Eudora Welty on “Place in Fiction”
One of the pleasures of reading French Lessons recently (see post on November 1 ) was getting to be in Paris for a day. I have only been in Paris once, twelve years ago, and I was due for a visit. French Lessons is a novel that is impossible to imagine being set anywhere else, so thoroughly intertwined are the characters, themes and place. Thinking about how essential place is to that book (and to others I’ve read recently) reminded me of Eudora Welty’s wonderful essay called “Place in Fiction,” in her collection of essays and reviews, The Eye of the Story. With sections entitled “On Writers”; “On Writing”; “Reviews”; and “Personal and Occasional Pieces,” Eye is a gold mine for writers, so if you haven’t checked it out, please do. Welty’s luminous quality of mind shines through every thought she has and ever line she writes. She was one of my favorite writers in bygone days. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read her in a long time, but at one time, when she was still living, I read a great deal of her. I loved all her short stories, Delta Wedding, The Golden Apples, Losing Battles, The Optimist’s Daughter, and her photographs. She was my idol and my ideal as a writer: I thought of her as a consummate artist.
She begins the essay by saying “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who is my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade.” Of course in most of her work, place in the form of the South hardly seems a “lesser angel.” She exemplifies what she calls “the goodness—the worth—in the writer himself: place is where he [she] has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.” Maybe we’re so used to taking the place of narratives for granted that we don’t think much about how essential place is to making those stories real, alive, informing of the people and emotions, and how essential to the writer place is. Welty’s essay brings all that to the foreground for me.
She tells us that “Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie; and that is where place in fiction [and I would include in memoir] comes in. Fiction is a lie. Never in its inside thought, always in its outside dress.”
She gives us this beautiful metaphor for how place functions in fiction:
“Some of us grew up with the china night-light, the little lamp whose lighting showed its secret and with that spread enchantment. The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London, and you could go beautifully to sleep by it. The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. Seeing that these inner and outer surfaces do lie so close together and so implicit in each other, the wonder is that human life so often separates them, or appears to, and it takes a good novel to put them back together.”
She says for a good novel to be “steadily alight, revealing…it must be given a surface that is continuous and unbroken, never too thin to trust, always in touch with the senses. The world of experience must be at every step, through every moment, within reach as the world of appearance.”
Now here’s something else brilliant and essential: “The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel in the author’s head and animated the whole of his work.” That’s an amazing thought.
“The sense of a story when the visibility is only partial or intermittent is as endangered as Eliza crossing the ice. Forty hounds of confusion are after it, the black waters of disbelief open up between its steps, and no matter which way it jumps it is bound to slip. Even if it has a little baby moral in its arms, it is more than likely a goner.”
Perhaps because I’m a displaced and misplaced Southerner living in the cold, Northern tundra, I am ALWAYS aware of place in something I read. I realize that some people assume place as a given…it doesn’t occur to them, perhaps because they’ve always lived in the same place, that other people don’t know that place, or are unable to collaborate with the author in creating it if they don’t even know where the story is taking place! This is a mistake! As Welty says much more eloquently, unless we believe in the place, we aren’t going to believe in the characters, be they fictional or nonfictional. “Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its character and plot and happened somewhere else.”
It was only when I was musing over Welty’s words that I registered fully that in the novel I’m revising both the main characters end up at home at the end of the novel…back at the places where they started from, where they were born and raised. I knew this, of course, but I hadn’t understood it quite. They start out in a distant place that is home to neither of them, and over the course of the novel, events and emotions drive them home. Welty says, “There may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes—closer to us in some ways, perhaps than our original homes. But the home tie is the blood tie. And had it meant nothing to us, any other place thereafter would have meant less, and we would carry no compass inside ourselves to find home ever, anywhere at all. We would not even guess what we had missed.”
“Place is Fiction” is a mother lode of wisdom and fine writing, as are all the pieces in The Eye of the Story.