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Manhood in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) : Masterly, or Simply Mastered?

Emmeline GROS
p. 39-61


L’article explore l’ambivalence de la masculinité dans Delta Wedding d’Eudora Welty (1946). Cet article soutient que Delta Wedding, qui place le héros George Fairchild au centre du récit, doit être lu moins comme un texte féministe que comme la création féminine d’un récit d’héroïsme masculin, dans lequel l’idéal de la masculinité est présenté comme objet/sujet visuel, plaisir pour le regard féminin. Le Sud masculin interprété par Welty est subverti ; L’idéal de masculinité, loin d’être fixe, naturel et héroïque, est ici exposé comme fragile, comme étant facilement imitable, et limité à un jeu d’apparences. Welty montre que la masculinité du Sud est une notion fluide et changeante.

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  • 1 Susan Donaldson, as well as other Welty scholars ranging from Peggy Whitman Prenshaw to Ann Romines (...)

1Like any good wedding, Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) “showcases the women” at the center of the narrative: it portrays the lives of a Mississippi Delta planter family in 1923 as they prepare for the wedding of Dabney, their second eldest daughter, to Troy Flavin, “the outsider, working-class Fairchild overseer” (Tipton 112). Welty has indeed “put the women and their thoughts and perceptions in the foreground of her novel” (Powell 49).1 Not surprisingly, most critics have praised Delta Wedding for its narrative structure which defies “traditional masculine narrative by providing women with a voice,” and for its depiction of “the multiplicity of white Southern femininity [that gives] a voice to several different types of women” (Wallace 1). Susan V. Donaldson, in particular, argues that the novel should be read as a “feminist interrogation of history and historical perspective” (3), because Welty offers a “matriarchal world” (5)—a feminine South if you will—and maybe most importantly, an “oddly inverted heroic narrative” (5), one in which the author explores a “confrontation with” and reformulation of “patriarchal myths and masculinist texts” (Mark 3 qtd. in Wallace 3).

2Donaldson’s reading of the novel’s feminist interrogation of history stands to reason: in this sheltered community of the Fairchilds, the great aunts, war widows like Aunt Shannon and Aunt Mac, have certainly become the “matriarchs of the clan” and “their governance of the Fairchild family has resulted in an interesting internal power structure that privileges females” (Miller 55). Nevertheless, and when dealing with questions of gender in this novel, one should heed Welty’s own words of caution: she often expressed her reluctance to being labeled a “woman writer” or a “feminist”—going as far as telling Charles Bunting in 1972 that she was “not interested in any kind of feminine repartee” (qtd. in Prenshaw 54). The attention given to the woman’s question in Delta Wedding should not obscure the fact that the novel is probably first and foremost what Brinkmeyer has defined as the portrait of a Southern family myth that “has the male hero [George Fairchild] at its focus” (qtd. in Bouton 93).

3Because of or despite the attention given to the woman question in Delta Wedding, the novel seems to offer less the feminist creation of a matriarchal world than the feminist creation of a certain type of masculine heroism that itself can be envisioned as another oddly-inverted heroic narrative. After all, and if “the family’s concern is [certainly] fueled in part by hero worship, for George and his fellow Fairchild men” (Donaldson 4), one could ask: What makes George this ideal man, the one who was loved best, the one to be cherished so? What makes him the family’s “lover and protector and dreaming, forgetful conscience” (280)? What indeed could make, to use Brinkmeyer’s formulation, the male hero the focus of this Southern family myth? Delta Wedding leaves these questions unanswered. As the elusiveness of George’s portrait raises more questions than answers, such a portrayal contributes to promoting a/the multiplicity of white Southern masculinity, not so much by giving a voice to several different types of men, but by placing an elusive and unstable narrative of masculinity on a pedestal, thus encouraging what may be read as a ‘masculinist’ (and not solely a feminist) confrontation with patriarchal myths.

The Woman Question

4Welty’s ambivalence about gender has not escaped the critical gaze of most scholars. Readings of the woman question in Delta Wedding have looked for some affinity between Welty and feminists who interrogate gender identity and view gender as fluid, as opposed to a given fixity. It is true that Welty’s treatment of the woman/wedding issue in this sheltered South of the Delta facilitates the unsettling of traditional historical perspectives on gender. As Elizabeth Crews explains, there is in Delta Wedding a fluidity of gender that is facilitated by mutual misunderstanding, since “not all adults in the novel agree on what constitutes socially accepted gender roles” (62). What is more, “not only are there differing views among the characters on the role of gender in Delta society, there are also differing views on the ways in which gender roles define the Fairchilds” (64). The resulting effect is one of profound instability. As Crews remarks, “Troy feels that a woman’s place is in the home doing tasks necessary for comfort and survival. Tempe counters Troy’s idea. She tells Dabney not to let Troy know she can cook in order to avoid having to cook for the rest of her life” (62). Welty thus promises various opportunities for gender trouble (to use Judith Butler’s expression), that is for undermining “masculine and feminine categories taken to be foundational and unchanging” (Donaldson 11).

