The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter

by Eudora Welty


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This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel tells the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who has left the South and returns, years later, to New Orleans, where her father is dying. After his death, she and her silly young stepmother go back still farther, to the small Mississippi town where she grew up. Along in the old house, Laurel finally comes to an understanding of the past, herself, and her parents.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679728832
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/1990
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 101,721
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.51(d)
Lexile: 880L (what's this?)

About the Author

Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mis-sissippi, in 1909. She was educated locally and at Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. Her short stories appeared in The Southern Review, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, and other magazines. She lectured at a number of colleges, held the William Allan Neilson professorship at Smith and the Lucy Donnelly Fellowship at Bryn Mawr, and was a lecturer at the Conference of American Studies at Cambridge University. She worked under grants from the Rockefeller and Merrill foundations and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and held a Guggenheim Fellow-ship. She was given honorary degrees from Smith, the University of Wisconsin, Western College for Women, Denison University, the University of the South at Sewanee, and Millsaps College in Jackson. She also received the M. Carey Thomas Award from Bryn Mawr, the Brandeis Medal of Achievement, and the Hollins Medal; her novel The Ponder Heart was awarded the Howells Medal for Fiction by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Eudora Welty died in 2001.

Date of Birth:

April 13, 1909

Date of Death:

July 23, 2001

Place of Birth:

Jackson, Mississippi

Place of Death:

Jackson, Mississippi


University of Wisconsin

Read an Excerpt

A nurse held the door open for them. Judge McKelva going first, then his daughter Laurel, then his wife Fay, they walked into the windowless room where the doctor would make his examination. Judge McKelva was a tall, heavy man of seventy-one who customarily wore his glasses on a ribbon. Holding them in his hand now, he sat on the raised, thronelike chair above the doctor's stool, flanked by Laurel on one side and Fay on the other.

Laurel McKelva Hand was a slender, quiet-faced woman in her middle forties, her hair still dark. She wore clothes of an interesting cut and texture, although her suit was wintry for New Orleans and had a wrinkle down the skirt. Her dark blue eyes looked sleepless.

Fay, small and pale in her dress with the gold buttons, was tapping her sandaled foot.

It was a Monday morning of early March. New Orleans was out-of-town for all of them.

Dr. Courtland, on the dot, crossed the room in long steps and shook hands with Judge McKelva and Laurel. He had to be introduced to Fay, who had been married to Judge McKelva for only a year and a half. Then the doctor was on the stool, with his heels hung over the rung. He lifted his face in appreciative attention: as though it were he who had waited in New Orleans for Judge McKelva--in order to give the Judge a present, or for the Judge to bring him one.

“Nate," Laurel's father was saying, “the trouble may be I'm not as young as I used to be. But I'm ready to believe it's something wrong with my eyes."As though he had all the time in the world, Dr. Courtland, the well-known eye specialist, folded his big country hands with the fingers that had always looked, to Laurel, as if their mere touchon the crystal of a watch would convey to their skin exactly what time it was.

“I date this little disturbance from George Washington's Birthday," Judge McKelva said.

Dr. Courtland nodded, as though that were a good day for it. “Tell me about the little disturbance," he said.

“I'd come in. I'd done a little rose pruning--I've retired, you know. And I stood at the end of my front porch there, with an eye on the street--Fay had slipped out somewhere," said Judge McKelva, and bent on her his benign smile that looked so much like a scowl.

“I was only uptown in the beauty parlor, letting Myrtis roll up my hair," said Fay.

“And I saw the fig tree," said Judge McKelva. “The fig tree! Giving off flashes from those old bird-frighteners Becky saw fit to tie on it years back!"

Both men smiled. They were of two generations but the same place. Becky was Laurel's mother. Those little homemade reflectors, rounds of tin, did not halfway keep the birds from the figs in July.

“Nate, you remember as well as I do, that tree stands between my backyard and where your mother used to keep her cowshed. But it flashed at me when I was peering off in the direction of the Courthouse," Judge McKelva went on. “So I was forced into the conclusion I'd started seeing behind me."

Fay laughed--a single, high note, as derisive as a jay's.

“Yes, that's disturbing." Dr. Courtland rolled forward on his stool. “Let's just have a good look."

“I looked. I couldn't see anything had got in it," said Fay. “One of those briars might have given you a scratch, hon, but it didn't leave a thorn."

“Of course, my memory had slipped. Becky would say it served me right. Before blooming is the wrong time to prune a climber," Judge McKelva went on in the same confidential way; the doctor's face was very near to his. “But Becky's Climber I've found will hardly take a setback."

“Hardly," the doctor murmured. “I believe my sister still grows one now from a cutting of Miss Becky's Climber." His face, however, went very still as he leaned over to put out the lights.

“It's dark!" Fay gave a little cry. “Why did he have to go back there anyway and get mixed up in those brambles? Because I was out of the house a minute?"

“Because George Washington's Birthday is the time-honored day to prune roses back home," said the Doctor's amicable voice. “You should've asked Adele to step over and prune 'em for you."

