(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Final Payments Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 clothes with Eleanor, and she spends a weekend in Ringkill with Liz, Liz’s glamorous but oafish husband, John, and her children. Liz introduces Isabel to her beautiful young lover, Erica. John, whom everyone, including his wife, knows to be a womanizer, offers Isabel her first job, a six-month pilot program involving home care for the aged. She gratefully accepts.

Isabel returns to Queens, sells her father’s house, endures the painful insertion of an IUD, and moves upstate. She finds her own apartment and begins her job. At the first social gathering with her young colleagues, Isabel, out of anxiety, drinks too much; after the party, she allows John to have sex with her. Isabel craves affection, but this leaves her feeling dirty and out of control. Liz is angry with Isabel for allowing John to seduce her, and out of spite and curiosity she introduces Isabel to another married man, Hugh Slade, a cool rationalist who describes Isabel’s Catholic upbringing as “barbarous.” Isabel decides that she will be Hugh’s lover, although John continues to pursue her.

It is Isabel’s job to visit...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Final Payments Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Final Payments begins and ends with its central character and narrator, Isabel Moore, contemplating the death of her father. For eleven years before his death, she cared for him in his illness. Now, at age thirty, she is determined to invent a life for herself. Before she can embrace life fully, however, Isabel must learn to acknowledge and accept the risks it poses and must come to terms with the legacy she has inherited.

This legacy is cultural, philosophical, emotional, and material. Isabel was raised in a conservative Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Queens, New York. Motherless from age two, she spent her childhood intensely influenced by her father, Joe Moore, a brilliant and opinionated professor vehement in his traditional Catholicism, and by Margaret Casey, their unattractive, life-denying housekeeper, whose jealous devotion to Isabel’s father was as strong as her dislike and disapproval of Isabel, who came to return such feelings. Isabel’s intelligence, wit, elegance, and even her disdain for housework were cultivated in calculated opposition to Margaret’s ways.

Behind Joe Moore’s authority stood the authority of the Church and its educational system, from which Isabel inherited her intellectual legacy. Entailed in this legacy are a respect for authority and a valuing of love as synonymous with life. Isabel learned to love her father in part because he was so certain he was right. Such authority, however, breeds rebellion and courts betrayal. At nineteen, Isabel betrayed her father by having an affair with David Lowe, his favorite student. Three weeks after finding the couple in bed together, Joe Moore suffered a stroke, and for the following eleven years Isabel lived a life of expiation, nursing him and keeping house.

Isabel knew that she had violated the moral standards of both her father and the Church. She comes to confront the conflicts that arise between otherworldly spiritual imperatives and earthly needs. Isabel is perplexed by her desire for pleasure. Is pleasure a good? If not, why does it exist? Is it something for which one must always pay in the end? Isabel has been taught that love is self-sacrifice and that it is the key to identity. How, then, can one live, if the only way to have an identity is to sacrifice one’s very being? Throughout the novel, Isabel contemplates Jesus’s paradoxical dictum that one must lose...

(The entire section is 980 words.)