Gail Godwin Godwin, Gail (Vol. 125) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gail Godwin 1937–

(Full name Gail Kathleen Godwin) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and librettist.

The following entry presents an overview of Godwin's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 8, 22, 31, and 69.

Gail Godwin is a gifted popular writer whose work has been praised for its convincing development of characters. With story lines closely paralleling her own life experiences, she writes about issues pertaining to women—male-female roles, marriage, family, personal freedom, self-concept, and self-actualization. Often her characters define themselves through the art or literature they create or study, graying the line between reality and fiction. She has based many of her characters on her own family members and tragic incidents in their lives that have affected her. Thus, Godwin's narratives can be perceived as analyses of her life. While not all of her novels are set in the South, her southern upbringing pervades each work through settings, events, cultural references, or characters struggling with Southern traditions and stereotypes. A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) launched Godwin into the ranks of best-selling authors.

Biographical Information

Godwin was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in a "manless little family" by her mother and grandmother until she was an adolescent. They were dissimilar role models. Her grandmother was a traditional Southern woman who ran the household and set aside her interests for others. She is represented by Edith in The Odd Woman (1974). Her mother, Kathleen Godwin, was a reporter for the local paper, a junior college teacher, and weekend romance writer. She imbued Godwin with a love of storytelling. Kathleen would become Kate in the Glass People (1972) and Kitty in The Odd Woman. When Godwin was eleven years old, her mother married Frank Cole, with whom she never developed a close relationship. He figures as the stepfather Ray in The Odd Woman. Godwin finally met her charismatic father, Mose Godwin, who had left the family shortly after her birth, at her high school graduation. She lived with him briefly while attending Pearce Junior College in Raleigh, North Carolina; later he would commit suicide. The lovable Uncle Ambrose who kills himself in Violet Clay (1978) and the disconsolate Walter Gowan in Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991) are patterned after Mose. Godwin's uncle and half-brother also committed suicide; the latter's story was retold in A Southern Family (1987). After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Godwin took a job as a reporter with the Miami Herald. She was fired a year later because she persisted in infusing her stories with human-interest details rather than just presenting the facts. During the same year, she was married for three months to newspaper photographer Douglas Kennedy. This union would be fodder for Godwin's first novel, "Gull Key." This novel, however, was never published because she sent the only manuscript copy to a publisher whom later she could never track down. In 1962 she went to London, where she worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the American embassy, traveled, and took writing classes. She met her second husband. British psychiatrist Ian Marshall, in one of her classes. Her first published novel, The Perfectionists (1970), is based on her second, also very brief, marriage. Upon her return to the United States, Godwin studied writing and pursued her postgraduate degrees at the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. degree in 1968 and her Ph.D. degree in English in 1971. Her thesis was the novel The Perfectionists. While in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she studied under Kurt Vonnegut along with fellow student John Irving. Later, as Irving was writing The World According to Garp and she was writing Violet Clay, they exchanged chapters as they wrote them. Besides novels, Godwin has written short stories and essays and has been the librettist of musical works by her companion, Robert Starer. She has garnered many honors, including a National Book Award nomination for The Odd Woman, American Book Award nominations for Violet Clay and for A Mother and Two Daughters, a Janet Kafka award and Thomas Wolfe Memorial award for A Southern Family, an Alabama Library Association Best Fiction award for Father Melancholy's Daughter, as well as National Endowment for the Arts grants in creative writing and for librettists, and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Major Works

