A key to understanding many of Eudora Welty’s characters is the use that they make of their past. Those who distort their memories, or who fail to remember experience at all, are in no position to learn from it, but, to be remembered, experience has to mean something. Fay has no guiding principle for her present actions because she attaches no significance to the past—either her own or Judge McKelva’s. So she “blunders.”
“Blundering” in a major character such as Fay represents a major evil; in minor characters, Welty renders it comically. Among a handful of Mount Salus eccentrics at Judge McKelva’s wake is Verna Longmeier, the sewing lady, who recounts memories of Christmas dances that never happened:I remember, oh, I remember how many Christmases I was among those present in this dear old home in all its hospitality. . . . And they’d throw open those doors between these double parlors and the music would strike up! And then—“Miss Verna drew out her arm as though to measure a yard—” then Clinton and I, we’d lead out the dance.
Yet this novel is Laurel’s story. She is the title character—her father being the “Optimist”—and the book chronicles her struggle to comprehend the spiritual legacy of her parents. If she is unveiled slowly—the early chapters barely hint at her troubled soul—it is because at first she has no time to remember that legacy. While the focus is on her father’s illness and death, Laurel appears the most stable figure, standing watch, reading to him by the hour, asking (as Fay does not) the responsible questions of the doctor. Only when these exigencies are past, and her moment of truth can no longer be postponed, is she revealed...
(The entire section is 700 words.)