Welty, Eudora. The Optimist's Daughter.
Judge Clint McKelva (age 71): Large and strong both in body and mind. Retired. Staunch optimist.
Laurel McKelva-Hand (age 45): Judge’s only child. Childless. A textile designer. Helpful, considerate, thoughtful.
Philip Hand: Laurel’s deceased husband. A U.S. Marine officer. Killed in war a year after the marriage.
Becky McKelva (nee Thurston): Judge’s deceased first wife.
Fay McKelva (nee Chisom, age 40): Judge’s second wife. Light-hearted, jovial, vulgar; affected, hysterical, touchy.
Doctor Nat Courtland: Judge’s family doctor and friend.
Miss Adela Courtland: Doctor’s daughter and Laurel’s friend. Teacher.
"Part One" [deathbed]
Operation: Beginning of March. Laurel McKelva travels from Chicago to New Orleans where her father it to undergo an operation of a detached retina. He first noticed that something was wrong with his eyes when he was cutting the creeping roses that his first deceased wife planted in the garden. The judge, known as a staunch optimist, believes that the operation will be a success. He is operated by the family doctor and long-time friend Nat Courtland. The surgery turns out well but the judge is restrained to bed where he must rest quietly for several weeks. Laurel decides to stay in a guest house in the city to be able to assist her father during his recovery. She spends with him the earlier part of the day, while Judge’s second wife Fay McKelva stays with him later in the afternoons. At nights he is attended by Nurse Martell.
Convalescence: The judge bears his state with the patience and obedience of old people. According to the doctor, he is recovering. Laurel reads to him aloud his favourite detective stories, but he remains disinterested and silent. Later Laurel stops reading aloud and reads their favourite Nicolas Nickleby only to herself. She tries to give her father a hope but he does not respond and keeps on lying unmoved and resigned, with both his eyes closed. Laurel tries to become friends with Fay, whom she saw only once at the wedding. Laurel did not visit her father often, though they were in contact through phone. Fay is not very friendly to her daughter-in-law, so Laurel then avoids her. A wild carnival is going on in the city. Fay seems to be more interested in the carnival than in the condition of her husband who has been lying in the hospital since three weeks.
Death: Laurel overhears Fay threatening to her husband hysterically and trying to make him stand up. She storms into the room together with doctors who push the both women out to the waiting room. Fay rages and even spits at Laurel. There is a large family in the waiting room, which belongs to the judge’s fellow patient Mr Dalzell. Mr Dalzell is an old man treated for cancer who enlivened the hospital room with his talking to his presumably long-lost son Archie Lee. His family comes from Fox Hill in Mississippi, which is the state where the judge comes from, too. Doctor Courtland announces to Laurel and Fay that he could not save the judge’s life. Fay reproaches him bitterly for choosing her birthday for the news.
"Part Two" [funeral]
Homecoming: A day before the funeral. The judge’s coffin is transported by train to his home in Mount Salus, Mississippi. Laurel’s six bridesmaids wait at the railway station. There is a small reception in the judge’s house, organized by Mrs Tennyson Bullock, mother of Laurel’s bridesmaid Tish. Laurel is reunited with the family’s long-time friends. Fay disapproves of the gathering because she herself has nobody. Lying in her old bed, Laurel recalls the times when she was a girl listening to her parents reading aloud to each other in the evenings.
The Chisoms: Morning of the funeral. The judge’s open coffin is displayed in the house. Laurel would prefer to protect her father from preying eyes, but his wife wished to leave the coffin open. The house is flooded with flowers, the deceased having been a highly regarded public personality. Major Rupert Bullock, Tennyson’s husband, invited Fay’s family from Madrid, Texas. The Chisoms storm into the house as a unwelcome surprise. Mrs Chisom arrives with her adult son Bubba, daughter Sis, and little boy Wendell. The rest of the family remained at home. Fay’s family is ill-behaved and simple-minded. Mrs Chisom recalls the suicide of her son Roscoe, who was her only support after the death of her husband. She emphasizes the value of the family staying all together, which is also what Fay pointed out to Laurel when she blamed her for having abandoned her father.
