The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
The Optimist’s Daughter is primarily a story about place, position, and values, although it does also touch on familial relationships and dealing with grief and the lost past. The main character, Laurel, is a calm, level-headed, independent woman – strong and filled with common sense and class. She comes home to tend to her father, who must undergo retinal surgery. The father’s young wife, Fay, is Laurel’s polar opposite – naïve, vain, vulgar, selfish and quite stupid. Laurel is Mississippian, while Fay and her family are proud Texans – and the portrayal of Mississippians as genteel and classy, while Texans are crass and dirty, is impossible to miss. The novel’s primary focus seems to be an examination of regional culture (with clear implications for and against those territories which are explored); however, Fay the Texan is so unabashedly stupid and Laurel the Mississippian so prominently “good,” that the didactic overshadows much of what could have been implicit and thereby more entertaining than sermonized.
3 – Characters well developed.
In general, the minor characters and those on the periphery (particularly those who are deceased prior to the start of the story, so are referred to in flashbacks/conversation, etc.) are the saving grace for this category. The main character – the Judge and “Optimist”- is portrayed simultaneously as hero and victim, as godlike and wholly human. In remembrance, he is eulogized as a giant of the community, but his own daughter remembers him much differently. Welty touches on an interesting and honest aspect of human nature, here, but it is the only truly complex (and still too plainly delivered, in my opinion) element of characterization. The other main characters, Fay and Laurel in particular, are starkly contrasted and without subtlety, making them rather uninteresting. Laurel’s “bridesmaids” – the southern women- are funny, so also make the story more palatable.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
Welty’s prose is clear and uncomplicated, which mirrors her story quite well. The dialogue is handled nicely, as are the flashbacks – some of the most touching moments of the book are the segments wherein Laurel reminisces about her mother and (briefly) her deceased husband. The story reads well because Welty tells it well – and this comes across in her writing. The novel was originally published as a short story – later expanded- and this comes across at times. As a short story, the dichotomous characters and opinionated (almost grotesque) regional descriptors may have worked much better, but as no complexity seemed to be added to the story when it lengthened, the book often comes across as a really long short story, which is in a way antithetical.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
There are clearly themes that Welty is exploring here: Southern regionalism, North (Chicago) and South (Mississippi/West Virginia), Duty to Parents, Stepmother (young bride) syndrome, Selfishness, Memory (undue homage), and even the idea of Optimism itself. Perhaps the most interesting (or confusing) element of the story – and the one to really consider, is this latter idea of optimism. What does it mean to be optimistic? Who in this story is The Optimist? We would assume (and are flat-out told, at one point) that the old Judge is the optimist and, when he passes, the duty of the optimist falls upon his daughter (hence the book’s title); however, very few instances of optimism are ever demonstrated by either of these two characters. So, we think about Laurel’s mother – who died years before the Judge. Perhaps, through Laurel’s memory, we will discover that Laurel’s mother was the true optimist of the family. Not quite. This leaves Fay – the one who tries to “scare the judge into living.” Was she really so naïve as to believe such a thing would work? Is Welty equating optimism, then, to naïvete – to a juvenile way of viewing the world? And here the real story begins…..
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School, Adult
Interest: Death and Dying, Family, Grief, Widowhood, American South, 1960s America, Individuality, Memory, Nostalgia, Class, Caste/Societal Position, Regional Relations.
I just bought a copy of this yesterday! I knew almost nothing about it, but it was $1 and I’ve always wanted to read something by this author. I’m so glad you posted on this today.