The Optimist's Daughter
The Optimist's DaughterIntroduction
The first version of Eudora Welty's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Optimist's Daughter, appeared as a short story in 1969 in the New Yorker. Revised and published as a novel in 1972, 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. From there, she embarks on a deeply personal journey to explore her past and her family in order to make sense of her future.
Welty's novel contains a number of autobiographical elements. Some of the male characters are inspired by Welty's uncles, and the women of the town represent Welty's observations on life in the South. Welty has stated that much of Becky McKelva's background is drawn from her mother's life in West Virginia. In fact, the novel was written not long after her mother's death, a period in which Welty was recalling her mother's life and experiences. In this way, the character of Laurel represents Welty's own desire to inquire into her past and understand how it affects her present and future.
Eudora Alice Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 13, 1909, to Chestina and Christian Welty. With her two younger brothers, she was reared in Jackson, although neither of her parents was from the Deep South. Her father came from Ohio, and her mother was from West Virginia. Both were teachers by trade until the family moved to Mississippi, where Christian entered the insurance business.
Welty remembers a very happy childhood in which she was surrounded by books and loved listening to her parents read to each other in the evenings. She also remembers how much she loved listening to the ladies in town trade stories, and her habit of noting their speech patterns and colloquialisms served her well when she began writing about the South.
After completing her public education in Jackson, Welty attended Mississippi State College for Women from 1925 to 1927, finishing a bachelor of arts degree in 1929 at the University of Wisconsin. At the encouragement of her father (who wanted her to have a reliable trade), she studied advertising at Columbia University from 1930 to 1931.
When her father died suddenly, Welty returned home to settle in Jackson. She worked various jobs with newspapers and a radio station before going to work for the Works Progress Administration, a government program established during the Depression that assigned people to work on public projects for much-needed income. Welty also took up photography, snapping pictures of all kinds of people (mostly African Americans) in her native Mississippi.
Her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," appeared in 1936, after which Welty's stories were accepted by top publications such as Atlantic and Southern Review. During her early writing career, Welty's work was often narrowly defined as regionalist or feminist. Still, she was admired by other writers, and her first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green, left critics eagerly anticipating Welty's future work. Over the next thirty years, Welty had over fifteen books published, including short fiction, novels, and non-fiction.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was renewed interest in her work, partially because of the rise in feminist criticism. Although Welty prefers to distance herself from the efforts of feminists, the renewed interest demonstrated to a new generation of readers that her writing was much more than an easily categorized body of work. Readers and critics continue to be drawn to her writing for her subtle, unique style, her handling of daily life, and her depictions of everyday heroism.
Welty's work has been recognized with prestigious awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942; the O. Henry Award in 1942, 1943, and 1968; the National Institute of Arts and Letters literary grant in 1944 and Gold Medal for fiction in 1972; and a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for The Optimist's Daughter.
Welty died of pneumonia on July 23, 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of 92.
As The Optimist's Daughter opens, Laurel McKelva Hand leaves Chicago and goes to New Orleans, where her father, Judge McKelva, is seeing an eye specialist to find out why his sight is failing. Laurel meets her father's young, new wife, a selfish, disrespectful woman named Wanda Fay ("Fay"). The doctor tells Judge that he has a detached retina and that it must be operated on at once. After the operation, the eye seems to be recovering normally, but Judge's health is not bearing the rigors of surgery well. He is lethargic and his health declines. Laurel and Fay, along with another woman, watch Judge to assure that he does not move very much, which would jeopardize the recovery of his eye.
Laurel and Fay have adjoining rooms at a nearby hotel, but Laurel fails in her attempts to get to know Fay. Meanwhile, Judge is now sharing a hospital room with a man whose senility makes him speak and behave strangely. The man's loud, colorful family is always in the waiting room.
At one point, Fay decides to try to scare Judge back to vitality by shaking him, but he dies soon after this incident. Welty is never clear about whether or not Fay's action caused the death. The next day, Laurel and Fay board a train to Mount Salus, Mississippi, the McKelvas' hometown.
Laurel and Fay arrive in Mount Salus, and Judge's coffin is taken off the train and loaded into a waiting hearse. Many of Laurel's old friends are waiting for her at the station. They go back to the house, where a few people are waiting. The next day, many neighbors and friends stop by the house to view Judge's body, to bring food for the family, and to socialize. Fay's family, the Chisoms, have been invited from Madrid, Texas, and their arrival creates quite a stir among the genteel southerners. The Chisoms are crude and loud and have no sense of decorum. When Fay finally emerges from her room, she screams and wails and throws herself on Judge's body before being dragged away. Next, the mourners go to the church for the funeral, where public turnout is impressive, and then they go to the cemetery for the burial.
When Laurel and Fay return home, there are a few lingering friends. Fay decides to return to Madrid with her family for a few days' visit and is happy to hear that Laurel will be gone in three days. Neither wants to run into the other, as they have found it impossible to get along.
The next day, Laurel works in the garden while four elderly neighbor women sit and gossip about Fay. When Laurel goes inside, she walks through her father's library, taking in all the memories inspired by the books, furniture, and general clutter. Later, she meets some friends to reminisce about the days before Laurel moved to Chicago. When she gets back to the house, Laurel finds that a bird has gotten inside. As she tries to trap it in a single room, she allows herself to think about how much she blames Fay for her father's death, which makes her long to be with her deceased mother.
Laurel goes into the sewing room, which was once her nursery. She finds her mother's small desk, filled with papers, photographs, and letters. A flood of memories washes over her, including the details of her mother's background in West Virginia, their relationship, and her mother's steady decline and death. Her sorrow leads her to remember her husband, Phil, who died in World War II. She imagines that they would have enjoyed the kind of happy marriage her parents had, if only his life had not been cut short.
The next morning, with the help of Missouri (an African-American woman who has worked as a cook for the McKelvas since Laurel's childhood), Laurel manages to get the trapped bird out of the house. She packs her suitcase in preparation for her ride to the airport. When she goes into the kitchen, more memories come to her, and she finds her mother's breadboard that Phil had made for her. At the same time, Fay returns home and is irate that Laurel is still there. They argue about the breadboard and then about the importance of the past, and Laurel comes close to striking Fay with the breadboard. She stops herself and decides not to take the breadboard with her because she has come to understand that freedom is more powerful than memories. The knowledge she has gained about herself over the last few days has liberated her from the pain, despair, and sense of obligation she once felt.
Laurel hears her ride honk for her outside, and she hugs Missouri on her way out the door. As she rides out of town on her way to the airport, she waves back at the many people who are waving to her.
The minister's wife, Mrs. Bolt is an elderly neighbor woman. She is one of the local ladies who gossips about Fay.
Major Rupert Bullock
Major Bullock is a friend of Judge McKelva. After Judge's death, Major attends the wake and the funeral, making a big show of telling grand stories about his deceased friend. There is an indication that Major may have a drinking problem, although nothing more than a suggestion is made. Major differs from most of the neighbors in that he is sympathetic toward Fay. He embodies southern manners in his attitude toward Fay and when he escorts Laurel safely home in the rain.
Major Bullock's wife, Tennyson, is a neighbor and close friend of the McKelva family. Despite her husband's commanding presence, she seems to be the dominant one in their marriage. She is typical of the women in her community in that she enjoys sitting with the ladies, gossiping, or playing bridge. Mrs. Bullock is known for her subtle sarcasm.
Tish is an old friend of Laurel's. She is the daughter of Major and Tennyson Bullock. Tish was one of Laurel's bridesmaids and their friendship is still warm despite the fact that Laurel now lives in Chicago. Tish married the captain of the high school football team but is now divorced.
Fay's brother, Bubba arrives at the wake inappropriately dressed in a windbreaker, insensitively complaining about how long a drive they took to get there, and grumbling about how they will have to turn around and do the whole drive again.
Grandpa Chisom is the only member of his family who seems to have any manners. He demonstrates his thoughtfulness by bringing Laurel a candy box full of pecans he has shelled for her. Unlike the rest of his family, he speaks kindly to her and tries to stay out of the way.
Mrs. Chisom is Fay's mother. She is insensitive and crude. Her only interest is in indulging her daughter, and she gives no thought to expressing any sympathy to anyone else in the house during the wake or the funeral. She is impressed with the money Fay now seems to have as Judge's widow. She suggests that the entire family should move into the house with Fay so she can turn it into a boarding house.
