Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Douglas Messerli | "Conversations with Nature: Welty's The Optimist's Daughter"
conversations with nature: welty’s the optimist’s daughter
by Douglas Messerli
Eudora Welty The Optimist’s Daughter (New York: Random House, 1972)
One cannot help but notice that the transcendent vision of time which Eudora Welty argues for in her fiction is achieved by fewer and fewer characters as she continues to write. Where in Delta Wedding several members of the family come to accept chaos and yet remain linked in kinship to love, one sees in The Golden Apples that the possibility of partaking in a special kind of vision becomes increasingly less probable as the fiction progresses; in the end, only Virgie Rainey is capable of accepting both the love and the chaos simultaneously. In Losing Battles there is no character presented who attains a transcendent vision; there is only the hope that Vaughn or Lady May might come to be able to relate to the world outside of the family while remaining within the family circle with its bonds of love. It appears that if there has been any major change in Welty’s thematic concerns, it has been a loss of belief in the hope that most individuals can achieve such a vision. There is is in Welty’s working, accordingly, an implication of an idea that perhaps reflects the influence of Southern Presbyterianism, the idea of predestination. One cannot but feel that those of Welty’s figures who come partake of the “mythic sensibility” are born with it. There are clearly some people such as Miss Mortimer of Losing Battles who can accept the chaos, but who simply because of birth or certain uncontrollable events in their lives will never be able to know the presentness of love. There are others such as Jinny Love Stark of The Golden Apples and the Beecham-Renfro family of Losing Battles who will always reject that other aspect of reality, and will continually deny the world outside of their societal order and/or their familial love. And, finally, there are some people such as Cassie Morrison and Nina Carmichael, both of The Golden Apples, who, even though they recognize the world outside of their own contexts, cannot come to terms with it; they simply cannot open themselves up to experience life in its fullness.
The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty’s last work of 1972* appears at first to be a work which perpetuates this idea of predestination. For at least three-fourths of the book, the reader is faced with characters who very much parallel the three non-transcendent types of individuals whom I just described.
Judge McKelva enters a New Orleans hospital, accompanied by his second wife, Wanda Fay, and his daughter from his first marriage, Laurel McKelva Hand, who has come from her home in Chicago to be with her father. The Judge is disturbed because there is “something wrong” with one of his eyes; he believes he has scratched it while pruning roses. His fears prove justified when Dr. Courtland—a family friend whose mother lives next door to the McKelvas back in Mount Salus, Mississippi—reports that indeed something is wrong, not only with one, but with both of his eyes: the inside of one eye is damaged and the other is forming a cataract. Dr. Courtland orders an operation which is successful, but the patient must remain completely quiet for several weeks in order to recuperate. Fay and Laurel move into a boarding house and prepare to nurse husband and father back to health. Observing their behavior on the alternating shifts, one soon has evidence of what one has suspected from the start, that these two women are as completely different from one another as is possible. Laurel is worried for her father because he does not seem to be behaving in his usual manner; he lies completely still, obeying orders with complaint, without so much as even a response to his daughter’s attentions. Reading aloud to him day after day, she wonderingly observes that he does not react at all.
Fay, on the other hand, unobservingly entertains her husband, partially by describing the events of her day, but more often by complaining that she cannot join in the Mardi Gras fun that is going on around her. She resents her husband’s illness and makes that clear to him in no uncertain terms. Even as she hears that her husband must have an operation, Fay’s response is, “I don’t see why this had to happen to me…” (p. 8). Later, of her bandaged-eyed, recuperating husband, Fay absurdly asks:
About ready to get up, hon? Listen, they’re holding
parades out yonder right now. Look what threw me
off the float! (p.. 25).
At another time she cries out:
Look! Look what I got to match my eardrops. How
do you like them ‘em, hon? Don’t you want to let’s
go dancing? (p. 28)
A few nights later, Laurel awakens in her boarding house room, sensing that something is wrong with her father. She rushes to the hospital, arriving just in time to watch a nurse bodily pull Fay from the Judge’s room, where Fay has evidently grabbed hold of her husband and “abused” him. Laurel rushes into the room, followed by the doctor, who, a few minutes later tells her that her father is dead. When Fay hears, her cry completes the picture of her; one no longer has any questions concerning what kind of person she is: turning on the doctor, she screams, “Are you trying to tell me you let my husband die?.... You picked my birthday to do it on!” (p. 40). There is no longer any doubt, and in the following chapters it is even more evident that Wanda Fay is the most selfish and irreparable character that Welty has yet created.
