A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of A Visit of Charity
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    A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of A Visit of Charity
     Hongzhuo Zhang
    School of International Studies, University of Science and Technology Liaoning, Anshan 114051, Liaoning, P. R. China 

    First Author: Hongzhuo Zhang, teaching assistant, doctor, School of International Studies, University of Science and Technology Liaoning. Her research interests include psychoanalytic literary criticism, archetypal literary criticism, and intercultural communication competence studies.
    Corresponding Author: Hongzhuo Zhang, teaching assistant, doctor, School of International Studies, University of Science and Technology Liaoning, Anshan City, Liaoning Province, P. R. China Province,
    Key Words: Psychoanalysis; Personality; Dream; Unconscious
    Abstract: In A Visit of Charity, Eudora Welty tells the story of a 14-year-old girl’s visit to an Old Ladies’ Home, criticizing the fake charity which can destroy the very humanity of people. Although the plot of the fiction is quite simple, it is woven with details and metaphors which create a complex world and reflect the different psychological states of the characters. This paper aims at analyzing the personalities of the characters in the story through a psychoanalytical perspective. 
    I. Introduction
    1.1 Eudora Welty and Her Works
    Eudora Welty (1909—2001) is one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century and is recognized as a master of short fiction. She spent her entire life in Mississippi, and she witnessed the huge social revolution of the South in the twentieth century. With the creation of complex fictional worlds, she focuses most of her works on the intricacies of human relationships and reveals the dehumanization of the industrial society. The Springfield Republican remarks that her stories are “groupings into the morbid.” Throughout her life Welty published altogether four collections of short stories and several novels. In 1972, The Optimist’s Daughter wins her the Pulitzer Prize. A Visit of Charity is taken from Welty’s first story collection A Curtain of Green (1941), by which Welty gained attention from the literary world.
    1.2 Psychoanalysis
    Psychoanalytical theory was first developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Its core concept is human unconsciousness. Freud divided the mind into the conscious mind (or the ego) and the unconscious mind. He viewed the unconscious as a place to keep socially unacceptable ideas, wishes or desires, traumatic memories, and painful emotions which are put out of mind by the mechanism of psychological repression. “According to Freud, the unconscious contains thoughts, memories, and desires that are well below the surface of conscious awareness but that nonetheless exert great influence on behavior.” Through observations, he concluded that psychological disturbances are largely caused by personal conflicts existing at the unconscious level. “His psychoanalytic theory attempts to explain personality, motivation and mental disorders by focusing on unconscious determinants of behavior.” According to the psychoanalytic theory, human behaviors are largely driven by their unconscious. Conflicts between the conscious and the repressed unconscious can result in mental problems such as neurosis, anxiety, and depression, etc.
    II. A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of A Visit of Charity
    Many detailed descriptions in A Visit of Charity suggest that the whole visit resembles a dream. The plot lacks accuracy and at many points seems even grotesque. Besides, the word “dream” appears once and again. We occasionally come across words like “dreamily”, “as in dreams”, “perhaps” and sentences like “she could not hear whether the old women were saying anything or not”, “Marian could not remember her name”, “…,without realizing that she had said a word”, etc. The narration of the author brings people into a dreamlike atmosphere and thus develops the plot as if the whole thing happens in people’s unconscious.
    Welty once said fiction provided her with the most productive tool for analyzing human personality. There are altogether four characters in the story A Visit of Charity, the girl, the nurse and the two old women. Each of them presents different personalities which can be interpreted by the psychoanalytical approach.
    2.1 The Selfish Girl Marian
    A Visit of Charity was written in the third person perspective of the 14-year-old girl Marian. She reluctantly pays a visit to the Old Ladies’ Home in order to gain points for her Campfire Girl charity work. However, the whole visit turns out like a horrible dream for her.
    The detailed description of “she proceeded slowly toward the building” and “she shifted the small pot from hand to hand” shows Marian’s reluctance to enter the Home and her fear of “the unknown”. It can be easily inferred that the young girl has never truly interacted with the marginalized community before, whose lives are nothing like hers. What’s more, she doesn’t understand the misery of the old women who are abandoned by the society, and thus has no compassion for them. She stammers to the nurse, “any of them will do,” and frequently thinks about the points that she will get for the visit. The motive for her visit is earning points for her Campfire Girl work and she just wants to finish the task as soon as possible. In her unconscious, she doesn’t think of the old women in the Home as people like her. When she looks at them, she thinks of words like “bird claw”, “bleat” and “sheep.” Their room is dark and tiny, and looks like “a robber’s cave.” When one of the old women asks Marian for a penny upon her leaving, “Marian pulled violently against the old hands”. Running out of the nursing home, she quickly retrieves the red apple she hid under the prickly shrub before entering the Home. Welty vividly reveals the girl’s indifference and selfishness. As a girl of 14, her actions and emotions disclose the insensitivity and morbidity of the society at that time.
