“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...
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dreams.” Laurel is free to return to the life she has made for herself in Chicago.
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 rise from his bed and take her around New Orleans. Laurel, remembering her own refined, dead mother, loathes Fay. The family of the Judge’s roommate, however, whose background is the same as Fay’s, understand that her temper tantrums are simply the appropriate way for people of her class to respond to stress. It is to these people that Fay turns for comfort when the Judge dies.
In Mount Salus, as in New Orleans, there are two distinct groups of people. The friends of the McKelvas have one code; Fay’s relatives, who come to attend the funeral, have another. From the vantage point of Laurel, with whom Welty clearly sympathizes, Fay is an intruder who intends to take the Judge’s effects and, more important, to destroy the memories that are still present for Laurel in her childhood home.
For Laurel, the turning point of the story comes after the funeral, when Fay tries to appropriate a breadboard that Laurel’s dead husband had made for her mother. In a moment of fury, Laurel very nearly hits Fay over the head with the breadboard; however, Laurel realizes that such an action would be typical of Fay, not of the McKelvas. She also realizes that whatever material things Fay may claim, she cannot take either Laurel’s sense of the family past or her memories of her husband, her mother, and her father.
At the end of the story, although she may not realize it, Fay has been defeated. She will always be an outsider in the society that she had hoped to enter by marrying the Judge. However much she mocks and attacks the aristocrats, she has a deep sense of inferiority when she is around them, based, Laurel sees, on Fay’s very real defects, not simply on Laurel’s distaste for her. Fay does not have enough imagination to understand a person of intelligence and of sensitivity. Therefore, she can neither love nor defeat such a person.
The Optimist’s Daughter is different from Welty’s other novels in that Fay comes close to being a real villain, rather than simply a person whose perceptions are different from those of others. Unlike the other novels, it ends without a reconciliation between characters in conflict, without the family’s incorporating unlike people into their society. Instead, there is a personal victory for Laurel. After her experience of confluence, her assurance of the presence of the dead she mourns, she knows that Fay and her like can never defeat her.