Themes and Meanings
Recurrent in Welty’s fiction, including The Optimist’s Daughter, is the paradox of the family as both nurturing and stifling. Despite their powerful mutual affection, Laurel—and, in her memory, Becky and Clinton—emerge as lonely figures, each thrown back on his or her waning strength when disaster strikes. Apparently, love has no power to prevent human tragedy; and, when they cannot help or be helped by those whom they love, they become cruel—not always unwittingly.
The characters change, then, in reaction to events that they cannot control. It was during Becky’s final illness, and in response to a hateful outburst from her, that Judge McKelva became “what he scowlingly called an optimist; . . . refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.” If the memory of such events can wound Laurel, the reviving memory of happier times can heal her. “Memory had the character of spring. Sometimes it was the old wood that did the blooming.”
Ultimately, it is suggested that the barriers imposed by time and change are illusory. On her last night in Mount Salus, Laurel dreams about riding in a train with her long-dead husband, Phil, past the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers near Cairo, Illinois. Waking, she understands that. . . her life, any life . . . was nothing but the continuity of its love. She believed it just as she believed that the confluence of waters was still happening at Cairo....
(The entire section is 406 words.)