“Oh, she offered," said Judge McKelva, and dismissed her case with the slightest move of the hand. “I think by this point I ought to be about able to get the hang of it."

Laurel had watched him prune. Holding the shears in both hands, he performed a sort of weighty saraband, with a lop for this side, then a lop for the other side, as though he were bowing to his partner, and left the bush looking like a puzzle.

“You've had further disturbances since, Judge Mac?"

“Oh, a dimness. Nothing to call my attention to it like that first disturbance."

“So why not leave it to Nature?" Fay said. “That's what I keep on telling him."

Laurel had only just now got here from the airport; she had come on a night flight from Chicago. The meeting had been unexpected, arranged over long-distance yesterday evening. Her father, in the old home in Mount Salus, Mississippi, took pleasure in telephoning instead of writing, but this had been a curiously reticent conversation on his side. At the very last, he'd said, “By the way, Laurel, I've been getting a little interference with my seeing, lately. I just might give Nate Courtland a chance to see what he can find." He'd added, "Fay says she'll come along and do some shopping."

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Optimist's Daughter 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To respond to the previous reviewer--I think that is the type of book that is better appreciated when the reader has experienced a similar situation to the one the author writes about. The central character, an adult, has to adjust to the loss of her proper mother and find out how she fits in her father's life after he remarries a shallow, self-centered woman. Having a similar situation in my own life, I was able to see humor in the novel and better understand my own feelings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Welty's book, The Optimist's Daughter, is beautifully written to showcase the use of the written language and that of the spoken dialect in small town Mississippi. It's a joy to read and it easily transports the reader to the South and back to the mid-1900's. The story unfolds very slowly. It opens at a somber time for the McKelva family, but we are encouraged as Judge McKelva is an optimist. The limited action picks up speed with additional characters and their interaction. The the real story is not the action, but the self reflection by Laurel, the optimist's daughter. We learn her history and follow her process of letting go. It's difficult to write a story that makes "inaction" the "action" and Welty did a wonderful job of it. It's fair to say that if the story was changed to current time, the ending might have been different -- which would make a great group discussion.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful surprise, this little book is reminiscent of Mark Twain in voice and subject, though lighter in tone--a touch of Flannery O'Connor, minus the violence. The humor here, combined with the emotion, make for a surprisingly touching book, and one which might be read on a quiet day for a single afternoon's vacation. It is a quick book, but not one to be forgotten or left aside in the past. Highly recommended.
jonesli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Optimist's Daughter is a very quick, but very good book by Eudora Welty. What I like so much about her is that she can say a lot without hitting you over the head with it.It's the story of Laurel McKelva returning to her childhood home for her father Judge McKelva's eye operation and the collision course that results when she has to put up with her self involved, slightly younger than herself stepmother, Fay. This is a great book in the tradition of other Southern novels, without a great deal of character development.
dreamingtereza on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"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."With her typical economy, Welty weaves the complex story of a woman's coming to terms with the deaths of her husband, mother, and father and the secrets of her family's past. I first encountered this poignant character study as an undergrad and missed so much of its beauty and subtlety. Reading it a second time has truly made me homesick.
whirled on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is easy to see why The Optimist's Daughter occupies such high standing in the canon of Southern fiction. With sparse and at times beautiful prose, Eudora Welty manages to commuicate much in a very slim volume. However, this economical style of storytelling reduces some of the characters - particularly the unbearably shrill Fay - to a cartoonish level. A good but not great American novel.
gwendolyndawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very tightly written story (almost a novella) about a daughter's coping with the death of her father. The plot involves an obnoxious second wife. There is plent of good dialog and evocative writing about the South.
lauralkeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and is a short but stunning work. Set primarily in Mississippi, it's the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, currently living in Chicago, visiting the South where her father is failing. Judge McKelva was a pillar of his community. After the death of his first wife (Laurel's mother), he remarried a woman younger than Laurel herself. Welty, through small but significant descriptions of second wife Fay, makes the reader despise her in the first few pages. She is introduced on page 1 when Fay, Laurel, and the Judge are meeting with a doctor about the Judge's condition: "Fay, small and pale in her dress with the gold buttons, was tapping her sandaled foot." And two pages later, as the Judge is describing his medical problem: "Fay laughed -- a single, high note, as derisive as a jay's." Laurel and Fay are forced together as the Judge's condition deteriorates, and he subsequently passes away. Fay is tremendously put out by his death, since it happens on her birthday. After the funeral she leaves town to be with her family. Laurel remains to sort through some of her father's effects and, since Fay has inherited the house, to remove memories of her mother, which she knows Fay will not respect. Welty's writing is beautiful throughout, evoking a strong "sense of place". Here are just a few examples: "The ancient porter was already rolling his iron-wheeled wagon to meet the baggage car, before the train halted. All six of Laurel's bridesmaids, as they still called themselves, were waiting on the station platform." "The procession passed between ironwork gates whose kneeling angles and looping vines shone black as licorice." "The gooseneck lamp threw its dimmed beam on the secretary's warm brown doors. It had been made of the cherry trees on the McKelva place a long time ago; on the lid, the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin." I was fully immersed in this book; wrapped in a blanket of beautiful prose. I will likely read more of Welty's work.
