The Good Husband

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE GOOD HUSBAND is a darker novel than many of Gail Godwin’s earlier works, primarily because she uses death and other forms of loss to illustrate the main points of the novel. Told primarily from the points of view of the four main characters—Magda Danvers, Francis Lake, Alice Henry, and Hugo Henry—the novel illustrates the pain and finally the relief that each character feels at having faced his or her worst nightmare.

For Magda Danvers, a scholar of visionary poets, her Gargoyle, as she so names it, is ovarian cancer that slowly destroys her body as the novel progresses. While she dies, Magda studies her life, ultimately realizing that nothing survives death, not even her own brilliant mind. Magda’s husband, Francis Lake, must learn to live without his beloved wife, an idea unimaginable to him before she becomes ill. After her death, Francis finds himself growing stronger and learning more about himself, ironic given his passivity in his marriage. Thus, her death serves as a chance for his growth as he embarks on a new relationship with Alice Henry.

Alice Henry’s emotional crisis begins with the stillborn birth of her first child, a tragedy that widens an already unbridgeable chasm in her marriage to Hugo Henry. By becoming involved with Magda during her illness, Alice is able to get beyond hew own grief as she helps Magda and Francis in theirs. Eventually, Alice gains the strength to acknowledge the death of her marriage, to continue with her career, and to feel genuine love for the first time with Francis. Her husband Hugo, a novelist, finds that he cannot write anymore. During the course of the novel he learns to let go of Alice so that they can both be happier. In doing so, Hugo finds that he is able to write once more.

Although THE GOOD HUSBAND has moments where Godwin’s considerable novelistic skills emerge, the novel is substantially marred by her often heavy-handed attempts to guide the reader through interpretations, resulting in sketchy characterization and weak plot structure.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. August 28, 1994, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Century. CXI, November 16, 1994, p. 1088.

Los Angeles Times. September 8, 1994, p. E7.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 4, 1994, p. 5.

Time. CXLIV, September 26, 1994, p. 82.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 4, 1994, p. 22.

The Washington Post. September 16, 1994, p. F2.

The Good Husband

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Gail Godwin’s novels tend to explore the fabric of relationships—particularly the peculiar give-and-take between two people that sustains love, remakes personalities, and lifts individuals out of isolation. In her early novels, particularly The Odd Woman (1974) and Violet Clay (1978), Godwin probes the consciousness of a single female protagonist who struggles to maintain some autonomy within a potentially damaging relationship. Similar themes appear in A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) and A Southern Family (1987), Godwin’s more expansive novels of the 1980’s. Their characters, mostly women, search for personal freedom within the larger context of a family. By utilizing multiple points of view, Godwin can demonstrate the effects of her characters’ choices on others and explore tangential themes of how environment, family, and social milieu influence one’s choices. Godwin returns to exploring a single consciousness in Father Melancholy’s Daughter (1991), but with a new psychological probing of the protagonist’s struggle for autonomy as she searches for her mother.

In The Good Husband, Godwin continues to write in this intense psychological vein. In many stylistic ways, the novel is typical of Godwin’s earlier work: The main characters are, for the most part, carefully constructed with exacting and evocative detail, and part of the plot concerns relationships and the making of a good marriage. Yet this novel reaches beyond Godwin’s usual concerns. With potent illustrations of death and other forms of loss, Godwin forces the reader to consider large issues in a much more direct and, unfortunately, obvious manner than in her earlier novels. Her heavy-handed attempt to project multiple meanings on the slightest of actions further flaws the text, creating in the process some less than realized characters and unbelievable plot developments.

Structurally, The Good Husband is divided between the consciousnesses of its four main characters—Magda Danvers, Francis Lake, Hugo Henry, and Alice Henry. There are minor players in this novel—a college president and his political wife, a wealthy benefactress, the stoned daughter of a famous critic—but they offer only slight commentary on the major events. One consciousness generally rules a given chapter, but the four main characters’ lives become so intricately intertwined that eventually their voices are separated only by breaks within chapters. Each of the four faces a major crisis and must come to terms with his or her individual Gargoyle, the name Magda gives to her cancer.

For Magda Danvers, a professor of English at Aurelia College and noted scholar of visionary poets, the crisis is immediate and impassable—she is dying of ovarian cancer. Electing to forgo chemotherapy, she opts to study her life rather than her disease. Her sections of the novel are a crosshatch of reminiscences, ramblings, and graphic descriptions of how cancer ravages a body. As the cancer destroys her body, Magda occupies herself with her favorite pastime: determining the motivations and multiple meanings of everyone’s actions—past, present, and future—using symbols from the works of the great poets. She reads all actions like a Talmudic scholar, believing that every action, planned or unplanned, displays several meanings at once. As long as she believes that all things have significance, she can exist happily, even though she is dying. Out of this quixotic spiritual quest comes one of the central points of the novel: The mind, even the brilliant mind, cannot survive death. All actions, understood or misunderstood, lack relevance in the end. Perhaps these truths are passé, but Godwin forces the reader to look hard at what death really does to the body, a truth well beyond the abstract notions of dying that Magda’s mind offers at the onset of her disease.

Unfortunately, Godwin works too hard at the symbology that Magda proposes is prevalent in life, and the multiple layering is often too obvious. For example, Magda wears all black when she goes to speak at the seminary where Francis meets her. He thinks that she looks like a nun, and she is a type of nun of the academy, putting all of her power into the creation of her academic work. By marrying her, Francis releases her from this type of life, but as a consequence, her work is never the same. Another equally obvious moment occurs when Alice dreams of her brother and hears Francis’ voice saying, “They were meant to be together, but they got separated . . .” The conspicuous association here of Francis with Alice’s beloved dead brother, Andy, forces the reader to notice Alice’s developing attachment to Francis. Godwin has...

(The entire section is 1937 words.)

The Good Husband Ideas for Group Discussions

The novel's major themes — death, creativity, marriage and relationships — are mysteries that no one can fully explain. To the author's...

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The Good Husband Social Concerns

As The Good Husband opens, Magda Danvers has just learned that her ovarian cancer is incurable. Magda, a brilliant scholar who has...

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The Good Husband Techniques / Literary Precedents

The book's style is not unusual or showy. Many short flashbacks and information-summary passages are sprinkled through it, but they blend...

(The entire section is 157 words.)