Mary Gordon Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Mary Gordon Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mary Gordon’s early novels, Final Payments and The Company of Women, developed religious themes that labeled her a Catholic novelist, a title she rejected. Her later work has moved away from dealing explicitly with religion. In both those early works, a young woman wrestles with conflicts between her repressive Catholic upbringing and her desire for independence. In Final Payments the repressive force is a father; in The Company of Women it is a priest. Even in Spending: A Utopian Divertimento (1998), a novel which seems intent on avoiding expressly religious material, the conflict exists submerged in the novel’s narrator.

Parents and children, especially fathers and daughters, play important roles in Gordon’s work. The repressive adult, who is unsympathetic to a child’s fears, is a common figure and appears repeatedly in the stories of Temporary Shelter. Similarly Gordon has been interested in the position of the immigrant Irish person in America, who often faces the same sort of conflict that divides parents and children. How can the children of a New World meet the demands of parents who grew up in the Old? How can immigrants find a place in the New World? These questions form much of the theme of The Other Side (1989), a novel about three generations of an Irish American family.

Many critics found Gordon’s early work weak in its portrayal of men and ascribed that weakness to Gordon’s own conflicts between the official morality of the Church and her understanding of human passions. Her later work, especially The Rest of Life and Spending, seem determined to correct that weakness by giving close attention to sexual relations between men and women, and in interviews Gordon has wondered how readers of her early work will respond to so much explicit sex.


“Delia” is one of three stories with interrelated characters from Gordon’s early collection, Temporary Shelter. They focus on four Irish American sisters and their position in America—beautiful Kathleen (whose daughter Nora was born with one leg shorter than the other), sharp-tongued Bridget, tiny Nettie, and Delia, the youngest and best looking of the group, who marries a Protestant and moves away, to the dismay of her sisters. Only Nora’s kindly mother defends Delia’s husband, John Taylor, because he was kind to Nora. The others assume that he and Delia will have Protestant children and that Delia will be lost to them forever.

After Delia writes that she is pregnant with her first child, no further news is heard. Meanwhile, Kathleen also becomes pregnant. Delia’s due date passes without news. At last Kathleen is in labor, and while young Nora is sitting on the porch, listening to her mother’s cries, John Taylor appears. He intends to speak to Kathleen, but when he learns that she is in labor, he loses courage and instead gives his message to Nora: Delia died two months earlier...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)