jerrynewman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My first Eudora Welty novel Interesting but not comfortable. In this novel, she seems to imply constantly, meaning one has to work to understand. I've worked to understand plenty in other books (I love Faulkner, and yes, have finished Ulysses.) But here I work and still am unsettled. Also, not exactly a pleasant story! Some good characterizations and character contrasts.
maggiereads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Miss Welty originally suggested ¿Poor Eyes¿ as the title. Although, I like the optimist idea, I think "poor eyes" is more fitting and a proper tell-tale title. By the end of the story it¿s obvious all the characters are having or have had vision troubles.
irishwasherwoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to this in the car and Miss Welty, reading her own work, was a wonderful travelling companion. I felt like she was sitting right beside me telling me the goings-on in Mount Salus with her wonderful Lou Holtz-like lisp and clicking teeth. I was always ready to say, "And then what happened?" However, this book goes far beyond the telling of a good story. I see in it the struggle between the common and the elite, the suffocating closeness of small town life, and the stranglehold that grief can have. While at times I did feel that it drew a bit too much on Southern stereotypes, the rich dialoge is so enhanced by Miss Welty's descriptions, giving wonderful support to each scene. There were times when I just said, "Wow - what a great phrase" or simply found myself rewinding sections just to luxuriate in her reading. I will be adding a paper copy of this to my library just so I can thumb through it from time to time and visit with a good friend. A very special read.
mzonderm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very straightforward book. When Laurel's father dies, she must deal not only with her own grief but that of her friends and neighbors (her father was a well-loved judge in their small town). On top of that, she also has to deal with the histrionics of her stepmother, a woman younger than herself, who does not react in a way that Laurel finds seemly.The night after the funeral, Laurel finds herself alone in her childhood home. Going through things from her past, she reminisces about her parents, and is able to come to terms with aspects of their relationship and her mother's final illness.Welty writes her scenes sparingly, allowing characters to speak for themselves. The disparity between the actions of Laurel's stepmother's family and those of the locals is told through dialogue, rather than description, to great effect. One can't help but cringe on Laurel's behalf for what she has to go through before she is free to mourn her father.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Southern story broken into four distinct sections.Part I - Laurel McKelva Hand comes from Chicago to care for her elderly father after eye surgery. Judge McKelva subsequently dies and Laurel is left to deal with her young, silly stepmother, Fay. Part I sets the tone for Laurel and Fay's strained relationship.Part II - Laurel and Fay bring Judge McKelva home for the wake and funeral where Laurel is heartily welcomed and supported by her friends and community. Fay's family comes from Texas and brings out the worst in Fay. Part II illustrates southern charm and manners.Part III - Laurel has to come to terms with her father's new, young wife. As silly as she is, Laurel's father adored her. Laurel also has to come to terms with the death of her mother ten years prior.Part IV is all about Laurel's introspective growth and acceptance of the future. The burning of her mother's letters and the letting go of the breadboard are very significant.
silva_44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was incredibly excited to read something by an author who is supposed to be fantastic. Imagine my surprise to discover that the plot was underdeveloped and unrealistic. Welty attempts to expose the raw feelings which people experience when they lose a loved one, but every time she began to expound upon this, she veered away. Far too understated in my opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the way Ms. welty writes.
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KBHupp More than 1 year ago
Eudora Welty's, The Optimist's Daughter, is a superbly crafted glimpse at family dynamics and unconditional love and devotion. Welty's characters are richly layered without screaming for attention. The reader is left to draw their own conclusions as the plot unfolds.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The best book Eudora Welty has ever written.' said the New York Times. Eudora Welty's THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER is a very well written and interesting novel with a different setting and unusual characters, a well-developed plot, and connections for all readers. THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER tells the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, who grew up in Mississippi and has recently lost her father and who lost her mother a few years earlier. While at Laurel's childhood home after her father dies, she gets trapped inside her mother's old sewing room, which has been ruined by her father's second wife and now widow, Fay. While inside the sewing room, Laurel learns more about her parents and family than she had known in her entire life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading the optimist's daughter at first under whelmed me. I, at the very beginning, started to complain and say '' What a bore! a Boring story! Boring characters! Utterly devoid of any interesting or meaningful moments''. However, I changed my mind totally by finishing it as a whole. When I knew how Laurel went on her life, I realized how things went a whole lot deeper. I realized that Eudora Welty was really talking about how through one's own strength, he can preserve thru any changes sent his way. She wants to say that life is much easier if one casts his burden into someone whom he loves or trusts. Relatives and friends are willing to help one and as they say ' a friend indeed, a friend in need''. In fact, this novel assures the fact that life is nothing without the people whom we really love. Laurel's character reflects this pure love towards one's parents.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the plot was simple, there was so much more to the book than the storyline. With a little thought and contemplation, you will see that this book teaches us about contending w/ death, humanity, and honoring the deceaesd. It is entirely worthy of the pulitzer prize it won in 1973.