The Optimist’s Daughter
“But the time of cunning has come, and my time is over, for cunning is of a world I will have no part in.” Innocence enmeshed by schemers, gullibility abused, a harmless, hopeless simplicity too grand for deceitful living has been a theme in Eudora Welty’s fiction since The Robber Bridegroom, 1942, from which the above quotation is taken. Uncle Daniel in The Ponder Heart, 1954, is an amalgam of Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby and David Copperfield’s Mr. Dick, perfectly naturalized in the American South—indeed he would be at home anywhere, since he is the generous, unworldly, outrageously benign uncle we all have, or dream of having. But in Miss Welty’s new novel this very innocence ceases to be comic or charming and becomes lethal, a crucial failure to do business with the world, a special vulnerability, not a state of peculiar grace; not innocence at all, finally, but a form of guilt, the weakness both of individual men and a whole Southern style.
Judge Clinton McKelva, in this book, is the optimist, and Miss Welty uses the word with withering sarcasm. A flood wipes out a piece of property he owns, but later he finds a little oil, and writes to his daughter, “There was never anything wrong with keeping up a little optimism over the Flood.” Faced with an operation for a detached retina, he is quietly confident. “I’m an optimist,” he tells the doctor. But he doesn’t come round from the operation. His eye is all right, but he isn’t. A deterioration of the will to live sets in, he counts time and fades. Optimism was not a feature of his character but a deficiency in his imagination, and subsequently a pose he adopted under stress, a consolation, a bluff.
He was a man, his daughter concludes, who “needed guidance in order to see the tragic.” He can’t believe that life can be as hard as it is, he can’t share his wife’s unremitting vision of despair when she lies ill. “What he could not control was his belief that all his wife’s troubles would turn out all right because there was nothing he would not have given her.” He is driven to lie to her in her illness, to promise false hope; she recognizes the lie and turns bitter, turns against him. “That was when he started, of course, being what he scowlingly called an optimist; he might have dredged the word up out of his childhood.”
But the novel’s central concern is with the judge’s second marriage and his daughter Laurel’s response to it. At the age of seventy he marries Fay, a brash little middle-aged blonde from Texas, and imports her into his upperclass Mississippi world. Fay is presented as a monster of self, stupidly rejecting the doctor’s suggestions about the judge’s eye, and bewailing only her own plight. “I don’t see why this had to …