In Losing Battles Eudora Welty expresses an aspect of the phenomenon of time which she has hinted at in her other works but has not fully developed, namely the relationship of time to language. One could say that Welty has always been concerned with how human perceptions of time are expressed in narrative language, but in Losing Battles she is just as deeply interested in exploring how language is used to create or support a specific perspective of time. Indeed, in this novel of family tales and yarns, language is the message itself: she not only conveys her themes through language, but makes language her theme. Narrative language is more important here than in any previous Welty work because the novel is primarily oral—it is primarily written dialogue—and in this oral form Welty attempts not only to say something through language, but to say something about language. Losing Battles goes to the very heart of Welty’s art, asking not only such questions as “how is time represented in narrative language?” and “what do different narratives tell the reader or listener about the way the narrator views the world” but “what is narrative language’s relationship to time?” and “how is language causal to the creation of a world order and a particular perspective of time?
Miss Julia’s letter, for example, presents a world that, unlike the family, has a past, present and future. Her letter evaluates her present state (“I’m alive as ever, on the brink of oblivion”) in relation to her past (“I caught myself once on the verge of disgrace”) in connection with an implied future (“I’m ready for all they send me”). Nevertheless, while she combines the three modalities of time, no substantial evidence exists to show that she actually connects them. Rather, Miss Julia’s awareness of time is historical. Her historicism shows up in her metaphors: life for her is a “path,” a “road” which can be measured by “stages,” by “milestones.” Behind these metaphors lies the whole notion of time as progression. The adverbs “then” and “next” reveal her historical perspective. Events for her occur in series, not simultaneously. Whereas Welty used conjunctive adverbs to bring past events into an active and colloquial present, Miss Julia merely uses these adverbs as connectors between one modality and other. The past for her is always finished, the future something ahead, and the present only a momentary pause—never a time in which through memories the past can be brought together with a vision of a future that includes death. As she says, “Doubling back on my tracks has never been my principle. Even if I can’t see very far ahead of me now, that’s where I’m going” (p. 299).
College Park, Maryland, 1978
Reprinted from Peggy Prenshaw, ed., Eudora Welty: Critical Essays (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979).