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Critical Essay by Barbara Harrell Carson
SOURCE: "Eudora Welty's Dance with Darkness: The Robber Bridegroom," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 51-68.
In the following essay, Harrell Carson discusses the integration of fairy tale and history in Welty's The Robber Bridegroom.
The nature and purpose of the relationship between fairy tale and reality in Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom has been discussed since the earliest reviews. In what is probably the most perceptive long critical analysis of the work, Michael Kreyling has seen in the mixture of fairy tale and history an expression of the tension between pastoral dream and capitalistic reality in America. It is possible, however, to view the work in a larger metaphysical scheme—one which suggests that the moral weight of the tale comes down on the side of recognizing and accepting the unity of contraries in life, not in choosing one pole of a pair of opposites (such as pastoralism over capitalism) at the expense of the other. In this reading, we can see in the collision of fairy tale and history the tension between the human impulse to simplify life, on the one hand, and, on the other, life's insistent complexity.
Indeed, the folk fairy tale that Welty incorporated into her story is grounded on the child's need for simplicity. As Bruno Bettelheim writes:
The figures in fairy tales are not ambivalent—not good and bad at the same time, as we are in reality. But since polarization dominates the child's mind, it also dominates fairy tales. A person is either good or bad, nothing in between. One brother is stupid, the other is clever. One sister is virtuous and industrious….
The child cannot handle the grandmother's crabby moments, so she sees the mean grandmother as the wolf, the nice one as the object of Red Ridinghood's charitable visit. She avoids direct confrontation with her own double nature in stories such as "Sister and Brother," in which her undisciplined self, projected as her brother-companion, is turned into a fawn. In The Robber Bridegroom, the characters attempt to sustain the child's simple vision of human nature, while life works inexorably to introduce them to its doubleness. In this way, Welty's novel is about the lesson needed to move us from the child's world to the adult's, from a fairy tale vision of life to a philosophically, psychologically, and historically corrected outlook.
The ontology of this corrected vision is based on the old principles of concordia discors and coincidentia oppositorum. Reality is not an either/or matter, but is created by the dynamic tension of co-existing opposites. The challenge of life is thus not choosing between opposites—joy or sorrow, true or false, beginnings or endings, life or death—but coming to see a whole in which both poles are as inseparably united, as interdependent as the two poles of a magnet.
In Welty's The Robber Bridegroom Clement Musgrove's journey from his blissful home in Kentucky into the Mississippi wilderness is itself a trip from fairy tale to reality. Anthony Steven's analysis of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden applies to Clement's move: the loss of paradise, Steven says, is "a parable of the emergence of ego-consciousness, and the replacement of harmonious unity with the conflicts born of awareness of opposing categories of experience (e.g., good and evil, love and hate, pleasure and pain)." However, Welty's characters will learn a lesson opposite Adam and Eve's. While life in Eden was possible only in the presence of one of the paired opposites (good, love, pleasure) and while Judeo-Christian teachings urge a similar either/or morality in life outside of Eden, in the world Welty presents life can only be lived fully with the acknowledgement of the harmony to be found in the coexistence of the contraries.
In The Robber Bridegroom nature itself bears witness to the cosmic reality of concordia discors, contrasting vividly with the human desire to see everything in either/or terms. When Jamie Lockhart (the gallant who is also the robber) leaves Clement Musgrove's house after he has failed to recognize in Clement's daughter Rosamond the girl who attracted him in the woods, he enters a natural world whose complexity adumbrates the reality that he avoids. He rides "in the confusion of the moonlight, under the twining branches of trees…." The next day when Rosamond, who has likewise failed to recognize in Jamie the bandit she found so charming, sets out to find her highwayman, she enters the same forest, that old literary symbol for a mind on the threshold of self-knowledge—and, hence, knowledge of the reality into which the self fits. Although she does not realize it at the time, the perceptual confusion she experiences as she penetrates the forest (mistaking the gentle for the cruel, the animal for the human, the predator for the defenseless) hints of the overlapping and intertwining nature of reality:
On and on she went, deeper and deeper into the forest, and its sound was all around. She heard something behind her, but it was only a woodpecker pecking with his ivory bill. She thought there was a savage there, but it was a deer which was looking so hard at her. Once she thought she thought she heard a baby crying, but it was a wildcat down in the cane.