It is quite obvious that Fay is the type of person who sees time as progression, who does not at all comprehend the presentness of love. Just as Gloria in Losing Battles, Fay lays claim to the future. “The past isn’t a thing to me,” she tells Laurel. “I belong to the future…” (p. 179). Fay is totally in the world, in the “out-there” of separateness, so much so that she denies having a family: “My family? …None of ‘em living” (p. 27). But even if she were to admit to family, it would have little meaning. When her supposedly non-existent family boisterously arrive from Texas at the Mount Salus funeral one is made to see that they are a group with very little familial love. The Chisom’s may believe in “clustering” as close as they can get (p. 70), but in their closeness they demonstrate little of the love that one witnesses, for example, in the Beecham-Renfros of Losing Battles. In the first place, there is hardly much of a family left. There seems to have been little intercourse between family members when it existed. Mrs. Chisom proudly reveals that her husband died of cancer with expressing any pain to her, but in a similar situation she cannot understand why her son Roscoe would tell his friends what his “problem” was, but not her just before he shot and killed himself. Despite Mrs. Chisom’s cliché-ridden assertion of the virtue of family life, the impotence of this family and its inability to create a fruitful love is quite apparent.**
As a product of this environment, Fay can understand nothing save individuality, particularly her own. She has little experience with an no ability in partaking of anything outside of herself, no way of sharing herself through love. If all of this is made so evident, however, that Fay appears to be as “flat” as a cartoon creation, it is not at all clear why Judge McKelva married her. After the Judge’s funeral, Laurel’s Mount Salus neighbors ask the very questions which the reader has had for some time. Miss Tennyson says to Laurel as she sits in the back yard discussing Fay with Miss Adele, Mrs. Bolt, and Mrs. Pease:
I’d only wish to ask your precious father one question,
if I could have him back just long enough for that…:
what happened to his judgment” (p. 107)
It is an ironic question to ask of a Judge, particularly of a Judge who lost his sight. But it is the question Laurel also must ask, and its answer tells her not only something about her father, but about herself as well.
Fay has gone home to be with her “family” for a few days after the funeral, and Laurel is left alone in the house in which grew up, a house now willed to Fay, to ponder these issues before she returns to Chicago. Returning to the house after dining with friends one evening, Laurel finds that a bird has entered the house. Terrified—one later discovers it is a childhood fear—Laurel runs about the house, turning on lights, closing windows—a storm is coming on—and slamming doors until she has locked herself away from the chimney swift. The room in which she finds herself was her mother and father’s bedroom, now Fay’s bedroom. Her entrapment in this particular room, and her movement from this room to a small antechamber, a sewing room where she slept in infancy, functions as a visual metaphor of the following scenes in which Laurel imaginatively reexperiences and reevaluates her parents’ and her own pasts.
The events of the proceeding days act as a catalyst for this remembrance. As the storm breaks loose, Laurel begins to release the emotional rancor for Fay which for days she has held back. Like the nurse on the night Fay attacked her husband, Laurel wants to cry out “Abuse! Abuse” (p. 130). She wants not so much to punish Fay for what she has done, however, as much as she wants acknowledgment, admission of guilt. Immediately, Laurel realizes that if accused, Fay would not, could not understand what she has done. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” she would say (p. 131). Laurel sees that Fay is one of those people for whom “death in all its reality” passes right over. Although in her time-orientation Fay rushes toward the future, it is for her a future without a concept of death, without an end. Even knowing this, however, Laurel finds it impossible to pity Fay. She feels she hold back her pit until Fay realizes what she has done, and, in that unforgiving attitude, Laurel exposes herself:
And I can’t stop realizing it, any thought. I saw
Fay come out into the open. Why, it would stand
up in court! Laurel thought, as she heard the bird
beating against the door, and felt the house itself
shake in the rainy wind. Fay betrayed herself: I’m
released! she thought to herself, shivering; one deep
feeling called by its name names others. But to be
released is to tell, unburden it (pp. 131-132).
