A SOLID WALL OF TOO MUCH LOVE
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty Delta Wedding (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1946)
More than any other of Eudora Welty’s novels, Delta Wedding, published in 1946, most clearly presents her preoccupation with time. However, the characters central to this novel, especially those who are blood members of the Fairchild clan, seem to be oblivious to time and its effects. As Louis Rubin notes of characters in all of Welty’s works, “they do not contend with time; instead they pretend that it does not exist” (“The Golden Apples of the Sun,” in The Faraway Country). But this pretense is misleading, for the Welty characters who are “intruders” in the Delta home of the Fairchilds are very much aware of the problem of time; and even within the pretense of the family, the Fairchild children, in their moments of separate awareness, relate differently to it.
As a group, however, the Fairchilds resist time and, for that matter, anything outside of themselves. Like the Renfros of Losing Battles, the Fairchilds are one of those large Mississippi families of Welty’s fiction whose love is boundless to those within the family structure, but who simultaneously use that active love as a shield to protect themselves from the world at large. The Fairchilds of Delta Wedding have almost succeeded in realizing Sutpen’s dream in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! of creating a cosmos peopled by sons, daughters, uncles, aunts and other relatives who in their similarity of appearance, ideology, and emotional temper repeat one another over and over again, insuring in that repetition—in the complete oneness—a sort of immortality for each member of the clan. In their insularity death is not observed. In the homes of Shellmound and the Grove, portraits of the Fairchild great-grandparents, the Delta settlers, hang imposingly, seeming as alive for Laura McRaven and Robbie Reid as is all the past for the Fairchild Aunt Shannon, who in her dialogues with the dead confuses past names and events with present, and for whom
Boys and men, girls and ladies all, the old and the young of the
Delta kin—even the dead and the living…—were alike—no gap
opened between them.
But the Fairchilds are not primarily a family which remembers the past, for that would entail the recognition of change and of difference, and would destroy the type of immortality made possible by the uniformity of the family and its descendants. For the most part the Fairchilds live without a past or a future. They are a people caught up in present action to such a degree that the flux of time seems to stand still. As Laura, the newly motherless cousin who comes to live with them, observes:
They were never too busy for anything, they were generously and
and almost serious of the moment: the past (even Laura’s arrival
today was past now) was a private, dull matter that would be for-
gotten except by aunts.
Laura from her earliest memory had heard how they “never
Seemed to change at all.”
However, as Laura suspects, the Delta family is not free in its actions (“Laura was certain that they were compelled—their favorite word”), and for a young girl whose journey she must make mentally to partake of the insular Fairchild love, this compulsion to act, this uncontrollable whirl of quick and instant fluctuations which in its obliviousness to time seems to exclude her, is rather frightening. Her times are not yet severed from the past. As Welty suggests, unlike the Fairchilds, “Laura remembered everything.” As an outsider Laura is very much aware of time and the separation from loved ones that time can cause, a heavy burden of awareness for a nine year old. As she arrives at the Fairchild home, she vomits, demonstrating her fears of the awesome struggle to re-enter a world where she is loved. To Laura that love is still unconditional, a love that she innately understands in the act of her mother’s creation of her doll Marmion. Late in the novel, she recalls that upon returning home from a summer vacation she had asked for a doll and her mother had made it, racing against an approaching storm. The creation was an immediate, unquestioned act of love which, because it was not dependent upon time (“the time was the most inconvenient that she could have chosen”), temporarily defeated time and the separation it causes (the doll was finished before the first raindrop). Laura recognizes “that the reason she felt so superior was that she had gotten Marmion the minute she wished for him—it wasn’t either too soon for her wish or too late” (my reading here is based on Robert Penn Warren’s essay “The Love and the Separateness in Miss Welty”). But while her mother sewed the doll, her father wound the clock:
“I always like to know what time it is,” he said, to which her mother
laughed. The loud ticks and the hours striking to catch up responded
to hime and rose to the upper floor.
