The Optimist's Daughter
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The Optimist's Daughter is a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winning 1972 short novel by Eudora Welty. It concerns a woman named Laurel, who travels to New Orleans to take care of her father, Judge McKelva, after he has surgery for a detached retina. He fails to recover from the surgery, though, surrenders to his age, and dies slowly as Laurel reads to him from Dickens. Her father's second wife Fay, who is younger than Laurel, is a shrewish outsider from Texas. Her shrill response to the Judge's illness appears to accelerate his demise. Laurel and Fay are thrown together when they return the Judge to his home town of Mount Salus, Mississippi, where he will be buried. There, Laurel is immersed in the enveloping good neighborliness of the friends and family she knew before marrying and moving away to Chicago. Fay, though, has always been unwelcome and takes off for a long weekend, leaving Laurel in the big house full of memories. Laurel encounters her mother's memory, her father's life after he lost his first wife, and the complex emotions surrounding her loss and the wave of memories in which she swims. She comes to a place of understanding that Fay can never share, and leaves small town Mississippi with the memories she can carry with her.
The book begins with the main character Laurel Hand who travels to New Orleans from her home in Chicago to assist her aging father as a family friend and doctor operates on his eye. Laurel’s father remains in the hospital for recovery for several months. During this time, Laurel begins to get to know her outsider stepmother better, as she rarely visited her father since the two were married. Fay begins to show her true colors as the Judge’s condition worsens. To the distress of all who knew him, the Judge dies after his wife throws a violently emotional fit in the hospital and confesses to cheating and interest in his money.
The two women travel back to the Judge’s home in Mount Salus, Mississippi for the funeral and are received by close friends of the family. Here, Laurel finds love and friendship in a community which she left after childhood. Ironically, the warmth of the town clashes with Fay’s dissenting and antagonistic personality. The woman from Texas, who claimed to have no family other than the Judge, is soon confronted by her past as her mother, siblings, and other members of her family show up to her house to attend the funeral. Though Laurel confronts Fay as to the reason why she lied, she cannot help but feel anything except pity for the lonely, sullen woman. Directly after her husband’s funeral, Fay leaves to go back home to Madrid, Texas with her family.
After her distraught and immature stepmother leaves, Laurel finally has time to herself in the house she grew up in with the friends and neighbors she knew since childhood. During the few days she remains, Laurel digs through the past as she goes through her house remembering her deceased parents and the life she had before she left Mount Salus. She rediscovers the life of friendship and love that she left behind so many years ago, along with heartache.
Her visit to her hometown and the memories of her parents open up a new insight on life for Laurel. She leaves Mount Salus with a new understanding of life and the factors which influence it the most—friends and family. But most of all, she gains a new understanding and respect for herself.
Laurel is Judge McKelva’s daughter, who is an only child. She is a widow having once been married to a man named Phil Hand. After his death, Laurel returned to her parents’ home because of her mother’s sickness, before returning to Chicago, only to be brought back by her father’s condition which is where the events in the novel begin. In the story Laurel and Fay have many arguments because of Fay’s rude personality. After her father’s death, the funeral, and Fay’s unexpected vacation, Laurel returns to her childhood home. There she reminisces about past memories, including those of her parents, and her fear of birds, before she comes to her epiphany about life.
Fay is Judge McKelva’s second wife, therefore Laurel’s stepmother. Judge McKelva met her at the Southern Bar Association at the old Gulf Coast hotel where Fay had a part-time job at the time. Fay is younger than Laurel. Fay’s personality is not pleasant and causes everyone in the story to see her as obnoxious, self-centered, and rude. The other characters in the novel pity her. In the course of the story, we see that Fay is also dishonest, for one in saying that all of her family is dead. This untruth comes to light when they arrive for Clint’s funeral. After the funeral, Fay makes a snap decision to return to Texas with her family for a short time before returning at the end of the novel to take possession of her new home.
Judge (Clint) McKelva
Clint McKelva is Laurel’s father. Judge McKelva is treated for an eye illness; he dies after eye surgery. He is a prominent and well-respected widower in Mount Salus, Mississippi. Ten years after the death of his wife, Becky, he marries a younger woman that he met at a Southern Bar Association conference named Wanda Fay. After his death, the home where his daughter and first wife lived out their lives is willed to Wanda Fay, and he leaves money to his daughter, Laurel, who works as a designer in Chicago.
Laurel’s mother and Clint’s first wife. She died before the events in the story occurred, but through the memories of Laurel, she plays a large role at the end of the story.