Final Payments

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Isabel Moore, the central character is Mary Gordon’s first novel, Final Payments, is the sort of woman one would like for a friend. For eleven years before the novel begins, she has been caring for her father, who has suffered a series of strokes. She has established a ritual of feeding him and bathing him, of reading to him, of sleeping when he sleeps, that has not only dulled her but has consumed the years when most women are establishing themselves in careers and in important adult relationships.

The novel opens with the father’s funeral. Isabel is thirty. The shape of her previous existence has suddenly dissolved, and she must, quite literally, make a life for herself. Into this staggering task she moves by fits and starts, making rapid, almost dizzying progress once she is launched, only to become paralyzed by memory and grief toward the end of the novel. Her problems, intensified by her circumstances, are those every woman must face: how to come to terms with one’s parents; how to discover satisfying, useful work; how to carry on friendships; how to deal with sex. Because these questions are so familiar, and because Mary Gordon allows Isabel to narrate her story in the first person, the reader immediately adopts Isabel’s view of the world and easily shares in her triumphs and failures.

As the novel unfolds, Isabel must deal not only with her father’s death, but also with the meaning of her relation to him during his life. Father and daughter have been alone together since Isabel was two, and her intelligence and self-scrutiny will not allow her to avoid acknowledging the jealous possessiveness of their attachment. The possessiveness has been sanctioned by her conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing and by what she perceives to be the Church’s teaching about filial duty. She has a clear memory of how, at thirteen, she contrived the firing of a housekeeper, a whining, damp-handed woman with designs on her father. At nineteen she slept with one of Moore’s young associates out of frustration at what she viewed as her father’s readiness to give her up. Three weeks later he suffered his first stroke, and Isabel, out of guilt, accepted with no hesitation the responsibility of caring for him.

As she reflects on all these events, she gradually comes to understand how she and her father have punished each other, albeit out of a deep and sometimes admirable devotion. Her growing clarity about her feelings toward her father reveals the sensitive hand of a novelist who refuses either to romanticize Isabel’s devotion or to psychoanalyze it away. Gordon also carefully develops the role of the Church in encouraging what is in some ways an unhealthy relation. Although she cannot hide from her father the loss of her virginity, Isabel does manage to hide from him that she has lost her faith. Despite this lapse from daughterly perfection, she respects her father’s orthodoxy, and she solicitously entertains the priests who come to visit him and who praise her for being so dutiful. She may not be going to Mass on Sundays, but she is still, in the eyes of the Church, a good girl.

Not only is the author clear-sighted in treating the complicated relation between daughter and father; she is equally convincing in her account of Isabel’s friendships with Eleanor and Liz, long her neighbors and schoolmates, and still her best friends. She has seen less of Liz than of Eleanor, whose beauty and taste Isabel alternately admires and finds cloying. Her friend takes intense delight in fruit and clothing, in their colors and textures, in the pleasures of a warm bath or a cool glass of wine. It is Eleanor who helps Isabel select a new wardrobe for her new life, who encourages her to undertake contraception, who shares her own growing sense that relations with men may be so difficult that celibacy offers an attractive alternative. In the weeks following Moore’s death, Isabel and Eleanor manage to acknowledge and endure their first serious disagreement; they also discover the dangers of indulging themselves in the comforts of staying at home together,...

(The entire section is 1673 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The title of Final Payments suggest its central concern: the final payments that Isabel makes to her father and their relationship at his death and the long-delayed start of her adulthood. Her relationship with the widowed father who had reared her alone was not an easy one. Professor Moore had been a proud man of rigorous intellectual standards, conservative in both politics and religion. He had taught medieval literature in a Catholic college and devoted much of his energy to writing articles for Catholic journals; most of his friends were priests. He had demanded much of his students and much of his daughter as well. Indeed, his first stroke was probably precipitated by the shock of discovering Isabel in bed with his most promising student. Yet he also had much humor and charm, and after the stroke, Isabel had no doubts about what she wanted to do—she was glad to be nurse to the father she loved deeply. It was her love for him that six years earlier had led her to fire Margaret Casey, their hateful housekeeper.