By the end of the tale she will have learned that other categories that she had also thought to be mutually exclusive are, after all, not so clearcut.
Jamie Lockhart experiences a similar illumination. He is The Robber Bridegroom's best exemplar both of the impulse to simplify one's sense of self and one's responses to others, as well as of the need to move toward acceptance of the self's polar reality. Jamie's first conversations with Clement reveal his desire for a life without complications. When Clement confesses his own perpetual guilt before his second wife Salome, Jamie replies: "Guilt is a burdensome thing to carry about in the heart…. I would never bother with it." To this Clement replies: "Then you are a man of action,… a man of the times, a pioneer and a free agent. There is no one to come to you saying 'I want' what you do not want." Things will change for Jamie in the course of Welty's story. But at its start, he has tried neatly to partition his life, seeing himself as alternately the bandit or the gentleman, never admitting that his reality includes simultaneously both identities. When, at their first formal meeting, he fails to recognize Rosamond as the same beautiful girl he met in the woods, it is not only because she is now ragged and dirty, but also because "it was either love or business that traveled on his mind, never both at once, and this night it was business." However, when Clement offers his daughter as a reward if Jamie captures the bandit who stole her clothes, Jamie is repulsed—in spite of the attraction of the dowry that is an unspoken part of the deal—because this "man of enterprise" actually incarnates (without being aware of it) human concordia discors, combining within self the contradictory qualities of the romantic and the materialist. Welty writes that "in his heart" Jamie "carried nothing less than a dream of true love—something of gossamer and roses, though on this topic he never held conversation with himself, or let the information pass to a soul…." Later, when his robber band chides him for staying with Rosamond during the daytime (he had always before confined romance to night and devoted the day to banditry), he halfway draws his dirk in self-defensive protest: "For he thought he had it all divisioned off into time and place, and that many things were for later and for further away, and that now the world had just begun."
Jamie's challenge is to bring into conversation the two sides of himself, accepting his complex reality. Ironically, the innocent Clement voices most clearly the truth of this polarity, when Rosamond visits him after her "marriage" to Jamie. He says:
'If being a bandit were his breadth and scope, I should find him and kill him for sure…. But since in addition he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second. For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.'
It is strangely appropriate in a world where apparent opposites meet that kind-hearted Clement shares this awareness of doubleness with the villains of the piece. In fact, while the innocent planter has only abstract insight into the mingled identity of Rosamond's robber lover, the evil Salome and the Little Harp have specific evidence that Jamie Lockhart and the outlaw are one. At their first meeting, Salome sees the berry stains behind Jamie Lockhart's ear; Little Harp sees Jamie with only a partially stained face after Jamie, interrupted as he began to disguise himself, runs to aid Goat's sister, whom Little Harp had decided to kill instead of marry. Little Harp gloats: "Aha, but I know who you are too…. Your name is Jamie Lockhart and you are the bandit in the woods, for you have your two faces on together and I see you both."
Salome and Little Harp on the one hand and Clement on the other demonstrate two responses to an awareness of human complexity. Clement shows that an appreciation of the full instead of the partial human being can lead to compassion and to patience with life's unfolding. He shows, too, that understanding of the doubleness of others can illuminate dark areas of one's own life. His speech about Jamie's doubleness includes this startling bit of self-examination:
'All things are divided in half—night and day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age, and sometimes I wonder if even my own wife has not been the one person all the time, and I loved her beauty so at the beginning that it is only now that the ugliness has struck through to beset me like a madness.'
The trick in human relationships that Clement has not applied to his own wife and that Jamie and Rosamond must discover is to see the different "sides" of personalities simultaneously and not sequentially.
For Salome and Little Harp, however, knowledge of Jamie's dual self leads neither to compassion nor to self-knowledge. For them it is the basis for their powerplay over Rosamond and Jamie. Salome's and Little Harp's relations to others have their own kind of simplicity: they use them. That Rosamond and Jamie—both of whom deny one side of their identity—are such easy victims implies the vulnerability that accompanies attempted retreats to a simple identity. Paradoxically, however, that very vulnerability contains the seeds for human growth: only when they are forced to confront their duplex identities can Rosamond and Jamie experience life's fullness of sorrow and joy.
