Gail Godwin’s novels all explore the basic human conflict between the needs and the demands of others and the needs and the demands of the self. In her early works, such as The Odd Woman (1974) and Violet Clay (1978), Godwin focused on a single protagonist torn between art and love, or at least the psychological and physical dependence that is often called love. In the 1980’s, Godwin’s works became more complex, involving more major characters and more complicated situations. For example, as the title suggests, A Southern Family (1987) traced the entangled lives of a number of characters, each of whom had a different interpretation of the motives of the others and of the dynamics of the family. In Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Godwin returns to a single first-person narrator. However, by having that narrator seek the truth from a number of different people, Godwin achieves that same complexity as she did in A Southern Family, once again having several characters tell their stories from their own perspectives and leaving the reader to make the final interpretation.
The search for truth that is undertaken by the narrator, Margaret Gower, is the primary action of the novel. Indeed, it is clear that until she can come to an understanding of her parents’ actions, she will be unable to proceed with her own life. As Margaret points out in the first chapter of the novel, her childhood ended one day when she was just six years old. That was the day she came home from school to find that her mother, Ruth Beauchamp Gower, had left without a word of explanation to her daughter. Margaret was never to see her mother again; Ruth was killed in an automobile accident nine months later.
During the next sixteen years, Margaret takes care of her father, a kind and unassuming Episcopal priest, whose periodic bouts with depression account for the reference to him as “Father Melancholy” in the title of the book. Before her mother’s departure, Margaret had had a fantasy in which she penetrated the dark place where her father periodically languished, without the will to return to the world, and guided him back to the world and his daughter. Later, when she reflects on this fantasy, Margaret realizes that her replacement of Ruth in her father’s life could be seen as a wish-fulfillment; however, whatever the psychological implications, on a practical level, Margaret really has no choice. It is not that Walter insists upon her devoting herself to him; he is more than willing to marry again. Unfortunately, the woman both he and Margaret have chosen forestalls his proposal by announcing her decision to enter a religious order. After that, Walter and Margaret drift into a comfortable companionship, which gives stability to both of them and enables Walter to function effectively as a priest.
What neither Walter nor Margaret realizes is that their interdependence prevents her from maturing in the normal pattern and becoming a separate person with a separate life. When Margaret goes to college in nearby Charlottesville, she is still so closely attuned to her father’s moods that a telephone call from him suggesting the onset of depression will make her cancel all of her plans and hurry home. Even Margaret’s relationships with men of her own generation are subordinated to her relationship with her father. She will not commit herself emotionally to her childhood friend Ben MacGruder but merely indulges herself sexually with him. When Margaret does fall in love, the object of her affections is another sensitive and wounded priest, her father’s disciple, who could easily have joined their household, thus giving Margaret an added responsibility and an additional reason to avoid discovering her own identity. As it happens, the priest does not wish to marry. At any rate, it is not until after her father’s sudden death that Margaret realizes she can and must decide about the direction of her own life.
Before she can move on, however, Margaret must come to understand her mother, the woman who took her freedom at the expense of a husband and young child. For sixteen years, Margaret has puzzled over accounts of mothers who abandoned their children, often for lovers, sometimes for death. Even though her father insists that there was no sexual dimension in Ruth’s relationship with Madelyn Farley, Margaret has always concluded her deliberations by blaming Madelyn for Ruth’s decision. Margaret remembers Madelyn’s contempt for Walter, for his values and for his kind of life; she cannot help believing that somehow Madelyn seduced Ruth into sharing her vision and then reacting by taking flight. At any rate, Margaret believes that she cannot progress with her own new, independent life until she knows why her mother chose to become free by leaving those two people who loved her so much.
Ironically, it is Madelyn, seemingly her enemy, who can give Margaret the answer. Responding to a bitter message that Margaret has left on her answering machine, Madelyn arrives in Romulus with the explanations that Margaret so desperately needs. Like many women of the 1970’s, Madelyn says, Ruth felt trapped and thought that she wanted to be free. Madelyn’s visit simply precipitated Ruth’s escape from her life. However, Madelyn explains, again like many women of her generation, Ruth lacked the intellectual and psychological preparation for an independent life, either as an...
(The entire section is 2212 words.)