5Delta Wedding, however, falls short of its initial promise. If the story certainly portrays the Fairchild women who have long outnumbered the male members of the family and who have learnt how to use what Robbie Reid names the “pleading mask” that allows them to get it all and in particular, “everything that could be given—all solicitude and manly care” (236), such fluidity is closely confined to the Delta. If the men in the novel can be seen as mere “figureheads who submit to the wishes of their women” (Miller 58), Laura realizes that “it was the boys and the men that defined the family always. All the girls knew it” (102).

6Ultimately, Delta Wedding represents a mixed contribution to the revisionary readings of the feminine South in Welty’s fiction. Indeed, no matter how appealing, such readings of the Southern feminine ideal shatter the foundations of the hegemonic patriarchal order. As one of Delta Wedding’s female characters recognizes, “it was notoriously the women of the Fairchilds who since the Civil War, or—who knew?—since the Indian times, ran the household and had everything at their fingertips—not the men. The women it was who inherited the place—or their brothers, guiltily, handed it over” (234). As Pearl McHaney recognizes, even if Dabney challenges the social codes of her family, she

does not conceive of herself as evolving, of moving beyond the boundaries of the Delta world. She does not posit herself as creating a new system or symbol either for herself or for her sisters or for other women. She does not conceive of changing the gender roles of the men or of the women of the Delta. For all of her protestations and willfulness, she does stay in the Delta, tied to the land. (139)

7Read in this light, if Welty’s interest is in destabilizing the “heterosexual matrix” that dictates some fixed roles to men and women in the name of gender, Welty does not envisage nor propose a reconstruction of gender along new lines. She fails to promote a re-conception of the woman’s place or a renewed ideal of femininity—the main reason being the inability of these women to escape the “fixity” of gender conventions. Physically also, these women are fixed, since they have refused to move beyond the Delta and step away from their assigned roles as supporters of those who are active and doers—the men. On this point, Elizabeth Crews reminds us that “the Fairchild men (Denis and George specifically) are the ones venerated and worshiped, not the women” (64).

Women Looking at Men

8From this perspective, one of the ways in which Delta Wedding contains the fluidity of femininity circulating through the text is by directing all narrative efforts to the male figure that comes center stage. Obviously enough, what brings the male hero to the center of the narrative is first and foremost a gendered focus given to George. The narration shifts between various female characters’ viewpoints. Masculine subjectivity is caught up in women gazing at men, for it is women who are essentially the ones in charge of defining what and who their shining heroes George and Denis are.

  • 2 As Suzan Harrison also reminds us, we never enter George’s consciousness, but we do enter the consc (...)

9In the presentation of the male hero, the reader witnesses the production of an ideal of masculinity given as visual pleasure. Dabney realizes that “it was Denis and always would be Denis that they gave the family honor to . . . Denis was the one that looked like a Greek God . . . squandered away his life loving people too much, [and] was too kind to his famiy . . . ” (205). Since Denis dies, another brother must become the family hero, and George Fairchild is the one to fill this role. In the portrayal of George, once again, the focus is male identity linked to the heroic notion of masculinity, and women are included in the scenario as those who voice the heroism. Wendy Pearce Miller justly remarks that “we are never allowed to enter the male psyche [and] we see George as his women see him and want him to be seen” (57).2 The result, Sara McAlpin explains, is that “the individuality of George is somewhat buried in the familial expectations imposed upon him” (490). Donaldson agrees, by noting that “[t]ime and time again, female Fairchilds, from Cousin Laura to Ellen Fairchild, ponder George and his importance to the family, but however much they might insist upon George’s primary role in the world of the Fairchilds, the perspective remains theirs. Ultimately, the narrative’s focus becomes the musings of those women who take for granted George’s centrality” (5).

10The women’s construction of manhood oscillates between what could be defined as essentialist or normalizing perspectives on masculine identity. In particular, the construction of George’s identity as a hero relies on what could be named the essential truth of biology. Dabney, for instance, often refers to George’s natural sweetness: “George and Denis were born sweet” and the women revere both (125). She adds that George “the sweetest man in the Delta [. . .] had an incorruptible, and hence unchallenging sweetness at heart” (135). If the grounding of masculine identity is thus to be found in the truth of a biological/innate/natural sweetness, Susan Donaldson recognizes that “George and his fellow Fairchild men are considered actors in history, inhabitants of the public arena, and their masculine legacy is that of a long line of Fairchild men killed in momentous events—ambushes, wars, fires, and duels” (4). Masculine heroism is thus to be traced in the “truth” of tradition through an appeal to the reality of a masculine past peopled with heroes. In particular, “Denis, the Fairchild’s valiant (and conveniently deceased) hero typifies the legendary southern gentleman upon which all the contemporary Fairchild men are modeled” (Tipton 112). In both cases, because women stress the natural sweetness of the Southern heroes, and because George enters a heroic position that has already been defined in terms applied to Denis—heroism, ideal manhood, etc.—Welty’s text seems to promote an essentialist definition of hegemonic masculinity: one clear, fixed, and authentic set of characteristics immune to time that all Southern heroes share.