On the other hand, Salome and Little Harp illustrate the self-destruction that accompanies inviolate one-sidedness. If Clement is right that Salome is really the other side of his first wife Amalie (their names are practically anagrams), ugly now and hardened since the murder of their son by Indians, Salome has denied so totally the gentle, loving side of her self that she has become stonelike. At one point Welty writes: "… Rosamond did not think the trickery went so deep in her stepmother that it did not come to an end, but made her solid like an image of stone in the garden…." Salome's singlemindedness leads to her capture by the Indians: "… her eye, from thinking of golden glitter, had possibly gotten too bright to see the dark that was close around her now." Her coldly determined self-sufficiency leads to her destruction. When Goat, who has come to free her from the Indians, asks why she is crying, she screams: "I am not crying!… Be gone! I need no one!" And so he leaves her. Brought before the Indians, she claims the power to command the sun. "Shaking both fists in the smoky air," she proclaims, "No one is to have power over me!… No man, and none of the elements. I am by myself in the world!" And she dances to her death, alone, ordering the sun to retire.
Little Harp also demonstrates that nothing is potentially so destructive as single vision—viewing self or other through a single lens. Having reduced himself merely to the violent outlaw—the shadow self of Jamie Lockhart's bandit persona—Little Harp dies when he declares the death of both Big Harp and the bandit Jamie Lockhart. (His plan was to keep the reward offered for Big Harp's head when it was mistaken for Jamie's). Little Harp, like Salome, asserts that he alone is in control: "… the Little Harp rules now. And for the proof of everything, I'm killing you now with my own two hands." Instead, of course, Jamie kills him. Only in death does Little Harp reveal the other, feeling side of himself he had denied in life: "The Little Harp, with a wound in his heart, heaved a deep sigh and a tear came out of his eye, for he hated to give up his life as badly as the deer in the woods."
However, while Little Harp's death, like Salome's, implies the deadness even in life of those who develop and recognize only one part of the self, the central significance of Little Harp's murder seems to lie in its symbolizing the death of Jamie's bandit self. Yet even this is not as simple as it first appears. We recognize as clearly as Jamie did that Little Harp represents the violent, outlaw side of Rosamond's handsome lover. While we, like Rosamond, actually see in action only the dashing Lochinvar/Robin Hood side of Jamie, Welty is careful to remind us of the more somber business of his profession. The first intimation takes the comic form of Mike Fink's obvious fear of Jamie: whoever can bring a tremor to that he-bull, he-rattle-snake, he-alligator of a flatboatman must be some sort of a he-terror himself. When Mike Fink's ominously croaking raven sits easily on Jamie's finger "as though there it belonged," we assume Jamie is at home, too, with Mike Fink's grimmer activities. (Fink has, after all, just had a hearty go at beating Jamie and Clement to death with a floorboard.) Less laughter accompanies the next clue to the reality of Jamie's life as an outlaw, one he himself furnishes when he broadly hints to Clement—almost as if he wished to give himself away—about the parallels between the Indians robbing Clement and Jamie's own banditry. Further inside the nested boxes of The Robber Bridegroom are even darker reminders of the non-fairytale quality of robbers' lives. When Jamie first encounters Little Harp and tries to kill him, he instinctively recognizes their shared identity. Welty writes:
He half pulled out his little dirk to kill the Little Harp then and there. But his little dirk, not unstained with blood, held back and would not touch the feeble creature. Something seemed to speak to Jamie that said, 'This is to be your burden, and so you might as well take it.'
