As in many of her novels, Gail Godwin is concerned in Father Melancholy’s Daughter to show the path of a woman looking for her independent self. Previous Godwin protagonists have had to struggle with their roles as wives, lovers, or students. For Margaret Gower, the struggle is with the demands of her dependent father. The basic conflict between dependence and independence, between duty to others and duty to oneself, is the central theme of the novel.
As the story of Margaret’s mother shows, becoming independent is not simply a matter of running from responsibility. Ruth’s love for Walter began when she was a young student and he was a visiting lecturer. Sixteen years older than she, he seemed mature and wise. Her love for him was never the love of an equal, but was always admiration and dependence. When she discovered that Walter was flawed and needed to lean on her as she wanted to lean on him, her disenchantment turned love to hate. Madelyn Farley seemed to be offering an opportunity for freedom, and Ruth jumped at the chance to leave. As Madelyn soon discovered, however, Ruth was incapable of living independently; she only wanted Madelyn to rely on and admire now that Walter had failed her.
Margaret, too, attempts to find herself in the eyes of men whom she admires. Her attachment to her father overrides all other needs; she leaves college and drives home to take care of him at the slightest hint from him, worrying all the way that his sweater will need to be washed. Her strongest romantic attraction is to Adrian Bonner, a fortyish priest. As her mother did twenty years before, Margaret mistakes her admiration for love. When it becomes clear that her feelings are not returned, Margaret latches on to her elderly academic adviser, who devises a research project for Margaret to complete. Because he suggests it, Margaret agrees to do the project, without asking herself whether she is interested in the idea.
Other residents of the small town of Romulus, Virginia, give Margaret clues to what an independent life should be, if only she will take the hints. Elaine Major, the domineering matron, is respected and feared but not loved. Ned Block’s sense of duty to his church and its traditions blinds him to his lack of compassion. Doctor MacGruder devotes himself to caring for his patients but ignores his family—just as Madelyn and her father devote themselves to their art but not to the people in their lives. Margaret’s lover, Ben MacGruder, is so dependent that he cannot function emotionally without her approval. Georgie Gaines, the son of a wealthy developer, has had to turn away from his family in order to find a career and way of life of which he can be proud.
The answers do not come for Margaret until Walter dies. For a few weeks, she wanders around the rectory alone, drinking and reflecting. A small angry act—an accusing phone call to Madelyn Farley, whom she has always blamed for Ruth’s abandonment—sets Margaret on her way. She and Madelyn form an uneasy friendship, and Margaret learns the truth about her parents—at least as Madelyn sees it. Once she understands her mother’s failed attempt to find independence, Margaret is ready to begin her own quest.
For Margaret, a whole life must include a spiritual dimension and a community responsibility. From her father she has inherited a need to serve others, as well as the temperament to do it. She also has a firm grounding in the history of the rituals and beliefs of her father’s faith. Throughout her life, she has seen him quietly carrying out his duties to his faith (if not to his daughter) in the face of threats from within and without. After Walter dies, and after long conversations with her former enemy, Margaret realizes that it is time to find her own way. Leaving aside her lover and her studies, she decides to enter the ministry.