The Optimist’s Daughter is one of the books that I am assigned to read for a workshop I’m taking in February. I can’t quite believe I’m about to admit this on the internet, but I had never read Eudora Welty before I picked up this book – not even that short story “Why I Live at the P.O” that is in every short story anthology known to man. I’ve always known about Eudora Welty, and I own a copy of her book Losing Battles, but as far as I can remember, I’ve never even considered buying or reading The Optimist’s Daughter – and that is saying something, because I consider buying and/or reading just about everything, sooner or later.
This novel lives up to Welty’s excellent reputation. Its first chapter and final two chapters are close to perfect. The middle of the novel is still good, but it doesn’t live up to the standards set by the beginning and the end. But that’s OK – this novel is great in and of itself and is especially instructive for students of fiction writing. I am really looking forward to discussing it in class in about two months.
The protagonist of this novel is Laurel Hand, a widowed middle-aged professional woman living in Chicago who returns to her Mississippi hometown when her father becomes ill. Initially, all he needs is eye surgery; however, his recovery takes longer than expected, and at some point during his hospital stay, his physical condition and mental state take a downward turn. It is almost as if the dullness of the hospital routine changes him in some essential and terminal way.
Joining Laurel at her father’s bedside is Fay, Laurel’s father’s new wife. Fay is approximately Laurel’s age and is awful. Everything that comes out of her mouth is appalling. “I don’t see why this had to happen to me” (8) and “I vote we just forget about the whole business. Nature’s the great healer” (10) are two examples of her idiocy from the first chapter alone. Although Laurel is the point-of-view character, the narration is very distant in the first chapter, and after I saw how Laurel’s narrative voice changes later in the novel, I realized that Laurel’s restraint in the first chapter reflects the fact that she is desperately determined to hold her tongue. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a writer use narrative distance in this way, and I find it extremely effective.
Here, in no particular order, are some of my notes on the first chapter and, when needed, some commentary:
• Eyes everywhere. Laurel’s father is a judge, and everywhere one looks in this novel are references to eyes, vision, and judgment. He is having surgery on his eyes, of course, and his career required him to assess a situation and judge it fairly. When I was teaching, I read an essay by Francine Prose called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.” Prose’s purpose in this essay is to explain some of the ways that English teachers sabotage their students by unintentionally making English class too easy. Alongside many teaching strategies that Prose finds ineffective, she also examines the habits and approaches of some effective teachers, including one who sent his class home to read King Lear with instructions to circle the words eyes, see and sight every time they appeared. Prose’s purpose in citing this example is not to point out the importance of the motif of sight in this play but to hypothesize that instructing students to circle any pattern of language or imagery will help students focus on the text. This lengthy digression into the Prose essay (which I like, by the way) and this teaching strategy (which I approve of, by the way) is just a roundabout of saying that the motif of eyesight, combined with the related qualities of shrewd discernment and reliable judgment, seems to me to be used in exactly the same way in this novel as it is in King Lear.
• This book is so much like King Lear. There’s all the eye imagery, yes, but there’s more than that. Laurel is the good, loyal daughter who keeps her distance – like Cordelia – and Fay is neither Regan nor Goneril specifically but represents the selfish, quotidian impulses of both of Lear’s elder daughters as well as the human tendency to fail to recognize death even when it is staring a person in the face.
• “Optimist” sounds like “optometrist.” The significance of the title becomes clear on page 10 of the novel when Laurel’s father assures his doctor that he is an optimist, but I first jotted a note about the connection between the “optimist” of the title and the judge’s eye problem on the second page of the book. The doctor says, “You know, sir, this operation is not, in any hands, a hundred per cent predictable” – meaning, in other words, that there is no guarantee that the judge will survive. The judge replies, “Well, I’m an optimist.” The doctor replies, “I didn’t know there were any more such animals,” and the judge says, “Never think you’ve seen the last of anything” (10) – a point of view that to me sounds more cynical than optimistic. Of course, in addition to being a root meaning “eye,” opt is also a verb meaning “to choose,” and this is a novel that is very much about choices – subtle ones, like Laurel’s choice to more or less let Fay have her way – her tacky, appalling way – in planning the logistics of the judge’s funeral. Sight, choice, judgment, and foresight are all interconnected in this novel. If only these characters had livedin New York, they could have passed the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg on their way to the hospital. They would have fit right in.
• No clear details are given in chapter 1, but it seems that Laurel’s mother, Becky, also died of an eye problem – or of a series of problems that were first precipitated by an eye problem. The specific nature of this problem is less important than the fact that Becky is a constant presence in this novel, even though she has been dead for years. Laurel is quietly loyal to her mother, Laurel’s friends – whom we meet later on – are loudly loyal to Laurel’s mother, and even the judge seems to pine silently for his first wife. Fay bristles whenever she hears Becky’s name, of course.
• What’s a bird-frightener? The first chapter contains the first of many references to such a contraption, which – if I’m understanding it correctly – may be the most original and evocative symbol I’ve ever encountered in a novel. It seems as if Becky used to tie many small “homemade reflectors, rounds of tin” (5) to her fruit trees because the small discs shot sunlight in various directions, scaring and disorienting the birds. I’ve never encountered this idea before and am only about 90% sure I’m understanding it correctly, but the image comes back over and over (it almost seems to be the first thing people think of when they remember Becky; apparently she was passionate about her bird-frighteners) and is really quite beautiful.
