on The Whistle
by Eudora Welty
Approaching the story
Must try not to judge it by how sad or happy it is. Reading literature not only enlarges our sympathy but also creates a kind of joy out of sorrow. You might want to look at the study of the way listening to sad music helps us[i]. And Aristotle had something to say on this in his essay on tragedy.
Narrative Point of View
Welty keeps herself well out of the scene. At the beginning she simply describes the moon, the shack, the people without giving any thoughts of her own. Their cold and poverty, as it were, ‘speak for themselves’.
It’s quite a while before we get any thoughts of the characters, and then only Sara’s. First her tiredness and coldness, then her dream-like thoughts of spring, part longing for next spring, part memories of others. This memory allows us, the readers, to get some idea of the work they do, and we hear about Mr Perkins who ‘owned their farm now’. And that implies that they’d had to sell up to survive and go on as tenants. This gives us some ‘back-story’, that is information about their circumstances before the events in he story began.
The moon is continually mentioned as an image of coldness, both physical and social. There’s a coldness in the way they’re treated by society, and a kind of co-operative coolness between the two of them. They don’t cuddle up together to get a bit warm.
The fire flickers in the background weakly, and eventually goes out, and then another fire is created by Jason’s burning the furniture.
Cold is a basis for the description of their postures, their anxieties, a threat to them, and also to the tomato crop on which they depend and for which they sacrifice covers and clothes. The cold sinks into them ‘like the teeth of a trap’.
The cold and whoever’s let this all happen seem to be ‘characters’. But the main characters are sparsely drawn, and we only have the thoughts, and few of those, of Sara. Though, of course, it’s Jason who acts, and passionately.
Most of the story’s taken up with a description of their problem, which has also become their routine way of life. There is the wider problem of being so cold and poor (and exploited), and the immediate problem of how to get warm now, and Jason’s ‘solution’ to that problem. Jason’s act seems both inspired and reckless and possibly suicidal. What does it express?
[i] What do nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder all have in common? They're all healthy, feel-good emotions. “For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects,” the researchers, led by psychologist Liila Taruffi, report. “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
The study also revealed that a high number of participants reported listening to sad music in situations of emotional distress or when they’re feeling lonely, so it could be a form of self-medication. “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the researchers add.
These findings appear to have some connection to previous research into sad music that suggests listening to it changes the chemistry in our brains to help us get over our grief. According to David Huron, a professor of music at Ohio University in the US, listening to sad music likely causes a spike in the hormone prolactin in the brain.
"Prolactin is the chemical that is used to help curb grief because it's also released during basic human activities - like when we eat, when women ovulate or breastfeed and (perhaps most importantly) when we have sex,” says David Taylor Sloan at Mic.com. "So sad music actually activates a chemical that tones down your grief - suggesting that being sad (and listening to sad music to get there) has deep evolutionary benefits. - http://www.sciencealert.com/why-listening-to-sad-songs-is-good-for-you