This has been a bit of a hectic week. Hurricane Irene hit on Sunday and knocked out my power, I started graduate school on Monday (my class was canceled–but I still have assignments), and moved to a new apartment on Wednesday/Thursday. Understandably, I didn’t have tons of time to read this week, so I’ve been saving this one…
Last Sunday evening, I dug Eudora Welty’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel out of one of the many boxes in my room. (This is one of the novels on my original book list, and I spotted it at the used book store a couple of weeks ago.) Since the power was out in my building, I was forced to read by candlelight, which can be dangerous. I spilled quite a bit of wax on the book, myself, and my bed; I also accidentally burned myself with a match, but that was basically pure stupidity.
For starters, Eudora Welty is a huge name in Southern literature. (I once met an ex-professor from Louisiana who spent a whole day hanging out with Eudora Welty! Can you imagine?) Born in Mississippi, she was a contemporary of famous literary figures like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. The Optimist’s Daughter is the first novel I’ve read by her. She is more well-known for her short stories than her novels. And indeed, this book is extremely short; it actually first appeared in The New Yorker in 1969.
The Optimist’s Daughter is centered around one person dying, his funeral, and the aftermath (reminiscent of A Death in the Family). Judge McKelva is an old man in need of eye surgery, which he undergoes despite the dangers involved in the recovery. His daughter, Laurel, sits loyally by his side in the Louisiana hospital while he is recovering. Laurel is a widow whose husband died in the war, and her mother died when she was a girl. Her only companion is the judge’s wife, Fay, who is younger than him and constantly says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me” (Needless to say, the two women don’t have much in common). Welty was considered a “regionalist” by some people and I think that comes across loud and clear in The Optimist’s Daughter: The Texas native is the evil, heartless step mother (Fay) imposing herself on the sweet, saint-like Mississippi orphan (Laurel).
An embarrassingly hysterical scene unfolds at the Judge’s funeral, and Welty’s Southern Gothic influence comes to the surface in her macabre humor. Fay feels increasingly sorry for herself and acts out in selfish angst. Laurel just absorbs it all without open judgement like a saint. Both Fay and Laurel are infinitely boring characters, because they are so static. However, Welty’s craft and her imagination mesh with astonishing harmony in the last scene, and the end of the novel culminates in an unexpected, almost violent denouement.