Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Exposition in The Optimist’s Daughter (Annotation G3-3/Goddard)

Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter is a short account of the death and burial of Judge McKelva. Laurel McKelva, his daughter returns home to Mount Salus when her father takes ill. The entire plot: Laurel intends to stay with her father during an operation and through his recovery, he dies, they bury him, and within a few weeks, she returns to her home in Chicago. Welty’s choices of exposition make the depth of this short novel more dense than the brief plotline. Of the four parts of the novel, the household objects recovered in the last two parts are the mastery of Welty’s exposition.
Directly after the funeral, Wanda Fay, the dead man’s second wife leaves Mount Salus for Texas leaving Laurel alone in the house where she grew up. Looking through the house, Laurel passes through the memories of her childhood beginning with her father’s desk. The description of the desk itself, being made from old timbers from Scotland, pulls the images of an old family settled in the United States. Even the library where the desk stands holds the families description. As Laurel dusts the books on the shelves, Welty includes book titles, most notably the collected volumes of Charles Dickens. The true impact of these Dickens novels have their pay-off later when Laurel makes her way to her mother’s sewing room. The objects of the sewing room settle many of the concerns Laurel seems to hold from the death of her mother, which took place long before the onset of the novel. The mother’s background in rural West Virginia are somehow summed up in the Dickens novels: “she had run back into the flames and rescued her dead father’s set of Dickens at the risk of her life,” (Welty 149). The burning of the mother’s childhood home somehow erases the life she’d had, leaving only the Dickens. As Laurel recollects her mother, through what remains in the Mount Salus house, her memory is bound to property.
Though Laurel, an only child, has lost everyone in her life, both parents and a husband, these family members make one last presence through a breadboard. In the kitchen on the day of her departure for Chicago Laurel finds the breadboard just as Fay returns to the house. First, the description of the current condition tells so much about Fay. The board is filthy and scared from misuse: cigarette burns, rat’s teeth, and a hammer’s blow. Fay sees the board for what it is a piece of wood. Through Laurel’s words, her mother again comes alive: she had kept the board polished like dishware, and had made the best bread in the county. Lastly, the origins of the board itself, build by Philip Hand, Laurel’s dead husband. The description his process and intent on building the board is beautiful: “My mother blessed him when she saw this. She said it was sound and beautiful and exactly suited her long-felt needs, and she welcomed it into her kitchen,” (Welty 176).
The objects in the house, the desks, the sew room and lastly the breadboard are the tools Welty uses in the exposition and the past of her characters.

Welty, Eudora. The Optimist’s Daughter. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

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