The literary influences on Gordon’s writing are varied and many. She names—in addition to Austen and Woolf—Ford Madox Ford, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot. Critics have noted that her writing has something of the pulse of D. H. Lawrence, the ethical concerns of Doris Lessing, and the polish of Flannery O’Connor.
Fathers, whether biological, spiritual, or heavenly, figure strongly in Mary Gordon’s fiction. She was deeply affected by the death of her own father when she was young and absorbed the spiritual atmosphere of the patriarchal Catholic Church prior to Vatican II (1961-1963). The tensions of the mother-daughter relationship also constitute a recurring theme in her work. Gordon’s novels are reflective, character-driven studies that examine such contrasting topics as sacrifice and self-centeredness, sex and asceticism, art and gaudiness, legalism and spirituality. Praised for her piercing insight and finely patterned writing, Gordon admitted in a 1980 interview that what she likes most about her own writing is that occasionally she writes “really smashing sentences.” Although much of her fiction, especially her earlier novels, has been influenced by her spiritual formation as a Catholic, she explores broader philosophical questions in her work, such as the nature of forgiveness and compassion, crises of religious faith, and definitions of moral behavior in the personal and political spheres. Critics have often praised Gordon’s meticulous attention to the mastery of her craft, especially her use of metaphor and her finely crafted sentences.
Her first novel, Final Payments, garnered Gordon respect and received glowing reviews, perhaps because the work addresses the unfashionable topics of sacrifice and religious devotion. The novel opens with thirty-year-old Isabel Moore reflecting on those who attended her father’s funeral. She settles primarily on four people: her two best friends, Eleanor and Liz; her favorite priest, Father Mulcahy; and her former housekeeper, Margaret Casey. Isabel has spent the last eleven years of her life caring for her invalid father, who had a series of debilitating strokes after discovering her in bed with his protégé, David Lowe. In reparation for her sin, she has given over her life to her father. He had been a college professor and an extreme right-wing Catholic; now free of his influence, Isabel turns to her friends Eleanor and Liz for solace and for help in beginning a new life. Her new freedom begins with a trip to the gynecologist for the insertion of an intrauterine device. The reader sees that Isabel’s sacrificing her life to her father has been superficial, for once he is gone, she embarks on a course similar to the one that caused the break with her father.
On a visit to the home of Liz and John Ryan, Isabel obtains a job from Ryan, a handsome politician who is totally amoral. Isabel soon falls victim to Ryan’s masculinity and sleeps with him, even though she despises him as a person. She does not, however, feel terribly guilty about this act, for she had previously learned that Liz has a lesbian lover. When Isabel falls in love with Hugh Slade, a local veterinarian and also a married man, she begins to question her physical relationship with Ryan. In order to keep her job with Ryan, she continues both affairs until she realizes how her actions are hurting Hugh.
Although she has told herself from the beginning of the affair with Hugh that he would never leave his wife and his children for her, Isabel eventually breaks off her affair with Ryan, risking his anger. Ryan finds the most appropriate way to hurt her: He sets Hugh’s angry wife on her. Isabel is stricken and decides she must, once again, sacrifice her life in order to pay for her sins. To do so, she goes to live with Margaret Casey, who had been housekeeper for Isabel and her father until Isabel, at thirteen years of age, discovered that Margaret had designs on her father and threw the woman out of the house. With Margaret, whom Isabel has always despised, she finds, she believes, the perfect sacrifice—to love the unlovable. Isabel tries her best to deal with Margaret until Father Mulcahy convinces her that her sacrifice is without meaning and that she is slowly killing herself. Recognizing the truth in what he says, Isabel “pays” Margaret the twenty thousand dollars she received for the sale of her father’s house and returns to her friends Eleanor and Liz to regain her self-respect and renew her life.
Men and Angels
Although Gordon’s second novel, The Company of Women, deals with many of the Catholic topics present in Final Payments, it received mixed reviews upon publication. A series of monologues by Father Cyprian and his female disciples, the novel is primarily the story of the youth and maturing of Felicitas Taylor; in this work, Gordon introduces such issues as abortion and social activism. In her third novel, Men and Angels, Gordon moves away from Catholicism to a more general look at moral and religious questions. Anne Foster, a mother with a Harvard Ph.D., has the opportunity to write a catalog for an exhibition by the dead painter Caroline Watson (a character loosely based on several female artists). She must decide whether to accompany her husband to France, where he is to teach for a year, or to pursue her own career as an art historian. She decides to remain in the United States and hires Laura Post to care for her children while she works. Although she instinctively dislikes Laura, Anne is blind to the real danger that...
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