Mary Gordon Essay - Gordon, Mary

Gordon, Mary


Mary Gordon 1949-

(Full name Mary Catherine Gordon) American short fiction writer, novelist, memoirist, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Gordon's short fiction career from 1987 through 1997.

Mary Gordon emerged as a highly respected contemporary novelist with the enormous critical and popular success of her debut novel, Final Payments (1978). Drawing heavily upon her own Catholic upbringing, Gordon examines the problematic and often contradictory claims of universal and particular love, Christian morality, domestic responsibility, sexual desire, and emotional fulfillment in the secular world. Distinguished for her well-crafted prose and engaging evocation of cloistered Catholic lives, Gordon focuses on the private struggles of modern women whose personal needs are sacrificed to the demands of selfless care-giving, marriage, motherhood, and religious conscience. The pieces in Gordon's two short fiction collections, Temporary Shelter (1987) and The Rest of Life (1993), characteristically utilize first-person narrative voice and often take the form of contemplative internal monologues.

Biographical Information

Gordon was born on December 8, 1949, in New York and grew up on Long Island. When she was young, Gordon's father stayed home to take care of her, while her mother worked as a legal secretary to support the family. Gordon thus became very close to her father, who encouraged her intellectual development and interest in literature. Gordon's mother was of Irish-Catholic descent, while her father, of Jewish descent, converted to Catholicism as an adult. Her father embraced his new religion with fervor and expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments. Gordon attended Catholic grammar and secondary schools throughout her upbringing. As she relates in the memoir, The Shadow Man (1996), her father, who died when she was only eight years old, misinformed her about many aspects of his life. He had claimed he was born in Lorain, Ohio, his name was David, and he had attended Harvard University. While doing research on his background, however, Gordon discovered that he was actually born in Vilna, Lithuania, that his given name was Israel, and that he had dropped out of high school and never attended college. Gordon also learned that, before launching a series of pro-Catholic periodicals, her father had once written for a pornographic magazine. Gordon attended Barnard College on a scholarship, receiving her bachelor's degree in English in 1971. She went on to earn a master's degree in English and creative writing from Syracuse University in 1973. “Now I am Married” was Gordon's first short story to be published, appearing in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1974. From 1974 to 1978, she taught at Duchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1979 Gordon taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She has also taught English literature at Barnard College since 1988, and at Colombia University since 1990. Gordon married James Brain, an anthropologist, in 1974, and the two later divorced. In 1979 she married Arthur Cash, a professor of English, with whom she has two children.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gordon is recognized for her novellas and short stories in which individuals contemplate their often troubled family relationships and ambivalent attitudes toward religion, particularly Catholicism. Many of her stories find characters grappling with a lapse of faith and searching for the comforts of love, security, and meaning traditionally supplied by religion. Gordon's first short story collection, Temporary Shelter, includes some twenty stories, most of them concerned with various domestic relationships. The tension between notions of duty, security, and self-sacrifice, and those of freedom, risk, and self-interest is a central theme in Gordon's work. In “Safe,” a married woman with two children goes to visit an old admirer. During the course of her day, she contemplates the sacrifices she has made in order to have a safe life. In another story, “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year,” a man devotes himself to the misery of caring for his abusive, senile wife due to a promise he once made to her. Relationships between men and women—marital, extramarital, or otherwise—are explored in a number of the stories. These characters express intense loneliness within the context of outwardly stable marriages and family lives. “Now I am Married” is made up of five subsections, each subtitled with the name of a different woman. The first narrator, Marjorie, is an American woman married to a British man. The couple travel to England, where she is introduced to her husband's family for the first time. The following four subsections are each narrated from the perspective of one of four women Marjorie meets. In “The Other Woman,” a woman listens to her husband's story of a previous relationship with an individual whom he still considers to have been the love of his life. In “Walt,” a married woman looks back on a youthful relationship with a man who has recently reentered her life. In “Out of the Fray,” a divorced woman questions her impending marriage to a man who has been divorced three times. Other stories in Temporary Shelter concern parent-child relationships. In several of these a child is emotionally neglected due to his parents' preoccupations with their own careers and love lives. In “The Only Son of the Doctor,” a young man drops out of high school while his father gains prominence as a physician and philanthropist. The son's problems are partly a result of being overlooked by his father who has been too involved in his charitable work to attend to his own child. In “The Magician's Wife,” a woman's adoration of her eccentric husband leads to the neglect of her son. The story “Separation,” by contrast, concerns a woman's overly possessive love for her son that threatens to smother him. Other stories in Temporary Shelter present a child's perspective on family life. Three of the stories, “Delia,” “Agnes,” and “Eileen,” concern the same central character Nora, a second-generation Irish girl who has been disabled by polio and whose life is dominated by her aunts. “The Murderer Guest” is narrated from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose parents have invited a friend—a woman who killed her abusive husband in self-defense—to stay with them. A number of Gordon's works blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, often putting into question whether any given work may be considered a story, essay, or autobiography. “A Writing Lesson,” the final piece in Temporary Shelter, for example, has been categorized as both a short story and an essay. Another of her prose pieces, “The Important Houses,” was considered by Gordon herself to be a work of nonfiction—until it was chosen for the anthology Best American Short Stories, 1993, at which point she conceded to categorizing it as a work of fiction. The Rest of Life comprises three novellas focused on middle-aged and elderly women grappling with the significance of their lives. Each of the three central characters engages in a confessional, internal monologue about a love relationship. These novellas are structured episodically, emphasizing narrative voice rather than plot. The first story, “Immaculate Man,” concerns a divorced woman in her forties who works at a battered women's shelter and is having an affair with a Catholic priest. “Living at Home,” the second novella, is about a thrice-married woman who works as a doctor caring for autistic children. She has found a man with whom she would like to spend her life, but the relationship is complicated by his career as a photojournalist covering revolutions in Third World countries. In the title novella, “The Rest of Life,” a seventy-eight-year-old widow returns to her native town of Turin, Italy, which she left sixty-three years earlier. The visit brings back memories of a pivotal event in her life when she was fifteen; she and her boyfriend had agreed on a suicide pact, but she changed her mind at the last minute while he succeeded in killing himself. Her father, shamed by the scandal, sent her off to live with relatives in America and never saw her again. In recalling these events, she is faced with the challenge of making sense of the life she has lived since leaving Italy.

