It seems that in every creative writing class I take, Eudora Welty’s name is invoked. The woman had a lot to say about writing. A quick search on the internet will give you hundreds of thousands of hits of her advice despite the fact that she died over 15 years ago. She is, without a doubt, one of the best remembered and most often quoted southern writers of the 20th century. She was primarily a short story writer although her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. From Humanities magazine, as quoted in The Atlantic:
Her three avocations—gardening, current events, and photography—were, like her writing, deeply informed by a desire to secure fragile moments as objects of art. …She appears to see the people in her pictures as objects of affection, not abstract political points. …What Welty seems to say, without quite saying so, is that the best pictures and stories cannot simply reduce the creatures within their spell to specimens. True engagement requires a durable sympathy with the world.
The Optimist’s Daughter is a quiet novel. It builds slowly, like the logs of a fire stacked with precision and lit with kindling, first on one side, then another, then another, until finally the coals in the center are hot enough to engulf the pile into a steady, even flame, perfect for cooking. Welty’s prose is sharp and meaningful and filled with subtleties often missed on a first reading. Laurel, the titular character, barely speaks, barely even acknowledges her opinions to herself, but she is a strong character, little affected by the behavior of those around her. In contrast, her father’s new wife Fay constantly complains. Despite her physical stature and age (Fay is no older than forty, and so younger than Laurel), Fay tries to dominate every conversation. She succeeds only in evoking pity from the other characters, who ignore her until she seems likely to cause real harm. Even then, she is disciplined like a spoiled child.
In a first reading of the novel, the reader grows to despise Fay, to wish to see Laurel stand up to the woman. In a second reading, one comes to realize that Fay is only a nuisance. She is pitiable, pathetic, and in ignoring her, the other characters do her a bigger injustice than confronting her verbally or physically.What is so fascinating about the book is how Welty weaves so many busy characters around Laurel, who seems to be a solid rock in a swirling atmosphere, giving little away of her own personality and emotions. It is a perfect examination of the grieving process. Laurel, the stoic, puts aside her emotions until it is convenient and useful for her to confront them—that is, after her father’s death and subsequent services. She mirrors her father’s actions at the end of his life: she is steady, calm, unmoving even. She lets show very little of her true feelings.
Fay, Laurel’s foil, throws herself into grieving, ensuring that all around her know how forlorn and depressed she is at the death of her new husband. Laurel seems content to allow Fay anything she pleases, handing over her childhood home and all the furniture and items contained inside it without any fight—or any desire to fight. Fay, on the other hand, thrives on drama. She tries to goad Laurel into taking action against her, but is surprised and frustrated when she meets no resistance.
What resonated with me most about Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter was how she created a story around a narrator who is nearly absent in personality and action for three-quarters of the novel. It seemed at first like a flaw in the writing. So often we as writers are told that a passive main character makes a boring story, that your main character must take action to drive the plot, not allow the plot to happen to them. But Welty’s novel takes the opposite approach. If anything, her story explores Laurel’s inaction, which leads to her emotional growth. Even at the climax, as Laurel becomes angry at how scarred her mother’s old breadboard is from Fay’s misuse and raises it to strike Fay, she ultimately decides that her action, even the breadboard itself, is meaningless. That this woman who has infiltrated her life is unimportant, just like their house, her mother’s saved letters, the myriad tragedies their family has experienced. What she recognizes as important is the human ability to heal, and that only unburdened of the past can we heal completely. “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams” (Welty, 179).