Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "When Language Doesn't Mean | (on Welty's The Ponder Heart)

when language doesn’t mean
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty The Ponder Heart (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954)

The first person narratior of Welty’s novella The Ponder Heart, Edna Earle Ponder, like many of the author’s first person narrator’s—in particular the voice of “Why I Live in the P.O.” and Katie Rainey in The Golden Apples—is a dialect speaker who is also somewhat mentally troubled or at least a bossy gossip, ready to sit down with a stranger and map out the whole town and everyone in it, while being careful to put herself in the best possible position. All three of these characters are humorous, their stories revealing more about their own natures than they perceive. In short, Edna Earle, is an ironic speaker, saying one thing while to the reader/listener revealing something other. Just as a satirist such as Jonathan Swift, Eudora Welty has her characters to say outrageous things without truly meaning it, and it is the ability to understand the difference between saying and meaning that is crucial to the satire.

     Many years back, when I taught my last freshman English course at Temple University, I perceived that irony no longer existed as a concept, as nearly all of my students expressed their outrage that Swift would advocate the eating of Irish children.

     Somewhat taken aback, I drew in a deep breath and attempted to explain to them that in just such statements lay the author’s humor, that he not intended that statement and others like it to be understood literally, but had meant it ironically. I even attempted to read through the passages with them, identifying the tonal shifts of the language which revealed the author’s exaggeration of events. My students stared back with intensely skeptical frowns upon their faces. “Why did he say that then?” one boldly asked.

     What struck me this time rereading Welty’s comic work is just how difficult it now might be to teach it today. Critics responding the original publication found it joyously rich, arguing as did New York Times reviewer V. S. Pritchett, for the author’s “technical skill” in creating “a sardonic comic brio.” While the work may have had its dark moments, accordingly, it was, as he put it, “one of Welty’s lighter works.” Perhaps young students have now regained their sense of humor and rediscovered the meaning of irony, but I somehow doubt it. And, I suggest that the garrulous scold that Edna Earle represents, including the possibility that she is about as “dotty” as the slightly mentally-retarded, but well-meaning and society-loving Uncle Daniel, might present problems for the more literally minded world in which we now exist.

     For Edna Earle, despite all of her seeming self-surety about the world around her, often speaks in a language which does mean what it says. In general, for example, the long tale she tells of her Uncle, on the surface seems a scolding story concerning her somewhat begrudging greediness, hinting that she is disturbed by the man’s tendency to give away everything he owns—a considerable fortune—to others. Yet it is clear despite her statements that she not only dearly loves her well-dressed Uncle—
                      You’d know it was Uncle Daniel the minute you saw him. He’s
                      unmistakable. He’s big and well known. He has the Ponder head—
                      large, of course, and well set, with short white hair over it thick
                      and curly, growing down his forehead like a little bib. He has
                      Grandpa’s complexion. And big, forget-me-not blues eyes like
                      mine, and puts on a sweet red bow tie every morning, and carries
                      a large-size Stetson in his hand—always just swept it off to
                     somebody. He dresses fit to kill, you know, in a snow-white suit.

—but, as we perceive throughout this work, she is utterly proud of him. And despite her put-down throughout of Uncle Daniel’s seventeen-year-old wife, Bonnie Dee and the entire Peacock family, we believe her when, late in the book, after Bonnie Dee’s accidental death,  she explains “I didn’t want any harm done to Bonnie Dee now!” Even if she once did wish her harm, Welty suggests, Edna Earle is not vengeful and has no intention of ruining the decedent’s reputation.

     Structurally, accordingly, Edna Earle’s general conversation seems to run in one direction—which V. S. Prtichett summarized as bossy, but also might be described as mean-spirited and selfish—while the actual meaning behind her words is contradicted, which saves the narrator from the audience’s wrath. Edna Earle may be “bossy” and a “scold,” but she is fun to listen to; presumably the visitor to her big Beulah Hotel, just as I would, joyfully waiting out her discombobulated story.

    However, there are numerous other occasions in which the narrator and other figures of Welty’s tale speak violent and racist sentiments that seem to require a kind of different response. Within the first few pages of tale, she seemingly threatens the hotel visitor with a sentence of some outrageousness: “And listen: if you read, you’ll put your eyes out. Let’s just talk.” Presumably, she means that the light is not bright enough for reading, but the way she suddenly shifts to the emphatic command from her story-telling, it is almost as she were declaring that she would out put his eyes if he dared to prefer reading over listening. And a few moments later, she again interrupts herself to tell him: “I like to size people up: I’m sizing you up now,” surely putting her listener once again in an uncomfortable position.

