Friday, March 9, 2018

The Optimist's Daughter: Examining Love and Loss

She wept for what happened to life.
Laurel, the main character of The Optimist's Daughter, is a widow and now an orphan after her father passes away, years after her mother's death. She moved away from Louisiana a while ago, but returns for the duration of the book - first for her father's medical problems, then for his death and for a short time after the funeral.

Her parents' home is full of things she hasn't known about or hasn't thought about in a long while. It's also tainted by the presence of her father's second wife, Fay, a crass, insensitive woman who at one point gets compared to the weather, an uncomprehending force of nature that sweeps through people's lives.
For Fay 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 those little fists at random, or spit from her little mouth. She could no more fight a feeling person than she could love him.
The novel reckons with the costs of love. With love comes profound loss; how does one cope? Is the solution to live like Fay, who performs grief but doesn't feel much of anything in a deep way? Because she feels less, her survival in this world seems more assured; in this sense, she's more hardy than Laurel. But she's brittle in other ways. Laurel does survive, in her own way, relinquishing possessions and bearing memories forward.
The memory can be hurt, time and again - but in that may lie its final mercy. As long as it's vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.
One of the things I appreciated about this novel was the sensitive way it made the dead come alive in memory. They aren't fixed and silent images. Laurel, for instance, considers those who have died and wonders about them, why they acted as they did, and what they'd say or do now. Of course, it's not the same as them being alive, but they're a part of her world still. I think a part of her courage - to keep living, free, afraid, full of light - comes from thinking about her relationships with them and their relationships with each other.
Between some two people every word is beautiful, or might as well be beautiful.
While Fay lives in the realm of objects, just plain hard materials, Laurel has greater depth and so has more to lose. And yet, she's strong at the end, cut loose from her father's home and going off on a tide of spirit and possibility.

(I read The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty for the Classics Club Challenge.)


Brian Joseph said...

This is an insightful review of this book. The novel sounds very good. Stories of homecomings after long periods of absence seem to interst me. The characters sound well crafted. Fay sounds unusual. I wonder if there are people who are really like her.

HKatz said...

Thanks - I think there are people like Fay. Emotionally shallow, cut off from themselves and whatever depths they have (or maybe they haven't developed much depth to begin with).