Godwin forces her protagonists, who are nearly without exception women, to reevaluate their lives and desires when confronted with an adversity, be it a sudden death in the family, a breakdown in a marriage, or some other incident. In The Perfectionists Godwin describes the disintegration of American Dane Empson's "perfect but unhappy marriage" to a British psychiatrist while on vacation with his sullen three-year-old son and a patient. Dane struggles to understand what she wants from the marriage and what her role is in it. Another unhappily married woman, grappling with the same questions of self-abnegation and resolution, is the protagonist of the Glass People. Cameron Bolt adores and pampers his wife, Francesca, but stifles her personal growth until she literally bolts for freedom. Freedom brings complications for which she is unprepared, and she ultimately returns to her welcoming husband, although she is pregnant by another man. The book confirmed Godwin's talent, but The Odd Woman demonstrated a significant advance in her development. In the novel an unmarried literature professor, Jane Clifford, engaged in a love affair with a married man. Gabriel Weeks, mulls over freedom, identity, and self-fulfillment by examining the lives of real and literary women. Following the death her grandmother. she analyzes the roles of her mother (a romantic, accommodating wife), her grandmother (a traditional Southern lady), friend (a militant feminist), and colleague (a successful, married career woman) and reflects on how she twines literary fantasies into her life, especially in her relationship with Gabriel. This novel is twice as long as Godwin's previous ones because of her inclusion of more flashback, fantasy, and actual incidents and of the characterizations of several women. In Violet Clay Godwin explores the relationship of the artist and her art, as the title character seeks to establish her self-identity. Violet is a Southern woman who goes to New York to become an artist, but settles for being an illustrator of romance novel covers. Shaken by losing her job and her lover, then her Uncle Ambrose's suicide, she moves into her uncle's cabin to gain insight into his stagnated writing career and to rediscover her artistic self. The narrative of Godwin's next two novels, A Mother and Two Daughters and The Finishing School (1985) also evolves from death. In A Mother and Two Daughters Godwin explores relationships, Southern stereotypes, the New South, and such issues as abortion as the central characters aspire to selfhood after the death of the father. It is the first book in which Godwin tells a story from the perspective of more than one character. These characters include the recently widowed mother, Nell Strickland, and her thirty-something daughters Cate, a twice-divorced college professor, and Lydia, a mother who has left her husband. In The Finishing School a middle-aged actress recalls the summer she was fourteen and she and her mother stayed at her aunt's home following the death of her grandparents and father and she became the protégé of a failed actress. The book presents a good portrait of adolescence using a style that is both mythic and folkloric. A Southern Family is based on the suicide of Godwin's half-brother. In the novel, author Clare Quick is visiting her family in North Carolina when her brother, a divorced father, kills his girlfriend and himself. The book delves into the reactions of the survivors (the family and the community) and the family history and relationships that might shed light on such an unpredictable event. Godwin derived the despondent father in Father Melancholy's Daughter (which focuses on role reversal) from her own father's experience with depression. After her mother runs off when she is six, Margaret Gower assumes the role of nurturer as her Episcopal priest father is unable to overcome his heartbrokenness. This book is a combination of domestic fiction, mystery, and religious novel. Godwin returns to the theme of matrimony and its complexities in The Good Husband (1994). The story involves four characters undergoing profound changes. Alice Henry, who recently had a miscarriage, is contemplating divorcing her eccentric, Southern novelist husband, Hugo, and is becoming interested in her friend Magna Dowers' husband, Francis Lake. Caring and steadfast Francis, who is ten years younger than Magna, left the priesthood to marry her. But now as she is dying, Magna encourages Alice's interest in him.

Critical Reception

Although she produces a new novel every few years, and has experimented with various literary modes and techniques. Godwin has consistently won the respect of reviewers. As Mary Ann Wimsatt noted, "During slightly more than twenty years of an active career, Gail Godwin has established herself as one of the most gifted, prolific, and popular late twentieth-century Southern novelists." Most of her books are characterized as well written, well executed, readable, witty, and having vivid, believable characters. "Her meticulously controlled fiction," wrote Paul Gray, "creates the illusion of life unpredictably unfolding and of characters trying to make moral sense out of experiences that overwhelm thought." The Odd Woman, The Finishing School, and A Southern Family attracted favorable reviews and a large popular audience. However, Violet Clay and The Good Husband were less appreciated by reviewers, the former for being too intelligent, the latter for being overambitious and too symbolic. Despite such criticism, Godwin remains highly regarded for her depiction of authentic female protagonists whose private struggles and insecurities reflect those of many modern women. Wimsatt added, "All Godwin's novels, from The Perfectionists in 1970 to Father Melancholy's Daughter in 1991, center upon young women struggling to attain their independence, establish their identity, and successfully pursue their work despite the restraints of male-dominated culture and with or without the companionship or support of men." In a review of A Southern Family, Gray concluded, "Born in the South, Godwin appears to be one of those writers who inherited a subject for life; then she developed the wisdom and talent to make her birthright seem constantly fresh and enthralling."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Perfectionists (novel) 1970
Glass People (novel) 1972
The Odd Woman (novel) 1974
Dream Children (short stories) 1976
Violet Clay (novel) 1978
A Mother and Two Daughters (novel) 1982
Mr. Bedford and the Muses (short stories) 1983
The Finishing School (novel) 1985
A Southern Family (novel) 1987
Father Melancholy's Daughter (novel) 1991
The Good Husband (novel) 1994

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Susan E. Lorsch (essay date 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman: Literature and the Retreat from Life," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1978, pp. 21-32.

