Eudora Welty, “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1972)

In Eudora Welty’s final novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, she remains in the realm of memory and the legacy of family relations, the focus of most of her novels.  Rather than the sprawling, institutionalized families of Delta Wedding and Losing Battles, this novel is written on a much smaller canvas.  Welty is interested primarily in how on woman, Laura McKleva Hand comes to terms with her father’s death, his remarriage to a sexually aggressive (and to Laura threatening) woman Fay, and her past.  Again, like the other two major family epics Welty wrote, this one is uses a family event as its setting.  Here it is a funeral that allows the major character to revisit her family history and memory.  We again find a central tension between the family (represented by Laura) and an outsider (here represented by Fay).  It is more complicated in this novel than in Losing Battles, where the outsider, Judge Moody, was clearly outside of the group.  In The Optimist’s Daughter, Fay was brought in by the family patriarch.  While Laura and many other attending the funeral assume Fay is an outsider and treat her as a golddigger, we learn that their terse rejection of Fay is based much on class prejudice and probably the sexual threat Fay poses.

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Part one of this short novel covers Laura’s return to the South from Chicago to aid her father through a relatively minor eye surgery.  There she meets her younger step-mother Laura, who she immediately dislikes in large part for her seeming disinterest in her father’s well-being, which only reinforces the narrative Laura constructs of Fay as a gold-digger.  Laura cares for her father during his recovery but he dies.  Part two covers the family reunion brought on by the funeral.  The central part of the novel, stretching into part three covers Laura’s deep nostalgia for the past.  Here we are in familiar territory, again navigating the suffocating past.  For Laura it is a bit more innocuous and distant than it was for characters in Welty’s other novels.  Laura can always return to Chicago.  She can appreciate her past but always return to Chicago without the visceral tyranny that family history can so often bring to our lives in the form of memories, personal obligations, family expectations and traditions.  Laura has escaped and this makes her harsh rejection of Fay rather disingenuous.  The family mocks her and even assumes that her rapid return to her hometown in Texas involved among other things sex with other men (disgracing the memory of Judge McKleva).  Fay, who actually lived in the home, navigated the relationships, and was the Judge’s companion since their marriage, might have a stronger claim to membership than the more distant Laura.  Laura can take in nostalgia like a tourist, without many of the psychological burdens.  Laura will return to Chicago more conscious of who she is, with a deeper appreciate of her family, but she seems to have lost her claim as a member of the family.

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Laura even works to help destroy some of the memories of her father.  She burns some of his letters, but in the next page scolds Fay for damaging her mother’s breadboard.  Fay’s response is properly liquid, “Who wants an everlasting breadboard?” (987)  When Laura repeats and expands her attack to include the entire house that she “desecrated,” Fay correctly points out that Laura has no claim to the house and its memories.  Gold-digger or not, Fay had made that house her own.  Laura, however, is unwilling to accept her position as a tourist.

In her final thoughts, Laura essentially comes to agree with Fay and correct her nostalgia to be in line with her actions.  She is, after all, having this debate about who owns the rights to the house at the same time that she is returning to her home.  “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” (992)

Perhaps it is here that we can find a proper solution to the oppression that family, tradition, and nostalgia impose on us.  Any claim that memory and the past has to control us is ultimately a lie.  Any such control is self-imposed.  Memory is there to serve us, not to dominate our actions and emotions.  The lesson I am going to take from reading Welty’s novel is not that far from my conclusions to The Robber Bridegroom.  That novels’ power rested in its flexible use of folklore and tradition.  By remaking a Grimm tale into a frontier American setting, Welty undermined the ability of folklore to control our interpretations of the past.  Our families and our own minds constantly craft new folklores all the time.  The mistake we make is in assuming that a permanence and transcendent power to those tales.

 

 

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