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Its style is at the service of a story that follows its nose with the instincts of a good hunting dog never losing the scent of its quarry. And its story has all those qualities peculiar to the finest short novels: a theme that vibrates with overtones, suspense and classical inevitability.
Known as a "Southern regionalist," Miss Welty is too good for pigeonholing labels. Though she has stayed close to home, two interlocking notions have been demonstrated in her fiction: how easily the ordinary turns into legend, and how firmly the exotic is grounded in the banal.
They are subjects only partly dependent on locale. And if place has been Miss Welty's touchstone, the pun implicit in the word "place" comes alive in her new novel; its colloquial meaning--caste, class, position-- is as important as its geographical one. When Laurel Hand, a Mississippian living in Chicago, is summoned to a New Orleans hospital to join her father, a year-old Judge who is about to undergo a critical eyes operation, she clashes with his new, and second, wife, Fay.
Laurel is a withdrawn widow still mourning for a husband killed in World War II, and Fay is a childish vulgarian embarked on the one secure relationship of her life. The conflict between these middleaged women begins a war between worlds hopelessly at odds.
Out of the discordant jumble of three lives trapped in a claustrophobic hospital room, a fourth figure emerges--Becky, the Judge's first wife. Because the struggle between Laurel and Fay is a battle of values, it takes place inside Laurel as well; she is forced for the first time in her life to examine what she believes in. The Judge, hovering in some twilight zone of pain, immobilized by sandbags, is set upon by Fay, who breaks down under the tension.
Though she is not the direct cause of his death, she is implicated in it. From Laurel's point of view, Fay scares him to death.
Later, Fay claims that she was trying "to scare him into life. Still, there is a danger in "The Optimist's Daughter" of the case being stacked, of Laurel being too much the gentlewoman, and Fay too harshly the brash opportunist. In truth, Fay is a horror but eludes being evil.
Almost one-dimensional, she is saved by being credibly stupid. Laurel is too nice but escapes being a prig. If Fay were a monster and Laurel simply nostalgic, the arena of action would shrink. What we would have would be case histories.
Miss Welty redresses the balance in two ways. She does something necessary by sketching in Laurel's background in a few delicate strokes. Her childhood days at Becky's mountaintop house in West Virginia, which recall Becky's childhood as well, are the most beautiful pages in the Welty canon, extraordinary passages in an extraordinary book. They yield more than the eye at first takes in. A rural world of innocence comes flying into the imagination as pure as a primary color; its arrival is real, not romantic, and gives genuine weight to a way of life Laurel must eventually abandon.
As for Fay, the author does something audacious: she takes on Fay's family. The surprise appearance of the Chisoms-- Fay's relatives--at the Judge's funeral in Mississippi enlarges the frame of the novel, which is being widened, actually, from two directions: Laurel's past, and the future implicit in Fay.
The funeral itself is macabre and funny, like most funerals. Large emotions center the scene, but somewhere, not too far off in the distance, the edges begin to crinkle; life not being geared to deal with its big moments, comedy sneaks in the back door, a neutralizing antidote to the intensity of the book's strongly felt loyalties and losses. Though they exist under the shadow of her domination and menace, Fay's relatives make solid claims on life--vitality and endurance--that have to be weighed against Laurel's tradition and understanding.
Fay is crude; her family is common as dirt, but they make their point: It takes dirt to make things grow. The difference between the cracker Texan and the genteel Mississippian is easy to know, but hard to do, and harder to do right. And more than Texas and Mississippi are involved. An onrushing world of shoddy materialism but of attractive energy is set against a vanishing world of civilized values but of special privilege.
Two kinds of people, two versions of life, two contending forces in America collide in "The Optimist's Daughter. Miss Welty is equally adept at redneck lingo, mountain twang and the evasions of middle-class speech, but it is her inability to falsify feelings that gives the novel its particular sense of truth.
Fay doesn't only represent something; she is something. And Laurel takes on flesh and blood as she is slowly drawn back through time into the circumstances of Becky's death.
The Judge's death is tragic, but there is something more tragic still, the separation of the sick and the doomed from the people who love them. An unbreachable wall, in Becky's case, turns the living into the enemies of the dying and isolates them, on opposite sides, helpless. An instructive scene that at first seems a digression underlines the moral subtlety of the novel.
