Eudora Welty wrote the short story "Moon Lake" in 1947. It was rejected by seven magazines before being published by the Sewanee Review in 1949. The story was then very slightly revised and published in Welty's collection of short stories The Golden Apples, also published in 1949. It was later republished in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980. This is the standard collection of Welty's stories and it is still in print.
The origin of the story lies in Welty's experience of going to summer camp as a young girl in Rankin County, Mississippi; in the camp, as in the story, some of the girls were orphans. "Moon Lake," which takes place near the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi, focuses on the relationships between three girls, Nina Carmichael, Jinny Love Stark, and an orphan named Easter. The story explores the theme of identity and belonging, and also of initiation, since not only the girls but also the boy who serves as a lifeguard at the camp go through difficult, challenging experiences. When, on the last day of camp, Easter nearly drowns in the lake, Nina is forced to make a leap from the innocent world of childhood into the more complex reality of adolescence. With its superb descriptive passages that evoke the atmosphere of the summer camp, its mythic dimensions, and its insight into the lives of young girls, "Moon Lake" is an enduring example of Welty's work at its best.
Eudora Alice Welty was born April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter of Christian Welty, an insurance executive from Ohio, and Chestina, a homemaker from West Virginia. She had by her own account a happy childhood, and as a young girl she was an avid reader; Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain were among her favorite writers. She also showed a precocious talent for writing; publishing several stories on children's magazines before she was a teenager. At Central High School in Jackson, she published poems and sketches in the school newspaper. In 1925, when she entered Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus, she already had ambitions to be a writer.
For her final two years of college, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from which she graduated in 1929 with a bachelor of arts degree. She then spent an academic year in New York City at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.
In 1931, Welty worked in Jackson, doing odd jobs and editing news stories for the local radio station. Several years later, she worked as publicity agent and photographer for the Works Progress Administration, part of the government's New Deal program. In 1936, her first short story was published in the magazine Manuscript. More literary success soon followed, with publication of her stories in magazines such as Southern Review. "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" then appeared in The Best Short Stories 1938; and "A Curtain of Green" and "The Hitch-Hikers" in The Best Short Stories 1940. Welty's first short story collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, was published in 1942, followed in the same year by The Robber Bridegroom, a novella, and then The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943).
In 1944, Welty was on the staff of the New York Times Book Review. During the later 1940s, she traveled to France, Italy, England, and Ireland, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1949, the collection of seven stories, including "Moon Lake" (first published earlier that year in Sewanee Review), was published as The Golden Apples. The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955) was Welty's final collection of stories. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty was published in 1980. Although her literary reputation rests largely on her forty-one published short stories, Welty also wrote five novels: Delta Wedding (1946), The Ponder Heart (1954), a novel for young adults titled The Shoe Bird (1964), Losing Battles (1970), and The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Welty's nonfiction includes bestselling autobiography One Writer's Beginnings (1983). She also had a lifelong interest in photography, which is reflected in her book One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (1971).
Welty received many literary awards, including the National Medal for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Rea Award for the Short Story for her contributions to the American short story, and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story. In 1996, Welty was inducted into France's Legion d'Honneur. Another distinction bestowed on her was the naming of the popular e-mail program Eudora after her, in honor of her renowned story, "Why I Live at the P.O."
On July 23, 2001, Welty died of pneumonia in Jackson, Mississippi. She was ninety-two years old.
"Moon Lake," takes place at a week-long summer camp for girls three miles from Morgana, Mississippi, probably some time in the early 1920s. Half the girls in the camp are orphans; the others are from families in Morgana. The story begins with a description of Loch Morrison, a Boy Scout who is employed as a lifeguard at the lake. He hates being there with the girls, but his mother insisted on it. When the girls are not using the lake, he amuses himself by diving. Loch lives in a tent by himself; he plays taps at night on his horn, and reveille in the morning.
In the morning, Mrs. Gruenwald takes the girls to the lake for a dip. The orphans hang back at the rear; they do not own bathing suits and go for their swimming lessons in their underwear. None of the girls can swim. The orphans, who cluster around a girl called Easter, are reluctant to go in the water, but the other girls, including Jinny Love and Nina Carmichael, push or drag them in. The girls stand around, waist-deep in the water, holding on to a rope, waiting for the dip to be over. They are nervous of being bitten by the water snakes that are said to inhabit the lake, but they must wait until Loch Morrison blows his bugle before they can come out.
Easter, Nina, and Jinny Love are at the banks of a spring. Easter drinks from the water by making a cup with her hands, while Nina has brought her own drinking cup. Nina and Jinny Love are fascinated by Easter, who is the leader of the orphan girls. Jinny Love pulls out a deck of cards from her pocket and wants to play cassino. But Easter does not know how to play this game and wants to play mumblety-peg, so this is what they play. Jinn Love does not know how to play, but says she expects to win. Easter wins the game, and wins Jinny Love's admiration.
They walk around the lake, and have a conversation with Twosie, a black woman who is fishing on the bank. Twosie interprets the cry of a bird to mean there is danger in the woods. When the girls return to camp, Jinny Love tells Miss Moody that Easter possesses a jack-knife, and Easter has to hand it over.
Nina and Jinny Love talk in their tent during the afternoon's siesta time. Jinny has fallen into Nina's cot. They listen to the sounds coming from outside. They also watch Elberta, Twosie's sister, who carries a bucket of scraps to throw in the lake, and Exum, a black boy who is wandering with his fishing rod. The bugle blows to announce it is time for swimming. Easter has to be shaken awake, and she announces that she does not have to go to the lake unless she wants to.
Later that week, Jinny Love and Nina skip their basket weaving class and go down to the swamp instead. They encounter Easter, and the three of them walk together. Easter leads them on a shortcut to the lake, taking them under a barbwire fence, and then under another fence. When they reach the lake, Easter heads for a small, gray boat in the reeds, and jumps into it. Nina and Jinny Love sit on a sandbar. Nina writes her name in the sand, while Jinny Love starts to build a sandcastle. Then Nina has the idea to take the boat out to the middle of the lake. As she strives to free the boat from some roots, Jinny Love leaps into the boat, soon to be joined by Nina. The boat begins to drift; there are no oars to row with. Then the girls discover that the boat is anchored by a chain, which Jinny Love cannot break.
They return to the shore, where Jinny Love starts building a sandcastle. Nina writes her own name in the sand with a stick, and then writes Easter's name. Easter erases both names and writes "Esther," which she says is her name, calling it Easter. She is not bothered when Nina tries to get her to spell her name correctly. Easter says that she is going to become a singer. After Jinny Love and Nina have fought playfully for a moment, Easter lights up a cigarette. Jinny Love feels tempted to tell on her.
The girls hear Loch Morrison blowing his horn and realize it is time for them to return to the camp.
One night the girls march down a trail, led by Mrs. Gruenwald. They stay out for a while in the woods under moonlight. Back in the tents, Miss Moody sings to the girls. There are good-night kisses and prayers. Easter gets into bed with Geneva. The candles are blown out. Nina wakes up during the night and reflects on life. She wants to experience life from many different points of view. She observes Easter sleeping. Easter's hand hangs down from the cot, opened outward, and Nina imitates the gesture. She lies there looking at her hand as she falls back to sleep.
At the girls' swimming lesson, Easter stands on the diving board. Exum brushes at her heel with a switch and she tumbles into the water. She does not return to the surface. Immediately, Loch Morrison swims out to where Easter disappeared, guided by the pointing fingers of the girls. He dives repeatedly in an effort to find her. Eventually he finds Easter and brings her ashore. Miss Moody and all the girls come out of the lake. Miss Moody and Loch carry the unconscious Easter and lay her down on a table in the shade. Loch begins to apply artificial respiration. He repeatedly bangs down hard on her ribs with the heels of his hands. Easter does not respond. He jumps on top of her, digging his knees and fists into her.
