Gail Godwin Godwin, Gail (Vol. 5) - Essay

Godwin, Gail (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Godwin, Gail 1937–

Ms Godwin is an American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

Coming after the first wave attacks of women's liberation writing, with the virtues and faults of propaganda literature, the more subtle examinations of the categories of power in terms of male/female struggle deal with "power" in a far deeper, far more abstract way—hence, Gail Godwin's two novels [The Perfectionist and Glass People] may be read, instructively, as about the precarious battle for identity of two young "new" women. But this is simply one level and perhaps not the most important one. Miss Godwin is preoccupied with the relationship between private, individual selves and larger, more mythic selves. (p. 8)

[The Glass People] is a formally executed, precise, and altogether professional short novel which deepened my long-cherished belief about certain forms of art: that in exploring extremities of human behavior, in forcing us to wade through real or metaphorical blood, such art saves us from these experiences and is cathartic in the best sense of the term. (p. 10)

Joyce Carol Oates, "Transparent Creatures Caught in Myths," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 1, 1972, pp. 8, 10.

The Odd Woman [is a] generous, sensitive, intelligent, humane, and literate book that, despite its generosity, sensitivity, humanity, and literacy, manages to be a deadly bore…. One of the book's chief weaknesses is that so much of the dialogue is couched in flat, dull universityese. ("This is the price we pay for evolving: the deadly drain on our energies … when we dare to open our mind and let another examine its contents.") But an even greater weakness is that almost every scene has the same tone and emotional texture, so that after a while one begins to feel as if one were reading an endless … letter from a nice but hopelessly gabby friend. (p. 234)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 18, 1974.

Like several recent novels, The Odd Woman owes much of its dialectic structure to Doris Lessing's Children of Violence pentalogy, in which Martha Quest explores herself and the world around her over many years and two continents. Martha was often as exasperating a character as Jane [Godwin's protagonist] but we stayed with the slow parts of her story because Lessing's emotional and intellectual sweep invited confidence. The confidence was justified by the imaginative completion of The Four-Gated City. Godwin merely confirms our fears that Jane's tentativeness won't lead to a confrontation with anything outside itself. The Odd Woman's schematic organization is unpleasantly rigid, and Godwin has little to say.

Jane responds to students too frequently with a quote that doesn't answer anything, and she evades her own basic questions by thinking of characters with whom she wants to identify. The Odd Woman is full of literary allusions that backfire. When Jane compares herself to Isabel Archer or Gwendolen Harleth, we see the foolishness of the comparison; and we may wish that we were back reading The Portrait of a Lady or Daniel Deronda.

Dwelling on literature as a way of stalemating one's self is a potentially interesting subject for a novel, but I was never convinced that Godwin was aware of the problem. Jane approaches life as though it were a doctoral thesis that could be completed with mental note cards, and Godwin presents all of Jane's literary references so solemnly that the novel is footnoted like a thesis. The title is a footnote: Gissing's The Odd Women, which Jane is preparing to teach, is evoked so frequently that it becomes Godwin's novel-within-a-novel. Jane, trying to work out her life, makes a chart of Gissing's characters and the solutions they found. Gissing's 19th-century feminists and unhappy spinsters have problems that offer Jane no help with hers; but before Jane reaches that conclusion, Godwin has spent an inordinate number of words on a novel that is like her own only in the use of "odd" to mean "unmarried."

The flaws of The Odd Woman are crippling, but I may have made the book seem less promising than it is. One is always aware of Godwin's struggle with the demands she has made on herself, and there are places where her novelist's intelligence breaks through…. In the successful scenes Godwin is returning to the tone of her earlier work, and I'm not suggesting that she should simply go back to what she is good at. She was right to know that she couldn't grow as a writer by continuing with those little fables about sexual apocalypses and exquisite neuroses. But now she has to find a subject. (pp. 26-7)

John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 25, 1975.