Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty is a story about a multi-generational patrician Southern family and takes place in 1923 a few days before the wedding of one of the many children of Ellen and Battle Fairchild, the owners of the plantation.
There are no tales to tell, no family secrets, no plots, deceits, or jealousy. The aunts, uncles,and cousins have no issues. The wedding is not an event where old scores are settled, nor are there any reconciliations, angry fights over long-hidden resentments, flirtations, or shows of temper. In fact nothing at all happens.
There are only a few measures of doubt in the family. The Fairchild daughter about to be married has chosen the overseer of the plantation for a husband, a man without pedigree and breeding; and the wife of one of the uncles runs away from home a few days before the wedding. Yet the overseer is a good man, unintimidated by but respectful of the Fairchilds; and the uncle’s wife never really ran away, never ran far, and always intended to return to her husband.
Laura, a cousin whose mother has just died is not consumed by grief or remorse. Ellen Fairchild has eight children and is pregnant with the ninth, but she is neither frustrated nor resentful. There is no bitterness in the old maid aunts, no insurrection among the Negro servants. There are no family disputes about property or inheritance. The land is rich and productive, the plantation is no different than it was before the War. With only a few exceptions the entire family has stayed in the Delta.
In O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra Christine is in love with Adam, who is actually the illegitimate son of her husband’s uncle, long exiled but reappearing in his romantic pursuit of her daughter, Lavinia – an incestuous pursuit because Adam and Lavinia are first cousins. Christine has incestuous longings for her son, Orin, psychologically damaged in the Civil War, and long under her influence.
Lavinia has similarly incestuous longings for her brother, Orin, and she, too has dominated him since they were children. Lavinia’s feelings for her father, the family patriarch are even stronger and more incestuous. He has been the buffer against what Lavinia sees is the evil predations and ambitions of her mother.
Christine hates her older husband to whom she has been married for many years, and decides with her lover, Adam, to kill him. Lavinia catches the mother in the act with the poison pills, and decides that she must kill her and her lover, Adam. She enlists her easily manipulated brother, Orin.
Orin and Lavinia set a trap for Adam and murder him; but they don’t have to because she kills herself out of despair. Orin, feeling so crazed with guilt kills himself.
The Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey into Night are suspicious, depressive, and wounded. The men are drunkards and the drug-addicted mother is manipulative, controlling, and selfish.
Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer are all about sons, daughters, wives, and husbands who are trapped, impotent, frustrated, ignorant, or mad.
Albee’s theater is all about the desperation of living within a bourgeois marriage. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a story of a savage couple out, in seems, to destroy each other and everyone else. Their lives have been disappointments. Martha’s venomous hatred and rage and George’s sarcastic, wounding insults and brutal games are expression of years of mutual resentment and jealousies.
Arthur Miller, perhaps America’s most moral playwright, less interested in human dynamics per se but in the immorality innate in human nature. He explores themes of deceit, weakness, moral cowardice, and the corruption nature of ambition in All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.
Lillian Hellman in Little Foxes writes about greed, venality, ambition, and emotional violence.
In Welty’s Delta Wedding there is none of this. Although there are some strains within the Fairchild family – the marriage of outsiders Troy and Robbie are potential disruptions to the perfectly-ordered running of the plantation – none of them ever amount to anything. The folds of the family are too welcoming and absorptive. It is too big, too old, to established in its traditional ways, propriety, good taste, and humanity not to tame the most rebellious.
What was it then about Eudora Welty who saw family so differently from Williams and O’Neill?
Delta Wedding not only is the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation. Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding. The plantation is a physical and historical enclave. The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors.
Welty makes occasional but only incidental references to the Civil War, who went off to it and who came back. There is nothing about the War itself, the battles that were fought in the Delta, Radical Reconstruction, refugees, the dislocation of the planter class, the difficult restructuring of the slave economy, or the political and social upheavals that resulted.
Welty, then, by writing about a family isolated from the devastation of the War and its consequences and leading an idyllic and romantic existence, had another agenda. But what?
