I have loved Eudora Welty's stories since I was in high school. What has always appealed to me most about her writing is Welty's emphasis on gentle but biting portrayals of a wide variety of characters. Reading stories like "Why I Live at the P.O."--long a very favorite of mine for reading aloud--reminds me of my grandmothers telling stories about their ridiculous neighbors and friends, all deeply loved and appreciated for all their eccentricities.
Welty is also a consummate storyteller. She has the rhythm of someone entertaining their family members, telling stories while shelling peas from a big wicker basket. The stories are often the everyday adventures of those slightly larger-than-life characters. We recognize their foibles and their strengths as our own.
In short, Welty's stories are completely accessible for a small-town southern girl. But now that I am becoming a better-educated big-city adult, I am beginning to see far more in her stories than I appreciated when I was younger. In addition to her wonderful voice and amazing characters, Welty's stories are full of allusions to classical literature. I mentioned in a previous post how "Why I Live at the PO" rewrote a story from the New Testament. What I realize now is how many of her stories play of ancient mythology. She even titled one of her story collections The Golden Apples--an image I have discussed before. I am eager to read her stories again now that I can catch some of these allusions. The mythological weight of some of her stories (like "A Worn Path" with its main character named Phoenix, or "The Petrified Man" with Medusa) certainly came across to me, but the fact that Welty deliberately situated her creations in conversation with the ancients completely passed me by--as stunned as I now am by that blindness of mine.
In most of her fiction, allusions to classical mythology are below the surface. Perhaps the only exception is a story written late in her career: "Circe" in The Bride of the Innisfallen. Although this is not one of my favorite Welty stories, it is a fascinating step outside of the author's more typical approach. Here, she gives voice to Circe, the character from the Odyssey who turns Odysseus's men into swine. Homer tells the story from a point of view that allows for the ommission of Circe's understanding of events. Welty retells the story, emphasizing the feminine roles and limitations of her central character. The story begins with an interruption: "Needle in air, I stopped what I was making." Circe, unlike Odysseus, is unable to make her own Odyssey because of her responsibilities to home.
Welty's retelling of a story from the Odyssey made me think of Margaret Atwood's work. Although their approaches are radically different, both Atwood and Welty attempt to retell classical myth from the perspective of women. Both, whether they intend it or not, root their stories in contemporary gender politics. Welty is writing at a time and place of more traditional ideas about gender, while Atwood wants to express a more explicitly feminist ideology. Despite this difference, the act of reclaiming female characters from classical literature, no matter what one's perspective, is both playful and thought-provoking.
I would love to understand why I was less taken by both myth-rewriting works--both Atwood's and Welty's--than I am by their other writings. Are they just weaker? Are the authors taking bigger risks? I certainly appreciate the idea intellectually, but I don't find either text especially satisfying.
Are there earlier feminine rewritings of classical myths? Does Woolf do anything, for example?