Critical Reception

Gordon has been celebrated as a Catholic feminist writer, known for her skillful prose, emotional honesty, complex female characters, and distinctive use of narrative voice. Critics have noted the quality of her fiction that addresses the changing role of religion in modern life. Her characters struggle with a lapsed faith while striving to find the answers to life that were traditionally resolved by religion. Reviewer Richard Teleky observed, “Gordon is … the pre-eminent American Catholic—or, more accurately, lapsed Catholic—writer of her generation. The dark night of the soul is never far from her mind.” As other scholars have noted, even Gordon's stories that do not address religion directly are infused with themes characteristic of a religious sensibility. Critic Eleanor B. Wymward commented, “Gordon's fiction is centered not on a narrowly sectarian creed or tradition, but on the essentials of Christian theology: sin, grace, incarnation and redemption.” Michael Higgins, in a review of The Rest of Life, noted, “Such Catholic concepts and themes as grace, kenosis (self-emptying), atonement, fallen humanity redeemed and the myriad forms of forgiveness and penance are to be found deftly woven into the rich canvas that is the life of each narrator.” Gordon has been further praised for her contemporarily-minded female characters. Of Gordon's females characters in The Rest of Life, commentator Trudy Bush observed, “Gordon succeeds admirably in exploring a particular kind of modern sensibility—that of the intelligent, reflective woman at mid-life who is trying to make sense of a world that is, for her, bereft of meaning.” Among Gordon's major themes are the roles of self-consciousness, memory, obsession, and regret. As critic Carolyn See commented, “The Stories in Temporary Shelter almost all involve extraordinary loneliness, and the absolutely extraordinary heroic attempts that human beings make to alleviate that condition.” Gordon's ability to create a strong first-person narrative voice has been applauded by many reviewers of her fiction. While some critics consider Gordon's eschewing of plot and emphasis on the episodic nature of fiction to be a laudable element of her contemplative style, others find her stories to be unfocused and lacking in narrative structure. Her prose has been described as finely wrought without being showy, serious without lapsing into sentimentality. Furthermore, Gordon is known for her precise, compassionate, insightful, as well as witty style.

