Gail Godwin Godwin, Gail (Vol. 8) - Essay

Godwin, Gail (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Godwin, Gail 1937–

An American novelist and short story writer, Godwin focuses on the perception of self as well as of the physical world. Her interest in writing, she says, is precipitated by a need "to expand awareness of the possibilities of experience." Joyce Carol Oates comments on Godwin's work, "in exploring extremities of human behavior … such art saves us from these experiences and is cathartic in the best sense of the term." (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

As a novelist whose books tend to pivot on classic feminist issues, Gail Godwin will undoubtedly be shelved as yet another women's writer. But this would be a gross injustice. Godwin's appeal goes far beyond feminism, and the basis for this is her talent. Godwin is an extraordinarily good writer…. "The Odd Woman" could be compared, in sensitivity and brilliance, to the best of Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble (two writers who have vociferously rejected the feminist categorization of their work)….

"The Odd Woman" is written with a light, witty touch. It is a cerebral, reflective novel—most of the action takes place in Jane's mind—and a pleasure to read. Godwin's prose is elegant, full of nuance and feeling, and sparkling with ironic humor. At times it feels like a 19th-century novel. Godwin has the self-consciousness of an author who knows her characters well, maneuvering them through this long, complex book with skill and grace….

"The Odd Woman" is Gail Godwin's best and most ambitious book. It is not only twice as long as her previous novels, but far more complex, spanning several generations and a remarkable range of female characters, all successfully realized. While Godwin never tells us what women really want, her exploration of their longings and desires is fascination enough. (p. 4)

Lore Dickstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1974.

[The Odd Woman] is about the past and its relation to the present, about the relationship between literature and life, about [the protagonist's] living more in the nineteenth century (her teaching speciality) than in the present. For Jane's essential problem is her inability to live in her own "real life." Her only "letting go," her only abandonment, is to her imagination…. [Neither] Jane nor Gabriel [her lover] can create the paradoxical union of motivations Godwin sets up as ideal in her epigraph: consciousness of human limitation and of the infinite.

Like other contemporary women's novels, The Odd Woman points toward a future which will resolve some of its female ambivalence. And stylistically, it reads more like life than fiction. It is an important woman's book, one which is mature and quietly intelligent. (p. 121)

Dianne F. Sadoff, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1975 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 33, No. 2, 1975.

[For] Jane, the lucidly intelligent figure at the centre of The Odd Woman, words retain true power, from the brilliant opening stream of thoughts on insomnia, through the miseries of death, failed love, and disappointing friends; they are the ultimate means of her survival. For her, to name is to control, and ultimately to exorcise. At first sight, Gail Godwin's subject-matter seems well-worn; but even familiar campus territory can be illuminated by strong light: The Odd Woman is a most unusual novel….

At the key point in the book she truly fears to melt her 'beautiful frozen mind'; and even naming the possibility feels like magic, the spring thaw beginning, which is only a metaphor for the dangers of her central proposition: 'If you believe in words, you had better be careful which words you say and how you say them.'…

But it is her grandmother Edith's words that count. In her heroine's last dream before relapsing into insomnia at the end of the book, a young version of Edith (remembered from an old photograph) appears who 'just wants to understand this lesson'.

There isn't a lesson, however. Nothing, except the effort of trying to organise 'loneliness, and the weather and the long night into something of abiding shape and beauty'; as indeed Miss Godwin has. (p. 204)

Elaine Feinstein, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 15, 1975.

In "The Odd Woman" (1974), her best-known work so far, Gail Godwin attempted a fleshed-out portrait of a beleaguered but plucky modern woman; the novel virtually sagged under the weight of the author's earnest sympathies and attentions. "Dream Children," her first collection of short stories, now returns to the bloodless control of her first two novels ("The Perfectionists," 1970, and "Glass People," 1972), with their internal psychologically naturalistic landscapes. While broadly representative human experience continues to elude, or perhaps simply not to interest her, Godwin at least recovers here from the oppressive gabbiness of that last book….

Notwithstanding such occasional flashes of affirmation and melioration, Godwin is essentially a chronicler of life on the edge, where isolation and alienation move toward the extremes of nihilism and madness. To be sure, figures reminiscent of the super-wife-mother-career-woman who befriends Jane Clifford in "The Odd Woman" crop up here and there in "Dream Children," intimations of consoling orderly spheres, but these serve primarily to heighten, by contrast, the dark and dangerous atmospheres of the stories. In the end, the grim unwelcoming and fantastic hold sway here….

