Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story refers to an expanded definition of “text” to include anything to which meaning is assigned, not just the written word, but also historical events, images, advertisements, and film, among other possibilities. “Intertextuality” in this sense occurs when a relationship is created between two texts that gives new meaning to both. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past proposes that in moments of unconscious memory provoked by an image or object, people discover the truths of their lives. The unconscious mind links the past and present, transcending real time.

This passage from the novel invokes the narrator’s unconscious childhood memories and invites her to imagine a scene that places her grandmother in the text. The unrealized possibilities of this woman’s life are a minor tragedy. This sadness is extended by the narrator’s recognition that she herself failed to understand her grandmother and that this possibility is forever gone, except in the imagination.

Gordon’s work is notable for her vivid description of everyday events and objects. The small, sad details of the grandmother’s home—slipcovers, doilies, a Celtic cross, and pictures of saints—hold the meaning of her life, revealing the emotional cruelty of the daughter who throws them away. Gordon is also noted for her startling metaphors. The daughter’s laugh is an “entirely mirthless noise that sounded like the slow winter starting of a reluctant car.” The silence between mother and daughter is “like a sheet of gray glass that stretched between them.” In cold, mechanical terms, the author conveys the absence of love that describes their relationship.

Gordon has written novels and collections of short stories as well as nonfiction works, including memoirs and a biography. The themes of self-denial and secrecy are characteristic of several of her novels. Her first novel, Final Payments (1978), is the story of a young Irish Catholic woman who, tortured by guilt, nearly allows a selfish, self-denying older woman to destroy her life. Similarly, in The Other Side (1989), Gordon portrays the lives of four generations of Irish Catholic immigrants who prosper financially, but whose emotional deprivation results in a tragic failure of love.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bennett, Alma. Mary Gordon. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Gordon, Mary. “Getting from Here to There: A Writer’s Reflections on a Religious Past.” In Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing, edited by William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Mother Writing and the Narrative of Maaternal Subjectivity.” In A Desire for Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Labrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Leonard, John. “Mary Gordon’s Father Runs Away from Home.” In When the Kissing Had to Stop. New York: New Press, 1999.

Mahon, Eleanor B. “The Displaced Balance: Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Mahon, John W. “Mary Gordon: The Struggle with Love.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

Sheldon, Barbara H. Daughters and Fathers in Feminist Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Smiley, Pamela. “The Unspeakable: Mary Gordon and the Angry Mother’s Voices.” In Violence, Silence, and Anger: Women’s Writing as Transgression, edited by Deirdre Lashgari. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.