Miss Lizzie Stark, Jinny Love's mother, who is the Camp Mother, arrives for her daily visit to see how the camp is being run. She is shocked by Loch's aggressive attempts to save Easter because his actions appear sexual to her. Miss Moody explains that Loch is the life saver, but Lizzie Stark is not mollified. She is angry because it is the last afternoon of the camp, and she had brought two watermelons, hoping for a celebration. She repeats her instruction for someone to get Loch off Easter, but Loch continues to pound on Easter's back. One of the girls, Gertrude Bowles, calls out that Easter is dead. Miss Lizzie slaps her across the mouth. The girls crowd closer around the table. Loch tells Geneva, who has said that if Easter is dead, she wants her winter coat, to shut up.
Ran Maclain, a twenty-three-year-old man from Morgana, arrives. He is carrying a gun, and has two dogs with him. All the women and girls move away from him, except for Miss Moody. He gazes at the scene, chewing gum.
Nina contemplates Easter and faints. The next thing she knows, she is up on the table with Easter, foot to head. Recovering, she gets back down and stands with the others. Loch tells them all to keep away and leave him alone as he continues to work on Easter. Blood comes from her mouth. Finally, she gasps. Her body arches up and kicks Loch, who tumbles backwards off the table, landing almost on top of Miss Lizzie.
Easter gets to her knees and sits up, then drops her legs over the edge of the table. She asks to be carried and holds out her arms. The girls run forward, pick Easter up and carry her to the tent. They put her to bed.
After the watermelon feast, and after Miss Lizzie has left, Nina and Jinny Love wander down a path, where they come across Loch Morrison's tent. The flap of his tent is open, and he is undressing by candlelight. Naked, he examines the sunburn on his skin. Then he stands at the opening of the tent, looking out on the night. Jinny Love says he is the most conceited Boy Scout in the entire troop, and he is also bowlegged. Then they return to their tent and join in the singing with the others.
Nina Carmichael is one of the girls at the camp, a friend of Jinny Love. She is fascinated by Easter and repelled by Loch Morrison. Nina is an intelligent, reflective, rather dreamy girl. She comes from a well-off family and is well equipped for camp, having her own engraved drinking cup and an umbrella as well (which gets stolen on the first night of camp). She seems very attached to her possessions, not wanting to risk losing the cup in a card game with Easter. In her tent, she entertains herself by reading a book called The Re-Creation of Brian Kent. She has an adventurous streak also. It is her idea to jump in the boat and try to free it, so she can realize the picture in her mind of herself, Jinny Love, and Easter in the boat far out in the lake. Nina has an imaginative mind. Her desire is to escape from the limitations of her self. As she writes her name in the sand, "she could dream that her self might get away from her—that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay." She dreams of changing into other people and experiencing life the way they do.
Easter is the dominant girl amongst the orphans, and there is a kind of mystique about her. With her golden hair, her appearance is striking, and her eyes "had something of metal, flat ancient metal, so that you could not see into them." She is a feisty, determined girl who knows her own mind. She says at one point that she does not have to go to the lake unless she wants to. She also knows how to stand up for herself. When a deacon at church stared at her breasts, which are beginning to form, she bit his hand. The other girls, like Nina and Jinny Love, like to hang around Easter, because she is "dangerous, but not, so far, or provenly, bad." She gets her way, usually, as in the decision about what game to play. She wins, too. Jinny Love respects her because she carries a jack-knife.
Easter seems indifferent to the opinions of others and has no desire to get close to anyone. When Nina and Jinny Love encounter her on a trail and walk with her, she pretends they are not there. The other girls wonder what she thinks about. As far as Nina is concerned, "Easter remained not answerable to a soul on earth." As for her unusual name, Easter says she named herself. She never knew her father, who deserted her and her mother. Her mother turned her over to the orphanage as soon as she could walk. Easter's ambition is to be a singer.
Elberta is a black woman who cooks for the camp girls. She is the mother of Exum and the sister of Twosie.
Exum is a twelve-year-old black boy. He enjoys fishing on the lake. It is Exum who causes Easter to fall from the diving board, after he touches her heel with the yellow switch he is carrying. He howls loudly when he sees what he has done, which brings his mother Elberta out, angry. She whips him for his transgression.
Geneva is one of the orphan girls, a friend of Easter. She is known as a petty thief who steals Nina's umbrella.
Mrs. Gruenwald is the camp leader. Unlike all the other characters, she does not come from the South but from somewhere in the North. She is clearly an outsider in this small Mississippi community, and it is rumored that she believes in the theory of evolution, a radical belief in the South in the 1920s. She is a large lady, and when she leads the girls down to the lake, she resembles "a Shredded Wheat Biscuit box rocking on its corners." She tries to stay cheerful and hearty.
Ran Maclain is one of the young men from the town. Carrying a gun and accompanied by some dogs, he arrives at the lake as Loch Morrison is trying to revive Easter. The girls and women seem wary of him and step back. He takes no part in the action, however, and says nothing.
Miss Moody is a schoolteacher and one of the camp leaders. Sometimes she goes out in a canoe on the lake at night with a man from town, and Jinny says that Miss Moody lets the man hug her. Miss Moody sings to the girls at night and seems genuinely concerned about their welfare. As a single woman, she is also concerned about her appearance. On her shelf sit "her hand-painted celluloid powder box, her Honey and Almond cream, her rouge and eyebrow tweezers, and … the bottle of Compound, containing true and false unicorn and the life root plant." When Easter almost drowns, Miss Moody is not much use, coming close to panic.
Loch Morrison is a Boy Scout and lifeguard at the camp. Being with a group of girls is an ordeal for him; he despises them all, orphans and non-orphans alike. He hardly speaks to anyone. He appears to be an expert diver, but he can only do this during the time of day when it is too hot for the girls to use the lake. He eats alone and lives alone in his tent. He is an expert bugle player, and plays taps for the girls at night and reveille in the morning, but he does so from a safe distance. He pulls Easter from the lake and uses his life-saving skills to revive her, but he receives little thanks for his efforts, since the girls despise him as much as he loathes them.
Jinny Love Stark
Jinny Love Stark is close friends with Nina. They always stick together. Like Nina, Jinny Love is fascinated by Easter and seems to respect her. However, sometimes she tries to goad Easter, wanting to convince Easter that she is not so special, but Easter reacts to her with indifference. Jinny also thinks that Easter is not a real name for a girl, since Jinny has never heard it before. She does not seem willing to extend much friendship to Easter because she tells Miss Moody that Easter has a knife; she also thinks about reporting Easter for smoking, although it appears that she does not do so. Jinny Love can also be mischievous. It is she who persuades Nina that they should skip basket weaving class, and she relishes the consternation that this may cause at the camp: "They'll think we're drowned."
Miss Lizzie Stark
Miss Lizzie Stark is the Camp Mother and the mother of Jinny Love. She is a formidable lady who tries to impose her authority on others. When she arrives on the scene, she is shocked to see Loch Morrison aggressively mounting Easter's body, and she orders him off her. He takes no notice of her.
Twosie is Elberta's sister. She fishes on the bank of the lake and has a "little high, helpless voice."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write a personal essay or memoir describing an incident in which you made a leap from being a child to being a young adult. What precipitated the incident? What did you learn from it? How did it develop or change your view of what life is all about? Was it a difficult experience to live through?
- What role is played by the black characters in "Moon Lake"? How does the position they occupy relate to the position of African Americans generally in the deep South in the 1920s? Be sure to research racial attitudes during this time period. Write an essay in which you report your findings.
- Read another story in The Golden Apples, such as "Shower of Gold" or "June Recital." Conduct a class presentation in which you discuss the following questions: What characters reappear in both stories? What light does the other story shed on "Moon Lake"? What do the stories have in common? How do they differ?
- Write a short story set in a summer camp. You can draw on your own experiences or invent entirely fictional incidents. The plot must include some kind of encounter between boys and girls who are about the same age as the characters in "Moon Lake." Make sure that the story includes some tension and conflict, and that the characters—or at least one of them—grow as result of what takes place.
