Trigger warning: Rape, spanking of a child.
An Analysis of Disability in "Petrified Man"
In Eudora Welty’s, “Petrified Man,” impairment thwarts the evolution of the petrified man, Leota, and Mrs. Fletcher. The petrified man is stripped of his masculinity, and is characterized as definitively feminine. Even when the petrified man assumes the identity of Mr. Petrie, he is still considered disabled and is thereafter feminized because he is violent and psychologically disturbed—two traits that are considered socially unacceptable. Leota is incapable of fulfilling her gender prescribed role as wife within societal expectations, but has the capacity to mother, while Mrs. Fletcher, having completely immersed herself in the role of wife, has no grasp of how to mother when faced with it out of necessity. All three characters are stony and rigid in their own idiosyncrasies. This intractability renders them challenged because they are unable to conform to the ways in which society engenders them.
Leota shares with Mrs. Fletcher, a client of her beauty shop, her impressions of an act she sees at a freak show:
But they got this man, this petrified (emphasis mine) man, that ever’thing ever since he was nine years old, when it goes through his digestion…it goes to his joints and has been turning to stone…[H]is food, he eats it, and it goes down…and then he digests it…He’s turning to stone…All he can do, he can move his head just a quarter of an inch. A course he looks just terrible. (Welty 2151)
She characterizes the man solely in terms of ailment and outward appearance, which reduces him to nothing but an epithet: petrified. Through Leota’s perception of him, he mutates from a man to a nonhuman presence; he is described like a stone and is literally objectified, having been completely stripped of any identification with his sex. In Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson defines this process as “enfreakment: that the body envelops and obliterates the freak’s potential humanity. When the body becomes pure text, a freak has been produced from a physically disabled human being” (59). Leota inscribes ineffectuality on the petrified man because his maleness is underdeveloped; his condition of petrifaction destroys any traits of masculinity since with the impairment comes weakness and immobility. He also falls short in regard to aesthetic standards of male corporeal beauty as Leota says, “he looks just terrible”. He is the foil of maleness, obviously lacking the physical strength of youth and showing visible signs of aging.
The petrified man is a means for her to describe herself and Mrs. Fletcher. His “body functions as the monster manifest in the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. [He] becomes a freak not by virtue of [his] body’s uniqueness, but rather by displaying the stigmata of social devaluation…as the embodiment of what…not to be” (Thomson 59). The petrified man represents everything that Leota and Mrs. Fletcher are not; Leota is the picture of mobility as a beautician “pressing into Mrs. Fletcher’s scalp with strong red-nailed fingers…[and] [s]he dashed the comb through the air…combing hastily…to hold Mrs. Fletcher down by the hair” (Welty 2148, 2149). Her occupation is physically taxing. Likewise, Mrs. Fletcher is the prime example of bodily health as an expectant mother (Welty 2149). Her body is healthy enough to act as a stable environment for the fetus. In effect, the petrified man’s limitation of petrifaction allows the two women to project their own agency and physical abilities in order to exaggerate what he lacks. The petrified man is emblematic of virility simply because he is not virile himself. Interestingly though, the petrified man is juxtaposed with actual virility in the form of the women’s husbands: “Well, Mr. Fletcher is five foot nine and one half…Fred’s five foot ten…Mr. Fletcher takes bending exercises every night of the world” (Welty 2151, 2152). One is able to presume that the petrified man is much shorter than both of the men because his body has been stiffened by his condition, and therefore, contorted. Thomson asserts that “[i]n freak shows, the exhibited body became a text written in boldface to be deciphered according to the needs and desires of the onlookers” (60). Both women refer to their husbands following Leota’s description of petrified man in order to confirm for themselves that their husbands are what society deems they should be—tall and manly: “The figure of the freak is consequently the necessary cultural compliment to the normate position of masculine, white, [and] nondisabled…(64). Their husbands represent the normate, who is only able to assume the normative position if a deviant figure is present, a role involuntarily imposed upon the petrified man.
