Avoiding Sentimentality

Lessons from "The Optimist's Daughter"

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The problem of how to convey emotion without lapsing into sentimentality confronts most writers at some point in their careers, and very often in the beginning stages. While it's worthwhile quoting Chekhov on the subject: "If you wish to move your reader, write more coldly," Eudora Welty has much to teach as well, particularly in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Optimist's Daughter.

Plot Summary

Set in Welty's native Deep South, The Optimist's Daughter tells the story of Laurel McKelva Hand as she comes to terms with loss: most immediately with the loss of her father, but also with the more distant losses of her mother and her husband.

The novel opens in New Orleans, where Laurel has traveled from her home in Chicago to be with her father, Judge McKelva, who has sought treatment for a slipped retina. Laurel's stepmother, Fay, a woman a few years younger than Laurel, also attends her father.

In the course of the novel, Laurel endures not only the death of her father but also the humiliation of having Fay, a selfish and superficial woman, supplant her in her family home. (Fay's first response to hearing of Judge McKelva's condition was, "I don't see why this had to happen to me [8]). The novel follows Laurel as she comes to terms with these losses before returning to her life in Chicago.

What Can We Learn from Welty about Sentimentality?

As even this brief synopsis shows, Welty has taken on some weighty and emotional material in "The Optimist's Daughter." Despite this fact, she manages to avoid sentimentality while creating an emotionally complex character and leading the reader to a highly pitched climax.

She succeeds by exercising control over her subject matter through structure and pacing and relying on action and figurative language to show Laurel's emotions.

Focus on Structure and Pacing

Poetry provides many examples of writers using structure, or form, to rein in the worst impulses associated with emotional subject matter.

For instance, Elizabeth Bishop chose a highly structured form, the sestina, for her most confessional poem, "One Art." Though novelists don't have ready-made forms to help them privilege craft over emotion, they can nonetheless create a structure for their novel, as Welty does.

For "The Optimist's Daughter," Welty borrows the three-part structure of a play. In the first part, she gives us Judge McKelva's illness and death; in the second, Laurel and Fay return to Mount Salus, Mississippi, for the burial; and in the third, Laurel confronts the past and reconciles herself to it. In the first two sections, Welty adheres strictly to the old maxim, "Show, don't tell." We are rarely in Laurel's head, but perceive her emotions through figurative language and action. Only in the third section does Welty let us hear Laurel's more intimate thoughts.

In addition to using structure, Welty also carefully controls the novel's pacing. Nothing feels rushed or unnecessary about the entire novel. As a result, Welty earns our trust. Furthermore, the early control lends Laurel's eventual display of emotion more power. Because both she and her main character maintain control through most of the novel, Welty ensures that we pay attention when Laurel does give vent to her feelings in the last section of the novel.

Show Don't Tell

It's easy enough to say, "Show, don't tell," but how exactly do you pull it off? Welty provides excellent examples of how to use action and figurative language to convey a character's emotions. For instance, early in the second section, Fay asserts her right over Laurel to decide what will be done with Judge McKelva's body. The scene also confirms the fact that Fay will take over the judge's house now that he has died: Laurel has essentially lost all rights to her childhood home. She bears the affront stoically, displaying her good Southern manners, but the scene's action and a well-placed symbol, reveal her feelings nonetheless:

"I'm Mr. Pitts, hope you remember me," said the businessman, appearing at Laurel's other side. "Now what would you like done with your father?" When she didn't speak, he went on, "May we have him in our parlor? Or would you prefer him to repose at the residence?"

"My father? Why -- at his home," said Laurel, stammering.

"At the residence. Until the hour of services. As was the case with the first Mrs. McKelva," said the man.

"I'm Mrs. McKelva now. If you're the undertaker, you do your business with me," said Fay.

Tish Bullock winked at Laurel. It was a moment before she remembered: this was the bridesmaids' automatic signal in moments of acute joy or distress, to show solidarity.

There was a deep boom, like the rolling of an ocean wave. The hearse door had been slammed shut.

Welty signals Laurel's distress by her response to the undertaker: she hesitates and she stammers. Tish's wink confirms our suspicion that the moment must be an emotional one for Laurel despite her reserve. Finally, Welty introduces the symbol of the ocean to stand in for Laurel's unstated emotions.

After her father dies, Fay arranges to have him buried not beside Laurel's mother, but in the plot furthest from her, one near a new highway. Throughout the viewing of the body and the funeral, Laurel remains composed. Again, Welty signals Laurel's distress through external clues alone. For instance, twice she refers to her inability to register what the minister is saying: "Again Laurel failed to hear what came from his lips. She might not even have heard the high school band." And again, at a moment of acute distress, Welty refers to the ocean, and hints that Laurel's grief is part of a larger human sorrow: "Sounds from the highway rolled in upon her with the rise and fall of eternal ocean waves. They were as deafening as grief." (50)

In case this isn't enough to assure us that Laurel has feelings, Welty offers a few more signs before she leaves the cemetery. First, there is the simile, "Windshields flashed into her eyes like light through tears" (92). Then Laurel sees her father's cook, Missouri, and "walks into" her arms. Welty doesn't linger on this display of emotion, however, but shifts her gaze immediately to a symbol of rebirth and the promise of youth: "In the wake of their footsteps, the birds settled again. Down on the ground, they were starlings, all on the waddle, pushing with the yellow bills of spring" (93).

Conclusion

This image presages the novel's final image, that of children waving goodbye to Laurel. Thus, The Optimist's Daughter is ultimately a hopeful novel, falling on the side of optimism, not despair. It's worth noting, however, that Welty doesn't spell out her symbols for her readers, but trusts them to puzzle them out on their own. And perhaps that's the biggest lesson to take away from her work or any work that successfully conveys emotion and avoids sentimentality. Portray the action and use figurative language as you can, and then let the reader do the work. Your scenes will be more powerful as a result, and your reader will leave feeling moved rather than manipulated.