So the Little Harp moves into Jamie's hideout, raping and killing the Indian girl in the same house where Jamie lives with Rosamond, whom he had abducted, too (though, in a fairy tale layer of the story, with her loving compliance). In the death of the Indian girl we are about as far as we can get from lighthearted innocence and from gay, soaring dreams without nightmares. And Jamie's character is here revealed as far from the fairy tale Prince Charming. To Jamie's outlaw band, Little Harp declares, "… your chief belongs to me!… He is bound over to me body and soul…." Although Jamie throws him out, he knows that "he'll be back with me tomorrow." Even Rosamond comes close to acknowledging the real life of her lover when she admits to Salome that Jamie still brings home to her fine dresses and petticoats—obviously from other women he has accosted and possibly raped.
As the book moves away from its dark center, Jamie resolves comically the problems that have been generated by his keeping the two parts of his self in isolation. However, the solution is not actually the death of his robber side, as the death of Little Harp may seem at first to imply. To think that the robber in Jamie dies completely is to miss the whole point of the theme of doubleness, of the necessary and valuable reality of human psychological polarity. It is also to miss a good joke. Jamie becomes a rich merchant, the perfect way to be both a gentleman and a highwayman. As Welty tells us: "… the outward transfer from bandit to merchant had been almost too easy to count it a change at all, and he was enjoying all the same success he had ever had." Thus the death of Little Harp signals, not the death of Jamie's robber self, but his acceptance of integration of the two poles of self into one whole. New Orleans is the perfect setting for this integration, since it too brings into concord apparent opposites: "Beauty and vice and every delight possible to the soul and body stood hospitably, and usually together, in every doorway and beneath every palmetto by day and lighted torch by night. A shutter opened and a flower bloomed." Here, Jamie—now a man of feeling as well as a man of action, and no longer quite so free of the wants of others—lives the wisdom he has come to, his heroic vision: "But now in his heart Jamie knew that he was a hero and had always been one, only with the power to look both ways and to see a thing from all sides." In Welty's moral scheme the willingness to take this Janus-like perspective is itself heroic.
Jamie is not the only character with two faces in The Robber Bridegroom. Almost everyone has either a double identity or a personality made up of contradictory elements, making it difficult for us easily to pass judgment on or finish anyone off. The "evil" characters seem evil precisely because—and to the extent that—they refuse to acknowledge their complexity, a refusal that reduces them to one-dimensional fairy tale villains in their evaluations of themselves and in their relationship to others. But Welty insists that the reader see virtue even in the villains. So the Little Harp turns out in his death to have human feelings; so Salome and Amalie are two halves of an unrecognized whole. The loudmouthed, murderous Mike Fink of the first part of the tale is also the timorous, ghost-bedeviled mail rider of the conclusion (and even in the opening scene he has such a queasy stomach that he covers his eyes and feels rather than looks at the ruin he thinks he has brought Clement and Jamie, a comic introduction to Welty's idea that all people are double). Later, we see the stupid Goat moved to tears by Rosamond's song and the pitiless Indians feeling pity for Clement. We end up feeling strangely ambivalent even about Salome, whose defiance of all in heaven or on earth demands a kind of admiration as well as scorn.
However, next to Jamie, the character whose doubleness is most fully developed is Rosamond. She is both the spoiled daughter of a rich planter and the self-sacrificing lover of the bandit of the woods. While she has the fairy tale attributes of Gretel, Cinderella, and Snow White (her name, Rose of the World, is close to the generic naming of fairy tales), she is unlike them in being far from the one-sided, virtuous, long-suffering, passive maiden of fairy tales. She is "a great liar" from whose mouth lies fall as naturally as jewels from the lips of fairy princesses. She is also as sexually awakened as Snow White is innocent of all conscious sexuality. Rosamond has had fantasies of abduction and is coolly self-possessed when she is accosted by the outlaw Jamie ("… Rosamond … had sometimes imagined such a thing happening, and knew what to say"). In fact, it seems to be Rosamond who entices Jamie in their first encounter. "Well, then I suppose I must give you the dress … but not a thing further." When Jamie takes even her petticoats, she spends no time worrying about the precarious state of her virtue, but instead wonders "how ever she might look without a stitch on her." And when Jamie offers her a choice between being killed and going home naked, she shows no stupid fairy tale preference for honor over life, asserting, "Why, sir, life is sweet … and before I would die on the point of your sword, I would go home naked any day." Returned home, she acquiesces in Salome's orders that she work like a scullery maid, finding in her subservience freedom from others' pleasures and plans for her—a neat instance of coincidentia oppositorum in personal relations. The next day, she returns to the forest of her own free will, giving Jamie the opportunity to take what he had left her the day before—a step that will lead to the very unfairytale-like predicament of her pregnancy.
