The Key by Eudora Welty

The Key - Eudora Welty In The Key by Eudora Welty we have the theme of happiness, connection, love, insecurity, hope and arrogance. Taken from her The Collected Stories collection the reader realises after reading the story that Welty may be exploring the theme of happiness. Neither Albert nor Ellie seem to be happy. Albert is hoping that by going to Niagara Falls he will find happiness with Ellie. Basing his opinion on what he has heard from others. If anything Albert is hopeful. A hope that is further compounded by the fact that Albert picks up the key in the waiting from of the train station. Symbolically the key may be important as Albert may be hoping that the key opens up a new lease of life for both him and Ellie. Ellie also appears to be a cold character though she may have every reason to be. She like Albert is deaf and may feel disconnected from the world. The trip to Niagara Falls is Ellie’s way of attempting to see if there is any love or happiness in her marriage to Albert. It is as though both Albert and Ellie have a lot to lose (their marriage) should the trip to Niagara Falls not be a success.

The red haired man who originally owns the key is somewhat arrogant throughout the story. If anything he observes things rather than engaging with people. The fact that he hands Ellie a hotel key is also interesting as in many ways it shatters the illusion of happiness that Albert feels about the key he has in his pocket. The fact that the key is next to Albert’s heart could also be significant as Welty may be symbolically suggesting that the adventure that Albert is to set out upon with Ellie is also close to his heart. Albert despite Ellie’s coldness still loves her. There is also no need for the red haired man to hand Ellie a hotel key as it belittles the promise of the key that Albert has. The hotel key could also have several other meanings such as the red haired man may be attempting to seduce Ellie in front of Albert. Which may play on the theme of insecurity. Due to the inability of the red haired man to understand sign language he does not know how important the key is to Albert (and to Ellie). Giving Ellie a hotel key is disrespectful.

The fact that no one communicates with one another in the train station waiting room is also interesting as Welty could be suggesting that life is fleeting and that people no longer take the time to communicate with their neighbour. It is as though each individual with the exception of Albert and Ellie is full of their own self-importance. Something that is clearer to the reader when one considers the red haired man’s demeanour throughout the story. He stands out from others because he is not sitting down. The reader immediately drawn to him tossing the key between his hands. There may also be a degree of innocence on Albert’s part when the reality is the key which he has placed in his pocket. He has no clue what it might open up. He hopes it will open up Ellie’s heart but this is more symbolic than anything else. In reality the key apart from its symbolism is a redundant piece of metal. Though again it means so much more to Albert.

The fact that Albert tells Ellie you can hear the water of the Niagara Falls when you hold onto the railings might also have some importance. It may be a case that the vibrations of the water rattle the railings and as such one is able to feel the water crashing down. Bringing both Albert and Ellie closer together as Ellie though she has saved to go to the Niagara Falls may be having doubts as to the benefits of such a visit. Overall there is a sense that Albert and Ellie are isolated from one another and yearn to become closer. However the game playing of the red haired man does very little to help the situation. He is acting without compassion for Albert and Ellie and if anything he is being selfish. Thinking only of himself and his own sense of humour. As to whether Albert and Ellie make it to the Niagara Falls is difficult to say. The red haired man’s game playing does not help and Ellie may be getting cold feet. Though her options are limited. She may be reliant on Albert’s goodwill and his good heart. Life may not be any easier should Ellie decide against going to Niagara Falls. She has saved enough money and all that is needed is for her to board the train.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Key by Eudora Welty." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 14 Feb. 2019. Web.


  • I did not think of the red-haired man as either arrogant or disrespectful. The author says “his eyes widened with gentleness”. As a counter to the thought that he could possibly be a criminal or gambler. She adds that his look had “a very tender and explicit regard.”. Perhaps he was given two keys when he checked into his hotel and the one Albert picked up was one of those. He simply gave Ellie the other, knowing they missed their train. I saw it as a kindness, giving up his room to this obviously challenged couple. The uselessness of what he had done that he despised and saw, was that they probably wouldn’t understand his gesture or feel entitled to make use of the room. Communication difficulties either way seem a strong theme in this story. Thank you for your interpretation, as it is interesting how differently we viewed the red-haired man’s motives.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insight Nadine. It is interesting how we differ on our opinions of the red-haired man.

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