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 happen to me,” she says about her husband’s detached retina. “I vote we just forget about the whole business. Nature’s the great healer.” When the judge dies, bustled into death by Fay’s impatience, as Laurel thinks—“I tell you enough is enough,” she says, shaking him—she accuses the doctor of letting him die and picking her birthday to do it on.
The author’s hand seems to lie rather heavily here, to be setting Fay up as too easy a target, too hateful, but Miss Welty means to provoke just that suspicion and answer it. The book is weighted against Fay because it is Laurel’s book: technically narrated in the third person, it comes exclusively out of Laurel’s vision, prejudices, and difficulties; out of her mind. There is no large irony to separate us from her, no flaw in her vision that would turn us away, make us judge her to be seriously wrong. But we are aware of her as being implicated in the way that third-person narrators usually are not: human, part of the story, wrong enough about some things. So that Fay is a monster for Laurel before she is one for us. Fay is the ugly stepmother from the fairy tale (and from Miss Welty’s own fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom), the intruder as lowerclass rival.
But then this raises another question, both for Laurel and for us. How could the judge marry this woman? Granted that all stepmothers are monsters to the children of earlier marriages, what made the judge marry someone who was a monster all on her own, independently of such projections? We see Laurel as biased, that is, but we don’t see her as fabricating Fay. The gossipy women of the town wonder what happened to the judge’s judgment. “What floored me, Laurel, was him getting married again. When I saw Fay. When I saw what he had there!” What blindness, arrogance, or loneliness was there in the judge’s life that he should think such a marriage possible? Was he looking for someone like Fay? Did he hope her fierce selfishness would give him life, put him in touch with a less decorous but hardier world?
Laurel herself arrives at another conclusion. Fay, as she comes to see her, is what her mother predicted, Fay is the face of her mother’s desperation, of her mother’s sense of what was lacking in the judge. He could not or would not see that desperation, and Fay is what that means.
Experience did, finally, get set into its right order, which is not always the order of other people’s time. Her mother had suffered in life every symptom of having been betrayed, and it was not until she had died, and the protests of memory came due, that Fay had ever tripped in from Madrid, Texas. It was not until that later moment, perhaps, that her father himself had ever dreamed of a Fay. For Fay was Becky’s dread.
There is a marvelous mixture of understanding and distortion here. Laurel has realized that the pattern of your life often comes clear only in someone else’s mind and memory, after you’re dead; that the pattern is made up of everything in your life, Fay included, that your better moments cannot be sealed off from the rest. Laurel had done this with her thoughts of her marriage to Philip, who died in the Second World War—“Her marriage had been of magical ease, of ease—of brevity and conclusions and all belonging to Chicago and not here.” She has to open her marriage up again, recognize that her pleasure in its closed perfection is a way of wishing Philip dead, of being glad he died.
But even here, in her moment of highest perception, Laurel remains the child of her parents, the daughter of an optimist and a woman haunted by the idea of betrayal. She can’t see that in her mother’s dread and her father’s weakness there is something more than a horror of personal pain and the loneliness of suffering. She can’t see that there is a refusal there to accept a more generalized brutality of existence: Fay, for what she is; people like Fay, as facts.
Fay is the future. Fay says this to Laurel, but Laurel only half-understands. She sees Fay as an unreflecting force, a personified clamor for material satisfactions and a good time. Before the funeral Fay cries histrionically into the judge’s coffin: “Oh, Judge, how could you go off and leave me this way? Why did you want to treat me so unfair?” “Judge! You cheated on me!” Fay’s mother, the expansive Mrs. Chisom, responds in exactly the same way to the news that Laurel lost her husband in the war. “You was cheated,” she says emphatically. These are people who live off their sense of resentment, their resentment born, as one character puts it, in their claim to an eternal raw deal. “Fay,” Laurel concludes, “was without any powers of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person. Other people, inside their lives, might as well be invisible to her. To find them, she could only strike out little fists at random, or spit from her little mouth.” What Laurel can’t see is that Fay’s greedy desire to live is a passion, and a form of consciousness.
Indeed, having her own kind of consciousness rather than Laurel’s is precisely Fay’s great strength. Her world is simplified to her sense of grievance, her world is a debt everlastingly owed. This is Fay’s cunning, and this, I think, is what cunning has come to mean to Miss Welty. Laurel can sympathize with Fay occasionally. She watches her sleeping and wonders, “Is there any sleeping person you can be entirely sure you have not misjudged?” She can transfer what she thinks she ought to feel for Fay to Fay’s young nephew Wendell. She even realizes at one point that she is Fay, that when she wants to arraign Fay for the murder of her father and to summon up her mother’s ghost to hear her testimony, she is following Fay into a reduced and vindictive pattern of accusation, loading a complex system of fault and failure onto a single other person.
