Petrified Man by Eudora Welty
In Petrified Man by Eudora Welty we have the theme of appearance, connection, gossip, gender roles, revenge and empowerment. Taken from her The Collected Stories collection the reader realises after reading the story that Welty is using the setting of the story (a beauty parlour) to explore the theme of appearance. Leota is prone to gossip and talking about other people. Something that may be deemed normal for the occupation that she does. She will talk about anything to keep her customers interest. However when the talk becomes about the customer (Mrs Fletcher) things can turn out to be awkward. Mrs Pike has been gossiping about Mr Fletcher being pregnant. Something which irks Mrs Fletcher as she is a private person. However Leota does not appear to notice that Mrs Fletcher is irked and continues on with the conversation. In general a beauty parlour is a place where a person is supposed to feel good about themselves. But this is not the case when it comes to Mrs Fletcher. She considers her pregnancy to be a private matter and that it should stay a private matter. Leota’s character is also interesting as she seems to know everything about all her customers and others. It is as though she feels empowered by the knowledge that she has.
The men in the story are not portrayed in a good light either. With most being lazy and out of work. Leaving it to their wives to support them. This may be significant as Welty may be highlighting that fact that if it were not for women many families would fall apart and that many women had a greater degree of tolerance than men when it came to matters with regards to the family. If anything Welty may be exploring the change that was occurring in gender roles at the time the story was written. With women taking on the role that had previously been seen as that of the man. However it is noticeable that just as men can be ugly to one another so too can women. Mrs Fletcher for example feels slighted by Mrs Pike’s observations on her pregnancy. Women also tend to be more socially aware than men. Mrs Pike noticing that Mr Petrie is the rapist being an example. Regardless of the face power he wears she still recognises him.
There is also a sense that Mrs Fletcher wants revenge on Mrs Pike for telling others that she is pregnant but what is really interesting is that Mrs Fletcher feels as though she doesn’t want to go through with the pregnancy. It is as though something joyful has turned sour for Mrs Fletcher. From being proud to be pregnant the opposite occurs. This in itself is interesting as it may suggest that Mrs Fletcher is uncomfortable with her privacy being breached by Mrs Pike and others. Though ironically she is in a setting in whereby other people’s privacy is breached by Leota. It might also be significant that those who are talked about in the beauty parlour have no opportunity to defend themselves. Fred (Leota’s husband) and Mr Fletcher have no opportunity to set the record straight. It is left to Billy Boy who on leaving the beauty parlour considers that women’s lives are disappointing. Having heard everything that has happened the reader tends to believe Billy Boy. Without knowing it the women in the beauty parlour have shared gossip which Billy Boy has overheard and stored in his memory. Giving him an insight into how a beauty parlour may actually work.
The end of the story, particularly Billy Boy’s passing words, may also be important. It would appear that Billy Boy is suggesting to Leota that if she knew that Mr Petrie was the rapist she could have been rich but the fact is that she didn’t. For one who would considered herself to be observant Leota has let Mr Petrie slip from her grasp. Perhaps she has been too preoccupied with the idle gossip that she listens to and talks about in the beauty parlour. It is left to Mrs Pike when at home to realise that Mr Petrie is the rapist. Though she herself is a gossip she is also worth five hundred dollars more now that Mr Petrie has been caught. As for Mrs Fletcher she is still outsmarted by Mrs Pike over her pregnancy and there does not look like there will be a chance for her to exact her revenge. The cycle will continue in the beauty parlour with gossip coming to the forefront and each and every woman listening to it. Hoping that they are not the centre of attention. As it is clear that the gossip will not remain in the beauty parlour but will end up on the streets too.