Eudora Welty: The Optimist’s Daughter
It is easy to praise Eudora Welty but it is not so easy to analyze the elements in her work that make it so easy – and such a deep pleasure – to praise. To say that may, indeed, be the highest praise, for it implies that the work, at its best, is so fully created, so deeply realized, and formed with such apparent innocence that it offers only itself, in shining unity. The words are Robert Penn Warren‘s and it would be hard to disagree with him. Like her other works, this one is disarmingly simple.
Laurel Hand, a widow from Mississippi but now living in Chicago, comes to New Orleans to be with her father. Her father, who has recently married a woman, Fay, who is younger than Laurel, has eye problems and needs surgery. Unfortunately, his aging body never fully recovers from the surgery and he dies, while being berated by his wife for not going out to enjoy the Carnival. Laurel returns to her old home in Mississippi with her stepmother and her father’s body for the funeral and stays a few days to meet old friends (particularly the six women who were her bridesmaids). Her stepmother’s family comes up from Texas and there is a sharp contrast between the stepmother and her family who are brash and might even be considered white trash and Lauren, her father and her friends, who are clearly from the well-to-do (her father was a judge).
It would be too easy to think Welty is making a snap judgement about”good” people and trashy people. Laurel and her father come from a solid tradition which Welty clearly admires while Fay and her family do not. They have no fixed roots and no sense of the proprieties of life. These values are, of course, not so well thought of as they were but there is no doubt that, at least in parts of the South, they are highly thought of.
The second main theme of the book is Laurel’s attempt to come to terms with the past, her past in particular. Her father’s marriage has obviously come as a shock to her and not just because of Fay’s background. Fay seems to have no respect for the traditions or the things of the family. One telling scene is the discussion between Fay and Laurel on the breadboard, which was made for Laurel’s mother by Laura’s husband. This becomes not just a yearning for her lost husband but a whole outpouring on the lost value of craft (her husband had carefully made it using his carpentry skills), the value of good things (Fay has, understandably, used it as a breadboard and cut things on it, thereby damaging it) and, of course, tradition. “I know you aren’t anything to the past,” Laurel says to Fay. “You can’t do anything to it now.” For Laurel and her family and for Welty, the past matters.
First published 1972 by Random House