Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2212
Gail Godwin’s novels all explore the basic human conflict between the needs and the demands of others and the needs and the demands of the self. In her early works, such as The Odd Woman (1974) and Violet Clay (1978), Godwin focused on a single protagonist torn between art and love, or at least the psychological and physical dependence that is often called love. In the 1980’s, Godwin’s works became more complex, involving more major characters and more complicated situations. For example, as the title suggests, A Southern Family (1987) traced the entangled lives of a number of characters, each of whom had a different interpretation of the motives of the others and of the dynamics of the family. In Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Godwin returns to a single first-person narrator. However, by having that narrator seek the truth from a number of different people, Godwin achieves that same complexity as she did in A Southern Family, once again having several characters tell their stories from their own perspectives and leaving the reader to make the final interpretation.
The search for truth that is undertaken by the narrator, Margaret Gower, is the primary action of the novel. Indeed, it is clear that until she can come to an understanding of her parents’ actions, she will be unable to proceed with her own life. As Margaret points out in the first chapter of the novel, her childhood ended one day when she was just six years old. That was the day she came home from school to find that her mother, Ruth Beauchamp Gower, had left without a word of explanation to her daughter. Margaret was never to see her mother again; Ruth was killed in an automobile accident nine months later.
During the next sixteen years, Margaret takes care of her father, a kind and unassuming Episcopal priest, whose periodic bouts with depression account for the reference to him as “Father Melancholy” in the title of the book. Before her mother’s departure, Margaret had had a fantasy in which she penetrated the dark place where her father periodically languished, without the will to return to the world, and guided him back to the world and his daughter. Later, when she reflects on this fantasy, Margaret realizes that her replacement of Ruth in her father’s life could be seen as a wish-fulfillment; however, whatever the psychological implications, on a practical level, Margaret really has no choice. It is not that Walter insists upon her devoting herself to him; he is more than willing to marry again. Unfortunately, the woman both he and Margaret have chosen forestalls his proposal by announcing her decision to enter a religious order. After that, Walter and Margaret drift into a comfortable companionship, which gives stability to both of them and enables Walter to function effectively as a priest.
What neither Walter nor Margaret realizes is that their interdependence prevents her from maturing in the normal pattern and becoming a separate person with a separate life. When Margaret goes to college in nearby Charlottesville, she is still so closely attuned to her father’s moods that a telephone call from him suggesting the onset of depression will make her cancel all of her plans and hurry home. Even Margaret’s relationships with men of her own generation are subordinated to her relationship with her father. She will not commit herself emotionally to her childhood friend Ben MacGruder but merely indulges herself sexually with him. When Margaret does fall in love, the object of her affections is another sensitive and wounded priest, her father’s disciple, who could easily have joined their household, thus giving Margaret an added responsibility and an additional reason to avoid discovering her own identity. As it happens, the priest does not wish to marry. At any rate, it is not until after her father’s sudden death that Margaret realizes she can and must decide about the direction of her own life.
Before she can move on, however, Margaret must come to understand her mother, the woman who took her freedom at the expense of a husband and young child. For sixteen years, Margaret has puzzled over accounts of mothers who abandoned their children, often for lovers, sometimes for death. Even though her father insists that there was no sexual dimension in Ruth’s relationship with Madelyn Farley, Margaret has always concluded her deliberations by blaming Madelyn for Ruth’s decision. Margaret remembers Madelyn’s contempt for Walter, for his values and for his kind of life; she cannot help believing that somehow Madelyn seduced Ruth into sharing her vision and then reacting by taking flight. At any rate, Margaret believes that she cannot progress with her own new, independent life until she knows why her mother chose to become free by leaving those two people who loved her so much.
Ironically, it is Madelyn, seemingly her enemy, who can give Margaret the answer. Responding to a bitter message that Margaret has left on her answering machine, Madelyn arrives in Romulus with the explanations that Margaret so desperately needs. Like many women of the 1970’s, Madelyn says, Ruth felt trapped and thought that she wanted to be free. Madelyn’s visit simply precipitated Ruth’s escape from her life. However, Madelyn explains, again like many women of her generation, Ruth lacked the intellectual and psychological preparation for an independent life, either as an artist or simply as an individual. Therefore, after she left Walter, she simply found someone else to lean on, her strong friend Madelyn. As for Ruth’s disenchantment with Walter, Madelyn explains it as an another example of her habit of dependence rather than of the independence Ruth mistakenly thought she wanted. In order to feel secure, women like Ruth set up men as gods; then when the gods turn out to be merely human beings, such women reject and despise them. Indeed, Madelyn says that at the time of Ruth’s death she was beginning a similar process with Madelyn herself.
This conversation with Madelyn enables Margaret to understand that real independence lies in doing one’s duty, not in running away from it. For Madelyn, that duty is to art; for Walter, to religious faith. As the novel ends, Margaret has eliminated all the patterns for her life presented to her by well-intentioned friends and has made her own decision. She is applying for admission to a theological seminary.