After she begins to live with her robber lover, her psychological state also bears witness to the real-life adult's need for the state of tension created by the simultaneity of apparent contraries. In the robber's cottage, she is perfectly happy, we are told, except that "she had never seen her lover's face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over." So even the happiness of love is incomplete without sorrow, which passes in the world of the simple as totally alien to love.
Rosamond's doubleness is even more complexly present in her difference from and similarity to Salome. At first the two seem absolute opposites. An early description establishes their contrast: "For if Rosamond was as beautiful as the day, Salome was as ugly as the night…." But as in the case of the yin-yang principle, Salome and Rosamond share points of contact and dynamic exchange. Like so many opposites in Welty's fiction, these two begin to reveal their similarities, especially after Rosamond is initiated into love, that business so likely to introduce us to life's complicated reality. It is probably not so much ironic as appropriate in a world where opposites meet that the place where Jamie first made love to Rosamond is the same place where Clement had married Salome: "… there under the meeting trees at the edge." When Rosamond tells her father and stepmother of her marriage to the bandit, Salome senses her kinship with Rosamond: "… at that moment the stepmother gave Rosamond a look of true friendship, as if Rosamond too had got her man by unholy means." And when Salome voices the doubts that Rosamond feels about her lover's identity, "Salome drew so close to Rosamond that they could look down the well and see one shadow, and whispered in her ear…." She is as surely Rosamond's shadow self as the Little Harp is Jamie's. Thus it is fitting that Salome die when Rosamond moves toward integration of the parts of her self, just as Little Harp does when Jamie starts on a similar path.
The attitude toward life conveyed by The Robber Bridegroom is as double as Jamie's and Rosamond's identities are. It parallels the splicing of the fairy tale tone to the real horrors of murder, rape, and other savage doings that fill the story. In The Robber Bridegroom Welty has given us a story about which we could write precisely what she wrote about Chekhov's stories:
Yet—Chekhov goes on to say—'Life is terrible and marvelous, and so, however terrible a story you tell in Russia, however you embroider it with nests of robbers, long knives and such marvels, it always finds an echo of reality in the soul of the listener…. [Real life] was of itself so marvelous and terrible that the fantastic stories of legend and fairy tale were pale and blended with life.'
Terrible and marvelous—that is the estimation of life Welty gives us in The Robber Bridegroom. ("Life is sweet," Rosamond has said, even as she is being robbed; her name, "rose of the world," implies in the old image of flower and thorns both the beauty and pain of life.) It is a perspective very like the Buddhist outlook described by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By:
'All life,' said the Buddha, 'is sorrowful'; and so, indeed, it is. Life consuming life: that is the essence of its being, which is forever a becoming. 'The world,' said the Buddha, 'is an ever-burning fire.' And so it is. And that is what one has to affirm, with a yea! a dance! a knowing, solemn, stately dance of the mystic bliss beyond pain that is at the heart of every mythic rite.
The Robber Bridegroom is one of Welty's dances, acknowledging this insight—not stately so much as spritely, a laugh and a hurrah in the face of horror. And the horror is very much acknowledged, even in this tale so widely read as light-hearted entertainment. The undertone of horror accompanying the wonder of life is introduced early in the story. The first paragraph ends with the declaration, "the way home through the wilderness was beset with dangers," creating a sense of the threats that surround and (if we remember the symbolism of the wilderness) live within the human psyche. The theme of human cruelty to other humans is introduced in the first chapter. The first two innkeepers Clement encounters have lost ears for horse stealing and cock-fighting. While their cropped ears seem funny at the outset, deeper inside the tale we realize that the mutilation of the criminals is but a societally sanctioned version of the mutilation of the Indian girl by Little Harp. Then, after the slapstick attempt by Mike Fink to kill Clement and Jamie, we are chilled with the almost sickening tale of the treatment of Clement's party by their Indian captors. Humiliation, torture, murder have left Clement with "less than nothing." Not a funny story, it is hard for readers to bear because we know that every act of cruelty detailed by Clement has been perpetrated by one human on another, again and again, around the world, throughout history.