Laurel, like Fay, has in these thoughts “come out into the open,” has betrayed herself. For, in her bitterness towards Fay, she connects herself to her stepmother, putting herself in a similar position. Laurel imagines herself in court as the plaintiff against Fay, but in Laurel’s emotional logic, Fay’s self-betrayal releases Laurel. Releases her from what? one must ask. What crime has Laurel committed? Almost immediately one begins to perceive that Laurel too is selfish, a fact which to reveals to herself at that very moment. Longing to unburden herself, she momentarily wishes that she could give evidence of Fay’s behavior to her own dead mother. But suddenly she sees the horror of that desire:
The scene she had just imagined, herself confiding
the abuse to her mother, and confiding it in all tender-
ness, was a more devastating one than all Fay had
acted out in the hospital. What would I not do, perpetrate,
she wondered, for consolation? (p. 132)
In thinking of her mother, moreover, Laurel’s mind is diverted from her own failures. Instead, she calls up her mother and, then, her father as she has fixed them in her memory. Here also the reader sees that Laurel’s recollections issue from an emotional release. Just as she was previously angry with Fay, she is now angry with her neighbors, especially such people as Miss Verna Longmier, who at the funeral recalled Judge McKelva and his wife by “making up tales or remembering all wrong what she saw and heard” (p. 133). Laurel recalls the way it “really” was. At first the past of her memories seems idyllic. Laurel’s mother, apparently of great strength and perception, was certainly a person who we can imagine having come to a transcendent vision. Becky McKelva had moved to Mount Salus from West Virginia, from a home, unlike Fay’s, that was full of love.*** Becky returned home to her family nearly every year, and Laurel’s recollections of these trips are evocations of an idyllic family life akin to what Welty has previously described in Delta Wedding. Through these descriptions one perceives that Becky was a woman who lived in a present, active familial love, and her returns to this love suggest that she remained linked through that love to the past; and yet, she was one who also went outside of that present-oriented world to join the Judge in Mount Salus, Mississippi, where she helped to create a new world of love, memories of which Laurel associates with images of “firelight and warmth” (p. 133). Laurel’s mother, so it seems, was a woman who, like Audubon in Welty’s story “A Still Moment,” ordered “things according to their time and place…not by ABC” (p. 135). But Laurel’s reveries are interrupted when other memories intrude, especially the recollections of her mother’s illness and death. Like her husband, Becky McKelva’s illness began when her eyes went bad. Becky’s dying, however, was a long process; she lay sick for five years, during which time the Judge refused to believe that his wife’s troubles would not turn out all right. Laurel’s father, one learns, “had a horror of any sort of private clash, of divergence from the affectionate and the real and the explainable and the recognizable” (p. 146). When on her death bed his wife recalled the special world of West Virginia which she so loved, he told her, “I’ll carry you there, Becky,” to which she screamed out: “Lucifer!...Liar!” (p. 150). In his defense Judge McKelva began calling himself an optimist. As his wife’s condition grew worse, and she began crying out more often in pain and fear, and as she asked questions of him such as “Why did I marry such a coward?” (p. 148), her husband stubbornly insisted that whatever his wife did “she couldn’t help doing. Whatever she was driven to say was all right” (p. 150). Laurel saw that it “was not all right!” that her mother’s
trouble was that very desperation. And no one had the
power to cause that except the one she desperately loved,
who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was
betrayal on betrayal (p. 150).
Even Laurel was accused by her mother of betrayal. Becky’s last remark to her daughter, “You could have saved your mother’s life. But you stood by and wouldn’t intervene. I despair for you” (p. 151) could not but haunt Laurel for the rest of her life. What did her mother mean? How could Laurel save her mother? How can anyone living help or protect the dying or the dead?
One thing has been made clear to our hero, however, through her memories. Her mother had been right about Laurel’s father. He had been afraid to face anything outside of what he could control, afraid to face death or chaos, and in that refusal he had been a liar, a Lucifer of sorts. His marriage to Fay had been preordained. As Laurel later tells Fay:
My mother knew you’d get the house. She never needed
to be told…. She predicted you (p. 173).