With her father’s death, Isabel must enter the world from which she had so long been kept; she must come to terms with her own adulthood, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. The novel’s main action concerns how she makes that transition.

The day after the funeral, Isabel asks Eleanor to take her shopping. She longs for clothes that will make her attractive to men. Although she is not eager for marriage, she remembers her sexual...

(The entire section is 606 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Several elements in Final Payments make clear why it has been considered a feminist novel. The most obvious is the narrator who, although she had led an extremely unliberated life in terms of experience, in intellectual terms has always been free. Perhaps in part thanks to her father, Isabel’s vision of the world and how it works has always been unclouded by self-deception or romanticism and leavened always with a wry humor. At her father’s death, Isabel knows what she wants from her new life and is quite methodical in trying to get it, beginning with her new wardrobe and ending with her lover. Not for a moment does she entertain the possibility of following Father Mulcahy’s suggestions about working as a paid companion.

This same clarity of vision lets Isabel understand the contrasting lives of her friends Eleanor and Liz and reject them without judging them, any more than she judges Father Mulcahy’s alcoholism. She is not interested in becoming a sort of secular hermit like Eleanor any more than she wants a marriage like Liz’s. Moreover, Isabel strongly rejects a possible life as one of John Ryan’s harem—his office of girlfriends and former girlfriends, all of them to some degree under his sexual power. She sees them as pitiable and despises herself when she succumbs to his pressing sensuality. Gordon paints an extremely effective picture of Ryan’s coarse carnality and of Isabel’s feelings of disgust even while he manages to...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Queens. Borough of New York City that provides the novel’s backdrop as the place in which the narrator, Isabel Moore, has spent her first thirty years living with her father in a one-family house on Dover Road. Nineteen of those years she has spent nursing her invalid father. To Isabel, Queens offers only sameness, dullness, predictability—not the cultural enrichments of opera, ballet, theater, concerts that nearby Manhattan offers. In Queens, domesticity is Isabel’s role, one of duty and devotion. She leaves her Queens home only to go to stores or church. Filled with ordinary and dim days, Queens reflects Isabel’s life itself, triggering tiredness and predictability in its sureness, until her father dies and she finds herself free.

Roman Catholic Church

Roman Catholic Church. Though not a specific place in the novel, the Church occupies a consuming place in Isabel’s home and in her mind. Matters of spirituality and faith dominate all conversations between her father and the priests who visit her home. Indeed, the very first line of the novel mentions that Isabel’s father’s funeral is full of priests. The Church represents authority, devotion, liturgy, guidelines, rules, and holiness. The Church occupies a central place in the life of Isabel’s father, and its characteristics engulf her life, too. Patriarchal and authoritative, the Church is sheltering, loving, demanding, and contemplative. It...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Isabel Moore tells her own story, an effective device because the reader perceives her as a reliable narrator. The considerable irony of the...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gordon's novel raises difficult questions that do not appear to be satisfactorily answered. As in most of her fiction, she deals with painful...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Mary Gordon's fiction, like the work of other American writers of the 1970s, reflects the impact of the social and political issues arising...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because of its Catholic background, some critics compare Gordon's work to the fiction of Graham Greene, J. F. Powers, and Flannery O'Connor....

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The theme of parent-child relationships, both benign and destructive, is explored in later novels, The Company of Women (1980), Men...

(The entire section is 41 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Becker, Brenda L. “Virgin Martyrs.” The American Spectator, August, 1981, 28-32. This acerbic analysis notes that many of Gordon’s religious themes are hackneyed relics of James Joyce and many feminist writers, but Becker praises the quality of Gordon’s detailed observation and her ability to characterize the Catholic church both in its repressive qualities and in its triumphs.

Cooper-Clark, Diana. “An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Commonweal 107 (May 9, 1980): 270-273. Gordon addresses Final Payments at length, discussing Isabel as one who sees everything in metaphors of Catholicism even though her path of...

(The entire section is 536 words.)