In Eudora Welty’s First Love, a twelve-year-old boy, Joel Mayes, encounters Aaron Burr and Harman Blennerhassett, two figures, as we saw last week, who stepped from the history books to Joel’s fictional world. However, the story is not “about” them, it is about Joel. Joel wakes up and sees the two men in his room, which is semi-public. They are strangers to him. Being deaf, he does not understand what the men are saying and struggles to make meaning of their gestures. Burr gestures with one arm, and “it was like the signal to open some heavy gate or paddock, and it did open to his complete astonishment upon a panorama in his own head…” Yes, this initial encounter could be described as dream-like, occurring as it does between two episodes of Joel’s sleep. Whether or not it is a fictional dream, Joel connects it to his past. It’s related that Joel arrived in Natchez after being part of a conflict between “Indians” and Settlers, during which Joel was separated from his parents who were presumably killed or enslaved. He is saved by “Old Man McCabe,” a rustic who protects Joel, albeit in a rough manner, dragging him away from his parents into a thicket and threatening him with death if he isn’t quiet. This episode is reprised by Joel in his thoughts about Burr and Blennerhassett as he wonders if they will “…each take him by an arm and drag him on further, through the leaves…He was seized and possessed by mystery.” The common theme seems to be a time of high emotional arousal for Joel, a time when he is assailed by people and events beyond his control.
This is quite a bit like what happens in a dream. This is also, I believe, a sophisticated use by Ms. Welty of an interesting artifact of reality, contingency.
A contingency is an event you can't be sure will happen or not. The noun contingency describes something that might or might not happen. We use it to describe an event or situation that is a possible outcome but one that's impossible to predict with certainty.
So in this story, Joel happens to be in Natchez at the same time as Aaron Burr, who happens to be staying at the inn Joel works at. Joel happens to wake up (not because he heard something) and sees Burr and Blennerhassett, who happen to be in Joel’s room in the middle of the night. There are multiple points in this summary where something different might have occurred, resulting in Joel and Burr remaining strangers to one another. And of course, then Joel learns about Burr’s identity by reading a poster he’s asked to hang up. It’s not recounted but the implication is that Joel had some prior knowledge of who Burr was, a recognition of the name. However, he never makes meaning of this, never says to himself, “Aha, this fellow is the former Vice-President.” It’s more that Joel makes some kind of assessment that Burr is a celebrity, a being unlike himself. A celebrity who intrudes into Joel’s world and whom Joel has little control over.
(sort of like Donald Trump you say? Prrrps so, best B. One could imagine a contemporary story about a young deaf boy meeting the former president—an arrogant troublemaker about to be put on trial(s)—in the same way Joel meets Burr. A nightmare).
‘Kay, we’ve got a bit of a paradox, my friends. Eudora Welty wrote First Love; she created the contingency I outline above. And a contingency, by definition, is not something that’s planned out or created. It just occurs. Well…Ms. Welty is showing us the effects of a contingency, one that she had to formulate for dramatic purpose.
Maestro, what would be this structure’s opposite?
Glad you asked. A different story would be if Joel had decided he wanted to encounter Aaron Burr, and through a series of challenges, made his way to Natchez—knowing Burr would be there—got a position as bootblack at the inn Burr was staying at, and waited in the semi-public room, knowing Burr would appear. It would be a story about a strong-willed protagonist who is in control of his destiny. He gets what he wants; he is pre-destined to get what he wants.
But that is not First Love. No, the story is about happenstance, about dreams. There is no pre-destination here.
The story begins: “Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams, and in Natchez it was the bitterest winter of them all.” This certainly creates a question to be answered by the story: What happened?
A full-page description follows of Natchez in this bitter winter, the Mississippi, the Natchez Trace, a Native American trail. The narrator begins with scene setting, utilizing verb tenses and constructions that indicate ongoing—not completed—activity. The first sentence implies a sort of indefiniteness—"whatever happened” means that the story may have more than a single meaning. It’s like the storyteller saying, “I don’t know what happened exactly, but it happened in extraordinary times, when many were dreaming, or in a time when people imagined things happening. It did happen in the bitterest winter of all in Natchez.
This indeterminateness fits with a story about contingency.
At the end of this first section, a man is brought into the town who had been frozen to death. And after a paragraph break, this leads to the introduction of the protagonist: “Joel Mayes, a deaf boy twelve-years-old, saw the man brought in and knew it was a dead man, but his eyes were for something else, something wonderful.” This is where the story enters the particular.
And what are we to make of the dead man’s eyes being for something else, something wonderful? It could show Joel’s experience of seeing the dead man, that he doesn’t see someone who’s frozen to death in agony but someone who died in rapture. Immediately after, he is shown marveling at the shapes people’s speech make in the vapor of the cold air—he is not shown as being terribly empathetic about the other’s suffering. It could also be that “something wonderful” connects with the dream-like nature of the story.
Well, sorry for the abrupt transition, best B. but I’ve got to go.
Till next time.