11Remaining “fixed” in heroism, however, comes with a high price: the death of the much worshipped and beloved Denis, and even more as will be shown. Tellingly, the male heroes of the distant past have “lost their individual identities” (Powell 49). They have been reduced to “somebodies” and distinguished only by their firearms:

That was Somebody’s gun—he had killed twelve bears every Saturday with it. And Somebody’s pistol in the lady’s workbox; he had killed a man with it in self-defense […]. There […] was Somebody’s Port Gibson flintlock, and Somebody’s fowling piece he left behind him when he marched off to Mexico, never to be laid eyes on again. (187)

12For those, like George, who are still alive, the “Denis” worship overlaps the boundary between history and story, between the living and the dead, for “George and Denis were always thought of together” (124). By conflating myths and reality (that of George and Denis, but also of St. George, the dragon-slayer, and St. Denis, protector of Paris) the narrative thus hints at the possibility that to be alive is always, to some extent, dying. To become a “hero” is assuming “completely” the heroism of those dead long ago and to become someone else, therefore acting out a role “copied from older ones” (102).

13The choice of role a man should emulate is an entirely different story. In George Fairchild’s case, any reader could well wonder what definition to use when talking about a “male hero.” For Susan Tracy, a Southern romance male hero “is always morally and intellectually superior to the men he leads. [. . . He] dominate[s] the action of the novel” and “emerge[s] as the ideal of human perfection” (40). For Kreyling, it is the emphasis upon community work which differentiates Southern romance heroes from the heroes of Northern romancers like Cooper. He argues that the Cooper hero “leaves something to be desired in his ties to a larger human group and to its culture,” encompasses “no strong social element,” and “seldom indulges in social contact” (33). Unlike Southern heroes, Cooper’s figures “do not forge a corporate ‘we’ through love or mutual identification” and are “not interested in the long-range project of establishing a civilization capable of surviving the ordeal of history” (34-35). By contrast, the Southern romance hero is a conservative upholder of tradition.

14If such is indeed the definition of the male hero of the South (the one envisioned by Brinkmeyer), and while admitting to the importance of male heroism and the central role of George Fairchild in particular, the Southern male hero’s story (much like the feminine narratives mentioned above) reads as another “oddly inverted heroic narrative,” one that simultaneously works toward fixing and unfixing masculine identity at the same time. Certainly, Welty offers her readers a Southern romance hero who should be envisioned as a messianic hero and redeemer of society, since “the attributes of divinity [. . .] will cling to the hero” of the romance (Frye 187). The clear-sighted Ellen, George’s sister-in-law, meditates that “if it had never been for Denis, George might not have been completely the hero of this family—instead of sometimes almost its hero and sometimes almost its sacrificial beast” (151). In this instance, “heroism” (or ideal masculinity) does not refer to the quality of a person’s behavior, but to the desires of those labeling, naming, the person’s behavior or making an acquisition of it, as suggested by the “its.” By placing within the same sentence two nouns (hero and beast) almost echoing each other and by using the adverb “sometimes” twice, Welty suggests profound questions about Southern masculine identity as essence or performance. The use of the word “sacrificial” alludes to the men’s need to follow a certain ritual that limits their ability to exhibit, value, or even see other opportunities for themselves.

15Undoubtedly, Welty reveals the extent to which any tradition can be constructed. If George’s heroic identity is obviously constructed, it is constructed in a series of negatives, with George existing for what/who he is not (Denis) rather than what he is. Ultimately, Welty seems to question whether men like Denis or George need to be something or someone at all. Sacrifice will only lead two ways: being a “hero” or becoming a “sacrificial beast”—in each case, as the etymology of the words “hero” and “sacrificial beast” suggests, being an abstraction, but never a human being. George’s plight is to have sacrificed himself on the altar of masculinity and to have forgotten how to be a man, not simply a gentleman, if not a “sweet boy” (195). In the same vein, Denis’s honor lies in how he died, rather than how he lived; as Lisa Cade Wieland asserts, “the single most important thing that Denis did to achieve hero status was to die too young during wartime [. . .] the fact of Denis’ heroism is less important than the family’s unflagging belief in it” (197).