Fay's pregnant sister, Sis is no more refined or observant than her mother. She brings her young son to the funeral as a learning experience for him and proceeds to yell at him throughout the events of the day. She allows him to wear a cowboy outfit and say almost anything he pleases.
Dr. Courtland's sister, Adele is a nurturing woman who has known the McKelva family for many years and was Laurel's first-grade teacher. She is described as an elegant woman with an authoritative voice. She still wears her hair in the same bun that she wore back when Laurel was a child.
Dr. Nate Courtland
Dr. Courtland is the eye specialist Judge visits about his failing sight. Although Dr. Courtland practices in New Orleans, Judge makes the trip presumably because the two have been friends for so long. Their families know each other, and Judge even helped put his friend through medical school.
- Random House has produced two audio-book adaptations of The Optimist's Daughter, an unabridged version in 1986 and an abridged version in 1999. Both versions are read by Welty herself.
Mr. Dalzell shares a hospital room with Judge McKelva while he recovers from his eye surgery. Dalzell is senile, blind, mostly deaf, and speaks erratically. He is also from Mississippi and is convinced that Judge is his long-lost son, Archie Lee.
Laurel McKelva Hand
Laurel is Judge McKelva's only child. Her mother named her after the state flower of West Virginia, her mother's home state. Laurel is in her mid-forties and is tall and slender with dark hair. She is a professional fabric designer in Chicago but flies to New Orleans, where her father is seeing a doctor. She then travels to Mississippi after her father's death, staying for the wake and the funeral. Laurel also spends a few days in her father's house (the house in which she was reared) in order to make peace with her past.
Among the many emotional challenges she faces is the acceptance of Fay, her father's new young wife, whom she blames for her father's death. Laurel and Fay fail to get along from the beginning, and it is heart-wrenching for Laurel to watch Fay take her mother's position in the house that is full of Laurel's childhood memories and cherished objects.
As a result of her personal struggles, Laurel begins evaluating her past and her parents' relationship, including her mother's death. Consequently, she also evaluates her own marriage and the untimely death of her husband, a naval officer named Philip Hand, in World War II. By the time she leaves to return to Chicago, she has made peace with her past and her present and is better equipped for her future.
Laurel is an intelligent and sensitive woman who wants her parents to be remembered as they really were, not as larger-than-life figures. She is perhaps not assertive enough in her dealings with Fay, although there is a sense that Laurel never plans to see her again, anyway. Laurel is welcomed in Mount Salus as a native, having grown up there, but, having been away for so long, she is now able to see the people as they really are. For example, she overhears several neighborhood ladies gossiping about Fay, but refuses to participate. Still, she refrains from passing judgment on anyone in town because she loves them as family friends and past classmates.
Judge Clinton McKelva
Judge McKelva is a retired judge in the small town of Mount Salus, Mississippi. When the book opens, he is seventy-one years old, and is described as tall and heavy. He is a lifelong resident of the town and holds a prominent place in it. At one point, he was the mayor. He is respected by the entire community, from his legal associates to the African Americans in the town.
Judge is described as patient and fair. He enjoyed a long and happy marriage to his first wife, Becky, although he did not handle her declining health well. When she needed strength, he was filled with uncertainty and thus reacted by not reacting at all. Often, he chose denial, reasoning that everything would be all right because he loved her. Eventually, she died. Years later, he married a woman completely different from his first wife. Welty never offers an explanation as to why Judge married Fay, although the neighborhood ladies gossip about it.
Wanda Fay Chisom McKelva ("Fay") is Judge McKelva's second wife. She is small, thin, and blonde with blue eyes. They met at a Southern Bar Association conference, where Fay was a part-time employee in the typing pool. A month later, Judge brought her to his hometown and married her. She is significantly younger than he is (and a little younger than Laurel), and her crude ways prevent her from fitting in with the Mount Salus community.
Fay is selfish, rude, ignorant, and self-indulgent. When her husband is being seen by the eye specialist, she insists that his problem is nothing that nature will not heal on its own. When her husband is recovering from surgery, her attitude is one of being inconvenienced. Thinking she can scare her husband back to vitality, she shakes him and yells at him, shortly after which he dies. During the wake, she bursts from her room in black satin to create a scene. She is never shown expressing any genuine pain or grief.
After the funeral, Fay decides to return to Texas for a visit with her family. She has no understanding of how important the house is to Laurel, nor does she have any interest in sympathizing with her. She seems to entertain her mother's idea of turning the home into a boarding house. This demonstrates how little she understands the community or her husband's standing in it.
Missouri is the African-American cook who has worked for the McKelvas since Laurel was a child. She is a matter-of-fact woman who is deeply sympathetic to Laurel's grief. She seems somewhat resentful of Fay.
Mrs. Pease is an elderly neighbor woman. She is one of the ladies who gossips about Fay.
Making Peace with the Past
In The Optimist's Daughter Laurel is forced to make peace with her past and her present in order to go on with her future. The event of her father's death is difficult for her because she enjoyed a loving relationship with him, and even more so because his recent marriage to Fay, a selfish, impatient woman, forces Laurel to accept circumstances beyond her control. Having lost her mother, her husband, and now her father—all of whom she loved dearly—Laurel finds herself alone in the world and faced with the reality of giving up her childhood home to a woman she despises.
Fay returns home with her family for a short visit after the funeral, and Laurel's flight back to Chicago is not for three days. This leaves her with a few days alone in the house. She uses this time to reflect on the past and its joys and trials. Laurel recalls her mother's love of her own home in West Virginia and the difficult period of her extended illness leading to her death. Along with her mother's virtues, she remembers her mother's flaws, just as she does with her father. In the process, she makes peace with the fact that her parents were wonderful people, but only human, and she decides to preserve their memories honestly. Realizing that the truly substantial gifts her parents gave her are not objects in the house that can be willed to someone else, she is able to leave for Chicago in peace.
Topics For Further Study
- Consult psychology textbooks and journals on the subject of grief. From a psychological point of view, how would you evaluate Laurel's ways of handling her grief with reference to her mother, her husband, and her father? How would you evaluate Fay's manner of dealing with grief? Based on your knowledge of the characters' upbringings and backgrounds, why do you think these two women react so differently to the death of Judge McKelva?
- Identify an object (such as a piece of jewelry or furniture, a photo, a letter, or a medal) that makes you feel connected to your past or to someone in your family who has passed away. Take that object and a notebook to a quiet place where you can reflect on your feelings. Write down your feelings about this object and the people or experiences with which you associate it. Write in a stream-of-consciousness style so that you will have an of interior monologue on paper. Later, review what you have written and compare it to Welty's description of how Laurel felt about certain objects in the house in which she was reared.
- Different religions and cultures adopt different traditions and rituals for burying their dead. Learn more about the beliefs about death and the funeral practices in one religion, belief system, or culture which is different from your own (such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Muhammadan, African religions, traditional Native-American customs or beliefs, Catholicism, Protestantism, etc.). Compare it to your own. What significant differences are there? What similarities are evident?
- With a partner, stage a debate in which one of you argues that Judge McKelva was right to marry Fay, and the other argues that his marriage to Fay was a mistake. Each of you should support your argument with reasons and examples; point out weaknesses in your opponent's argument; and respond to your opponent's criticisms of your position.
Laurel confronts another painful chapter of her past as she revisits her memories of her marriage to Phil Hand, a naval officer killed in World War II. In her heart and mind, those years were blissful and full of promise; while she basks in the memories of their happiness, she must also feel the pain of everything left undone. The way she describes the image of Phil appearing to her suggests that she had kept his memory closed up tightly in a deep part of herself. Once she begins uncovering her past, however, she has no choice but to revisit this part of her past, too. In the end, she is able to finally make peace with the loss of her husband in her youth. By doing so, she leaves Mount Salus with a cleansed spirit, thus allowing her to bid farewell to the comfort of her hometown, because she is now comfortable within herself wherever she goes.
