Petrified Man by Eudora Welty, 1939
The magic trick:
Turning the characters and their exploits into grotesque myth by making the plot exist within the confines of beauty-shop conversation and gossip
There is something brilliant about this story. You truly feel like you’re reading something a little different from everything you’ve ever read before. And yet, there’s also something missing. I’m not smart enough to figure it out. Maybe it’s the odd, sexual “petrified man” references feel a little too on-the-nose. Maybe it’s the feeling that symbols and layered meanings are tossed around the story willy-nilly with no real larger theme. Still, I’ll go back to the first sentence I typed here and focus on the something brilliant.
Like Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk,” the story limits its worldview to the town gossip. “Spunk” centered itself at the saloon, “Petrified” at the salon. This allows us to get a heavy dose of the wonderful language employed by the local beautician and her regular clients. The technique also serves to make myth of the other characters in the story. Because they only appear in conversation, they take on larger-than-life personas. The things they do become more and more grotesque and almost cartoonish. The entire story seems to expand into exaggeration and melodramatic emotion.
It’s a weird one – almost trippy in a 1930s small-town Mississippi kind of way. And that’s quite a trick on Welty’s part.
“Aw. Well, honey, talkin’ about bein’ pregnant an’ all, you ought to see those twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself.”
“What twins?” asked Mrs. Fletcher out of the side of her mouth.
“Well, honey, they got these two twins in a bottle, see? Born joined plumb together—dead a course.” Leota dropped her voice into a soft lyrical hum. “They was about this long—pardon—must of been full time, all right, wouldn’t you say?—an’ they had these two heads an’ two faces an’ four arms an’ four legs, all kind of joined here. See, this face looked this-a-way, and the other face looked that-a-way, over their shoulder, see. Kinda pathetic.”
“Glah!” said Mrs. Fletcher disapprovingly.
“Well, ugly? Honey, I mean to tell you—their parents was first cousins and all like that. Billy Boy, git me a fresh towel from off Teeny’s stack—this ‘n’s wringin’ wet—an’ quit ticklin’ my ankles with that curler. I declare! He don’t miss nothin’.”
“Me and Mr. Fletcher aren’t one speck of kin, or he could never of had me,” said Mrs. Fletcher placidly.
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