Some years ago I decided my thing was Southern literature. I had never read anything by a Southern author, but the setting and the history were interesting enough to me to take for granted I would love Southern literature. After some research, I decided Eudora Welty (whose work as a photographer produced the image on the banner) was the perfect author to start reading about the South, from a Southern perspective. My choice was The Optimist’s Daughter. I structure this review because I did not want to leave anything important behind.
The people of Mount Salus, Mississippi always felt good about Judge McKelva. He was a quiet, solid reassuring figure, just as a judge should be. Then, ten years after his first wife’s death, he marries the frivolous young Wanda Fay. No-one can understand his action, not least his beloved daughter, Laurel, who finds it hard to accept the new bride. It is only some years later, when circumstance brings her back to her childhood home, that Laurel stirs old memories and comes to understand the peculiarities of her upbringing, and the true relationship between her parents and herself. The Optimist’s Daughter is a reflective, poignant novel of independence and love, for which Eudora Welty, one of America’s greatest contemporary Southern writers, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
When I first started reading, it was clear that Welty would not put all the facts right there for the reader to see them straight, on the contrary, she expects the reader to reflect on what she is narrating and read between the lines. Then, out of the blue, I felt that the reading was a mix of The Great Gatsby and The Help: vision and eyes play a key thematic role in the first quarter of the book and, the 1950’s setting reflected a Mississippi still fighting racism and a social hierarchy where the white genteel families govern the town.
Vision and sight set the plot in motion: judge McKelva goes to New Orleans because he has been having trouble with his sight. Accompanied by his second wife, Fay, and his daughter, Laurel, he is told his right retina has slipped and he has to undergo a simple surgery to fix it. Clinton McKelva is 70 and his second wife, whom he married a year before this incident, 40, almost the same age as his daughter, Laurel. As I was reading, I could not but interpret this problem with his vision with a problem to perceive reality. From the very beginning, Fay is presented as a dislikable character who only wants to enjoy the New Orleans’ carnival and does not want her husband to undergo surgery “leave it to nature”, she says.
Memory becomes, after Clinton’s death another key theme. Back to Mt. Salus for the funeral, Laurel, who moved in her twenties to Chicago, comes back to her childhood home, now owned by the frivolous Fay. There she meets with a group called “The Bridesmaids” who were her actual bridesmaids in her wedding to Phil. But Phil is also a memory, having been killed in WWII by a Japanese kamikaze attack. Trapped among her parents’ things (her mother’s have been moved to a room by Fay) she revisits her childhood memories, but especially her mother’s death. Welty dwells on this process of remembering and reinterpreting, making it clear that memories are fluid and open to reinterpretations, always influenced by our everyday life. Also, Laurel is able to leave these memories behind (materially too) by realizing that she is who she is thanks to those memories: they construct her and are fluid and vital part of herself.
Laurel is the main character in the novel. It is around her that the plot and the main events revolve. However, her narration is usually created by others: we see Laurel through the eyes of her Mt. Salus neighbours and her parents’ friends who act like a Greek Chorus. She is a distinguished, working woman, a war widow and a devoted daughter. She is usually described in positive terms, always composed, nice and tolerant. In fact, I saw her as a passive character, I thought she was in shock after her father’s death. But, after some research, she is there to represent the genteel Southern woman and also, a tool for Welty to present the reader with a story.
Fay is Laurel’s Other: she is everything Laurel is not and therefore, Laurel is as good as she is (or Welty wants us to see her). Many critics have described her as a representative of “white trash”, a woman who married for money but who does not belong by birth to the Southern genteel society. But she does not care: she is not accepted by the Mt. Salus society and she does not want to be so. In the introduction to the book, it is highlighted that she runs through the hospital in her green stilettos, longing for a night out enjoying the New Orleans’ carnival, making her similar to a fairy belonging to the night and the fun in contrast with the harshness and the reality of the hospital and her husband’s health.
Some new interpretations of Fay make her a subversive character: she challenges Mt. Salus’ society by marrying a man who, by birth, would not be the normal choice. She may be what many call “white trash” but it is she who inherits the great house and everything that is inside. She moves from a social class to another and shows that birth is not the only way to enter the genteel society. She embodies the new American society: she focuses on the future, on material things and ignores social rules, she breaks them and is happy to do so. The American society is no longer structured by birth and names, but by wealth. The new American society is Fay.
The Optimist’s Daughter has been described as economical in its prose yet powerful. I agree. When I started reading it was a little bit difficult to read so many descriptions of events and people whose meaning I did not know. As I continued reading, everything just clicked. Laurel’s memories gain meaning as they are connected and they construct Laurel.
It may seem that nothing goes on, but I think this book follows a more Modernist/Postmodernist view regarding the plot: we get into the minds of those living Judge McKelva’s funeral and how they focus on Laurel. All their views construct her, make her part of the Mr. Salus community.
I had no idea this book was highly autobiographical: Laurel could definitely be Welty’s alter ego. They both had mothers who could not save their fathers and they both felt guilty of not being able to save (or help) their fathers as the good, proper daughters they were. Her mothers moved away from Home after marrying and their families never really forgave their husbands for doing so. However, Welty never married and never longed for more passion and sexual drive as Laurel does. Welty decided to speak about her memories and her family and how the dead are never gone because they are within her, but Laurel did not say a word, just left her hometown for Chicago, aware of her memories and her family as a part within her.
Eudora Welty wrote his on her sixtieth year and won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel.
But, both knew, and for the same reason, that bad days go better without any questions at all. (p.19)
Even if you have kept silent for the sake of the dead, you cannot rest in your silence, as the dead rest. (p. 130)
The past is no more open to help or hurt than was Father in his coffin. The past is like him, impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back to its wounds from across the world, like Phil, calling us by our names and demanding us. (p.179)
(Fay:) The past isn’t a thing to me. I belong to the future, didn’t you know that? (p.179)
I would definitely recommend The Optimist’s Daughter. It is a poignant, very intense reading but it is one of those books that change you. Laurel’s story could be that of anyone: her mother died, her father, at seventy, married a younger woman, not agreeable at all and she has to put up with everything. For me, she could be any modern woman, taking care of her family and trying to do her best.
But what I loved the most is the concept of memories and how they construct us. For me, it was a very positive view on live: our parents will die and we may find ourselves alone, but, somehow, our parents are still part of us. They made us, they educated us and they changed us at the same time we changed them. And the same happened with their parents, so, eventually we are constructed by all our family. Lately, I have been exploring new ways to interpret reality from a more “fluid” perspective and this just adds up to a new, more positive view on life.