Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Faulkner and Welty and the Southern Literary Tradition$

Noel Polk

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9781934110843

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781934110843.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM Mississippi SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.mississippi.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University Press of Mississippi, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in MSSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 17 May 2022

The Ponderable Heart

The Ponderable Heart

Chapter:
(p.186) The Ponderable Heart
Source:
Faulkner and Welty and the Southern Literary Tradition
Author(s):

Noel Polk

Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi
DOI:10.14325/mississippi/9781934110843.003.0012

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a reading of Eudora Welty’s novel Ponder Heart, arguing that it is her oddest book and that it is a deliberate collection of every tawdry cliché of southern literature. It contends that the novel does not feel like parody because it does not protect itself through the distances of irony which characterize modernist narratives. The chapter also considers a scene from one of Welty’s earliest short stories, “Magic”—the image of the family in their living room—and, finally, examines how Welty presents some grimmer realities about domestic violence.

Keywords:   domestic violence, Eudora Welty, Ponder Heart, southern literature, parody, Magic, family

The Ponder Heart is Eudora Welty’s oddest book. Every line, every illustration, seems to scream “Laugh! Laugh! Laugh, damn you!”—and yet I never feel quite like laughing, never quite feel like taking the book seriously enough to laugh either at it or with it. It always seems too slight, indeed too silly, to be the work of a major writer. Perhaps because I don’t have an uncle just like Edna Earle’s Uncle Daniel, The Ponder Heart seems to me a deliberate collection of every tawdry cliché of Southern literature, of small-town rural life, a collection so thick I’d like to think of it as a parody of that tradition. But it doesn’t feel like parody, if only because it does not protect itself through the distances of irony that we have come to expect of modernist narratives; it feels more like a yielding, an obeisance, to that tradition, an exploitation of those clichés for audiences, including those sophisticated readers of the New Yorker, where it first appeared, who always seem ready, eager, to believe the worst about the South but who if not handed the worst are just as happy to accept the silliest, especially if it seems vaguely, even preposterously, redemptive.

What I offer here doesn’t completely redeem The Ponder Heart for me, and perhaps it doesn’t need redeeming for you. But I want to get to it by way of a scene from one of Welty’s earliest stories. “Magic” is an exact (p.187) contemporary of its more famous sibling, her first major publication, “Death of a Travelling Salesman.” Both were accepted by Manuscript on 19 March 1936 and published in the summer and fall issues of the same year (Polk, Bibliography 435).

Myrtle Cross’s evening begins in a lower-class home awash in romantic dreams: her mother reads “Dream World”; on the piano is the sheet music for “Girl of My Dreams,” and as she makes herself up in the mirror Myrtle smiles “like Marlene Dietrich” (5). Clearly her notions of love—of pleasure, of expectation—have been molded by such cultural fantasies. A single naked bulb casts shadows all over the room and in her mirror. On their date, she and Ralph pass a house on the corner and hear through the window Hawaiian music on the radio, the “grovelling sweetness of the guitars” (6) that evoke the faraway romantic islands, and she whispers, “Ain’t that beautiful?” But immediately they see through the window a startling image: “Listening, they began to move aimlessly around under the open window, their arms about each other. The chorus was played over and over. In the room they could see a family sitting under a fringed lamp, their heads sunk as though all their necks had been broken” (6).1

I propose that image of the family in their living room, “their heads all sunk as though all their necks had been broken,” as a sort of epicenter in Welty’s depiction of family: a scene not of violence so much as of violence imposed in the seeing of it on what should have been a scene of domestic harmony. It virtually explodes off the page as a terrifying cautionary vision of Myrtle’s future and of families to come throughout Welty’s career. The cheesy, manufactured domestic order and security of Myrtle’s home has been transmogrified in her and Ralph’s mutual vision of domestic death swathed in the “grovelling sweetness” of romantic myth, just as the love, the desire, the pleasure she seeks with Ralph is crudely tied to death when they have sex on the grave. Though Welty did not collect “Magic,” it nevertheless stands as a kind of introduction to her treatment of family themes throughout her fiction, wherein violence, the appearance of violence, or the language of violence, upon (p.188) the body or bodies of the beloved are so often the norm that we hardly notice how much of it she uses—or how much we ourselves use it. The Ponder Heart, for all its comedy, all its apparent light-heartedness, is very much a part of that thematic—the romantic illusion of domestic love trapped in bodies whose necks, the connection between mind and body, appear broken: domestic death become literal. Perhaps indeed sheer boredom has overtaken this family, their heads leaning forward in sleep or apathy, which would be bad enough. But Welty’s language, registering Myrtle’s and Ralph’s response, raises the scene’s stakes for them as observers and for us as readers.