Time has inevitably won and separated Laura from love; her mother has died. Laura’s dilemma at the outset of the novel is, then, very similar to the dilemma Welty poses in her story “A Still Moment”: “How to explain Time and Separateness back to God, Who had never thought of them….” In order for her to re-enter the loved state, Laura instinctively recognizes that the Fairchilds must be made to understand time and separateness as she does. Without that understanding, the Fairchilds—who live a “life not stopping for a moment in deference to children going to sleep,” a life which is attuned to the throb of the compress that never stops, a life in which when the hall clock strikes two it means that it is eight—cannot give Laura the acceptance she needs; they can only pity her, joke with her and forgive her for her differences. Even as she rides the train to the Fairchild home she knows that “when she got there, ‘Poor Laura, little motherless girl,’ they would all run out and say….” And when, upon Laura’s arrival, Battle, father to the Fairchild clan, puts a gizzard on her dinner plate and calls to her, “Now eat it all!” she realizes “it was a joke, his giving her the gizzard, for it was her mother that loved it and she could not stand that piece of turkey.” Battle cannot resist teasing Laura for being separate from her mother. Laura must find a way to make the Fairchilds aware of her presence as an individual desirous of love; she must find a way to break through that Fairchild “solid wall of too much love” in order to share the love from the inside.
Laura’s dilemma is similar to the problem that faces another intruder, Robbie Reid, who has married Battle’s brother George, who, next to the dead brother Denis, is the favorite of the Fairchild clan. However, Robbie’s solution is to draw George away from the intense family love so that she and he may share in a relationship free from family. She adamantly responds to the suggestion that it is a difficult process marrying into the Fairchilds, “I didn’t marry into them! I married George!” Unlike Laura, who thinks that “it was the boys and the men that defined that family always,” Robbie believes that it is the Fairchild women who “rule the roost,” and accordingly it seems to her that all the Fairchild women wear a “pleading” mask, demanding of their men “small sacrifice by small sacrifice.” Her desire is to free her husband from that demanding family love and replace it with
a love that could be simply beside him—her love. Only she could
hold him against that grasp, that separating thrust of Fairchild love
that would go on and on persuading him, comparing him, begging
him, crowing over him, slighting him, proving to him, sparing him,
comforting him, deceiving him, confessing and yielding to him, tor-
menting him…those smiling and not really mysterious ways of the
Before the action of the novel begins, Robbie has left George and her Memphis home because George has given in once again to those Fairchild demands. The incident which has caused this reaction is central to the whole novel. Briefly, George, Robbie, and most of Battle’s children are returning to Shellmound from a Sunday morning of fishing. When they approach a trestle, all except Robbie decide to walk on it rather than cross under through a creek dried up for the summer. Robbie, dressed in high heels, protests by sitting down and refusing to go any further. But the rest continue without her. Suddenly a train appears, moving toward them. All of the children run from the tracks except for Maureen, a mentally retarded cousin who lives with the Fairchilds, who has caught her foot between the railroad ties. George stays to free her, and together they fall off the trestle moments before the train successfully stops. Robbie cries out, “George Fairchild, you didn’t do this for me!”
To Robbie it appears that George has endangered his life unnecessarily only to affirm his irrevocable commitment to family. Robbie is not selfish or even jealous as much as she, like the Fairchilds, simply is unable to accept separateness in love. But unlike the Fairchilds, she is acutely aware of the separateness because she recognizes the past; she is aware of the time before her marriage, her poverty-stricken youth, the time before George, when she worked for the Fairchilds in the local general store where she “spent all of life hearing Fairchild, Fairchild, Fairchild.” The Fairchild name in her past has instilled within her an awareness of her own difference. She sees the Fairchild love, accordingly, as a “separating thrust,” which makes George’s act on the trestle once again something that pulls him from her. Her leaving George, in her mind, is only a playing out of what has already occurred.
The Fairchilds, however, unwilling to recognize separateness, cannot comprehend; they cannot explain Robbie’s departure. For family members such as Tempe Summers, Battle’s sister who lives in Innverness, Robbie’s act is simply a “mortification,” an event that reasserts Tempe’s opposition to “outsiders.” When Ellen, mother to the Shellmound Fairchilds, suggests that Robbie be given “just a little more time!” Tempe characteristically asks, “Whose side are you on?” Indeed, because the Fairchilds are always ready to protect the love which binds them, everyone must do battle. If Laura must battle her way into the Fairchild hearts, and Robbie must battle to bring George out of the grasp of their love, the Fairchild children must undergo their own struggles to become individuals distinct from their family name.