Principal Works

Temporary Shelter 1987

The Rest of Life: Three Novellas 1993

Final Payments (novel) 1978

The Company of Women (novel) 1981

Men and Angels (novel) 1985

The Other Side (novel) 1989

Good Boys and Dead Girls: And Other Essays (essays) 1992

The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (memoir) 1996

Spending: A Utopian Divertimento (novel) 1998

Joan of Arc (biography) 2000

Seeing through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity (autobiography) 2000

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Carolyn See (review date 12 July 1987)

SOURCE: See, Carolyn. Review of Temporary Shelter, by Mary Gordon. Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 July 1987): 10.

[In the following review, See offers high praise for Temporary Shelter, lauding Gordon's craftsmanship, emotional authenticity, and inventiveness.]

Repeatedly reading works of fiction seems sometimes like going out to restaurant dinners every night. You can't afford to be evil-tempered or unduly intolerant about what you're consuming because underneath every experience is the inescapable knowledge that someone else has gone to a great deal of trouble; putting together either that bowl of Greek salad or that slice of inner life that...

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Hermione Lee (review date 17 July 1987)

SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “The Perils of Safety.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4398 (17 July 1987): 765.

[In the following review of Temporary Shelter, Lee comments that the best stories in this volume are written in a distinct voice that is both disturbing and comforting, although some are flawed by an overly solemn tone.]

Mary Gordon—a remarkable American novelist—has always written about safety, and the perils of safety. “Think of the appeal of sanctuary, the pure shelter”, says Isabel, the heroine of her first novel Final Payments (1978). She has looked after her sick father until she is thirty, in the shelter of his fierce love and faith,...

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Austin MacCurtain (review date 30 August 1987)

SOURCE: MacCurtain, Austin. “Bleak Houses.” Sunday Times (London), no. 8508 (30 August 1987): 37.

[In the following review, MacCurtain criticizes Temporary Shelter, asserting that its narratives seem contrived and poorly structured.]

“Nora remembered how they had laughed together. John and Delia were the only ones she knew who laughed like that and who were married.” Apartness, anxiety, an apprehensive sense that life is happening somewhere else and that not much of it is pleasant, informs many of the stories in Mary Gordon's Temporary Shelter. Nora, a child from whose perspective at different ages three of these stories are told, has reason to...

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Eleanor B. Wymward (essay date summer/fall 1987)

SOURCE: Wymward, Eleanor B. “Mary Gordon: Her Religious Sensibility.” Cross Currents 37, no. 2-3 (summer/fall 1987): 147-58.

[In the following essay, Wymward comments that the stories of Temporary Shelter are infused with the author's religious sensibilities.]

Mary Gordon's comments on the liaison between her religious beliefs and creativity have never equalled the boldness of Flannery O'Connor's revelation:

I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means for me the meaning of life is centered on our Redemption by Christ and what I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be...

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Gail Caldwell (review date 8 August 1993)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “Voice, Insight, Memory: Three Finely Wrought Novellas by Mary Gordon.” Boston Globe (8 August 1993): B12.

[In the following review, Caldwell praises The Rest of Life, observing that the three novellas express a strong sense of voice, insight, and memory.]

In the realm of intention, as any behaviorist will tell you, there's a world of difference between a wink and a twitch. Charting that vast landscape of meaning is what ethnography is all about, and what anthropologists call “thick description”—an elaborate assessment of ritual, motive and emotion. Writers of fiction, if the least bit contemplative, practice this trick of...