16Of course, George (like Dabney) remains plantation bound. For Reine Dugas Bouton, instead of breaking a path in the wilderness and leaving society behind, George, the male hero of the family, stays and establishes his position within society and enforces the boundaries separating culture from wilderness (4). Certainly also, George Fairchild “exemplifies the individual achievement and self-sacrifice that distinguish the male characters who go through the stages of separation and heroic test, and then return to accept the ties of the family” (Prenshaw, “Woman’s World” 64). George’s final “fixity” or return to the Delta, however, does not entail a strict adherence to the virtues and ideals of Southern male heroism. An examination of Welty’s appropriation of the Southern Romance hero figure in Delta Wedding even suggests a strong redefinition and a clear deconstruction of romance heroism, a “work of demolition [. . .] which [Welty] performs upon the conventional image of the male hero” (“Moments” 225).

17As John Alexander Allen points out, “the tendency of Eudora Welty’s fiction is indeed anti-heroic; that is, it makes legitimate fun of the posturing male hero-adventurer” (“Moments” 255). In particular, and as James Wallace remarks, “George’s rejection of patriarchal authority represents a conceptual subversion of the heroic masculine ideal, St. George” (56). Indeed, if the legend of St. George was for centuries used to perpetuate chivalry and patriarchal authority, with George Fairchild, Welty provides an alternative to St. George’s iconic hyper-masculine heroism: “he cares nothing for preserving feminine sexuality; his passivity reverses St. George’s active pursuit of upholding Christian values, and his acceptance of others contrasts St. George’s violent enforcement of a hegemonic worldview” (J. Wallace 56). He achieves his male heroism by rejecting patriarchal authority and subverting a gender dynamic that refuses to acknowledge diversity and difference” (J. Wallace 56).

18In addition, “Welty places George Fairchild in clichéd heroic scenarios that spotlight his “different” brand of heroism. George’s introduction harkens the image of St. George: “. . . [C]oming over the grass in the yard rode Mr. George Fairchild—in his white clothes and all—on a horse.” However, upon closer inspection, something is queer about George’s heroic entry, particularly his horse: “It was a sorrel filly with flax mane and tail and pretty stockings” (143). George’s pony, a fabulous “wedding present for Miss Dab,” is not the traditional heroic transportation, nor is this a typical heroic entrance (220). His difficulty controlling the horse, “the little filly kicked her heals,” adds to the queer introduction, especially considering the pony was “lady broke” (137). In the end, George’s “queer heroism” lays to rest “the Old South’s chivalric ideal of the Southern Gentleman” (Wallace 36) and subverts the heroic construct of the Southern man as “inherently masculine or naturally chivalrous” (Wallace 4).

19The Yellow Dog heroic scene also participates in the subversion of a fixed, essential, and natural type of masculinity: George’s attempt at saving his mentally-challenged niece satirizes both male heroism and the classic heroic scenario in which a brave hero saves a maiden from a monster or other dangerous threat, here an approaching train. Welty rewrites this scenario to point out that women do not need rescuing. She subverts the heroic scene in a number of ways: the mentally disabled Maureen represents neither an ideal damsel in distress nor an average woman; George failed to dislodge her foot from the trestle, gave up his efforts, and passively waited for the approaching train, and the death it entailed; it was actually Maureen that saved the two by pushing George who fell backward and pulled her down with him; and finally, the Yellow Dog cannot represent a real threat because it stopped before reaching the point where it would have harmed the pair. John Allen asserts that because the train stopped, “the incident became officially… shorn of every trace of the tragic or heroic” (“Demigods” 36). Welty offers here a queer narrative of masculinity, one that is contingent upon circumstances, one that—rather than being fixed, essential, and natural—appears to be a satire, a revisionary narrative of non-hegemonic masculinity.

20While revealing that ideal masculinity is a discourse that is obviously created, sanctified, and rarely challenged, such readings, as we have shown, fail to explain what would make George a hero and by contrast, Troy, the undesired outsider in the community. If Dabney certainly understands from watching George gaze at a floating butterfly, that “...he was different, somehow… It was very strange, but she had felt it” (121), why, we could ask, would George—if not only because of Denis’ death—be a hero? In George’s case, neither sweetness nor difference, neither biology nor tradition, can explain what could make the stuff of heroism that women see in him.

21Problematically so, what it means to be “heroic” or “queer,” to be “hegemonic” or “other” is never truly satisfactorily resolved in Delta Wedding, so much so that the definition of heroism itself can hardly be attached to “Southern manhood.” Southern masculinity itself, it seems, is too much of a slippery notion: the story—it is true—presents different Southern masculine identities which should be dependent on separate positions: one finds, in Delta Wedding, mentions or portrayals of the overseer, the male hero, and the hero rebel at each side of a spectrum of masculine subjectivities. Yet, while these identities are posited as distinct, these are also picked out—and here is the issue—as non-distinctly identifiable entities. After all, why is not Battle or Troy picked as a hero? Troy himself admits: “I can’t tell a bit of difference between me and any Delta people you name” (183). In this case, Troy the overseer—who should stand as the arbiter of authentic Southern heroism (because himself at the undesirable margins of it)—has the social/economic clout to secure particular attributes of Southern manhood.