Welty depicts a wide variety of family relationships over the course of the novel. She shows several marriages in flashback, some healthy and vibrant and others confusing. Laurel and Phil's marriage seems to have been a healthy one that would have lasted, just as Judge and Becky's marriage thrived until Becky's death. Having grown up watching such a healthy relationship, it is little wonder that Laurel would make a similarly good choice for herself. Judge's marriage to Fay confounds everyone who knew and loved him, but it makes perfect sense to Fay's family. This incongruity is merely a matter of perspective; what Judge had to offer a woman was obvious to all, but what Fay had to offer a man was elusive to everybody except her family. Still, even one of the neighborhood gossips has to admit that if Judge was happy, it is nobody's place to judge.
Parent-child relationships are depicted through Laurel's childhood memories. She loved both of her parents and, as an only child, felt a deep sense of responsibility to them. Despite her mother's hurtful ranting after suffering a stroke, Laurel remained steadfast in her commitment to care for her. She excused her mother's behavior because she understood that it was not intentional, but also because her father's inability to deal with the situation left nobody else to be strong in such a difficult situation. When her father dies, Laurel objects when visitors to the house tell stories about him that, while well-meaning, are not true. She feels helpless to control the mayhem of the wake and the funeral, but remains committed to preserving an accurate memory of his life. She doesn't want stories told that make him larger than life or that attribute others' deeds to him. In the end, Laurel is only able to leave her hometown and her childhood home behind because she has examined honest memories of her parents and made peace with the decisions they made and the people they truly were.
Perhaps because The Optimist's Daughter is a short novel, Welty includes elements of contrast to create a sense of tension in the story. The plot is fairly straightforward, but its drama and depth come from the characters and the tense atmosphere that hangs over the events of the story until the end, when Laurel leaves for Chicago. That the tension lifts when it does signals to the reader that Laurel, the title character and center of the novel, has accomplished what she needed to accomplish on her unexpected trip home. It ensures the reader that resolution has been reached.
Welty's contrasts are both subtle and overt. Her description of the hospital hallway is an example of an overt contrast that hints at underlying tensions: "The whitened floor, the whitened walls and ceiling, were set with narrow bands of black receding into the distance." The title is a more subtle example, as the use of the word "optimist" is ironic. Judge McKelva called himself an optimist in jest, not because he was a pessimist but because he had little choice about circumstances like his detached retina: "He, who had been declared the optimist, had not once expressed hope. Now it was she [Laurel] who was offering it to him." Another example of contrast is when Laurel and Fay leave the hospital after Judge McKelva's death and find themselves in the midst of a Mardi Gras celebration. Welty sets the solemn passing of a genteel man amid one of the largest, most raucous festivals in the United States, thus creating tension and contrast.
Welty's use of symbolism is typical of short story writers. Symbolism is an efficient use of words because it allows the writer to convey multiple messages in a single passage, exchange, or image. For example, Judge McKelva's ailment that takes him to the hospital is an eye condition. This suggests that his ability to see clearly is compromised by his age. This may be one reason why he chose to marry Fay, as Laurel suggests in her observation of Wendell, Sis Chisom's young son: "He was like a young, undriven, unfalsifying, unvindictive Fay. So Fay might have appeared, just at the beginning, to her aging father, with his slipping eyesight."
Laurel goes to close her father's casket so it can be taken to the cemetery for the funeral, but has difficulty with the weight of its lid. She is helped by Mr. Pitts, the undertaker, and her friend Tish, who "helped her to give up bearing the weight of that lid, to let it come down." Closing the lid to the casket is symbolic to Laurel, because it is her conscious choice to accept the end of her relationship with her father. It is literally the last time she will see him.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of symbolism is when Laurel returns to her father's house alone to find that a bird has found its way inside. As she rushes to close interior doors to isolate the bird, she hears it flying against windows and doors, trying to escape. At the same time, she allows herself to form the thoughts that express that she blames Fay for her father's death. Her anger, resentment, and helplessness are struggling, along with the bird, to get out. As Laurel thinks about her case against Fay, Welty writes, "Why, it would stand up in court! Laurel thought, as she heard the bird beating against the door and felt the house itself shake in the rainy wind."
The narrator in The Optimist's Daughter is omniscient ("all-knowing"), meaning that the story is told from a third-person point-of-view. The narrator is not a character in the story, and is able to enter the thoughts of several different characters, but shows an obvious bias toward Laurel and other southern characters. The narrator is typical of an omniscient narrator in the telling of events, such as the wake at Judge McKelva's house, at which the narrator passes from room to room, describing the people and conversations along the way. The narrator also reveals the thoughts and feelings of several different characters, but never reveals those of Fay and her family. There are extended passages of Laurel's interior monologue, such as when she goes through her father's office, taking in the sight of every book, pile of papers, and piece of furniture. As Laurel delves deeper into her heart, so does the narrator, as when Laurel finds her mother's old letters, papers, and photographs. While it is most often Laurel's thoughts that are revealed, the narrator also sees inside the minds of other residents of Mount Salus. For example, when Laurel insists that Major Bullock's story about her father frightening away the "White Caps" (members of the Ku Klux Klan) is not true, the narrator tells the reader that the Major's feelings were hurt.
Life in the South
The small town of Mount Salus represents the gentility and social life of the traditional South. Because of its commitment to tradition and its older population, Mount Salus reflects many of the values and beliefs of the Old South. Despite changes and progress, the people adhere to the chivalric, hierarchical social organization of the South. Family is extremely important, and a person's character is often attributed to his or her bloodline. People treat one another with outward respect and kindness, are quick to help their neighbors, and respect the older residents and natives of the town.
Fay is the subject of mean-spirited gossip, not only because she is an outsider, but also because she is crude and dramatic. In one scene, the older ladies in the neighborhood marvel that she does not know how to separate an egg, can only identify the frying pan in the kitchen, and does not cook Sunday dinner. To these ladies, one of whom is knitting an afghan, domestic skills are a fundamental part of femininity. That Fay's lack of familiarity with the kitchen is the cause of talk all over town is evidence of the narrowly defined roles that traditional southern people expect.
Religion in the South is almost exclusively Protestant, although there are Catholics and Jews. While Baptists are most prominent, other denominations, such as United Methodist and Presbyterian, are also well-represented. Laurel's family, neighbors, and friends are all members of the Presbyterian Church, and they attribute many of Fay's unrefined ways to her being a Baptist.
Some historians believe that the endurance of southern manners and traditions is due to the hardships faced by the South in the past. Rather than tear it apart, they argue, the struggle to survive only made the culture stronger.
Southern Gothic Literature
Some of Welty's writing is associated with the southern gothic style, and there are elements of it in The Optimist's Daughter. This style features settings in the American South, fantastic incidents, and characters who are bizarre, grotesque, and outcast. Although the novels do not take place in drafty castles, mazes, and dark woods, the themes derived from such European gothic settings appear in southern gothic writing. These themes include isolation, confusion, and the search for meaning, all of which are reflected in the character of Laurel. Other characters in The Optimist's Daughter represent the bizarre, including Mr. Dalzell, whose senility causes him to act and speak strangely. Judge McKelva's funeral also offers examples of the bizarre and morbid, as when Miss Tennyson argues with Laurel over the viewing of her father's body. The presence at the funeral of Dot, Judge's secretary, is prompted not by grief but by the desire to take in the spectacle. Fay's erratic and disrespectful behavior is also grotesque.
Considered by many to be Welty's best novel, The Optimist's Daughter has garnered the admiration of readers and critics from the time of its publication to the present. In U.S. News and World Report, a critic declares that the publication of this novel secured Welty's position among the great American writers. Scholars find the novel so rich in material that many critical papers have been written about it, considering such ideas as Welty's use of landscape, her place among southern writers, and her portrayal of female characters, which many interpret as feminist in perspective.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970s: After the death of a loved one, the family has the choice of having the body viewed at home or at the funeral parlor. It is not uncommon to have the viewing at home, in keeping with tradition.
Today: People still have the option of having the body of a loved one viewed at home on the day of the funeral, although most families choose to have the viewing at the funeral parlor. There is variation according to ethnicity and religion.
- 1970s: Racial tensions continue to discourage social interaction between African Americans and whites. While the law offers increased opportunities and rights to minorities, the culture is slow in catching up to this progress.
Today: Racial tensions are still a part of everyday life, particularly in very large and very small cities. Strides have been impressive, however, and social interaction between races is both common and accepted.
