Last time in our discussion of Eudora Welty’s No Time For You, My Love, I threatened to get into the manner in which Ms. Welty presents the landscape of the area south of New Orleans.
Now is the time.
As everyone doubtless remembers, the story shows two unnamed characters from the North, strangers who meet at a luncheon in the city and who agree to drive south during a long, hot afternoon. The year, never specified, may be in the 1940s—the story was first published in 1952.
The statement I made (not an original one, my friends) is that in the story, the landscape becomes a character. How could that be? Landscape is usually thought of as the setting, the background of the action of a story. Landscape doesn’t talk or walk.
After much thought, I’m going to say that it’s not so much that the landscape is a character, but that the landscape reflects the two human characters and their dilemmas. Of course, this is what landscape and description should do, but in No Place, it succeeds to a marked degree. The narrator is very close to the landscape, showing it, while at the same time, showing that the characters also focus on it, because they don’t want to focus on themselves or what they’re doing.
Well, think about it. It’s a familiar human experience to focus on immediate experience if one doesn’t want to deal with more enduring thoughts/feelings. Like if you’re telling someone about a major upset, and they comment on the weather. “It’s clouding up,” they say metaphorically.
In No Place, the unnamed characters go on the drive together very precipitously. The man is married; the woman maybe involved in an affair with a married man—that’s what the man in the story thinks. We don’t know exactly, but we get a sense she is excited by the journey.
“South of New Orleans? I didn’t know there was any south to here. Does it just go on and on?”
The man is described as “nodding” and has to be prodded by the woman because he is not paying attention to driving, swerving across the yellow line. Perhaps it’s the heat that’s affected him.
Not a lot of information is presented about these two, but their actions say a lot. They each decide to go on a drive through uncharted territory with a stranger. What does that say? That they both feel they haven’t anything to lose? That they both feel far away from their ordinary lives and loved ones? That they are both wild rascals?
More questions than answers.
In any case, the reader gets a sense that they each don’t want to think much about what they’re doing. So they focus on the present and their surroundings. The narrator assumes the task of connecting the ways that the landscape reflects who they are and what they’re doing.
An important theme in the story is that the land they are driving through is as strange and unfamiliar as they are to each other. “It’s out of this world” the woman says, actually referring to the heat. “Below New Orleans, there was a raging of insects from both sides of the concrete highway, not quite together, like the playing of separate marching bands. The river and levee were still on her side, waste and jungle and some occasional settlements on his—poor houses.”
Considerable space is devoted to beautiful descriptions of the area they’re driving through, a landscape that is eerie and alien. Exotic, to say the least. They are beset in their regular lives by many troubles, and in the story, a bizarre and frightening natural world assumes this role.
There is so much description that, as I wrote last week, the landscape may be thought of as another character in the story, a presence that the two human characters interact with. This is no simple scene setting:
“More and more crayfish and other shell creatures littered their path, scuttling or dragging. These little samples, little jokes of creation, persisted and sometimes perished, the more of them the deeper down the road they went. Terrapins and turtles came up steadily over the horizons of the ditches.
Are the man and the woman like the “jokes of creation” that they (actually the narrator) observe?
“Back there in the margins were worse—crawling hides you could not penetrate with bullets, or quite believe. Grins that had come down from the primeval mud.”
There’s an other-worldly sense here, almost like traveling through Hell, it’s menacing and potentially dangerous.
The couple crosses the river on a ferry, an experience that’s described at length. Of course, there’s a sense that the river is a border to another realm. What is not described or shown is much of what’s going on between the two human characters. The story stays very close to their consciousness, as if they’re mostly “taking in the scenery” and not having many thoughts about each other. Perhaps what’s being shown is that they’re actively trying not to think about each other.
But at times, their concerns break through:
We know that the man thinks the woman is probably having an affair with a married man. This is pure imagination on his part; there is no direct confirmation of it presented to the reader. In contrast, the woman is aware of herself, that something about her, an “it” that makes people think they can love her or hate just by looking at her. He decides that “something” about her predicament had been settled—at least for the time being. So he believes she is in a predicament. When he invites her to go on the drive with him he says, ”If it’s all right with…” he trails off, indicating his awareness of there being someone else who might or might not sanction the drive. She doesn’t argue with him but goes along. When they are assailed by mosquitos, he increases their speed, thinking that his wife wouldn’t like it if he brought malaria home.
“…she stood there, thinking that they all must see that with her entire self all she did was wait.”
“Had she felt a wish for someone else to be riding with them? He thought it was more likely that she would wish for her husband if she had one (his wife’s voice) than for the lover in whom he believed. Whatever people liked to think, situations (not scenes) were usually three-way—there was somebody else always. The one who didn’t—couldn’t—understand the two made the formidable third.”
“Her eyes overcome with brightness and size, she felt a panic rise, as sudden as nausea. Just how far below questions and answers, concealment and revelation, they were running now—that was still a new question, with a power of its own, waiting. How dear—how costly—could this ride be?”
“What is your wife like?” she asked. His right hand came up and spread—iron, wooden, manicured. She lifted her eyes to his face. He looked at her like that hand.
“Then he lit a cigarette, and the portrait, and the right-hand testimonial it made, were blown away. She smiled, herself as unaffected as by some stage performance, and he was annoyed in the cemetery. They did not risk going on to her husband—if she had one.”
They cross the river and continue to a town called Venice, an ironically romantic locale. The road they travel on stops being paved and instead is made of crushed shells—they are walking on eggshells.
In this brilliant story, dense description of the landscape profoundly reflects the plot and characters. As I said, I believe the narrator often becomes the landscape, reflecting and observing the characters.
Till next time, my friends.