(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.)


(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.)