The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

A Summary and Review

By Billy Hathorn (National Portrait Gallery, public domain.) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Optimist’s Daughter (1972) by Eudora Welty is primarily a story about place, position, and values, although it does also touch on familial relationships and the process of dealing with grief and the irretrievable past. The main character, Laurel, is a calm, level-headed, independent woman who is strong and filled with common sense and class. She comes home to tend to her father who must undergo retinal surgery. The father’s young wife, Fay, is Laurel’s polar opposite, naive, vain, vulgar, selfish and quite stupid. 

Laurel is Mississippian, Fay and her family members are proud Texans. The portrayal of Mississippians as genteel and classy is paralleled to that of Texans as crass and dirty. The novel’s primary focus seems to be an examination of regional culture (with clear implications for and against those territories which are explored); however, Fay the Texan is so unabashedly stupid and Laurel the Mississippian so prominently “good,” that the didactic overshadows much of what could have been implicit and thereby more entertaining than sermonized.

In general, the minor characters and those on the periphery, particularly those who are deceased prior to the start of the story and who are therefore referred to in flashbacks/conversation, are the saving grace. The main character, the Judge and “Optimist,” is portrayed simultaneously as hero and victim, as godlike and wholly human. In remembrance, he is eulogized as a giant of the community, but his own daughter remembers him much differently.

The author is exploring an interesting aspect of human nature, here, but this is only truly complex, and perhaps too plainly delivered, an element of characterization. The other main characters, Fay and Laurel, in particular, are contrasted starkly and without subtlety, making them rather uninteresting, but perhaps that is the point.  On the other hand, Laurel’s “bridesmaids,” the southern women, are quite hilarious.  

Welty’s prose is clear and uncomplicated, which supports her narrative quite well. The dialogue is handled nicely, as are the flashbacks; some of the most touching moments of the book are the segments wherein Laurel reminisces about her mother and (briefly) her deceased husband. The story reads well because Welty tells it well, and this comes across especially in the prose. 

The novel was originally published as a short story, to be later expanded, and this does become apparent at times. The dichotomous characters and opinionated, almost grotesque, regional descriptors may have worked better in the short story form.

There are some specific themes that Welty is exploring here: Southern regionalism, North (Chicago) and South (Mississippi/West Virginia), duty to parents, stepmother syndrome, selfishness, memory (undue homage), and even the idea of optimism itself. Perhaps the most interesting, or confusing, an element of the story and the one to really consider is this latter idea of optimism.

What does it mean to be optimistic? Who in this story is The Optimist?  We would assume, and are flat-out told, at one point, that the old Judge is the optimist and, when he passes, the duty of the optimist falls upon his daughter (hence the book’s title); however, very few instances of optimism are ever demonstrated by either of these two characters. 

So, we think about Laurel’s mother who died years before the Judge; perhaps, through Laurel’s memory, we will discover that Laurel’s mother was the true optimist of the family? Not quite. This leaves Fay, the one who tries to “scare the judge into living.” Was she really so naive as to believe such a tactic would work?  Is Welty equating optimism, then, to naïveté, a juvenile way of viewing the world?  It is here that the real story begins.