Indeed, for all the rollicking gaiety of its surface, The Robber Bridegroom presents one of Welty's darkest visions of reality, a darkness intensified by Clement's perception of a cosmic horror in which humans appear as "little mice" in a life seen as "a maze without end." Psychological forces are as mysterious as the powers of nature. Clement cannot even remember why he came into the wilderness; all he knows is that "there was a great tug at the whole world, to go down over the edge,… and our hearts and our own lonely will may have had nothing to do with it." Just as frightening as the mystery of causality is the uncontrollable domino effect of human actions (yet another expression of the tangled nature of reality). Jamie determines to rescue Rosamond, saying, "… when I went off and left her, I had no idea what a big thing would come of it." In spite of this recognition, however, human will is ineffectual in fighting life's horror. It is not Jamie who rescues Rosamond, but the stupid Goat. And when Clement, uncharacteristically moved from passivity, determines to rescue his daughter himself, he ends up wrestling all night with a monster that turns out to be a willow tree. If this were not a comedy, protected by its fairy tale wrappings, a character like Clement would surely be driven mad by the cruel, senseless, and overpowering forces of life that assail him. Hearing that the gentleman he trusted to rescue his daughter is the bandit who stole her clothes, her honor, and her heart, he forgets his own wisdom about life's doubleness and retreats into the forest (the appropriate place for encounters with horrors within and without), demanding exactness from a world that will not furnish it:
'What exactly is this now?… Wrath and love burn only like campfires. And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost. A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. Like will-o-the-wisps the little blazes burn on the rafts all night, unsteady beside the shore. Where are they even so soon as tomorrow? Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming. Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep. Many find a skull and a little branching of bones between two floors of leaves. In the sky is the perpetual wheel of buzzards. A circle of bandits counts out the gold, with bending shoulders more slaves mount the block and go down, a planter makes a gesture of abundance with his riding whip, a flatboatman falls back from the tavern door to the river below with scarcely time for a splash, a rope descends from a tree and curls into a noose. And all around again are the Indians.
'Yet no one can laugh or cry so savagely in this wilderness as to be heard by the nearest traveler or remembered next year. A fiddle played in a finished hut in a clearing is as vagrant as the swamp breeze. What will the seasons be, when we are lost and dead? The dreadful heat and cold—no more than the shooting star.'
Love and wrath, massacres and mysteries, bandits and slaveowners, music and a swamp breeze—all become equal in insignificance before the rolling seasons, and the only solace seems to be a recognition of the transcience and insignificance of everything. Clement could be the prophet of Ecclesiastes crying out on the vanity of life. As he watches Salome going to her death, he looks at the faces of the surrounding Indians and thinks: "The savages have only come the sooner to their end; we will come to ours too. Why have I built my house, and added to it? The planter will go after the hunter, and the merchant after the planter, all having their day."
The monstrous, self-devouring quality of life is captured in Clement's musings, but clearly this is only the dark center of Welty's tale. For while Clement's thoughts imply the question, "If this is what life is like, why go on?", go on he does. And he can go on, and Rosamond and Jamie can too, because they glimpse something of the whole of Welty's insight. Her story unites a confrontation with the monstrousness of life with a recognition of its wonder, a vision that transforms wandering in a maze into a dance. This evaluation of life is very similar to that reflected in the Hindu legend about the God Shiva. Confronted by a demon demanding that Shiva hand over his wife, the world-goddess Parvati, Shiva hit the earth with lightning and created a new demon which he commanded to eat the first. The first demon threw himself on Shiva's mercy and was forgiven. Bound by the god's original order, the second demon asked, "What shall I eat now?" To which Shiva replied, "Well, let's see: why not eat yourself." And so the demon began, eating its own feet, belly, chest, neck. Joseph Campbell, who tells the story charmingly, continues:
And the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life, which lives on itself. And to that sunlike mask, which was now all that was left of that lionlike vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, 'I shall call you Face of Glory, Kirttimukha, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me.'