All but two or three of the stories in this volume in some way amplify, extend or reiterate the themes of Godwin's novels; she is preoccupied with the nature of womanhood—its particular desires, disappointments, distresses. There has been, needless to say, much largely autobiographical, and unworthy, fiction generated by women writers in recent years, devoted to the sundry woes of their sex; it should be pointed out that certain refinements of style and sensibility clearly distinguish Godwin's work from this Mad House-wife school of novel writing. Still, with less serious and talented authors, she shares an essentially reductive image of women, seeing them as almost universally passive and feckless. Whatever impulses of charity or compassion may prompt the creation of these "loser" heroines, the net effect is simply to deprive them of consequence and substance. True, a kind of independence attaches itself to Nora in "Notes for a Story"…. (p. 5)

But this work, significantly, is styled as "notes for a story," the narrator jotting reminders to return at some later time to supply details, dialogue, carefully evoked emotional climates. All but moments of hysteria have an unfinished feel to them, almost as if to say that the narrator is uneasy about the possibilities of a competent woman who's also troubled and complicated.

Nowhere are Godwin's women less convincing that when she tries to say something about women in love. Although hardened readers of contemporary fiction might be expected to be inured to notions of human love as mere victimization, entrapment, quagmire, it is still irritating to have to come across, once again, a celebration of the rootless, no-risk kind of emotion that Nora claims as the reward for her "stubborn sense of self." From the earth-mother in "The Woman Who Kept Her Poet" to the elegant man-eater in "indulgences," these stories are ready to investigate every sort of relationship except those usually complex, difficult and animated ones that real human beings spend most of their time coming to terms with.

When Godwin's people have disconnected from themselves and from the selves in others, drift in dream worlds whose contours threaten dissolution and violence, the author can be chilling. There is a virtuosity to her craftsmanship, and it isn't very often that even the most elaborate schemes run away with her. On a first reading, "Dream Children" arrests and engrosses. But on closer inspection, the reader recognizes that the deepest and most consistent response the writer elicits is really no more than a sauna-like self-pity, and that the special effects are rather frequently too outré for genuine resonance.

Ultimately, the very idiosyncrasy and detachment of Godwin's characters and the worlds they marginally inhabit lend to her writing a tedium and inconsequence that paralyze even her deftest effects. As one reads through the longueurs that take up so much room in these stories, one becomes increasingly impatient for some breakthrough to the real world, for news of its happenings, for representations of engaging destinies acted out by men and women capable of variegations of feeling and action. (pp. 5, 22)

Jane Larkin Crain, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1976.

Dream Children, Gail Godwin's first collection of stories, may disappoint or even dismay readers who admired The Odd Woman. My own admiration for that novel was a little uneasy; though Godwin can be eloquent and witty, her effects depend mainly on amassing incidents and thoughts, and her work can be ponderous and sentimental. In The Odd Woman the accumulation adds up, finally, even though it is not a continuously active or engaging book.

The stories, I'm afraid, expose further deficiencies that aren't evident in the longer and denser novel. A number of them seem exercises in fantasy-making which ought not to be memorialized in hard covers…. Some themes recur in these stories—dead children and lost lovers, female gigantism, sexual attraction to and damage from older men, writers constructing fictions out of life or life out of fiction or dreams—but Godwin's use of the short story form doesn't succeed in giving them clear meaning.

Goodwin can be very good—and sometimes very funny—when she attaches her characters' feelings to the conditions of their culture…. (p. 34)

When she confines herself to relatively conventional modes, where inner feeling and outer circumstance each have their rights preserved, she does quite well, as in "False Lights"….

"Dream Children" … remains a little too close in tone and intensity to the emotional conventions of a familiar kind of commercial women's fiction to earn its professions of seriousness. I much prefer "Notes for a Story," which, though done mostly in outline, mixes emotional intensity with intelligent ironic control.

[The ending,] in effect the climax of a longer story which hasn't fully been written and suggesting a novel's greater amplitude, reminds us that Gail Godwin is a very considerable writer indeed. (p. 35)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), April 1, 1976.

To find one of Gail Godwin's stories in an anthology or magazine is a pleasure, and equally a challenge. She possesses an enormous command of technique, together with a much rarer command of appropriateness: like Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin will use any means necessary, but only what is necessary, to her purpose. Also like Barthelme, she demonstrates that the methods of 'experimental' fiction are out of the breadboard stage and available for normal use.

Why is it, then, that reading straight through Dream Children is noticeably enervating? Qualities emerge that were not visible in individual stories: to begin with, a cloying, insistent rhythm of incantation, a lilting prolixity used to bridge tricky caesuras of plot and feeling. This is the clue to a deeper evasiveness which, once suspected, is confirmed….

The recurring theme of Dream Children is the aperçu that collapses in upon itself if one tries to make it do everyday work; as with the Sussex vicar in 'An Intermediate Stop' who turns his epiphanic vision into a book, then into a lecture tour—and finally stares uncomprehendingly at meaningless lecture notes. Gail Godwin is a mystic, with a mystic's cunning in pointing at the inexpressible. Dream Children should be read one or two stories at a time: to avoid the jadedness from too many words about silence. (p. 21)

Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 15, 1977.