- 1970s: Traditional male and female roles are the norm. Women are primarily responsible for domestic duties, while men pursue careers to provide for their families. Opportunities exist for women, however, and the women's movement is bringing change.
Today: Women are free to choose careers or to commit themselves exclusively to caring for their families, if their economic situations permit it. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and are even making their way into top leadership roles. At the same time, there is little if any stigma in choosing to be a full-time wife and mother.
Commentators are quick to praise Welty's stylistic choices in The Optimist's Daughter. Howard Moss of New York Times Book Review is impressed with Welty's skill in creating such a lush story in such a short novel. He describes it as "a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work." Detailing some of Welty's techniques, Welty scholar Ruth D. Weston writes in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Welty's narrative virtuosity in The Optimist's Daughter provides continuing evidence of her modernist experimentation with the interior monologue and other narrative techniques, including character role reversals and split protagonists."
Welty's emphasis on the inner life as it relates to the outer world in this novel have led to comparisons with the acclaimed author Virginia Woolf. Moss notes that Welty's characteristic ability to write regional speech patterns is perfectly balanced with her attention to the truth about her characters. He explains, "Miss Welty is equally adept at redneck lingo, mountain twang and the evasions of middle-class speech, but it is in her inability to falsify feelings that gives the novel its particular sense of truth." Echoing this praise, the well-known literary critic Cleanth Brooks, in "Eudora Welty and the Southern Idiom," finds that this novel is one of Welty's "finest instances of her handling of the speech of the Southern folk."
Critics are often taken with Welty's ability to create unique and colorful characters who are completely realistic. Moss comments:
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…. Laurel is too nice but escapes being a prig.
Moss praises Welty's careful handling of these two opposing characters in such a way that neither is wholly good or wholly bad. Brooks expresses a similar sentiment when he comments,
Wanda Fay is really awful … and Wanda Fay's sister and mother are of the same stripe. But Miss Welty does not allow that even this family is wholly corrupted. Wanda Fay's grandfather, old Mr. Chisom, seems genuine enough, a decent old man.
A Newsweek review published at the time of the book's publication likens Welty's handling of her characters to that of Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
Many critics comment on the complex subject matter of the book. In Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, Ruth M. Vande Kieft observes:
Like no other work since a few of Eudora Welty's early stories, The Optimist's Daughter comes shrouded in what I have earlier called the dark or "sorrowful" mysteries of life and death, finally impenetrable. The weighting of terrible ambiguities and contraries in the novel has left many readers moved by its depth and beauty as by no other of Eudora Welty's works, and yet strangely baffled and saddened, as if the revelations heaped on Laurel, the understanding won by this intelligent, sensitive, truthful, and loving woman were not the final truth of the novel.
Edward Weeks of Atlantic Monthly is particularly drawn to Welty's use of "contrast," as mentioned by Vande Kieft in the above passage. Weeks praises Welty's portrayal of the contrast between the sentimental emotion of the neighbors and the insensitive, rude remarks made by the Chisoms during the funeral scenes. He finds that this contrast provides "shocking comedy" in that the reader is both amused and sympathetic. Commenting on the overt tension between Laurel and Fay, Moss writes, "Two kinds of people, two versions of life, two contending forces in America collide in The Optimist's Daughter. Its small dramatic battle sends reverberations in every direction."
That the novel continues to be read and analyzed by critics and scholars of all kinds is a testament to its depth and texture and to its lasting the matic and stylistic strengths.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she discusses the importance of the concept of home to two women characters in Welty's novel. Bussey briefly relates autobiographical information about Welty to show how the author's own experience is reflected in Laurel's experience.
The saying "home is where the heart is" takes on special meaning in Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter. In this novel, the death of Judge McKelva prompts both his daughter, Laurel, and his widow, Fay, to connect with their respective homes. Home is a place that allows for restoration, because it is a comfort zone where people generally feel accepted, regardless of their moods, feelings, or decisions. It is a safe haven where Laurel and Fay can be truthful with themselves among people who know them well enough to know when to challenge them and when to leave them alone. In other words, home is the obvious destination in a time of crisis and change. For Laurel, home is the town of Mount Salus and the house where she grew up. For Fay, home is her hometown of Madrid, where her extended family likely meets the same needs for Fay as the house does for Laurel. In briefly reviewing the events of Eudora Welty's life at the time of writing this novel, it will also become clear that, for Welty, home is both Mississippi and the process of writing.
Laurel is a grown woman, living in Chicago, who returns to her hometown of Mount Salus, Mis-sissippi, when her father dies. While it may seem that Chicago is now her home, the reader soon becomes aware that the house in which she was reared is still very much her home. When Fay decides to stay with her family for a few days after the funeral, Laurel has the opportunity to spend some time alone in the house before Fay takes full possession of it. In this privacy and silence, Laurel begins the grieving process more earnestly than she has during the public funeral. Objects in the house, such as the mantel clock, books, letters, and her father's desk, bring back memories, each intimately attached to one or both of her parents. She is saddened because the clock has stopped, and she knows this is because nobody has wound it since her father last did so. A seemingly minor detail, this stopped clock signifies both her father's absence and the reality that her time with her family and in her home has come to an end. Her grief is projected onto household objects because they represent the life she once cherished. Similarly, the books remind her of her parents' habit of reading to each other, a precious memory that she both savors and grieves over. In one passage, Laurel blends her memories of the books with the overall feeling of family, which, she feels, infuses the house:
She ran her finger in a loving track across Eric Brighteyes and Jane Eyre, The Last Days of Pompeii and Carry On, Jeeves. Shoulder to shoulder, they had long since made their own family. For every book here she had heard their voices, father's and mother's.
Laurel also feels a connection to the house, and thus to her past, in domestic activities such as gardening. Her mother was an avid gardener, and her father tended the flowers after his wife's passing, so it is fitting that, as part of Laurel's process of connecting with her past, she should take up the task one last time. The activity of gardening helps her to feel comfortable and close to her parents, as she participates in the rhythm of the household as she remembers it. On another level, Laurel is tending her own inner garden and connecting with her own identity. Her mother loved flowers so much that she named her daughter after one, and now that the mother is dead, the daughter is caring for the mother's flowers.
In the house, Laurel finds herself so deeply in touch with her past that she can actually hear the voices of the people she has loved and lost. She hears her mother's voice when she is in the garden: "Laurel went on pulling weeds. Her mother's voice came back with each weed she reached for, and its name with it. 'Ironweed.' 'Just chickweed.' 'Here comes that miserable old vine!'" Later, in a moment of revisiting the pain she felt at losing her husband in World War II, Laurel hears his voice grieving for their lost future together. Welty writes, " 'I wanted it!' Phil cried. His voice rose with the wind in the night and went around the house and around the house. It became a roar. 'I wanted it!'" Nowhere else in the world can Laurel experience such personal revelations and be given the opportunity to confront the pain in her past and make peace with it, because her bond with her home is so deep. Only at home is she able to bare her heart and hear what she needs to hear to heal herself. And yet, to truly make peace with her past and her present, she must internalize the significance of the house so she can take it with her wherever she goes. Incredibly, she is able to do so.
Fay is originally from Madrid, Texas, a small, low-income town. Although Welty never takes the reader to Madrid, the comments and personalities of the Chisom family offer some idea of what kind of place it is. It seems to lack all the charm and warmth of Mount Salus, yet for Fay it is home. In Mount Salus, Fay clearly feels out of her element and becomes extremely rude and insecure. The reader can only imagine whether or not she is the same when she is in the comfort zone of her hometown. Nevertheless, in her new community of Mount Salus, she is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and boisterous. She no more appreciates the home and possessions of her late husband than she does his friends and family. In fact, she never makes an effort to understand Laurel's grief or her need to be in the house for a few days. Fay's insistence on returning with her family for a visit after the funeral indicates that Madrid is the only place in which she feels secure. She is frantic to go back with them, insisting that she needs to be among people who "speak her language." In other words, Fay, like Laurel, needs to go where she feels un-derstood either by others or by herself. In Mount Salus, Fay feels uprooted, and her insecurity takes many ugly forms, such as her propensity to disrespect Becky's memory and to deny her own family back in Madrid. Laurel muses, "Very likely, making a scene was, for Fay, like home. Fay had brought scenes to the hospital—and here, to the house…." Laurel understands that Fay's horrible behavior is an outward sign of her need to feel at home. She tries too hard to appear to believe that Judge McKelva's home is truly her own, but she never convinces anyone, including herself.
