Leota is giving Mrs. Fletcher her ten o’clock shampoo and set, and asks her to reach into her purse to get a cigarette. Mrs. Fletcher complies and marvels at the peanuts inside. Leota replies that Mrs. Pike gave them to her. Mrs. Fletcher does not know who that is, and Leota explains that she is a friend, not a customer. She is from New Orleans and she and her husband are renting a room with Leota and her husband, which became vacant after former renters Sal and Joe left.
Leota adds that Mrs. Pike is a “very decided blonde” and when Mrs. Fletcher muses that she must be cute, Leota volunteers that she is very beautiful and has a good time. As she talks she combs through Mrs. Fletcher’s hair, some of which falls out. Mrs. Fletcher complains that it was the last perm Leota gave her, but Leota firmly says she left it in for the right amount of time.
Mrs. Fletcher frets that it might be dandruff from her husband. Leota ventures to say that yesterday she was listening to one of Thelma’s ladies who was saying that Mrs. Fletcher was pregnant and that is why her hair is doing funny things. Mrs. Fletcher gasps and demands to know who it was. Leota will not say, and says the woman meant no harm.
Mrs. Fletcher shrieks for Thelma to come over, and Leota asks her sternly who said yesterday that her own client was pregnant. Thelma shrugs that she does not recollect in the faintest. Mrs. Fletcher asks if it was Mrs. Hutchinson, and Thelma says no. Mrs. Fletcher is indignant, and promises that whomever said it will be sorry.
A little boy pipes up and asks what she will do to her. He is playing with aluminum wave pinchers on the floor under the sink. Mrs. Fletcher asks who the child is and Leota smiles that he is Billy Boy and he is three years old and the son of Mrs. Pike. She got a job at Fay’s Millinery but he kept putting the hats on and was considered a nuisance by the other women, so now he is hanging out here.
Mrs. Fletcher moodily says she does not like children, and is tempted not to have this one. She angrily says Mrs. Hutchinson talks behind her back. Leota replies that Mr. Fletcher would beat her on the head if she did not have the child. Mrs. Fletcher sniffs that he would do no such thing and he cannot even raise his voice with her or she’d have one of her “sick headaches.”
She then sulkily asks if Leota told Mrs. Pike, and Leota admits that it wasn’t Mrs. Hutchinson who told her about the pregnancy—it was Mrs. Pike. Mrs. Fletcher is shocked and asks how she could possibly know. Leota explains that on Sunday she and Mrs. Pike were together at the drugstore and they saw Mrs. Fletcher run in and get a prescription. Leota told her that was one of her customers and Mrs. Pike looked at her keenly and said she was about three months pregnant.
Mrs. Fletcher is upset but Leora assures her she’d love Mrs. Pike. Yesterday they went to the traveling freak show, she says, and suggests Mrs. Fletcher go see the twins in a bottle. Mrs. Fletcher does not like freak shows, but Leota tells her about the conjoined twins, born dead, and how creepy and pathetic they were. She says their parents were first cousins. Mrs. Fletcher says calmly that she and Mr. Fletcher “aren’t one speck of kin.” Leota bursts out that of course they aren’t, and neither are she and Fred.
Continuing, Leota says that Mrs. Pike loved the pygmies. They marveled at the one that was 42 years old and so small. She says all in all, they aren’t bad-looking. When Mrs. Fletcher comments that Mrs. Pike is probably that old, Leota replies that she is 33.
Leora returns to her comments, mentioning a petrified man who can move his head a bit but who is turning to stone. She wonders, “How’d you like to be married to a guy like that? All he can do, he can move his head just a quarter of an inch. A course he looks just terrible.”
The women muse about the petrified man for another minute, and Mrs. Fletcher asks if Mrs. Pike liked him. Leota replies that she liked Lady Evangeline more, who is a mind reader at the freak show. Leota thought the woman had a terrible manicure but she was impressed that she told Mrs. Pike that Mr. Pike would come into some money and was always true to her.
Mrs. Fletcher scoffs and asks what Mr. Pike does. Leota shrugs and says he doesn’t work. She turns to her own experience with Lady Evangeline, and mentions how she wanted to find out more about this boy she used to go with, who had married a girl for her money. Leota confides she is not in love with him anymore but Mrs. Pike urged her to ask the mind reader if the man was happy.
Mrs. Fletcher asks if Mrs. Pike knows everything about Leota already, and Leota laughs and says yes. She recounts how Lady Evangeline gave her a date on which the man and his wife would no longer be occupying the same bed. Also, she should be glad she did not get that man because “he’s so mercenary.” Leota is glad Fred is not like that.