Burial: The mourners recall the judge’s modesty, goodness, righteousness, and, of course, optimistic stance to life. Laurel realizes that her father is already being idealized, she believes that the dead should be remembered truthfully. Fay makes a hysterical scene over the coffin, she tries to wake her husband up and reproaches him for having left her. She does not have the judge buried next to his first wife, but in a new part of the cemetery. It is next to a busy road, so that the mourners can hardly hear the funeral service. Laurel wonders why Fay lied to her that she had no living family. Fay sharply replies that she had heard worse lies in the judge’s house and that at least her own family is not hypocritical. Fay was at first displeased to see her mother, but then she spontaneously leaves to spend the weekend with her. Mrs Chisom admires the spacious house and thinks how nice it would be if Fay offered the whole large family to live in with her.
"Part Three" [parents]
Fay McKelva: Laurel remains in her father’s house for the weekend. Her female friends gather in the garden while she is weeding. They all disapprove of Fay and wonder what led the judge to marry such a woman. Fay does not keep the house in order and cannot even cook. The judge however adored her. He must have seen her at first as spontaneous, sincere, and unpretentious. He met her at the Southern Bar Association where Fay was employed as a typist. It was ten years after the death of his first wife. He was married to Fay for a year and a half. Men seem to be compelled to protect Fay, even Major Bullock feels this way and so is the only to like her. It was however unwise of Bullock to invite Fay’s family for the funeral. The clash of the genteel manners of the judge’s friends and the raw vitality of Fay’s family was inevitable. The women think that Fay did not realize how embarrassing her behaviour at the funeral was. She probably thought that she was acting as it is fitting for a widow: to show herself broken by grief, to provide the deceased with the most expensive coffin and the best place in the cemetery. The women realize that the judge must have found in Fay something to live for when he was left alone after the death of his first wife and the departure of Fay to Chicago. They would like to have Laurel back at home in the village, but Laurel plans to return to her work.
Father’s Library: Laurel retires to her father’s library, his sanctuary, to clean the room and put it in order. She examines the books and puts misplaced ones to their proper places. She surveys her father’s official papers from the time when he served as the mayor in the town. The judge’s documents are in perfect order. He was a hard-working earnest man who took his duties seriously. When he came to a small fortune, he partially financed Doctor Courtland’s studies. Laurel finds the drawers of her father’s table empty, there are not even the letters from her mother. She wonders what happened to them. Laurel realizes that this is not the library of her childhood any more. Fay has left her traces everywhere, as symbolized by the spots of red nail polish on the table. Laurel removes the spots fastidiously.
Mother’s Bedroom: The next evening a storm breaks out and Laurel finds that a bird got into the house. She flees from the creature as if it could hurt her and hides herself in the bedroom. She used to sleep in the adjacent closet when she was a child. Her mother’s table was moved from the main room into the closet. The drawers of the table contain her mother’s papers, her husband’s love letters, and their photos. Her mother came from West Virginia, from an old family of teachers and priests. Young Becky lost her father when she was fifteen. His appendix burst and she had to take him on a raft to get him on the train and then to the hospital. It was winter and the trip was extremely difficult. Her father did not survive. Becky met her husband when he studied in West Virginia. Theirs was an extraordinary happy marriage and Becky made a modest, practical, and devoted wife. Laurel and her mother used to spend a month each summer with Becky’s mother. She lived alone high on the top of a mountain, overlooking a river. She died suddenly and Becky reproached herself bitterly for failing to be with her. Laurel’s mother fell sick and started to lose her sight. She could not read any more but she would not have had Laurel read for her aloud. She spent her time by reciting to herself whatever she learnt by heart before her illness. This lasted for five years. When a stroke deprived her of her sight completely, she rapidly deteriorated. She blamed her optimistic husband for not allowing himself to see how desperate she was. Her daughter was the last person she spoke to. She accused her of failing to save her life.
"Part Four" [husband]
Husband: Laurel recalls her brief but extraordinary happy marriage. She studied arts in Chicago and he studied architecture in Georgia. His name was Philip Hand and he came from a village in Ohio. He was hard-working, vital, ambitious, but not an optimist. Laurel recalls the day when they travelled by train from Mount Salus to Chicago to be married there. From the train they watched the meeting of the rivers Mississippi and Ohio, which symbolized the meeting of Laurel (from Mississippi) and Philip (from Ohio). Laurel feels guilty for having survived her husband.
