In Final Payments, as in much of her other fiction, Mary Gordon’s themes are identity, religion, and the relationships between men and women. Those are the issues Isabel must examine in her own life before she can set herself free to join Hugh at the end of the novel.
For Isabel, her identity derives particularly from her intense relationship with her father. His compelling, demanding intellect, coupled with the depth with which he loved and understood his daughter, made her decision to stay at home and nurse him inevitable. His death, however, forces Isabel to consider who she will be now that she is no longer her father’s nurse. Her decisions to buy stylish clothes, to sell her family home, and to take the job that John Ryan offered all seem interrelated as elements in Isabel’s gesture toward independence. Moreover, they represent part of Isabel’s conscious desire for sexual fulfillment. Yet the recognition of Isabel’s sexual relationship with his student seems to have precipitated her father’s first stroke; now she must reconcile his equation of carnality and sin with her own sense of herself as a physical being. Her self-understanding comes slowly. Liz’s failed marriage and Eleanor’s disastrous love affair are scarcely encouraging. Indeed, Eleanor, her mentor, now seems to have rejected sex forever. Consequently it is not surprising that Isabel is vulnerable to the accusations which Cynthia, Hugh Slade’s embittered wife, hurls at her during a party. Cynthia’s most powerful words, however, are simply the statement that Isabel is a good person.
Isabel’s need to claim her own goodness raises the issue of her religion. She had left the Catholic church after her youthful affair with her father’s student, but she cannot leave the things that she has learned from years of Catholic schooling,...
(The entire section is 755 words.)