When Mrs. Fletcher asks if Mrs. Pike believes the mind reader, Leota replies that of course she does because she is from New Orleans and everyone there “believes ever’thing spooky.” Leota mentions how Mrs. Pike is also a beautician. Mrs. Fletcher asks where she met her husband and Leota replies on a train. Mrs. Fletcher says primly that she and Mr. Fletcher met in a rental library, and Leota says she and Fred met in a rumble seat eight months ago and married immediately. She adds that Mrs. Pike says such intensity doesn’t last, and the annoyed Mrs. Fletcher says she and her husband are as much in love as the day they married. Leota is unswayed. She then tells Mrs. Fletcher to go under the drier, and that she has to give Mrs. Pike a facial for free, as she is in the business (she is also a beautician). Mrs. Fletcher grumbles that she probably needs one as Leora walks away.
A week later Mrs. Fletcher is back, and sits into the chair and looks at her stomach, sighing that people can tell when she sits. Leota is distracted but tells her no one can tell. She absentmindedly tells a story of another woman who was so dedicated to getting her hair done that she came the day she was having the baby. Her husband was frightened and she was yelling, but she wanted her hair to be done.
Mrs. Fletcher thinks the woman’s husband should have made her behave, but says not to mistake her—women have to stand up for themselves but it is still important to ask for a husband’s advice. Though, she adds, she has not told him about the baby.
Leota scoffs that she would never ask Fred for his advice, and in fact she told him to go to Vicksburg. The mind reader told her on another visit that her lover would work in Vicksburg, so it must be Fred. He does not want to go, but it will be good for him because all he does is mess around with Mr. Pike.
Mrs. Fletcher sees Billy Boy around and asks Leora in a saccharine tone how her attractive friend “with the sharp eyes who spreads it around town that perfect strangers are pregnant” is. Leota sighs. She starts to say what has recently happened, beginning with how she and Fred first set up the room for rent after Sal and Joe left after drinking home brew in the closet, and how it had a nice pillow (which neither Pike said they appreciated) and some magazines set out. The night before last the four of them were sitting in the Pikes’ room and Mrs. Pike yelled out to her husband, and started pointing at a picture in the Startling G-Man magazine. She said she recognized Mr. Petrie, a man they stayed with in New Orleans for a couple weeks. It said he was wanted for $500 for raping four women in California, and she recognized him as the petrified man in the freak show. Both the Pikes were elated but Leota was annoyed since she’d had that magazine for a month and the freak show was so close to the beauty parlor—shouldn’t it have been her who figured this out?
Mrs. Fletcher says “what gall” but is not at all sad. Leota continues that Mrs. Pike started “actin’ like she thinks she was Mrs. God.” The Pikes will be leaving tomorrow, and she is stuck here with the little kid under her feet talking back.
Mrs. Fletcher asks about the money. Leota explains Mr. Pike didn’t want anything to do with it at first because he liked the man, who was nice to them, but Mrs. Pike angrily told him that he had not worked for six months and here she made $500 in two seconds. They called the cops and it was indeed Mr. Petrie, and he had raped four women in one month. The Pikes got their money, and Leota cried all night until Fred told her it was just a coincidence and she should get over it. Also, he will not go to Vicksburg until they rent out the room.
Mrs. Fletcher shudders that she cannot imagine anyone knowing this man who’s raped four women, and asks if Mrs. Pike spoke to him at the freak show. Leota says bitterly that she told Mrs. Pike she didn’t see her “falling all over” her old friend at the show, and Mrs. Pike said she just thought he looked familiar. Both Leora and Mrs. Fletcher insist they would have felt something if it was them.
Suddenly there is a crackling noise and Leota screams out to Billy Boy, asking what he is doing. He says he is just eating her peanuts. She flies into a rage and Mrs. Fletcher captures him and laughs that he is a bad boy and she better learn how to punish bad little boys. Leota paddles him with the hair brush while he screams angrily. Ladies gather and watch. Billy Boy kicks at them, and then, when freed, runs through the crowd of “wild-haired ladies” and calls out behind him, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”
“Petrified Man” is a short story in which very little actually seems to happen, but permeating the putatively plotless tale are amusing and potent renditions of character and small-town life, commentary on gender dynamics, and keenly drawn imagery that brings to life the women of the beauty parlor more than any mere description could do.
