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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments, is set in the decade after the historic Second Vatican Council, which convened in 1962. The council moved toward greater liberalism in Roman Catholicism. The novel deals with Isabel Moore, a devoted daughter who spends eleven years tending to her ailing father in his decline and death.

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At thirty, she has given up a good portion of her youth, not with the aim of being a good Catholic, which the church members and many acquaintances assume, but because she loves her father and is doing what she needs to do. He is, in a sense, her God incarnate.

She no longer, in truth, holds with the tenets of the church, but she is a darling of the priests, who applaud her dutiful dedication but sometimes have trouble remembering her name. She is defined in terms of her deeds rather than who she is. To the townspeople, she is a bit of an oddity, an adoring child who never puts herself first.

Her father, an arrogant conservative, is not always lovable. He is judgmental, unforgiving of human foibles, mostly uncaring. He approves of her, however, and she can make him laugh. Even after one of the final strokes leaves his face expressionless, she can feel the convulsions of laughter ripple through his body.

Her days are prescribed: Mornings are spent getting him ready for the day, lunch coming as the first event. She is comforted by the daily rituals: shaving him, singing his favorite songs, reading aloud to him while he scratches her head. Her life has direction and form. Whether neurosis or devotion drives her actions is immaterial. She cannot have it any other way.

It is when she gains her freedom and has only herself to look after that she falters, failing at first to understand that her days of presumed sainthood are over. It is then that she realizes that she rather relished the role, and so, after a period of succumbing to what she considers human weakness, she once again determines to dedicate her life to goodness, to return to ingrained ritual, to the Catholic ideal of loving the unlovable.

Isabel assigns herself the task of seeing to the needs of an elderly, despised former housekeeper. She absorbs the woman’s abuse until Isabel thinks that she has made her final payments to her father, to the church, and to her guilt. Her act of forgiveness, particularly forgiveness of herself, seems quite in accord with the tenor of the period of flux in the church.

Gordon’s novel speaks of a time shortly past in which some Catholic parents had no greater wish than for sons to become priests, their daughters nuns. It deals with a kind of Catholicism that is so much a part of the fabric of the church that many never lose it. Even after the easing of church rules, many Catholics understand the mindset of this novel, thus making it a timeless work. Gordon gives a new spin to an old theme.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

Isabel devotedly cares for her father, Joseph Moore, for eleven years until he dies, believing it her penance for having betrayed him. When she was nineteen, he found her in bed with his student, David Lowe. Three weeks later, he suffered his first stroke. Many years earlier, the housekeeper, Margaret Casey, wanted to marry Joseph. Isabel, then thirteen years old, jealously despised Margaret and did what neither her authoritarian father nor their loyal parish priest, Father Mulcahy, would do—she fired Margaret. When Isabel sees Margaret at her father’s funeral, she feels the same revulsion she felt sixteen years earlier.

Isabel and her two childhood friends, Eleanor and Liz, maintain their friendships. All three women give up Catholicism. With her newfound freedom and the support of her friends, Isabel rapidly begins to change her life. She buys stylish, comfortable...

(The entire section contains 1323 words.)

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