Monday, March 30, 2009

The Petrified Man by Welty

The play on words and society is endless in Welty’s story “The Petrified Man.” The story centres on beauty shop conversation in a small southern town in Mississippi. Leota is the hair dresser tugging at Mrs. Fletcher’s hair. Mrs. Fletcher is newly pregnant and loves to gossip judgment on others. While Leota is treating Mrs. Fletcher’s hair with poisonous chemicals she is also offering her poisonous titbits’ about a new woman in town. Mrs. Fletcher is upset that Leota has told Mrs. Pike, whom she doesn’t even know, that she is pregnant. As the gossip ensues Mrs. Fletcher becomes jealous of Mrs. Pike. Mrs. Fletcher is in an unhappy marriage to a man that is very close to a bum, by her description. And Mrs. Pike’s husband is older, a nice dresser, and is to come into money. Leota and Mrs. Pike attended the “freak show” at the carnival one night. Leota was quite taken by a “petrified man”, who could stiffen like a statue. Mrs. Pike preferred the pygmies, tiny men. Mrs. Fletcher declares, “I despise freaks (Welty, 39).” By the end of the story the “petrified man” is realized to be wanted and worth five hundred dollars for raping four women in California.
The only male presence in the story is the young son of Mrs. Pike underfoot at the beauty shop. The story ends with the boy getting a sound paddling from Mrs. Fletcher for stealing old peanuts and he exclaims, “If you’re so smart, why isn’t you rich ?” The real freak show is at the beauty shop. Every personality in the story is a moral freak of one kind or another. Mrs. Fletcher works through her unhappy life by being jealous and judgmental of others. Leota spends her days offering low doses of poison in hairdos and gossip to her clients. And the petrified man is in reality not scared or stiff at all, but a psychopath violently attacking woman sexually. The only voice of reason in the story then becomes the boy at the end, who has not yet been damaged by this society of women.