The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
By Mary Park
The Optimist's Daughter is a compact and inward-looking little
novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that's slight of page yet big of heart. The
optimist in question is 71-year-old Judge McKelva, who has come to a New
Orleans hospital from Mount Salus, Mississippi, complaining of a
"disturbance" in his vision. To his daughter, Laurel, it's as
rare for him to admit "self-concern" as it is for him to be
sick, and she immediately flies down from Chicago to be by his side. The
subsequent operation on the judge's eye goes well, but the recovery does
not. He lies still with both eyes heavily bandaged, growing ever more
passive until finally--with some help from the shockingly vulgar Fay, his
wife of two years--he simply dies. Together Fay and Laurel travel to Mount
Salus to bury him, and the novel begins the inward spiral that leads
Laurel to the moment when "all she had found had found her,"
when the "deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself" and
begins to flow again.
Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's
low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney
and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness
of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a
set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know
his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here
to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg."
Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and
the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant,
graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love.
Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be
the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit
Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here
(though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a
special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to
be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born.
They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the
great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has
happened to them."
Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs
to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One
Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a
light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has
been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come."
Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly
with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and
love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's
Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise