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Wright Morris suggests in The Territory Ahead that the American writer’s imagination has been crippled by the nostalgia that drives it to a preoccupation with the mythic past. Like any other generalization, there are several glaring exceptions to this statement, and one of the most obvious of these exceptions can be found in the case of Eudora Welty. Eudora Welty was an American author of novels and short stories. A lifelong resident of Mississippi, she was mostly known for her works exploring the culture of the American South.
The author of six novels and dozens of short stories, which were collected in ten collections, as well as two scholarly essays, she received many honors during her lifetime. Chief among these was her 1973 Pulitzer Prize for the novel The Optimist’s Daughter. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as the Order of the South, and became the first living author to have her works published in the Library of America.
She is a four-time honoree of the O. Henry award.
Miss Welty has continually exhibited a great knowledge of mythology and American folklore, and has utilized this knowledge extensively in her fiction. The fact that Welty stresses the story as a frame of reference for the meaning of myths suggests that she does not transmit these classical myths as they are, but rather incorporates them in her fiction in a very artistic manner. In most of her works, Welty refers to mythic figures such as Zeus, Leda and the Swan, Psyche and Cupid, Persephone and Demeter, Perseus and Medusa, in addition to many Homeric hymns.
She also refers to fairy tales and other tales from the Grimm Brothers.
In The Robber Bridegroom Welty draws much on the myth of Psyche and Cupid. Rosamond, a beautiful golden – haired girl, is compared to Psyche whose beauty surpasses that of Venus. Psyche is a virgin and Rosamond is too. Psyche is from a royal family and Rosamond is the daughter of a successful merchant. Jamie Lockhart with his white teeth and long hair is compared to Cupid, the son of Venus. The wilderness cottage of Psyche and Cupid is parallel to the robbers’ den. In each of the two stories, the girls break their promise to keep the identity of their lovers secret. Psyche uses a lamp to reveal the identity of her lover, and Rosamond uses the recipe of her step- mother to remove the berry stains from Jamie’s face in order to know his true identity. In both stories, the bridegroom uses an open window to escape Such correspondence is very interesting; however, the differences are more interesting. Certainly, these differences reveal Welty’s feminine appropriation of the Psyche and Cupid myth.
In this myth, it is Cupid who desires and later rapes Psyche, while in Welty’s story it is Rosamond who desires and seeks the bridegroom. Another difference between the two stories is the fact that Psyche has two jealous sisters who are very beautiful, while in Welty’s story Rosamond is envied by her stepmother who was as ugly as the night. In her appropriation of the
myth, Welty wants to dismiss the masculine assumption that all women, even sisters, are evil. In fact, by this exclusion, Welty wants to stress the importance of sisterhood for women. Even Salome, who has a convincing reason to be jealous of Rosamond, is not seriously cruel; when Salome realizes that Rosamond is tied to a man without a holy bond, she remembers her situation with Clement.
A further difference between the Psyche myth and Rosamond’s story is the situation of the two girls when they are in the company of their lovers. Psyche, according to Thomas Bulffinch, leads an idle and rustic life. She is lazy, doing nothing in the house; she is served by invisible servants. Bulffinch describes the idyllic life of Psyche: “where a table immediately presented itself without any visible aid from servants” (63). Psyche is always aided by Zephyr who familiarizes her with the instructions of her husband. However, Psyche is like a prisoner; she is not allowed to leave the house. When she asks to see her two sisters, the sisters are brought to her. In contrast, Rosamond in The Robber Bridegroom is portrayed as a hard – working individual; she not only looks after her robber husband but all the robbers. Furthermore, Rosamond has much more free voice than Psyche; when she decides to go and see her father, she succeeds in persuading Jamie to grant her permission for the visit. When Rosamond comes home, Salome asks her if her husband keeps her as a prisoner; Rosamond replies: “No, I stay of my own accord” (117).
Another major difference is the question of the husband’s identity. In the Psyche and Cupid myth, Cupid has a fixed identity; he is the son of Venus. Psyche’s attempts to reveal his identity do not go beyond her desire to see the face of her lover; it is mere curiosity. However, in The Robber Bridegroom, the issue of doubleness and confusion is much more dominant. Therefore, Rosamond’s drive to know her husband’s identity is more than mere curiosity; it is motivated by her desire for knowledge, knowledge that will enable her to remove the confusion about the real identity of her future husband. Rosamond’s desire for knowledge is seen as a menace to the patriarchal culture. She is sincere in her effort to let Jamie Lockhart have a fixed identity. With her skill and relentless effort, Rosamond succeeds in that; therefore, Jamie becomes thankful to her.
In addition to this subversion of the Psyche and Cupid myth, Welty further appropriates classical mythology by resorting to the use of circles. According to Randisi, Welty uses circles in order to “evoke a mythological context” (5). In classical mythology the circle is a metaphor for rebirth and renewal. The circle is essentially a symbol of meaningful repetition. When Jamie kidnaps Rosamond, he swings her onto his horse and takes her to the ridge where a stream of mist made a circle around them. The robbers meet in circles. They also kill the Indian girl in a circle. She goes on to distinguish these circles into two types, the progressive and the literal. In fact, the progressive circle marks a kind of harmony in the relationship between the masculine and the feminine while the literal or the unprogressive is one in which either the feminine or the masculine is absent or when either of them is at odds with the other.
An example of the progressive circle is the one which encloses the two lovers, Rosamond and Jamie. When the two make love, there seems to be a kind of harmony between them because, as we suggested earlier, Rosamond has already premeditated this possibility. This circle is intended by Welty to be a sign of rebirth. This sense of rebirth is echoed by the festivity of nature. Again, when Jamie and Rosamond are together, they become the center of the circle. The sense of rebirth is once again reflected in the beauty and serenity of nature. In the final scene, Jamie and Rosamond also become the center of a circle; they are now tied together by the holy marriage bond. Therefore, the sense of rebirth and regeneration is reflected by the natural beauty of springtime.
In contrast to these circles of rebirth, there are other circles which are associated with uncertainty and a sense of aridness. When Jamie sleeps by himself on the ground, he is encircled by the onlookers whose looks are like spikes. Another example of the unprogressive circle is the one in which Salome is placed by the Indians. In this circle Salome challenges the sun, a symbol of masculinity in the Indian’s patriarchal society. It is a scene in which the feminine element is seen as a menace to this masculine society. It is a symbolic scene in which the feminine should be suppressed in order to make it possible for the masculine to dominate. Welty, however, shows only the image of dead Salome to indicate that sense of aridness. A final example of the vicious and unprogressive circle is the one in which Clement is surrounded by heaps of stones. The Robber Bridegroom is the purest Southern Romance to date. Welty has written a romance but peopled it with a mythic, legendary and folkloristic population.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch’s Mythology. New York: Avenel, 1978.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Eudora Welty. New York: Chelsea, 1986.
Cupid and Psyche in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. New York : New American Library, 1940.
Harrison, Suzan. Gender, Genre, and Influence. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP,1997.
Morris, Wright. The Territory Ahead. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1957.
Randisi, Jennifer Lynn. A Tissue of Lies. Lanham: UP of America, 1982.
Welty, Eudora. The Robber Bridegroom. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1942.
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