22When identities are posited as distinct, these are regarded as mere performances enacted by gifted actors. Such is the problem that is facing Shelley Fairchild on fetching the groom, Troy, the day before his wedding to Dabney Fairchild. On entering Troy’s office, Shelley sees blood, a Negro with an ice-pick, but more than that, she perceives Troy for the first time. To avoid the sight of blood, she can—as Troy advises her—“jump over it” (285) or “jump over the doorsill” (285) to run back to the plantation. Yet, there is one thing that she cannot avoid: facing the possibility that men might just be mere performers on a stage; a stage that may have existed for a long time, if not from the very beginning of the Fairchild (hi)story:

Shelley could only think in her anger of the convincing performance Troy had given as an overseer born and bred. Suppose a real Deltan, a planter, were no more real than that. Suppose a real Deltan only imitated another Deltan. Suppose the behavior of all men were actually no more than this—imitation of other men. But it had previously occurred to her that Troy was trying to imitate her father. (Suppose her father imitated... Oh, not he!) Then, all men could not know any too well what they were doing. Everybody always said George was a second Denis. (286)

23The importance of this passage is three-fold. Through the repetition of the word “real” that echoes the repetition of the word “Deltan,” the narrator not only reveals Shelley’s disbelief, but most importantly her inability to picture the world around her as a grey picture in which the balance between real and unreal, Deltan and non Deltan, planter and overseer, can no longer be maintained and in which Black and White might start to mix. This passage also alludes to the possibility that men might just be participating in a performance of masculinity.

24Through Troy’s performance, the authenticity of older versions of Southern masculinity is called into question. This crisis sets the stage for acting out identity politics. On this occasion, those like Troy—who should be excluded from the parameters of Southern hegemonic manhood—invent their own. The ternary rhythm that is conveyed through the words “suppose,” “real,” and “imitate” calls to mind a theatre-play where the audience is waiting for the curtain to open. The use of the adjective “convincing” might also suggest that men are able to hide things from women and therefore become directors of their own “drama” rather than being simple actors only. The mention that “men could not know any too well what they were doing” emphasizes that this alternative is also denied, thereby limiting men’s ability to exhibit, value, or even see other possibilities for themselves.

25To resist this alternative, Shelley prefers to believe what “everybody always said,” (286) and to find refuge in the certainty that what has just “occurred to her” does not hold any ground. By refusing this alternative, Shelley reasserts the firm boundaries that the Southern plantation has set up to define itself: the idea, among others, that the self can only exist within a community, not outside of it. Shelley’s South is a land of ritual. Interestingly enough, the passage moves from “Troy” in the first sentence to “all men” in the final one, revealing that the story of the self is undeniably inscribed in history and heritage, that men themselves exist because of their family, not in spite of it.

26Despite Shelley’s efforts to erase the question of Southern masculinity from the debate, Welty brings to the surface the social, gender, and even class dialogue that subtly and not-so-subtly weaves itself through the story. Welty also exposes the problem that models of manliness grounded in social performance pose for women attempting to assess the “real” human being, the potential savior or the potential suitor. If Troy—and probably Shelley’s father—are merely imitating men who, in turn, might have imitated other men before them, then it can easily be assumed that white male authority and patriarchy may be seen as a performance only.

27Welty explicitly problematizes the notions of authority, power, and patriarchy as the solid foundations that the Fairchilds have taken for granted. If this authority can be easily discarded, it raises questions about the clear boundaries that the Fairchilds have established between what is real and what is not, what is Fairchild and what is not, what is masculine and what is not, what is immune to change and what is not. Moreover, by suggesting that Troy may pass as a convincing imitation of Shelley’s father, Welty shatters the socially-stratified order of the Southern plantation, by revealing that the “other” can pass (and maybe dangerously transgress) these clear-cut boundaries, literally as well as physically. It might eventually reveal that the foundations that Shelley (re)erects to resist new alternatives are not very solid, and that the Fairchilds themselves exist in a world repressing the self, repressing every alternative for otherness and ultimately repressing history, change, and obviously the unknown. To resist the shock of recognition, one can find refuge in interiors: to resist the conditional mode of an uncertain future, the self-sufficient plantation family prefers to silence the subject and find refuge in the naturalism of men who are believed to remain inoffensive “boys.” While the novel in the above instance narrates the contradictions involved in what it means to be perceived as a hero and reveals how various versions of Southern manhood are posited as hegemonic, contested, or (re)negotiated, Delta Wedding does not seem committed to resolving the incompatible tensions arising from such a fluidity of identities. Quite the contrary. George’s “boyhood” is certainly an awkward attempt at restoring a fixed/incorruptible masculinity on the pedestal of Southern hegemonic manhood.

