Mary Gordon 1949-
(Full name Mary Catherine Gordon) American short fiction writer, novelist, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry provides criticism on Gordon's short fiction career from 1987 through 1997.
Mary Gordon emerged as a highly respected contemporary novelist with the enormous critical and popular success of her debut novel, Final Payments (1978). Drawing heavily upon her own Catholic upbringing, Gordon examines the problematic and often contradictory claims of universal and particular love, Christian morality, domestic responsibility, sexual desire, and emotional fulfillment in the secular world. Distinguished for her well-crafted prose and engaging evocation of cloistered Catholic lives, Gordon focuses on the private struggles of modern women whose personal needs are sacrificed to the demands of selfless care-giving, marriage, motherhood, and religious conscience. The pieces in Gordon's two short fiction collections, Temporary Shelter (1987) and The Rest of Life (1993), characteristically utilize first-person narrative voice and often take the form of contemplative internal monologues.
Gordon was born on December 8, 1949, in New York and grew up on Long Island. When she was young, Gordon's father stayed home to take care of her, while her mother worked as a legal secretary to support the family. Gordon thus became very close to her father, who encouraged her intellectual development and interest in literature. Gordon's mother was of Irish-Catholic descent, while her father, of Jewish descent, converted to Catholicism as an adult. Her father embraced his new religion with fervor and expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments. Gordon attended Catholic grammar and secondary schools throughout her upbringing. As she relates in the memoir, The Shadow Man (1996), her father, who died when she was only eight years old, misinformed her about many aspects of his life. He had claimed he was born in Lorain, Ohio, his name was David, and he had attended Harvard University. While doing research on his background, however, Gordon discovered that he was actually born in Vilna, Lithuania, that his given name was Israel, and that he had dropped out of high school and never attended college. Gordon also learned that, before launching a series of pro-Catholic periodicals, her father had once written for a pornographic magazine. Gordon attended Barnard College on a scholarship, receiving her bachelor's degree in English in 1971. She went on to earn a master's degree in English and creative writing from Syracuse University in 1973. “Now I am Married” was Gordon's first short story to be published, appearing in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1974. From 1974 to 1978, she taught at Duchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 1979 Gordon taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts. She has also taught English literature at Barnard College since 1988, and at Colombia University since 1990. Gordon married James Brain, an anthropologist, in 1974, and the two later divorced. In 1979 she married Arthur Cash, a professor of English, with whom she has two children.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Gordon is recognized for her novellas and short stories in which individuals contemplate their often troubled family relationships and ambivalent attitudes toward religion, particularly Catholicism. Many of her stories find characters grappling with a lapse of faith and searching for the comforts of love, security, and meaning traditionally supplied by religion. Gordon's first short story collection, Temporary Shelter, includes some twenty stories, most of them concerned with various domestic relationships. The tension between notions of duty, security, and self-sacrifice, and those of freedom, risk, and self-interest is a central theme in Gordon's work. In “Safe,” a married woman with two children goes to visit an old admirer. During the course of her day, she contemplates the sacrifices she has made in order to have a safe life. In another story, “Mrs. Cassidy's Last Year,” a man devotes himself to the misery of caring for his abusive, senile wife due to a promise he once made to her. Relationships between men and women—marital, extramarital, or otherwise—are explored in a number of the stories. These characters express intense loneliness within the context of outwardly stable marriages and family lives. “Now I am Married” is made up of five subsections, each subtitled with the name of a different woman. The first narrator, Marjorie, is an American woman married to a British man. The couple travel to England, where she is introduced to her husband's family for the first time. The following four subsections are each narrated from the perspective of one of four women Marjorie meets. In “The Other Woman,” a woman listens to her husband's story of a previous relationship with an individual whom he still considers to have been the love of his life. In “Walt,” a married woman looks back on a youthful relationship with a man who has recently reentered her life. In “Out of the Fray,” a divorced woman questions her impending marriage to a man who has been divorced three times. Other stories in Temporary Shelter concern parent-child relationships. In several of these a child is emotionally neglected due to his parents' preoccupations with their own careers and love lives. In “The Only Son of