At the center of The Ponder Heart are two married bodies: Bonnie Dee Peacock Ponder’s less-than-five-foot, ninety-eight-pound petite one and Uncle Daniel’s gargantuan one. The short novel calls attention to Bonnie Dee’s petite stature a couple of times directly and less directly to Daniel’s size on a number of occasions: he eats calorie after calorie of fattening foods at Edna Earle’s table at the Beulah Hotel;2 Edna Earle calls attention to his huge hat several times, as well as to his big head; Bonnie Dee tries to make a skirt out of one of his pants legs (398); and when he faints and falls to the floor, he is too heavy for Edna Earle, Narciss, and Dr. Ewbanks to lift him up (401).

So, far from being the slim aristocrat played by David Wayne on Broadway and by Peter McNicoll in the more recent film of The Ponder Heart or the trim character in the first edition’s illustrations, Daniel is clearly considerably overweight. Likewise, far from being the generous, good-hearted openhanded philanthropist Edna Earle depicts him as, he is a grossly self-indulgent, spoiled, manipulative, in some ways sociopathological leech who gets away perhaps literally with murder by buying his way out of any possibility that he might have to face the consequences of his actions. At home, he is the same kind of tyrant his father was: when you want something done, Edna Earle says, you just tell Uncle Daniel “how many Negroes” the project will need, and (p.189) he “hollers them in … out of the fields, and they come just like for Grandpa” (366). After he kills Bonnie Dee and is about to have to face up to that fact, he, fat old Uncle Daniel, “hitche[s] both arms around his knees” (415)—that is, assumes the pre-natal position, an obvious retreat to a safeplace. Daniel is then, quite simply, an aging child, a brat, a monster, with no sense of responsibility.

Perhaps I paint too harsh a picture of Daniel, perhaps not. But perhaps we can more easily accept this portrait by remembering that his only model for male behavior is his tyrannical father, Edna Earle’s Grandpa Ponder, the irascible, club-wielding plantation-running patriarch who drove all of his children to run away from home—all save Daniel, his youngest, whom he spoils by providing him no limitations whatever, apparently hoping to retain at home at least one Ponder to carry on the family name and the family tradition of bullying. We may easily understand Daniel’s corpulent body, then, to be symbol and product of his father’s, and that tradition’s, aggrandizing will to control and consume.

Edna Earle is at least a second cousin to the narrator of “Why I Live at the P.O.,” also part of a dysfunctional family and doing her best to escape. The Ponder Heart’s Edna Earle deploys her considerable narrative talents to hold together what fragments of the family remain, herself and Daniel, and to keep the family head held high. If the earlier Edna Earle’s narration is an exercise in self-justification, this one’s is an exercise in self-erasure, a denial of her own story in favor of Daniel’s, partly because she is conditioned by a traditional sense of “family” that works to betray her even as she defends it so vigorously. Indeed, Edna Earle is scion of an inheritance that she will never get because Daniel literally gives it away right out from under her even while she is defending him in court. Of course she accepts that betrayal as the most natural thing in the world; we, she, might expect nothing more of her family.

Edna Earle and Daniel are the last of that family: the Ponders and their problematic heart are as nearly historical dead meat as Faulkner’s Compsons are. The same Grandpa Ponder who in his fierce imperious wisdom decided that Daniel needed to get married for his own good also decided that Edna Earle should not get married, also for Daniel’s good. But of her own prospects, she defends her grandfather: “Poor Grandpa!” Edna Earle exclaims. “Suppose I’d even attempted, over the (p.190) years, to step off—I dread to think of the lengths Grandpa would have gone to stop it. Of course, I’m intended to look after Uncle Daniel and everybody knows it” (350), she admits, in a self-justifying evasion of her own needs. She has her own hopes for family though; she knows that Daniel is never likely to have any children and is hyper-conscious of her own impending old-maid-hood and barrenness. She just can’t get that travelling salesman Mr. Springer to pop the question but she clings to the fading hope that she will one day have children of her own; she accepts the pinches and pats of Judge Tip Clanahan, an old family friend, because she believes that the minute men stop pinching her she will be foredoomed to spinsterhood. She is, then, a woman thoroughly trained by her culture’s expectations of women; she quietly mourns her own inability to get married even as she accepts her role as the stereotypical southern spinster. As proprietor and manager of the Beulah Hotel, she is housemother and homemaker to family members and strangers alike.