Although Father Melancholy’s Daughter focuses primarily on Margaret’s search for understanding, the conflicts between dependence and independence, self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment, duty to others and duty to self, which are crucial in her own story, are illustrated in the lives of dozens of other characters. For example, Walter’s parish includes a number of people who avoid confronting themselves by staying busy with others who are or seem to be dependent upon them. There is a sanctimonious old maid whose life consists of taking care of her mother and going to church; a doctor who is so busy with his practice that he has no time for his family; and an energetic do- gooder who depends upon the less fortunate to provide her with a purpose for existing. Love itself can lead one to an unhealthy self-denial. It is clear that Ben MacGruder’s emotional well-being depends upon Margaret’s attitude toward him at any given moment, and Margaret herself becomes giddy over her father’s friend, the priest. The mother of one of Margaret’s friends killed herself for love, thus illustrating, in what seems like an act of self-assertion, the ultimate statement of dependence upon another.
On the other hand, although Madelyn proves to be far more decent than Margaret had ever suspected, there is a ruthlessness in her total dedication to art that Margaret, at least, cannot imitate in her own search for independence and self-fulfillment. From her father, Margaret has inherited the power to nurture others. It is this capacity, along with Walter’s own goodness, that makes her childhood responsibilities seem so easy; it is also this quality in her nature that drives Margaret to undertake the care of the ailing Madelyn, as well as of Madelyn’s cantankerous artist father. In her need for independence, Margaret does not deny her nurturing nature; instead, she changes directions, believing that she can best fulfill herself in a more public role—specifically in the ministry, a vocation that, it should be noted, would have been almost impossible for a woman of a previous generation. Always a realist, Godwin recognizes that choices are made within the context of history.
As a Southern writer, it is not surprising that Godwin is conscious of the importance of history, of tradition, and of time. Although the actual events of the novel cover only sixteen years, the author expands her time frame in numerous ways, for example by including love letters that Ruth had written to Walter before their marriage and by reporting various stories out of the past, some factual, some exaggerations or actual fictions, that are told to Margaret by her friends and neighbors in Romulus. The point is, of course, that whether they are true or not these stories become part of Margaret’s world. In fact, in one case Margaret chooses to believe one of them, even after she has learned that it is a deliberate fabrication, because somehow the account of a mother’s mysterious suicide makes Margaret herself feel less exceptional.
The fact that tradition can be a source of security in this changing world is a major motif in the novel. In the early chapters, the references to liturgy and theology seem to be no more than realistic details in the lives of characters connected with the church; later, as chapters begin to have such titles as “Crosses,” “Passion Week,” and “A Reasonable, Holy, and Living Sacrifice,” it becomes clear that the religious tradition is central to the book. The final chapter, in which Margaret announces her intention to study for the priesthood, is entitled “The Grace of Daily Obligation.” Clearly, the title describes what Margaret has discovered: that self-fulfillment lies not in dependence but in selfless devotion to a higher good.
In her earlier novels, Gail Godwin created interesting, realistic characters who were faced with choices that were never simple. In Father Melancholy’s Daughter, however, Godwin has produced a more profound book than her previous works by dealing in her characteristically honest fashion with the most difficult theme of all, the human aspiration for a spiritually significant life.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. March 19, 1991, XIV, p. 1.
Godwin, Gail. “A Dialogue with Gail Godwin.” Interview by Lihong Xie. Mississippi Quarterly 46 (Spring, 1993): 167-184. In this interview, conducted after Father Melancholy’s Daughter was written, Godwin describes her ideas about writing “major-key” and “minor-key” novels, both types about women trying to find their own identities. She reveals that all of her novels have dealt with the spiritual aspects of the central characters; if Father Melancholy’s Daughter is unusual in this regard, it is because she has used a formal religious setting to explore that spirituality.
Hill, Jane. Gail Godwin. New York: Twayne, 1992. The first full-length critical study of Gail Godwin’s work, this book examines the autobiographical elements in the novels, the theme of the young woman looking for an independent life, and the importance of the South. Father Melancholy’s Daughter was unfinished as Hill’s book went to press; it is mentioned only briefly. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
The Hudson Review. XLIV, Autumn, 1991, p. 500.
Library Journal. CXVl, February 1, 1991, p. 103.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 3, 1991, p. 2.
Mickelson, Anne Z. Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. This book tries to determine whether a “new woman” has emerged in the fiction of American women writers since the rise of the modern women’s liberation movement. The chapter on Godwin proposes a major theme: the struggle to be independent while maintaining union with others. Although Father Melancholy’s Daughter was written more than a decade after this study, Margaret Gower’s story is an expression of the same struggle.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, March 3, 1991, p. 7.
Southern Living. XXVI, May, 1991, p. 83.
Sternburg, Janet, ed. The Writer on Her Work. 2 vols. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980-1991. Godwin’s chapter, “Becoming a Writer,” tells the story of her decision, at the age of five, to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a professional writer of stories. Godwin’s own life resembles a novel, with divorce (her mother’s and her own), suicide, romance, and the struggles of a young writer to be published.
Time. CXXXVII, March 25, 1991, p. 70.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 24, 1991, p. 21.
The Times-Picayune. April 7, 1991, p. E6.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, March 17, 1991, p. 4.
Wimsatt, Mary Ann. “Gail Godwin’s Evolving Heroine: The Search for Self.” Mississippi Quarterly 42 (Winter, 1988): 27-45. Wimsatt describes the typical Godwin heroine: a woman struggling (often in the South in the late twentieth century) for self-determination in spite of the family and romantic ties that hold her back. Although this study was done a few years before Father Melancholy’s Daughter appeared, readers will find insight into the character of Margaret Gower.