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The Optimist's Daughter: A Novel
by Eudora Welty

Published: 2002-05-07
Hardcover : 192 pages
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?It is easy to praise Eudora Welty,? as Robert Penn Warren has written, ?but it is not so easy to analyze the elements in her work that make it so easy?and such a deep plea-sure?to praise. To say that may, indeed, be the highest praise, for it implies that the work, at its best, is so ...
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?It is easy to praise Eudora Welty,? as Robert Penn Warren has written, ?but it is not so easy to analyze the elements in her work that make it so easy?and such a deep plea-sure?to praise. To say that may, indeed, be the highest praise, for it implies that the work, at its best, is so fully created, so deeply realized, and formed with such apparent in-nocence that it offers only itself, in shining unity.?

The Optimist's Daughter is Miss Welty's work at its best, and reconfirms Mr. Warren's general tribute, including the difficulty of analysis: Laurel Hand, long absent from the South, comes from Chicago to New Orleans, where her father dies after surgery. With Fay, the stupid new young wife of her father, Laurel returns to her former Mississippi home and stays a few days after the funeral for reunions with old friends. In a night alone in the house she grew up in, she confronts elements of the past and comes to a better understanding of it and of herself and her parents.

The simplicity of the story belies its universal implications. This is a story of ?the great interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what happened to them.? With unsurpassed artistry Miss Welty shows us Laurel's struggle to come to terms with her father's death and with the life of the small Mississippi town he was so intimately involved with. In trying to deal with people who, like Fay, never even care to un-derstand what has happened to them, Laurel realizes that she too has kept her distance from a shared past. Like so many today, Laurel has lived in a city where she survives by avoiding any real involvement with those around her. It is only the shock of her father's death that leads her to new insights into the relationship between love and death and memory.

Certainly this book will be a rewarding experience to readers of Miss Welty's earlier work. Newcomers will discover its many dimensions and great substance: the large cast of characters and the complexity of their relationships, the rich humor and subtlety of dialogue that reveals without describing, the wideness of scope compressed within the boundaries of a short novel, the wisdom and discernment that underlie the author's vision of human life.

The Optimist's Daughter is a compact and inward-looking little novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that's slight of page yet big of heart. The optimist in question is 71-year-old Judge McKelva, who has come to a New Orleans hospital from Mount Salus, Mississippi, complaining of a "disturbance" in his vision. To his daughter, Laurel, it's as rare for him to admit "self-concern" as it is for him to be sick, and she immediately flies down from Chicago to be by his side. The subsequent operation on the judge's eye goes well, but the recovery does not. He lies still with both eyes heavily bandaged, growing ever more passive until finally--with some help from the shockingly vulgar Fay, his wife of two years--he simply dies. Together Fay and Laurel travel to Mount Salus to bury him, and the novel begins the inward spiral that leads Laurel to the moment when "all she had found had found her," when the "deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself" and begins to flow again.

Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg." Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant, graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love. Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here (though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born. They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."

Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come." Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise indeed. --Mary Park

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What was the significance of the words printed in italics?
by barbarastoll (see profile) 05/02/10

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by Rebecca D. (see profile) 03/16/18

  "The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty"by Carl P. (see profile) 07/25/14

Laurel McKelva, the optimist's daughter, learns from her father's death and the ensuing funeral and emotional aftermath that she must develop a new relationship with her past. As she is about to lose... (read more)

  "TheOptimist's Daughter"by Jennifer B. (see profile) 08/20/12

Very beautifully written. Classic style. Thought provoking.

  "The Optimist's Daughter"by Barbara S. (see profile) 05/02/10

This book was not an easy read for being such a short book. It is a bit depressing but ends on a more hopeful note. There was a tremendous amount of symbolism. The more symbolism you pick up the more... (read more)

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