Godwin, Gail (Vol. 22)
Gail Godwin 1937–
American novelist and short story writer.
Godwin is frequently categorized as a feminist writer. However, although her protagonists are women making decisions about their identities, her themes are broader, her characterizations more complex, and her prose more elegant than those in the conventional feminist novel. The Odd Woman, generally considered her most successful novel, concerns the relationship of life and literature, the past to the present.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6: American Novelists since World War II.)
Joyce Carol Oates
"The Perfectionists," an engrossing and mysterious first novel, is a perfectly structured story, with chapters that follow one another logically, characters that are recognizably human and with whom we can "identify"; the narrative movement that contains the several meager—but awful—events of the novel's two weeks is conventional, traditional, even classic. A reader knows where he is going with these people—or thinks he knows—and so, when the novel comes to an abrupt end, when the final vision is set before him, the sense of mystery he comes away with is all the more haunting because there does not seem anything hidden, anything that might explain the several doomed "perfectionists."
Along with being nicely readable in form and style, "The Perfectionists" is also something of a suspense story. Its main characters are locked in a bizarre triangle: a young wife, her husband and his illegitimate child, a little boy named Robin. The wife, Dane, is newly married and unsure of her husband, herself, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of life—she questions everything, constantly, an unhappy woman whose intelligence vies with her dark, inert, pessimistic vision of life, at such variance with the dynamic role her husband expects her to play in their "perfect" marriage…. Like one of those restless, nervous, unappeasable women in the fiction of Doris Lessing, Dane is heroic in her very misery. "Oh God, I don't want to be ordinary,"...
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[The Perfectionists is] too good, too clever, and too finished a product to be patronized as a "first novel." It deserves better: it deserves criticism. And that is what I will try to give it.
The Perfectionists is a novel of domestic life or, more accurately, of sexual partnership…. The relationship between husband and wife … is the central concern of the novel, and it is developed with a satiric and symbolic vigor that suggests a combination of Jane Austen and D. H. Lawrence. The eerie tension that marks this complex relationship is the great achievement of the novel. It is an extraordinary accomplishment, which is bound to attract and hold many readers.
This central situation is enriched by a number of other relationships that form a background to it and make a commentary upon it. (pp. 37-8)
My principal criticism of these proceedings has to do with the resolute femininity with which they are presented…. The women in this novel are, all of them, more or less interesting, more or less sympathetic. The men, starting with the [husband] … are all fatuous and self-centered creatures.
This is, then, a woman's novel in a narrow and constricting way. I suspect that Miss Godwin can extend the range of both her sympathy and her satire. I hope that she will want to. From Jane Austen to Iris Murdoch, the great women of our fiction have been metaphysically female and not...
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[Gail Godwin seems] to be racked by an irresistible impulse to be (or to seem) clever. Yet [she] is an excellent, indeed exciting writer…. The undeniable voice in each of her fifteen stories in Dream Children is a different exercise in design and execution. These are excellently thought out, worked out stories. Here the banal heart of the matter is at once adroitly concealed and then transformed by being costumed in the trappings of contemporary "experimental" fiction. That is meant in highest praise. Writers can learn from Gail Godwin. Again and again she turns a sow's ear into a really delightful silk purse. (p. 108)
George Garrett, "Fables and Fabliaux of Our Time," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXV, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 104-10.∗
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A hundred years from now, the current outpouring of feminist-inspired fiction will be of interest chiefly to social historians, who will wonder how we could have been so backward as to need so much instruction, and to our great-grandchildren, who will find the books in the attic and wonder how we could have enjoyed reading 20 or 30 books a year all having the same plot. If one of these novels is still being read for pleasure and enlightenment, though, I think it will be Gail Godwin's "The Odd Woman."…
"The Odd Woman" is an extraordinary book—generously imagined, complex, wise. Its half-liberated heroine, who combines dedication to a scholarly career with a set of fantasies straight out of Gothic romance, is engaging and intelligent, that rare feminist protagonist who is not a glamorized version of the author. Although many feminist novels accept at face value the heroine's professed wish for romantic happiness—her incredibly poor judgment of men is a plot device, not an aspect of character—"The Odd Woman" explores with great sensitivity the ambivalent feelings that lie beneath a habit of unsatisfactory relationships; it asks not "Why are men awful?" but "Why is intimacy so frightening?" At the heart of the book is an awareness of human loneliness—something unusual in a genre that may glorify the single life but rarely allows its heroines to remain unescorted for long.
Since the publication of "The Odd Woman"...
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Violet [of Violet Clay] can be a droll, wry woman. Such characters are not easy to write, but one would follow them almost anywhere….
Godwin has rigid plans in mind for Violet Clay that have much to do with new salvations and new starts. They turn out disappointingly schematic and nearly as predictable as the plot of a Gothic novel. Violet has come to New York City [to become a successful painter]….
There may be a writer somewhere who can freshen up the Southern cad as a character, but it is a grim task and depressing to watch Godwin try and fail. Ambrose [Violet's uncle, a frustrated writer,] takes up a great deal of Violet Clay and manages to throw it badly off balance…. Godwin herself is too much in love with Ambrose. On the day that Violet loses her job …, Ambrose kills himself in a cabin in the Adirondacks. Godwin's scheme is apparently to make that shock a turning point for Violet, who has become a mere illustrator, had the obligatory dreary love affairs, and begun to drink heavily.
Violet's redemption is clearly forecast….
Violet decides to stay on in the cabin [Ambrose] had rented and begin painting again. Her companions are a cheerful, eccentric old landlady and a fierce creature named Sam (Samantha) who is the local carpenter….
Samantha's thick gloom can be traced to the fact that she was gang-raped as a young woman. Hers should...
