Critical Assessment

“Eudora Welty’s novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, which first appeared in The New Yorker of March 15, 1969, is a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work. Its style is at the service of a story that follows its nose with the instincts of a good hunting dog never losing the scent of its quarry. And its story has all those qualities peculiar to the finest short novels: a theme that vibrates with overtones, suspense and classical inevitability. . . .

“Two kinds of people, two versions of life, two contending forces in America collide in The Optimist’s Daughter. Its small dramatic battle sends reverberations in every direction.”

Howard Moss, “Eudora Welty’s New Novel About Death and Class,” The New York Times, May 21, 1972.

First Excerpt

“In her own room, she undressed, raised the window, got into bed with the first book her fingers found, and lay without opening it.

“The quiet of the Mount Salus night was a little different now. She could hear traffic on some new highway, a sound like the buzzing of one angry fly against a windowpane, over and over.

“When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.”

228104-lSecond Excerpt

“‘The whole day left something to be desired, if you want to hear me come right out with it,’ said old Mrs. Pease.

“‘Go ahead. I know you’re blaming Major,’ said Miss Tennyson. ‘Why he had to get so carried away as to round up those Chisoms, I’ll never know, myself. He said they were nothing but just good old Anglo-Saxons. But I said –’

“‘You can’t curb a Baptist,’ Mrs. Pease said. ‘Let them in and you can’t keep ’em down, when somebody dies. When the whole bunch of Chisoms got to going in concert, I thought the only safe way to get through the business alive was not say a word, just sit as still as a mouse.’

“‘I, though, consider that the Chisoms did every bit as well as we did,’ said Miss Adele. ‘If we’re going to dare mention behavior.’

“‘Adele has the schoolteacher’s low opinion of everybody,’ said Miss Tennyson.

“‘It’s true they were a trifle more inelegant,’ said Miss Adele. ‘But only a trifle.’

“‘The pitiful thing was, Fay didn’t know any better than the rest of ’em. She just supposed she did,’ said Miss Tennyson.”