The Optimist's Daughter Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

“Is it the Carnival?” asks Fay, as she and Laurel ride through New Orleans in a taxi. It is Mardi Gras, though hardly a festive occasion: The two have just left a hospital where, less than an hour earlier, they witnessed the death of Judge McKelva, Fay’s husband and Laurel’s father.

Fay’s incongruous question typifies the uncomprehending, inadequate, and inappropriate responses to life by many characters in The Optimist’s Daughter. The world of these characters is a microcosm of the larger world glimpsed through carnival-week New Orleans, where Laurel can hear “the crowd noise, the unmistakable sound of hundreds, of thousands, of people blundering.” To Laurel, all of them, especially Fay and her Snopesian kinfolk, are part of “the great, interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them.”

Despite its characters’ bafflement, the novel tells a simple story. Laurel temporarily leaves her Chicago studio to be at home with her father after he mentions casually that he is consulting the family doctor for an eye problem. Together, he, Laurel, and Fay—his new wife after ten years as a widower—travel to New Orleans, where they learn that he needs surgery for a torn retina. Fay quickly reveals her selfishness by exclaiming, “I don’t see why this had to happen to me.”

Though the operation is a success, Fay lacks the patience to wait out her husband’s convalescence. Angry and uncomprehending, she tries to goad him into leaving his...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

The Optimist's Daughter Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Optimist’s Daughter deals with family relationships, as do the earlier novels Delta Wedding and Losing Battles and many of Welty’s short stories. The Optimist’s Daughter, however, focuses on a family of only three people: Laurel McKelva Hand, a widow, the protagonist; her ill father, Judge Clinton McKelva; and his second wife, Fay Chisom McKelva, who is even younger than Laurel. It is not the difference between generations that causes conflict in this novel, however; as in “Moon Lake” and “A Memory,” it is the difference in attitude and in conduct between two social classes, a difference that cannot easily be reconciled.

The old, educated southern aristocracy, connected by common memories and by generations of intermarriage and marked by the restraint that they show in times of crisis, is represented by Judge McKelva, his dead wife Becky McKelva, and their daughter, Laurel. Fay comes from a lower social level, one that people such as the McKelvas generally view with embarrassment and distaste. People of Fay’s class, whatever their income, can be counted on to be loud, aggressive, and insensitive to social nuances.

Although it would seem that the hospital room in New Orleans where the story begins would be a neutral ground in the class conflict, it is not. The Judge’s doctor is at ease with the Judge and Laurel; a native of Mount Salus, Mississippi, where the McKelvas live, he behaves as the Judge and Laurel do—they become more and more controlled as the Judge’s health declines. It is not surprising that the doctor is appalled by Fay’s behavior. Evidently she is convinced that if she pouts and complains enough about how bored she is, the Judge will...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

The Optimist's Daughter Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In New Orleans, Judge Clinton McKelva is diagnosed with a detached retina. As his second wife, Wanda Fay, along with his daughter Laurel and a night nurse, take shifts sitting with him in his hospital room, he gives no sign of wanting to live. He only lies still, on Dr. Nate Courtland’s orders, concentrating, it seems, only on the passing of time. His double room eventually gets a new patient, Mr. Dalzell, a fellow Mississippian who has cancer. Mr. Dalzell is unaware of his surroundings and thinks the judge is his estranged son.

At night, Laurel inexplicably returns to the hospital, hours after her own shift there, to find a nurse pulling Fay out of the judge’s room, irate that Fay has tried to urge the judge from bed so they could celebrate her birthday and Mardi Gras. In the waiting room, members of the Dalzell family attempt to calm Fay, outraged at the nurse’s treatment of her—typically concentrating on herself rather than on the impending death of the judge. He dies minutes after Fay’s attempt to move him. The next afternoon, Laurel and Fay take the train to Mount Salus, Mississippi, with the judge’s body on board.

In the evening, the judge’s body is brought home; his funeral is set for the next day, and his body is viewed in the family home beforehand. Friends of the judge have organized a dinner for both days in his honor. Fay objects to people taking over her home. The Chisoms, Fay’s family, arrive and prove outspoken and vulgar to most of Laurel’s friends and to her parents. After the burial of the judge in the newest part of the cemetery, near the highway and not in the plot with his first wife, Becky, Fay decides to return for a few days to Texas with her family.

Laurel spends the weekend in her family home. Saturday afternoon she tends her mother’s garden while four of her mother’s old friends gossip mainly about Fay and her relationship with the judge. That evening, Laurel, alone, goes through her father’s library, finding no trace of his life with her mother, only his books and papers and some drops of nail polish on his desk, presumably traces of his life with Fay. Laurel removes each drop. Sunday evening, Laurel spends time with her...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

The Optimist's Daughter Summary

Part 1 Summary

As The Optimist's Daughter opens, Laurel McKelva Hand leaves Chicago and goes to New Orleans, where her father, Judge McKelva, is...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Part 2 Summary

Laurel and Fay arrive in Mount Salus, and Judge's coffin is taken off the train and loaded into a waiting hearse. Many of Laurel's old...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Part 3 Summary

The next day, Laurel works in the garden while four elderly neighbor women sit and gossip about Fay. When Laurel goes inside, she walks...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Part 4 Summary

The next morning, with the help of Missouri (an African-American woman who has worked as a cook for the McKelvas since Laurel's childhood),...

(The entire section is 200 words.)