[In the following essay, Lorsch examines the significance of literature and imaginative thought for the female protagonist of The Odd Woman. According to Lorsch, "The Odd Woman centers on the relation between literature and life, especially on the effect that literature—and the lies it often tells—has on those who believe it."]

Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman (1974) does not at first glance seem to be in the currently popular mode of self-conscious fiction—and perhaps for this reason has not...

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Marilynn J. Smith (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Role of the South in the Novels of Gail Godwin," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 3, 1980, pp. 103-10.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses the influence of Southern culture and values on the protagonists of Godwin's fiction. According to Smith, "Beyond family ties and soft accents, the most significant positive trait is the willingness to dream, which Godwin seems to attribute to Southerners."]

Gail Godwin, who was born in Alabama and raised in North Carolina but has lived in the Midwest and New York, is a novelist and short story writer concerned with the problems of developing self-identity and seeking the "best life." Many of...

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Paul Gray (review date 25 January 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romance Turned Upside Down," in Time, January 25, 1982, p. 72.

[In the following review, Gray offers praise for A Mother and Two Daughters.]

In simpler times, happy stories ended with a marriage proposal or a wedding. A Mother and Two Daughters is decidedly cheerful: but living happily ever after, in the old-fashioned sense, is the very fate its heroines struggle to escape. They find themselves in a romance turned upside down: girl meets boy, boy offers her his hand, she shakes it and marches on.

In four earlier novels and a collection of short stories, Author Gail Godwin, 44, has presented a distinctive gallery of rogues, female,...

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Wendy Schwartz (review date May 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "With Men and Without," in Progressive, Vol. 46, May, 1982, p. 59.

[In the following review, Schwartz offers positive assessment of A Mother and Two Daughters.]

Historically, novels by and about women have been taken less seriously than novels by men. This pattern is changing, however, as publishers seek to capitalize on the feminist market. A good many feminist writers deserve this new attention, and it is no longer possible to count on the bones of a single corset the women who write fiction of quality about women. Gail Godwin is one such writer, and in A Mother and Two Daughters she continues to explore the concept of independence from men, the theme...

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Joanne S. Frye (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrating the Self: The Autonomous Heroine in Gail Godwin's Violet Clay," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 66-85.

[In the following essay, Frye examines the relationship between narrative design and self-creation in Violet Clay. "By granting Violet the power of the narrative process to explore possibilities and to assess patterns," writes Frye, "Godwin has given her heroine the capacity to be 'the subject of her own destiny,' a destiny created and renewed with each new choice."]

Though both contemporary fiction and current literary theory are often concerned to tell us that plot is passé, few of us are actually...

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Carolyn Rhodes (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gail Godwin and the Ideal of Southern Womanhood," in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 55-66.

[In the following essay, Rhodes explores Godwin's treatment of Southern values concerning motherhood and female duty in her novels. According to Rhodes, "Godwin's writings dissect the conservative feminine myth of the South not just to expose its debilitating central demand for a selflessness that precludes self-discovery, but also to present remedies."]

Gail Godwin's fiction has reflected many of the myths and manners of the South. Some of her most sympathetic characters have been...

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Paul Gray (review date 11 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deliberate Speed, Stunning Effect," in Time, February 11, 1985. p. 87.

[In the following review; Gray asserts that The Finishing School is Godwin's "most artful and accomplished novel and an old-fashioned, irresistible page turner."]

With A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), her fifth novel. Gail Godwin joined that select circle of critically praised authors who have also produced best-sellers. This happy event entitled her longtime admirers to mixed emotions. While it is pleasurable to see a favored writer receive the success she deserves, it is irksome to realize that membership in a small club of discriminating readers has suddenly been thrown...