The petrified man’s handicap functions as a point of focus to examine Leota and Mrs. Fletcher’s flaws. In “Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor,” David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder further elaborate on this idea previously discussed by Lennard Davis: “The inherent vulnerability and variability of bodies serves literary narratives as a metonym for that which refuses to conform to the mind’s desire for order and rationality…disability acts as metaphor and fleshly example of the body’s unruly resistance to the cultural desire to ‘enforce normalcy’” (206). In effect, disability is used as a literary apparatus to indicate disability in those characters who are not blatantly marked as different. Without the petrified man purposely being petrified, one would be unable to see that both women fail to embrace their prescribed gender roles of wife and mother, respectively. In this way, the petrified man’s disability of petrifaction is employed as a mechanism to illustrate that his own cause of marginalization is used to detect the shortcomings of Leota and Mrs. Fletcher.
The petrified man is portrayed as the contrary of masculinity, while Leota and Mrs. Fletcher act as foils to constructions of femininity; neither serves as a successful female archetype. Leota has not adopted the role of wife as outlined by social mores. Although she is married with the title of wife, she is not submissive, dutiful, or mute, characteristic of the wifely stereotype, but is instead the opposite of the claim Thomson makes that “the freak is represented much like the woman: both are owned, managed, silenced, and mediated by men…both are seen as subjugated by the body” (71). As such, Leota avoids being labeled a freak according to this representation, although she is relegated to freakishness in an alternative manner: she in no way acts as a support to her husband Fred. They are not partners; it is understood that in the patriarchal society in which the narrative occurs, she is not his equal, but she is not his equal for altogether a different reason. She dominates their relationship and exerts power over him. After telling Mrs. Fletcher Fred’s height, Leota says “he’s still a shrimp” in comparison to her (Welty 2151). Just like the petrified man is reduced to an epithet, so is Fred, pejoratively referred to as “a shrimp.” In their relationship, it appears that the societally instituted patriarchy has no bearing. She tells him to go to Vicksburg, and he does (Welty 2154). It is evident then that while whatever Leota says or does to Fred is his reality, her mistreatment of him is still considered foreign and abnormal by those outside of their relationship in keeping with gender expectations. Fred is emasculated and marked as other because he does not conform to the prescribed gender roles of his sex. However, since Leota is the one responsible for his feminization, one is able to argue that she is the one who becomes aberrant through gender deviance and not Fred, since he is not directly to blame for her behavior. Therefore, he is still able to maintain the normative position of a male in the patriarchal society in which they live, shaping Leota into an anomaly. She is impaired because she is wayward; she is obedient enough to societal expectations to get married, but she rebels against the proprieties appertaining to spousal dynamics, so that she never fully actualizes her role of being Fred’s wife. This can be seen by the way she is identified. Throughout the narrative, Leota is only referenced by her first name. There is a literal disconnect between her and Fred because she appears to have not espoused anything at all associated with her spouse’s identity.
