The Optimist's Daughter

Main characters

Laurel Hand

Laurel is Judge McKelva’s daughter, who is an only child. She is a widow having once been married to a man named Phil Hand. After his death, Laurel returned to her parents’ home because of her mother’s sickness, before returning to Chicago, only to be brought back by her father’s condition which is where the events in the novel begin. In the story Laurel and Fay have many arguments because of Fay’s rude personality. After her father’s death, the funeral, and Fay’s unexpected vacation, Laurel returns to her childhood home. There she reminisces about past memories, including those of her parents, and her fear of birds, before she comes to her epiphany about life.

Fay McKelva

Fay is Judge McKelva’s second wife, therefore Laurel’s stepmother. Judge McKelva met her at the Southern Bar Association at the old Gulf Coast hotel where Fay had a part-time job at the time. Fay is younger than Laurel. Fay’s personality is not pleasant and causes everyone in the story to see her as obnoxious, self-centered, and rude. The other characters in the novel pity her. In the course of the story, we see that Fay is also dishonest, for one in saying that all of her family is dead. This untruth comes to light when they arrive for Clint’s funeral. After the funeral, Fay makes a snap decision to return to Texas with her family for a short time before returning at the end of the novel to take possession of her new home.

Judge (Clint) McKelva

Clint McKelva is Laurel’s father. Judge McKelva is treated for an eye illness; he dies after eye surgery. He is a prominent and well-respected widower in Mount Salus, Mississippi. Ten years after the death of his wife, Becky, he marries a younger woman that he met at a Southern Bar Association conference named Wanda Fay. After his death, the home where his daughter and first wife lived out their lives is willed to Wanda Fay, and he leaves money to his daughter, Laurel, who works as a designer in Chicago.

Becky McKelva

Laurel’s mother and Clint’s first wife. She died before the events in the story occurred, but through the memories of Laurel, she plays a large role at the end of the story.

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