Men and Angels

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Men and Angels is Mary Gordon’s third novel. Like her highly acclaimed Final Payments (1978) and The Company of Women (1981), Men and Angels focuses on an engaging heroine who, in crisis, must rely on her own character in the absence of an authoritative male. Anne Foster, ambitiously attempting to be mother, housekeeper, and researcher while her husband Michael teaches in Europe for a year, unknowingly shapes a tragic fate for the girl hired to care for her children. Like Isabel Moore in Final Payments and Felicitas Taylor in The Company of Women, Anne struggles with the burden of being thought stable and good even as she learns that life is unpredictable and that love is not innocent.

Men and Angels is a more complex, richer work of fiction than the previous novels. Its scope extends beyond the Irish Catholic world of ethnic solidarity and clerical sway. Its central situation is complicated by mirroring subplots and characters. It offers an additional poignant theme: the human yearning to reestablish the Edenic harmony—real or imagined—of the childhood home before the Fall into adulthood. It employs two alternating points of view to record the fatal interaction of Laura Post and Anne Foster.

Laura is the central consciousness of the first chapter (and subsequent odd-numbered chapters). These chapters take the reader inside Laura’s heart and head. Laura’s heart shriveled when her mother rejected her for a younger, more attractive daughter, and her father only halfheartedly compensated for his wife’s withdrawal. Laura’s withered heart creates the conviction that the Spirit of the Lord has chosen her for a revelation. Laura imagines herself the apostle of the Spirit to children, preaching that parental love is transient and unreliable. Purged of illusion, children shall turn to stable, divine love.

Laura’s determination to estrange child and parent deepens after she leaves home in a vain search for surrogate parents. For a while she helps the ministry of a faith healer, until he dismisses her for aspiring to become herself a channel of restorative grace. Briefly she lives in a religious commune where she becomes its leader’s mistress in the belief that the Spirit wills it. When Laura discovers that her lover appropriates the community’s money, he banishes her as the sinner.

Laura comes to work for Anne after dismissal from another family. Realizing that she must now, as the Bible enjoins, be as cunning as a serpent, Laura stealthily plans a revelation for the Foster children. Despite attention to Peter and Sarah, Laura is increasingly attracted to Anne. She soon receives a new injunction from the Spirit: Free Anne from the cares and physical love of family. Laura envisions living with Anne in harmonious hermitage until death takes them home to the Spirit. One winter day, however, the girl carelessly leads Peter and Sarah onto the thin ice of a pond; Anne immediately fires her. Angry yet contrite, Laura takes revenge against Anne: She slashes A-N-N-E on her wrists and bleeds to death.

Reading Laura’s chapters is an excursion into pain, desperation, and fanaticism. Laura seeks love, but each denial further twists and distorts her perceptions. Though Laura’s plight deserves pity, the reader cannot ignore Laura’s descent into madness. Her faith is obviously compensatory, a psychological mechanism for repairing the disintegration of her life. Though biblical quotations come trippingly to Laura’s tongue, she acts irreligiously. She is blind to the irony of lying, manipulating, or fornicating to achieve the Spirit’s will.

The even-numbered chapters, told from Anne’s point of view, are different: Neither narrow nor paranoiac, Anne’s chapters open to the world. They are longer because Anne’s life is fuller. Divided into sections, each chapter reflects the complexity of Anne’s roles as wife, mother, friend, professional.

Anne might have been what Laura became. Like Laura, Anne disappointed her mother by forswearing exclusive attention to housekeeping and motherhood. Worse yet, Anne’s mother withdrew her love in proportion to the affection that Anne drew from her father. Yet the withdrawal of love did not wither Anne’s heart.

She married Michael. Partially romantic love made them marry, partially the desire to end childhood and enter adulthood, partially the will to “reinvent domestic life.” Like Anne, Michael came from a house with “deficient parents” and wanted to create a home nearer the ideal.

Anne found love too in producing Peter and Sarah. She knows them with the surety of body and the intuition of soul. To Anne, motherhood is a relationship, not of logic and sentiment but of passion: With “fear, longing and delight,” Anne observes in her children’s daily activities the gestation of their characters.

Anne has wrought love out of friendship too. Her neighbor Barbara Greenspan shares domestic tribulations and the career handicap of an advanced degree in an impractical subject. Ben Hardy, an art historian, offers her platonic affection and help in getting assignments. Jane Watson shares her admiration for the character and art of Caroline Watson.

Bathed in love...

(The entire section is 2163 words.)