28Such examination of the status of George illustrates how Welty could appropriate the (white) gendered construct of the Southern romance hero to unveil its inauthenticity as well as the multiplicity of the masculine poses that men may be asked to assume. Welty suggests that the labeling process or the category construction is in crisis: masculine identity is created/fixed at the same time as it is challenged. Men are multiple; masculinities are unreliable constructs; heroism itself seems to be an increasingly fluid notion, revealing how the fixity of the male hero on its pedestal is thus a matter of constant creation. As Michael Kreyling explains, in the presentation of the Yellow Dog episode, for instance, and in each telling of the emergency of the trestle, we can “trace the different versions of masculinity being imposed on George [. . .] Aunt Tempe condones his self-sacrificial gesture as wholly appropriate to the male responsibilities of the Fairchild line” (Understanding 115). Orrin’s version, by contrast, “so blandly assumes George’s actions to be natural as not to comment on them at all” (Understanding 94).

  • 3 In her view, sex is “an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time” (Butler 1) and (...)

29In this arrangement of the various versions of the Yellow Dog episode, the reader can undoubtedly “discern a gendered distribution of identity as a theme [that] Welty explores” (94)—and a highly provisional one, at that! George’s heroic performance is not fixed—certainly not a given, but the consequence of a dynamic process: it is here assumed to be “natural,” yet at the same time fluid since contingent upon the different versions given of his heroic achievement. Welty’s presentation of Southern masculinity as fluid and provisional aligns with that of Judith Butler who argues that gender is a process of repeated performance of the acts of gendering. For Butler, the performativity of “sex” and “gender” is not a singular or deliberate “act,” but is “the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler 2).3 In the above instance in particular, Welty shows well her awareness of the “reiteration” or “citational” practice through which individuals are brought to act, according to the discourse or model given to them.

30According to Butler’s notion of performativity, there would be no preexisting self or core that performs, only a fabricated identity lacking in ontological status. The sense of fluidity in Butler’s concept of identity is similar to Welty’s. Indeed, to maintain the centrality of the male hero figure, these women need to overlook the polymorphous sexualities or fluidities circulating through the text. To tell the story of Denis, the Fairchild women need to forget that Denis drank, gambled, and married beneath him. For Allen, his “memory has been purged of every moral taint . . . He has in effect been sainted and established as the epitome, immune from change” (“Demigods” 36). In George’s case, and as Donaldson remarks, “to tell the story of the Yellow Dog, the Fairchilds must ignore anything anomalous, like for instance, those tempting, fragmentary, alternative stories of both black and white women who live in the shadows and corners of the Fairchilds’ world” (9). Removed are the contents of George’s “blue letter,” which hold the true circumstances of “his predicament,” his secret, his mystery (164). That Welty never elaborates on the contents of the blue letter “seems to suggest alternative stories and possibilities” to which the reader is not privy (Donaldson 10). George himself emulates a fiction of constructed masculinity, aiming to authenticate a myth even as he refuses to talk about the war, even as he silences his military exploits, and even as he chooses not to speak “of Memphis or his wife (Aunt Robbie, where was she?), about being a lawyer or an aeronaut in the war” (223). Fatherhood (which may be seen as a means to measure up to phallocentric masculinity) proves equally insubstantial, since George and Robbie remain childless.

Subverting Masculinist Texts?

31Read in this light, Delta Wedding is far less a feminist story than the feminine version of a male-hero tale, that of George brought to Denis’ place and to the center of the narrative. More importantly, it also points to the provisionality and contingency of George’s identity in the novel. Welty, by stressing that identities are fluid (not fixed essences locked into differences which are permanent for all time [Weeks]), thus questions the essentialism of identity and its “fixity” as natural; that is, as a biological category (Woodward 26).

32By probing into a masculinity that is fundamentally lacking in substance, Welty promotes what Jeffrey Weeks would call a “politics of difference” which subverts the stability of biological categories—that is, the truth of biology that women often invoke when placing George on the pedestal of southern heroism. Welty places our reading of manhood (mediated by the privileged position of female supporters, the power of tradition, and the “truth” of biology) as a site of instability. Indeed, if George’s identity seems to be affirmed (or stabilized) through rituals (of honor and chivalry) that ward off and protect against the power of the uncontrollable and the impure—that is against time and change—George’s “true interior” (like Troy’s true nature) periodically breaks through the text’s (or the women’s voices) carefully controlled surface. “[S]weetness,” Dabney realizes, “could be the visible surface of profound depths – the surface of all the darkness that might frighten her” (125).

33In this instance, the “masculine” cannot be carved so easily in “sainted” exteriors: women may value the primacy of the image; however, the sound track refuses to remain subordinated to the image track. The “words” that erupt from George’s mouth signal what Julia Kristeva describes as “the collapse of the border between inside and outside”: the body’s uncontrollable contents […] break through the carefully policed boundaries that seek to guarantee the subject’s own and clean self” (53). Borders are, Welty reveals, illusory. Words like “sometimes” and “as if” throw manhood into uncertainty and elusiveness, thus reinforcing Heilman’s argument that readers “may have to live with some fuzziness about the edge of the motive, intention, relationship and even historical or physical fact. Ultimately, this may be due to Welty’s conviction that all mystery and ambiguity cannot be washed out in the water of logical explanation” (160).

