The Optimist's Daughter
) is the last and perhaps the finest novel
by Eudora Welty
. Although better-known as a short story
writer, Welty also produced a number of excellent works of longer fiction. Expanded from a story published in The New Yorker
magazine in 1969
, The Optimist's Daughter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize
It's a book written by an old woman, about watching people you love die, memories of a fifteen year old girl, midwinter, going with her father to a hospital in Baltimore, her father dying, the doctors coming out to her:
'You'd better get in touch with whoever you know in Baltimore, little girl.'
'But I don't know anybody in Baltimore, sir.'
'You don't know anybody in Baltimore?' they had asked Becky. But Becky had known herself.
That actually happened to Eudora Welty's mother and her grandfather.
Set largely in Mississippi in the 1960s, the title character is Laurel Hand, Mississippi-born but now living in Chicago. She returns home because her father, Judge McKelva, is due to go into hospital for an eye operation. The operation appears a success, but her father seems changed. He just lies there in his bed, waiting to die in hospital, obsessed by the passage of time. The use in the hospital of the phrase "waiting-room laughter", like something you never knew existed but know instantly when it's named. He dies soon after, and Laurel is forced into conflict with his second wife Fay; her own mother had died some some years before, and Judge McKelva has married this apparently loud, self-centred and stupid woman, to Laurel's bewilderment.
It ends with Laurel reflecting on her family's history, and with one final, not entirely conclusive, fight with Fay. The moral's something about how we can't change the past, but we can hurt memories, and that's what makes memories live. Just before, we find Laurel discovering her mother's letters to her father still in his desk:
Her father could not have borne to touch them; to Fay, they would have been only what somebody wrote - and anybody reduced to the need to write, Fay would think already beaten as a rival.
Like life, the book's not clear-cut. Fay seems evil, unrealistically so, and we can't tell if Laurel is really justified in hating her. Welty is feted and criticised for liking all her character
s; Fay is the one villain in her work, a girl who rejects the past and intellence, surrounded at the funeral by her idiot white-trash family.
It is a novel about the timelessness of family and love, but also about change, about a heroine who leaves the south behind to head to the industrial north to go to college and marry an architect, whose husband dies in the war, making her a modern independent woman yet still someone capable of connecting with the past. Although most of the book is the hospital and the funeral, parts of it are funny -- rural women sitting around in bitchy conversation, the remains of the old South, a memory of heroism and goodness and simplicity, but mainly people just living their lives, observed with clarity and clearness.
According to Edward Ross, The New York Times, May 21, 1972:
"The Optimist's Daughter" [...] is a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work. [...] The best book Eudora Welty has ever written, "The Optimist's Daughter" is a long goodbye in a very short space not only to the dead but to delusion and to sentiment as well.