Laura almost immediately perceives that the uniformity and unchangeableness of the Fairchilds is only a fiction created by the family as a group:
Laura could see that they changed every moment. The outside did not
change but the inside did; an iridescent life was busy within and under
It is this inner individuality and the process of coming to terms with it that is really the subject of Delta Wedding. Despite Battle’s inability to accept time and separateness, despite his inability to accept change or “anything alone,” his family is growing and changing. The event around which the novel is centered, the event which brings together all the family and the intruders, is the wedding of his second eldest daughter, Dabney.
Dabney understands that her upcoming marriage to the Fairchild overseer, Troy Flavin, hyperbolically speaking, is “killing” her father, but she does not perceive that in the breaking down of the family unity she may be literally killing him as well because she is threatening the concept of immorality based upon unchanging motion of the family in time and place. Dabney’s marriage preparations represent the beginning of a new time, a time of discovery in which she looks forward into the future, a time which often is represented in Welty’s fiction as the time of the dream because it is a time which includes the real and the imagined world, being and becoming and the present and the future all in the same moment; grounded in daily action, it is, nonetheless, a time touched with magic; it is the time of “double vision” where one sees a new self growing out of the old. Simultaneously, Dabney’s marriage signifies the beginning of a new place. After the honeymoon she will live in Marmion, the decayed mansion across the Yazoo River. As Welty writes,
Sometimes, Dabney was not so sure she was a Fairchild—sometimes
she did not care, that was it. There were moments of life when it did
not matter who she was—even where. Something, happiness—with Troy,
but not necessarily, even the happiness of a fine day—seemed to leap away
from identity as if it were an old skin, and that she was one of the Fairchilds
was of no more need to her than the locust shells hanging to the trees
everywhere were to the singing locusts. What she felt, nobody knew!
It is no wonder that Battle, Tempe and Aunt Shannon view the whole affair as an impending disaster. Aunt Shannon expresses that reaction best, again confusing generations but not events: “Duncan dearie, there’s a scrap of nuisance around here ought to be shot…. You’ll see him. Pinck Summers, he calls himself. Coming courting her.”
Dabney’s vision, however, is no more complete than anyone else’s, for in devaluing her Fairchild identity she devalues all of the past. Even if they do not recognize it, the Fairchilds obviously do have a past, but it is evident that Dabney may be no more sensitive to it in her own marriage than her father has been in his. This is most clearly demonstrated by her treatment of the night light given to her as a wedding gift by her aunts, Jim Allen and Primrose, who inhabit the house at the Grove, a few miles from Shellmound. The night light also presents a “double vision”; on its surface is the outward world of “trees, towers, people, windowed houses, a bridge, and a sky full of clouds and stars and moon and sun” which, when the candle inside is lit, glows red as if “all on fire, even to the notion of fire which came from the flame drawing.” It is a perfect gift, for the light, like Laura’s observation of all the Fairchilds, has two aspects: on the surface it never changes, yet “an iridescent life” exists within it. It combines the real and the imagined world, the present and the future, as Dabney does in her new happiness. But most importantly the light should suggest to Dabney something which she is missing, the past. As Aunt Primrose says of the light, “...It’s company. That’s what it is. That little light, it was company as early as I can remember—when Papa and Mama died.” “As early as I can remember,” adds Jim Allen, her older sister. The light symbolizes a completeness of vision that the Fairchild family is missing, for with the joining of the past, present, and future, the closed family love would be joined with all of time, with the world at large. Since Dabney, through her love of someone outside of the family circle, has come already to a “double vision” of present and future, the potentiality for this transcendent vision is within her. She need only come to recognize the importance of the past for giving meaning to the present which shapes her future. But that requires that she come to terms with pain, loss and death as well, and that is something that few of the Shellmound Fairchilds have been prepared to do. For Dabney, as for most young people just beginning a new life, the past seems to have little to do with her. When she returns home with the gift, she drops the night light upon seeing Troy, breaking it into pieces, and runs into the house. Only India, her younger sister, observing the destruction of the light, begins to cry uncontrollably, comprehending what the act signifies. Dabney will not fulfill her potential for a more complete vision of life. Like Miranda in Katherine Ann Porter’s “Old Mortality,” who, assuming that at the very least she can find the truth about what happens to her, leaves home in “her hopefulness, her ignorance,” Dabney goes forward blindly and proudly, “her eyes shut against what was too bright.”