Was she an apologist for the Old South? There could be no better defense of antebellum ways than Delta Wedding where old, patrician, Cavalier traditions are kept alive, Negro servants are loving and loved members of the family, no character speaks spitefully or with any suspicion or hatred of blacks.
Was she only an apologist for family and saw in the Fairchilds the antithesis of any of Faulkner or Williams? More specifically did she feel that there was something unique and essential about an uninterrupted family history, a primitive nativism but with a much more positive take than the dark vision of Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables)?
None of the Fairchilds are intellectuals or even concerned with intellectual things. The talk is all about family, relationships, and the preparations for the wedding. Delta Wedding is not without some reflection and awareness of a wider philosophical world, but it is only incidentally and sporadically so. The world of ideas is far from the Fairchilds.
The family, then, is without intellectual anchor, without engagement in society or country, and free from any of the social or emotional disfigurations that are part and parcel of any social group. Who are they?
The only character in the novel with any distinction is Uncle George. Although Battle is the head of the family, his brother George is the emotional center. He is the best of the family, the aunts all say. Strong, selfless, generous, and fiercely protective of the family. Everyone retells the story of how he risked his life to free one of his nieces from a railroad tie before an oncoming train, and this one incident – one of the few discrete, memorable actions of the novel – is emblematic of the Fairchilds.
The writer most akin to Welty is Faulkner. Both wrote about Southern, Mississippi families; yet Absalom, Absalom is a complex story in which character, personality, history, culture, and society are interwoven. Thomas Sutpen comes out of the Virginia hills to build Sutpen’s 100 – one hundred square miles of Delta cotton plantation. It is a story of personal will and ambition, a story of American enterprise and desire for wealth and status, a drama of race, sexual demand, and a tale of a man who was brilliant in business and management but ignorant of women, sons, and family. The Sutpen family comes apart just as tragically as O’Neill’s Mannons but without the melodrama.
The Sound and the Fury is also about a Southern family – the Compsons, but his Benjy, Jason, Quentin, and Caddy are far different from Battle, George, Ellen, and the aunts of Delta Wedding. The story is dark, powerful, driven by the boy’s incestuous desire for their sister, the overpowering responsibility of family legacy, and the influences of Southern history.
Welty had no interest in creating a family like the Compsons or the Sutpens. Many critics have concluded that she is a minor writer, far from the artistic genius of either Faulkner, Williams, or O’Neill, and this benign tale of the Fairchilds is all she could muster.
While few critics would put Welty in the same category as Williams or Faulkner, none dismiss her entirely. She is so elusive, however, and the structure of her novel so indeterminate, that it is difficult to decipher.
Some observers have noted Welty’s competition with Faulkner, and perhaps as a way of distinguishing herself from him, moved away from the psychologically-oriented short stories of her earlier years to a simpler vision:
Welty's debut novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), deviated from her previous psychologically-inclined works, presenting static, fairy-tale characters. Some critics suggest that she worried about "encroaching on the turf of the male literary giant to the north of her in Oxford, Mississippi-William Faulkner", and therefore wrote in a fairy-tale style instead of a historical one. Most critics and readers saw it as a modern Southern fairy-tale and noted that it employs themes and characters reminiscent of the Grimm Brothers’ works (Wikipedia).More generous critics have suggested that the sense of place was really what gave her later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation was a metaphor for place and family:
Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations. Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant. This is the job of the storyteller. “A Worn Path” is one short story that proves how place shapes how a story is perceived.
Within the tale, the main character, Phoenix, must fight to overcome the barriers within the vividly described Southern landscape as she makes her trek to the nearest town. "The Wide Net" is another of Welty’s short stories that uses place to define mood and plot. The river in the story is viewed differently by each character. Some see it as a food source, others see it as deadly, and some see it as a sign that "the outside world is full of endurance" (Wikipedia)
Delta Wedding is not a great novel, but a good one. It is less interesting per se than for a new context within which to consider family and place, one very different from either Faulkner, Albee, O’Neill, or Williams.