While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions. The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size. The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family. In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts. We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth. The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.
The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity. From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint. He is however, presented as a good person. “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world. He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341) Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune. Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac. While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things. What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.” “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343) It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability. This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.
Daniel is, however, wealthy. He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances. Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.
When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help. The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel. The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder. The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.” (352) By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity. Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa). The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee. The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.
Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence. Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him. While this is a bit too optimistic in my view. Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).