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WELTY at 100

Hearing the Dark Voicelessness

Circe, Addie Bundren, and the Ghostliness of Language
Susan V. Donaldson

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1In the fall of 1949 Welty made her first trip to Europe, a Guggenheim-financed trip that took her to Italy, France, England, and Ireland, to literary and expatriate communities from Paris to Florence that included historians Harold Acton and Kenneth Clark, novelists Ralph Ellison and Sinclair Lewis, poets Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, and Edith Sitwell, and in particular an Anglo-Irish writer intimately acquainted with the aftermath of empire in Ireland–Elizabeth Bowen (Marrs 170-86). Amid those writers and communities, in a Europe struggling with the aftermath of World War II and in particular the legacy of imperialism and colonialism, she would have encountered one European country after another confronting the crisis in western authority lying at the heart of decolonization. Both the French and the British faced armed insurrection by Nationalist and Communist forces in Southeast Asia by the late 1940s, and rising violence was on the horizon in Algeria, where 1.2 million Europeans lived (Springhall 112-47). It was also a time of mounting critiques of colonialism and imperialism, from the earliest writings of Negritude writers resisting their positioning of otherness and writing back to the narratives of colonialism to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was first issued in the spring of 1951 to immense critical and popular acclaim. Among other things The Origins of Totalitarianism sharpened American debates on race and segregation by taking direct aim at the alliance between racism and imperialism in the “scramble for Africa” that revealed, by Arendt’s lights, the earliest, ominous beginnings of totalitarianism (Clifford 255-56; Whitfield 5-6; Arendt 185-221).

2These developments would have undoubtedly sharpened Welty’s perception of alternative stories and voices lying beneath the surface of dominant histories and narratives, and it is highly revealing that two stories in particular, her lone Civil War story “The Burning” and her fanciful retelling of an episode in the Odyssey, “Circe,” in revised form, emerged in the wake of her travels amid the upheavals of postwar Europe. As different as these stories were, they both pointed to the dislodgement of western mastery–what Robert Young calls “History, with a capital H,” rooted in a complacently Eurocentric narrative of conquest and “appropriation of the other as a form of knowledge” (Young 4). “The Burning” took aim at nostalgic representations of the Civil War and white southern memory and offered nothing so much as a parody of sorts of the whole Gone with the Wind phenomenon–but the target of “Circe” was both broader and more specific: the curious limitations of transcendence and sublime visions in the Circe episode of the Odyssey and in Faulkner’s own tour-de-force retelling of that episode through Addie Bundren’s ghostly monologue in his 1930 novel As I Lay Dying.

3Strikingly enough, Welty’s own remarks about the origins of the story that came to be titled “Circe” hearken back to her European travels and to Circe’s own curious vulnerability. “We were passing Sicily and all of those other islands where Circe was supposed to be,” she told Albert Devlin and Peggy Prenshaw in a 1986 interview. “And I thought, ‘what would it be like to be condemned to live forever?’ To see everybody that you love die and not be able to feel anything about mortality or the preciousness of the moment. That must have been what she felt” (113).

4In contrast, Judith Yarnall in her wonderful study of representations of Circe dating back to Homer notes that since the Renaissance literary images of Circe have tended to underscore what she calls “the unsettling power of woman over man” and Circe herself as a “dark muse” of the “forbidden” (Yarnall 100, 99, and 54). Accordingly, since Christine de Pisan, Yarnall argues, women writers have felt compelled to defend Circe against a largely male literary tradition that would render her mute. Welty in particular, she adds, might well have been attracted to the figure of Circe because the legendary sorceress, the figure who slows Odysseus’s epic journey by turning his men into swine, offers “a model of a solitary powerful female figure as transformer, as shaper” (Yannall 183). This interpretation, along with Peter Schmidt’s in The Heart of the Story, reads Welty’s Circe as a compelling symbol of women’s artistic power. I would like to take heed, though, from Ann Romines’s witty reading of “Circe,” which pairs Circe as first-person narrator with Sister in “Why I Live at the P. O.” as portraits in how not to tell stories that exclude alternative voices, visions, perspectives, and multiple possibilities for human exchange (Schmidt 189; Romines 94, 95). Indeed, I would argue that as a rewriting and re-envisioning of both the Odyssey and Addie Bundren’s monologue in As I Lay Dying, Welty’s version of Circe offers not so much a defense of her perspective as it does a cautionary tale on the dangers of transcendent yearnings–like those, perhaps, voiced by so many Faulknerian heroes but especially by Addie Bundren. It is a reinterpretation as well that offers a highly sympathetic view of the mortal vulnerability of Odysseus and his men and the reward they find in stories motivated by mortality, ephemerality, and the human need to connect.

