I was just finally listening to this podcast and David’s reference at the end about the children’s hands ‘twinkling’ made a connection for me that I hadn’t caught when I was reading it: is there a heartening back to the judge seeing the twinkling in the fig tree? 🤷‍♀️ I haven’t contemplated this enough yet to know if that’s a stretch; it just struck me as I was listening.

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Some shorter thoughts on The Optimist's Daughter:

On page 159 there is a confluence of waters, the Ohio and the Mississippi. Laurel is dreaming she is with Phil. Those two rivers could easily be Styx (the dread river of oath) and Lethe (the river of oblivion and forgetfulness).


In her dream, Laurel is with Phil and thinks, “we’re going to live forever”—

Left bodiless and graveless of a death made of water and fire in a year long gone, Phil could still tell her of her life. For her life, any life she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love. (160)


On page 162 Phil dies from a kamikaze -- like a bird swooping down. Like the pigeons that Laurel is so afraid of.


Page 168 the bird escapes as Laurel is struck in the face by either the bird or the wind. It is like the Holy Spirit (which is often characterized by wind, a dove, or fire). Page 169, Laurel burns the papers in the driveway.


Fay is a spirit, a fairy—sometimes evil. The word comes from the Latin “fata” which means “fate” or “destiny.” Fay can also mean “faith” (obsolete) or “pretentious.” One can see that Fay represents the future of a society that doesn’t accept sacrifice or suffering.

In contrast, Laurel’s name is infused with a deeper Christian meaning. Laurels can symbolize the resurrection, and in some cultures laurel branches are substituted for palms to remember the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem before the Last Supper, Passion, and crucifixion. Laurels are also an emblem of prosperity and fame, and the crown of laurels is placed on the head of a victor (think Caesar’s busts).


The hibiscus is a flower associated with happiness and good luck.

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Hi all, I am so sorry this is so long, but I can't help it... [cross-posted]

I listened to the last podcast and I have to answer the question: who is the optimist in this story?

There is a scene between Clinton McKelva and his wife Becky where Becky wants to go to her childhood home, which she had forgotten had burned down:

“I’ll carry you there, Becky”

“Lucifer!” She cried. “Liar!”

That was when he started, of course, being what he *scowlingly called an optimist* [emphasis mine]; he might have dredged the word up out of his childhood. He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no one had the power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal. (150)

The problem is that the Judge is in denial. He could not accept a future of his wife suffering, let alone dying. On page 146,

He grimaced with delicacy. What he could not control was his belief that all his wife’s troubles would turn out all right because there was nothing he would not have given her.”

One page 148, Becky says, “Why did I marry a coward?”—then had taken his hand to help him bear it. He says later on that same page, “Becky, it’s going to be all right,” Judge McKelva whispered to her.

The judge was blind to Becky’s needs, and in not seeing her suffering he could not help her bear the pain of dying so she had to carry it alone.

And ten years later, Judge McKelva takes up a wife who is young enough to be his daughter—thus in a way replacing both Becky and Laurel. His earlier denial leads him to Fay—a petulant girl-wife. One with no substance or faith. No anchor to the past. Notice also how much she wanted to see Carnival so much she left the side of her husband. Fay wants Fat Tuesday, but has no clue what Lent is.

If there are any other optimists in this book it would be Fay, the stepmother to Laurel. She sees a bright future in a big house, sans husband or children.

This is in stark contrast to Laurel’s husband Phil, a carpenter and home builder, whom she also calls a “perfectionist”:

"But he was not an optimist—she knew that. Phil had learned everything he could manage to learn, and done as much as he had time for, to design houses to stand, to last, to be lived in; but he had known they could equally well, with the same devotion and tireless effort, be built of cards." (162)

Phil, the woodworker, is the Christ figure. And if he is the Christ figure, then Laurel is the bride of Christ. In essence she is the Church, or rather the future of the church that longs to be with her groom while Fay is the future without a groom but with the house and other possessions; she is the secular and material life. A life that doesn’t appreciate or even tolerate suffering or sacrifice.

The Christ theme is further picked up by what Laurel is looking for in the cupboard: the BREADBOARD. (There are actually two symbols of the Holy Cross in the book. The first is the cherry wood desk that has red “nail” polish on it. Think of the fruiting Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden.)

Fay says, “Who wants an everlasting breadboard? It’s the last thing on earth that anybody needs!” (172)

Although Laurel is holding the breadboard in this scene, she says, “You desecrated this house!” (173) The family home, the boat from Adele, the breadboard made by her late husband… what she is really saying is you have desecrated the sacrament of marriage.

“Do you know what a labor of love is? My husband made it for my mother, so she’d have a good one. Phil had the gift—the gift of his hands.” (175)

Fay asks Laurel what’s made her so brazen:

“Finding the breadboard!” Laurel cried. She placed both hands down on it and gave it the weight of her body. (176)

The weight of her body is on the wood that is gouged as if driven with nails. Tortured with cigarette burns, gouged, scored and grimy—Fay even calls it “dirty as sin.” (176) But like the wood of the cross, it is transformed through suffering into something else. Into something holy and sacramental.