Four old-lady friends of Laurel's are gossiping in the garden the day after the funeral. Their malice toward Fay is well-honed and well-deserved, but an uncomfortable question formulates itself: Wouldn't any stranger intruding on the provincial bastion of Mount Salus, lovable and loyal though it may be to its self-elected members, get the same treatment? Fay is raked over the coals, yet Laurel, the one person who has reason to hate her, overhears rather than participates in the conversation.
She can't stomach Fay, but she can't stomach this ganging up on Fay either. Because Laurel can see two things at once in a world where it's better to see only one, her position is complex but weakened. Her kind of moral strength has, inevitably, its corollary weakness. There's one truth she can't get around: Fay was her father's wife, and she didn't storm the gates of Mount Salus, she was invited in. In a final confrontation scene, Laurel and Fay meet head-on. In the back of a cupboard, Laurel discovers an old breadboard--a beautifully carved and finished piece of wood made by her husband for her mother--now mouldy, scratched, ragged, stained by cigarette butts.
As if she still had something to protect, Laurel, in the face of Fay's insults and condescension, finds herself holding the board over her head, a symbol of everything, but now a potential weapon. When Fay tells Laurel that she doesn't know how to fight, Laurel suddenly realizes that Fay doesn't know what they're fighting for , that to win this particular battle, to want to win it, is already to have lost it.
Fay's victory is to have inherited the house, but its human values, the meaning of the life that has been lived in it escapes her, as it always has, and always will. Laurel's victory is to have those values, finally, so firmly before her.
But those values are all she has. The scene is dramatically climactic but thematically inconclusive. When Laurel lets go of the breadboard, she isn't thinking of her dead father or her dead mother or her dead husband but, oddly, of Fay's nephew, Wendell, a little boy from Madrid, Texas who attended the funeral without the faintest notion of what he was seeing or hearing.
It is because of him that Laurel lays down her weapon, relinquishing the past to the dead at last. When she does, the question of whether there is to be a future assumes importance, for a fact that floated behind the scenes becomes apparent at the same moment: she and Fay share a common emptiness; both of them are widowed and childless.
No matter who wins, that emptiness will echo across the rooms of what was once the most distinguished house in Mount Salus, or be replaced, ultimately, by new voices. The best book Eudora Welty has ever written, "The Optimist's Daughter" is a long goodbye in a very short space not only to the dead but to delusion and to sentiment as well. Return to the Books Home Page.
The Optimist's Daughter
Its style is at the service of a story that follows its nose with the instincts of a good hunting dog never losing the scent of its quarry. And its story has all those qualities peculiar to the finest short novels: a theme that vibrates with overtones, suspense and classical inevitability. Known as a "Southern regionalist," Miss Welty is too good for pigeonholing labels. Though she has stayed close to home, two interlocking notions have been demonstrated in her fiction: how easily the ordinary turns into legend, and how firmly the exotic is grounded in the banal. They are subjects only partly dependent on locale. And if place has been Miss Welty's touchstone, the pun implicit in the word "place" comes alive in her new novel; its colloquial meaning--caste, class, position-- is as important as its geographical one.
The Modern Novel
I discovered this novel when I wanted something longer from Welty than a short story. You want to be back in that world, looking at those people and wondering why things happened the way they did. When I went back to North Carolina a few years ago on a research trip, the smells and sounds of the land and the air hit me like a shout of remembering. His quiet daughter Laurel, and his snapping second wife, Fay, come with him.
The horrible stepmother in The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty
It is easy to praise Eudora Welty but it is not so easy to analyze the elements in her work that make it so easy — and such a deep pleasure — to praise. To say that may, indeed, be the highest praise, for it implies that the work, at its best, is so fully created, so deeply realized, and formed with such apparent innocence that it offers only itself, in shining unity. Like her other works, this one is disarmingly simple. Laurel Hand, a widow from Mississippi but now living in Chicago, comes to New Orleans to be with her father. Her father, who has recently married a woman, Fay, who is younger than Laurel, has eye problems and needs surgery. Unfortunately, his aging body never fully recovers from the surgery and he dies, while being berated by his wife for not going out to enjoy the Carnival.
Revised and published as a novel in , it is considered by some to be her sparest novel. In fact, Welty herself thought of the novel as more akin to a short story than a true novel. The book's complexity arises not from its length but from the emotions of the characters. The Optimist's Daughter is the story of Laurel, a widow who returns to Mississippi when her father is ill and witnesses his death and funeral.