Initiation and Coming of Age
There are two types of initiation in the story, that of Loch Morrison and that of the girls. Both are connected to the manifestation of male power and energy. For the young girls at the camp who are approaching the age of puberty, the presence of Loch Morrison and his heroic act of saving Easter's life is an initiation into the realm of masculine power as a kind of life-giving force. Although much of the story is about women and girls, and employs traditionally feminine symbols such as the moon and water, the story begins and ends with Loch Morrison as an embodiment of young manhood coming into its full power. The contrast between active and passive, male and female, energies is made plain early, in the following image of Loch as a Tarzan-like figure: "Sometimes he swung in the trees; Nina Carmichael in particular would hear him crashing in the foliage somewhere when she was lying rigid in siesta." As the masculine energy that does not want to mingle with and be weakened by the feminine, Loch is careful to keep himself to himself while the girls' camp is there. The area is often used as a hunting ground (as is suggested by the arrival of Ran Maclain with his dogs and his gun), and Loch would probably sooner be hunting than having to deal with the presence of girls: "Sometimes he would take aim and from his right cheek shoot an imaginary gun at something far out, where they never were." Hunting is often part of traditional male initiation rituals, but on this occasion, Loch's initiation into manhood comes not from a hunting ordeal or ritual but through an act of heroism and salvation.
The coming into its own of masculine power is also enabled by the sudden presence of Ran Maclain, with his dogs and gun, who witnesses the life-saving. It is no coincidence that Easter finally returns to consciousness during the brief period that Ran is present; the introduction of masculine energy, in the form of Loch and Ran, is what calls the feminine back to life. In this incident there are also sexual connotations of the male impregnating the female with life, apparent in the striking descriptions of Loch as he works to revive Easter. He rides her "as if he rode a runaway horse"; and "with a groan of his own fell upon her and drove up and down upon her, into her, gouging the heels of his hands into her ribs again and again." What Loch does physically to Easter looks sexual to Miss Lizzie Stark, which is why she tells him to stop. As the Camp Mother, Lizze Stark tries to exclude or at least manage any masculine energy that appears in her all-feminine world. Not only does she tells Loch to stop what he is doing, she also tells Ran Maclain to go away. It seems as if she wants a safe, enclosed world that is not threatened by these violent explosions that come from another source of energy and vitality. But the necessity of masculine energy is reinforced symbolically by the earlier incident in which the three girls, especially Nina Carmichael, try in vain to launch the boat on the lake. This is an entirely feminine scene, both literally and symbolically. Under a moon and on water (both feminine symbols), Nina tries to realize her vision of getting out into the center of the lake with the two other girls. But a vital creative element is missing, and her efforts fail.
Identity and Belonging
The story focuses on the relationships between Easter, Jinny Love, and Nina Carmichael. Easter, like most of the orphan girls, has no last name. This makes it clear that she is not anchored to a firm sense of identity rooted in community or family, but nonetheless she has a clear sense of her own identity. There is something stable, self-sufficient, and autonomous about her, her dependent state as an orphan notwithstanding. She is called Easter simply because she named herself thus; she has the ability to define herself rather than be defined by others. There is also something universal about her being, as if she belongs to the human community and the natural order in a far wider, almost mythic sense, than the other two girls. This can be seen first in the description of her eyes, which have something of "flat, ancient metal" in them, and they are likened to something that might be seen on an ancient coin from Greece or Rome. Then later, when she lies unconscious, she is somehow linked with the natural force of life, both benign and menacing. The watching girls wonder whether "Her secret voice, if soundless then possibly visible, might work out of her terrible mouth like a vine, preening and sprung with flowers. Or a snake would come out."
Jinny Love and Nina are more mundane by comparison. For Jinny Love, a sense of identity and belonging comes solely from what is bestowed by society. She regards Easter's name as "tacky" because she has not heard it before, therefore it cannot be a real name. Jinny's own name is true and real because she is named after her maternal grandmother; it is rooted in society's agreed upon rules about how things may be handed down. In her mind, a name is a fixed thing: "It couldn't be anything else. Or anything better," she says of her name. Jinny Love therefore belongs to the local community in a narrow, conventional way, her identity defined for her by the adult world.
Nina is a more imaginative girl than Jinny Love. She is not content simply to inhabit her own identity as Nina Carmichael and wants to stretch her identity to include others, so she can find out what it means to be someone else. It might be said that she feels her own isolation, confined to a small, private sense of identity, cut off from other ways of experiencing life. She speculates about what it must be like to be an orphan, for example, "the other way to live." Or to "slip into them all—to change. To change for a moment into Gertrude, into Mrs. Gruenwald, into Twosie—into a boy." In contrast to Easter, who lives in a more instinctual way, mysteriously connected to all of life, Nina's need to expand her personal boundaries and belong to something else more deeply is more of an intellectual and imaginative longing, not something that she can actually realize.
Boats and water, in the form of the lake, are used symbolically in the story. The lake is a symbol for the depths of life and of human consciousness. It represents a greater range of experience, both good and bad, light and dark. It at once attracts the preadolescent girls and frightens them; they are almost ready to explore it. Early on, the lake is described in sensual terms that border on the erotic, although this is as yet beyond the girls' understanding: "If they let their feet go down, the invisible bottom of the lake felt like soft, knee-deep fur. The sharp hard knobs came up where least expected. The Morgana girls of course wore bathing slippers, and the mud loved to suck them off."
The lake is presented as a mysterious place, especially at night: "Luminous of course but hidden from them, Moon Lake streamed out in the night." But it is also dangerous; water snakes hide in its depths, and they bite. The lake is a place where the girls could get bitten, sucked under, and die, and they fear it for these reasons. As they find out, the lake can indeed take a life, but it can also offer a kind of rebirth, as Easter's recovery shows. Immersion in the lake is like being baptized into a deeper level of experience of life.
The boat represents the individual being who wants to make contact with and be initiated into that deeper, more complete and mature experience of life symbolized by the lake. But as the girls find out, they are not quite ready to experience it, or at least not in the way that they imagine. The boat is chained to its moorings, so they are unable to get to the center of the lake. The effort Nina has to expend, and the danger she experiences, make it clear that this passage from innocence to knowledge will not be an easy one. As she struggles to free the boat, roots lace around her feet, and she sinks into the mud, which, in another image that suggests sexuality, is "like some awful kiss [that] pulled at her toes."
There are allusions to the ancient Greek myth of Perseus throughout The Golden Apples, the story collection in which "Moon Lake" appears. The allusion is first suggested in the title of the first story, "Shower of Gold." Perseus is the daughter of Danae, who gave birth to him after Zeus visited her as a shower of gold. In Greek mythology, Perseus's great task was to kill Medusa, one of the Gorgons, who were monstrous beings whose heads were entwined with snakes. If he were to look on the Gorgons' faces, Perseus would be turned to stone. He avoids this by looking into his highly polished shield, in which he can see the Gorgons safely reflected. He cuts off the head of Medusa and escapes. On his return he stops in the land of King Cepheus, where he saves the king's daughter, Andromeda, who has been chained to a rock as an offering to a sea monster that has been ravaging the land. Perseus battles with the sea monster, kills it and frees Andromeda.
In "Moon Lake," both these elements of the Perseus myth appear. Loch Morrison is Perseus. He is never named as such and the allusions are subtle, but they are clearly present. For example, when the girls are out in the lake, Loch takes great care not to look at them. He gazes instead at "some undisturbed part of the water." This is the equivalent of Perseus looking at his shield, since the calm of the lake only reflects the scene; it is not the scene itself. Later in the story this is mentioned again. As he goes about rescuing Easter, Loch ignores the girls and their cries: "He didn't give a glance their way." He perceives the girls as a threat to his active, powerful masculinity; he does not want to risk being turned into stone. As he searches for Easter, he resembles Perseus battling the sea monster in order to free Andromeda. When Loch surfaces from time to time, "sometimes, open-mouthed, he appeared with something awful in his hands … long ribbons of green and terrible stuff, shapeless black matter."
The Southern Renascence
As a Southern writer whose stories reflect a strong sense of place, Welty was part of the Southern Renascence (or Renaissance), an upsurge in literary creativity that began in the South in the 1920s and continued for several decades, until about 1950. During this period, the South, despite the fact that it was economically impoverished and lagged behind other regions in many quality of life indicators, became the center of literary activity in the United States.
