Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
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, years of being surrounded by her father’s passionate interest in Catholicism and by his friends in the priesthood. Father Mulcahy is still her spiritual father, regardless of her relationship with formal religion. All these influences conspire to remind Isabel that she wants to be a good person and of her belief that personal pleasure is not a very significant goal for one’s life. This awareness is heightened by Isabel’s job, which involves interviewing a number of very old people, most of them sick, unloved, and quite unhappy with what their last years have brought them. She wonders if this is what life offers at its end.
The confrontation with Hugh’s wife leads Isabel to renounce Hugh despite his protest that he is now willing to leave Cynthia if Isabel will marry him. Refusing his offer, Isabel then attempts to right her relationship with the housekeeper, Margaret, who feels mistreated by Isabel and who has always disliked her, even as a child. At Professor Moore’s funeral and later in a letter, she has told Isabel that she is living in poverty and suggested that Isabel somehow owes her financial support.
Mary Gordon uses Margaret as a sort of double for Isabel; she is what Isabel might become if she renounces life and love sufficiently. It is Margaret’s loveless world that made Isabel fear for her father and fire Margaret when she was a child. Father Mulcahy’s offer to find Isabel a position like Margaret’s, as housekeeper or paid companion, reminds readers that he sees the two as essentially the same—women with no family, no salable skills, and little to rely on except the Catholic church. Isabel rejects that identification until her feelings of guilt and the assault from Hugh’s wife send her to Margaret as a sort of penance, both for her own sexuality and for her inability to love Margaret. In Margaret’s house, Isabel does nothing but gain weight and sleep until Father Mulcahy’s visit prepares her to break free and escape a life of destructive self-pity.
On the evening of Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, meditating both on the story of Mary Magdelene’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly ointment and on Julian of Norwich’s assurance that Christ does not intend people to be overcome, Isabel recognizes the waste that she is making of herself, writes asking Hugh to wait for her if he can, and prepares to reenter the world. She leaves Margaret the money from the sale of their house, evidently recognizing at last that money was all Margaret ever wanted. Isabel leaves Margaret’s tomb and prepares to be reborn.
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