Gail Godwin is one of the foremost novelists of her generation. Her career has done much to advance the acceptance of women as writers of serious literature. She was raised in Asheville, North Carolina, by her mother, Kathleen Krahenbuhl, a divorced journalist, teacher, and writer of romances, and her maternal grandmother. Both of these women proved to be strong influences on Godwin’s fiction, and each has served as the model for one or more of her fictional women. Her fiction also shows the influence of her father, Mose Godwin, who is a model for Uncle Ambrose in Violet Clay, and her stepfather, Frank Cole, whom Godwin’s mother married in the late 1940’s. Both Ray in The Odd Woman and Ralph in A Southern Family owe something to Cole.
Godwin was educated at Peace Junior College and the University of North Carolina, where she earned a B.A. in journalism. She was a reporter for the Miami Herald for a year, worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the American embassy in London, and eventually returned to the United States, earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa. Like another premier novelist from Asheville, Thomas Wolfe, Godwin is considered an autobiographical novelist. Her novels bear a striking resemblance to events or locales from her personal experience. A typical Godwin theme is that of the modern woman and her dilemma in defining self and others in an era when the old frameworks and definitions have broken down. The conflicts she portrays most often arise between a character’s work, usually of an artistic nature, and her desire for security, love, and connection, most often through a relationship with a male. Thus, the theme of the woman struggling for identity divides into two separate thematic strands: identity as artist and identity as lover.
Godwin’s characters also long, in many cases, to penetrate the identities of others. Yet these characters are conscious of the questionable morality of such invasion. Finally, her most important theme is the role of the artist in relation to self, others, and art itself. Her main characters tend to be self-conscious “artists” even when they are lawyers or psychiatrists or unemployed. They make life itself into an art.
The Perfectionists and Glass People feature women who are trapped in bad marriages, who do not have meaningful work, and who are too insecure to make the inevitable and necessary break from their spouses to pursue an independent life. In The Odd Woman, Godwin creates Jane Clifford, her first unmarried heroine, and allows her to grow toward a valid understanding of herself, her strengths, and her limitations. This novel also introduces the important theme of family life, of learning how to relate to one’s birth family in adulthood, a theme that has continued to be central to most of Godwin’s subsequent work. Violet Clay was Godwin’s first novel written from a first-person point of view and her first overt exploration of an artist protagonist. Violet is a painter, and like Jane Clifford she must come to terms with self and family. Another of Godwin’s first-person narrators is Justin Stokes of The Finishing School. An actress looking back on her childhood, she seeks to recover the magic of the yearning she felt during her fourteenth summer.
A Mother and Two Daughters, one of Godwin’s biggest commercial successes, uses multiple perspectives. Although the narrator is omniscient, the shifting of attention among the three title characters ensures a broader scope than in the previous novels. The cast of characters in A Mother and Two Daughters is larger than Godwin usually handles;...
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the resolution of the conflicts, which are not so different from the conflicts facing her earlier protagonists, are more blatantly optimistic.
A Southern Family, an ambitious work for Godwin, is based in part on the unsolved death of her half brother. The novel has many of the same autobiographical fragments as her earlier work, including an artist figure (this time a writer), a strong mother-daughter relationship, an ambivalent relationship between the relocated artist and her native South, and the struggle to define the relationship between self, others, and art. The real breakthrough in this novel is in narrative technique. For the first time, Godwin employs multiple narrators, using first-person in some cases and a tightly limited third-person perspective in others, allowing all the characters to take on a significance and an integrity heretofore reserved only for the typical Godwin heroine.
Father Melancholy’s Daughter and The Good Husband continue Godwin’s themes of female self-development through meaningful work and relationships. Both also concern themselves with spiritual issues for women and men confronting mortality in the chaotic, modern world. While Father Melancholy’s Daughter focuses on Margaret Gower’s struggle to find her identity and regenerate herself from the ashes of a troubled family past, The Good Husband (similar in its themes) is more complex. It is told from four narrative perspectives—two husbands’ and two wives’—whose marriages are ending in crises (death and divorce). In both novels, protagonists undergo painful spiritual journeys to begin to fulfill the promise of their lives. Evensong, a sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, is a contemplative novel that depicts a pivotal period in the life of Margaret Gower Bonner, now an Episcopal pastor whose marriage, family, community, and church undergo a trial by fire.
Most critics prefer Godwin’s novels to her short fiction. Similar to her novels in technique and subject matter, her stories tend to go against the grain of most contemporary short fiction, often shifting perspectives or using an omniscient narrator, and often covering longer stretches of time and more complicated action than is customary for the contemporary story. Godwin is sometimes pigeonholed as a “woman’s writer,” but her accomplishment is greater than that limited title would suggest. Hers is an intelligent approach to fiction, much aware of the traditions of the novel. Her richly detailed portraits of sensitive, striving women seeking fuller lives will remain an important contribution to the literature. As her work turns increasingly toward an examination of faith and spiritual matters, it is likely that the limiting classification of “woman’s writer” will fall away.