The Southern Renascence began in the early 1920s with an influential literary group known as the Nashville Fugitives, an association of poets and critics, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Donald Davison. In their journal The Fugitive, they published some of the work that would over the next decades have a marked influence on how poetry in America was written.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: Many African Americans leave the South because of widespread, systemic discrimination. All aspects of life in the South are segregated by race, including schools and public places. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People files numerous lawsuits to advance black civil rights and lobbies Congress to pass an anti-lynching law.
1940s: Following the valorous performance of segregated African-American fighting units during World War II, President Harry Truman orders the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1948.
Today: Although Affirmative Action programs have helped to create a growing African-American middle class, the rate of unemployment for African Americans is over 10 percent, higher than for any other major ethnic group. Unemployment among black men in large cities is often much higher. The poverty rate for African Americans is also considerably higher than for whites.
- 1920s: In the South, there is a conflict between tradition and modernity, science and faith. In a famous case in Tennessee in 1925 (commonly known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial"), a schoolteacher named John T. Scopes is put on trial for teaching evolution in a public school. Scopes is found guilty and fined, although the conviction is later dismissed on a technicality.
1940s: Those who believe in Creationism, which involves a literal belief in the account of creation given in the book of Genesis, lobby school boards across the nation in an attempt to have textbooks that describe evolution banned from school libraries and classrooms. In 1941, about one-third of teachers in American public schools are worried that they may be accused of being supporters of evolution.
Today: Creationism is often referred to as Intelligent Design, a theory claiming that all the phenomena of nature show evidence of an intelligent designer, rather than a random process such as natural selection. In 2005, in Topeka, Kansas, the Kansas State Board of Education and its State Board Science Hearing Committee elect to permit greater criticism of the theory of evolution. However, the composition of the Board changes following elections in 2006, and in 2007, the earlier decision is overturned.
- 1920s: The Southern literary renaissance begins. Writers such as William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Ellen Glasgow, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, Allan Tate, and Robert Penn Warren establish the South as a thriving center of literary activity. Southern writers have a keen sense of place and are aware of the traditions of the South, how those traditions relate to the present, and how they differ from those of other regions in the United States.
1940s: Southern literature continues to flourish. In 1949, William Faulkner wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Carson McCullers writes The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941); Robert Penn Warren writes All the King's Men (1946).
Today: The Southern literary tradition continues with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Bobbie Ann Mason, Peter Taylor, Anne Tyler, and Wendell Berry. However, industrialization and urbanization, along with other cultural changes, such as immigration, are changing the nature of Southern literature.
These writers looked to the South as an antidote to the materialism, industrialism, and homogenized mass culture that was taking over the rest of the United States. They believed that the South should uphold its traditional customs and practices. The Fugitives allied themselves with another group known as the Agrarians, who also believed in the value of preserving Southern ways and opposing industrialization. The Agrarians included novelists, poets, and academics.
The Fugitives and Agrarians published a manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, in 1930, in which they advocated a conservative, agrarian, anti-industrial model for the South. As Louis D. Ruben, Jr. explains in his introduction to the Torchbook Edition of I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, they believed that the South had "evolved a society … in which leisure, tradition, aesthetic and religious impulses had not been lost in the pursuit of economic gain."
Probably the greatest writer associated with the Southern Renascence was William Faulkner. Like Welty, Faulkner was from Mississippi, and he lived most of his life in Oxford, a small town of in the northern part of the state. Faulkner's novels include The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930). Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Other Southern writers of the period include Thomas Wolfe, Caroline Gordon, Cleanth Brooks, Tennessee Williams, and Katherine Anne Porter.
There were many attempts to define what constituted the Southern attitude toward life, and what differentiated it from that of other regions. In a highly influential essay first published in 1952, Robert B. Heilman identifies five aspects of what he calls "The Southern Temper." He argues that it was marked by "the coincidence of a sense of the concrete, a sense of the elemental, a sense of the ornamental, a sense of the representative, and a sense of totality." He names Welty, who had published TheGolden Apples only three years previously, specifically in connection with four of these aspects: the first, which meant being grounded in the sensory world and the dramatic situation; the second and third, citing Welty's stories as an example of the "mystery of being inseparable from the closest factuality"; and the last, which he defines as "a sense of time, of the extent of human need and possibility, of world and of spirit." He finds this quality in "the penumbra of mystery … always bordering the clean light of Welty's characters and scenes."
Religion and Evangelism in the South
In "Moon Lake," the orphans are included in the summer camp only because the Men's Bible Class has insisted on it following the visit of the evangelist Billy Sunday to Morgana. This small detail gives a clue to the importance of revivalist religion in the South during this period. Billy Sunday was one of the most famous of all American evangelists. A former professional baseball player, he underwent a religious conversion in the 1880s. He later traveled the country, preaching to huge crowds, often more than twenty times each week. In 1923, over a period of six weeks in Columbia, South Carolina, over 479,000 people attended the seventy-nine meetings in which Sunday preached. Welty recalls hearing Sunday preach in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, when she was a child. In One Writer's Beginnings, she writes that Sunday "preached with the athleticism of a baseball player, threw off his coat when he got going, and in his shirt-sleeves and red suspenders, he wound up and pitched his punchlines into the audience." Welty also recalls hearing in Jackson another well-known evangelist, Gypsy Smith, who was apparently a local favorite.
During the 1920s, these mass revival meetings became more popular than ever before in the South, a culture deeply imbued with the beliefs and values of Protestant Christianity. Welty writes that although hers was not a churchgoing family, most of the families she knew were. She gives insight into the restrictions that religious beliefs placed on Sunday activities: Presbyterians would not eat hot food, read the comics in the newspapers or travel, even a short journey. Baptists, whether on Sunday or other days, refused to dance or play cards. Welty writes: "We grew up in a religious-minded society. Even in high school, pupils were used to answering the history teacher's roll call with a perfectly recited verse from the Bible."
Reviewers of Welty's The Golden Apples have voiced appreciation for the skill with which Welty depicts her characters and creates a picture of life in the small southern town of Morgana. For Lee E. Cannon, writing in Christian Century, stories such as "Moon Lake" "communicate an air of kindly humor and gentle disillusionment and throw light on folk manners and morals." Margaret Marshall, writing in the Nation, however, has a less positive view, commenting that the collection as a whole possesses "the atmosphere … of a daydream, which soon becomes claustrophobic." Marshall finds no connection between the climax to "Moon Lake," in which Loch rescues Easter, and the rest of the story, concluding that the final incident is "just another reminiscence."
"Moon Lake," however, has been mostly lauded. William M. Jones, writing in Southern Folklore Quarterly, notes in connection with Loch's rescue of Easter that the "idea that a descent into the depths results in a fuller awareness of life" is a recurring theme in Welty's work. Danielle Pitavy-Souques, writing in Eudora Welty, is one of a number of critics to point out the pervasiveness of the allusions to Perseus: "The reference is quite precise, developed at length and confirmed, so to speak, by the vision of Loch, alone and enjoying his triumph outside his tent as Perseus did after his first victory." In Twentieth Century Literature, Patricia S. Yaeger examines the story from a feminist viewpoint. She argues that the pervasiveness of phallic imagery implies a patriarchal system that dominates the lives of the women, and that Loch's rescue of Easter is a symbolic rape in which she becomes a victim of the patriarchy. Yaeger's thesis, however, is rejected in a Studies in American Fiction article by Price Caldwell. Caldwell argues that the society depicted in the story is matriarchal, and that the girls are being socialized into it by women and face no threat from men.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on "Moon Lake," he discusses, in terms of masculine and feminine imagery, the growth experienced by Nina Carmichael during the course of the story.
"Moon Lake" is a story that chronicles an awakening, a transformation, that finally happens, in all its mystery, on the shore of the lake, as Loch Morrison struggles to revive the drowned Easter. In the afterword to Morgana: Two Stories from "The Golden Apples," Welty herself (quoted in Diana R. Pingatore's A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty) comments on the central event in her story: "While all the campers stand witness, it threatens to expose for them the secrets of the world, of life and death, in spite of a ring of chaperons. Childhood, ready or not, is jolted forward into adolescence." Welty has carefully built up to this climactic moment in the story by creating an atmosphere, through poetic imagery of great delicacy and the development of the character of Nina Carmichael, in which a moment of transformation is seen to be at hand. Indeed, Welty called this earlier part of the story "nameless apprehension."