    Freud believed dreams to be a royal road to the unconscious.” In A Visit of Charity, the whole story is filled with self-interest, insensitivity, and distorted humanity, which are reflected through the unconscious of the little girl Marian.
    2.2 The Apathetic Nurse
    Attention should also be paid to the description of the nurse. Opposite to words like warm, caring and gentle, Welty intentionally depicted the nurse behaving in a cold and apathetic manner. She wrote, “This was a woman who looked as if she were cold; she had close-cut hair which stood up on the very top of her head exactly like a sea wave”. She knocks loudly on the door to the old women’s rooms and pushes Marian in with her “strong and impatient” arm. When Marian leaves, she asks automatically if she will stay and have dinner together. The nurse shows no emotion throughout Marian’s visit. To her, working in the nursing home is just a means of living, and she already sees too many fake charities to be affected by one more visitor.
     We also notice that the nurse behaves in a mannish way. “She lifted one eyebrow and spoke like a man”. When she stops at a room and looks at her watch, “She first extended her arm, bent her elbow, and leaned forward from the hips”. What’s more, she chooses to pass time by reading a male-targeted magazine (Field &, Stream) on her desk. In a society that is dominated by males, women feel that they are inferior and suppressed. By intentionally assimilating with males and reading male-targeted magazine, the nurse finds a distorted way to fulfill her desire for equality and power. Her mannish behavior embodies her loss of feminine identity in the society.
    2.3 The Lonely Old Women
    In the story A Visit of Charity, we can know that it is not the first time that the Old Ladies’ Home receives a “charity visit”, and we can infer that no charity is indeed performed in those visits. Being kept in the “Home”, the two old women feel isolated and uncared for. Long terms of loneliness and depression reinforces in their mind that they are just the outcasts, neglected and abandoned by the whole society. In time, trauma develops. According to trauma theory, those who experienced trauma try to hide themselves from the outside world and live only in their own fantasies to avoid being exposed to the same experience again. Marian’s visit triggers the old women’s familiar feelings of being the abandoned, putting them in a state of extreme insecurity and discomfort. During the visit, the little girl’s fear and disgust towards the old women can easily be observed, which is a reminder of the old women’s trauma. What’s worth noting is that Welty designed different defense mechanisms for the two old women.
    In her unconscious, the first old woman is well aware that no one cares about her living condition or happiness. However, she refuses to acknowledge the fact. On the one hand, throughout Marian’s visit, she is trying to act to be happy and grateful. By doing so, she thinks she can construct an identity that does not look so pathetic. On the other hand, her constantly changing reactions reveal her feelings of despair and exhaustion, as well as the loss of self-esteem. She insists that the flower brought by Marian is beautiful yet puts it “high on the top of the wardrobe, where it could hardly be seen from below”; she talks to Marian in an intimate yet menacing voice; and upon Marian’s departure, she even harasses Marian for money. She acts as if she were thankful and delighted by a visitor, but in fact her unconscious is full of sorrow and hatred.
    The second woman, instead, shows disillusion and estrangement. She chooses to disassociate from the painful emotion by numbing all emotion. She is “lying flat in bed with a cap on and a counterpane drawn up to her chin.” It is obvious that the old woman is unwilling to connect with the outside world. By not being physically or emotionally involved the whole visit, she tries to detach herself from it. Her addresses are short and cold. She insists the flower brought by Marian is not pretty and she is not willing to admit that there are former visits before Marian. However, under the surface of her alienation, the hostility suppressed in her unconscious is accumulating. Later when she is too irritated to suppress her anger, she bursts out very long sentences even without a pause, or a clearing of throat. She looks at Marian “with despair and calculation in her face”. She tries to stay detached and cold, yet her anger prevailed at last. What’s more, she says a lot to hurt the first old woman, deteriorating their relationship as well as stabbing into her own wound.
    III. Conclusion
    By a psychoanalytical interpretation of A Visit of Charity, we can get a better understanding of the construction of the fiction and the psychological reasons behind the different behaviors and personalities of the characters. Meanwhile, it enables readers to see the author’s intention of criticizing the unconscious selfishness, indifference and dehumanization of the industrial society in the twentieth century South America.
    [1] Kreyling, M. Understanding Eudora Welty [M]. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999: 9.
    [2] Weiten, W. Psychology: Themes and Variations [M]. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011: 7.
    [3] Gexin, F. A Critical Appreciation of American Short Stories [M]. Beijing: Xinhua Publishing House,2006: 312-317.
    [4] Gerrig, R. & P.Zimbardo. Psychology and Life [M]. Beijing: Peking University Press, 2005: 37.
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