Eudora Welty used to talk about literally cutting manuscripts into pieces and rearranging the sentences and paragraphs to suit her. The end result, as in The Optimist’s Daughter, generally was close to perfection. In synthesis, The Optimist’s Daughter tells the tale of Laurel returning to Mississippi from Chicago when her elderly father, a judge, has a problem with his vision–a tear in the retina. He has remarried–a woman named Fay–and isn’t up to the procedure. He dies in the hospital, not without the selfish Fay complaining that his death is unfair to her. The novel continues to recount his funeral, Fay’s god-awful relatives showing up from Texas, and Laurel’s process of committing to heart the tangible things that Fay, by inheritance, has now “won.”
The novel is told in parts–the hospital, the death, the funeral, a period of reuniting with old friends, a period of recollecting family origins, and a final battle between Laurel and Fay. Southern, character-based “humor” weaves in and out of all these segments. At times the humor seems a bit too broad, at other times it’s simply devastating, though not as wicked as the dark humor in Flannery O’Connor.
The core value in this novel, if I can put it that way, is Laurel’s ultimate realism about the continuities of life, despite death, and the unimportance of small people laying claim to large truths. She is a character, like most of us, who finds both hello and goodbye in dying. The things the dead leave behind often reveal more than they wanted revealed in life…or were able to reveal in life. The fact that Laurel sorts through all this and ultimately decides to hang onto almost nothing is what gives her moral and emotional claim on everything. Her father made a mistake in both his marriages, most definitely in his second marriage to Fay. He was a revered but flawed figure. Fay comes to terms with that. She also finds solace in memories of the husband she lost in WWII and realizes that what he gave her, his love,his approach to life, remains with her and can’t be taken away.
One of the loveliest parts of the novel has to do with her mother’s trips home to West Virginia. These trips are reflected in Laurel’s childhood memories, and there is an eerie, lovely quietness about them. The mountain folk of West Virginia weren’t like the talkative, gossipy people she knew in small town MIssissippi. They had a touch of wild nature in them that stilled their tongues and let events speak for themselves. Returning to what I mentioned earlier about Welty’s mode of composition, I can see her pausing at length over how to splice this sequence of memories and reflections into Laurel’s character and the ultimate wholeness she achieves. The tonalities are quite different, likewise the prose. In a sense, this part of the book rescues the story from the clutches of Mississippi, which by the time of the funeral verges on a hysterical caricature of small town customs and insensitivity.
The fascination of Fay, self-interested and narrow-minded, is also worth noting. Here is a woman who actually hits the old judge to try to stir him up and keep him from dying, but when the final battle between her and Laurel takes place, she seems to have the ability to fight more fairly. Of course there shouldn’t be any fighting at all, but at funerals and after deaths, there often is. Fortunately, in this case, Laurel has grown enough to understand she’ll get more by letting go than trying to hold on. What Fay receives is worthless, what Laurel receives is priceless.
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