Clytie by Eudora Welty, 1940
The magic trick:
Playing with point of view throughout the story, building to a stunning conclusion
The story opens with the reader viewing Clytie from the town’s perspective. Fitting start because the pressure of perception, especially within a small, conservative town is the story’s central theme. Many readers may recall Peter Taylor’s amazing story, “Venus, Folly, Cupid And Time,” written 20 years after this but set in a similar small town and drawing on similar ideas. The weight of expectations and traditions are real and enormous for these characters.
So the story plays out from an odd point of view. We mostly track Clytie from the third person. We see her as the town sees her. But we also have access to her life and siblings, behind the doors of the house closed off to the town, that her neighbors never get. We also get into her mind and understand how she views the townspeople she sees. We’re with Clytie but we’re outside her at the same time. It’s strange.
And we’re still watching from inside/outside when a barrel of water gives her a look at her own reflection. It’s one of the most bizarre and effective shocks of point of view I’ve ever read. And that’s quite a trick on Welty’s part.
Yet the number of faces seemed to Clytie almost infinite. She knew now to look slowly and carefully at a face; she was convinced that it was impossible to see it all at once. The first thing she discovered about a face was always that she had never seen it before. When she began to look at people’s actual countenances there was no more familiarity in the world for her. The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face.
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