Leota, despite her distaste of matrimony and her subsequent distance to it, handles maternal matters with much more grace than her wifely responsibilities. When Billy Boy, Mrs. Pike’s son, is left with Leota at her beauty shop because his mother works elsewhere, one notices in her a potential to mother: “Billy Boy, hon (emphasis mine), mustn’t bother nice ladies” (Welty 2149). Although Billy Boy, Mrs. Pike’s son might be a slight disruption to her while she is working, she smiles at him and speaks to him kindly, calling him hon, a term of endearment. Thereafter, she slaps him, but “brightly” (Welty 2149). Although a slap could be seen as a punishment, the diction of “brightly” allows one to view the action as a positive one done cheerfully or playfully. However, after Leota tells Mrs. Fletcher that a newcomer in town, Mrs. Pike, knows she is expecting, one realizes that when contrasted with Leota, Mrs. Fletcher is not the mothering type: “Well! I don’t like children that much…Well! I’m almost tempted not to have this one…If a certain party hadn’t found it out and spread it around, it wouldn’t be too late even now” (Welty 2150, 2153). Her strong dislike of children, which even borders on antipathy, is a telling discovery since the fact that she is already a wife is so prominently displayed by the title of Mrs. and her husband’s surname of Fletcher. Unlike Leota, she has no first name throughout the entire narrative, and does again the opposite of Leota by identifying herself solely in terms of her husband’s identity. One would then suppose that to undertake the role of mother would be the next logical step in Mrs. Fletcher’s life, but that does not seem to be the case. She is against motherhood to such an extent that she even broaches the taboo subject of abortion, demonstrating that she is willing to go to great lengths in order to spare herself from it. Moreover, at the first mention of pregnancy there is no undertone of joy or thanks in Mrs. Fletcher’s voice; one can deduce that she speaks with a raised voice due to the choice of using exclamation points to punctuate the majority of her dialogue. One may also surmise that her dismay cannot even be justified from nervousness; she is honestly that unhappy to have conceived a child: “All I know is, whoever it is’ll be sorry some day. Why I just barely knew it myself! Just her wait!” (Welty 2149). She has an immediate and severe vendetta against the person who tells Leota the news, even before she knows the identity of the person herself.
When given the opportunity to be maternal with Billy Boy, she flounders miserably. Her first and only interaction with him is one that demonstrates that Mrs. Fletcher really has no maternal instinct, or at the very least, any sort of maternal inclination at all: “I caught him! I caught him! I’ll hold him on my lap. You bad, bad boy, you! I guess I better learn how to spank little old bad boys” (Welty 2156). She spanks Billy Boy, who is not hers to spank, and then giggles while doing it, suggesting that she is immature and does not know how to properly coexist with children; one can infer by her actions that she believes it is acceptable to subdue a child by physically harming him. Ostensibly, Billy Boy is punished by Mrs. Fletcher for having eaten something neither of the two women would have eaten themselves: stale peanuts (Welty 2156). He has done nothing wrong, and instead does them a service, so he is not the “bad, bad boy” that she says he is. In effect, Mrs. Fletcher is stunted by the unfamiliar, and yet, when exposed to the source of unfamiliarity that she shuns—a child, who is older and wiser than the fetus growing within her, and more importantly, who already has a grasp of language, she takes a passive role in widening her scope of maternal experience. By reaching out to Billy Boy aggressively, Mrs. Fletcher furthers the divide between a genuine mother who nurtures and a woman who only maintains the title of mother through biological processes; nothing is learned and she does not develop. She remains static and unchanging, unable to reach the bio-sociologically instilled goal that she be able to mother, and as a result, becomes figuratively petrified.
The petrified man is dissimilar from Leota and Mrs. Fletcher because their challenges are not visually observable; his petrified state, on the other hand, is much more perceptible, simply because it endures as Simi Linton explains in, “Reassigning Meaning”: “Another implication of the phrase [overcoming a disability] may be that the person has risen above society’s expectation for someone with those characteristics. Because it is physically impossible to overcome a disability, it seems that what is overcome is the social stigma of having a disability” (165). For the petrified man, his petrifaction will remain with him always. He will never get over it, and it will never pass. Furthermore, it imprints upon him with an indelible mark of corporeal otherness, and by extension, he is branded with the same badge of irremovable otherness related to gender. The petrified man is forever entangled in a web of femininity, seen as fixedly effeminate by Leota and Mrs. Fletcher. Both women in conversation about the petrified man repeatedly mention that his head is only able to move a quarter of an inch (Welty 2152). They view the petrified man’s petrifaction as something to be pitied, thereby distinguishing him as the pitiable object; they impress upon the petrified man their own emotions, making him emotional in character, and as a result, decidedly womanish. In essence, his stone-like state tags him as inherently female, although anatomically male.