5That it is Odysseus’s vulnerability and not his heroism that draws Welty in this story is not surprising when one considers her pronounced distaste for heroic accounts of past wars--but particularly of the U.S. Civil War, its aftermath, and the whole phenomenon of nostalgia for the Old South (Buckley 116; Devlin and Prenshaw, 113). Her views, though, on one of the premier chroniclers of the Civil War and its accompanying mythology, William Faulkner, were considerably more nuanced and complicated. She had after all famously championed Faulkner from time to time, most notably against Edmund Wilson and the gainsayers of the New York literary world in response to the publication of Intruder in the Dust (see Welty, On Faulkner 23-31), but inquiries about the intimidating shadow that Faulkner cast upon her own work occasionally elicited edgy responses. “So often I’m asked,” she told a 1972 interviewer, “how I could have written a word with William Faulkner living in Mississippi, and this question amazes me. It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic […] But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence. Its magnitude, all by itself, made it something remote in my own working life” (Kuehl 88-89). Noel Polk, for one, has pointed out that this seemingly modest remark leaves unsaid “that what most often lives near a mountain is another mountain,” a nicely turned observation that admiration can often cloak competitiveness (Polk 6). Welty herself, who had publicly pronounced Faulkner “our greatest writer,” had even acknowledged a covert sense of rivalry when she observed to a friend privately, “As a writer, I can never be better than second best in my home state of Mississippi” (qtd. in Cole 9).

6We have Rebecca Mark to thank for excavating that rivalry and exploring it to brilliant effect in her 1994 landmark study The Dragon’s Blood, which offers us a breathtaking reading of The Golden Apples as a feminist rewriting of the western heroic narrative in general and of Quentin Compson’s suffocating monologue of lamentation and lost male honor in The Sound and the Fury (Mark 6). “Circe,” which Peter Schmidt has rightly described as a postscript of sorts to The Golden Apples, might be read as taking that project of re-envisioning even further, by recasting and camouflaging the artistic rivalry between Faulkner and Welty as the contest between the hero Odysseus and the sorceress Circe, who vie with each other for control of her island, their stories, each other’s identity, and even language itself (Schmidt 189).

7In her first-person account Circe opens the contest by resorting to the mortal term of “welcome”–“the most dangerous word in the world,” she tells us—to usher the “beautiful strangers” into her private domain (Welty, Stories 639). As soon as they invade her pristine household, she promptly changes them into swine, pronounces them to be allied with dirt and grime, and banishes them outside–away from what she calls her “deathless privacy that heals everything–even the effort of magic” (Welty, Stories 640). But their leader Odysseus seems impervious to her magic. Indeed, Circe becomes acutely aware that his very mortality and his anxiety about his men largely prohibit him from seeing or even hearing the goddess, who abides in the silence and invisibility of eternity and transcendence. Still, she resorts to a mortal voice–and here Ann Romines reminds us that human language is not her native tongue–to lure Odysseus to her bed (Romines 101). Afterwards, Odysseus confounds her with “a burst of speech” and an insistence upon telling her a story of his battle with the Cyclops, which she as a goddess already knows and disdains. “I didn’t want his story,” she declares. “I wanted his secret”–which is to say, the mystery of what makes him impervious to her magic (Welty, Stories 641). His words are what seem to provide him with protection–“[…] he had talked himself into a dream, and his dream had him fast,” Circe notes wonderingly (Welty, Stories 641).

8Ultimately, it is the hero’s endless storytelling and nonstop stream of words that utterly confound Circe, who ponders the need of Odysseus–what she refers to as his “frailty” (Welty, Stories 642)—for words, stories, and listeners versus the imperviousness to loss, need, and grief felt by her father the Sun, “suffering no loss, no heroic fear of corruption through his constant shedding of light, needing no story, no retinue to vouch for where he has been” (641). Surely, she thinks, “[…] even heroes could learn of the gods!” (641). But the gods, Circe hints, have no need of words or stories because they make no distinction between word and deed and detect no mystery lying between the word that is spoken and the word that is heard. Reflecting on her own power to turn words into deeds in a twinkling of an eye, Circe says to herself, “Men are swine: let it be said, and no sooner said than done” (642). For someone who dwells in transcendence, all is already known–all words, all stories, all deeds. But what mystery remains is that of an individual human being and the dependence of that being upon others for stories, for audiences, and ultimately for love, needs all fueled by the sharp awareness of mortality and ephemerality.