Of the girls in the story, it is Nina who has the sense that life is pregnant with a meaning and a depth that she can almost imagine but as yet lies beyond her grasp. It is Nina, for example, who desperately wants to take the boat out on the lake, and this is symbolic of her desire to experience the fullness of life rather than the narrow range that has been open for her up to now. Nina's sense of something larger that is about to manifest—that she herself could almost bring into manifestation—is conveyed in much of the imagery of the natural world, in which things are pregnant with a mysterious, surprising, unfathomable life, like the swamp for example, which was "all-enveloping, dark and at the same time vivid, alarming—it was like being inside the chest of something that breathed and might turn over." The imagery is typical in that it combines reassurance and comfort—the all-enveloping feminine realm—with a sense of danger, of something unknown that lurks just under the surface of things and that is somehow the opposite of all the girls have known so far. This "turning over," from one side of life to the other, is from the receptive feminine to the impregnating masculine. It can be felt also in this description of the lake just as Easter climbs into the boat: "The water was quiet, the color of pewter, marked with purple stobs although where the sun shone right on it the lake seemed to be in violent agitation." The masculine energy (sun, as traditionally understood) stirs up the feminine (the water).
Another startling variation of the masculine/feminine imagery takes place at night in the tent. Nina sits up in her cot and looks outside at the stars in the darkness. In her mind she personifies night as a male figure, who stands "rude" at the tent door: "Long-armed, or long-winged, he stood in the center there where the pole went up." Nina imagines Easter, whom she regards as a favored being, being able to communicate with night and invite this "dark thing" in. When night has come wholly into the tent (the image suggests a lover secretly stealing his way to his beloved), Nina lies for a long time motionless while night stands over her, gazing at her hand, "the only part of her now which was not asleep." She lets her arm stretch forward and her hand "too opened, of itself," a fascinating image that suggests the opening of some exotic, night-blooming flower. In Nina's open hand is concentrated all her ecstasy and longing as she unconsciously invites night to lay its transformative touch upon her, not on Easter. With all her young being she yearns to be open and receptive to the power and the hidden blessings that life can bestow on those it favors. But interestingly also, what she dreams of is no idyllic awakening. Instead, she dreams that her hand is being bitten and torn by "wild beasts," a reminder that the transformation, the new experience, whatever it is to be, may not be a gentle one. This is the same message conveyed by the losing struggle Nina engages in when she tries to take the small boat (symbolic of the individual life) out to the center of the lake (symbolic of a bigger, more universal life); the mud and the roots and the chain that keep the boat from moving are too strong even for her powerful young hands.
The imagery of transformation linked to an exchange of male and female energies is again hinted at when Nina observes one of the camp leaders, the schoolteacher Miss Moody, with one of her male friends in a canoe on the lake at night. On two occasions, the narrator reports that "Nina had … seen the silhouette of the canoe on the bright water, with the figures at each end, like a dark butterfly with wings spread open and still." This is like a snapshot, a moment in which the two figures in the night form for the watching girl an image of the very archetype of metamorphosis, the beautiful winged butterfly that emerges from its apparently unpromising, earth-bound chrysalis.
The reader might also note the stillness of this image, and that stillness is not usually a quality associated with the perpetually fluttering butterfly. But in this story, moments of stillness, in which time seems to be suspended, keep presenting themselves. Nina has noticed that when she looks out on boats on the lake, they seem almost not to be moving, even though everything else in life is: "The turning of water and sky, of the moon, or the sun, always proceeded, and there was this magical hesitation in their midst, of a boat." She wonders if it is this "slowness and near-fixity of boats out on the water that made them so magical." Another moment of stillness is described after the girls hear Loch blowing his bugle: "Off in the thick of the woods came a fairy sound, followed by a tremulous silence, a holding apart of the air."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Throughout her life Welty had an interest in photography. Eudora Welty: Photographs (1989) is a collection of the photographs she took as she traveled around Mississippi during the pre-World War II years. The photographs vividly depict the region that Welty also captured in her fiction.
- Mississippi: A Documentary History (2005), edited by G. Bond Bradley, is a narrative history of the state of Mississippi from its earliest days to the present. It includes a wide variety of public records, newspaper articles, academic papers, correspondence, ordinances, constitutional amendments, journal entries, and other documents.
- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) is a collection of highly acclaimed stories by ZZ Packer, a young African-American writer. Of particular interest is the story "Brownies," about a Brownie troop of fourth-grade African-American girls from suburban Atlanta, Georgia, who attend a summer camp and encounter a troop of white girls. They convince themselves that one of the white girls made an insulting, racist comment to them. By the end of the story, the black girl who narrates the story has reached an unsettling realization about racism and the nature of human life.
- Flannery O'Connor was one of the leading short story writers to emerge from the South in the period immediately after the Southern Renascence. When she died in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, she had made a lasting contribution to American literature. Just as Welty and Faulkner set their works in Mississippi, O'Connor's fictional work is mostly set in and around rural central Georgia. The Complete Stories (1971) contains the thirty-one stories she wrote.
- Julie Orringer's 2003 short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, is notable for the skill with which Orringer depicts the lives of adolescent girls and the many challenges they face. In "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," for example, Rebecca, a Jewish girl raised in a secular family, stays for the summer with her cousin, whose family is highly religious. As the summer goes by, she begins to develop her own ideas about religion as well as deal with her emerging sexuality.
In such moments of "magical hesitation" and the "holding apart of the air"—the latter a truly astonishing image of life as a momentary vacuum, an empty space, a nothing ready to be refilled—which are moments free of all other moments, life readies itself, silently and in secret, to burst forth in a higher, more developed form.
That such a metamorphosis should take place through the heroism of Loch, the Perseus-like figure, and the almost drowned body of Easter, the almost mythical orphan, is entirely appropriate. Of course, it is not the kind of awakening for which Nina in her innocence longed. It is difficult, painful, obscure, numbing, unfathomable. Easter, the spirited, independent orphan who has fascinated the other girls by her refusal to be what everyone expects of her, is reduced to an inert, ugly, lifeless thing. Dark water, and later blood, spews from her gaping mouth and stains her cheek. Her body lies in an odd, unnatural sprawl, surrendered of all dignity and control, and forced into various positions by her rescuer, the despised (by the young girls) Loch, as he relentlessly pounds on her, grunting, sweating, smashing at her body in order to force her into taking breath once more. At one point their two bodies seem to have become part of each other, "he in motion on the up-and-down and she stretched across." The actions he performs are shocking, brutal, necessary, and the watching girls find that "Life-saving was much worse than they had dreamed." Into their innocent world of dips in the lake, songs around the campfire, and girls' gossip, something new has entered—the knowledge that the lake with its dark mysteries can bring death as well as life, that life is held in only by a breath, and that the line that separates the living from the dead can be crossed by a single gasp, as in the gasp given by Easter when she finally spurts back into life. The girls have also witnessed the disturbing power and authority of raw male energy and what it can do in the face of Easter's calamity and their helplessness. It is this that leaves the deepest impression on Nina. At first she is numbed by the experience. Then, when her feelings return, she finds that "some [of them] joining and some conflicting. At least what had happened to Easter was out in the world, like the table itself. There it remained—mystery, if only for being hard and cruel and, by something Nina felt inside her body, murderous."
That word "murderous" comes as a shock. What might Nina sense in her body that would produce such a strong reaction? It seems that the violence of the spectacle, which to Miss Lizzie Stark, the Camp Mother, looks like a sexual assault, has affected her, too. It is as if she senses that something has happened to the nonconformist Easter, something has been done to her by the male world to put her in her place. Easter, after all, is the independent one, the one who sets her own path, courting no one and obedient to no one; she is the orphan girl who has the nerve to bite the church deacon's hand when he stares at her breasts, and to insist that she does not have to go with the group to the lake unless she wants to. Perhaps what Nina senses is that in some obscure way the male world, in the very act of restoring Easter to life, has also beaten the independence out of her, tamed her spirit, made her pay the price of defying the rules about what a girl, especially an orphan girl, should be. Nina's longed for transformation, then, is quite other than she imagined. Having crossed an invisible line that divides childhood from adolescence, she has been initiated into a new, troubling awareness of the insistent, muscular power of the male, the indomitable will of it, and the realization that this can be a frightening and a threatening thing. She also develops a probably subconscious will to resist this power in whatever way she can. This is why the story ends as it does. Nina and Jinny Love, wandering down a path later that same day, catch sight of the naked Loch Morrison in his tent. Far from being in awe of him, they mock him to themselves, trying to deflate what they imagine to be his pride and vanity. When Nina turns away from Loch's tent and goes to join the other girls in a final sing-song with Mrs. Gruenwald, she carries the weight of approaching maturity, the hard, insistent fact that life is not a simple thing.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Moon Lake," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Barbara Harrell Carson
In the following excerpt, Carson takes an in-depth look at the interaction between the characters in "Moon Lake."
