to me. The unsaid in Woolf as I always refer to it, and as you so well elucidate here. Sorry to say that I have never read Welty, but you make an irresistible case for her here.

  • I never really had much interest in reading Welty, Emily, but you have piqued my interest with this review. I especially liked the line about "the tension between the changing and unchanging, the momentary and the perennial." As for McClary's "feminist musicologist" take on music and narrative theory, I'm not sure what to say other than that she has given me an enormous desire to go listen to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols for some reason!

  • EL Fay: Interesting. I suppose the traditional narrative form is a simple outline, although what could happen within the structure of rising action -> striving -> rising action -> climax -> falling action is almost limitless...but it's certainly the arc we've come to expect. (And yes, I agree that there's nothing inherently "male" or "female" about it, although it could appeal more to people brought up in certain social configurations more than others...or not! I don't really know, but I'm interested in thinking about it.)

    Frances: Yes, you should read her! If you love Woolf, you would love her too. I'd recommend this novel or The Golden Apples to start.

    Richard: Some mysterious reason, haha! Well, I moved on from Welty to the ultra-violent Blood Meridian, so, you know, it's always good to explore contrasts. :-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography