Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"The Burning" - A Short Story by Eudora Welty. (Published in The Bride of Innisfallen and other Stories, 1955)

 A Post in Observation of the 105th Birth Anniversary of Eudora  Welty
Eudora Welty was born April 13, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi.  She died there in 2001.  In 1972 she won The Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist's Daughter.  Her short stories are her most cherished work.  She is often called a "Sourhern Gothic Writer", along with Flannery O'Connor, her good friend and fellow Mississipi native William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Anne Porter. This post is in honor of her 105th Birth Anniversary, it is still April 13 in Jackson, Mississippi, though it is the 14th here in the Philippines.  

A couple of years ago I did a read through of her complete short stories, something I highly recommend to any lovers of the form.   Recently I read a review copy of a very interesting book Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner in which the author talks a lot about short stories he loves and writers he adores.  He totally loves the stories of Welty, he has been to her house museum on a literary pillgrimage.  Orner tells us that some of Welty's stories are kind of quaint, like "Why I Live at the P. O".  In order to understand southern Gothic writers one must face the regions history of slavery and the legacy of this travesty.  "Burning", as Omer correctly states, deals directly with slavery in Mississippi circa 1864.  The collection in which this story is published is dedicated to Welty's good friend, Elizabeth Bowen.  She spent quite some time in Bowen's castle in Ireland.  From interviewing a 100 or so Irish writers, I know Welty is highly admired by Irish readers and authors.

It is 1864.  We are in a plantation mansion outside of Jackson, Mississippi.  A technically freed slave woman, Delilah, rushes to tell her mistresses, Miss Myra and Miss Theo that a Union Soldier has entered the mansion on his horse, accompanied by another soldier. Outside the house an unruly group of ex-slaves are milling about.  On the orders of the Northern General Sherman, the Union soldiers are their to burn down the house of the sisters.  But first the ex slaves and union soldiers loot it.

The two men grab the white women, their father and brother were both lost in the war.  It was very chilling when one of the white women offered up their faithful servant as a substitute.  In these lines we see the depth of contempt in which slaves were held and the hatred for Yankess in the souls of the southern ladies.

""Is it shame that's stopping your inspection?" Miss Theo asked. "I'm afraid you found the ladies of this house a trifle out of your element. My sister's the more delicate one, as you see. May I offer you this young kitchen Negro, as I've always understood—"

Miss Theo is offering up a young woman who knows no other life but serving as a family slave as a rape substitute for her sister.  Of course the offer is a thinly veiled gross insult to the soldiers.

The house is burned.  The sisters, accompanied by the faithful exslave Delilah, go into the nearly burned to the ground Jackson, Mississippi.  They walk about pointing out what used to stand in the ashes.  Their  world is destroyed.  As the story closes the sisters hang themselves, as their last act they stand on the back of their servant, using her as a stool to stand on from which they can kill themselves by having her move once they have ropes around their necks.  

There is a plot line about a very young boy of mixed racial ancestory who dies in the fire.  One sister claims the boy was her child, her sister hushes her and says no it was our brother's son, perhaps with Delilah. 

I have now read the story three times, once two years ago and twice this week.  I think it requires rereading as it is structured almost entirely through dialogue, sometimes in regional dialect.

"Burning" is truly a great short story.

Mel u


R.T. said...

Thank you for shining a light on one of America's greatest short story writers. I would be hard pressed to choose my favorite from among her many offerings. But, as an alternative to choosing, I think I will pull down from the shelf my copy of Welty's collected stories and savor some of her wonderful words. Again, thanks for the posting!

Mel u said...

R T (Tim). Thanks for your comment and visit. One of these days we should do an event on short stories of the American Gothic.

Unknown said...

The Burning is excellent, appreciate the write up. One thing you describe I think is not accurate, however: Miss Theo was not just offering the slave as a rape substitute for her sister. A Union soldier had already just raped her sister in front of her, and Miss Theo was offering the slave as a rape substitute to prevent herself from being raped as well. And the Union soldiers took her up on it, raping the slave.

Mel u said...

Rob h, thanks for your input. I will take another look at the story.

Kurt Schwitters said...

I don't see that the text supports the idea that the union soldier raped Delilah.It is more plausible that Delilah was suggested to satiate the soldiers desire so as to allow Miss Theo to avoid sister Myra's fate. Though obviously Sherman's Bummers as Theo observed would "do what they want to do." It is a good point that offering Delilah was an insult to the soldier: "May I offer you this young kitchen Negro, as I've always understood..." >> that Yankees prefer sex with blacks. A deep insult in 1865 certainly.

Mel u said...

George Eager. Thanks for your comment. I will have to reread this story one day.