Dabney, however, is not the only one of the Fairchild children to make new realizations. Shelley, Dabney’s older sister, seriously questions the family perspective. Through her diary one discovers her struggling, like Laura and Robbie, with the problem of her family’s “solid wall of too much love”:
We never wanted to be smart, one by one, but all together we have a wall,
we are self-sufficient against people that come knocking, we are solid to
the outside. Does the world suspect that we are all very private people? I
think one by one we’re all more lonely than private and more lonely than
Shelley comes to perceive what few in her family can, namely that their wall of family identity does not truly protect them, that imposing group action upon the world does not prevent the world from acting upon each member of the family; and she understands the need for accepting separateness, the necessity for recognizing time which causes separation:
...we can be got at, hurt, killed—loved the same way—as things get to us.
All the more us poor people to be cherished. I feel we should all be
cherished but not all together in one bunch—separately, but not one to
go unloved for the other loved.
Shelley’s comprehensions include more than Dabney’s mere acceptance of a modality of time different from her family’s presentism. Shelly intimates that she comprehends how time affects people. She appears to understand, for example, the connection between the past and the present, the way in which one affects the other. Writing of her Uncle George’s “trouble” with Robbie, Shelley suggests that Troy, Dabney’s fiancé, sees that George has something on his mind because Troy is the type of person who
Gets the smell of someone studying, as if it were one of the animals in
trouble. Trouble acts up—he puts it down. But I know, trouble is not
something fresh you never saw before that is coming just the one time,
but is old, and your great-aunts not old enough to die yet remember little
hurts for sixty years….
Shelley recognizes that the past is not completed, finished, dead, but is something living and forceful because it shapes the present, defines it. In that awareness, Shelley, like Dabney, has a “double vision,” but she too has difficulty accepting the whole of reality.
Shelley’s vulnerability lies not in the past, but in the future. She is hurt by having her sister “walk into something” that she (Shelley) dreads. She dreads the future because, unlike Dabney, she is not blind to it, and she is troubled by the contradictions that she sees in it. The problem she is faced with is at the heart of the problem that Welty poses concerning time. If the past affects the present, if a past hurt gives pain to people in the present, then one must define people as in time. However, time separates people from one another; time brings back individual pain and brings about loss and death. How, then, can people love one another knowing separateness in time? How can love occur between people separated by the gulf of time, each with different pasts and, therefore, with different presents? Shelley cannot conceive of a life which would not “fight the world,” that would not fight against time by creating its own time-present to stand opposed to the flowing time of the world, as her family has done. Yet she sees that she must then ask who is loving and being loved? For without a past the individual is indefinable and non-existent and there is no one to stop the world from entering, just as Troy has entered Shellmound, to lead the loved one away. Shelley’s fears only bring her back to where she has begun, locked in family love. It is no wonder that she resists the idea of future love and marriage. She claims that she will “never” marry, and certainly she may not unless she solves the problem of time and separateness, unless she finds the “key to the clock” for which she is seen searching early in the novel.
