Thursday, May 12, 2011

Eudora Welty's Circe

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.

The Golden ApplesIn 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?


  1. This is a really great post-I have read in the last few months 4 of her stories and missed these references-I have one more lined up to read soon and will be more aware of what to look for now

  2. I don't know of any explicit mythic re-tellings by Woolf. She had an odd, semi-alienated relationship with antiquity. See "On Not Knowing Greek" - she shows her usual high level of insight and yet seems to feel the distance between herself and the text is too great for her to inhabit it in the same way she does British lit, even Chaucer. She didn't speak Greek and associated it with the male privilege her brother Thoby had, of being educated at Cambridge and going on a grand tour, etc.

    As I recall, the whole Bride of the Inisfallen collection was not my favorite from Welty. The Golden Apples I absolutely ADORE and hadn't really thought about the mythic connections there until you mentioned them...any excuse to revisit!

  3. Earlier? Yes!

    1405, The Book of the City of Women Christine de Pisan. A feminine rewriting of classical myth (and history, and rhetoric, etc.) is an exact description of that book.

    A classics professor once went into some detail about his love for Willa Cather, largely based on her elaborate and subtle use of mythology in her fiction.

  4. AnonymousMay 13, 2011

    thanks for this was unaware of this writer ,she sounds great will look out for her ,all the best stu

  5. I am very sorry to see that the first few comments on this post seem to have disappeared in the Blogger outage this week! Thanks to those of you who wrote before. If you happen to see this, would you write again? I remember there was something one of you said that I wanted to look up, but I read the comments when I was under a time constraint and I'm afraid I've forgotten it.

    Thanks, AR for the heads up on de Pisan and especially on Cather! I've been thinking of reading some Cather during my vacation next month and this is exactly the hint I needed to pick up a novel and look for whatever I can find.

    Winstonsdad: Welty is fabulous. Start with "Why I Live at the P.O." and read it aloud to all who will listen! Do your best on the southern accent...

  6. Here is my comment again as I also had issues with blogger (first real problem in 22 months)-I admit I did know know that "Why I Live in the P. O." was based on a Bible story-nor did I see all of the classical references until you mentioned them-I have two more of her stories on my read soon list and will be more attentive to such references now-thanks for the great post

  7. Maybe it was Virginia Woolf's essay "On Not Knowing Greek"? Sorry I can't remember exactly what I said, but basically I don't think she wrote any explicit re-tellings of classical myth. Her relationship with antiquity was interesting, intrigued but semi-alienated. I think the above essay gives a good idea. She didn't speak Greek & wrote that "It is useless, then, to read Greek in translations" - yet she obviously did read them in translation with her usual high level of insight. Still, she seems to have felt unable to "inhabit" them in the same way she could other British writers, even those as far removed from herself as Chaucer. She also associated a knowledge of Greek with the male privilege kids like her brother Thoby had, being educated at Oxbridge & doing grand tours, etc.

    Then there was something else to my comment...oh yeah, that I adore The Golden Apples and never thought of the mythic connections until you mentioned them here! So, plainly it's time for a re-read. :-)


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