Becky’s battle against her husband’s refusal to look upon life in its totality had given their love a specialness, the “firelight and warmth” that Laurel recalls. Let alone Judge McKelva was a coward. His vision was bad before the loss of his eyes.
Upon entering the hospital, the Judge, in attempting to explain that a rose briar (Becky’s climber) scratched his eye as he was pruning the play at the wrong time of the year, admitted: “Of course, my memory had slipped” (p. 5). The effect of that scratch on his eye made him have flashes in which he suddenly saw behind him. Simultaneously, they eye which saw forward was developing a cataract—a word one must comprehend not only in the optical sense, but in its meaning relating to “a deluge.” Seeing the past with one eye and his future death in the developing darkness of the other, his vision horrified him. The pull of the future, represented by Fay—who claims later that in “striking” her husband that last night in the hospital was her way of trying to “scare him into living” (p. 175)—and the pull of the past in his remembrances of Becky are what, in the end, killed him. Laurel’s father, she realizes, could not accept either view of reality; he wanted both of his eyes cured to look only upon the present. Instead, both of his eyes were temporarily taken away, and he was totally separated from the visual involvement with the present through which he defined his life. Laurel and Fay’s alternating shifts only perpetuated aurally the divergence he had been experiencing visually. So he entered a limbo state where he could not see and would not hear, a condition, obviously, that approximated death. When the balance was broken, so was the Judge destroyed. Fay may have been trying to scare him into living, but she scared him into dying instead. Like Fay’s father, his death, accordingly, is something that disavows, disassociates, denying the communion of the world.
So the question previously asked by Miss Tennyson, has been answered. In his poor vision it is clear that the Judge confused Fay’s selfish impetuousness with a dynamic love of the moment. The Judge could longer judge. But Laurel also realizes in perceiving this that if her mother had been right about her father, that perhaps she was right in judging Laurel as well. In her mother’s dark vision did she see even into Laurel’s heart?
The sad answer for those who look again upon Laurel’s recollections and make connections is “yes.” Laurel is guilty. In her lack vision she has also betrayed her mother. In her past-orientation Laurel has not had the ability to accept the flux of time. She has made all the right connections, but she cannot put them into action; she refuses to lose herself to being, and in that inability to be one with world, she stands still judgmentally apart, nearly as selfish as Fay in her blind flailing through life. In her anger over what she has perceived as the falsified memories of her mother and father, we see that Laurel, also, has attempted to “fix” the past, that any deviating from the reality she knows is something to be denied or set aside. And so too has she fixed her own life and closing it off just as she has the bird trapped in the rest of the house.
Welty’s metaphor of the bird is no accident, as Laurel recalls her childhood fears of and fascination with her grandmother’s pigeons. Noticing her closely watching them, the adults encouraged her to feed them. Laurel held out a biscuit, panic-stricken lest they should attack her. She had seen them in the process of feeding:
sticking their beaks down each other’s throats, gagging
gagging each other, eating out of each other’s craws,
swallowing down all over again what had been swallowed
This is, of course, the very image of life-in-action, of the life force in its crude and unable to be ignored rhythms, exemplified by Becky’s repetition on her death bed of a passage from “The Cataract of Lodore,”**** where everything is
…Rising and leaping
Sinking and creeping,
Swelling and sweeping—
Showering and springing,
Flying and flinging,
Writhing and ringing….[etc.]
The pigeons in this state of being were horrifying to Laurel. As they came swooping down, she ran to hide behind her grandmother’s dress. Yet, inexplicably the adults came to call them “Laurel’s pigeons,” and she was always expected to feed them.
If Laurel, in adulthood, seems to have finally herself up to the present of life in her marriage to Philip Hand, it was a temporary vision. And Laurel now recalls it with wonderment. She recalls, in particular, they trip back to Mount Salus to Chicago after their marriage, as, riding together, they crossed over the bridge at Cairo, at “the confluence of waters, the Ohio and Mississippi” where they magically became part of the world around them (described in one of Welty’s most deliciously poetic passages):
All they could see was sky, water, birds, light, and con-
fluence. It was the whole morning world.
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. Direction itself was made beautiful,
momentous. They were riding as one with it, right up front.
