Francine du Plessix Gray Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francine du Plessix Gray 1930–

French-born American novelist and social critic.

In Divine Disobedience, Gray combines a crisp journalistic style of writing with an eloquent liberalism to explore contemporary Catholic radical ideas. Her two novels, Lovers and Tyrants and World without End, have been praised for their striking characterization and melodic prose.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Andrew M. Greeley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Francine du Plessix Gray, the author of "Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism," is herself] a romantic, and there is not much doubt where her wide-eyed sympathies lay. The Berrigans are "political prisoners," convicted not for destroying Government property, but because of their ideas….

The rhetoric of her account of the Catonsville trial surpasses all the other recent trial accounts in its sympathy for the defendants. She is particularly skillful at using analogies from food to describe the members of the "silent majority" who constitute the juries. Their faces look alternately like "unbaked loaves" and "unrisen dough"; while the defendants are "gentle," "genuine," "affable,"...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

David Schoenbrun

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Divine Disobedience is] a remarkable book, a book that achieves the near-impossible by being passionate, compassionate, and dispassionate….

It is, to be sure, a book of profiles of Catholic radicals who, in the spirit of Saint Paul, have been sent to prison often, menaced by their "so-called brothers." (p. 32)

The lives and thoughts of these men and women, their militant, nonviolent activism …, is presented in a marvelously colorful tapestry of profiles, a modern Passion Play re-enacting the lives of the early Christians. In her deft, rapid, paradoxically rich but austere prose, Francine Gray reveals herself as a fresh, important new talent in American letters.


(The entire section is 380 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nowhere is there surprise [in "Lovers and Tyrants"]. And that is why [the novel], for all the wit and thrust of its prose, is finally so exasperating. The drone of its intelligence ultimately bores.

This is not so at the beginning. The novel starts off with a lively portrait of Stephanie's childhood oppression by a lonely White Russian governess…. And when Stephanie, in forgiving retrospect, recognizes the simultaneous yearning and selfishness behind that governess's love, it looks to the reader as if Mrs. Gray will ring infinite changes on the subtle ambiguities of love and tyranny.

And in four of the five chapters that follow, she seems to succeed….


(The entire section is 326 words.)

Julian Moynahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A few years ago, Francine du Plessix Gray's "Divine Disobedience" surveyed radical and libertarian stirrings in the Catholic Church subsequent to Vatican II. Ivan Illich, the Bishop of Cuernavaca, and the Berrigan brothers were among the clerical freedom fighters profiled in this highly intelligent work of personal and investigative reportage. Herself committed to the goal of liberation, Mrs. Gray remained ironically aware of elements of the quixotic and contradictory in the various attempts her book depicted to "make it new" within the confines of one of the most hidebound institutions on earth….

["Lovers and Tyrants,"] a first novel, is also taken up with the tension or dialectic between...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Anne DuchêNe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


What Ms Gray sets her heroine, Stephanie, to do [in Lovers and Tyrants] is to explore and witness to the solitariness of a "body-crazed society", the restlessness in face of commitment, and the temptations to non-commitment, which are our latest truisms….

Stephanie marries an irreproachable American…. With so much perfection, it is from the first "an aging marriage"; Stephanie, though her career blossoms, she says, into college lecturing and protest-leading, feels restless and confined. Eventually she undergoes a matronly freak-out in Colorado, with a lapsed-Jesuit guru who teaches her to meditate on Nothing, and an ineffably beautiful young homosexual...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Judith Gies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good news for Mary McCarthy: The novel of ideas isn't dead. Francine du Plessix Gray's [World Without End] is full of ideas. The bad news is that the wit, elegance, and occasional brilliance that informed her first novel, Lovers and Tyrants, are only a shadow of their former selves. The author's intelligence, spirit, and seriousness of purpose are unmistakable, but what they add up to is less a novel than a morality play.

Three middle-aged friends, bound by ties of the flesh and the spirit, make a trip to the Soviet Union to "recreate … that ethereal summit of candor which only friendship can offer," to "take the risk of total truth-telling in order to make the last third or fourth of...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"World Without End" is a very good novel, and a fine surprise. I was not an admirer of Francine du Plessix Gray's first novel, although her nonfiction books on "Divine Disobedience" and "Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress" were graceful and intelligent and quirky. That first novel, "Lovers and Tyrants," suffered from a sort of vegetable rot of lyricism, especially when she wrote about sex, which she wrote about as clumsily as D. H. Lawrence. "Honeyed Interstices," indeed.

There is sex in "World Without End," but not much flora and fauna in the description of it. There is lyric excess, in conversation, in letters and in thought … but, obviously, it is ironic. Mrs. Gray has chosen to satirize the art,...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If one were given to reviewing by bestowing genre-labels one might call Francine Gray's [World Without End] … a prime entry in the novel of intelligence. It is just that: the lives she tells about ring with authenticity for their times and their place. The three who are her heroes love each other and are held together by their participation in all the artistic, intellectual, religious, and psycho-sexual movements of the American twentieth-century. They move across continents and hemispheres of class, national origins, poverty, success, dissatisfaction, and rebellion against the present and the inherited past, thus involving a complete contemporary culture in their lives. (p. 306)

[The] bond...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

D. M. Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The preciousness of [the main characters' friendship in World Without End] is made much of; it is also precious in a less favorable sense. They address each other by such terms as "Clair de Lune," "Eddem," "Sofka." I would carefully avoid them at a cocktail party, but they are well-drawn, especially Edmund. The opening chapter sets them on their Russian holiday; then their interwoven histories are related through a series of lengthy flashbacks. This technique may have been unavoidable, but by removing the element of uncertainty and surprise—what will happen to them?—it weakens the narrative interest.

The book moves slowly, heavy with minute particulars. This in time exercises its own...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Reynolds Price

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "World Without End," Francine du Plessix Gray displays the one indispensable gift in a novelist—she generates slowly and authoritatively a mixed set of entirely credible human beings who shunt back and forth through credible time and are altered by the trip. Ample, generous and mature, the book is stocked with the goods a novel best provides. Among its provisions is a complicated and interesting plot.

On Nantucket in 1945, three 15-year-olds meet and cast their lot with one another: Edmund, Sophie, Claire. They are all ferociously bright and famished for life…. By 1975, the three are wrecked in lonely middle age. They have survived, with sporadic nursing; and they resolve to visit Russia in...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)