… In "Moon Lake" the tangled bank is not a wild garden, but the dense swamp on the side of the lake opposite the girls' camp. Here Loch Morrison, the impressed lifeguard, moves in resentful silence, swinging through the trees, crashing in the foliage. Here Easter, the orphan who, according to Jinny Love Stark, acts like a deaf-and-dumb, retreats within herself, pretending she's alone even when other campers are around. And here, too, wanders the most isolated of all—the black boy Exum:
Exum was apart too, boy and colored to boot; he constantly moved along an even further fringe of the landscape than Loch, wearing the man's stiff straw hat brilliant as a snowflake. They would see Exum in the hat bobbing along the rim of the swamp like a fisherman's cork, elevated just a bit by the miasma and illusion of the landscape he moved in. It was Exum persistent as a little bug, inching along the foot of the swamp wall, carrying around a fishing cane and minnow can, fishing around the bend from their side of the lake, catching all kinds of things.
And with them—or ahead of them—moves the significantly androgynous Cat who "edged the woods onward, and at moments vanished into a tunnel in the briars. Emerging from other tunnels, he—or she—glanced up at them with a face more masklike than ever … Cat always caught something; something was in his—or her—mouth …"
Nina Carmichael, wanting to "catch" something too, penetrates the walls of the swamp, following Easter. Trudging down the slope, she and the non-initiate Jinny Love
moved single file between two walls … They were eye to eye with the finger-shaped leaves of the castor bean plants, put out like those gypsy hands that part the curtains at the back of rolling wagons, and wrinkled and coated over like the fortune-teller's face …
Sweet bay and cypress and sweetgum and live oak and swamp maple closing tight made the wall dense, and yet there was somewhere still for the other wall of vine … Closer to the ear than lips could begin words came the swamp sounds—closer to the ear and nearer to the dreaming mind.
Easter responds to the dreamlike world of the swamp as she does to the literal world of dreams at night, concurring with its message without struggle, opening her hand to its darkness.
Easter—"untouchable and intact," self-named, free of rules and of the need for external validation, free from disappointment and from expectation—is hierophant in this story. She reflects the unity of Welty's vision in her oneness with the natural world, "her dress stained green behind," "her lips stained with blackberries." Leading Nina (and the tag-along Jinny Love) deeper into the tangled bank, Easter is the perfect guide to a revelation of the harmony of opposites: she looks "both ways" as she nears the apocalyptic ground and moves "inward" by both "rising" and "sinking." At the center is Moon Lake—the same lake into which the campers have daily taken their sedate and regimented Dip, Dip, Dips, but now of "a different aspect altogether." (The paradox of Heraclitus works for lakes as it does for streams.) The description of the lake underscores the union of contraries: it is quiet, but "where the sun shone right on it the lake seemed to be in violent agitation, almost boiling"; although it is in the bright sunshine, "the world looked struck by moonlight"; earth and sky join in a "crucible of sun-filled water." (Mircea Eliade points out that in some myths access to the Other World is to be found only "‘where Sky and Earth embrace’ and the ‘Ends of the year’ are united," since only at a point of union of opposites is there entry to Reality where opposites are one.) Lying in a boat, Easter both floats and is moored, placidly accepting drift and stasis, while Nina—not yet privy to the Mystery—struggles to set the boat free.
However, as soon as she is truly immersed in the swamp, the mud kissing her toes, the roots lacing her feet, Nina has a vision of one facet of life's harmony. She perceives, on the one hand, the beauty of life and, on the other, life's precariousness (and, hence, its painfulness and even horror). The unifying epiphany is expressed—once more—in the symbol of a pear tree, or at least its fruit:
Again she thought of a pear—not the everyday gritty kind that hung on the tree in the backyard, but the fine kind sold on trains and at high prices, each pear with a paper cone wrapping it alone—beautiful, symmetrical, clean pears with thin skins, with snow-white flesh so juicy and tender that to eat one baptized the whole face, and so delicate that while you urgently ate the first half, the second half was already beginning to turn brown. To all fruits, and especially to those fine pears, something happened—the process was so swift, you were never in time for them. It's not the flowers that are fleeting, Nina thought, it's the fruits—it's the time when things are ready that they don't stay.
Nina has come close to the central vision of Welty's world: the interface of beginnings and endings; the beauty and the frailty of life; the joy and the sorrow that exist together, neither contradicting the other, and, indeed, each giving rise to the other.
This ability to see unity behind apparent diversity remains with Nina when she returns to camp. Thinking that night of a boat floating on the water, she sees it as uniting motion and fixity. And, thinking of herself thinking of the boat, she experiences an exchange of Self and Other, as she muses: "… in the boat, it was not so much that they drifted, as that in the presence of a boat the world drifted, forgot. The dreamed-about changed places with the dreamer."
Attempting to translate these visions of unity into action, Nina tries to break the barrier of the Self—to become Other: "The orphan! she thought exultantly. The other way to live. There were secret ways. She thought, Time's really short, I've been only thinking like the others. It's only interesting, only worthy, to try for the fiercest secrets. To slip into them all—to change. To change for a moment into Gertrude, into Mrs. Gruenwald, into Twosie—into a boy. To have been an orphan." Nina stretches her hand out toward the sleeping Easter, begging the personified, secret-laden giant Night to come to her instead of to the orphan. But the union is not achieved, perhaps because Nina is willfully pursuing what must come unconsciously. (Later, she is granted her wish for empathetic identity, arrived at without conscious effort, when she faints and is lifted to the table to lie beside the nearly drowned Easter.) But if Nina is now denied precisely the union she desires, she is given another demonstration of the oneness of life: "In the cup of her hand, in her filling skin, in the fingers' bursting weight and stillness, Nina felt it: compassion and a kind of competing that were all one, a single ecstasy, a single longing." The sameness of love and strife has been revealed to her. When she awakes, the hand she had held out to Night and to revelation is asleep. Hitting and biting it to bring it back to life, she enacts the union of violence and life-giving that Loch will later dramatize over Easter's body.
As if suggesting that holistic reality is always present, even when unperceived, the narrator describes the scene outside the camp as Nina sleeps. Nature acts out the unity that Nina has had intimations of:
Luminous of course but hidden from them, Moon Lake streamed out in the night. By moonlight sometimes it seemed to run like a river. Beyond the cry of the frogs there were the sounds of a boat moored somewhere, of its vague, clumsy reaching at the shore, those sounds that are recognized as being made by something sightless. When did boats have eyes—once? Nothing watched that their little part of the lake stayed roped off and protected; was it there now, the rope stretched frail-like between posts that swayed in mud? That rope was to mark how far the girls could swim. Beyond lay the deep part, some bottomless parts, said Moody. Here and there was the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel. All snakes, harmless and harmful, were freely playing now; they put a trailing, moony division between weed and weed—bright, turning, bright and turning.
The frailty of the human impulse to simplify reality by denying the merger of opposites is represented perfectly in the hopeful rope that can neither keep out the snakes nor prevent a person like Easter from plummeting to the depths of the lake.