34Here, Welty plays with the idea of silence, using it to reveal rather than conceal. It is, indeed, in the absence of a long dialogue, that George speaks best: “Uncle George’s two words shot out like one bird, then beat about the walls, struck in the rooms upstairs” (191), as if these two words only, at that very moment, could kill Laura. The image of the bird in its cage will be repeated in a future chapter, completing the allegory of the double that Welty has disseminated throughout her story. Sometimes, indeed, George’s depths come back to the surface when “the kindest of them all, would say a deliberate wounding thing – as if in assurance that nothing further might then hurt you” (167). For George, this repressed-self gushes forth as “fierce energies, even heresies” (168). The construction of heroism is thus a double-edged sword: masculine identity is also grounded in the “truth” of biology that refuses to remain fixed, controlled, and natural.

  • 4 Laura Mulvey has stated that “[i]n a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has bee (...)

35Prominent also in Dabney’s memory is the vision of Denis’ and George’s bodies “so wet they shone in the sun, wet light hair hanging over their foreheads just alike, and they were stamping their feet, flinging out their arms, starting to wrestle and play” (123). In the sequence that follows, Dabney watches George in a mass of “thrashing legs and arms” trying to discipline two little Negroes. With this scene also, that Entzminger reads as “Black and white skin and black and white blood mixing together” (62), Delta Wedding foregrounds men’s “visible” bodies and explores the way female characters look at these bodies. A hierarchy is thus established between surface and depth, between whiteness and blackness, between visibility and invisibility. In classical texts, women are usually restrained to their role as objects given for the visual pleasure of the male spectators (Mulvey). Here, the dynamics are reversed, for the male characters are those bound by the image that the female characters construct of the men they have placed under scrutiny.4 If vision—as Peter Brooks explains—is a “typically male prerogative” whose object of fascination is the “woman’s body” (88), the gendered visual relations in Delta Wedding invoke male visibility and female vision. Such relations are portrayed in terms that force the visualization of the male body away from invisibility, away from the norm (which is itself invisible, because taken for granted), and into a site/sight of instability. Entzminger concludes that, in this episode, Dabney realizes that “her Uncle George has an identity separate from the family group” (62). In this instance, the marking of “men as men” (through the depiction of men’s bodies) as particular and gendered subjects challenges what numerous scholars consider to be the “power men accrue as universal subjects” (Bode 189). For Bode, “numerous theorists have identified depictions of men’s bodies (…especially when looked at and/or represented by women) as subversive of patriarchal conventions and relations” (189). In the end, if Welty’s focus on female characters’ gazes at male bodies problematically suggests that “George performs a flagrant tripartite violation of both Southern and American social and moral codes” (J. Wallace 59), the scene also suggests disrupting potential alternatives to imagining male corporeality, validating Diana Wallace’s claims that “[a]ny attempt to construct a man [. . .] especially by a woman, threatens the perceived authority of the masculine as natural, the norm, the universal subject” (qtd. in Bode 189). Hence, Lucia Bozzola identifies “a man for woman’s eyes” as a “gender category breaker” (qtd. in Bode 194). The failure and the fragility of the masculine question are cruelly exposed. There is in this scene an allusion to a perverse masculinity that is seen deviating not only from a phallic but also from a strictly ethical standard.

36Promoting the instability of masculinity comes with a certain number of rewards. Bode explains that “in transgressing the confines of the patriarchal linguistic and visual economy, women representing and/or looking at men’s bodies are said to proliferate instabilities, thus providing a space for a reconstitution of gender relations” (189). George’s “different” type of heroism, his “different” mode of masculinity could even suggest what some scholars have defined as “a Weltian preference for the character’s difference, and not a reaffirmation of a referent normal masculinity” (J. Wallace 5). In a family where everybody is alike, George’s physical dissimilitude to the other men reinforces this politics of difference. Using Robbie’s voice—that of an outsider to this community—Welty seems to ask if men can be men in spite of their community, family, or heritage, not because of it. Ellen notices that he “was markedly bigger and fairer than any of them in the portraits, as if he were not a throwback to the type” (110). She notes that George is a “new original – a sport of the [genealogical] tree itself” (110). Welty suggests that the plurality of gender identities may allow men to construct a male self from a range of possibilities, thus escaping and possibly subverting prescribed (and fixed) identity constructions.

