It was mid-morning—a cold, bright day. Holding a potted plant before her, a girl of fourteen jumped off the bus in front of the Old Ladies’ Home, on the outskirts of town. She wore a red coat, and her straight yellow hair was hanging down loose from the pointed white cap all the little girls were wearing that year. She stopped for a moment beside one of the prickly dark shrubs with which the city had beautified the Home, and then proceeded slowly toward the building, which was of whitewashed brick and reflected the winter sunlight like a block of ice. As she walked vaguely up the steps she shifted the small pot from hand to hand; then she had to set it down and remove her mittens before she could open the heavy door.
One of the remarkable aspects of this passage, and indeed of the story as a whole, is the point of view employed by the author. We’re in the third person, of course, but note that Welty has chosen to dispense with any omniscience that might pull us comfortably into this girl’s state of mind and into the story. There’s a disquieting lack of empathy, seemingly on the author’s part. Yet, this emotional coldness is quickly established as the story’s central theme. Isolation, and images of isolation are reinforced throughout the paragraph. The day is cold. We’re on the outskirts of town. Moreover, the nameless girl (Marian, we learn shortly) is painted for us almost cruelly in terms of bland typicality. We’re told she’s wearing “the pointed white cap all the little girls were wearing that year.”
This young person clearly is no spirited free-thinker; even her walk is described as “vague.” She represents a sort of blindly dutiful, socially conditioned innocence. She is, in other words, ill-prepared for and blithely ignorant of the devastation of old age, of failing health, of loneliness and death, all of which are symbolized and foreshadowed in this opening passage by the image of a monolithic retirement home which Welty conjures as a kind of sinister internment camp. Not only does the ugly building resemble a “block of ice” in the harsh winter sunlight, but the “prickly dark shrubs” planted in front of the building suggest barbed wire.
You might think this sets the stage for a grim tale that sentimentalizes the elderly as oppressed victims of abuse and neglect. However, “A Case of Charity” is in fact one of Eudora Welty’s masterful little black comedies. Dickensian sentimentality is nowhere to be found. The two old women upon whom the young girl attempts to impose her charity are bitter and mean-spirited. Old age isn’t merely an inconvenience for them, it’s a black hole of delusion and despair. The old women bicker among themselves, they whine and say hateful things to one another. The girl is mocked and insulted by them, treated with the same kind of indifference that the story seems to imply we collectively treat our elderly in and out of society. But Welty steers clear of easy symbols and this never remotely resembles a screed on the theme of ageism. Her adjectives set a tone of discomfort and unease. The implications are ultimately ambiguous, if deeply pessimistic. Youth and old-age alike seem unavoidably blighted by ignorance and folly.
Some commentators have seen the girl’s journey as a kind of allegory of a Persephone-like character descending into the underworld. The story ends with her outside of the retirement home biting into an apple, which has led others to see a biblical theme at work, of innocence tarnished and sent packing into the fallen world. Welty, who had little regard for academic critics—she was essentially self-taught as a writer—said the impetus behind the story was simply her own childhood memories of being creeped out by old ladies in retirement homes. She was being disingenuous, however, by that response. On other occasions she spoke of the care she took with every word in a story like “A Visit of Charity,” looking to bring out echoes of myths and fairy tales (the girl’s red coat, for instance) and biblical lore. Eudora Welty has been called a writer’s writer, in part, I think, because we as writers can learn so much from her work, from the choices she makes as a stylist and as a storyteller. Her best stories have a powerful impressionistic quality in which tone, imagery and character become indistinguishable from plot. “Action is character,” F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to remind himself.