At the time Welty wrote this story, she was grieving the loss of her mother. In fact, the book is dedicated to C. A. W. (Chestina Andrews Welty), which reveals that this work is closely connected to the author's own personal loss. The autobiographical elements in the novel are numerous, and are especially prominent in the parallels between Becky's background and that of Welty's mother. Other autobiographical features pay homage to Welty's happy childhood and the loving marriage her parents enjoyed. Through Laurel, Welty honors her mother and also works through some of the pain and the issues surrounding the death of a parent. Laurel's personal journey to make peace with her past in order to make sense of her future certainly mirrors Welty's own struggles. Welty differs from Laurel in that Laurel lives far from her hometown, while Welty lived in Mississippi, where she was born, until her death. For Laurel, however, the intensity of her journey comes from the house. In the absence of a house or other single vessel holding all of her childhood memories, Welty wrote this book. She in effect works through some of her grief in her writing, which is as meaningful to her as the house is to Laurel.
Welty comments on Laurel's love of her past: "Firelight and warmth—that was what her memory gave her." Laurel, Fay, and Welty are all working toward such warmth in a difficult time during the course of The Optimist's Daughter. In very trying times, charged with emotion and uncertainty, people often long to return to the comfort and security of their childhood homes. Fay and Laurel find the havens they need by going back to their homes, while Welty draws from her hometown and blends it with her most private pain. Laurel is ultimately able to take a piece of that firelight and warmth with her back to Chicago, because she has succeeded in making her heart and her home one.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on The Optimist's Daughter, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Gail L. Mortimer
In the following essay, Mortimer analyzes how Welty "enhances the implications of her images" in The Optimist's Daughter.
What Do I Read Next?
- Eudora Welty (Modern Critical Views: Contemporary Americans) (1986), by noted literary scholars Harold Bloom and William Golding, provides biographical and critical overviews to aid the student of Welty's novels and short stories.
- Fellow Mississippian William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) is the story of a poor southern family on a journey to bury their mother. While this book touches on some of the same issues as The Optimist's Daughter (such as death, grief, and family relationships), Faulkner's treatment of these themes is dramatically different from Welty's.
- Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories (1996) provides a comprehensive look at the short stories of another important female writer from the South. O'Connor, like Welty, also wrote novels but is more strongly associated with short fiction.
- Welty's Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1982) includes all forty-one of her published short stories. Welty is recognized primarily for her short fiction, and this collection is an ideal introduction to her body of work.
- Welty's autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings (1984) is a rare glimpse into the author's life experiences from her own perspective. Her writing style is the same blend of humor, acute observation, and sensitivity that readers enjoy in her fiction.
One of the striking characteristics of Eudora Welty's fiction—taken as a whole—is the remarkable diversity of styles she summons from story to story. Welty herself has said that when she begins a new story nothing she has written before is of much help to her, that each new story teaches her how to write itself. Yet when we turn to a novel such as The Optimist's Daughter (1972) directly after reading The Golden Apples (1949) or Losing Battles (1970), for example, the shift in stylistic intensity is nevertheless surprising. The complex allusions and linguistic sensuousness of The Golden Apples and the garrulous charm of Losing Battles leave us quite unprepared for the spareness and apparent simplicity of the later text.
Two additional factors have contributed to critical readings of The Optimist's Daughter that are far different from those we find for works such as The Golden Apples. The numerous biographical correspondences between Welty's life and the details of her story and her explicit articulation of her theme at the novel's end—having to do with the fragility of memory and its role in understanding—have led to explications of the novel that nearly always emphasize theme and content. And while the novel's critics have also to varying degrees considered one or more of its pervasive images, no one has yet addressed the nature of the coherence underlying their presence in the text. The narrative strategies that inform The Optimist's Daughter deserve, I believe, much closer scrutiny. Toward this end, I want to draw attention to at least three ways in which Welty enhances the implications of her images: through her exploitation of the ambiguity of etymological meanings, her syntactical juxtaposition or pairing of the images themselves, and her oblique references to various mythic substructures. By creating an explicit structure of relationships between images, Welty generates a particularly intricate network of meanings in which no single image stands alone, for each is modified by the simultaneous presence of others. Her strategies for insisting on the interdependence of her images as they affect one another's meanings enable Welty to express more fully the subtlety and complexity of her view of how understanding itself takes place and of how we—ostensible seekers of knowledge—manage so often to evade it.
The story of Laurel McKelva Hand's loss of her father and her struggle to come to terms with her memories of all the loved ones she has lost is on one level an extraordinarily personal meditation. When she wrote it, Welty herself had recently lost both her mother and her brother within a brief interval. Welty has gone well beyond this personal dimension, however, in framing Laurel's story. In particular through the creation of Judge McKelva's young second wife, Wanda Fay, she has transformed the outlines of Laurel's story into a vivid interior drama. In the figure of the exasperating Fay, Laurel recognizes and confronts the forces of disruption and chaos that threaten the ordered perfection of her long-held memories, both of her parents' relationship and of her own brief marriage with Philip Hand. Fay is the first of several characters in the novel who embody a crass oblivion to the needs of anyone beyond themselves: they include the Dalzell family, whom Laurel encounters in the hospital the night her father dies; the audacious handyman, Mr. Cheek; and Fay's own relatives, the Chisoms, who (appropriately) run a wrecking concern back in Texas. It is through her efforts to account for the disturbing presence of Fay and to understand how her father could have chosen to marry such a person that Laurel is led to grapple with the limitations of memories she has long accepted as accurate. For Laurel, Fay becomes an emblem of the terrible disjunctions and violations, the things that don't fit and can never make sense, that enter one's life seemingly at random and destroy peace of mind. Laurel is much like her father, who calls himself an optimist and who has chosen in both of his marriages to avoid any deep acknowledgement of the existence of hurtfulness and pain. When her father refers to Laurel by her childhood name, "Polly", he reminds us of that excessive optimism we associate with a "Pollyanna's" view of the world, but the adult Laurel's epistemological task in the novel is to understand the distortions of her own former thinking, to recognize the failure of mere optimism to do justice to the complexity of experience.
In our reading of Welty's novel, we come to understand her purpose in part through the special cogency of her dominant imagery, that of vision and blindness. On the surface it appears that Welty is simply exploiting the traditional meanings of these images, using them as expressions of the broader symbolism of light and darkness—as emblems of human understanding. But as is true of her use of imagery throughout the novel, she evokes the full range of meanings implicit in each symbol, from the most positive to the most negative. Light connotes illumination, comprehension, and clarity, yet its excess leads to just the opposite. With Emily Dickinson, Welty believes "the Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—." Thus, Welty gives an especially appropriate name to the vulgar family Laurel meets at the hospital, who incarnate the ugliness she needs to come to terms with; they are homonymously named the "Dalzells." Similarly, the darkness that normally signifies obscurity, ignorance, or an inability or unwillingness to understand can also imply a restfulness that makes introspection and later "vision" possible. The window blind in Judge McKelva's hospital room serves this function, darkening the room and protecting his eyes while they recover; twice it is torn down by disruptive figures in the novel, the blind patient (Mr. Dalzell) in the next bed and later (apparently) by Wanda Fay. On the first occasion, Laurel, the nurse, and the Judge's doctor put it back in place to protect his vulnerable eyes from the light. The second time there is no point in replacing it. The blind falls at the Judge's final crisis, as if signalling his death.