the Doctor,” a young man drops out of high school while his father gains prominence as a physician and philanthropist. The son's problems are partly a result of being overlooked by his father who has been too involved in his charitable work to attend to his own child. In “The Magician's Wife,” a woman's adoration of her eccentric husband leads to the neglect of her son. The story “Separation,” by contrast, concerns a woman's overly possessive love for her son that threatens to smother him. Other stories in Temporary Shelter present a child's perspective on family life. Three of the stories, “Delia,” “Agnes,” and “Eileen,” concern the same central character Nora, a second-generation Irish girl who has been disabled by polio and whose life is dominated by her aunts. “The Murderer Guest” is narrated from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose parents have invited a friend—a woman who killed her abusive husband in self-defense—to stay with them. A number of Gordon's works blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, often putting into question whether any given work may be considered a story, essay, or autobiography. “A Writing Lesson,” the final piece in Temporary Shelter, for example, has been categorized as both a short story and an essay. Another of her prose pieces, “The Important Houses,” was considered by Gordon herself to be a work of nonfiction—until it was chosen for the anthology Best American Short Stories, 1993, at which point she conceded to categorizing it as a work of fiction. The Rest of Life comprises three novellas focused on middle-aged and elderly women grappling with the significance of their lives. Each of the three central characters engages in a confessional, internal monologue about a love relationship. These novellas are structured episodically, emphasizing narrative voice rather than plot. The first story, “Immaculate Man,” concerns a divorced woman in her forties who works at a battered women's shelter and is having an affair with a Catholic priest. “Living at Home,” the second novella, is about a thrice-married woman who works as a doctor caring for autistic children. She has found a man with whom she would like to spend her life, but the relationship is complicated by his career as a photojournalist covering revolutions in Third World countries. In the title novella, “The Rest of Life,” a seventy-eight-year-old widow returns to her native town of Turin, Italy, which she left sixty-three years earlier. The visit brings back memories of a pivotal event in her life when she was fifteen; she and her boyfriend had agreed on a suicide pact, but she changed her mind at the last minute while he succeeded in killing himself. Her father, shamed by the scandal, sent her off to live with relatives in America and never saw her again. In recalling these events, she is faced with the challenge of making sense of the life she has lived since leaving Italy.
Gordon has been celebrated as a Catholic feminist writer, known for her skillful prose, emotional honesty, complex female characters, and distinctive use of narrative voice. Critics have noted the quality of her fiction that addresses the changing role of religion in modern life. Her characters struggle with a lapsed faith while striving to find the answers to life that were traditionally resolved by religion. Reviewer Richard Teleky observed, “Gordon is … the pre-eminent American Catholic—or, more accurately, lapsed Catholic—writer of her generation. The dark night of the soul is never far from her mind.” As other scholars have noted, even Gordon's stories that do not address religion directly are infused with themes characteristic of a religious sensibility. Critic Eleanor B. Wymward commented, “Gordon's fiction is centered not on a narrowly sectarian creed or tradition, but on the essentials of Christian theology: sin, grace, incarnation and redemption.” Michael Higgins, in a review of The Rest of Life, noted, “Such Catholic concepts and themes as grace, kenosis (self-emptying), atonement, fallen humanity redeemed and the myriad forms of forgiveness and penance are to be found deftly woven into the rich canvas that is the life of each narrator.” Gordon has been further praised for her contemporarily-minded female characters. Of Gordon's females characters in The Rest of Life, commentator Trudy Bush observed, “Gordon succeeds admirably in exploring a particular kind of modern sensibility—that of the intelligent, reflective woman at mid-life who is trying to make sense of a world that is, for her, bereft of meaning.” Among Gordon's major themes are the roles of self-consciousness, memory, obsession, and regret. As critic Carolyn See commented, “The Stories in Temporary Shelter almost all involve extraordinary loneliness, and the absolutely extraordinary heroic attempts that human beings make to alleviate that condition.” Gordon's ability to create a strong first-person narrative voice has been applauded by many reviewers of her fiction. While some critics consider Gordon's eschewing of plot and emphasis on the episodic nature of fiction to be a laudable element of her contemplative style, others find her stories to be unfocused and lacking in narrative structure. Her prose has been described as finely wrought without being showy, serious without lapsing into sentimentality. Furthermore, Gordon is known for her precise, compassionate, insightful, as well as witty style.