Of the Fairchild children it is perhaps only India who intuitively resolves the contradictions that trouble Shelley. For India, who at nine is the same age as Laura, is still able to partake of the amazing childhood consciousness wherein the family and the outside world exist as one. As Ellen says of this daughter: “I can’t imagine how India finds out things. ...It’s just like magic.” And clearly India’s world, like her name, is magical.* India emotionally comprehends the meaning of the night light, and she imposes that meaning upon physical space by making a “circle” with her fingers and “imagining” that she holds the little lamp “filled with the mysterious and flowing air of night.” The key words are “circle” and “imagination,” for in her childhood vision India is able to break through the separateness between people and make of the world a circle in the imagination; by creatively acting and perceiving, she is able to transcend the barriers of time and is able to connect the past, present, and future in a “magical” moment wherein all of Shellmound is joined with the world, wherein each man and woman is linked with one another. India “finds things out” because through her imagination she is able to join the world around her and experience its joys and sorrows. In the imagination, time is not at all a severing force. As India says to Laura upon seeing her for the first time in a year, “We never did unjoin.” However, India is yet a child surrounded by love in the present. She has not yet known separateness.
The Fairchilds are as threatened as Robbie by George’s act of saving Maureen on the railroad track for it represents another act of separateness. George has risked his life to save the daughter who, as the child of Denis and his now-insane wife, is a living symbol of the danger of interaction with the world outside the family: that fact astounds them. In his willingness to sacrifice his life for hers George has asserted an individuality separate from family love which endangers the whole Fairchild concept of life. Because they recognize this, the Fairchilds attempt to nullify George’s act by repeating stories about it, by embodying it in family history, turning it into something at which they can laugh. Throughout the novel the incident is repeated and referred to again and again (pp. 56-61). Dr. Doolittle, the train’s conductor, Maureen, and George all become figures in a tall tale instead of people involved in a dangerous series of events. The Fairchilds purposely refuse to recognize the happening on the trestle as a series of events because events occur in time, but a tale—as Welty writes of children’s tales in “Some Notes on Time in Fiction”—is “not answerable to time.” “The tale is about wishes, and thus grants a wish itself.” The wish of the Fairchild tale is simply that George’s individual act be converted into a comedic family story which stands against difference, change, and time.** George simply took the “path of least resistance,” beams Battle; “Path George’s taken all his life.” Even George himself scoffs at Robbie’s fear: “Mr. Doolittle wasn’t going to hit me!” But Robbie “knew all the time that George was sure Mr. Doolittle was.” And Shelley perceives that it is only the fact that the engine came to a stop, that it is only the “tumbling denouement,” that permits her family to laugh. Later, when the wedding photographer mentions that the train has hit and killed the young girl seen near Shellmound, one is made to see just how absurd is that family laughter. Shelley knows this, and she sees that in risking death George has manifested his respect for individuality. “That is love—I think.” But Shelley’s perception of George’s love, because of her vision of time, is incomplete. She recognizes in his risking death that George loves members of the family individually, that George loves and is devoted to the family which he has known from birth and, therefore, represents his past, but she cannot understand George’s connection with the world outside the family, with a time outside what is already known; again Shelley cannot make sense of the future. She is at a loss to explain why George “wants” Robbie Reid. It is, understandably, Dabney who feels sympathetic to this future aspect of George’s love.
Dabney remembers another incident which involves George from which she first learned that her uncle loves people individually. She recalls a childhood occurrence in which George broke up a fight between two Negroes only to ask their names and release them. As in the occurrence on the train tracks, George had dangerously taken a chance with his life in wrestling a knife away from one of the Blacks. Dabney realizes that her cry had been uttered because the act revealed to her that George was separate, that George was not just a Fairchild, that “all the Fairchild in her had screamed at his interfering—at his taking part—caring about anything in the world but them.” Now, thinking back upon that incident, Dabney comes to understand that George, like herself, loves not just the Fairchilds, that his love of family is just the surface.
Sweetness then could be the visible surface of profound depths—
the surface of all the darkness that might frighten her…. George loved
the world, something told her suddenly. Not them! Not them in
Dabney does not comprehend, however, what loving the world requires. She loves not the world, but Troy, a representative of the world, and in looking ahead to her marriage with Troy she does not foresee a separation that would wrench her from family love. Troy is brought into the Fairchild world, she is not brought into his. Troy invites only one person to the wedding, Robbie Reid, who has been hiding out from George at the general store. And, other than himself, the only representatives of his identity at the affair are the dozen patch-work quilts that his mother has sent down from the mountains as a wedding gift. In other words, Dabney has no reason to associate love outside the family with pain, loss, or death. Separateness to Dabney merely means selfhood, albeit a new selfhood. When Troy reports that, having sent them all her quilts, his mother will “freeze all winter,” Dabney responds (referring to a note attached in the quilts), “Your pretty bride…. How did she know I was pretty?” Dabney has simply passed over what is perhaps the key to time which Shelley seeks, the full meaning of George’s act, the secret by which George has come to be able to love the Fairchilds and the world simultaneously.