It’s our turn! She’d though exultantly. And we’re going to
Philip was killed in the war, and with his death Laurel’s world again became fixed and alone, as she stands throughout most of this fiction, perceptive but completely unable to repeat that magic moment.
In short, in these conversations with nature—with both the natural world and the world of human nature—we see that none of this fiction’s characters except Becky has a vision of life that, like Becky’s, was all inclusive. For she had a vision unlike any of the others, relating on her death bed a story of healing to a visiting minister that he should have delivered to her: recalling a mountain where she once went berry hunting, Becky reports
…on that mountain, young man, there’s a white straw-
berry that grows completely wild, if you know where to
look for it. I think it very like grows in only one spot in
the world. I could tell you this minute where to go, but I
doubt if you’d see them growing after you got there. Deep
in the woods, you’d miss them…. Nothing you ever ate in
your life was anything like as delicate, as fragrant, as those
wild strawberries (p. 149).
Becky’s statement reinforces the idea of predestination which with I began this essay, suggesting that in her statement “You’d miss the vision,” that Becky is telling the minister is not destined to find meaning in the world, to comprehend it even in death.
Yet by the end of this fiction, Welty undercuts this statement. Laurel does come to see and act it out. As her night alone draws to a close, Laurel psychologically opens herself up to the world around her:
A flood of feeling descended on Laurel. She let the
papers slide from her hand and the books from her knees,
and put her hand down on the open lid of the desk. She
lay there with all that was adamant in her yielding to
this night, yielding at last. Now all she had found had
found her. The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered
itself, and it began to flow again.
If I previously compared Laurel to Nina Carmichael of The Golden Apples, we now must recognize that Laurel, unlike Nina—who intellectually willed her hand to yield to night, but could not—is able to join with the world around her, and, in so doing, accept it on its own terms, restoring through the process the world’s mystery, comprehending that being in the world is not something that any man or woman can completely know or understand. Fay is no longer someone to be judged, for who can truly judge another person?—not even a daughter of a judge. Fay is, after all someone to be pitied because she cannot live at ease in the flow of life. In her race against time Fay must always be on the run.
In this restoration of mystery, in Laurel’s yielding to live once more, one also perceives a dichotomy in Welty’s art. It is the same opposition that one can observe in Welty’s masterful “A Still Moment,” in the way that Lorenzo Dow and James Murrell view the hero as opposed to the way in which Audubon sees the bird. As a modern Romantic writer, Welty first demands one to make the connections that Dow and Murrell do, that he first put symbolic meaning upon the particular, making the particular universal. But Welty, strangely enough, is a kind of postmodern writer in her insistence that the reader, one he makes those connections, drop them and open himself up to the particular without mediation. What Charles Altieri has noted in his essay “Fom Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” applies equally to Welty: for the postmodern “value is not mediated but stems from direct engagement with the universal forces of being manifest in the particular….” Value for the postmodern “emerges from the ways man participates in the world beyond himself…. Value is a way of being informed, not of informing.”*****
True, for Welty the symbolic expression is an expression of order, of love, of community, of the known, the particular place, of all the present. The direct engagement with the world, the particular presented without symbolic connotations is her understanding of the chaos, the other, the self without connections, the unknown, the “out-there,” the future and all of the past. However, the author demands that one accept both, that like Virgie Rainey, one accept “the Medusa equally with Perseus.” If one journeys out to face the chaos—if one leaves place to attempt to put order upon the chaos—one must also return home to let that chaos come rushing in upon the self. And the self must always eventually let in the world around if it any transcendence is to be achieved. If man asserts meaning upon the world, in the end he must always submit to the world. As Altieri suggests, the world is an informer to man.
Welty’s tendency to a belief in predestination, accordingly, is balanced by a belief that even if one is not born with the abilities to see, the world itself can break through with its meaning.
Laurel, suddenly, discovers, after all these years, that indeed she might have saved her mother. She could not previously understand what that meant because she could only think that her mother felt that she could have saved by an assertion of her daughter’s will exerted upon her particular life. But that is not what Becky McKelva was thinking. She meant that she could be saved by her daughter opening herself up to life. Becky understood that her salvation lay not in her own particular destiny, not in her own mortality, but in the immortality of life itself, in the continuation of life. Laurel has been battling life itself in an attempt to bring it into order as surely as her father and Fay have tried to ignore its disorder and mystery.
