The Optimist's Daughter Additional Summary

Eudora Welty


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In New Orleans, Judge Clinton McKelva is diagnosed with a detached retina. As his second wife, Wanda Fay, along with his daughter Laurel and a night nurse, take shifts sitting with him in his hospital room, he gives no sign of wanting to live. He only lies still, on Dr. Nate Courtland’s orders, concentrating, it seems, only on the passing of time. His double room eventually gets a new patient, Mr. Dalzell, a fellow Mississippian who has cancer. Mr. Dalzell is unaware of his surroundings and thinks the judge is his estranged son.

At night, Laurel inexplicably returns to the hospital, hours after her own shift there, to find a nurse pulling Fay out of the judge’s room, irate that Fay has tried to urge the judge from bed so they could celebrate her birthday and Mardi Gras. In the waiting room, members of the Dalzell family attempt to calm Fay, outraged at the nurse’s treatment of her—typically concentrating on herself rather than on the impending death of the judge. He dies minutes after Fay’s attempt to move him. The next afternoon, Laurel and Fay take the train to Mount Salus, Mississippi, with the judge’s body on board.

In the evening, the judge’s body is brought home; his funeral is set for the next day, and his body is viewed in the family home beforehand. Friends of the judge have organized a dinner for both days in his honor. Fay objects to people taking over her home. The Chisoms, Fay’s family, arrive and prove outspoken and vulgar to most of Laurel’s friends and to her parents. After the burial of the judge in the newest part of the cemetery, near the highway and not in the plot with his first wife, Becky, Fay decides to return for a few days to Texas with her family.

Laurel spends the weekend in her family home. Saturday afternoon she tends her mother’s garden while four of her mother’s old friends gossip mainly about Fay and her relationship with the judge. That evening, Laurel, alone, goes through her father’s library, finding no trace of his life with her mother, only his books and papers and some drops of nail polish on his desk, presumably traces of his life with Fay. Laurel removes each drop. Sunday evening, Laurel spends time with her...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

Part 1 Summary

(Novels for Students)

As The Optimist's Daughter opens, Laurel McKelva Hand leaves Chicago and goes to New Orleans, where her father, Judge McKelva, is...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Part 2 Summary

(Novels for Students)

Laurel and Fay arrive in Mount Salus, and Judge's coffin is taken off the train and loaded into a waiting hearse. Many of Laurel's old...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Part 3 Summary

(Novels for Students)

The next day, Laurel works in the garden while four elderly neighbor women sit and gossip about Fay. When Laurel goes inside, she walks...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Part 4 Summary

(Novels for Students)

The next morning, with the help of Missouri (an African-American woman who has worked as a cook for the McKelvas since Laurel's childhood),...

(The entire section is 200 words.)