Just before the wedding rehearsal, with the whole family and the outside participants gathered together, George reveals that secret of his love. To Robbie, who has just returned, George speaks quietly across the room:
I don’t think it matters what happens to a person, or what comes….
To me! I speak for myself…. Something is always coming, you know
that…. I don’t think it matters so much in the world what. Only,…
I’m damned if I wasn’t going to stand on that track if I wanted to!
Or will again.
Robbie’s reaction—“But you’re everything on earth to me”—is so plainly limited that even Tempe realizes that “Robbie was leaving out every other thing in the world with that thing she said. That vulgar thing she said!” For George’s words make clear that his love takes in everything in all of time, and that includes death—his own death. Because he recognizes his own death, perceives that “something is always coming,” George is made free to live, to devalue his own life enough that he can risk and sacrifice it, giving his love in action to the world at large. Because he accepts exactly what everyone else in the family so fears, George is able to bridge the gulf between himself and the surrounding world; he is able to resolve the conflict between man and time. With that bridge gapped, ultimately, George is able to reintegrate himself with all of mankind and find a true immorality that lies not in the specific but in the universal family which includes everyone in all of time.
The Fairchild family mother, Ellen, alone perceives the full “miraculousness” of George’s act; only she fully comprehends just how amazing is George’s resolution of love and time. But then Ellen is herself an extraordinary character. Even after raising the Fairchild family she is still considered by Tempe to be an “outsider,” is still Battle’s bride from Mitchem Corners, Virginia. Yet Ellen has borne, nurtured, and loved the Fairchild clan, and if she is an “outsider” one is convinced that there is really no inside to the Fairchild front. Ellen loves the world also, and in a novel of family yarns, the tale which tells of this love shows her to be George’s spiritual mate. After the wedding, Ellen tells her own tale of the time her mother came from Virginia to stay with her while she was pregnant with Shelley. When Ellen had pains the day before the birth, her mother sent for the doctor. But when the doctor arrived he sneered at her and insisted that Ellen had “all the time in the world.” The mother decided to cook the doctor such a fine breakfast that “he wouldn’t dare go,” and, being from Virginia, she cooked him a Virginia breakfast which meant “everything in creation from batter bread on.” Inevitably, the doctor became ill from eating; when the time came for the birth he was incapacitated, and when he was finally roused by the mother, he ended up putting himself out with gas instead of the patient. Ellen told her mother to leave the room and had the baby herself (pp. 215-16).
Here again is a story of risk and sacrifice, of a love of living and people that transcends the fears of pain, loss, and possible death. Ellen, like George, is able to laugh with the Fairchilds:
They laughed till the tears stood in their eyes at the foolishness, the
long-vanquished pain, the absurd prostrations, the birth that wouldn’t
wait, and the flouting of all in the end. All so handsomely ridiculed
by the delightful now!
Like George, Ellen is able to see beyond that ridicule, however, beyond the “delightful now” and recognize that pain, loss, and death are not just in a tale or even just in the past, but are also in the future; she knows that since they are inevitable, risk and sacrifice must always be a part of living and loving as well. Even Robbie finally comes to see that “things almost never happened, almost never could be, for one time only! They went back…started over….” Love is a process, not a static thing. Despite the Fairchild assertion, their pretense, there can be no “solid wall of too much love” since even “too much love” must exist in the larger context, within time.
