Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Eudora Welty’s works have attracted a faithful, though seldom numerous, following. The Optimist’s Daughter, first published in The New Yorker, did command a wide readership; it also brought its author critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize. The much-honored Welty also has received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel, as well as the National Medal for Literature for lifetime achievement.

Since the beginning of her career, Welty has explored such universally compelling subjects as marriage and family, social and class morality, the sense of community versus the sense of aloneness—and the variety of possible attitudes toward memory. For example, the inability to draw moral lessons from remembered experience is shown to be a great affliction in The Ponder Heart (1954) just as it is in The Optimist’s Daughter. Yet unlike Welty’s previous novel, Losing Battles (1970)—a long and convoluted exploration of the past— The Optimist’s Daughter is a brief, intense treatment of past events recollected in the present.

What most sets this novel apart from Welty’s other fiction, however, is a clear sense of its main character’s liberation—first from rural life without a profession, and then from the power of unhappy and confusing memories. The Optimist’s Daughter is also outstanding for its artistic unity; it is a work that reveals, rather than simply describing, the truths it contains.