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Francine Prose (review date 8 August 1993)

SOURCE: Prose, Francine. “To Have and Have Not.” Newsday (8 August 1993): 33.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Prose praises Gordon's portrayal of complex female characters, commenting that the stories are engaging and thought-provoking.]

If, as Chekhov wrote, a story runs on “the engine of he and she,” Mary Gordon's new book, The Rest of Life, is firing on all cylinders. The three novellas that make up this thoughtful collection are about men and women, sex and power, the body and the spirit, what connects us and what separates us, what we deserve and what we owe. The first of these fictions, “Immaculate Man,” is narrated by a...

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Mary F. Pols (review date 22 August 1993)

SOURCE: Pols, Mary F. “Uneasy in Love—Women's Insecurities about Men Don't Fade with Time.” Seattle Times (22 August 1993): F2.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Pols comments on the theme of relationships between women and men in Gordon's collection.]

I was barely 40 pages into Mary Gordon's new book, The Rest of Life, before I started getting a sinking feeling about my sex.

My group of creeping-towards-30 female friends spends an inordinate amount of time discussing our insecurities about men and lasting relationships. But I've assumed those feelings were going to gradually fade with time and acquired wisdom....

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Merle Rubin (review date 27 August 1993)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Three Tales of What Happens ‘Afterward.’” Christian Science Monitor (27 August 1993): 14.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Rubin asserts that the title novella is the strongest of the volume, while the others are unfocused.]

If the marriage of lovers has provided the happy ending of many a comedy and the thwarting of love is the stuff of more than a few tragedies, much remains to be said about what happens after these peaks of human experience: the rest of life.

In three novellas assembled under that title [The Rest of Life], novelist Mary Gordon explores the uncertain, inconclusive world of...

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Ellen Akins (review date 29 August 1993)

SOURCE: Akins, Ellen. “Worlds of Possibility.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 August 1993): 2, 9.

[In the following review, Akins praises The Rest of Life as a volume of fine novellas, written in well-crafted prose.]

“All this” is how a woman in “The Rest of Life” refers to what she's telling us, then adds, “By ‘all this’ I guess I mean how I have shaped my life.” And this is very much what these three fine novellas [in The Rest of Life] are about: the shape of life, the place of a person in it, the continuity of a body and mind in time. Not stories in the traditional sense, they take the form of extended meditations. The first two,...

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Michael Higgins (essay date 18 September 1993)

SOURCE: Higgins, Michael. “Are Religious Writers, Artists Handicapped by Faith?” Toronto Star (18 September 1993): F17.

[In the following essay, Higgins discusses the theme of Catholicism in the novellas of The Rest of Life.]

Although my wife plays Mozart with considerable grace, she prefers Chopin, Debussy and Kunz. As a consequence, in order to get my Mozart fix, I spend a few days at New York's annual Lincoln Centre Mostly Mozart Festival. It may not be the Beatific Vision but it comes awfully close.

One of the additional pleasures of being in the Big Apple is the simple, although often expensive, exercise of book browsing. I picked up my usual...

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Richard Teleky (review date 18 September 1993)

SOURCE: Teleky, Richard. “The Obsessive Nature of Love.” Toronto Star (18 September 1993): J13.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Teleky praises Gordon as the foremost American Catholic writer of her generation and “one of the finest writers of our time.”]

In her latest book, a collection of three novellas called The Rest Of Life, American writer Mary Gordon continues the intense exploration of the sexual and spiritual relations between men and women that marked her extraordinary first novel, Final Payments. While The Rest Of Life places religion further in the background, spiritual matters still shape the book.


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Mary Gordon and Patti Doten (interview date 4 October 1993)

SOURCE: Gordon, Mary, and Patti Doten. “The Voices Inside Mary Gordon: In In Rest of Life, Her Muses Move Her to Write About the Sexes.” Boston Globe (4 October 1993): 30.

[In the following interview, Gordon comments on the theme of gender relations in The Rest of Life.]

Authors have always talked about the source of their creative fire—dreams and nightmares, a traumatic childhood, voices echoing from behind the arras. But Mary Gordon, author of the critically acclaimed Final Payments and The Company of Women, makes the source of her considerable vision sound so simple, so homey.

