(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 woman to know. Felicitas sees that Cyprian is...

(The entire section is 809 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Part 1, 1963. Fourteen-year-old Felicitas Maria Taylor travels with her mother, Charlotte, to Orano, in western New York State, to meet Elizabeth, Clare, Mary Rose, and Muriel for a summer retreat. Since meeting in 1932, the women made this retreat every year under the guidance of the Roman Catholic priest Father Cyprian, who conducts retreats for working women.

Felicitas believes she has to lie to her friends about how she spends her summer vacations because her friends are interested in “TV doctors” and will not understand the pleasure she has in being the center of attention for three of the four childless women and for Father Cyprian, who calls Felicitas the group’s “only hope.” Of the women who follow “Cyp,” as Charlotte calls him, only Muriel detests the child Felicitas and considers her a threat. The other women do not regard Muriel as one of them. She was excluded from Felicitas’s baptism, when Charlotte’s daughter was given not one but three godmothers—Mary Rose, Elizabeth, and Clare. Father Cyprian is the focus for the women, each of whom characterizes “Cyp” in a different way. He in turn has his own characterizations for them. For example, Charlotte is “down to earth,” Clare a wealthy and genteel lady, Mary Rose the divorced and wronged woman, and Muriel “an extraordinary soul” who does not fit with the other women and whom Father Cyprian always admonishes to fight against bitterness.

On a ride with Cyprian to inspect the family property that he recently acquired, thanks to Clare’s generosity, the car goes out of control and Felicitas suffers a concussion. She shares a hospital room with another fourteen-year-old, Gidget, who is smart-mouthed and worldly. Although she despises the girl, Felicitas finds herself betraying her relationship with Father Cyprian and with the women by telling Gidget that the only reason she puts up with the constant attention from the adults is because her mother promises to buy her a car when she turns sixteen as long as she continues to come on the group vacations. Felicitas’s guilt over this betrayal is increased by the loving attention that Father Cyprian and the women give to Gidget. When Felicitas is released from the hospital, she learns that Gidget is dying of Hodgkin’s disease, but this knowledge does not soften her heart.

Each woman reflects on the gifts she gives to Felicitas while the child is in the hospital. Felicitas’s favorite gift is a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) given to her by Elizabeth. Her least favorite gift, a collection of inspirational religious pamphlets, comes from Muriel.

Part 2, 1969-1970. Felicitas transfers to Columbia University from the Catholic college she attended. She is...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)