The Ponders are the old established family in Clay, in the entire county for that matter, even if Edna Earle is in reduced circumstances and having to run the Beulah Hotel. Her grandfather raised her and Daniel as siblings, nearly, after Daniel’s brother, Edna Earle’s father, and all of the other uncles, aunts, and siblings left home for reasons that Edna Earle doesn’t explain, because she is still afraid of Grandpa, long after he is dead: “Papa for one,” she tells us, “left home at an early age, nobody ever makes the mistake of asking about him, and Mama never did hold up—she just had me and quit” (342). Even so, her mama’s one accomplishment is to write a “pageant”—a Tom Thumb wedding, for which, obviously, no script could be more clearly already written before she ever laid hand to paper (347, 354), a cultural pæan to the matrimonial grand narrative that has treated her so badly. Though Grandpa Ponder raises her and Daniel as siblings, Grandpa shows Daniel considerable favoritism: he has no control over him—he’s allowed to skate on the dining room table, for example—and Edna Earle gets confirmed in the tradition that says the Ponder women’s first responsibility is to look after the Ponder men. Grandpa thinks that any marriage but his own is “a show of weakness of character” (350) and he claims to prize “character” and discipline above all else: but his failure to teach Daniel any discipline makes a monster of him.

(p.191) Edna Earle thus takes Daniel as her responsibility when Grandpa Ponder dies of a heart attack, an apoplectic fit, upon discovering that Daniel has proposed to one Bonnie Dee Peacock, daughter of a white trash family from way out in the country, but now clerking at Wool-worth’s, and has been accepted on trial, a trial that lasts for more than five years (362) before she decides that she doesn’t want to be married anymore and takes off back home to live with Mama for a while. Bonnie Dee’s “trial” marriage becomes a trial indeed for Daniel, Edna Earle, and the town of Clay: marriage as trial—and tribulation: it is, for Bonnie Dee, a very dangerous place—becomes a working, if submerged, metaphor for the book.

From one point of view The Ponder Heart is almost as silly as the courtroom scene that forms its second half. Most sympathetic critics have tended to treat it as a kind of genial fable about what happens to unaffected goodness in the world. Ruth Vande Kieft, one of Welty’s earliest and most influential critics, suggests that Daniel “has a Dickensian sort of eccentricity. His particular ‘humour’ is his over-generosity: the compulsion to give away which springs from his enormous, ‘ponder’ous heart.” She concedes that the “incongruity of [Daniel’s] nature is that this out-sized heart has no balancing counterpart of rational and moral intelligence,” but goes on to concur with Edna Earle that even though he lacks “the wisdom of the serpent” and is “foolish as a dove; lacking a trace of ‘common sense,’ ” and even though “he borders on insanity”; even so, she argues, the novel’s moral center lies in the “clash” between Daniel’s “wisdom” and the “ ‘foolishness’ of the ordinary world of selfishness and calculation” (69–70). We have thus traditionally taken a decidedly uncritical view of Edna Earle as a first-person narrator, even though she is demonstrably tainted by her own needs, biological, cultural, and economic.3

As we have seen, however, there is plenty of evidence, discernible through the cracks of Edna Earle’s telling—indeed, in her outright lies on (p.192) the witness stand—that allow us to construct a story quite different from the one she tells. She gives us all we need to discover in Daniel’s “generosity” a pathology based in a reaction against his father: to buy the love he did not get at home (indulgence, after all, is not love) and to be the center of attention, he gives away things his father has bought. Even Edna Earle recognizes that “all he wanted was our approval” (419), though in fact there was almost certainly something else he really wanted.

Several questions about Bonnie Dee’s death get begged because Edna Earle lies on the witness stand and because Daniel, reverting to old habits, begins giving money away, again to buy the town’s affection, precisely at the point in the trial where he is about to admit his culpability and be held accountable. As always, his giving diverts attention from something lacking in his own character. We can’t reconstruct from the testimony in court what actually happened to cause Bonnie Dee’s death, though we might work our way through Edna Earle’s lies on the witness stand to discover what did not happen. One lie is Edna Earle’s elaborate story of the lightning ball that she describes as scaring Bonnie Dee to death. But she didn’t see any fireball at all: she picks that up from Narciss’s testimony that she saw one, though Narciss couldn’t have seen one either because she was hiding under the bed at the time, if she is telling the truth (391). Edna Earle then elaborates a tale in which a lightning ball comes down the chimney and works its way around the parlor and the living room before exiting through a window. But since she has already testified that Bonnie Dee was dead when she and Daniel arrived, clearly she is lying about at least one of these instances and probably about both. Edna Earle is making Daniel’s defense up as she goes along, trying to construct something plausible out of the implausible, the impossible (Kreyling, Understanding 160).

