The novel’s primary theme, Violet Clay’s artistic and personal development, is emphasized by its design. Violet’s first-person narration alternates smoothly and effortlessly between chapters set in the past—during her summer in Charleston, her brief marriage, or her early days in New York—and chapters set in the present, as she confronts the meaning of her uncle’s suicide. Even within these specific chapters, Violet constantly refers to stories and memories of her past in order to make sense of her present. As a result of this narrative strategy, Godwin creates in Violet a fictional character of unusual depth and psychological complexity. More important, Godwin emphasizes Violet’s ability to learn from her past experiences. Indeed, the novel’s ending—which features a shift in narrative time—further illustrates Violet’s growth in terms of a movement from past to present. In the last chapter, “Sketches for a New Woman,” Violet’s narration suddenly changes tenses. She describes the painting of her extraordinary portrait of Sam (which has made her reputation as an artist) as occurring in the past rather than the present: “I like to remember that October morning. I like to go back into it from the ‘future,’ where I now live, and retrospectively paint into it all the prescient signs of my belated emergence.” Such a shift in narrative time provides the perfect ending for a novel whose narration consistently emphasizes its heroine’s growth.

Violet’s breakthrough painting, “Suspended Woman,” becomes itself a symbol for her development as a woman and an artist. At the beginning of the novel, Violet amuses herself by...

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