Today, for fun, I’m posting an essay I wrote first semester, looking at a Eudora Welty short story through the eyes of a writer. How does a good writer do it? What are the elements of a good story? There’s always some kind of conflict, often a three-act structure, and ah, variation.
[Nota bene: The bias alert! on my proofreading software is disturbed at my use of the word “ladies” in the following essay. It indicates I should have used the term “women.” I’m choosing to let this essay stand as is, totally un-PC, in favor of following Welty’s original language. Either Welty, who wrote in the dark ages of the 1940s and 50s, thought “lady” was an acceptable nominative for a full-grown, female person, or she’s demeaning her characters. Read her short story and decide for yourself.]
[I’m warning you, if you find the term “lady” terribly offensive, you might want to skip reading the rest of this post.]
Lily Daw Versus the Three Ladies
Douglas Glover describes the structure of a short story as a conflict between two poles, A versus B.
Basically, in a short story you trap your character (A) in a cage with a rat (B); the character and the rat fight each other, rest, fight again, try to figure out how to beat each other, rest, fight again, and so on till either the character wins, the rat wins, or they resolve things or declare an armistice and get out of the cage together” (165).
Eudora Welty’s short story, “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,” is an interesting variation on this structure, pitting three well-intentioned ladies against the “feeble-minded” Lily Daw. Lily is the main character (A) and the bloc of three busy-bodying women who arrange her future is Glover’s rat (B). Welty might have set up a simple conflict between Lily and one lady whereby the lady = the rat. But instead, Welty varies the basic conflict structure by presenting three different ladies, each with a slightly nuanced position, in opposition to Lily. In doing so, Welty’s three ladies create a sub-conflict that mirrors the central conflict.
The title sets up the central conflict nicely. It could just as well be called “Lily Daw Versus the Three Ladies.” On the most concrete level, the story is a conflict between what Lily Daw wants for herself, and what the three ladies want for her. To go to Ellisville, or to get married. On another level, it is a conflict between Lily’s desire to make her own choices, and the ladies’ desire to do what they think is best for her.
According to Glover, “This conflict needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again (three is a good number to start with, but there can be more)” (164). How does Welty develop the conflict in three stages of escalating conflict?
Stage one, the first section of the story, introduces the conflict. In the post office, Mrs. Carson, Mrs. Watts and Aimee Slocum discuss a letter from the Institution in Ellisville where they want to send Lily. Lily is not present in the scene (which is telling—she is not given a voice in the initial set-up of the conflict, and the metaphorical hushing of her voice is part of the central conflict), but she (A) is represented through the anonymous voices of other ladies who happen to be at the post office. One unnamed lady mentions seeing Lily at last night’s tent show watching the xylophone player. This comment foreshadows the big conflict to come later when Lily declares she wants to marry the xylophone player. Another woman remarks, “Lily lets people walk over her so”—the reader’s first hint that the three well-meaning ladies might be about to walk over Lily too. Several ladies who hear of the plan to send Lily to Ellisville remark, “ ‘Well, of course, I do hope it’s for the best.’ They did not go at once to take their mail out of their boxes; they felt a little left out.” (4) The anonymous ladies in the post office are a proxy for Lily who is already left out of the decision-making process, and their feelings are in contrast to the excitement and determination of Mrs. Carson, Mrs. Watts and Aimee Slocum. At this stage, the conflict is introduced.
In scene two, the middle section of the story, the three ladies go to find Lily at her house. The only summary we get of Lily’s past is through Mrs. Carson’s voice in the car en route to Lily’s house:
We buried Lily’s poor defenseless mother. We gave Lily all her food and kindling and every stitch she had on. Sent her to Sunday school to learn the Lord’s teachings, had her baptized a Baptist. And when her old father commenced beating her and tried to cut her head off with the butcher knife, why, we went and took her away from him and gave her a place to stay.
Welty presents Lily’s past through Mrs. Carson’s point of view. This technique, using the ladies’ point of view rather than Lily’s, accentuates the fact that the ladies are unable to see from Lily’s perspective. The story’s form mimics the conflict between Lily’s desire for autonomy and the three ladies’ feeling that they know best.