Nor can we reconstruct completely very much about Daniel and Bonnie Dee’s marriage, why she leaves or why she comes back and then sends Daniel to the Beulah to live, but we can speculate. Edna Earle thinks that Bonnie Dee should be grateful for marrying well above her class to a prominent wealthy man. But Daniel leaves her all alone out at the Ponder place, which even Grandpa Ponder finally understood was “lonesome” (360), while he comes to town every night to “tell about how happy he was” (362). He thus makes in narrative a reality that (p.193) doesn’t exist in life. After Bonnie Dee returns and sends him packing, he is “happy” to be separated from her, secure once again with surrogate mother Edna Earle. Why does she leave in the first place? We can’t know for sure, though we might note her youth (she is seventeen) and his age.4 One could also make the case that Daniel is a sex maniac: hence his dalliance at the county fair with Intrepid Elsie Fleming, the female motorcycle rider who wears such a tight suit; also at the fair he traps Edna Earle in the ferris wheel so he can escape to the tent where the scantily-clad ladies are dancing. Edna Earle constantly warns her interlocutor that Daniel will probably not be able to keep his hands off of her, but that she shouldn’t mind that; we do not know anything about the details of his marriage to Teacake Magee, either, except that she scares herself with the vehemence of her “No” when the prosecutor asks her if under any circumstances she would want Uncle Daniel back (389). Though he claims to look for and pine after Bonnie Dee when she leaves, he is at the same time looking for Intrepid Elsie Fleming (365). Even while he’s giving away money at the end of the trial, he stops long enough to importune Johnnie Ree, pulling at her skirt and asking her to go riding (421). Michael Kreyling has suggested that Daniel is a domestic version of King MacLain: there is no evidence that he ever actually scores with the women he chases, but he is King MacLain down to his white panama hat and suit (Comments).

Bonnie Dee returns five years later; though Edna Earle claims she still looks seventeen, she is older and apparently somewhat wiser. Within a few minutes of her return Daniel phones Edna Earle: “Make haste! She’s fixing to cut my throat!” Edna Earle finds him on top of the dining room table, apparently the one on which he skated as a child. Narciss greets Edna Earle’s arrival with “Hallelujah! … Prayers is answered,” a response that suggests that she also thought Daniel was in danger. But Bonnie Dee enters, “sashaying around the table with her little bone razor wide open in her hand.” She “commence[s] to lather his face” and to shave him. She dismisses Edna Earle by saying, curiously, “Court’s (p.194) opened”—her play on their “trial” marriage and a suggestion that she, razor in hand, is about to convict Daniel of some terrible crime or at least to threaten him with certain consequences if he repeats it. She speaks “bossy,” Edna Earle says. Edna Earle leaves, but returns when Narciss summons her to call Dr. Ewbanks. She re-enters the room to find Daniel “stretched” out on the floor; she then explains what has happened without having seen it and so obviously, as she does in the courtroom, makes it up or relies on what Bonnie Dee tells her. Bonnie Dee, she tells us, “came real close to his eye with that razor, biting her tongue as she came, [and] he’d pitched right out of his chair” (369–70). Clearly Bonnie Dee has warned him, razor in hand, how he is to behave with her or face the consequences. Just as clearly, Daniel has taken her seriously: when Dr. Ewbanks arrives after Bonnie Dee’s death, Daniel and Edna Earle both notice an “awful-looking knife sticking out” of the fish-bait can he has brought with him: Daniel faints, a residual effect of his fear of Bonnie Dee’s razor (401).