The obvious lesson of all of which is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed…. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.
It is in the teaching of how to live in such a world that Welty's tale offers help for travellers in life's wilderness, alive as it is with Indians, outlaws, and wild animals. She has no secret to make the threats go away, but she knows what will help us live with the horrors surrounding us. Surely part of her "program" is the recognition of the doubleness of life that the book reveals, an awareness of its marvelous as well as its terrible side.
The second part of Welty's strategy for survival is the old one: to have someone to love may make the world seem less terrifying, even if it does nothing to change objective reality. Clement suggests the power of love when he laments: "My wife will build a tower to overlook the boundaries of her land, while I ride its woods and know it to be a maze without end, because my love is lost in it." It is the lost love that makes the world seem a maze.
However, Welty makes clear that the mere physical presence of the loved one is not enough for sustained solace. Even though Rosamond lies by Jamie's side, "she would look out the window and see a cloud put up a mask over the secret face of the moon, and she would hear the pitiful cries of the night creatures. Then it was enough to make her afraid, as if the whole world were circled by a band of Indian savages…." And her fear all wells from the fact that in spite of her study of Jamie's face "she did not know the language it was written in." For love to alleviate the night terrors of existence, it must be love of a whole self by a whole self. That full achievement of this lies beyond human achievement is life's eternal tragedy. However, the closer we approach it, the more effective will be love's protection. Rosamond and Jamie have consummated their love, but each recognizes only half of the other's identity. It is this that makes theirs a false marriage, not just the drunken priest who performed the ceremony.
The desire to push beyond the view of life as simplex, into knowledge of its real multiplicity Welty identified as the motivation behind the plot in The Robber Bridegroom. The truth in the story, she wrote, lies in the need "to find out what we all wish to find out, exactly who we are, and who the other fellow is, and what we are doing here all together." Yet, oddly enough, in the same essay Welty says that in washing off Jamie's disguise Rosamond is making "the classic mistake." So which is it? Is the desire to know others a way to mitigate the pain of life or is it an unforgivable trespass? To an extent, Welty's answer is a perverse Yes—it is both.
More precisely, the novel suggests that there are right and wrong reasons for trying to fathom another's identity. The story opens with the wrong one. Mike Fink threatens to reveal the other part of Jamie's identity in order to have power over him. In silencing Mike Fink, Jamie makes an important distinction: "Say who I am forever, but dare to say what I am, and that will be the last breath of any man." Later Clement asks Jamie's name so he can express his gratitude, but he does not ask "what you may be." The problem with having handy names or labels for the multiple parts of a human identity is that they can fool us into thinking that we have psychological understanding or "control" of the other person, that we have reduced the mystery of his or her full selfhood.
While it is natural to want protection from the reduction of self symbolized by the threats of Mike Fink and Little Harp to reveal what Jamie is, Welty reiterates in her essays and stories the view that the most pitiful life is one that has been made invulnerable. Certainly the outcome of The Robber Bridegroom seems to justify Rosamond's attempt to discover Jamie's identity. As a consequence of her act, Jamie's dual selves are integrated, and he and Rosamond are truly married. However, the initial consequence of Rosamond's penetration of Jamie's disguise is the rupture of their relationship, because she has asked for a label, not for an introduction to Jamie's fuller self.
The cause of Rosamond's growing need to know Jamie's identity is significant. As long as their life together is blissful (that is, as long as it has fairy tale perfection), she can accept the mystery. However, with the arrival of Little Harp in their cabin and the death of the Indian girl, the simple happiness she and Jamie shared is threatened. The threat comes from the insidious invasion of her own awareness of Jamie's shadow self—a self she cannot accept and that she, in the form of the psychologically projected Indian maiden, finds terrifying:
… she was torn as she had never been before with an anguish to know his name and his true appearance. For the coming of death and danger had only driven her into her own heart, and it was no matter what he had told her, she could wait no longer to learn the identity of her true love.
