Mary Gordon Essay - Critical Essays

Mary Gordon American Literature Analysis

To categorize Gordon as simply an American Irish Catholic novelist is too narrow. She is also a feminist, a lyrical realist, an astute diagnostician of human relationships, and a brilliant prose stylist. Yet her ethnic and religious heritage figures prominently in her fiction as both source and subject.

Just as Gordon addresses her own background in much of her fiction, so all of her major characters try to come to terms with their pasts. Concern with one’s past, especially one’s childhood, has been a salient feature of Western literature and society at least since the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, this concern was closely connected with the predominant schools of modern psychology, particularly the Freudian. Mary Gordon is rare among modern novelists in that she does not embed her explorations of human life in psychological theory at the expense of its spiritual and theological dimensions. Indeed, Scripture, rather than psychological theory, is frequently her reference point.

Gordon does not equate art, including the art of fiction, with religion or even with morality. She has written:An experience to be properly religious must include three things: an ethical component, the possibility of full participation by the entire human community and acknowledgment of the existence of a life beyond the human. Art need do none of these things, although it may.

These three dimensions of religious experience emerge as implicit or explicit concerns in all of Gordon’s novels.

The strongest ethical component in her works is their close examination of human love. She has commented that “love is the source of any moral vision that’s worth anything.” She effectively dramatizes the dynamics of love between friends and between parents and children, as well as the challenges posed by those people who are apparently unlovable. She has been criticized for delineating romantic and marital relationships sketchily in her first three novels, but the marriage of Ellen and Vincent MacNamara in The Other Side is presented vividly and in depth.

Gordon’s depiction of communities is a natural extension of her treatments of individual relationships. The Company of Women and The Other Side are especially remarkable as detailed and realistic examinations of the ways in which communities succeed or fail and of their influence upon children. Gordon pays particular attention to figures who attempt to dominate their communities—Father Cyprian and Robert Cavendish in The Company of Women, for example, and Ellen MacNamara in The Other Side. The religious ideal of “full participation by the entire human community” remains largely unrealized in Gordon’s novels, as their characters typically endeavor to protect their identities by excluding others. This ideal of full participation is always implicit, however, and is frequently dreamed of by Gordon’s characters.

Most of Gordon’s major characters acknowledge the existence or at least ponder seriously the possibility of a life beyond the human. Those characters, raised as traditional Catholics, struggle with questions that are closely related to faith in a supreme being. How best can one know God? Who or what is authoritative, in a world where the authority of the Church is weakened or absent? Part of Gordon’s project as a novelist is, it seems, to dramatize individuals in the context of their subjectivity. Consequently, one narrative convention that she consistently avoids is that of the omniscient narrator who speaks in a morally normative voice. Instead, she has the reader listen to her characters’ first-person voices or to their interior monologues as they strive to see life steadily and wholly, while limited in their vision by ideological, psychological, or circumstantial blinders.

Gordon’s prose style, in its solidity of physical detail, its abundance of metaphors and similes, militates constantly against what she has called the “twin dangers of the religious life,” dualism and abstractionism. One thinks, for example, of the wealth of detail about Catholic schooling in the first two novels and about Vincent MacNamara’s work on the New York subways in The Other Side. The fact that Gordon’s most engaging characters tend to be witty reveals a lively appreciation of life in the physical human world. In Final Payments, for example, Liz assesses Isabel Moore’s disastrous hairstyle thus: “Who did your hair? Annette Funicello?” Isabel reflects, “It was a miracle to me, the solidity of that joke. Even the cutting edge of it was a miracle. And our laughter was solid. It stirred the air and hung above us like rings of bone that shivered in the cold, gradual morning.”

In her fiction, Gordon strives to find images to render “the highest possible justice to the visible world.” She is eager, she says, “to get the right rhythm for the inner life, and the combination of image and rhythm to pin down an internal state is terribly important to me. At least as important as any sort of moral report of the world.”

Final Payments

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

A young woman comes to terms with her past after the death of her father, an invalid whom she nursed for eleven years.

Final Payments begins and ends with its central character and narrator, Isabel Moore, contemplating the death of her father. For eleven years before his death, she cared for him in his illness. Now, at age thirty, she is determined to invent a life for herself. Before she can embrace life fully, however, Isabel must learn to acknowledge and accept the risks it poses and must come to terms with the legacy she has inherited.

This legacy is cultural, philosophical, emotional, and material. Isabel was raised in a conservative Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Queens, New York. Motherless from age two, she spent her childhood intensely influenced by her father, Joe Moore, a brilliant and opinionated professor vehement in his traditional Catholicism, and by Margaret Casey, their unattractive, life-denying housekeeper, whose jealous devotion to Isabel’s father was as strong as her dislike and disapproval of Isabel, who came to return such feelings. Isabel’s intelligence, wit, elegance, and even her disdain for housework were cultivated in calculated opposition to Margaret’s ways.

Behind Joe Moore’s authority stood the authority of the Church and its educational system, from which Isabel inherited her intellectual legacy. Entailed in this legacy are a respect for authority and a valuing of love as synonymous with life. Isabel learned to love her father in part because he was so certain he was right. Such authority, however, breeds rebellion and courts betrayal. At nineteen, Isabel betrayed her father by having an affair with David Lowe, his favorite student. Three weeks after finding the couple in bed together, Joe Moore suffered a stroke, and for the following eleven years Isabel lived a life of expiation, nursing him and keeping house.

