A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Have you ever read about an author before you’ve actually read the author’s work? Sometimes that’s enough to put you off ever wanting to see their writing, and sometimes it predisposes you to be favourable to an author who has seemed rather lovely in real life. Of course, the niceness of the author has nothing to do with their talent, but after reading the letters of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty (What There Is To Say We Have Said) I found myself really hoping that Welty’s work would turn out to be as wonderful as I already knew Maxwell’s to be. I was especially keen to read The Optimist’s Daughter, after Maxwell eulogised about it in that volume.
Well, praise be, The Optimist’s Daughter is every bit as subtly brilliant as I’d been led to believe. I shouldn’t be surprised – it did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, after all. It is never grandiose – often it isn’t even explicit – but it reveals more about human nature than works twice as long and twice as overt.
The plot is fairly simple. Judge McKelva is unwell, and has an operation on his eyes, after which he must lie utterly still for days, and recover. During that recovery period, he dies – and his daughter must live through his funeral. The daughter is Laurel – she is dignified and quiet. Although the narrative is not in the first person, the reticence and respectability (which are the cornerstones of her personality) also characterise the narrative. Emotions are gently repressed, but appear in stray words and actions – the ‘indignation’ in this passage; the ‘touch on their arms’:
When Laurel and Fay reached him, he drew them into the elevator hall. The door to Judge McKelva’s room
“I couldn’t save him.” He laid a hand on the sleeve of each woman, standing between them. He bent his head,
but that did not hide the aggrievement, indignation, that was in his voice. “He’s gone, and his eye was healing.”
“Are you trying to tell me you let my husband die?” Fay cried.
“He collapsed.” Fatigue had pouched the doctor’s face, his cheeks hung gray. He kept his touch on their arms.
“You picked my birthday to do it on!” Fay screamed out, just as Mrs. Martello came out of the room. She closed
the door behind her. She was carrying a hamper.
She pretended not to see them as she drummed past on her heels.
Complicating things – and bucking against the decorum of the narrator and the other characters – is Fay. She is the Judge’s second wife, almost as young as Laurel, and furiously selfish. No sooner is the Judge dead then Fay is proclaiming how the house is her own, how the decisions about the funeral must be her own, and how much she has suffered. But – such is Welty’s subtle skill – never do we feel that Fay was a gold-digger. She is simply preternaturally selfish and obsessed with being the centre of attention. Welty goes a step further – she even gives us a glimpse of how a sensible man like the Judge could marry so appalling a woman.
The illness and death occupy the beginning of the novella, but the most moving and well-observed section of The Optimist’s Daughter is the funeral. Villagers gather. They exchange well-meaning and truthful platitudes, saying the right and wrong things in turn. The scene is impossible to synopsise, but it shows the sort of novelistic skill that cannot truly be analysed or decompartmentalised. That’s a lot of ‘-ise’s in one sentence, for which I can only apologise (oops), but I hope it has become clear that Welty is a stylist and observer par excellence. You need to read the scene yourself to see what is achieved.
I keep coming back to that word ‘subtle’, and above anything else The Optimist’s Daughter is a masterpiece in subtlety – not simply in tone and event, but in message. Which is to say, there doesn’t seem to be a message. Laurel is a reserved, often unhappy, and challenged woman – not an optimist, but not a pessimist. But the novella doesn’t suggest that quietness means unhappiness, nor that it means moral triumph – Welty, instead, holds up a mirror to a realistic and fully-realised woman, and tells us about her life. Without a message or moral, we instead see the novelist’s ultimate aim: to depict a life, an experience, vividly, honestly, and beautifully.
Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter (London: Virago Modern Classics, 1984). ISBN 978-0860683752
Image credit: Eudora Welty at the National Portrait Gallery via Wikipedia Commons.
Simon blogs at Stuck-in-a-Book.