His femaleness is drastically lessened and permanently altered when the petrified man’s identity is called into question. One discovers that Leota and Mrs. Fletcher do not know for certain if the petrified man is actually petrified: “Mrs. Pike says (emphasis mine) it goes to his joints and has been turning to stone” (Welty 2151). Leota hears from Mrs. Pike the story behind the petrified man’s gradual petrifaction, but no one actually confirms the validity of it; Mrs. Pike says something, and Leota perceives what she says to have the weight of fact. Essentially, what Leota hears is exactly that—hearsay, and yet, all three women believe his story to be true. They find out that his background and condition of petrifaction have been fabricated, however, when Mrs. Pike identifies the petrified man as Mr. Petrie: “It’s Mr. Petrie, that we stayed with him in the apartment next to ours in Toulouse Street in N.O. for six weeks” (Welty 2155). The transformation from the petrified man into or arguably returning to Mr. Petrie proves that this man is anything but petrified; one can gather that since they are the same person, the petrified man who is Mr. Petrie is not physically handicapped at all. He is only feigning the handicap of petrifaction. He elects to appear disabled whereas some disabled people choose to go through life not identifying their disability: “Disabled people, if they are able to conceal their impairment or confine their activities to those that do not reveal their disability, have been known to pass…[P]assing may be a deliberate effort to avoid discrimination or ostracism, or it may be an almost unconscious Herculean effort to deny to oneself the reality of one’s…bodily state” (Linton 166). As the Pikes’ past neighbor, Mr. Petrie is an able-bodied, ambulatory man. With his ability, he is perceived as normal, taking on a normative position. The identity of Mr. Petrie provides a solution for the petrified man. It permits him to escape his petrified state: “Narrative prosthesis (or the dependency of literary narratives upon disability) forwards the notion that all narratives operate out of a desire to compensate for a limitation…to resolve or correct…a deviance marked as improper to a social context” (Mitchell and Snyder 208, 209). When the petrified man morphs into Mr. Petrie, the being that is both of them is righted. The structure of “Petrified Man,” initially presents the reader with an impairment—the petrifaction of the petrified man, and at the narrative’s conclusion, he exhibits no impairment. The petrified man rehabilitates himself by acquiring the persona of Mr. Petrie; he eludes disablement, and for this reason is recognized by Leota, Mrs. Fletcher, and Mrs. Pike as someone who walks among them, evading the gender degradation accompanied with being petrified. Now, he is like them because his body is more like theirs.
One is able to gather that Welty’s “Petrified Man,” enforces the concept of narrative prosthesis theorized by Mitchell and Snyder because it succeeds in correcting the element of impairment associated with the petrified man, with the presence of the nondisabled Mr. Petrie. This notion of fixedness initiated by the deletion of limitation from the narrative is debunked, however, once Mr. Petrie is viewed in a negative manner: “Mr. Petrie is wanted for five hundred dollars cash, for rapin’ four women in California…” (Welty 2155). The transformation from the petrified man into or arguably returning to Mr. Petrie proves that this man is anything but petrified; he is wanted for rape, intimating that he is physically fit enough to inflict harm on another, and certainly then physical ability is required to subdue someone long enough to rape her. Being wanted for such a violent act classifies Mr. Petrie as able, relieving him of the stigma of being considered by others as more female than male, which is bestowed on him as the petrified man. Assuming that he has committed the crimes in question, the crimes accentuate his masculinity presenting him as wholly and entirely male, exhibiting physical strength and a desire and thirst for power that the rapes satiate. They signify a power struggle over which Mr. Petrie ultimately triumphs because although he is being pursued, Mr. Petrie has already taken advantage of the four females. This sense of physical ability of exerting one’s bodily power over another, causes Leota, Mrs. Fletcher, and Mrs. Pike to focus on Mr. Petrie’s new identity which includes his new ability, while simultaneously, however, positing him as a threat. His new ability directs one to what he does with it: Mr. Petrie rapes, boiling him down to a different epithet: rapist. It can be construed then that Mr. Petrie passes as the petrified man in all probability to avoid being caught for rape, further incriminating himself. In the freak show, he is presumed physically unable, so such an environment would be the last place any law enforcement would look for him—the perfect hiding place. One would believe he would be on the run instead of literally staying put in one location every day, all day. In the freak show, Mr. Petrie is the victim; he escapes the disgrace of being a criminal because as the petrified man he cannot do anything. In the outside world, where Leota, Mrs. Fletcher, and Mrs. Pike reside, he is the victimizer.