Welty's narrative methods often involve exploring many of the words signifying particular concepts, as she does to pursue the myriad linguistic connections between eyesight and insight. Words like "eye," "see," "watch," and "look" pervade Welty's novel, but so do terms that reflect limitations of vision brought about by factors both internal and external to the perceiving self. The ultimately blinding light mentioned above (conveyed in such terms as "glare," "blaze," "dazzle," and "brightness") is intimated throughout the novel by terms that express the intermittent, ambiguous light of objects themselves ("twinkling," "shimmering," "flickering," and "flashing"), suggesting the indeterminacy and tenuousness of the objects to which we look for understanding. Welty suggests, too, that perceivers allow their own preoccupations to interfere with seeing clearly through her use of images of "mirrors" or "reflections" that cause them to see themselves instead—a kind of narcissistic blindness. And finally, she shows that vision fails when we look at the wrong object; a major example of this is her use of the word "slipping" which, evoking the idea of an eclipse or a veneer, suggests that an object is hidden by something in front of it that one sees instead. Recurrent references to curtains and screens enhance this motif. Judge McKelva has a "slipped retina," and his larger problem in the novel is that he has mistaken one wife (the young Fay) for his beloved late wife, Becky.
In one of her most fascinating narrative strategies, Welty creates linkages between the sustained motif of blindness and sight and other motifs by using key terms that serve as pivots between them. Thus, she enables the connotations of one set of images to enhance or modify those of a second group. This technique becomes evident as we turn to a second major image pattern in the novel, that of rushing water. With the word "cataract," Welty connects the eye disease leading potentially to blindness with the waterfall to suggest a particular obstacle to clarity of vision. In its destructive aspect, rushing water represents the overwhelming emotions or thoughts that can blind us to what is happening; in its more benign form, it signifies a cleansing of the eyes that frees us to see better, as in the tears that fill Laurel's eyes at the moment of her fullest understanding in the novel.
The Judge, his first wife Becky, and Laurel are all associated with the linkages between vision and rushing water. Before she died, Becky, who lay on her sickbed sightless after a number of eye operations for cataracts, had recaptured a sense of her longed-for childhood world of order and peace by reciting Southey's "The Cataract of Lodore," which in its very rhythms and momentum mimics the experience of rushing water. Years later, when Judge McKelva is recovering from his eye operation, he is told to rest his eyes in the dark and, above all, that there are to be no tears. Laurel sees him just before his death and fights back her own tears, to keep him from crying. The Judge dies just after Laurel finds Wanda Fay shaking him to demand that he get up out of bed and take her to the Mardi Gras. Since the novel makes explicit that his eye operation is not the cause of his death, we are urged narratively to recognize that he has "seen" too much—Fay's cruelty and his mistake in believing she is like his first, gentler wife, Becky—and that in his despair at seeing, he has just given up. Welty writes that at the moment just before his death, his "whole, pillowless head went dusky, as if he laid it under the surface of dark, pouring water and held it there." It remains for Laurel to come to terms with what they both have seen.
Images of water are especially significant in connection with Judge McKelva, because his basic emotional failure in the novel is shown to have been his refusal to acknowledge Becky's despair when, in her last days, she experienced a horrible fear that her optimist husband would not face. Welty tells us that in his belief that his love for her would make everything all right, he left her feeling that she was facing the worst crisis of her soul alone. Indeed, her sense of abandonment severely exacerbated her pain as she struggled with her fear of death. In view of his wife's suffering and his inability to acknowledge it, there is both irony and poignancy in the fact that formerly, as Mayor of the town, the Judge had been in charge of flood control for his community. In a letter he wrote to his daughter Laurel shortly before he became engaged to Fay, the Judge's particular blindness that will eventuate in this second marriage is foreshadowed when he is still able to say, "There was never anything wrong with keeping up a little optimism over the Flood." Flood control, in these terms, is precisely what optimism is about. Thus, at the moment of Laurel's fullest epiphany, when she transcends the comfort of optimism, we are told: "A flood of feeling descended on [her]. She … put her head down on the open lid of the desk and wept in grief for love and for the dead…. Now all she had found had found her. The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself, and it began to flow again." The waters here, of course, have become emblems of life itself.
A third image pattern emphasized in the novel involves hands and their functions; how they create, give, manipulate, hold and withhold, touch, restrain, and express. Although there are numerous instances of this pervasive motif (prominent, for example, in the name and the talents of Laurel's lost husband Philip Hand), its presence is in some ways less interesting than how Welty incorporates it into her larger concern with the nature of knowledge. She links the hand imagery of this novel to the blindness motif we have looked at through the notion of hands that can see, through braille. Although the word itself is not used, this pivotal concept is recurrently enacted, as when Welty writes that the sensitive hands of Dr. Courtland, the eye specialist, "had always looked, to Laurel, as if their mere touch on the crystal of a watch would convey to their skin exactly what time it was", or when Laurel, in exploring her mother's writing desk, discovers the little stone boat carved by the Judge when he was courting Becky, "her fingers remembering it before she held it under her eyes." By repeatedly describing the motions of her characters' hands (both sensitive and insensitive ones), Welty pursues nearly every imaginable variation on the image to show us the strategies people use in experiencing and responding to new knowledge by accepting, modifying, denying, or using it. Ineptitude with one's hands is depicted as a type of blindness to the nuances of things, as when Laurel admits late in the novel that—unlike Philip Hand—she, her father, and her mother, Becky "were a family of comparatively helpless people." Moreover, with the word "blunder," used variously at least four times (in association with the Mardi Gras crowds, the men who carry Judge McKelva's coffin, the trapped bird, and the offensive Mr. Cheek), Welty merges hands and blindness once more: to blunder is to stumble or be clumsy as if one cannot see. Thus, Welty connects blundering (a word which at times she italicizes) with the chaotic and disturbing world of darkness and disorder that Laurel and her optimist father have struggled to deny. As for the remembered perfection of her marriage with Philip, Laurel believes "there had not happened a single blunder in their short life together."
A fourth—and for our purposes final—motif in Welty's novel involves her use of birds. They serve several imagistic functions at different points in the novel and ultimately point, even more directly than Welty's other images do, to her explicitly articulated thematic concern with memory. As we shall see, birds not only pull together the issues represented by the other images; they become at crucial moments images of memory itself.
A review of their more traditional uses in the novel helps us to understand the significance of Welty's later amplification of the image and its incorporation into her allusions to mythic stories. At times, for example, birds are used rather straightforwardly to represent nature commenting upon the actions of humans. A mockingbird sings throughout a conversation among four elderly women, Judge McKelva's contemporaries, when, after his funeral and in Laurel's presence, they discuss his two marriages; here birds serve as a kind of chorus to the Greek chorus constituted by the women themselves vis-à-vis Laurel, who is working quietly among the flowers. The flowers themselves reflect her struggle to see: they are irises. The mockingbird, meanwhile, "let fall a cascade of song" (emphasis mine).
At other times birds mirror what Laurel fears: the pigeons who feed out of one another's craws, and whose pecking as they ate out of her hands when she was a girl terrified her, seem to represent Laurel's avoidance of the complicating entanglements of human love in the nearly twenty years since Philip died in World War II. She experiences the apparently painful interdependence of these birds ("sticking their beaks down each other's throats, gagging each other") as an entrapment: "They convinced her that they could not escape each other and could not themselves be escaped from." The scene Welty creates is closely reminiscent of the one in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which Connie Chatterley's fear of life and sexuality is expressed in her timidity in handling baby chickens.
Birds also serve as images of Laurel's own aspiring soul. The chimney swift trapped in her house on her last night there echoes her panic and feelings of entrapment within anachronistic thoughts and feelings that no longer "fit." During the long, stormy night, she and the bird alike struggle toward "light." And in the morning, when she frees it, we feel that she is freeing herself as well. Birds also reflect the souls of Laurel and Philip Hand on a happier occasion. On their train trip to Mount Salus to be married, the young couple had seen a flock of birds "flying in a V of their own, following the same course" south that the lovers were taking, mirroring in fact the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers beneath them all. This redoubled image of convergence had seemed a reflection to Laurel and Philip of the joy of their coming together.