9In this respect, “Circe” is indeed, as commentators like Peter Schmidt and Dawn Trouard have pointed out, a metafictional meditation on stories, their power to illuminate, and the mystery of human relations (Schmidt 188-92; Trouard, 335-37). What is particularly striking, in fact, is the way that the story and Welty’s work in general anticipates the work of Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero, who explores in her book Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood the necessity of exchanging stories in order to tell us not just what we are but who we each uniquely are. Her translator Paul A. Kottman points out that Cavarero, whose work is very much in dialogue with the writings of Hannah Arendt, begins with the simple fact that human beings live in a public realm of exchange with others and that they are, in Kottman’s words, “constitutively exposed to each other through their bodily senses” (Kottman ix). On the most basic level, for Cavarero, human beings define themselves through stories they tell of themselves and each other. Such a relation stipulates that we depend upon those into which we enter into dialogue to narrate our own stories. From Cavarero’s perspective, we come to desire our story from the mouths of others to define our own unique existence–and to illustrate this fundamental desire to define our own uniqueness Cavarero turns to the Odyssey, to the scene in which a disguised Ulysses, Cavarero’s preferred name for Odysseus, weeps as he hears his story told by the blind musician at the court of the Phaecians. Cavarero refers to this scene as “the paradox of Ulysses,” because it is only in hearing a narrative of the events through which he has lived that he comes to understand them and to recognize himself, to know who he is, because he has heard his story through the mouth of another (Cavarero 17). In a matter of speaking, that story as it is told brings Odysseus into being, interpellating him as a unique existent, specifying, in Paul Kottman’s terms, not just what Odysseus is but who he uniquely is. For Cavarero’s “narratable self,” then, as Kottman points out, there is “a necessary other” (Kottman xii).

10Circe, though, is frankly baffled by this need for the other exhibited by Odysseus, who insists that his men, confined in the bodies of swine with no ability to speak or to tell stories, be returned to him in their original human state without delay. She is baffled as well by the joy Odysseus and his men show in their reunion once they are indeed restored. “Reunions, it seems, are to be celebrated,” she wonders–and she adds, almost as an afterthought, that she herself had never had “such a thing,” having never needed others or experienced the loss of a loved one through death or through distance (Welty, Stories 642). And having restored his men to Odysseus, Circe is taken aback by their general lack of gratitude and appreciation for her art of transformation, which includes making them younger and more handsome than they were before. “Tell me one now who looked my way until I had brought him his milk and figs,” she tells herself angrily (Welty, Stories 643)–and therein lies the beginning of her own sense of loss and her new sense of entrapment–in the endless time that is available to her as an immortal.

11For Odysseus announces to her that he and his men are leaving, and in her newfound sense of grief and her awareness that she must remain on her island, fixed as are constellations like Cassiopeia in the sky, she remains out of sight and out of mind. The only one who remains with her is Elpenor, the youngest, who dies in a fall from her roof after their joyful and drunken reunion. When Odysseus takes Elpenor’s body in his arms, Circe says, with more than a trace of irony—for she is thinking of herself as well-- “When you dig the grave for that one, and bury him in the lonely sand by the shadow of your fleeing ship, write on the stone: ‘I died of love’” (Welty, Stories, 645). She speaks “in epitaph,” she thinks to herself–“the idiom of man”–which is to say that he died precisely because of his joy in their reunited company and because of his very need of his fellow sailors to tell him who and what he is, to remind him of his humanity, his vulnerability, and ultimately his mortality–or what Circe calls his “fraility” (Welty, Stories 645). The sharp awareness of death and its imminence makes their love possible for him and his in turn for theirs. But it is that awareness that Circe, an immortal who is now pregnant with Odysseus’s child, will forever lack. She is tied to her eternal island–and to the shackles of immortality–in ways that Odysseus and his crew are not. Rather, the wanderers led by Odysseus are liberated, in a sense, by their very mortality and their vulnerability to death, which prompts their need for love and their need to tell stories and exchange words with one another. “For whom is a story enough,” Circe asks in the end, and answers, “For the wanderers who will tell it–it’s where they must find their strange felicity” (Welty, Stories 646).

12Trapped in eternity and the realm of transcendence, Circe herself has no one to tell her story, and it is that newfound desire to hear her story through the mouth of another that defines her plight in the end–and the advice she gives Odysseus to continue in his journey. For his next stop is Hades, to hear the ghostly words of the blind Thebean prophet Tireisias. The prophet will tell him the way home and by implication the necessity of acknowledging his own mortality–and his own vulnerability—as a condition for continuing the story of which he is the hero.

13Circe herself, though, has no recourse to love, grief, or the stories that issue from them because there is no one in her “deathless privacy” to tell her grief, which is itself a mortal mystery. “It has no heavenly course,” she concludes; “it is like mystery, and knows where to hide itself.” And she herself cannot find the words or the stories to voice her grief precisely because she is immortal. “I cannot,” she declares sadly, “find the dusty mouth of grief” (Welty, Stories 646).

