SoLit: Multiplying Life Through Duplicity

May 2014

Spoiler Alert! Eudora Welty's short story "Old Mr. Marblehall" is about a man who lives two completely separate lives. In each life, he has a wife and a young son. One family lives on the one side of Natchez, Mississippi; the other family lives in the opposite side of Natchez. Neither one is aware of the other.

Mr. Marblehall, or Mr. Bird as he is also known, stays in one home for a spell. Then he begs off on one of his periodic "health trips," and disappears for a few weeks. He then repeats the process at the other home. And so he shuttles between the two homes, on and on, the two wives, the two sons.

Mr. Marblehall wonders how long he can keep up this deception.

“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?”

One odd thing about this situation is that Mr. Marblehall didn't begin this duplicity until he was 60 years old. Up to that time, he led an unexceptional, even meek, existence.

People store up life, Welty observed, and Mr. Marblehall, by living dual lives, has in effect "multiplied his life by deception."

The other odd aspect is that, in each life, he spends his free time -- storing up his life as it were -- reading issues of the "Terror Tales" pulp horror magazine.

Terror Tales mag

Come to think of it, this story is unsettling enough to be drawn from the pages of just such a magazine, albeit one with a slight more literary bent.