Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Patterns of Vision in Welty's the Optimist's Daughter

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Patterns of Vision in Welty's the Optimist's Daughter

Article excerpt

Readers of Eudora Welty's fiction are familiar with her love for the subtle sometimes mysterious complexities of the psyche. Her many allusions to myth and legend provide readers and sometimes characters with insights into the forgotten corners of the mind and its past. (1) Emblematic of her notion is the night light she describes in her essay "Place in Fiction"; it is similar to the light that was given to Dabney Fairchild in Delta Wedding.

   The outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; then, when the
   lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out
   through the old.... The lamp alight is the combination of internal and
   external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good novel. (2)

Light and vision reveal to us the fundamental core of our being.

Welty's method of dealing with what is, after all, a shadowy and mysterious dimension of being has led to the charge that her writing is vague, imprecise. (3) Indeed it is, but only because Welty deals with what cannot ever be precisely defined. Characters and readers develop a feeling of understanding, symbolized by the light in the night light, which is, in its most fulfilling dimension, non-verbal. Characters who develop the most certain vision transcend reason; they do not settle on some absolute set of principles, some cogito ergo sum, which provides a neat system into which all things fit. For Welty the best vision is inaccessible to reason.

The Optimist's Daughter, published in book form in 1972, (4) a revision of a long story which had appeared in the New Yorker for March 15, 1969, is in its revised form one of the most significant and clear statements that Welty has made about the nature of vision. In this novel Welty explores what a middle-aged woman, Laurel McKelva Hand, the only child of Judge Clinton and Becky Thurston McKelva, learns about herself on the occasion of her father's death and funeral. In Laurel's case, forty years of experience precede her initiation, but forty years are few enough for Welty's protagonist to collect the contents of her memory. Laurel's awakening occurs in two dimensions which are identified in a sentence Welty added in revising the conclusion of the novel. Laurel understands finally 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 patterns restored by dreams" (179). The first dimension of consciousness for the awakened Laurel has to do with memory which "lives" in the heart and in "hands" freed from "initial possession"; the second dimension is "patterns restored by dreams." In revising The Optimist's Daughter, Welty has apparently given a great deal of attention to defining and explaining this second dimension as clearly and precisely as she can. (5) The irritating presence of Laurel's stepmother, Wanda Fay, forces her to examine her memory of her parents. That memory is the surface of the night light, but when Laurel's lamp is lit through the process of her introspection, the "patterns restored by dreams" shine through from their hidden recesses. Though Welty tells the story in the third person, the point of view is limited to Laurel's experience and reverie.

In revising, Welty divided the tale of Laurel's awakening into four parts. The first part takes place in New Orleans, where Judge Clinton McKelva undergoes surgery for a slipped retina, and a little over three weeks after his operation, he dies. Laurel had met Wanda Fay at the wedding some years before, but in New Orleans she comes to know her stepmother better. Doctor Courtland, who had grown up in the house next door to the McKelva's in Mount Salus, Mississippi, decrees that his patient needs to remain absolutely immobile to give the eye time to heal. Wanda Fay's attempt to pull the Judge from his bed probably has nothing to do with the Judge's death, but the violence shocks Laurel. …

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