In the short story Where Is the Voice Coming From?, Eudora Welty writes from the perspective of a white, underprivileged and jealous man. Driven by feelings of hatred and frustration, the narrator recounts his murder of his black neighbour. Based on the true event of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963, Welty exemplifies the racially fuelled conflicts that she witnessed throughout her lifetime in the American South; this is furthered through the basing of her fiction town, Thermopylae, on the capital Jackson. By basing her text on a true event, the author prompts the reader to question the fraught racial bias prevalent in American society by highlighting the horrific treatment of the black community. Narrated by the killer, Welty gives an insight into his motivations behind the murder; in doing so, she allows the reader to experience some level of sympathy for the character. As William Murray expounds, Welty avoids a straightforward assault on the people of Mississippi […] instead of a simple vilification of individuals, she delivers depictions of injustice that illustrate the complicity of the southern environment as a whole.’1 Rather than focusing on individual prejudice Welty, as Murray states, allows readers to place blame on the social systems for racial violence.
Welty demonstrates how the racial tensions in society incite hatred on both an individual and personal level. Her murderous white character believes that he commits his crime for personal reasons, refusing to accept that he was manipulated into possessing a discriminatory doctrine by the larger system that he is adhering to. The narrator repeatedly says ‘I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction’, exposing his naivety and passivity as he abides by the racist system in place; he fails to realise or admit that he did not act solely out of personal choice.2 The character epitomises the superiority that white men felt entitled to in the Southern state; he feels cheated by his black neighbour and is drawn to act on his jealousy. Although the character appears to believe that he acts on his own accord, this hatred is in fact sparked by a belief in white supremacy, a sense of entitlement enforced by society. His victim, Roland Summers, leads a desirable lifestyle which remains unattainable for our narrator despite his position as a white American citizen.
Welty uses the short story style to provide a glimpse into the white perspective, as well as the hatred that aroused by the community and the media. At the beginning of the story, whilst viewing Roland Summers’ face on the television, the narrator says to his wife ‘“You don’t have to set and look at a black n*gger face no longer than you want to, or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s still a free country”’ (p. 396). Immediately, the narrator illustrates his sense of superiority; he believes that he and his wife should not have to be subjected to viewing a black man on their TV screen. He goes on to state ‘I reckon that’s how I give myself the idea’ (p. 396). Although recognising that his crime was initially provoked by the media, he continues to adamantly declare that he formulated the idea himself. The attack, the narrator demands, is a personal attack.
Although the narrator is adamant that he acted alone, succeeding in this way to carry out his own sense of justice, it may be argued that he does feel a sense of remorse for his crime. Although the narrator continues to deny this remorse, Daniel Wood suggests that it is in the dropping of the murder weapon at the scene that implies a feeling of guilt.3 Despite his apparent pride and sense of achievement as he recounts the murder, this sense of guilt and remorse is made apparent through his continual attempts to justify his actions. Welty furthers this idea of the murderer’s remorse, through the format of the short story. The text acts as a recounted narration, and therefore a confession by the criminal. He also states that ‘I reckon you have to tell somebody’ (p. 399), insinuating that he felt burdened by his crime and unable to live with himself, without confessing. This is illustrated by Welty’s attempt to explain the murder by choosing not to demonise the murderer, but rather portray him to an extent as a victim of societal manipulation. Essentially the narrator is little more than a product of society, who fails to recognise societies control over himself. Welty therefore allows us to sympathise with her villain; this is particularly shown at the end of the story which concludes: ‘I set in my chair, with nobody home but me, and I start to play, and sing a-Down. And sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a down, down, down, down. Down’ (p. 401). Welty succeeds in humanising her narrator by the end of the text, engaging the reader with a sense of responsibility for the racism that provoked the attack. In this way, Welty demonstrates that the racial tensions that existed require a shared responsibility by all members of society. As the narrator himself declares, ‘“At least I kept some dern teen-ager from North Thermopylae getting there and doing it first”’. In this, the narrator attempts to justify his actions by suggesting that the murder would have been committed with or without his involvement.
Featured Image- Portrait of Medgar Evers, taken in 1958 by Francis H. Mitchell. Associated Press/Ebony Collection.
1. William Murray. ‘Learning to Listen: The Way a Society Speaks in Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators”, Eudora Welty Review (8), 2016, p. 109.
2. Eudora Welty, ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?’ in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (1974; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 395-401 (p. 397) All other references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.
3. Daniel Wood, ‘At a Loss for Words: Subtext, Silence, and Sympathy in ‘Where Is the Voice Coming from?’, Eudora Welty Review (3), 2011, pp. 110-111.
Written by Amy Fretwell
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