“I get a feeling that someone's living in...

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Trudy Bush (review date 17 November 1993)

SOURCE: Bush, Trudy. “Midlife Desires: Seeking an Abundant Life.” Christian Century 110, no. 33 (17 November 1993): 1162-64.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Bush describes the collection's three novellas as striking narratives about self-assertive women.]

“We don't know much yet about how women might really be, if they felt they could be however they liked,” muses the narrator of “Living at Home,” one of three novellas that make up Mary Gordon's book [The Rest of Life]. Though the central characters in this story and in “Immaculate Man” seem to live as they like, they nevertheless feel constrained, defined by their ties to...

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Peter Kemp (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: Kemp, Peter. “What's the Damage?” Sunday Times (16 January 1994): section 6, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Kemp addresses the subjects of life's instabilities and “the hazards of human existence.”]

A surprising feature of The Rest Of Life is how cheery its author looks in the photograph on the dustjacket. For the world encountered in her pages is far from comforting. Life's ability to deal out harm is unsparingly chronicled. Nothing sustaining, it's stressed, is likely to last for long. On to all the close relationships and domestic circumstances that Mary Gordon portrays could be pinned a warning phrase she once...

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Jenny Turner (review date 25 January 1994)

SOURCE: Turner, Jenny. “Pierced Hearts.” Guardian (London) (25 January 1994): 11.

[In the following review, Turner considers the stories in The Rest of Life to be original, insightful, and entertaining.]

Mary Gordon has a name that sounds like the name of many other women writers. The titles of her novels—Final Payments, Men and Angels, The Other Side—sound much the same as the titles of other women writers' books. The biographies on her bookjackets mention that the author is “best-selling” and has in the past won a Readers' Digest Award. But then, haven't they all? You should not let any of these things confuse you. For Mary Gordon is very...

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Irving Weinman (review date 27 January 1994)

SOURCE: Weinman, Irving. “Three Faces of Singular Love.” Times (London) (27 January 1994): 36.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Weinman applauds the depth and compassion of Gordon's stories.]

The novella, fiction's halfway house, needs the short story's focus and the novel's depth. In each of the three novellas comprising The Rest of Life, Mary Gordon's focus is a single character. Her depth comes from writing out of the high heart of compassion that never falls into sentimentality.

In the title novella, old Paola returns to Italy with her American son. Her life has been dedicated to forgetting. She survived a teenage...

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Kathryn Hughes (review date 28 January 1994)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Great Divides.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 287 (28 January 1994): 38-9.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Hughes praises Gordon's prose for its high quality and precision.]

Three rich, precise novellas make up Mary Gordon's The Rest of Life. Each one comprises a meditation by a woman, no longer young, on her relationship with a particular lover. In “Immaculate Man”, a middle-aged social worker recalls how her job as a carer and comforter of battered women has brought her to the extraordinary position of lover to a Catholic priest.

At the age of 43, Father Clement, welfare worker and...

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Claire Messud (review date 4 February 1994)

SOURCE: Messud, Claire. “Traveling Hopefully.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4740 (4 February 1994): 21.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Messud describes the stories as both serious and accessible, and asserts that the title novella is the most moving in the volume.]

Mary Gordon's is not a showy talent, but it is no less powerful for that. The author of Final Payments, The Company of Women and The Other Side has, in these works, addressed the endlessly absorbing questions of faith, of family relationships and of gender dynamics—in short, the more serious stuff of life. In her new book [The Rest of Life,] a collection of...

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Candice Rodd (review date 6 February 1994)

SOURCE: Rodd, Candice. “Pandemonium and the Healing Power of Love.” Independent (London) (6 February 1994): 42.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Rodd praises the three novellas for their integrity, rich language, and authentic characterization.]

In one of these three superb novellas [in The Rest of Life], an eager Catholic priest tries to tell the non-believing narrator about Christ's Ascension. He plunges in breathlessly, stumbles, gets events hopelessly out of sequence, but “the badness of the storytelling left spaces you could fill in so in the end you saw more, understood more, than you would have from somebody who'd told it...