The young outsider, Laura, finally comes to discern this. Despite her loss in the past, Laura is brought into the Fairchild present and is caught up in its action by being made a member of the wedding party when Tempe’s daughter, Lady Clare, comes down with chicken pox. Just before the wedding, with her cousin Roy, Laura has a vision of the future as George and Ellen perceive it. Together the children explore Marmion, the decaying mansion across the Yazoo River in which Dabney will soon begin her married life, and which, through inheritance, will someday belong to Laura. The children soon discover that the future which Marmion holds is far more portentous than Dabney forsees. The mansion is “a green rank world instead of a play house.” Inside, Aunt Studney, an old Black woman, stands Pandora-like over a bag which Roy believes to contain his mother’s future babies, and for which Aunt Studney appears to be “not on the lookout for things to put in, but was watching to keep things from getting out.”
The Pandora metaphor is extremely suggestive, for in the next moment Roy climbs to the top floor of the house where he sees “the whole creation,” a vision which is purchased by pain: upon descending, Roy stoically announces to Laura that he has been stung by a bee. Laura, meanwhile, has suspected that the bees have escaped from Aunt Studney’s bag. The connection is evident; the bees are symbolic of the escaped evils of the world. The vision of creation requires that one accept pain. Intuiting that the bee sting is connected with the vision, Laura suddenly wishes that she had also been stung. But she soon achieves a similar vision as she finds a “treasure” (Ellen’s lost jeweled rose pin), and she discovers that she must accept worse evils for the vision which her “treasure” symbolizes: while rowing back to Shellmound, Roy throws her into the Yazoo (the “River of Death”) where she loses the pin. Laura has thus been baptized into a new awareness that there are frightening aspects of the future, that the future holds not just the sublime “happiness” that Dabney anticipates. Together Roy and Laura have metaphorically experienced pain, loss, and death in their visions of the world. In glimpsing the vision, moreover, the children have also seen why the future is worth the risk and sacrifice. What they have seen is the world in triplicate. As Roy shouts down to Laura from his point of observation atop Marmion, he shares in a view of the world with three modalities of time:
I see Troy! I see the grove—I see Aunt Primrose in her flowers! I
see Papa! I see the whole creation.
He witnesses Troy, the representative of the outside world and his future brother-in-law, he sees Aunt Primrose, a closer blood relative who by her age connects him with the past, and he sees his father, with whom he naturally identifies himself in the present existence, all in three successive moments which permit him to see “the whole creation.” When the family, self, and the outside world come together with the past, present, and future, a vision occurs which transcends all, which presents the individual’s connection with all the universe in all of time, which is as magical as India’s imaginary light.
Now that Laura has been shown the vision, she must repeat the process by which she can come to the vision herself. Since she still seeks love and acceptance from the Fairchilds, she must act out that newly discovered process of risk and sacrifice. She risks stealing George’s pipe and presents it to him as a sacrifice after he has missed it for a time. That gift bridges for Laura the separation she has previously felt. In that act she perceives herself as finally joined to the Fairchilds and the world outside her father and past. Had she India’s imagination, Laura might have known that she had been loved from the start. Early in the novel Ellen observes that Laura’s wish to be “taken into their hearts” is “steadier than the vision and that itself kept her from knowing.” Perhaps it is because, as Ellen suggests, Laura’s father—so bound by clock time—has “no imagination” that Laura has not previously had the opportunity to develop her imaginative powers. But by the end of the book, when Laura is asked to stay on permanently at Shellmound, and Laura and India join arms around each other’s waist, one sees that imagination and action have been conjoined, that together they have broken down that Fairchild wall, letting that love spill out into the world around it, into the “radiant night.”
From George and Ellen, then, it is clear that at least some, if not all, of the Fairchild children have learned to participate in that awareness of time which connects them to the universe; it is clear that, unlike their father, they will live a life attuned to the present, but not exclusively of the present, that they will accept the flux of time and will partake of the legacy of the past, of the future’s hope.
*One may conjecture that Welty, in the naming of India, was thinking of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; in that novel, Forster, a writer whom Welty greatly admired, is concerned with just this magical ability of some people to transcend human barriers.
**Welty is concerned with this same process to a greater degree in her Losing Battles.
Washington, DC, 1973
Reprinted, in different form, from Studies in American Fiction, V (Autumn 1977).