How Bonnie Dee dies is, of course, the great hole at the center of Edna Earle’s narrative. After testifying first that Bonnie Dee was dead before they arrived, then that she had died of fright from the fireball, she finally claims that she died from Daniel’s incessant tickling, and that she “died laughing” (415); this is clearly a cockamamie story which she contradicts twice before she tells it. We don’t know what really happens, though Daniel almost tells us in his testimony: “I went to hug my wife and kiss her … but you might hug your wife too hard,” he says. When Gladney asks him to demonstrate, he hedges: “But that time I didn’t. … I went to hug her, but I didn’t get to.” Gladney asks why he “didn’t get to,” and Daniel stops cold, frowning, while Gladney continues to press: “When you ran into the parlor to hug her—only you didn’t get to—did Bonnie Dee speak to you?” Daniel, taking the clue, allows that yes indeed she did: she said she was afraid of the lightning, and then started falling. His own lawyer interrupts this line of testimony to try to get into the court record the fact that Daniel is crazy, had been institutionalized in the asylum, but he is shouted down by Daniel and then by Edna Earle, who tries to tell the court her tale of death by tickling. Immediately Daniel begins giving away money—what’s left of Edna Earle’s own inheritance. He thus disrupts and closes the trial, apparently creating a (p.195) mistrial, and there’s no indication that he will ever be tried again for Bonnie Dee’s death (411ff ).

From this suppression of testimony, we may well understand that in fact Bonnie Dee didn’t die of tickling or from fright, but of more sinister means that Daniel and Edna Earle are trying to protect Daniel from and that Edna Earle is complicit at least in her narration here and on the witness stand. Did Daniel simply crush the life out of her petite body by lying on top of her? Dr. Ewbanks tells the court that Bonnie Dee died of what he calls “Misadventure,” which he defines as an “act of God. Like when the baby gets the pillow against its face, and just don’t breathe any more” (397). Kreyling suggests that Bonnie Dee died from Daniel’s attempt to rape her (Comments). Did Daniel in fact murder Bonnie Dee, as the prosecution claims—perhaps to protect himself from her razor? If so, if that is even a possibility, then The Ponder Heart is a dark fable about an abusive husband who murders his wife, all packaged, and for generations read, as a lighthearted fable about a generous if eccentric heart gone topsyturvy.

But even granting the seriousness of all these questions that go begged, The Ponder Heart still doesn’t feel like a tragedy or even like a very serious book, though to be sure that seriousness or lack of it lies precisely in Edna Earle’s telling, which makes it feel like a comic fable of generosity gone awry. But Eudora Welty is very clever. As noted, most critics and readers have assumed the “Ponder heart” to be Uncle Daniel’s generous one. But in fact the only times Edna Earle discusses a heart is to show it in crisis: Grandpa’s, whose apoplexy kills him; Bonnie Dee’s, whose heart fails her; and even Daniel’s “aging” heart, which “races” (370). It would seem more likely, then, that the “Ponder heart” of the title is not Daniel’s pathologically and problematically generous one but rather precisely that heart in a crisis of expectations and on the verge of collapse, a heart that needs to control and to acquire, a heart that believes it can buy contentment, a heart too rigid or too weak to continue beating through a family crisis—the sort of heart that must escape or cave in, or in any case break.

Even if The Ponder Heart is nothing more than a farce, the cultural narrative about family that underlies Edna Earle’s story is nevertheless (p.196) crucial to its humor. The novel voices some sense of family values that lie in our language of love, which we often accept as merely language but which more often than not define who we are and what we believe about ourselves and our institutions. The prosecuting attorney builds his case from a message that Daniel sent to Bonnie Dee: “I’m going to kill you dead, Miss Bonnie Dee, if you don’t take me back” (397–98). The prosecutor takes those words literally and it is part of the defense’s method to get us and the jury to understand that we should take such language as exaggeration, not as literal intention. He didn’t mean that literally, Edna Earle says on the witness stand, when asked whether she ever heard words like that in the Ponder household. She has grown up with such talk, in a “perfectly normal household” where “[t]hreats flew all the time.” The prosecutor asks whether she considers this a “perfectly innocent remark,” so that “in your estimation it meant nothing like a real threat?” “Meant he got it straight from Grandma,” Edna Earle says. “That’s what it means. She said ‘I’m going to kill you’ every other breath to him—she raised him. Gentlest woman on the face of the earth. ‘I’ll break your neck,’ ‘I’ll skin you alive,’ ‘I’ll beat your brains out’—Mercy! How that does bring Grandma back” (398).