14Circe’s yearning for and frustration with the secrets and mysteries lying within the mortals who have invaded her household remind us of no one so much as Addie Bundren and her own frustration with deciphering those around her in Faulkner’s mock/comic version of The Odyssey, As I Lay Dying, the title of which is taken from Book Eleven of Homer’s Odyssey: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades” (qtd. in Blotner 248-49). As suspicious of words and their limited reach as is Circe herself, Addie on her deathbed, surrounded by hasty preparations for her burial, thinks back on her career as a country schoolteacher who finds her pupils unreachable through mere words and who resorts to the switch, blood, and physical violence to make unmediated, direct contact with them. Circe’s words echo Addie’s in unsettling ways: “When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh, when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever” (Faulkner 170).

15But then Addie is surrounded by people whose stories and words diminish rather than define her own uniqueness in the sense meant by Adriana Cavarero. Rather, Addie is called into being, interpellated if we resort to the language of Louis Althusser and Judith Butler, by patriarchal notions of true motherhood, uttered by her husband Anse, her neighbor Cora Tull, and her children, who all reduce her to the status of object to define their own sense of subjectivity (See in general Blaine’s and York’s readings). By her own lights, words are weapons that diminish, deaden, and mystify. Thinking of the pupils whose secrets elude her–as well as her family, Addie tells herself that “we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and that only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream” (Faulkner 172). Like Circe, she feels her “aloneness […] violated over and over each day,” by the children she bears year in and year out but above all by the words that reduce her to conventional and patriarchal notions of motherhood (Faulkner 172). Of her husband Anse, she observes tartly: “He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was just like the others: just a shape to fill a lack, that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or free” (172).

16Above all, Addie resents the vulnerability and interdependence with which those words seek to define her–making her “three now” with the births of her first children Cash and Darl–and yearns instead for the kind of pristine solitary transcendence that defines Circe on her island. Having been told again and again by her own father “that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time,” she is acutely aware of her own mortality and vulnerability–but in particular the undeniable presence of death in everyday life–and by the time she gives voice in the one monologue given to her in As I Lay Dying she is, like the ghosts to which Circe has sent off Odysseus, speaking from the realm of the dead, from which of course she, unlike Tireisias, cannot be heard by mortals. What she wants are not words seeking connection with others, telling each other’s life stories, “fumbling at the deeds,” she says, “like orphans to whom are pointed out in a crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother” (Faulkner 174). Rather, she yearns for the realm of transport and transcendence–the sublime, if you will–which so many of Faulkner’s artist-figures seek, beyond the limits of human articulation and words themselves. Lying in bed, she strains to hear “the dark land talking of God’s love and His beauty and his sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in peoples lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness” (Faulkner 174). It is this yearning that propels her into a brief and unsatisfactory affair with the Rev. Whitfield, a “sacrilege,” as André Bleikasten has pointed out, that serves as “a short cut to a sacred realm of transcendental presence and meaning” away from “the diminishments of the everyday” (Bleikasten 206).

17In a manner of speaking, Addie’s yearning for that “dark voicelessness,” for “the unsayable,” in Bleikasten’s words, puts her in the company of Circe in the Odyssey. Like Circe, Addis is a figure of disruption, in the ancient tradition of sorceresses and witches, who provides the motivation and rationale for the funeral journey of the Bundrens through a landscape as perilous as Odysseus’s Mediterranean (Bleikasten 206). Bleikasten tells us that she presides over “the fluid world of metamorphosis” in As I Lay Dying by imposing on her family the task of a funeral journey and by unsettling the identities of her children, who remain uncertain about their own stories and their very sense of selves (Bleikasten 187). But she herself remains trapped like Circe on her island, enclosed by the stories told around her, by children, husband, and neighbors and even more so by her yearnings for the unsayable and for transcendence, beyond the reach of words and ties to other human beings who might have been able, in the end, to tell her who and what she is. It is a curious fate for a sorceress who prides herself in her powers of metamorphosis–to be conquered by human frailty and in the end by the power of words and storytelling–and as such it is a fate that tells us something of Welty’s admiration for her fellow Mississippian writer, whose fiction abounds with stories as dependent upon their listeners as upon their narrators, and with her justifiable wariness of transcendent visions and visionaries–also in abundance in Faulkner’s fiction—who might be all too likely from time to time to sacrifice human connectedness and “frailty” for the sake of pursuing purity of vision in the realm of the transcendent. For if Welty’s story “Circe” suggests anything, it is that yearning for the “dark voicelessness” which Addie Bundren seeks and in which Circe herself abides is to deny that words and narratives owe both their power and their “frailty,” as it were, to the imminence of death, the defining condition of mortality and human vulnerability–and ultimately its defining strength.

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Susan V. Donaldson, « Hearing the Dark Voicelessness »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2009, mis en ligne le 02 février 2010, consulté le 30 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Susan V. Donaldson

College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA)

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