Final Payments Additional Summary

Mary Gordon


(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.)