But erratic sympathy and a perception of identity with Fay are not what Laurel needs. She needs to know who Fay is, and how she is to be resisted. Fay represents the possibility that “our” kind of consciousness, the kind that Laurel sees Fay as free from, is a debilitating disease, an incapacity to take on the encroaching world, and that her kind of consciousness, her greed, is a way of staying alive and winning. The implications of Fay’s presence in this book are that we are a dying breed, that we are to be succeeded by people who live more voraciously than we do, who do not hide behind our masks or take flight in reflection. I’m not sure Miss Welty wants us to see all this in her book, but it suggests the novel’s strength and honesty, its realized presence in its pages, that the question comes up so forcefully, whether Miss Welty wants it to or not.
It is not a question of liking Fay, of finding something attractive in her energy and grasping habits. She is awful, but she is there; and we have to learn to react with less distaste to her green shoes and lack of manners. For she is not only the future, as she says, she is also a part of the way we see the future, a function of our recoil from things we’d rather not know about. I don’t mean we create Fay, or people like her, any more than Laurel did. But I do mean she represents something we can’t manage, as Laurel couldn’t, and there has to be something we can do about her.
Some of the meanings of this skillful novel are reinforced by a symbolism that seems to be too tidy, meticulous to the point of being irritating. A chimney swift is loose in Laurel’s house, and Laurel is afraid of birds. Miss Welty, having taught at Smith and Bryn Mawr, knows we are ready to make the connections: the bird is trapped in the house, Laurel is trapped in the past. Miss Welty plays with the symbolism a bit, complicates it, but it is still not complicated or elusive enough. Laurel is not bothered by the bird being trapped; as it turns out, she is frightened of it as an intruder, a defiler of sacred places. “For how long had it made free of the house, shuttling through the dark rooms?” This is spelled out even more clearly later, when the handyman comes over and fails to get rid of the bird. “It”ll get into every room in the house if you let it,” Laurel says, and the handyman replies, “It ain’t trying to get in. Trying to get out.”
So Laurel is trying to get into and out of her past, her parents’ lives; trying to close certain accounts and reopen others. But we don’t need the bird or the handyman to tell us that. The bird also recalls the pigeons Laurel was afraid of as a child, horrified by their eating out of each other’s craws. “They convinced her that they could not escape each other and could not themselves be escaped from.” A few pages later, Laurel herself picks up the allegory: “I did not any longer believe that anyone could be saved,” she thinks, “anyone at all. Not from others.”
The book could very well do without this kind of apparatus; and it could do even better without the traces of nail varnish which are for Laurel the emblem of Fay’s presence in her father’s house; and without the confluence of mighty rivers which represents Laurel’s marriage (“And they themselves were a part of the confluence. Their own joint act of faith had brought them here at the very moment and matched its occurrence, and proceeded as it proceeded…”). Symbols today, Miss Welty herself said in a paper she gave at Smith in 1962, are as swiftly spotted as smoke signals. “Using symbols and, still worse, finding symbols is such a habit. It follows that too little comes to be suggested….”
We can let these moments of forgetfulness go, though, because the book is so powerful otherwise, stern, and funny in a way that has nothing to do with Miss Welty’s earlier comic writing. Or rather, that has all too much to do with it, since it is concerned with taking it back. The engaging and irresponsible Uncle Daniel, say, of The Ponder Heart, has become, as I suggested, the helpless judge of The Optimist’s Daughter, dignified but too delicate, not half as fit for life or as fond of it as he thought. The invading girl is no longer a young waif—“the kind of person you do miss,” as The Ponder Heart‘s anything but unbiased narrator concedes—but a woman of forty wearing impregnable armor, hard as nails, and defying a whole world of manners and self-respect.
When comic characters appear in The Optimist’s Daughter—and they appear often enough, Miss Welty’s touch is as sure as ever there—they appear in settings that condemn their comedy as frivolous or irrelevant. Mr. Dalzell, who shares a ward with the judge at the New Orleans hospital, is a crazy old man constantly addressing the judge as his long lost son:
“Archie Lee,” he said, “I might’ve known if you ever did come home, you’d come home drunk.”
Judge McKelva once would have smiled. Now he lay as ever, his good eye closed, or open on the ceiling, and had no words to spare.
Before the funeral, friends are telling stories about the judge. “He had a wonderful sense of humor,” a woman says. “Underneath it all.” Laurel replies, “Underneath it all, Father knew it wasn’t funny.” Later someone else says that the judge could see the funny side to everything, and Laurel mutters, “I don’t know what the funny side was.” She is right. There are moments in life when you have to lean on something other than your sense of humor, worlds where comedy is too graceful and human a mode to be true. Laughter at these pitches of crisis can only be flippant and unfeeling or hysterical and stricken, and all there is left for you to do is take the train, like Laurel, back to Chicago and out of that old South, which is less a place than a state of mind: decorous optimism when all the grounds for hope are gone.