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None of [Violet Clay's] characters has been translated by Godwin's imagination into credibility. They speak to each other in prolix and tendentious conversations, so unedited by personality that they are droll; especially those between Violet and Milo, a neuter personage of such excruciating unreality that he makes one long for a Milton Berle female impersonation, just to get one's bearings back. When Uncle Ambrose commits suicide, Violet takes over his cabin in the Adirondacks, and makes the leap back to nature de rigueur for ladies of the late 1970s attempting to establish independent careers. In the woods, for reasons never made clear, she finds meaning and inspiration in the example of the sinewy young woman next door, whom I suspect, though I hope I am wrong, of standing for the Woman of the Future. This person's name is, of course, Sam, and she has, of course, survived triumphantly a history of rape and incest intended to jar, as it does, against the heroine's own self-indulgent progress as patrician frivolity meets lumpen-squalor.
Well, to be fair, a lot of this is the fault of bad writing, an inability to describe exactly or to transcribe the sound of different voices into anything resembling living language…. [For instance,] Violet comforts herself, "humorously" yet, with this stunning sentence: "'Well at least … I'm not in the middle of South Dakota with nothing but the clothes on my back and a trio...
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[Godwin's] pleasingly deft novel [Violet Clay] about a young illustrator's overdue appointment with herself has poise and ironic depth. Godwin's unsentimental and observant style is well suited to her likeable heroine's plight. Violet Clay puts her troubles, past and present, out of her thoughts by putting them into her work. She draws endless illustrations of fugitive maidens for the covers of innumerable gothic novels while cherishing thoughts of the day she will become a serious artist. A triple-decker custard pie from above forces a sharp review of her career, and the novel soon has her facing up to some cool facts about her men, her work and the spectres in her past. It's all managed by a crisp prose that never lets the dialogue down. Godwin populates her fiction with some discernment; her characters don't assume that the upsets in their psyches are going to matter much to anyone else. Domestic rows culminate refreshingly in a recognition that, while fiction can be clichéd, life never is. (p. 220)
Zahir Jamal, "Pressed Men," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2474, August 18, 1978, pp. 219-20.∗
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[In The Odd Woman Gail Godwin] examined with intelligence and wit the question of how an attractive, single, professional woman achieves a sense of purpose and integrity in a life style that is not altogether willed. Violet Clay extends those themes adroitly, as Godwin poses the relationship between independence and talent….
What makes Violet's own progress so absorbing is that the novel opens into an inner detective story: what led to Ambrose's disillusionment and ultimate defeat? Violet pieces together the circumstances of his life, slowly determining the lesson in it for herself as she confronts her own inner demons and illusions—her fears of failure and of total dedication to uncertain artistic potentialities….
In examining the deeper anxieties accompanying the pursuit of any true vocation, Godwin gives an artful if occasionally cerebral portrait of the difficult route toward autonomy. The story of Violet's growth as a painter resonates for any person concerned with the balances between security and risk, between the limits and the inspiration of one's deepest dreams; between settling for too little and demanding too much of oneself. (p. 56)
Roberta Rubenstein, "Adventures in Self-Discovery," in The Progressive (reprinted by permission from The Progressive, 408 West Gorham Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53703; copyright 1978 by The Progressive,...
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Karen C. Gaston
For those of us who are unwilling to abandon our childhood love of fairy tales, Gail Godwin offers an adult transformation in [Glass People]…. Using the framework of "Beauty and the Beast" and stressing the growing awareness of her heroine, Godwin gives us a new look at Beauty's problem. (p. 94)
Claiming it to be among the happiest of all tales, [Bruno] Bettelheim interprets the [fairy tale] as being about Beauty's discovery of mature love for Beast through a transference of her oedipal love. While I do not dispute his conclusion, his general interpretation overlooks some highly unsatisfactory elements in the relationship, especially for Beauty. First, their liaison, initiated by fear and guilt, is voluntary in the most limited sense…. More importantly, Beast's love for Beauty is based on worship of her physical gifts; indeed, it is not merely the basis but the substance of his love. Consequently, his love for her is one-dimensional, predicated on his perception and his desires alone…. Beast's failure to recognize Beauty's human needs reflects the fundamental problem of his love, a denial of Beauty's humanity…. Beauty obviously completes Beast's world while he is supposed to constitute the whole of hers. (p. 95)
Beauty [in Glass People] becomes Francesca Fox Bolt, a drowsy product of over- and self-indulgence. Beauty's father, after a lingering and expensive death, leaves sufficient money for his...
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[Gail Godwin has] been especially interested in the woman alone. The lovers and husbands of [her] heroines clearly play a secondary role, not in the trivialized mode of narcissistic fantasies or underdeveloped characters (to the contrary, these men are finely delineated), but as particular figures among many in the difficult lives of struggling women. Godwin, impressively intelligent and sensitive, has become skilled in embedding her exploration of female imprisonments in plot and incident, rather than in didactic monologues. Socially aware rather than socially committed, she has taken honest work, craft held-true-to as her focus. But she has managed to avoid replaying the male story in female dress, just as she has never dodged the special social and psychological impediments to female work. If The Odd Woman explicitly allies itself with Gissing and a late nineteenth-century critical-realist tradition, her Violet Clay evokes the legacy of Southern femininity—the lady—and the malleability of female nature. Her heroines' mothers, fathers, lovers, and friends all fit into the complex tapestry of their social and psychological being. But, as Godwin herself knows, the model of autonomous individualism is precarious in the modern world. One can sympathize with her commitment—what better model have we than honest work, individual responsibility, and kindness?—and yet wonder how much, without some broader social context, it remains an act...
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