37If celebrating the fluidity of identity or a politics of difference may indeed encourage subversive potentials able to challenge conventionally fixed notions of identity, Delta Wedding forges George’s identity precisely through this marking of difference. In this case, it is important to note that this marking of difference takes place both within the symbolic system of representation (George is compared to the rest of the genealogical tree) and through social exclusion (George is a new type). However, in spite of or because of his difference, George remains in line with the “original”: he is a “new original”. Novelty depends on the original. In this case, and to use Woodward’s words here, “[i]dentity, then, is not the opposite of, but depends on, difference” (29). Such argument thus invites another reading. If drawing attention to the performative (and marked) features of gender may serve to destabilize gender ideals, fluidity itself may be renegotiated and difference assimilated to reestablish dominant figures of identification.

38The fact that George’s fluidity or Troy’s “real” is accommodated through a repression of the “subverting” self helps us distinguish the human work (the feminist work in this case) to sustain social norms and minimize transgressions, the efforts to “domesticate the strange and peculiar” (Donaldson 9), the efforts to process the fixity of the hero to the pedestal. The same can be said about Dabney’s realization of George’s peripheral location within the family:

It was actually Uncle George who had shown her that there was another way to be—something else…Uncle George, the youngest of the older ones, who stood in—who was—the very heart of the family, who was like them, looked like them (only by far, she thought, seeing at once his picnic smile, handsomer)—he was different somehow. Perhaps the heart always was made of different stuff and had a different life from the rest of the body. (121)

39In such instance, Dabney assumes that George is the unequivocal core of the family. Welty thus limits the possibility of occupying multiple positions outside the “heart.” When referring again to the truth of biology, the heart cannot live without the rest of the body, and the body itself cannot exist without the heart. Consequently, and even while acknowledging George’s difference, she (and other women) tends to see the male hero’s insertion into a fixed, stable heterosexual subject position as inevitable. Ultimately, and to use the words of Catherine Bates, Welty portrays a masculinity that is not “masterly, but mastered” (14).


  • 5 Identity is relational since it “relies for its existence on something outside itself. Identity is (...)

40What is at stake in Delta Wedding is the dichotomy between fixity and movement. As Susan Donaldson has remarked, “Eudora Welty’s 1946 novel Delta Wedding is famously, ostensibly a story in which nothing momentous, nothing of large historical portent, happens” (3). Welty herself admitted that she had searched actively to “find the year in which nothing very terrible had happened in the Delta by way of floods or fires or wars which would have taken the men away” (qtd. in Kuehl 82). Hers was thus an exercise in how to write a linear narrative while shaping the identity of a sheltered community constructed specifically on fixity and on the exclusion of time, history, and anything outside the Delta. Under Welty’s pen and in the Delta of 1923, the concept of identity which is by definition relational was thus to be (re)defined as non-relational, fixed, and natural.5

41Surely enough, the resulting effect of fixity in Delta Wedding is a process rather than a given, for indeed while “happenings” (floods, fires, or wars) and “the year” may be regarded as the two sides of a “contrapuntal narrative” opposing fluidity/instability and fixity (Berlin), finding a place or “the year in which nothing very terrible had happened” is itself a dynamic process. It is these same dynamics which, as we have seen in this paper, govern the fluidity and fixity of the gendered relations in Delta Wedding. When exploring the representations of gender—and masculinity in particular—it becomes clear that the centrality of the male hero—reinforced by masculine acts of heroism and determined/fixed/authenticated/bounded by biology and tradition—is at odds with Welty’s promotion of what could be defined as a simultaneous narrative of fluidity and ambiguity. Ultimately, the analysis of such dynamics reveals the constructed-ness and the performativity of the male hero figure in Delta Wedding: by complicating the traditional delineation of hegemonic manhood, Welty denounces the destructive effects of gender on human relationships in the South and reveals the extent to which identities can become no more than narrative devices to provide a sense of security and stability, ultimately fictions, if “necessary fictions” (Weeks 1995).

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1 Susan Donaldson, as well as other Welty scholars ranging from Peggy Whitman Prenshaw to Ann Romines and Louise Westling, have pointed out that the world of Delta Wedding is “peculiarly female” (5) (qtd. in Tipton 110).

2 As Suzan Harrison also reminds us, we never enter George’s consciousness, but we do enter the consciousness of no fewer than seven female family members, all of whom concern themselves with George’s heroic stature, mystery, and well-being (54).

3 In her view, sex is “an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time” (Butler 1) and the construction of sex itself a “temporal process” which operates through the reiterations of norms (9-10).

4 Laura Mulvey has stated that “[i]n a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1975 : 11).

5 Identity is relational since it “relies for its existence on something outside itself. Identity is distinguished by what it is not” and “is marked out by difference” (Woodward 9).

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Emmeline GROS, « Manhood in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) : Masterly, or Simply Mastered?  », Babel, 31 | 2015, 39-61.

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Emmeline GROS, « Manhood in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) : Masterly, or Simply Mastered?  », Babel [En ligne], 31 | 2015, mis en ligne le 30 avril 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.4069

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Emmeline GROS

Université de Toulon-Var - BABEL (EA 2649)

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