Gail Godwin’s two volumes of short stories have received little critical attention in spite of the fact that they anticipate many of the themes Godwin explores in her novels. One such overarching theme, for example, is the relationship between men and women, especially in marriage. Many stories in Dream Children, as in Godwin’s early novels The Perfectionist and Glass People, explore the nature of women’s subordination to men and the various strategies the women adopt to subvert it. There is a prevailing note of dissatisfaction, quest, rebellion, escape, and revenge, often frustrated revenge.
Unlike the realism of Godwin’s early novels, however, Dream Children contains experiments with form (especially in “Notes for a Story”) and explores elements of fantasy and the supernatural, including the nonrational dream world and how that impinges on everyday reality. In the title story, for example, a woman whose child was stillborn has a series of strange nocturnal “spirit” meetings with a child who, as a newborn, was briefly and mistakenly presented to her as her own baby. Sometimes the fantasy elements take on a dark coloring, but these are balanced by stories (“An Intermediate Stop,” “The Woman Who Kept Her Poet”) that hint cryptically and obliquely at mystical, spiritual moments of realization.
There is a shift in Godwin’s second collection, Mr. Bedford and the Muses. Almost all the protagonists are writers, people whose lives center on the workings of the creative mind, and these stories tend to reflect a more optimistic perspective. The characters find greater possibilities for personal freedom and wholeness, even given the strange twists and turns that life takes—for example, a father whose young wife leaves him for his own son still finds a moment of perfection in his music; a young novelist falls in love with a woman more than twenty years his senior because he cannot help but see her as young. More fully developed and satisfying than many of the somewhat sketchy stories in Dream Children, this collection shows Godwin’s mastery of the form.
“Nobody’s Home” expresses a highly critical view of marriage that was typical of feminist writers of the 1970’s. The story explores the frustration of a lonely, middle-aged, middle-class woman trapped in a tedious marriage and her plan to escape. Mrs. Wakeley decides to leave her husband without explanation and rent an apartment directly opposite their house. It is as if she is an actress in a play she has come to loathe, and she wishes to remove herself from it and then observe the play run into chaos without her. This is the sublimated desire for revenge of a timid, weak-willed woman; Mrs. Wakeley’s courage falters at the practical details. How will she open a bank account or get a Social Security card under her new alias of Clara Jones? How will she find a job knowing nothing about the world of work? She concludes she is not fully a person in her own right.
When her husband returns home in the evening, she finds herself diminished even further by his mere presence, although she cannot explain why. The narrator emphasizes the distance between husband and wife that lies behind the polite surfaces. The...
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