Finally, as I have suggested, birds are used to suggest a more complex meaning within the novel. Welty enhances her consideration of how memory works and of "the danger of caging memory in" by using birds as images of memory itself. They are present on nearly every occasion when Laurel thinks about the past, at every one of her moments of revelation. When the funeral procession arrives at the cemetery, Welty writes that "as they proceeded there, black wings thudded in sudden unison, and a flock of birds flew up as they might from a ploughed field, still shaped like it, like an old map that still served new territory, and wrinkled away in the air." These birds, and the shape that they retain as they fly upwards, express Welty's vision of how memory continues to pattern our thoughts "like an old map" that may or may not fit new territory. Laurel's memories about her parents and husband, perfect and therefore necessarily distorted, constitute an old map that fails to account for Wanda Fay, fails to accept the reality of the difficult, painful moments in her parents' lives together, and fails as well to acknowledge the implications of Philip's loss of his own life. (In a later vision Laurel sees Philip looking "at her out of eyes wild with the craving for his unlived life" as his voice rises to a "roar" of despair.) Laurel's growth in the novel involves learning to allow her memories to remain vulnerable to the changes in her own understanding. She must, to begin with, stop denying the fact of Fay's existence in her father's life and so come to terms with his needs and vulnerabilities. Welty is explicit about the lesson Laurel is to learn, and when she has finally learned it, Welty depicts her as, first, freeing the trapped bird and, then, withstanding waves of emotion in her final confrontation with Fay. In this penultimate scene in the novel, Laurel raises a breadboard Philip had made for her mother "above her head, but for a moment it seemed to be what supported her, a raft in the waters, to keep her from slipping down deep, where the others had gone before her."
It is impossible by merely citing examples to convey a sense of how intricately Welty structures her motifs in this novel. Blindness and sight, hands, birds, and rushing water—as well as a number of analogous motifs, such as fire, time, and bridges—are linked in a variety of ways through individual words that cross etymological paths (as with "cataract" and "iris") and through their juxtaposition in various contexts (as in the mockingbird's "cascade of song"). Welty rarely fails to pursue the thematic suggestiveness of words' synonyms and homonyms. She seems vividly aware of the multiplicity of meanings inherent in single words, and her linguistic playfulness creates echoes throughout our reading as on various levels we grasp the movement among etymological realms. These explorations, in fact, account for a number of otherwise bewildering details in her stories. One decidedly lighthearted example involves her playing with the images associated with braille, a concept I have already mentioned as serving as a link between the motifs of blindness/sight and hands. Welty introduces us to a minor character in the novel, untypically, without her last name: the Judge's former secretary, who "to everyone in town … was known simply as Dot." Years ago, we are told, she had bought herself an expensive Mah-Jongg set. The palpable (raised) dots of braille are recalled in Dot's name itself; in the palpable (recessed) dots on the domino-like tiles, the small sticks, and the dice of the Mah-Jongg set (used as graphic signs in themselves or to count points); in expressions like "on the dot" that (like "the blink of an eye") recurrently appear in the text to signify time; and in the fact that Welty herself pauses as narrator of her text to call our attention to the word characterizing the sentimental feelings Dot had for the Judge and the Judge's excessive fondness for his young wife Fay (again, a sign of a type of blindness): "'[H]e doted on her,'" Miss Adele Court-land declares. " 'Doted. You've hit on it. That's the word,' said Miss Tennyson." "Mah-Jongg" itself is Chinese for "house sparrow," a bird pictured on one of the tiles and a reminder of the bird who disrupts Laurel's home late in the novel, leaving spots everywhere it touches. Much of this may simply be playfulness, an expression of Welty's exuberant, even sensuous pleasure in the resonances of language. And while I think that we may err in placing very much interpretive importance on such passages, they are consistent with Welty's overall narrative strategies, which so often involve encouraging us, her readers, to let our imaginations roam among the network of meanings implied by her linked motifs.
The linkages I have suggested at the level of language take us repeatedly back to the surface message of her story, a message about how our understanding is jeopardized by our own habits of perception. Welty reinforces our sense of the ironies and complexities of her subject at a deeper level, moreover, through allusions—some straightforward and others more oblique—to mythological stories that themselves have to do with evading and searching for truth. Unlike The Golden Apples, in which Welty overtly signals each mythic motif she offers as a way of understanding the patterns of meaning she intends, in this novel she has used—but left submerged—mythic substructures that add coherence and nuance to her depiction of the problematics of understanding. Early in the novel, for example, she mirrors the story of Daphne (whose name is Greek for "laurel"), who eluded Apollo's pursuit of her by being transformed into (or, in another version, replaced by) a laurel tree. Welty shows Laurel as confusing her own image in a window with that of a beech tree as she dozes on the train trip to Mount Salus. When we recognize this brief allusion, it becomes clear that Welty is adumbrating Laurel's problem; Daphne's avoidance of sexual encounter serves as a synecdoche for Laurel's avoidance not only of sexuality but of all entangling human relationships and suggests the nature of her failure to acknowledge fully the complexities of her memory of her parents and her husband.
Similarly, there are suggestions that the mountain in West Virginia where Laurel's grandmother lived is a type of magic mountain, perhaps one of the Venusberg mountains believed in medieval legend to be where the Goddess Venus held court, enticing travelers who then were reluctant to leave. A high priestess served the goddess under the name of Queen Sibyl (recall that Welty calls the river at the foot of the mountain "Queen's Shoals") and, because of her prophecies, the mountain came to be seen as a place of wisdom. The novel places such emphasis on the bliss that Becky experienced when she was there that the mountain seems to be the prototype of the lost paradise Becky thought of when she decided to keep her "diagrams of Paradise Lost and Milton's Universe", and so the mountain, like the figure of Daphne, also serves as an image of escape. Becky, remembering that longed-for sanctuary in West Virginia, had expressed scorn for the word "Mount" in Mount Salus' name; and now Becky's daughter, Laurel, in thinking of her experiences on that mountain, undergoes her fullest epiphany, after which she dons her "Sibyl Connolly" suit for the flight back to Chicago (emphasis mine). Among the objects sacred to the goddess Venus were the dove/pigeon (recalling Laurel's crucial childhood encounter with pigeons), bread (Becky's breadboard in the final scenes of the novel), and figs—all associated with Laurel's mother. Welty is drawing from the mythological tradition in which mountains represent the Great Mother, a place of nurturance and wisdom.
A more important mythological substructure for the novel, however, consists of the Oedipus/Teiresias story, especially as reflected in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. By alluding to the complex, ironic echoes of Oedipus' story, Welty is able to build upon Sophocles' intricate depiction of the relation between vision/blindness and memory. The paradoxical ways in which memory can both know and yet not know are central to Sophocles' themes, as they are to Welty's, for they explain how our own predilections and motives obscure our ability to see what would otherwise be evident. Oedipus in one sense knew that he had killed a man and married a woman, but his memory failed to grasp the connection with the prophecies about his fate. Laurel, similarly, "knows" of the complex hurtfulness that existed between her parents at the end of Becky's life, but she has needed or preferred to remember only their love and harmony. Judge McKelva, too, had refused to see his dying wife's pain, preferring to trust in love to make things right. Laurel, the Judge, and Oedipus alike have all been optimists and have blinded themselves to some ugly realities. Fay, in fact, accuses Laurel (as she had the Judge) of "putting your eyes out, too" by reading too much, recalling Oedipus' deliberate blinding of himself. And finally, Laurel, like Oedipus, has failed to know who her parents are, so that her enlightenment at the end of her story, like his, constitutes the overcoming of an otherwise "fatal" flaw.
As is so often true with Welty's stories, she has followed through even to minor details with her mirroring of this mythic source. The incident in which the Judge as a boy cut his foot open and had to be carried home by his friend reminds us of Oedipus' name, which means "swollen foot." Young Clint, on that occasion, would necessarily have walked, as Oedipus does, with a limp. As a legacy of their childhood experience, both have scarred feet. Moreover, the riddle given to Oedipus by the Sphinx—about what being "has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?"—itself acted out in Oedipus' story as, blind, he walks with a cane or leaning on others, is also mirrored by various characters in Welty's novel. Tom Farris, the town's "blind man," comes to Judge McKelva's funeral tapping his cane "from side to side in a lordly way"; and Sam, Becky's youngest brother, had attended her funeral some dozen years ago on two canes and was thus, in a sense, four-footed.