At this stage the conflict is indirect because it is from the past, but the reader understands that the stakes are higher than what we knew in the first scene. The story of Lily’s past reveals that she is someone who other people walk over (her father, most violently, but we also get a sense that these three ladies have been exerting their influence over Lily for a long time).
After a brief description of Lily’s house, the ladies enter into direct conflict with Lily. They “walked through the open door without knocking” (5), a phrase that recalls the earlier comment, “Lily lets people walk over her so (3).” The ladies want Lily to go to the institution at Ellisville, but Lily wants to marry the xylophone player she met the previous night at the tent show. The ladies manipulate and bribe Lily with the promise of presents to get her to agree to go to Ellisville. As it turns out, all Lily really seems to want is her hope chest. As long as she can bring it, she’ll go wherever they say.
The third section of the story opens with Lily seated on the train between Mrs. Carson and Mrs. Watts, headed for Ellisville, her lap heaped with the promised presents and the hope chest beside her. Suddenly the xylophone player turns up at the station, and the three ladies abruptly change their minds about Lily’s future. They decide she should marry him after all, and they bring her off the train, forgetting the hope chest. Now the concrete desires are reversed: the ladies pressure Lily to get married while Lily whimpers, “ ‘But I don’t want to git married . . . I’m going to Ellisville’” (11). But the central conflict remains the same—the ladies want to decide Lily’s future for her while Lily wants to decide for herself.
How does the conflict get resolved? Lily loses to the rat. Her last action of the story is to hang her head when the xylophone player kisses her. She wins her initial concrete desire (to marry the xylophone player), but only after she has decided she’d prefer to go to Ellisville and the three ladies have decided she should marry. Thus, she has lost the battle for autonomy. Her hope chest, forgotten on the train, represents her loss. As the story draws to an end, Mrs. Watts and Mrs. Carson arrange wedding details with the xylophone player while Lily is silent.
“Repetition is the heart of narrative art,” Glover states (172), and Welty sets up a second conflict that echoes the central one. In addition to the conflict between Lily Daw and the three ladies, there is a sub-conflict among the three ladies. During the main conflict that takes place in Lily’s living room between Lily and the ladies, the balance of power is juggled as Mrs. Watts, Mrs. Carson and Aimee Slocum discuss the situation. Mrs. Watts considers forcing the xylophone player to marry Lily while Mrs. Carson adamantly opposes it and Aimee vacillates. Timid Aimee Slocum (the only lady without the title of “Mrs.”) mirrors Lily in the way the other ladies boss and shush her. “ ‘Aimee, dear, you stay out of this if you don’t mind,’ said Mrs. Carson anxiously ”(6). And later, to Aimee, “ ‘Shut up,’ said Mrs. Watts. ‘Mrs. Carson, you’re right, I expect.” (7).
In the final section, interestingly, Aimee Slocum, the least influential of the three ladies, first sees the xylophone player appear at the station and persuades Mrs. Carson and Mrs. Watts to get Lily off the train so she can get married. Although acting on behalf of Lily’s earlier desire to marry, Aimee and the other ladies once again defy Lily’s desire to make her own choices.
Aimee again is proxy for Lily when she notices that the hope chest is lost. “ ‘Oh, the hope chest!’ Aimee cried in a stricken voice” (11). Aimee, in these words, again mirrors Lily. Mrs. Watts and Mrs. Carson confidently arrange wedding details, but Aimee recognizes that something has been lost.
In less than ten pages, Welty’s story has unfolded from conflict to rising action, climax, and resolution, in three sections. Character (A), Lily, tangles with the rat (B), the Three Ladies, multiple times over the same essential conflict, both directly and indirectly, and gets what she initially wanted (to marry the xylophone player), but only after her desire has reversed itself.
Glover, Douglas. “A Short Course in Narrative Structure.” The New Quarterly. Pp. 163-191.
Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.