“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 sickbed to take her to the Carnival. One night she throws herself on his body—immobilized on doctor’s orders—crying, “I tell you enough is enough! This is my birthday!” Shocked by Fay’s insensitive, and impossible demands, his concentration on recovery shattered, Judge McKelva gives up the ghost.
Laurel and Fay return with his body to the family home in Mount Salus, Mississippi. The townsfolk crowd into the house to mourn this revered public figure and pay respects to his daughter, whom they have known since her birth. (His upstart wife is barely tolerated by many who honor the memory of Laurel’s mother, Becky.) Yet as they swap contradictory anecdotes about the judge, Laurel realizes that no two of them perceive her father alike, and none remembers him accurately.
Like New Orleans at Mardi Gras, Mount Salus becomes a stage where farce vies with tragedy. Fay indulges in self-pitying histrionics; some townspeople pointedly snub one another despite the sad occasion; Fay’s vulgar relatives descend on the house to chat over the corpse: “Out of curiosity, who does he remind you of?” the mother asks her father-in-law. “Nobody,” he replies.
These present absurdities contrast painfully with Laurel’s memory of an idyllic childhood, of a rich inner life under the tutelage of loving, sensitive parents. Yet Laurel’s past also involves the recollection of her mother’s agonizing death and the recognition that Becky, in her own way, had made as many unreasoning demands on the judge as had Fay. Laurel realizes suddenly that, like the “blunderers” of the story, she has yet to understand fully what has happened in her life.
Resolution comes after a final confrontation with Fay, whom Laurel holds responsible for her father’s death. As the judge’s second wife and the heiress to the McKelva home, Fay is in some sense a rival for possession of Laurel’s own past. Yet Laurel, having barely restrained an impulse to do Fay violence, attains peace once she understands that “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” Laurel is free to return to the life she has made for herself in Chicago.
(The entire section is 1,342 words.)