Laurel says that she may use the breadboard to make her mother’s bread, and Fay says, “It all tastes alike, don’t it?” Again, the ignorance of the idea of transubstantiation—perhaps not in the Catholic sense, but in a Christian one. Christ is the Bread of Life, and Laurel says, “Phil loved bread. He loved good bread. To break a loaf and eat it warm, just out of the oven.” (177)

Laurel is the living witness and sole survivor of a true marriage. Laurel is the bride of Christ, the Church. Then what is Fay, who inherits a house without a husband? She gets a home without a groom, without children, she is the future with no future.

Fay wanted Clint to pay attention to her. She didn’t want a husband; she wanted an audience.

When Laurel finally confronts Fay and says “You hurt him.” Fay has the nerve to cry back, “I was being a wife to him! [...] Have you clean forgotten by this time what being a wife is?”

Just by saying that Fay shows how blind she is to her duties as a wife. And she says this to Laurel, who didn’t even have the privilege of having more than a honeymoon of a marriage. In going to war, Phil sacrificed his life for others. In never taking up with anyone after his death, she remained faithful to his memory.

Laurel said that her mother predicted Fay, and Fay retorts “You predict the weather.” But what is the weather in this case? The Great Flood. The devastation of a world because it is so mired in sin.

The Optimist’s Daughter is full of references to the Book of Genesis. The beginning starts page 4, with Judge McKelva saying that the fig tree flashed at him. Fig trees are important because fig leaves were used to cover Adam and Eve after they discovered their shame. Also, the name Courtland, not only echoes the Judge’s profession, but is also a variety of apple.

The Fall is the story of the First Judgement, and it is significant to see “judge” and “court” echoed throughout the book.

On page 152, Laurel finds her mother’s recipe for her mother’s bread: “My Best Bread” which may be a reference to the Eucharist as well. But notice where it is kept (top of 153):

Underneath it had lain something older, a class notebook. Becky had sent herself to teacher’s college, wearing the deep-dyed blouse. It was her keeping her diagrams of Paradise Lost and Milton’s Universe that was so like her, pigeonholing* them here as though she’d be likely to find them useful again.

Blind Milton who wrote Paradise Lost. Right below on the same page Laurel reads her mother’s notes: “That fool fig tree is already putting out leaves. Will it never learn?” Eden is referenced again.

The references to pigeons and pigeonholing is quite strong, especially in the last half of the novel. Laurel finds her mother’s letters in pigeonholes. Another name for a pigeon is a “rock dove” and remember that Noah had sent out a dove to find out if the Flood receded enough to land. It brought back an olive branch as the first sign of God’s fulfilled promise.

On page 119, Laurel sees her father’s papers:

He had kept civic papers dating from the days when he was Mayor of Mount Salus, and an old dedication speech made at the opening of the new school (“These are my promises to you, all the young people I see before me…”). These promises had made them important to him. There was a bursting folder of papers having to do with the Big Flood, the one that had ruined the McKelva place on the river; it was jammed with the work he had done on floods and flood control.

On page 121 Judge writes to his daughter:

“There was never anything wrong with keeping up a little optimism over the Flood.”

Shortly after this letter, he marries Fay, a woman even younger than his daughter. And he kept optimism over Fay, whom Laurel later calls “the weather” that her mother predicted.

However, for Laurel, the Flood is also the cleansing devastation of grief,

A flood of feeling descended on Laurel. She let the papers slide from her hand and the books from her knees, and put her head down on the open lid of the desk and wept in grief for love and for the dead. [Something that her father could not do.] She lay there with all that was adamant in her yielding to this night, yielding at last. Now all she had found had found her. The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself, and it began to flow again. (154)

What you have is both a father and daughter who dammed up the waters of their grief because they could not stand their entire worlds being drowned. It meant moving on and admitting that the ones they loved most were cleansed from the earth. They were exiled from Eden, the garden of marital bliss. Paradise was indeed lost to both Judge and Laurel.

Milton himself was blind, dictating his work to his daughters who became his hands to write the greatest poetic work about the Fall of Man.

Laurel McKelva “Hand” is the daughter of the blind optimist.

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Isn’t Laurel the optimist bc she is the one that wants to persevere the culture and values the breadboard?

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I thought the Judge was the optimist but it wasn't really a compliment. I think he was unable to face some difficult truths, including Becky's decline, buried himself in work, and tried to tell himself and Becky that everything would be fine. He also married Fay without thinking that that would effectively disinherit Laurel. I would guess that he either didn't think about it or assumed that, in time, the women would work it out.

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Have we considered that Faye might be the optimist? In some ways, she showed more hope for the future than anyone? (I’ll show myself out).

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Who was the optimist? I believe it was the judge; however, I don't think it was a positive optimism as we usually think of it. Welty wrote, "That was when he started, of course, being what he scowlingly called an optimist....It was betrayal on betrayal." (page 150) I think he knew he lacked understanding/clarity but was helpless in the face of it. Failing sight was the most powerful symbol for me and seemed to infect every character.

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I felt like the book started strong and then petered out for me. Then I listen to this episode and you guys helped me make some connections I didn't notice. It really is so great to read in community.

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