THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER by EUDORA WELTY

Regular readers of this blog (if such a being exists) will know by now that I have an on-off personal project to read all the novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Welty’s short novel won the prize in 1973 and I have just unearthed this review which I wrote after I read it a few years back:

In a country song called ‘Tilted Towards Tilly’, Tommy Collins sings of a late wife whose charms are summed up by the fact that she “couldn’t make a bed, but, boy, she could sure mess one up”.

Judge Clint McKelva’s new wife Fay seems to be from a similar mould. How else can you explain the unlikely marriage (his fourth) between a pillar of the community who had “no patience for show” and this shallow woman 30 years his junior?

One disapproving voice notes of Fay that out of all the kitchen utensils, the only one she can use is the frying pan. The nearest Eudora Welty comes to stating her other assets is to note coyly how the Judge “dotes” and “slobbers” over her.

A disapproving family friend says that “except when he came to picking a wife he [Judge Clint] was pretty worldly” which is indicative of a selective blindness to the obvious attractions of strong willed younger woman. This is not to deny that Fay, his wife of less than two years, is not also an out and out monster with little sense of decorum or compassion.  When the Judge is taken ill her reaction is “I don’t see why this had to happen to me” a lament she repeats when he so selfishly dies on her soon after. His unexpected death is due in no small way to Fay trying to shake him into consciousness, an act she defends by saying “I was just trying to scare him into living” . The complete lack of redeeming features in Fay make it hard to see much beyond Laurel’s (and Welty’s) disapproval.

The contrast between her and the Judge’s daughter is apparent from the opening pages. Laurel is an only child and, like Fay, is in her early forties but she seems much older and more staid.  Laurel sees her role as preserving her father’s image intact –  “The least anybody can do for him is remember him right” – and looks among his possessions for objects that might keep her memories of him warm and alive.

One major weakness of this novel is that none of these actual memories are made explicit, leaving the reader to decide whether or not they are wishful thinking. She discovers that her father has disposed of letters his first wife, Becky,  sent him. This in contrast to the correspondence she had kept.

The novel’s obvious theme is that of coming to terms with grief when loved ones die. This is Laurel’s third experience after she lost her navy serving husband in the war and her mother to cancer. She gets all maudlin when she finds a breadboard her husband made for Becky and is affronted that it has been ruined by Fay who had been using it to crack nuts.

There’s also some subtle as a flying mallet symbolism in the shape a bird getting trapped in the house because it can only fly upwards and not out. Ultimately her droll conclusion to is that “the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne” .

Just in case we didn’t get the message, Fay has the final word “The past isn’t a thing to me; I belong to the future”.

We’re meant to deplore Fay’s bull in a china shop approach to grieving but it is decidedly more spirited and alive than Laurel’s whimsical and introverted reflections.

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