Transformed from hierophant into initiate, Easter plunges into the lake as a result of the prodding fingers of Exum, the most isolated wanderer and "catcher" in the swamp. In her near-drowning, Easter bears witness to the most mystifying of all unions: the coalescence of life and death. Loch, in resuscitating her, shows another paradox: the meeting edge of violence and compassion, causing onlookers to decide that death would be preferable to such brutal life-saving. And in the strangest of all metamorphoses, Easter, in the moments before her revival, is herself changed into a tangled bank. The girls standing by wonder if "Easter, turned in on herself, might call out to them after all, from the other, worse, side of it? Her secret voice, if soundless then possibly visible, might work out of her terrible mouth like a vine, preening and sprung with flowers. Or a snake would come out." Such a transformation makes clear that the wild, natural spot from which comes evidence of cosmic oneness is really within the self—a forgotten realm of the psyche. The onlookers' fear of word from the other side and their decision that Other is necessarily worse suggest how loath we are to penetrate the wall that both separates (cutting us off from the security of ordinary values and distinctions) and unites …
Source: Barbara Harrell Carson, "Eudora Welty's Tangled Bank," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, November 1983, pp. 1-18.
Patricia S. Yaeger
In the following excerpt, Yaeger discusses the sexual imagery in "Moon Lake" and the religious and sexual symbolism in Easter's name.
… Although the camp's rituals focus repeatedly on matters of gender, the children (despite their "little pangs," despite their exposure before Loch Morrison and their figurative deflowering) are essentially blind to what threatens them. These young girls define their difference from one another in terms of class, not gender. The status-conscious girls from the town of Morgana voice their open contempt for the country orphans. "‘Let's let the orphans go in the water first and get the snakes stirred up, Mrs. Gruenwald,’ Jinny Love Star suggested … ‘Then they'll be chased away by the time we go in.’" By the end of the story, however, just as the campers are beginning to form cautious friendships across class lines, an incident occurs in which class becomes irrelevant. The children come together in horror as an orphan is dragged from the water and hauled to a picnic table where she is gradually resuscitated. This is a "life-saving" Eudora Welty describes as if it were a rape:
The Boy Scout reached in and gouged out her mouth with his hand, an unbelievable act. She did not alter. He lifted up, screwed his toes, and with a groan of his own fell upon her and drove up and down upon her, into her, gouging the heels of his hands into her ribs again and again. She did not alter except that she let a thin stream of water out of her mouth, a dark stain down the fixed cheek. The children drew together. Life-saving was much worse than they had dreamed.
Welty lightens the gothic tone of this text by focusing on the reaction of the drowned child's companions, creating within her reader a bemused contemplation, a detachment the true gothic never permits. But what Welty asks us to contemplate is not at all amusing. Her text intimates that it is not the segregation of classes, but the hierarchical relation between man and woman—and beyond this the symbolic status of the phallus as arbiter and fetish of masculine power—which is the creator of difference within our culture.
Phallic imagery not only provides the dominant set of metaphors in "Moon Lake," but also presides over the plot of this story in unexpected ways. We have seen, for instance, that the bugle controls the young girls' rhythms of waking and sleeping as well as the erotic apparitions in the woods and the "little minnows" at the water's edge which resemble, in their funny "trembling and running," the marginality and the vulnerability of the campers themselves. This bugle, or rather, its miniature, appears again in a scene where Nina Carmichael is trying to write her name in the sand. "The sand was coarse like beads and full of minute shells, some shaped exactly like bugles." Nina and Jinny Love Stark and the orphan Easter have run away from the silly and gender-specific activity of basket-weaving. But even here, far from camp and its sexually biased rituals, the law of the father, imaged in these pervasive if diminutive shells, prevails. Hoping for an adventure Nina tries, like the young Word-sworth in Book I of The Prelude, to steal a boat—but fails, unlike him, to leave the shore. Wordsworth's journey in the "elfin pinnace" is self-delusive, but it is also self-constructive, permitting him to internalize and to shape his own still-to-be-recognized powers. These powers at first have ominous and possibly phallic attributes:
And growing still in stature the grim
Towered up between me and the stars, and
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.
Wordsworth's sexuality, his autonomy, and his creativity appear to him at this early age as "other"; later they are discovered to be self-possessed and self-inspired. But these young girls are not allowed to venture beyond themselves into this psychological region in which the "other" is gradually discovered to be a complex version of the self and its fictions. Instead of experiencing nature, as Wordsworth does, as the sublime arena of her hidden creativity, Nina finds herself displaced and delayed; she becomes nature's erotic object. "Firming her feet in the sucking, minnowy mud, Nina put her weight against the boat. Soon her legs were half hidden, the mud like some awful kiss pulled at her toes, and all over she tautened and felt the sweat start out of her body. Roots laced her feet, knotty and streaming." Freeing the boat is hard, but the discovery that it is permanently chained is harder still. ("‘You thought we'd all be out in the middle of Moon Lake by now, didn't you?’ Jinny Love said from her lady's seat. ‘Well, look where we are.’" But Nina can only reply: "Oh, Easter! Easter! I wish you still had your knife!"
A second game—the game of writing their names in the grainy, bugle-shelled sand, also ends in disappointment. The knife, an arbitrary but culturally inscribed tool of masculine culture, can be taken away from young girls, but a simple writing stick should easily remain the children's own. But the writing stick is also designated as a "masculine" tool in this story; it provides Nina with a blissful but forbidden experiment in identity. Nina's "own hand was writing in the sand. Nina, Nina, Nina. Writing, she could dream that her self might get away from her—that here in this faraway place she could tell her self, by name, to go or to stay." But the freedom to imagine is soon dispelled. "Spell it right and its real!" Nina calls to Easter who, though she misspells her name, claims in a realization of Nina's fantasy, to have named herself. In the midst of this argument Nina flings the writing stick into the lake—already the repository of a multitude of roots and snakes and vines and electric eels. As repository of the children's pen and a medium resisting their adventures, the lake begins to acquire an increasingly dangerous aura. It is, as we will see, more instrumental in the orphan's drowning than one would expect in a story about the pleasures of summer camp.
The girl who drowns in this masculine lake, who is metaphorically raped even as she is "literally" saved, is Easter herself—the most tomboyish and headstrong of the orphans. The only girl in camp whose body has begun to show signs of biological womanhood, Easter refuses to act in a "womanly" fashion. She not only bites the hand of Mr. Nesbitt, the Sunday School teacher who has noticed that Easter "had started her breasts," but she possesses a formidable collection of male accouterments herself, ranging from her sense of self-origination to the jack-knife she uses to win at mumblety-peg to a secret cache of cigarettes. But Easter's defiance and her set of forbidden and "phallic" attributes can be said to create the conditions for her gender-defined crucifixion at the story's end. Rescued as Easter is from the masculine lake by the masculine "Loch," Welty suggests that Easter must become the patriarchy's first victim. It is as if she has traveled too far into masculine territory and must learn "feminine" passivity through the violence of a ritual rape. This "rape," which is also a life-saving, defines Easter's rite of passage from an active, androgynous life to the stunted and conventional life defined by a masculine hierarchy. Easter's newly imposed passivity, however, elucidates a new realm of dangerous feminine activity in the eyes of her beholders.
"Keep away. Keep away, I told you you better keep away. Leave me alone," Loch Morrison was saying with short breaths. "I dove for her, didn't I?"
They hated him, Nina most of all. Almost, they hated Easter.
They looked at Easter's mouth and at the eyes where they were contemplating without sense the back side of the light. Though she had bullied and repulsed them earlier, they began to speculate in another kind of allurement: was there danger that Easter, turned in on herself, might call out to them after all, from the other, worse side of it? Her secret voice, if soundless then possibly visible, might work out of her terrible mouth like a vine, preening and sprung with flowers. Or a snake would come out.
The text turns back upon itself in an unpredictable manner and gathers those attributes into Easter's persona which had been ascribed to the "masculine" landscape. As snakes and vines seem to twine out of her mouth, Easter has suddenly acquired phallic power. Her "terrible" language is figured forth in those organic forms which have populated the masculine landscape. And yet, this description does not match the description of masculine prowess attributed to Loch Morrison, nor does it match the tone of those erotic and playful dangers which lurk in Moon Lake's patriarchal depths.
Beyond lay the deep part, some bottomless parts, said Moody. Here and there was the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel. All snakes, harmless and harmful, were freely playing now; they put a trailing, moony division between weed and weed—bright, turning, bright and turning.
