- Preface to The Optimist's Daughter, Bibliothèque du Temps Présent, Editions Rombaldi, 1977
The Optimist's Daughter, for which Eudora Welty received the Pulitzer Prize—the highest American literary distinction—in 1973, reads like a short story. It is, however, a great novel, which features a unique combination of conciseness, subtlety, and implicitness. If critics praised the author's qualities in the writing, the psychology, and the composition of the plot, they also admired the fine density of the story's meditation on life and death, its focus on intergenerational conflict, on the crisis of civilization, and, more broadly, its exploration of the mystery of fate and of human relations.
In the novel, conveyed with a profound subtlety and reading like a poem, symbols and mythological references weave through this work, which is as complex and subtle as its author. On the surface, the plot of The Optimist's Daughter is a fairly simple one because it is constrained in time and space. Falling under the heading of the daily crises of life, The Optimist's Daughter is one of those micro-tragedies that could have been written by Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, or Katherine Mansfield, for Eudora Welty does belong to this breed of authors.
She is first and foremost a writer of short stories, and she works with millimeter accuracy, having mastered the art of the understatement, a craft which originates in her own modesty concerning her private life. Welty's work regularly features the mystery of life, the enigma of human beings and of their relationship to each other and to the world. Certainly, Welty published other novels: The Robber Bridegroom (1942), which is a kind of fairy tale; and Delta Wedding (1946), comparable in analysis to The Optimist's Daughter, the only difference being that a wedding, not a funeral, structures the plot. But it is the art of the short story at which Welty excels, an art she started to practice as early as 1936. A Curtain of Green (1941) is her first collection of short stories, and the essence of this meticulously-written volume is also to be found in three great compilations of her short stories: The Wide Net (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955). In all these stories, Welty combines realism, characterized by minute description, with what could be described as an almost magnificent sense of [End Page 21] the supernatural and of allegory. This blend of realism and fantasy has been used by authors ranging from Edgar Allan Poe to Nathaniel Hawthorne and is part of a long-standing American literary tradition culminating in the works of Henry James, of whom Eudora Welty is obviously a follower.
In this magic realism of everyday reality, Welty seeks to uncover a mystery. "I had no wish to sound mystical," she writes, "but I did expect to sound mysterious now and then" ("Writing" 779). Her discreetly enigmatic art strives, like that of Henry James, to decode a secret that is never entirely or easily explained, one that always points, like in a game of mirrors, to another secret: "Relationship is a pervading and changing mystery," she writes in "How I Write"; "it is not words that make it so in life, but words have to make it so in a story" ("Writing" 779).1 Thus defined, her problem as an artist takes on the appearance of a charismatic vocation. The art of the short story here is to suggest how the brutal reality of an event comes for a moment to tear the veil of everyday life so as to illuminate a mystery that disappears afterwards. In this sense, in its mixture of tragedy and social comedy, of daily realism and allegory, the argument presented in The Optimist's Daughter resembles that of Katherine Mansfield in her famous Garden Party. Death, there, is a sudden catalyst that, for a moment, tears to pieces the graciously preserved illusions of life. In the South of the United States, an old prominent citizen, a former judge—the "optimist"—is hospitalized for retinal detachment and dies unexpectedly. Two women are fighting over the...