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Lisa Mitchell (review date 24 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Finishing School, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 24, 1985, pp. 2, 10.

[In the following review, Mitchell offers qualified praise for The Finishing School, while pointing out some of the novel's technical flaws.]

What do actors do to survive between plays? Not as in how do they pay their rent, but in where do they live out their dramas? With and for whom can they perform? What do they do to avoid the dreaded "ordinariness"? For 40-year-old Justin Stokes, with successful New York plays to her credit, she becomes obsessed with a desire she had during the summer that she turned 14.

An appealing subject,...

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William H. Pritchard (review date 25 February 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Maiden Voyage," in New Republic, February 25, 1985, pp. 31-2.

[In the following review, Pritchard offers praise for The Finishing School, which he concludes is Godwin's "best novel."]

The "finishing school" is in fact an old stone hut by a pond in Clove township, upstate New York, where at the beginning of her 15th year and over the course of an extraordinary summer, Justin Stokes comes of age. The agent who plants formative aspirations within her is Ursula DeVane, an unmarried woman of 44 who—with her reclusive brother Julian, a talented concert pianist reduced to giving lessons to neighborhood children—lives in her father's old house and grounds,...

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Paul Gray (review date 5 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Polite Forms of Aggression," in Time, October 5, 1987, p. 82.

[In the following review, Gray asserts that in A Southern Family "Gail Godwin again displays the narrative verve and generosity that won critical praise for her early works…."]

Clare Campion, 42, a successful novelist living in New York City, pays one of her infrequent visits home to Mountain City in western North Carolina. There she finds her mother Lily, her stepfather Ralph Quick and her two half brothers. Theo, 28, and Rafe, 26, all of them behaving incorrigibly in character and thereby reminding Clare of why she had left them and the South in the first place. Her only respite from what...

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Anita Brookner (review date 17 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time and the Single Girl," in Spectator, October 17, 1987, pp. 36-7.

[In the following review, Brookner offers positive evaluation of A Southern Family.]

Thirteen years ago Gail Godwin wrote an extraordinarily capacious and sympathetic novel entitled The Odd Woman. Both the title and the theme were taken from George Gissing's novel, The Odd Women, a bleak and chilling account of what happens to women who are not married. According to Gissing they are forced into menial work and end up in institutions, drunk or mad or both. The shame of spinsterhood was apparently at its peak in the sunset years of Victorian values. Gail Godwin took over the...

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Rachel M. Brownstein (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Odd Woman and Literary Feminism," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 173-84.

[In the following essay, Brownstein explores literary feminist themes in The Odd Woman and Godwin's opposition to "feminist categorization" among contemporary critics. According to Brownstein, "The Odd Woman suggests that real, interesting women must imagine and construct their identities in the terms of traditional fiction, so as to revise them."]

At the age of four or five, Jane Clifford, the protagonist of Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman, was already...

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Rhoda Koenig (review date 11 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Father Melancholy's Daughter, in New York, March 11, 1991, pp. 86-7.

[In the following review, Koenig offers negative assessment of Father Melancholy's Daughter.]

An upbeat novel about depression, an inquiry into the meaning of the Passion and the Resurrection—Father Melancholy's Daughter goes into some strange territory for mainstream fiction. The trouble is, it goes in there with all the old paraphernalia of not only mainstream but women's fiction, all those cleft sticks and hip boots of romantic yearnings, endearing twinkliness, and recipes to try in your own home.

The daughter of an Episcopal rector, Margaret...

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Isobel Armstrong (review date 24 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Secrets of St. Cuthbert's," in Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1991, p. 21.

[In the following review, Armstrong lauds Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter.]

Early in Gail Godwin's new novel [Father Melancholy's Daughter], Daddy, the "Father Melancholy," of the title, Episcopal Rector of St Cuthbert's and its contracting Virginian congregation of the early 1970s, holds hands with his guest and family to say Grace at dinner. The reaction of incredulous cynicism from his wife's friend, Madelyn, his wife Ruth's embarrassment, his six-year-old only daughter's fury at the sophisticated stranger's intrusion, and Daddy's always slightly exasperating...