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John B. Breslin (review date 25 February 1994)

SOURCE: Breslin, John B. “Between a Romp and Redemption.” Commonweal 121, no. 4 (25 February 1994): 24-5.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Breslin comments on the volume's confessional narrative voice and focus on themes of obsession and memory.]

Three stories; three women; four men (one a father) to whom the women are bound by ties of obsession and memory; several children to whom the women are devoted, all but one boys, none fathered by their lovers. Such is the cast of characters in these novellas [in The Rest of Life], Mary Gordon's first fiction since the generational saga of The Other Side, but what really matters here are...

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Tom Wilhelmus (review date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. “Contingency.” Hudson Review 47, no. 1 (spring 1994): 133-40.

[In the following review of works by various writers, Wilhelmus praises the stories in Gordon's The Rest of Life for addressing the complications of life in the 1980s and 1990s.]

Last year in The Volcanic Lover, Susan Sontag described history as a kind of flea market where the leftovers of the past become found objects for a person collecting materials for her own creation. The items she inherits from the past are random and include not only objects but also ideas, artifacts, and codes. What she does with them is equally the product of accident and the consequences...

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Mona Knapp (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Knapp, Mona. Review of The Rest of Life, by Mary Gordon. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 139.

[In the following review of The Rest of Life, Knapp praises the stories as powerful narratives exploring each heroine's existential aloneness.]

Mary Gordon's books are like favorite desserts—long awaited, they are gone too soon, no matter how well savored. Her works to date, which include short stories, essays, and novels, are now joined by The Rest of Life, her seventh volume. It is made up of three novellas.

United by their female perspective, the novellas each explore a different narrator's consciousness as...

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Alma Bennett (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bennett, Alma. “A Serious Person's Stories: Temporary Shelter and Others.” In Mary Gordon, pp. 89-107. New York: Twayne, 1996.

[In the following essay, Bennett explores major themes in the stories of Temporary Shelter.]

Some months after the 1987 publication of Temporary Shelter,1 an interviewer suggested that Gordon didn't write many short stories, to which she replied, “I actually write quite a few. Not all of them do I consider publishable. So I have many of them in folders.” Mentioning that Temporary Shelter has “twenty, written over the course of a lifetime, over twelve years,” she then commented on the selection...

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Alma Bennett (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bennett, Alma. “‘Neither Night nor Morning’: The Rest of Life: Three Novellas.” In Mary Gordon, pp. 148-64. New York: Twayne, 1996.

[In the following essay, Bennett argues that the three novellas included in The Rest of Life “form a deliberately crafted whole,” and explore some dominant motifs that resonate throughout the volume.]

From the start of her career, Gordon's works have attracted a wide range of readers, and if getting reviewed in People magazine is any sort of reliable indicator, that range has widened since August of 1993.1 Still, for Gordon aficionados and her newer readers alike, the 1993 publication of...

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June Dwyer (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Dwyer, June. “Unappealing Ethnicity Meets Unwelcoming America: Immigrant Self-Fashioning in Mary Gordon's Temporary Shelter.MELUS 22, no. 3 (fall 1997): 103-11.

[In the following essay, Dwyer discusses the theme of Irish-American identity in the stories “Delia,” “Agnes,” and “Eileen,” included in Temporary Shelter.]

Many academics nowadays tend to assume the redemptive power of asserting one's ethnic identity in the United States. But the issue is a complex one: all ethnicities are not equally benign, and there are a number of different relationships one may have both to one's ethnicity and to the country's dominant group. For example,...

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Further Reading


Mahon, John W. “A Bibliography of Writings by Mary Gordon” and “A Bibliography of Writings about Mary Gordon.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 60-7. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

Bibliography of writings by and about Mary Gordon, through 1989.


Bennett, Alma. Conversations with Mary Gordon. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002, 206 p.

Edited volume of interviews with Mary Gordon, reprinted from previous publications.



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