Carl Rosen on the repetition of optimism in Richard Ford’s “The Optimist”

Richard Ford’s “The Optimists” is a narrative based on the retelling of a pivotal event in the story’s protagonist’s life. The protagonist is the narrator and he retells a story about his youth as an adult. I’d like to focus on three techniques presented in the story that all add up to equal one major technique that is explored throughout: Ford uses repetition, the title of the story, and Calvino’s “quickness” to emphasize the character reversal of each of the protagonist’s family members in “The Optimists.” Despite there being three different methods under observation, I will be weaving all three of them together throughout this essay, because in reality they all do the same thing, but just have different names. The focus will be how the mother, father, and protagonist begin the story with how they end.

Ford begins with introducing the narrator as an adult and prefacing the story with, “All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back” (279). In this excerpt we are presented with a mode of foreshadowing to let the reader know what they are getting into. It is at this juncture where I would like to introduce Calvino’s principle of quickness in fiction. Throughout the story, Ford only tells explosive events of progression, which come to define the story’s protagonist, but what’s important is what he leaves out. He doesn’t mention what happens when the protagonist goes to the Army, or any events in between one dreadful evening and the resurgence of the mother into the protagonists’ adult life at the end of the story. All events in-between, though, aren’t explored or mentioned. The focus of the author is to bounce in-between the specific night and the protagonists’ adult presence as a narrator. This bouncing back and forth between two specific times gives the story Calvino’s sense of quickness, because time becomes complicated and, at times, nonexistent in the fiction. It is almost as if time has no sense of place, because the story is a retelling, and the story isn’t finished yet. Calvino describes the legend of Charlemagne and a magical ring in his chapter on quickness, but in Ford’s story it is the presence of the narration, which acts as an object similar to the magical ring that captivates the reader and manipulates them as such. The narration can take the reader to any time and any place, and hold the complete power of the story. What becomes even more complicated is whether or not the reader can trust this narrator?

The next technique combines the other two aforementioned in this essay: the title and repetition. The title “The Optimists” alludes to the narrator’s family being optimistic before the night described in the text, and not so much thereafter. There are several instances where optimism and naïveté become blatantly obvious for an effect of repetition, as well as making the title a motif throughout. One example of this repetition of optimistic statements is when the family bails the father out from prison after he just killed a man with a single punch in front of them. On the car ride home the father says, “’I want us to be happy here now,’ my father said. ‘I want us to enjoy life. I don’t hold anything against anybody. Do you believe that?’ ‘I believe that,’ I said” (286). Here we saw how optimistic the narrator once was, and we even see how fool-heartedly optimistic the father is. And what eventually happens is that the father goes to jail, becomes divorced, and is never heard from again; the son disappears from his family and goes into the Army; and the mother becomes a divorcee and clings onto other men for support. Every character has a quote or moment in the story that is naive and unfounded, and then every character ends up relatively hopeless, which then brings us back to the title: These people truly were “Optimists.” They were a family of previously optimistic people, who essentially have their worldview shattered by one night of harsh reality, and Ford shows this by using three techniques that highlight what’s really going on in this retelling.

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