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Suzanne W. Jones (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dismantling Stereotypes: Interracial Friendships in Meridian and A Mother and Two Daughters," in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature, edited by Carol S. Manning, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 140-57.

[In the following excerpt, Jones examines Godwin's presentation of an interracial friendship and Southern racial dynamics in A Mother and Two Daughters. "Stereotypical thinking exists in Gail Godwin's world," writes Jones, "but not between blacks and whites who know each other personally."]

For various reasons, the average, struggling, nonmorbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to...

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Linda C. Pelzer (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Visions and Versions of Self: The Other/Women in A Mother and Two Daughters," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 155-63.

[In the following essay, Pelzer examines the quest for self-identity among the female protagonists of A Mother and Two Daughters. According to Pelzer, "Visions and versions of other women, other selves, always, inevitably, and necessarily lie behind the identities of Godwin's heroines, for as A Mother and Two Daughters attests, women become and are in relation to each other."]

Gail Godwin's novel A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) charts the struggle to selfhood of three...

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Sara Maitland (review date 4 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wife Every Woman Wants," in New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, p. 5.

[In the following review, Maitland complains that Godwin's The Good Husband "is overloaded with attempts to make it a larger scale book that it is."]

Gail Godwin is a good writer, but The Good Husband is not a good novel. This is both sad and slightly puzzling, because it ought to be. Certainly all the right ingredients seem to be in place. The four main characters are interesting and convincing; their difficulties are real and persuasive; the principal plot is well constructed and involving. Most important, Ms. Godwin has a remarkable capacity for the subtle...

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Juliet Fleming (review date 4 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Facing a Grim Future," in Times Literary Supplement, November 4, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following review, Fleming offers unfavorable assessment of The Good Husband.]

Gail Godwin's ninth novel [The Good Husband], set in an imaginary college in upstate New York, is a meditation on paths not taken: on early death, vocations abandoned, careers not realized, marriages fractured, a child strangled in the womb. Its melancholy sweetness results from the fact that each of its four protagonists learns to abandon his or her early certainties and aspirations in favour of a grimmer, sternly tentative future.

The courage to accept the drastic...

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Anita Brookner (review date 5 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Servant or a Saint," in Spectator, November 5, 1994, pp. 51-2.

[In the following review, Brookner offers positive evaluation of The Good Husband.]

Here is a capacious and substantial novel which will impress its readers as either extremely moving or extremely sentimental. The charge of sentimentality will arise from the fact that all the characters are virtuous, even the baroque and self-aggrandising woman professor, even the redneck novelist with writer's block and an attitude problem.

Gail Godwin has made something of a speciality of writing about unsuitable attachments, which neither her heroine, nor perhaps the author herself, perceive...

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Trudy Bush (review date 16 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Modern Death," in Christian Century, November 16, 1994, pp. 1088-91.

[In the following review, Bush offers tempered criticism of The Good Husband.]

Deathbed scenes were a staple of novels in the 19th century, when writers could only hint at sex. In this century, as the novel has dealt more and more explicitly with sex, death has been the taboo. But recently some authors have again considered the process of dying as a fit subject for literature. In Gail Godwin's novel, the main character attempts to order, her life and to find the meaning of that life as she prepares for death.

Magda Danvers, a brilliant 58-year-old academic, is dying of...

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Mary Ann Wimsatt (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gail Godwin, the South, and the Canons," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 86-95.

[In the following essay, Wimsatt examines Godwin's critical reception and elements of autobiography, Southern culture, and feminism in her fiction. According to Wimsatt, "Any suspicions that Godwin's popularity has diminished her artistic achievement may by be silenced … by a glance at her skill in various literary modes and her persistent experimentation with technique."]

During slightly more than twenty years of an active career, Gail Godwin has established herself as one of the most gifted, prolific, and popular late twentieth-century Southern...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cheney, Anne. "A Hut and Three Houses: Gail Godwin, Carl Jung, and The Finishing School." Southern Literary Journal 21, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 64-71.

Examines the significance of Jungian psychology and the archetypal symbolism of the house in The Finishing School.

Cheney, Anne. "Gail Godwin and Her Novels." In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, pp. 204-35. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Provides an overview of Godwin's life and an analysis of her novels.


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