      Of her own father, who has evidently left his wife and daughter early on, Edna Earle makes clear the danger of even asking: “nobody ever makes the mistake of asking about him.” And Edna Earle continues to threaten her listener by placing him in the category of other hotel guests: “And it’s true that often the people that come in off the road and demand a room right this minute, or ask you ahead what you have for dinner, are not the people you’d care to spend the rest of your life with.”

      Soon after, her tale turns even darker, with an almost cannibalistic metaphor; speaking of Uncle Daniel she tells the traveler: “The sight of a stranger was always meat and drink to him,” continuing with a statement that unintentionally compares herself to the constant speaker: “The stranger don’t have to open his mouth. Uncle Daniel is ready to do all the talking.” Nearly as ghoulish is her remembrance of Miss Teacake Magee—the widow to whom she and her grandfather want Daniel to marry—and her former husband: “A passenger train hit him. That shows you how long ago his time was.” The gruesome death, followed immediately with a phrase beginning “That shows you,” seems to presume a relational cause and effect where clearly there is none. And an vampirish image is brought up in her description of the county fair where Uncle Daniel becomes enamored of the motorcycle racer, Intrepid Elsie Fleming: “So the only thing to be thankful for is he [Uncle Daniel] didn’t try to treat Intrepid Elsie Fleming—she might have bitten him.” As she responds upon first sighting Uncle Daniel’s wife, Bonnie Dee: “I could tell by her little coon eyes, she was shallow as they come.”

      The user of these somewhat dangerous challenges does not comprehend language as a method of inquiry (she allows no one else to speak) perceiving as she does nearly everything as a series of “directions.” As she puts it, she likes to read “directions,” how to do things, perceiving language as a series of commands rather than—despite her family name—of “ponderings” or questioning. As the events of Daniel’s unpredictable behavior grow out of hand, accordingly, so too does Edna Earle’s language grow darker and more frightening. Responding to her Black servant Narciss—who is invited to the farm where Uncle Daniel and Bonnie Dee plan to live—the narrator lashes out against Blacks in general “You can’t trust a one of them: A Negro we’d had her whole life long, older by far than I was, Grandma raised her from a child and brought her in and out of the field to the kitchen and taught her everything she knew.” Later, the gentle Welty even allows her character to use the word “nigger.” Yet, once more, it is not quite all there is to Edna Earle, who later, after the trial, rehires Narciss back at the Beulah, and who explains the woman’s fear of thunderstorms to the listener.

     She does not even totally blame Bonnie Dee leaving her uncle, the young girl having been, as she explains, “come up from up from the country—and before she knew it, she was right back in the country.” But a few sentences later, she hints at violence: “I don’t blame Bonnie Dee, don’t blame her for a minute. I could just beat her on the head, that’s all.”

     In a book in which dozens of these contradictory sentences are expressed, perhaps the most startling of her comments, and the one reveals that for Edna Earle what is said is not what is meant, is her completely placid testifying that before Bonnie Dee’s death, Uncle Daniel had uttered the sentence to his wife:  “I am going to kill you, if you don’t take me back.” The courtroom conversation is worth repeating:

                      “Have there been instances in your presence when Mr. Daniel
                      Ponder said those very words to Miss Bonnie Dee?”
                         “Plenty,” I says. “And with no results whatever. Or when
                      she said it to him either.’
                         “But whatever and whenever the occasion for that remark,
                      it was a perfectly innocent remark? says De Yancey.
                         “I should hope so.”
                         “So that when Mr. Daniel Ponder sent word to Miss Bonnie
                      Dee that he was going to kill her if she didn’t take him back,
                      in your estimation it meant nothing like a real threat?”
                          “Meant he got it straight from Grandma,” I says. “That’s
                      what it means. She said ‘I’m going to kill you’ every other
                      breath to him—she raised him. Gentlest woman on the face
                      of the earth. ‘I’ll beat your brains out’—Mercy! How that
                      does bring Grandma back.’”

     This scene is at the heart of Edna Earle’s strange pattern of saying outrageous, violent, and racist comments. For she lives in just such a society, the 1950s Mississippi back country where behavior is not always reflected in the frightful language in which the small-town folk express themselves, a world unaware of its own hateful behavior because it cannot comprehend that language determines reality or, at least, that language has everything to do with acts. What Grandpa Ponder admits about his son, “When the brains were being handed around, my son Daniel was standing behind the door,” might be also said of Edna Earle. At the center of the Ponder world the heart, unthinking action, controls any possible thoughts. Language and meaning seldom meet, but that very misconnect is precisely what makes this tale so wonderfully humorous, even if, underlying our laughter, we perceive it as so very sad. The Ponder Heart is about murderers who destroy through their words rather than with their hands.

Los Angeles, April 22, 2013

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