A few weeks ago I highlighted Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms and how he used names to send signals to the reader and to create a richer, more specific text. For this post, I’ll be going in the opposite direction and will look at two of Eudora Welty’s stories (from The Bride of Innisfallen) that include both unnamed characters and unanswered questions.
“No Place for You, My Love” depicts the journey of two strangers, a man and a woman, after a chance meeting at a luncheon in New Orleans. The story begins with the man making judgments about the woman and how she must be having an affair, and then switches to the woman’s cognitions about how quickly people do judge. Surprisingly, the two strangers set out together for a journey even further south than NOLA, a day’s drive down into a world painted by Welty as exotic and oppressive with heat, water, and insects.
Little mysteries abound about our nameless woman for which the author only provides hints: What is she escaping from—an abusive relationship, or unrequited love? Who was the vague shape that came to greet her in the lobby, and what is her story that she came so near to telling him at the end?
We discover some backstory primarily about the man at the end of the piece, that he is in an unhappy marriage and yet at one time was optimistic and idealistic enough to be moved by the notion of a free, joyful life. Welty writes
He was not leaving for Syracuse until early in the morning. At length, he recalled the reason; his wife had recommended that he stay where he was this extra day so that she could entertain some old, unmarried college friends without him underfoot…
As he started up the car, he recognized in the smell of exhausted, body-warm air in the streets, in which the flow of drink was an inextricable part, the signal that the New Orleans evening was just beginning. In Dickie Grogan’s, as he passed, the well-known Josefina at her organ was charging up and down with “Clair de Lune.” As he drove the little Ford safely to its garage, he remembered for the first time in years when he was young and brash, a student in New York, and the shriek and horror and unholy smother of the subway had its original meaning for him as the lilt and expectation of love. (503)
This is Welty peeling back the curtain for us right at the end, and we see a similar technique in the title story “The Bride of Innisfallen.” Welty juggles a number of unnamed characters throughout this work: eight individuals coming and going in a train car, with minor characters flitting throughout the scenes. Each person she juggles has some sort of defining characteristic to help the reader keep them straight. For instance, one man, “something in him about to explode,” is often referred to as the man from Connemara who says “Oh my God” frequently (Welty 518). A middle-aged woman, parting from a lover, is hazarded to have “kept a pub” and is often referenced by her bright raincoat (Welty 521). Further present is a young American woman, a pair of whispery lovers, a child and his caregiver. We learn the child’s name because the “young wife” calls him Victor, but the narrator provides us with the information that the young wife is not Victor’s mother because “her face showed degrees of maternity as other faces show degrees of love or anger,” meaning that she is as engaged with the child as any stranger would be (Welty 520).
The group converges for the journey by train from England to Ireland, and much like real meetings of strangers during travel, we are left in the dark about a number of things, including the backstory of many of the characters, as well as why they are traveling.
Interestingly, Welty follows one character off of the train and off of the ship, the American woman, who has been the quietest of the lot during the story. We learn she has a secret and has left her husband, not for the first time, but for what seems to be the final (successful) time. We do not know much beyond that, but we are provided with the contents of a telegram the woman was to send to her husband. The first message she wrote said, “England was a mistake,” which she scratched out and replaced with, “Don’t expect me back yet” (Welty 539). However, instead of sending this last message she lets it fall into a stream before she opened the door to a pub and “walked without protection into the lovely room full of strangers” (Welty 540).
There is a quiet power in the image of a telegram slipping away, and this same power exists in “No Place for You, My Love” when Welty chooses to zoom in on one character to offer the tantalizing visual of the New York subway and the shadowy figure in the lobby. She doesn’t get us close enough to have clarity, but chooses instead to leave space for the reader to draw their own conclusions and fill in some of the history as they may.
In both of these pieces (two of my all-time favorite short stories, by the way), Welty has purposefully chosen to not provide names or answers. Certainly a master such as Welty could have created a piece just as moving by providing more details—names, interiority, history, purpose. However, by not doing this she leaves the work open to interpretation and mimics the reality of life: we do not have all of the answers, we do not know the names of everyone who catapults into our lives, and we will never have all of the mysteries and secrets tidied up.
It’s difficult to provide for a topic such as ambiguity the practical, specific sorts of exercises that I try to incorporate into my posts. (That’s how I learn best, anyway, by practicing rather than reading.) In my ruminations, I think short exercises are best here—crafting a scene two ways, with answers and names, then unnamed and ambiguous (or vice versa). This way you can play with how much you want to offer to the reader. Feel free to offer any other suggestions below! Even something so simple as leaving out a name or a relationship status or physical description can throw us off balance because we all love to categorize our world into understandable brackets.
What you do as the author is going to boil down to your instinct about the piece, its message and intent, and how much you want to make us question the work and ourselves. The first time I read “No Place for You, My Love,” I came away feeling insecure about my interpretation—nothing is definitive here, after all—and each time I read it I discovered something I missed. That is the power of the unnamed character and ambiguity in stories…The reader has to work to build the world, and it forces us to become fully engaged to unearth the author’s intent.