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The Optimist's Daughter Paperback – August 11, 1990
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The Optimist's Daughter is a compact and inward-looking little novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner that's slight of page yet big of heart. The optimist in question is 71-year-old Judge McKelva, who has come to a New Orleans hospital from Mount Salus, Mississippi, complaining of a "disturbance" in his vision. To his daughter, Laurel, it's as rare for him to admit "self-concern" as it is for him to be sick, and she immediately flies down from Chicago to be by his side. The subsequent operation on the judge's eye goes well, but the recovery does not. He lies still with both eyes heavily bandaged, growing ever more passive until finally--with some help from the shockingly vulgar Fay, his wife of two years--he simply dies. Together Fay and Laurel travel to Mount Salus to bury him, and the novel begins the inward spiral that leads Laurel to the moment when "all she had found had found her," when the "deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself" and begins to flow again.
Not much actually happens in the rest of the book--Fay's low-rent relatives arrive for the funeral, a bird flies down the chimney and is trapped in the hall--and yet Welty manages to compress the richness of an entire life within its pages. This is a world, after all, in which a set of complex relationships can be conveyed by the phrase "I know his whole family" or by the criticism "When he brought her here to your house, she had very little idea of how to separate an egg." Does such a place exist anymore? It is vanishing even from this novel, and the personification of its vanishing is none other than Fay--petulant, graceless, childish, with neither the passion nor the imagination to love. Welty expends a lot of vindictive energy on Fay and her kin, who must be the most small-minded, mean-mouthed clan since the Snopeses hit Frenchman's Bend. There's more than just class snobbery at work here (though that surely comes into it too). As Welty sees it, they are a special historical tribe who exult in grieving because they have come to be good at it, and who seethe with resentment from the day they are born. They have come "out of all times of trouble, past or future--the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them."
Fay belongs to the future, as she makes clear; it's Laurel who belongs to the past--Welty's own chosen territory. In her fine memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described the way art could shine a light back "as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come." Here, in one of her most autobiographical works, the past joins seamlessly with the present in a masterful evocation of grief, memory, loss, and love. Beautifully written, moving but never mawkish, The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's greatest achievement--which is high praise indeed. --Mary Park
Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel by Eudora Welty, published in 1972. This partially autobiographical story explores the subtle bonds between parent and child and the complexities of love and grief. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
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Although short in length, the book moves slowly because the reader needs time to evaluate and apply the other messages given by the author through her use of images. Ms Welty does not tell us what to think, she lets us come to our own conclusions. This is a book that can be read many times and still find new meaning.
Through the telling of this simple tale, the author pursues various themes, using character study, plot development, symbols (birds, flowers, and other household objects). Very few insights are given in a straightforward, declarative manner, but are unfolded slowly, in independent presentations, to which the reader gives weight by finding connections.
For example, one of the larger themes the author pursues is the way love and interdependence intertwine. In that regard, the author writes:
"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 convinced her that they could not escape each other and could not themselves be escaped from."
Later in the novel, she revisits this theme describing how Laurel's mother, on her death bed, angrily confronted her husband's inability to "see" her pain and frustration (which the mother refers to as "her betrayal") by calling him a coward--but simultaneously and steadfastly clinging to his hands, and refusing to let go.
Among other themes, as the title suggests, the author explores the notion of optimism, with the converse for the author, not being pessimism, but being realistic--the strength to face life and go on, even with its pains and difficulties. In that regard, the author writes, "But he was not an optimist--she knew that. Phil had learned everything he could manage to learn, and done as much as he had time for, to design houses to stand, to last, to be lived in; but he had known they could equally well, with the same devotion and tireless effort, be built of cards."
In conclusion, even after two readings, I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this book's depth. My suggestion for one considering a read, to achieve the maximum value this book has to offer, be prepared to do the work. If you are not (which is of course fine), its probably not the best choice.