The dangerous but playful sexuality of this environment undergoes a metamorphosis in the scene where Easter's life is saved, so that the erotic energies that have characterized the phallic landscape are no longer ascribed to the environment, but to woman's inner space. Easter herself comes to resemble a prolific form of nature. She is transformed, that is, from human status into a primitive and frighteningly sexualized form.
Easter lay in a mold of wetness from Moon Lake, on her side; sharp as a flatiron her hipbone pointed up. She was arm to arm and leg to leg in a long fold, wrong-colored and pressed together as unopen leaves are. Her breasts, too, faced together. Out of the water Easter's hair was darkened, and lay over her face in long fern shapes. Miss Moody laid it back.
Easter's elongated fetal posture, her reincarnation as a less-than-human form, signifies both the beginning of a process of being molded or shaped and a return to a status of vegetal and spore-like fecundity. Moreover, the emphasis on hips and breasts marks her birth as anonymous (or even monstrous) sexual being.
Welty, then, is collapsing the gradual and customary event of a child's passage into our culture's definition of "womanhood" into a brief span of time. The erotic images which had been ascribed to a threatening masculine nature are suddenly applicable to woman alone. Feminized, interiorized, these images cease to be playful or erotic, as if it were not the violent man, but the silent woman who is dangerous:
Easter's body lay up on the table to receive anything that was done to it. If he was brutal, her self, her body, the withheld life, was brutal too. While the Boy Scout as if he rode a runaway horse clung momently to her and arched himself off her back, dug his knees and fists into her and was flung back careening by his own tactics, she lay there.
Her "terrible mouth" a cruel metonymy for woman's genitals, Easter has come to represent woman's "dangerous" creative functioning, her "evil" power of generation: associations which characterize our culture's fear of female sexuality. Paradoxically, in losing her autonomy and becoming an object of masculine possession ("Keep away …" Loch insists), Easter herself becomes an object of dread. She is regarded as a source of power which is overtly feared because it is overly mystified. From a feminist perspective it is clear that Easter frightens not simply her fellow campers, but the patriarchy itself (which is, in fact, inscribed within the campers). She is feared because her real and human power—which will come to maturity as she comes of age—carries with it a capacity for rebellion against that law which has been unable, before puberty, to define her. As she passes puberty and approaches a realization of her own forbidden adult identity, woman necessarily represents a revolutionary capacity for self-creation and self-naming, for raising ideas or children who are made in her own image. Woman's sexuality, then, is fetishized in Welty's story as it is in her society, in its most malignant and destructive form. Figuring death for her society, woman is made into a "figure" of death, an icon, a unit of discourse which effectively reinscribes and represses the creative and revolutionary power it contains.
Ironically, it is the young girls themselves who seem—quite spontaneously—to discover this dread of Easter's body. "The Boy Scout crushed in her body and blood came out of her mouth. For them all, it was like being spoken to. ‘Nina, you! Come stand right here in my skirt,’ Miss Lizzie called. Nina went and stood under the big bosom that started down, at the neck of her dress, like a big cloven white hide." The barely veiled reference to menstrual blood as something frightening and unmentionable, as something which is finally deforming (note, for example, the peculiar description of Miss Lizzie's adult anatomy), is emphasized in Miss Lizzie's "maternal" reaction—but before the children can voice their reaction they are returned to the silence of the womb, enfolded in Miss Lizzie's skirt. This fear of Easter has been preinscribed; it does not emerge with the force of a new idea, but with the evidence of an old one. While Loch Morrison's masculine "ordeal"—a week on Moon Lake with girls—becomes a fairly painless source of initiation upward into the world of male power, Easter's ordeal is an initiation downward—into the nether world of feminine sexuality as it has been patriarchally inscribed and maligned. Unfortunately, this ordeal is a representative initiation. "‘I know another Moon Lake,’ one girl had said yesterday. ‘Oh, my child, Moon Lakes are all over the world,’ Mrs. Gruenwald had interrupted. ‘I know of one in Austria …’ And into each fell a girl, they dared, now, to think."
Easter, then, is paradoxically true to both her names. Christened "Esther," the powerful queen of the Jews (a people who are, nevertheless, historically defined through their "otherness"), she renames herself "Easter," exercising the masculine prerogative to name or figure herself within the central cultural tradition. But this power redounds upon her; she not only loses Esther's capacities for active leadership, but she becomes a parodically feminine version of the masculine Christ. Spread out on the communal picnic table, Easter is unable, despite the former power of her tomboy dignity, to save either herself or the young girls who look up to her. Brought to life by Loch Morrison, she is resurrected into a state of helpless passivity: "Easter lifted one arm and shaded her eyes, but the arm fell in her lap like a clod … ‘Carry me.’ Easter's words had no inflection. Again, ‘Carry me.’ She held out her arms to them, stupidly." Her hands, which have been so dextrous and nimble, grow passive, heavy with the weight of earth itself, and, as the story draws to a close, we are given a final glimpse of Easter entombed in the close space of her tent: "Easter slept; Twosie watched her." Sexually crucified, Easter becomes a symbol for woman's otherness as sexual object …
Source: Patricia S. Yaeger, "The Case of the Dangling Signifier: Phallic Imagery in Eudora Welty's ‘Moon Lake,’" in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 1982, pp. 431-52.
Caldwell, Price, "Sexual Politics in Welty's ‘Moon Lake’ and ‘Petrified Man,’" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, Autumn 1990, pp. 171-81.
Cannon, Lee E., "Main Street in Dixie," in The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction, edited by Laurie Champion, Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 125; originally published in Christian Century, September 7, 1949.
Heilman, Robert, "The Southern Temper," in Southern Renascence: The Literature of the Modern South, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Robert D. Jacobs, Johns Hopkins Press, 1953, pp. 3, 7, 10.
Jones, William M., "Name and Symbol in the Prose of Eudora Welty," in The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction, edited by Laurie Champion, Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 182; originally published in Southern Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 22, December 1958.
Marshall, Margaret, "Notes by the Way," in The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction, edited by Laurie Champion, Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 128; originally published in the Nation, September 10, 1949.
Pingatore, Diana R., A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty, G. K. Hall, 1996, p. 293.
Pitavy-Souques, Danielle, "Technique as Myth: The Structure of the Golden Apples," in Eudora Welty, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1986, p. 111; originally published in Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1979.
Rubin, Louis D., "Introduction to the Torchbook Edition," I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, Harper & Row, 1962, p. viii.
Welty, Eudora, "Moon Lake," in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 342-74.
———, One Writer's Beginnings, Warner Books, 1984, pp. 34-35.
Yaeger, Patricia S., "The Case of the Dangling Signifier: Phallic Imagery in Eudora Welty's ‘Moon Lake,’" Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 28, Winter 1982, pp. 431-52.
Arnold, Marilyn, "The Edge of Adolescence in Eudora Welty's ‘Moon Lake,’" in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 32, Fall 1993, pp. 49-61.
In this article, Arnold argues that the near drowning of Easter illustrates the main theme of the story, the conflict between civilization and wilderness; social convention and instinct.
Goldfield, David R., Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
This book is an analysis of Southern history, showing how it has been shaped by race, religion, and the Civil War. Goldfield also grapples with the issue of whether blacks and whites can create a more unified vision of their shared history.
King, Richard H., A Southern Renaissance: The Cultural Awakening of the American South, 1930-1955, Oxford University Press, 1980.
This is one of the best books available on the Southern Renaissance. Reviewers have hailed it as indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand Southern history and Southern literature. It sheds light on the entire milieu in which Welty produced her finest works.
Manning, Carol S., "Male Initiation, Welt Style," in Regionalism and the Female Imagination, Vol. 4, 1978, pp. 53-60.
Manning contrasts Welty's telling of a male initiation story with the way the same subject is treated by the authors William Faulkner and Herman Melville. She concludes that Welty uses the girls' perspective to deflate the importance given to male initiation rites, especially those that involve sexual activity.
McHaney, Thomas L., "Eudora Welty and the Multitudinous Golden Apples," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 26, Fall 1973, pp. 589-624.
McHaney argues that the central figure in the story is Easter. It is she who initiates the other girls into adolescence because of her more mature sexuality and the mythical aspects of her being.
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