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This paper takes several angles of approach towards more deeply understanding central tensions in The Optimist’s Daughter. Goaded by Fay, the novel’s heroine struggles between her need to control and defend a past she feels is under attack and her intimation that her family’s life and values can’t truly be honored by such methods. The narrator also tells us that Laurel seeks to be “pardoned and freed” (OD 179)—but why, and from what? Welty’s text explicitly connects the possibility of pardon with Laurel forgiving her parents. How might we understand this tie between forgiving others and being pardoned oneself? Key tropes will figure centrally to my discussion, particularly references to burning and to binding versus releasing, both in Welty’s last novel and in a 1950s short story, “The Burning,” which offers a different take on shared themes of invasion, death, and release. In addition, Becky McKelva’s impassioned recitation on her deathbed of Southey’s poem “The Cataract of Lodore” inspired me to explore other writers in Laurel’s mother’s beloved McGuffey’s Fifth Reader, which led me to Tennyson, to “Break Break Break” (also in that anthology), and to a poem that was not there, though it’s one of Tennyson’s most famous: “The Lady of Shalott.” Researching responses to Tennyson’s parable about a woman artist—a textile artist, like Laurel McKelva Hand—I discovered a fascinating painting interpreting Tennyson by the English Pre-Raphaelite figure William Holman Hunt. I reproduce and discuss that painting below, to make the case that references to women artists and mirrors in Hunt’s painting and Tennyson’s poem can be useful lenses for readers of Welty. These sources give us a new twist on the Perseus story of mirrors, Medusa, and mimesis that so fascinated the author of The Golden Apples.


American literature, southern studies, history and memory, twentieth century literature, memory studies, American Civil War, pre-Raphaelite painting, feminist literary theory, gender studies, Tennyson, William Holman Hunt, Eudora Welty