Men and Angels Essay - Critical Essays

Mary Gordon

Critical Context

Men and Angels demonstrates Gordon’s growth and maturity as a writer. This novel, unlike her earlier Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women (1980), moves beyond the subculture of Roman Catholicism, extending the theme of religion into society at large. Some critics, in fact, see Gordon’s work as moving from the genre of “women’s fiction” to that of religious literature. Moreover, her characters are older (with the exception of Laura) and less stereotypical. Isabel Moore, the protagonist of Final Payments, and Felicitas Taylor, heroine of The Company of Women, are thirty and twenty, respectively; Anne, however, is thirty-eight, and Jane is in her seventies. When the novel begins, Anne is already settled as a wife and mother, and Jane has come to terms with God and the world.

The characters in Final Payments and The Company of Women seem to be stock types, Catholics or privileged persons rebelling against their upbringing. Anne and Laura, on the other hand, are more complex. Anne conscientiously divides her time between work and motherhood. She feels ambivalent toward Caroline Watson, an artist who neglected and never truly loved her son—and worries over her own inability to love Laura, whose psychosis appears to be only eccentricity.

The theme of love, prominent in both Final Payments and The Company of Women, continues in Men and Angels. Yet those people whom the earlier protagonists cannot love are unlovable for obvious reasons: Margaret Casey in Final Payments and Muriel Fisher in The Company of Women are embittered spinsters, seething with envy and spite, while the Habers in The Company of Women are a filthy, coarse, and indigent family. Laura Post, however, is young, strong, and on the brink of life. Her unlovability, therefore, is more pathetic. Thus, the issue of love is more problematic in Men and Angels.

The novel also looks deeply into the issue of motherhood, probably because maternity had become central to Gordon’s life. When she wrote The Company of Women, her first child had not yet been born, but while writing Men and Angels, she was pregnant with her second baby and was the mother of a three-year-old. The focus on motherhood and family, as well as the expansion of religion, probably makes Gordon’s third novel attractive to a wider and more mature audience than her earlier works.