The cogency of many such details in Welty's novel consists in their reference to intertextual sources. Euripides' play Ion, for example, serves as one minor echo, reinforcing the more prominent Oedipal story. Welty names the place where the Judge and Fay ate Sunday dinner the "Iona Hotel." The Judge's old friends describe their going there as a "saddening exhibition" of the old man's blindness in choosing a wife who could not cook. Ion closely resembles Oedipus Rex in that both stories chronicle a protagonist's discovery of the true identities of his mother and father. Interestingly, the first scene of the play shows Ion, a servant in the temple of Phoebus Apollo at Delphi, sweeping out the temple with a broom and threatening to use a bow and arrow to shoot the birds who are defiling the temple. This scene mirrors Laurel and her housekeeper Missouri's pursuit (with a broom) of the chimney swift who has entered and left his sooty mark upon so many things in the McKelva home. The bird "shot out of the dining room and now went arrowing up the stairwell in front of her eyes." When the bird is gone and the curtains have all been pulled down and cleaned, the house resembles the temple of the sun god: "All the windows … let in the full volume of spring light. There was nothing she was leaving in the whole shining and quiet house …"
Just as significant as the associations with Oedipus are those with Teiresias, the blind old Theban prophet who became a seer by virtue of understanding "the tongue of birds." Just as Sophocles mirrored the ambiguities of blindness and understanding in Oedipus through the parallel blindness and "vision" of Teiresias, so Welty projects the paradox implicit in the figure of a blind seer onto several figures in her novel. A number of her characters, major and minor, are either blind or threatened by blindness; they include the Judge with his slipped retina; Becky, Laurel's mother, who was blind during the last few years of her life; the blind Mr. Dalzell in the Judge's hospital room; and "Mount Salus's blind man," Tom Farris. Moreover, we find scenes of precognition attributed to all three of Welty's central characters. This happens first when, unbeckoned but sensing that something is very wrong, Laurel returns to her father's hospital room the night he dies and discovers Fay abusing him. The Judge foresaw the future twice; although he had only been going to have his eyes examined in New Orleans, he left complete instructions with a friend about how to get in touch with Fay's family should anything happen to him, and years earlier he had made his only trip to Chicago to see Philip during what was to be his "last leave" before dying in the Pacific in World War II. Becky too, Laurel concludes, had "predicted" Fay; part of her anger and sense of betrayal as she lay near death had been her recognition of that aspect of her husband's personality that would make such a choice as Fay possible. As a figure both male and female, who both sees and does not see, Teiresias, then, is embodied in Laurel, Becky, and the Judge alike. Just as Teiresias had been blinded as a result of his poor judgment—in one version of his myth because he had declared that women have more sexual pleasure than men—so too the Judge is blinded for failing to judge a woman rightly. Laurel, a judge's daughter, spends time in the novel introspectively holding a "trial" and marshalling "evidence" to help her reach a "verdict" about Fay; the courtroom language is explicit. Even the mystically potent number seven, associated in a variety of ways with Teiresias, is reflected in the Judge, who at 70 has blindly married the self-absorbed young Fay. Teiresias, moreover, is linked with the Judge in a more subtle way; Robert Graves tells us that he had a daughter named Daphne.
But most central to Welty's purposes is the fact that Teiresias is associated with being able to interpret or "read" the language of birds, a gift he received in compensation for having been blinded. We recall that the Judge's eye troubles began when he saw "flashes" from "bird-frighteners" on the family's fig tree, suggesting perhaps that in the implicit effort to keep birds away, the Judge was leaving himself vulnerable to "blinding" (because unanticipated) flashes of understanding. As I have emphasized, birds are persistently connected with Laurel's moments of understanding, as if the lessons of birds will free her spirit.
In The Optimist's Daughter Welty enriches her theme through narrative strategies operating on at least two different levels: the single word or image and the wider mythic substructure. Through the juxtaposition of various pairs of images (i.e., birds and hands, water and eyes) and through exploiting the multiple meanings of single words ("watch," "pupil," "iris," "cataract"), Welty foregrounds different dimensions of meaning to comment upon Laurel's search for understanding. In doing so she manages to recover some of the lost metaphorical dimensions of our everyday language. Through her evocation of mythic tales, moreover, she draws from the wider realms of significance reflected in the stories of such figures as Daphne, Oedipus, and Teiresias. The subtle nature of these linkages enables Welty's readers to experience her story at a variety of depths depending upon our awareness of these linguistic and literary/mythic associations. As happens when we lift a net by any one of its knots, all of the threads and other knots to which it is connected are pulled up along with it; similarly, no single image or pattern can be said to "explain" Welty's text. Since the phenomena I have discussed all have to do in some respect with the theme of understanding—our quest for it, our evasion of it—Welty's strategy has the effect of leaving us with a strong sense of the difficulty and endlessness of the search. The core of Laurel's lesson has been that old patterns of thought cannot do justice to new experience. It is important that Laurel not merely accept Fay or assimilate her into her world view since that would be to fail to recognize Fay's role as an emblem of the fact of disjuncture or chaos in our lives. If Laurel is to eschew the comforts of her old, patterned ways of seeing things, then she must come to tolerate ambiguity, complexity, and even horror in the world around her. Welty's narrative decisions reinforce this thematic message by refusing to offer clearcut and definitive readings of her story. Each time we glimpse the implications of one image, another modifies what we have seen.
Welty's use of image and myth pulls together the otherwise disparate phenomena from her family's past that she selected for inclusion in her novel. Moreover, the particular ways in which they give subtle structure to her novel are analogous to her concept of how memory itself works. She sees memory much as T. S. Eliot sees literary tradition. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot argues that when a genuinely new piece of literary art is created, it causes the preexisting body of literature to "be, if ever so slightly, altered" as "the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted." Eliot's "historical sense" is quite similar to Welty's idea of memory as something which needs to remain open to new perspectives, "vulnerable to the living moment." Welty is explicit in her novel in saying that the memory is not meant to freeze the past into something impervious to new experience. Instead, it repeatedly redefines the patterns of our lives as we reach a fuller understanding; the body of all we know alters slightly with each new addition as memory works its magic. What I want to suggest, then, is that Welty's deliberate evocation of the etymological histories of particular words, the conflation of meanings she creates by juxtaposing key words in various ways, and her use of mythic tales to revive our cultural memories of stories embodying these same concepts are meant to enact in her readers' memories the lessons about memory seen in Laurel's story. Just as Laurel is urged to allow her memory to glimpse correspondences and new implications, so we as readers are urged to recognize the connections implicit in Welty's inter-textual and etymological allusions. We make "sense" of Welty's novel only to the degree that our cultural memories enable these connections to take place. The Optimist's Daughter persuades us of the truth of Welty's statement that memory is her greatest treasure: "during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives." In her memory as in her fiction, "the strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost."
Source: Gail L. Mortimer, "Image and Myth in Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter" in American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 4, December 1990, pp. 617-33.
Bailey, Beth, "Manners and Etiquette," in Encyclopedia of American Social History, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993.
Brooks, Cleanth, "Eudora Welty and the Southern Idiom," in Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, edited by Louis Dollarhide and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1979, pp. 3-24.
Earle, Carville, "Rural Life in the South," in Encyclopedia of American Social History, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993.
Moss, Howard, "Eudora Welty's New Novel about Death and Class," in New York Times Book Review, May 21, 1972.
Review of The Optimist's Daughter, in Newsweek, May 22, 1972.
Review of The Optimist's Daughter, in U.S. News & World Report, February 15, 1993.
Vande Kieft, Ruth M., "Eudora Welty," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness, 1941–1968, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 492-505.
――――――, "Eudora Welty," in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Weeks, Edward, Review of The Optimist's Daughter, in Atlantic Monthly, June 1972.
Weston, Ruth D., "Eudora Welty," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 143: American Novelists Since World War II, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 303-20.
Wolff, Sally, "Some Talk about Autobiography: An Interview with Eudora Welty," in Southern Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 81-88.
Bloom, Harold, Eudora Welty: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, Chelsea House, 1999.
Bloom offers a thorough reference to Welty's short stories, for which she is best known. Ideally suited for the reader new to Welty's work, this book explains themes, techniques, and contexts in Welty's short fiction.
Champion, Laurie, ed., The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.
This volume offers the collected criticism of Welty's writing from the 1940s to the present.
Price, Reynolds, ed., Eudora Welty Photographs, University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
Using Welty's early photographs, Price depicts Welty's personal view of the South. The book includes an introductory interview with Welty, conducted by Price, concerning her photographs.
Weston, Ruth D., Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Weston reviews Welty's work in terms of the gothic tradition to show how she uses gothic themes and narrative techniques within the southern literary framework.