The basics of the story are as follows: Leota, a beautician, likes to gossip with her clients. Mrs. Fletcher is one of those clients, and she listens with a degree of snooty annoyance at Leota’s tales of her pretty new friend, Mrs. Pike. She is also highly agitated because Mrs. Pike guessed from afar that she was pregnant and the news started circulating among the women of the town. All goes swimmingly with Leota and Mrs. Pike, until one day Mrs. Pike recognizes a man–the petrified man—she saw in the freak show as her former landlord and a man wanted by the authorities for raping four women in California. Leota is jealous of the reward Mrs. Pike and her husband get, and both she and Mrs. Fletcher take out their annoyance with the situation on the Pikes’ son, Billy Boy, who has been hanging out at the beauty parlor. The child gets the last word after he gets a punishment for misbehaving, yelling out that he doesn’t know why they aren’t rich if they are so smart.
The boy’s words are spot-on. From the very beginning of the story the reader can see that neither Leota nor Mrs. Fletcher are particularly nice women. Leota likes to gossip with her clients and shares information she probably shouldn’t. She gets irrationally angry that Mrs. Pike gets the reward for identifying Mr. Petrie as the rapist, as the freak show was next door to the beauty parlor, and expresses not a whit of joy that a rapist was caught. Mrs. Fletcher in turn is highly critical and prone to jealousy. She is constantly trying to assert her own supremacy, whether it is comparing her husband to Mr. Pike, sniffing that she does not like freak shows, bragging that her marriage is good and Mr. Fletcher is fit, or, at the end, boasting that she definitely would have recognized something was off with the petrified man. Welty’s wonderful irony in her characterization of these two women is that they, especially Mrs. Fletcher, are looking into mirrors the entire time they evince their jealousy, deceit, envy, pettiness, and bitterness. Critic Lee Richmond comments that Mrs. Fletcher is “interested only in external beauty” and Leota’s “envy and betrayal of friends, her idle gossiping, and her materialism make her function as a creator of beauty grossly ironic.” Welty indicts the culture “which bets on appearances, on callousness, and on material values.”
Though the three husbands of the story—Mr. Fletcher, Fred, and Mr. Pike—do not make actual appearances, they are nonetheless important components. That importance comes from the way their wives depict them and the way they depict themselves within their marriage. Price Caldwell says that the beauty parlor “exhibits the world of women in their subversive complicity with the gender system. It describes the world of women who are direct competition with each other to prove their dominance over men… these women understand that their survival depends on the aggression and strength and wealth of men.” Interestingly, though, “sexual politics are exclusively the preserve of women, who measure their status with each other by the power they have over men.” Mrs. Fletcher, for example, states authoritatively that “Mr. Fletcher can’t do a thing with me” when Leota says he’d make her have the baby. She also says she hasn’t even told him yet, and that if he annoys her, she’ll “have one of my sick headaches.” She also says she makes him exercise, that they are as much in love as when they first met, and that she believes women ought to stand up for themselves and all they need to really do for their men is let them occasionally give advice. Leota, for her part, criticizes Fred often, depicting him as weak and ineffectual, short and lazy. Her marriage started out motivated by sex, but that has largely passed. Mrs. Pike, whose words come through Leota, seemingly has a different perspective on sex and marriage, meeting Canfield on a train (a suggestive meeting place) and that she fully knows that passion can fade. She does, however, order her husband around in the same way as the other women, for she berates him for not having a job and insists he procure the reward.
This brings us to the final man of the story—the petrified man. Unlike the limp and milquetoast husbands, Caldwell writes that the petrified man is “totally stiff. It is as if Eudora Welty has taken the masculine principle and, for the sake of the comedy, reduced it to its most absurd manifestation, the man who not only has a phallus of stone but is pure phallus.” Keeping with this dichotomy of hard and soft, Patrick O’Donnell writes, “becoming ‘soft’ in ‘Petrified Man’ is exactly what the women in the story wish to avoid as they harden their hair and their hears, or as they express dismay over Mrs. Fletcher’s pregnancy. She fears that her body will become soft, flatulent; she wishes to disguise that ripeness which signifies to her a form of decomposition, a ripeness leading to rottenness.” As for Mrs. Pike, she is reminiscent of Medusa, who undoes the petrified man with her gaze, “[fixing] him in place while revealing the fraudulency of ‘a man made of stone.’ She has “castrative power, a remarkable reversal of penis envy.”
At the end of the story, Leota and Mrs. Fletcher gleefully punish Billy Boy. While the child is indeed annoying, it is clear that both want to punish Mrs. Pike and act out all of their negative traits. Billy Boy gets the last word, though, with his childish but wounding question about why they’re not rich (i.e., got the reward) if they’re so smart. Richmond concludes his article on the story with an assessment of the boy’s words: “The theme of spiritual petrification is embodied devastatingly in a child’s ingenuous, yet prophetic, words.”