Welty undercuts the apparent comedy of such exchanges with some grimmer realities about family violence: while giving this testimony Edna Earle silently remembers Williebelle Kilmichael who means such words at least to the extent of shooting her husband in the britches with buckshot and she remembers that even the prosecutor Gladney’s wife has also famously peppered him with buckshot on more than one occasion. Very near the end of the book, Edna Earle reflects on the brutal sense of family relationships that our culture not just tolerates but accepts as givens:

Oh, … I wished that Uncle Daniel had just whipped out and taken a stick to Bonnie Dee—out of good hard temper! Of course never meaning to kill her. And there is temper, on Grandpa’s side. Uncle Daniel was just born without it. He might have picked up Grandpa’s trusty old stick hanging right there on the hatrack where Grandpa left it, and whacked her one when she wasn’t glad to see him. That would have gone down a whole lot easier in Clay. (422)

(p.197) This is a pretty grim, even jarring note for a farce, until we understand it in the context of Clay’s family values. Thus we perhaps understand how Grandpa had dealt with disobedience among his children and why they all left home. Edna Earle, lying about so much, may also lie about whether Daniel has a temper (Daniel even threatens to “beat” her if “she dont stop” giving him counsel during the trial [409]); she certainly lies about how Bonnie Dee died.

What does it all mean? the judge asks Edna Earle. Don’t mean a thing, she says, “except love, of course. It’s all in a way of speaking,”—a line that reflects Delta Wedding’s more complicated statement, that families often speak “of killing and whipping … in the exasperation and helplessness of much love.” Perhaps it’s love, perhaps it’s more exasperation and helplessness. If it’s love, we may permit ourselves to wonder what kind of love manifests itself with Grandpa’s trusty old stick or with language that laughs at it. We might even wonder how much of the language of our own households is the language of threat, of violence. We might also usefully compare The Ponder Heart’s language with the language and actuality of violence in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, where violence appears almost as a direct objective correlative to the language the family uses.

Eudora Welty could not have known at mid-century what we now know about the enormity of domestic violence—the statistical horror, I mean, the extent of the misuse and abuse of women and children. Even so, readers today can’t help but wince or shuffle uncomfortably in our seats when we read such language, especially perhaps when a woman uses that language to accept or justify the cultural conditions that allow such attitudes to prevail and, more especially, when the language, the telling, insists—or perhaps merely hopes—that we will laugh at it and so be complicit with those conditions. What Welty did know, in the fifties, is that language does in fact mean something, that it carries all the weight of our traditions, for good and for ill. She knew that language, the language of fiction, the language of narrative, the language, even, of love, often both hides what it wants to express and expresses what it wants to hide. Perhaps she knew that the language of comedy is the only way for prisoners to deal with their grim realities.

(p.198) Welty names deliberately. The Lockharts of “At the Landing” and The Robber Bridegroom become here rather the ponderous heart, the ponderable heart. A locked heart is a ponderable one and this family’s name is an invitation, indeed an instruction, for us to think seriously about this organ—the literal core of our corporeal selves, the metaphorical core of our spiritual and emotional selves—and to wonder why the Ponders, with all their acquiring and holding, are dying out, dispersed and fragmented by the tyrannical will of him who wanted to be the patriarch totem around which the Ponders would all cohere while the lower-class, even white trash Peacocks, whom the class-conscious Edna Earle disdains, proliferate and flourish in joyous profusion.5 The real Ponder heart is more nearly Grandpa’s Ponderous one—rigid, pre-emptive, and ruthless. If families sit around the parlor of an evening with their necks broken, it is almost certainly their hearts that broke first.

The Ponder heart is not the generous and loving, if eccentric, “heart” of our need and our mythology but rather a dark and complicated place, perhaps the heart of the heart of a domestic darkness no amount of electricity or lightning either can illuminate.

Notes:

(1) . For a slightly fuller treatment of “Magic,” see “Domestic Violence in ‘The Purple Hat’” in this volume.

(2) . “He’d point out what he’d have on his plate—usually ham and steak and chicken and cornbread and sweet potatoes and fried okra and tomatoes and onion-and-egg—plus banana pie …” (364). “He ate me out of house and home …” (365), Edna Earle says.

(3) . Kreyling (Understanding) is a notable exception to this generalization; his arguments about this novel’s “subtexts” anticipate and complement my own. Baris, too, though her interests in The Ponder Heart are significantly different from my own.

(4) . He is in “his forties” when he marries Miss Teacake Magee, and we do not know how long after that he married Bonnie Dee or how long he spent in the Asylum; Bonnie Dee comes to town while he is in the asylum (346, 352).

(5) . “Old lady Peacock wagged in first … all of them behind her—girls going down in stairsteps looking funnier and funnier in Bonnie Dee’s parceled-out clothes, and boys all ages and sizes and the grown ones with wives and children, and Old Man Peacock bringing up the rear.” “They’re not dying out,” Edna Earle notes, admitting that the Ponders are (384). In The Optimist’s Daughter, Laurel Hand must feel the same way, observing the profusion of Dalzells in the hospital and of Fay’s family at the funeral.