Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer prize in 1972 for The Optimist’s Daughter. This slim novel follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days leading up to her father’s death and the week immediately following. The story starts in New Orleans but soon moves to the small Mississippi town that Laurel grew up in.
Welty’s prose is always a thing of beauty. She was probably born with piercing powers of observation but she honed them, paying attention to the moments in life that most of us rush over. She burnished those powers with a sense of the exact right word, and those show up again and again in The Optimist’s Daughter. I can almost say the whole book is made of small moments and detailed observations.
The book opens with Laurel and her stepmother Fay, who is younger than she is, at a doctor’s visit with her father. He has been experiencing some problems with his vision. The doctor is an old family friend who cared for Laurel’s mother when she was dying. In the context of a simple visit, the complicated relationships quiver beneath the surface.
“The excruciatingly small, brilliant eye of the instrument hung still between Judge McKelva’s set face and the doctor’s hidden one.”
The use of “eye” in that sentence is perfect; zeroing us in on what can, and can’t, be seen.
The surgery to re-attach the judge’s retina is successful, but there are complications. Laurel and Fay spend several days at the hospital in New Orleans (in the run-up to Carnival), and the fact that the two women dislike each other is underlined. Again, Welty captures perfectly the sense of both boredom and helplessness you feel at the bedside of a hospitalized family member, the complete sense of dislocation, going home each night to a strange bed. Laurel can hear Fay crying through the thin partition that separates them at their rooming house. Instead of telling us that Laurel can’t sleep, Welty writes this:
“The city took longer than Fay did to go to sleep; the city longer than the house.”
The story moves, with the judge’s body, back to Laurel’s home town and the house she grew up in. We see pre-funeral customs, the sort of mini-wake the townspeople hold around the coffin before it is taken to the cemetery. We hear the stories about the Judge, who was both beloved and a figure nearly of myth in this small town. Laurel reconnects with the group of women who were her friends since childhood; they were the bridesmaids at her fairytale wedding, and they are called “The Bridesmaids.” Through them we begin to see some of the changes that are overtaking the town; Laurel is the first widow (her husband was killed in World War II), one of her friends is the first divorced woman.
Mostly, however, this part of the book exists to develop the chasm between Fay and Laurel. Every woman Laurel meets in her home town tells her they don’t know what the Judge saw in Fay and imply that they if they’d seen “what was happening” they would, somehow, have put a stop to it. This is actually a witty and very believable part of the book. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Fay, who is from Texas, was not “worthy” of the Judge in the eyes of the town or Laurel, and the story itself disapproves of Fay.
Laurel has already survived the loss of her mother and her beloved husband; she has moved to Chicago and is successful in her own right as a textile designer, a fact that is not spoke of by her hometown friends, and acknowledged with resentment by Fay. Fay is outspoken about the fact that the childhood house is now hers and she will do what she wants with it; she clearly still resents the memory of Laurel’s mother, with whom she is constantly compared, unfavorably.
After the funeral, Fay abruptly decides to go with her family for a few days. Laurel assures her that she will be gone by the time Fay gets back. While Fay is gone, Laurel looks through the house for the bits and pieces of her past, and become acquainted with her own grief.
This part is lovely, but once again Fay is painted as a villain who has already gotten rid of things that were sacred to Laurel. Once Fay is gone, the house seems peaceful, but Laurel has a panic attack when she discovers that a bird, a chimney swift, has gotten into the house. In the midst of a huge storm, Laurel is chased through the house by the panicked bird. Once she runs into a room and slams the door, she can hear the bird beating its wings against the door. I didn’t know if I was supposed to understand that this was Laurel’s imagination, or if the story really wants us to believe the swift would do this. Later we discover that Laurel has a phobia about birds, but the whole passage with the swift was unsuccessful for me, unless, again, the frantic bird somehow represents the shallow, uneducated, “bad” woman that the judge brought into his house. It seems important that the bird in the house leaves soot marks on the wall and the curtains.
It comes as no surprise that the competent black housekeeper finally deals with the chimney swift. Once again, the depiction of a small southern town, good and bad, is thoroughly and economically drawn. Laurel herself is not depicted as perfect; she gets techy and nitpicky at the wake, trying to correct people who are talking story about her father. She is every bit as snippy to Fay as Fay is to her, and makes no attempt to see the younger woman’s side of things.
My problem is that the story doesn’t either. While Fay is vividly drawn, there is no attempt to elicit sympathy for her, or see her side of things. No pity is spared for the young woman who was taken up by a seventy-year-old solely because she had youth and energy; no pity for the woman stuck in a house in a strange town where everyone looks down on her. In case the reader might develop a sneaking sense of empathy, the story makes it clear that Fay may have done something to the Judge (inadvertently) that hastened his death. At the end Laurel discovers that Fay has ruined a wooden breadboard that Laurel’s husband had made. Fay ruined it through ignorance, using it as a base to crack black walnuts. Like the chimney swift, Fay besmirched a sacred thing and left black marks on it. This is the point of Fay; she can’t have nice things because she isn’t worthy. And she isn’t worthy, it seems, because she is of a lower class than Laurel, or she is from Texas. I’m not quite sure which.
This treatment of the adversarial character affected my enjoyment of this book; not because Fay is the adversary; of course she would be. That dynamic is well established; but because the book condescends to her so badly. If this weren’t Eudora Welty, I would consider it fantasy-wish-fulfillment; a new author exacting revenge on a personal enemy by writing them into the book and then treating them badly. I think the town’s treatment of Fay, and even Laurel’s treatment of Fay, is accurate… and I even believe the character of Fay as she is written; I just wish the story would have treated her more thoughtfully.