Multiplex reality has displaced fairy tale simplicity; Rosamond has entered the world we inhabit. Unfortunately, her reaction to her discovery that her bandit is also Jamie Lockhart does not lead her immediately away from isolation into union with another. Instead of seeing and accepting the sad and joyous human mystery, she retreats to simplistic labelling, and Jamie responds in kind:
'You are Jamie Lockhart!' she said.
'And you are Clement Musgrove's silly daughter!' said he.
'Good-by,' he said. 'For you did not trust me, and did not love me, for you wanted only to know who I am. Now I cannot stay in the house with you.'
We recall that Jamie was willing for Mike Fink to declare who he was, but not what he was. By seeking merely his name, Rosamond has chosen the least important part of Jamie's identity (one available even to his enemies), condemning herself to superficial knowledge of Jamie.
And yet Rosamond's impulse is not entirely wrong. Jamie, in hiding part of himself from the one who loves him, is endangering their love. Rosamond sounds at least partially right when she cries, after Jamie has left her:
'My husband was a robber and not a bridegroom…. He brought me his love under a mask, and kept all the truth hidden from me, and never called anything by its true name, even his name or mine, and what I would have given him he liked better to steal.'
What she learns, however, is that "names were nothing and united no knots." She has to move past the stage where she can assert: "… I already know everything and can learn nothing new." Goat's reply to that declaration ("Do not be so sad as all that …") is not the non-sequitur it seems. Few states are sadder than thinking we have figured out all life's mysteries—especially the mysteries about other people. To get beyond the labels of "Jamie Lockhart" or "robber" or "Clement's silly daughter"—to appreciate the complex humanity on the other side of the name—that is when the universal search for "who we are and who the other fellow is" might pay off.
In Welty's story as in folk fairy tales, the woman is the one who pushes for integration. The message that Rosamond sends Jamie "out of the future"—from their twins to be born next week—makes very real the power of the female suasion to unification. Rosamond's role is much like that ascribed by Bettelheim to the women in other tales who suspect they are married to beastly bridegrooms:
… one very significant feature of the animal-groom cycle … [is that] the groom is absent during the night; he is believed to be animal during the day and to become human only in bed; in short, he keeps his day and night existences separate from each other: … he wishes to keep his sex life separated from all else he is doing. The female … is unwilling to accept the separation and isolation of purely sexual aspects of life from the rest of it. She tries to force their unification. But once Psyche embarks on trying to wed the aspects of sex, love, and life into a unity, she does not falter, and in the end she wins.
Like Psyche, Rosamond does not falter. She does her penance for asking the wrong questions about her lover's identity. Following Jamie's path along the tangled wilderness of the Natchez Trace, she is "tattered and torn, and tired from sleeping in hollow trees and keeping awake in the woods." The imagery here implies both enlightenment and acceptance of the unity of apparent opposites (in this case, the human unity with the natural world).
In the last chapter we feel the book's emerging from its dark inner core (where we watched the death of the Indian girl, the robber band, Little Harp, and Salome), its returning to the realm of fairy tale. Mike Fink joins Rosamond now as he did Jamie in the beginning. (But even he is chastened and improved, shaken from his blustering self-importance by his encounters with what he takes to be Jamie's ghost.) The idyllic life Jamie and Rosamond establish in New Orleans is our best hint that a fairy tale version of reality dominates as the novella ends. Yet even in this conclusion Welty reminds us of the doubleness of reality that Rosamond and Jamie fail to see—in spite of their personal integration (or, perhaps, because of the protection it offers from life's darker side). Describing their life to her father, Rosamond sketches a happy-ever-after world, complete with beautiful twins, a stately house, a boat, servants, and rich friends. For the moment their eyes are not on the wilderness that still surrounds them or the Indians that inhabit it. And yet Welty's concluding references to Rosamond and Jamie's "hundred slaves" and to the pirates' galleons they sail out to watch, as well as to Clement's return to the wilderness, remind us that evil is closer than they may be aware—"with us, within us," as Welty has declared. Thus, while Jamie and Rosamond have returned to life in a fairy tale, the reader carries away the corrected vision of a reality in which darkness and light, hope and despair, joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings are dynamically united in the terrible and marvelous cosmic dance.
This section contains 7,225 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)