Now that Laurel has given herself up to that mystery, however, she must still act out that knowledge. As she rises the next morning, she frees the bird and with it all of her fears.***** As she packs, she is relaxedly at one with the world. The house is cleaned, there are no traces left of the human happiness and suffering and harm done in the place. Suddenly, however, she remembers a bread board which her mother had used, a board with particular memories for her since it was made by her husband, crafted by his hands as a gift to the family. When she finds the board, however, it is gouged and stained. Laurel perceives immediately that it is Fay’s doing, and, as if by calling her memory, Fay suddenly appears, home early from her stay in Texas. In her anger, kindled further by her conversation with Fay, Laurel suddenly seems to lose her new awareness. Again she judges Fay, is infuriated by the woman’s inability to make connections. When Fay again displays her moral inadequacy of relation past to present by asking Laurel, “Your husband? What has he got to do with it? …He’s dead, isn’t he?” Laurel raises the bread board above her head and holds it there for a moment as a potential weapon and “a raft in the waters, to keep her from slipping down deep, where the others had gone before her.”
From the nearby parlor the clock strikes noon, and Laurel is suddenly brought into the present again, reminded of that special time in which one does not need objects to symbolize the past, present or future. Suddenly she sees it for what it is, a bread board (as Fay declares “Is a moldy old bread board the best you can find?” p. 177). She lowers the board, holding it out level between Fay and herself, with that act reinfusing it with new meaning, as it comes to represent an act of communion between the two.
Laurel leaves the house realizing that the past can no longer hurt, that value cannot be destroyed simply other’s inability to perceive it, Laurel suddenly sees that
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 (p. 179).
So does she become a true optimist, a woman who realizes that by giving up oneself to life one expresses that faith that all of mankind, not just a select few, are born to see.
*Although a version of this work was first published as a novella in The New Yorker prior to the publication of Losing Battles, Welty revised and added a great amount of material to the final fiction, so that it must be considered to be her last work. All references to The Optimist’s Daughter are to the Random House edition, published in 1972.
**Although Welty does not specify what Roscoe’s “problem” was, the description and situation suggests that Roscoe may have a homosexual, discussing his sexuality with friends. Certainly, given the dominance of his uncomprehending mother, this is a logical possibility.
***Reynolds Price in “The Onlooker, Smiling: An Early Reading of The Optimist’s Daughter,” Shenandoah, XX (Spring 1969), 58-73, rightfully warns against reading in meaning to Welty’s choices of birth for her characters. However, one can trace a geographical movement from the past, present to future which is related to the character’s birthplaces. West Virginia to Mississippi to Texas parallels the western development of what we might describe as the American South.
****Here the motif of cataract is once again suggested. The judge’s cataract is blinding, but Becky, on the very brink of a deluge of death, repeats words which suggest the whole life process.
*****Charles Altieri, “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern Poetics,” boundary 2, I (Spring 1973), 605-641.
College Park, Maryland, 1978
This essay, originally titled “Eudora Welty as Optimist: The Revelation and Acceptance of Time in The Optimist’s Daughter first appeared as part of my Master’s Thesis at the University of Maryland in 1978.
The present version was extensively revised and rewritten in Los Angeles, December 20, 2014.
In hindsight this early academic essay, what I long felt was the weakest of my writings on Eudora Welty (on a book I also long felt was her least remarkable work of fiction—which is, surely, why I waited so long to reprint it) now seems to be one of the most important of my early writings on Southern literary figures. For the first time in this essay, I was able to connect the highly symbolic and literarily conservative Welty with my growing interest in postmodern writing.
Today, I am not all sure that can still agree with my friend Charles Altieri’s notions of the roots of postmodernism dating back to Romantic poetry, but the leap of faith made by Charlie’s writing helped to connect up what I had been doing and the future of my writing efforts, even though it resulted in loud laments from my thesis advisor, Lewis Lawson. It also permitted me to resolve, at least temporarily, issues involved with my own Calvinist upbringing and my then-developing atheist perspectives.
Los Angeles, December 20, 2014