At first glance, I thought Mr. Marblehall was an ordinary story with extraordinary description.  At second, I thought was a strange, perhaps semi-macabre story, verging on a shock value it would never quite reach.  Then I reached the end, and “Old Mr. Marblehall” turned downright brilliant on me.

 

Consider this as a lesson in descriptive detail:

 

His wife, back at home in the parlor standing up to think, is a large, elongated old woman with electric-looking hair and curly lips.  She has spent her life trying to escape from the parlor-like jaws of self-consciousness.  Her late marriage has set in upon her nerves like a retriever nosing and puffing through old dead leaves out in the woods.

 

This is not from the book that won Welty the Pulitzer, but there are people who have won them without equaling these sentences.  I live to find occasion to say “the parlor like jaws of self-consciousness” or “set in upon her nerves like a retriever.”

 

I would have loved the story for such passages whether anything ever happened in it or not.  But things did happen, or at any rate they didn’t happen in a way that was plenty happening.

 

Mr. Marblehall had a secret.  He was Mr. Marblehall and Mr. Bird.  He was the father to both Mrs. Marblehall’s son and Mrs. Bird’s son.  When he traveled supposedly for his health, he merely went across town to be his other self. 

 

That’s the part where things get weird.  They turn brilliant in the last few paragraphs. 

 

We’re told that one day the son of Mr. Bird will follow his father until he discovers Mr. Marblehall’s home, a stately place rather than a small bungalow, a manor with a box maze and door knocker that gaps open “like a gasping fish.” He’ll be exposed, his duplicity discovered by one and all.  We’re told Marblehall has a penchant for the macabre.  He loves to read tales of terror.  He reads them, and he imagines what will happen when he is discovered:  “how his two wives would topple over, how his sons would cringe.”

 

Then we are left to ponder this:  “What if nothing ever happens?  What if there is no climax, even to this amazing life?  Suppose old Mr. Marblehall simply remains alive, getting older by the minute, shuttling, still secretly, back and forth?”

 

And:  “Nobody cares.  Not an inhabitant of Natchez, Mississippi, cares if he is deceived by old Mr. Marblehall.”

 

What if nothing ever happens?  The question itself is a commentary both on the nature of life and the nature of story-telling.  People crave shocking climaxes in either case, but often in life they simply continue shuttling back and forth.  When story functions as mimesis for life, that’s what we get there as well.  We’ll be disappointed if we hope that anyone will topple over at the climax. 

 

Welty doesn’t tell how this story ends.  She gives us the questions and leaves us to ponder.  That’s what gives the story it’s power.  We, as readers, have to decide if it’s true that nothing will happen and no one will care, if we care enough to be sad for Marblehall in that case. 

 

We aren’t told, but we are given some wisdom to help us decide.  This is what “people are supposed to do”:  “they endure something inwardly—for a time secretly; they establish a past, a memory:  this they store up life.”

 

Either way, whether nothing or something happens, Mr. Marblehall has been storing up life times two.  He stores it up the way anyone else would, the way anyone’s story would, the way we do as we read and endure our thoughts of it inwardly.

 

As I read, I thought of the story as a metaphor for Natchez itself.  At first I thought, “How could he have two little boys who look alike without anyone noticing?”  Then I thought, “Ah, but it’s Natchez, and while one boy lives among the upper crust, the other exists in the working class.”

Natchez is like that.  Any small Mississippi town with claims to a rich class is.  These towns are like families cheating on themselves, comprised of two completely separate identities, nearly unknown to one another. 

 

I don’t know Welty’s intention, but I do have to wonder if the split personality of the town in some way inspired the story.  That gives me something to think about the next time I go to Natchez, and think about it I will.