The Company of Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Perhaps it is her Catholic background, perhaps only an acute sensitivity with which she has been gifted, but few novelists penetrate the human heart and soul and understand the variety of human loves as deeply as Mary Gordon. The multiple ambivalences, the levels of feeling that lie beneath the surface but that sometimes reveal themselves on the surface as well, the multitude of ways of expressing love pervade her first two novels, Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women, and offer profound insight into the human condition. The seriousness with which her characters study their motives and behavior is certainly Catholic, yet her novels are hardly treatises urging a Catholic world view, in the manner of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. The cord running through her works, binding her characters to a sense of meaning, is human love, not divine, as even the priest Father Cyprian in her current novel realizes, albeit unwillingly, and the prime source for this love is the hearts of women.

This is a love that transcends both the merely sexual and the spiritual but defintely sex-related salvation through love (for men) of which Richard Wagner’s heroines are the most obvious exemplars. Rather, this is a love that hopes for, forgives, desires to help, and appreciates the value in the loved one; a love that is valuable even when selfish motives are present. This love is similar to that of a mother, but its qualities are also sisterly, daughterly, and wifely (in supportive and companionable aspects rather than sexual ones). This is a love that nurtures, makes plans for, and sustains.

The women of Gordon’s current title are members of a retreat group for working (read: single) women in New York, set up by Father Cyprian, a compassionate but strict and commanding Paracletist priest who acts as the principal male authority figure in their lives. Although it is he who holds their world together, he does not permanently undermine their autonomy, for these are women who have mastered their lives. No matter how bleak their circumstances, they have refused to break down and give up but have carried on, independent women without the help of men, supported by their faith and—most importantly—by one another.

Each of these women has managed to hold her life together through a job she has held for a long time. Clare, who has chosen to remain a stylish single woman everyone admires, manages her late father’s leather-goods store. Elizabeth, left a widow by her alcoholic husband and childless by the death of her young child, is a teacher who dotes on Jane Austen and Metaphysical poetry. Mary Rose, after the failure of her marriage to a fellow dancer who went crazy out of frustrated homosexuality, became a movie usher; his survival in an asylum and the Church’s disapproval of remarriage after divorce keep her single in all but fact, but she does sustain a warm platonic relationship with her boss. Charlotte, the practical one who takes charge and gets things done, works as a secretary in an insurance office and is the sole support of her daughter, since her husband’s death six months after the birth. None of these jobs (with the possible exception of Clare’s) represents a breakthrough for women’s liberation, but in an era when few women sought (or were encouraged to seek) careers, the perseverance of these women merits high acclaim.

The hopes of the entire circle rest upon the only surviving child any of them has had, Felicitas, Charlotte’s daughter. As a very bright young girl, she becomes Father Cyprian’s pet. He engages her in theological discussions and involves her in his cherished farm and carpentry work, which made up his life before he assumed his vocation. Felicitas starts to see his flaws, however—his selfishness, pride, and obstinacy—and the discovery gives her pain. As a young adolescent in 1963 and later as a rebellious, opinionated college student of the late 1960’s, she is blind to the fact that he, a grown-up, can also have needs and weaknesses that keep him from being perfect.

College humbles her as she becomes romantically involved with her magnetic young political science professor, Robert Cavendish, and he begins treating her as insignificant, only one among his many women. When he urges a two-sided nonmonogamous relationship, she gives in reluctantly, with the result that she cannot tell which of the two men is the father of the fetus that has started within her. She plans to have an abortion without telling either of them, but when she sees another woman, bleeding and barely standing, dragged out of the sleazy pre-legalization clinic by its personnel (to avoid her being found there), she flees home to her mother.

That the novel,...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Company of Women is set in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when institutions, traditional authorities, and mores were under attack. Initially removed from such inquiry, the novel’s plot, like that of Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments (1975), evolves through a pattern of “closed world,” “opened world,” and “redefined world.” The three-part story, organized around 1963, 1969-1970, and 1977, spans fourteen years in the lives of Felicitas Maria Taylor (from ages fourteen to twenty-eight); a group of five working women including Felicitas’ mother, Charlotte; and an ultratraditionalist priest, Father Cyprian Leonard. In the early 1930’s, losses brought these single women to Cyprian and one another. During subsequent decades, the friends share unwavering parochial trust in Cyprian’s advice. The women and Cyprian place their hopes for the future on young Felicitas. Even though her virgin martyr’s name suggests “some hope for ordinary human happiness,” there is little that is typical about Felicitas’ youth and the radical love and expectations that surround her. She will not find an easy route to ordinary joys and to her adult life as a woman who, in Gordon’s words, will no longer “suddenly buckle to the authority of a male mentor, whether it’s a priest or professor or a lover.”

The story begins in 1963 in western New York, where young Felicitas, her mother, Clare, Elizabeth, Mary Rose, and Muriel gather for their annual August retreat with their mentor. Father Cyprian, whose orthodoxy has reduced his career to the group, takes comfort only in his surrogate daughter Felicitas; she, in turn, adores...

(The entire section is 680 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Company of Women and Gordon’s other novels raise important, disturbing questions about the difficulties that women face in their decisions about sexuality, marriage, motherhood, careers, and most important, personhood. Gordon introduces such questions in tandem with equally important questions about the moral and spiritual dimensions of contemporary women’s lives. Her linked inquiry tests imposed and self-inflicted boundaries at the same time that it explores collisions of transcendent visions of life, such as those of feminism and Catholicism. While her double inquiry remains focused on women, Gordon’s questions are clearly intended for men as well; no male character in her novels demonstrates this more thoroughly than Gordon’s remarkable character Father Cyprian, whose life continues to be as complex a yearning for and struggle with boundaries as that of Felicitas. Gordon’s comprehensive intention for this novel is one that a Los Angeles Times Book Review critic, for example, recognizes in a review of The Company of Women: “Mary Gordon is on the verge of moving into the company of writers such as William Golding, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy and Samuel Beckett—the foremost moral novelists of our day.”

Such critiques that attempt to place Gordon in various novelistic traditions continue to be revised as Gordon’s prize-winning work evolves. Irrespective of categories, assessments of The Company of...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows

Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows. New York City convent at which five working women of different backgrounds come together on a retreat in 1932. The retreat is the creation of the dynamic priest Father Cyprian Leonard. Though he is as rigid as the church he represents, his faith and charisma endear him to the women, and they begin a lifelong devotion to him. Meeting throughout the 1930’s the women develop close friendships with one another outside of the convent, but Father Cyprian is the linchpin that holds them together.

*New York City

*New York City. City in which four of the women in the retreat group work and live, and two of them marry. Populated...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, March, 1981, p. 89.

Bauman, Paul. “A Search for the ‘Unfettered Self’: Mary Gordon on Life and Literature.” Commonwealth 118 (May 17, 1991): 327. Offers brief but highly useful comments.

Christian Century. XCVIII, April 22, 1981, p. 454.

Clark, Diana Cooper. “An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Commonweal 107 (May 9, 1980): 270-273. Gordon responds to questions about her interest as a novelist in exploring the limits and potential of religious belief.

Critic. XXXIX, April 1, 1981, p. 3.


(The entire section is 489 words.)