Places: The Ponder Heart

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: Early 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedClay

Clay. Ponder Heart, TheSmall county-seat town fifty miles north of Jackson in Mississippi that has at its heart that requisite of all southern towns, the courthouse square. Across the street is the Beulah Hotel, which only fills when court convenes and brings the town to life. Next door is the movie theater, with offices on the second floor for Ponder family friend, Judge Tip Clanahan. The Presbyterian church, spiritual home to the town’s elite, faces the more bourgeois Baptist church. Nearby are the post office and the ten-cent store where Uncle Daniel finds his child bride, Bonnie Dee Peacock.

Beulah Hotel

Beulah Hotel. Of a type that once graced the center of nearly every southern town, hotel boasting twelve bedrooms, two baths, two staircases, five porches, a lobby, a dining room, and a kitchen with a pantry. The once-bustling Beulah now hosts only the occasional overnight guest: Mr. Springer, the traveling drug salesman who comes and goes with the seasons, and the unnamed hearer of Edna Earle’s tale. When court is in session, though, the Beulah’s table feeds everyone from judge to defendant. It is the Beulah to which Uncle Daniel comes for companionship during and after his stormy marriage to Bonnie Dee.

Ponder Hill

Ponder Hill. Home of the Ponder family. In contrast to the Beulah at the heart of Clay, the Ponders’ home is isolated and empty. It sits three miles out of town in woods full of hoot owls, bordered by fields worked by tenant farmers. When Daniel’s father, Mr. Sam, built Ponder Hill, he tried to outdo the hotel owned by his bride’s parents. He built on a high hill a house as big as the Beulah itself, loaded with trim and brightly painted, its rooms stuffed with furniture and its roof overloaded with lightning rods. Over the years, however, death has emptied Ponder Hill, until only Daniel and the old cook Narciss remain. It is to Ponder Hill that Daniel takes both the wife of his short-lived first marriage, the widow Miss Teacake Magee, and the child bride of his second marriage, the ill-fated Bonnie Dee.

Clay courthouse

Clay courthouse. County courthouse that is the scene of Daniel’s trial for the murder of his wife, Bonnie Dee. Like Clay, the courthouse is in a state of decline. Filled with onlookers on a hot southern day, it offers a ceiling fan inadequate to the heat generated by a packed gallery, a broken water fountain filled with cement mounded over and painted blue, a porch for the overflow crowd, and a cake of public ice on the courthouse steps.

*Jackson

*Jackson. State capital of Mississippi that is the benchmark Eudora Welty provides for the geographical placement of her story. With a population of more than ninety-eight thousand in 1950, Jackson seems metropolitan to the inhabitants of Clay. A branch line train links Clay with Jackson and the state asylum nearby, to which Mr. Sam commits Uncle Daniel. It takes only an hour to make the drive in Mr. Sam’s big Studebaker. It is another world, however, a world where even the richest man in Clay, Sam Ponder, is an unknown who can mistakenly be held at the asylum. Its distant presence in the story juxtaposes the dangers of the outside world with the provincialism of Clay.

*Memphis

*Memphis. Tennessee city near the northern border of Mississippi. Even farther than Jackson lies the bigger and more anonymous city of Memphis, three hours and forty-five minutes north of Clay. Memphis is where Mr. Springer reports seeing the missing Bonnie Dee; Memphis is where the Ponders believe she has run to escape the isolation of Ponder Hill.

Silver City

Silver City. Mississippi town that is near enough to Clay to encourage trade, yet far enough away to be a separate world, Silver City offers what Clay cannot. For Miss Teacake Magee, it is where she buys the hair coloring she applies herself. For Uncle Daniel and Bonnie Dee, it is where the Ponders are so unknown that no one will call Edna Earle to prevent their impromptu marriage. While Jackson symbolizes the danger in venturing beyond the place where one finds identity and Memphis symbolizes a place so remote that one can lose oneself in it, Silver City is not so much dangerous as merely troublesome, a place to obtain what one ought not desire, in Edna Earle’s worldview.

Polk

Polk. Once a Mississippi town but now merely a place at the end of a gravel road, Polk is off the map literally and figuratively. The Peacock place out from Polk has tin on the roof, a mirror on the front porch, and more old tires than grass in the yard. The daily passing of the local train is such an event that the Peacocks wave when it passes. The local church in Polk is a burned-out shell, so Bonnie Dee’s funeral is held in the little front room of the Peacocks’ house.

BibliographyAppel, Alfred, Jr. A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965. Focuses on Edna Earl’s role and comments on the illusory nature of reality in the novel. Points out that Uncle Daniel, like many of Welty’s tragic characters, is left isolated by the end of the narrative.Carson, Barbara Harrell. “In the Heart of Clay: Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart.” American Literature 59 (December, 1987): 609-625. Excellent study of Edna Earl as a “dynamic balancer of reason and feeling,” both essential to human nature. Sees Uncle Daniel as an irrational man of feeling too much out of touch with reality to be capable of genuine love.Cornell, Brenda G. “Ambiguous Necessity: A Study of The Ponder Heart.” In Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979. Examines the shortcomings of the stage version of the novella, particularly with respect to the presentation of Edna Earl. Welty’s use of irony and paradox help sustain the premise that life is full of mystery.Idol, John L., Jr. “Edna Earl Ponder’s Good Country People.” In The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction, edited by Laurie Champion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Comments on the conflict set up in the novel between town and country, with Edna Earl representing the town. Includes a review of the novel and notes differences with the 1956 Broadway stage version.Kreyling, Michael. Eudora Welty’s Achievement of Order. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Includes a chapter that focuses on the “adjoining terror” that connects The Ponder Heart with serious comedy. Sees Edna Earl as Apollonian in her concern for knowledge and order, while Uncle Daniel is Dionysian in his spontaneity.
Categories: Places