Isabel knew that she had violated the moral standards of both her father and the Church. She comes to confront the conflicts that arise between otherworldly spiritual imperatives and earthly needs. Isabel is perplexed by her desire for pleasure. Is pleasure a good? If not, why does it exist? Is it something for which one must always pay in the end? Isabel has been taught that love is self-sacrifice and that it is the key to identity. How, then, can one live, if the only way to have an identity is to sacrifice one’s very being? Throughout the novel, Isabel contemplates Jesus’s paradoxical dictum that one must lose one’s life in order to save it.

Her father’s death leaves Isabel free but stunned and confused. She is as yet unable to acknowledge the full import of losing him, and at his funeral she does not weep. The middle chapters of Final Payments chronicle her first attempts to move forward. She is aided by two women friends, Eleanor and Liz, whose love and support contrast significantly with Joe Moore’s unbearable emotional demands. Isabel buys new clothes, sells the house she inherited, sets up her own apartment, and secures a job investigating home health care for the elderly. She reflects constantly about the needs of the people with whom she works.

In most of her relationships, Isabel has felt cheated in the act of giving and guilty in the act of getting. Her years of nursing her father left her feeling that she had given up her life for him. Her guilt-inducing relationship with David Lowe is repeated in kind after her father’s death. First she humiliates herself by having sex with Liz’s husband. After Liz forgives her, Isabel proceeds to fall in love with a married man, Hugh Slade. When Hugh’s wife finds out about the affair and confronts her, the guilt-ridden Isabel embarks upon yet another course of expiation.

Isabel chooses the life of a martyr, believing that it will be her salvation. She goes to live with Margaret Casey, devoting herself to the one person she is least capable of loving. She suffers Margaret’s insults and ingratitude; she sacrifices her own beauty by overeating and gaining an enormous amount of weight and by acquiescing to Margaret’s malicious suggestion that she get her beautiful long hair cut and styled unattractively. Depressed, she spends most of her time sleeping. At this low point, Isabel is aided by what is best in her past: her friends and her Catholic habits of mind. Her old friend Father Mulcahy warns her that she is sinning by killing herself slowly. Clearly, losing one’s life in order to find it is not to be equated with destroying oneself, body and spirit.

The import of her own self-destructiveness comes to Isabel in a way that is full of saving ironies. Jealous about Isabel’s visit from Father Mulcahy, Margaret insinuates that Isabel has been behaving improperly with the priest. In the raging quarrel that ensues, Isabel is reminded of a Gospel passage: “The poor you have always with you: but me you have not always.” She interprets these words of Jesus as meaning that the pleasures of life must be taken, because death will deprive a person of them soon enough. She realizes that she has been trying to second-guess death, to give up all she loves so that she will never lose it. On Good Friday, she comes to acknowledge in Christ’ death the mortality of everyone she has loved. Only now is she able to weep for her father. She realizes that “the greatest love meant only, finally, the greatest danger.” In accepting the danger of loss, Isabel affirms life and love.

Isabel then makes her final payment to her past, losing her old life to find renewal in relinquishing her material legacy. She gives Margaret a check for twenty thousand dollars, the money she received from the sale of her father’s house. She rejects strict orthodoxy and returns to her friends. In doing so she preserves the spiritual core of her past; from her Catholic legacy there emerges a Christian redemption.

The Company of Women

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A girl raised by a company of Catholic women and their spiritual adviser searches for “ordinary human happiness.”

The New York Catholic upbringing of Felicitas Taylor, the central character in The Company of Women, is in one respect a near photographic negative of that of Isabel Moore in Final Payments. While Isabel was motherless and raised by her widowed father, Felicitas’s father is dead, and she has not only a mother but three godmothers as well. Each of these four women has been independent of a husband for many years. The practical and wise Charlotte Taylor has worked as a secretary to support Felicitas ever since her husband’s death, just six months after Felicitas was born. Good-humored Mary Rose is a motion-picture theater usher, whose husband has been confined for thirty years to an insane asylum. Clare, an elegant, independent-minded woman, manages a Manhattan leather-goods store. Elizabeth, fragile and impractical, is a schoolteacher, full of imagination and a love for poetry. Hovering in the shadows, never really one of this company of women, is Muriel, who is reminiscent of both the bitter uninvited godmother in “Sleeping Beauty” and the jealous housekeeper, Margaret Casey, in Final Payments. These women came to know one another through Father Cyprian, a conservative Catholic priest, whose retreats for working women they attended during the late 1930’s. Father Cyprian is like Joe Moore in Final Payments in his respect for the Church, his anger at modern society, and his role as an authority figure over the women in his life.

Part 1 of the novel is set in 1963. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of these various characters. Love, community, and continuity between generations are crucial themes. Felicitas is the central focus of concern; at fourteen, she is seen by Father Cyprian and the company of women as their hope for the future. Father Cyprian makes her his protégée, teaching her theology , as well as skills such as carpentry, which one would not expect a...

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