This novel doesn’t quite live up to the perfection of its opening chapter until the end, but it’s still a fine – though slow – depiction of a family facing the loss of its patriarch. Its plot is definitely interior rather than exterior; high school students would hate it. When I was reading one of the slower stretches, I jotted a note that says, “If Flannery O’Connor didn’t exist, this would be a great book.” In another spot, I wrote, “Why exactly do we need Eudora Welty when we have Flannery O’Connor?” This sentiment is a bit nasty of me, of course, but it’s true that this novel is sort of a just-one-calorie diet version of a story like “Good Country People” or “The Displaced Persons.” In particular, Fay seems to have woken up one morning in a Flannery O’Connor story, where she was the daughter of a couple that worked as caretaker and housekeeper for some formerly-slaveowning down-on-its-luck southern farm family and decided to try her luck on marrying a wealthy widower in a Eudora Welty novel. As unpleasant as she is, Fay is the center of this novel’s energy. She makes me cringe, but she also makes me feel things. Laurel makes me feel things too, but only mild, well-modulated things. Laurel is the protagonist of an extremely staid, sensitive, mature novel – and as such her character is perfectly drawn. But I never feel her feelings – at least not until the very end of the book. I never really get a sense of what exactly she is so eager to return to in Chicago. I don’t feel that I know her. And for the middle hundred pages of this novel, I felt a little trapped by her.
The ending of the novel – which is phenomenal – is not for the faint of heart. In these chapters, Laurel spends a few final days in her father’s house before she leaves and turns it over to Fay – who, as the judge’s widow, will inherit all of his property. In these chapters, Laurel recognizes Fay’s limitations and absolves her of her transgressions because she recognizes that Fay is capable of so little insight. At the same time, Laurel recognizes that her father – the great and mighty judge – is also a limited person whose “optimism” (read: voluntary ignorance) prevented him from knowing and loving his first wife, Becky, as fully as he wanted to. Welty suggests that something in the nature of the judge’s marriage to Becky – for all its solicitude, attentiveness, and good manners – actually conjured up Fay, almost as if Fay’s purpose is to counterbalance the gentility and pristine behavior of the judge and his first wife. These chapters resonated with me deeply: my dad is also a man of infinite patience, attentiveness, and self-abnegation who had the luck (good luck or bad luck? I don’t know) to outlive his wife. These final chapters are as maddeningly beautiful as that little Howard Nemerov poem that goes
Their marriage was a good one. In our eyes,
What makes a marriage good? First, that the tether
Fray but not break, and that they stay together.
One should be watching while the other dies.
Birds are all over the place in the final chapters. The bird-frighteners make a number of appearances. Laurel struggles to shoo out a bird that has flown into the house, and she remembers raising pigeons as a child (“But Laurel had kept the pigeons under eye in their pigeon house and had already seen a pair of them sticking their beaks down each other’s throats, gagging each other, eating out of each other’s craws, swallowing down all over again what had been swallowed before: they were taking turns. The first time, she hoped they might never do it again, but they did it again the next day while the other pigeons copied them. They convinced her that they could not escape each other and could not themselves be escaped from. So when the pigeons flew down, she tried to position herself behind her grandmother’s skirt, which was long and black, but her grandmother said again,’They’re just hungry, like we are’” [140-41]). During a moment of anger, Laurel’s heart is described as a frantic, fluttering bird, and Fay strutting around in her finery is described in avian terms as well.
Here’s some more of Welty’s masterful prose: “Her father in his domestic gentleness had a horror of any sort of private clash, of divergence from the affectionate and the real and the explainable and the recognizable. He was a man of great delicacy; what he had not been born with he had learned in reaching toward his wife. He grimaced with delicacy. What he could not control was his belief that all his wife’s troubles would turn out all right because there was nothing he would not have given her” (146). My note in the margin here reads “Mine too!”
Laurel reviews her memory of her mother’s slow descent into senility before she died – of the horrible frustration her mother felt when she had lost her ability to understand what was happening to her: “Her cry was not complaint; it was anger at wanting to know and being denied knowledge; it was love’s deep anger” (148). She also recognizes with horror that she wishes her parents could return to that terrible pain because at least in the torment of her mother’s dying months, they had been together in every possible way: physically, emotionally, spiritually. She feels guilty for wishing it, but she would give everything – even her parents’ hard-earned peace after death – to return to a family that had never met Fay. And also – I can’t quite believe I forgot to mention this part – Laurel also relives her husband’s death, for she is a widow herself. These final chapters are as dark and sad as they sound, but they are so, so real. I remember finishing this book and being flat-out exhausted.
Clearly I haven’t covered everything I wanted to cover. This book is complex and beautiful, and even in its slowness it mirrors the terrible inching along of human comprehension. Growing up takes its time, and while Laurel is in her forties at the beginning of this book, this is still a story of her growth and coming of age. I will be reading this book again before my workshop in February, and if I have anything more to add when that time comes, I may do so. This is the kind of book that is entirely worth reading in spite of the fact that it may push its readers away a little. I recognize now that my longing for the excesses and near-slapstick comedy of Flannery O’Connor was another example of that tendency that great books have of trying to keep us out of them. Go away, kid, this novel said to me. You don’t really want to know what’s in here. You want to read about wooden legs and Misfits and gorillas. This book’s in the adult section, kid, and we don’t want your kind around here.
All true. But I kept reading. And it was wonderful.