Bird: In the morning of the next day, the carpenter Cheek arrives for a regular check. Laurel asks him to help her get the bird out of the hall but the man only chases it into Laurel’s room. He remarks that a bird in the house brings bad luck. Only when the maid Missouri arrives, Laurel manages to capture the bird and release him outside. Laurel burns her mother’s letters to leave the house without any trace of her mother’s life. She attempts to give her friend Adela a slate picture of a ship, a hand-made gift from her father to her mother. Adela refuses.
Kitchen: Laurel is still in the house when Fay returns. Laurel discovers her mother’s kitchen roller in the old cupboard, a hand-made gift from Laurel’s husband to her mother, and rebukes Fay for having damaged it. Fay cannot understand what the old roller means to Laurel, who tries to explain how delicious her mother’s home-made bread used to be. Laurel accuses Fay of having desecrated the house and is on the verge of hitting her with the roller. She changes her mind when she realizes that Fay does not know what she is doing. She believes that Fay never learnt about feelings and therefore cannot understand them. Fay admits that she uses threats, aggression, and biting remarks to make people do what she wants them. When she was shaking with the judge on his deathbed, she was trying to frighten him back to life. Laurel decides to leave the roller behind. She finally realizes that what matters are not things left after people but precious memories of the people who die. She forgives herself for surviving her beloved ones and reconciles with her own life. Her bridesmaids are already waiting for her to take her to the train.
Themes: The novel deals with the interconnected themes of living and dying. It does not focus so much on the plight of the dying as rather on the suffering of the survivors who struggle to come to terms with the departure of a beloved person. Deaths in the novel follow to some extent a recurrent pattern. Fay loses her husband and Laurel has already lost hers. Judge McKelva has lost his wife. Becky and Laurel lose their parents and are blamed for having abandoned them before their respective deaths. Becky reproaches herself for having left her aged mother and letting her die alone. Laurel is accused by her mother on her deathbed for failing to save her life. Laurel is also blamed by Fay for having abandoned her father in his old age. Laurel herself additionally feels guilty for having survived her tragically deceased husband. Laurel believes that Fay rushed her father’s death by her aggressive treatment, Fay however fails to see that there was something wrong with her behaviour. Quite on the contrary, Fay reproaches the deceased one for having left her.
Characters: The three central characters (Laurel, Fay, Judge McKelva) each represent a different approach to life and death. Judge McKelva is the optimist of the novel’s title. His relentless optimism, whether actual or assumed, goes so far that it does not even allow him to admit that his wife is dying. His optimistic approach may protect him from pain, but it irritates and hurts his dying wife because the husband’s optimism prevents him from seeing her despair. The optimist’s daughter does not seem to share her father’s approach. Laurel gives the impression of a sensitive but at the same time reasonable person who hopes for the best but is able to recognize it when a situation gets grave. She does her best to help her father in the hospital but already the fact of her staying with him shows that she realizes his serious condition. Laurel’s approach is rather realistic, whereas her father’s approach is rather escapist. Fay approaches all situations through aggression. She is too selfish to feel any other pain than her own, she does not worry for the health of her husband but for her own discomfort following from his hospitalization. She is too ignorant to comprehend any larger implications of her actions, she does not realize the part she played in her husband’s death and blames everyone but herself.
Form & Style: The novel contains little outward action, it does not however lack dramatic tension and a strong emotional impact. The tone is mostly serious, though there might be discerned slight streaks of the grotesque (the kitchen roller scene). Considerable parts of the novel are presented in the form of Laurel’s memories. The narrative is told in the third person but it is seen through the eyes and from the point of view of Laurel. The novel is neatly structured, logically divided into four distinct parts. Laurel can be regarded as the novel’s protagonist, her antagonist being Fay but also Laurel herself. A tension between Laurel and Fay arises already in the beginning, it keeps on building up until its culmination in the final kitchen scene. At this point Laurel defeats both of her enemies. She gets rid of her accumulated tension by openly telling Fay how she sees her and she comes to terms with herself by realizing the value of memories she can cherish.
AuthorWelty, Eudora. (1909 - 2001).
Full TitleThe Optimist's Daughter.
First PublishedNY: Random House, 1972.