It is apparent then that although Mr. Petrie is able-bodied, he is still impaired because his gender becomes his impairment. He weaponizes his masculinity though the act of rape—a total desecration of the intimacy of sexual intercourse—to attain and maintain power. The weaponization of his masculinity, on its face, characterizes him as ultra-masculine, but its effect on him is, in fact, the opposite. His attempt to further masculinize himself via the act of rape actually weakens him since it signals to others, namely, Leota and Mrs. Fletcher, that he is emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. In his mind, such an invasive, violent act as rape is not flagged immediately as depraved. In essence, the being that is the petrified man and Mr. Petrie is considered impaired throughout the narrative, with the perceived impairment only changing in nature. He transitions from having a perceived physical handicap to having a perceived emotional one, and since the type of impairment changes, he only preserves the semblance of masculinity found in the identity of Mr. Petrie because it turns out to be an illusion; his mind is troubled and contributes to his immoral and criminal behavior. He is perceived as weak, and morally, his character does not reflect the strength and uprightness that his able body does. Due to the grotesqueness of his actions, Mr. Petrie becomes grotesque, although he appears normal and occupies a normative position, just as the petrified man is considered grotesque due to his physical state. According to social standards created by society, weakness is considered a feminine quality. Thus, Mr. Petrie is cast as undeniably effeminate, a designation which never shifts; he is petrified again, despite his efforts to alter his personage.
In conclusion, though Leota and Mrs. Fletcher achieve certain gender roles, they both have an affinity toward those roles which are more distant to them; they progress to each role out of order. Leota takes to mothering but not marriage, while Mrs. Fletcher clings to the farther removed phase of marriage instead of focusing on the more immediate matter of pregnancy. These gaps in their experiences as women prohibit the cultivation of possible relationships; Leota judges her husband, Fred, lessening his importance and weakening their marital bond. Mrs. Fletcher dismisses entirely any joy and happiness that can emerge from motherhood before she even delivers her child. They do not reach their full potential regarding the gender-specific roles of wife and mother because they do not fully immerse themselves in one role before taking on another. The petrified man is emasculated through no fault of his own, but for his exterior flaws, and even when he transforms into Mr. Petrie, a corrected version of the petrified man because of his normal aesthetic appearance and mobility, the man that is both of them continues to be effeminized by Leota and Mrs. Fletcher because of his questionable mental state. His mental faculties and morals are contrary to those around them, and therefore he is seen as weak and emotional like Leota and Mrs. Fletcher. All three characters are handicapped by the societal roles which they are expected to assume. They are stagnant and never grow into their roles because the contrivance of gender is engrained in each of them in such a way that it turns out to be ineluctable. They are doomed by the inability to experience, and forever petrified.
Linton, Simi. “Chapter Thirteen: Reassigning Meaning.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2006. 161-172.
Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder. “Chapter Seventeen: Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2006. 205-216.
Thomson, Rosemarie G. “Chapter Three: The Cultural Work of American Freak Shows, 1835-1940.” Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 1997. 55-80.
Welty, Eudora. “Petrified Man.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina
Baym. 7th ed. Vol. E. New York, NY: Norton, 2007. 2148-2157.
Biography: Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-four-year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Kaleidoscope, and Tiny Tim Literary Review. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
If you would like to contact Kelley about this essay or other works, please email me at handyuncappedpen[at].gmail.com and I will pass the message to her.