The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Laurel McKelva Hand

Laurel McKelva Hand, a widow in her mid-forties and a successful fabric designer living in Chicago. Slender, stable, and with “her hair still dark,” she is the optimist’s daughter of the novel’s title. She has flown to New Orleans to be with her father for his operation to repair a damaged retina. She reads to him during his initial recovery and then returns to her family home for his funeral—and to sort out some of her own past. Much of the novel and many of its memories are filtered through Laurel’s consciousness, especially back at Mount Salus after the funeral, where Laurel recalls her mother and her own early years. Laurel is surrounded by death—her husband, her mother, and now her father have all died. Once she has put memory and death in their proper places in the past, however, she finally survives and triumphs. In reaching some sort of resolution with Fay, her stepmother, Laurel makes peace with her home, and she can return to Chicago.

Judge Clinton McKelva

Judge Clinton McKelva, Laurel’s father, retired from the bench and living in Mount Salus, Mississippi, with his second wife, Fay. At the age of seventy-one, the judge develops eye trouble, but as he tells Dr. Courtland, his surgeon, he is “an optimist” and has survived much, including the death of his first wife, Becky. He also has an untapped reserve of patience, but being forced to lie still after his delicate eye operation is too much for him, as well as for his selfish...

(The entire section is 623 words.)