Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
Depending upon whether one regards attitudes or behavior as more telling, one could call Nell Strickland an outsider playing the role of insider or an insider who prefers to think of herself as an outsider. She has lived in Mountain City ever since she was fourteen, she has gone to...
(The entire section contains 997 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Depending upon whether one regards attitudes or behavior as more telling, one could call Nell Strickland an outsider playing the role of insider or an insider who prefers to think of herself as an outsider. She has lived in Mountain City ever since she was fourteen, she has gone to the book club meetings presided over by the pretentious Theodora, and she has been for forty years the respected, popular wife of a respected, popular Mountain City lawyer. Yet, even if Nell goes through the motions of conventional propriety, she views those rituals and the class consciousness that dictates them with a somewhat satiric eye.
Insofar as Nell’s (usually accurate) satiric vision is a defense against rejection and pain, it is offset by her compassion and her vital interest, as a former nurse and as a mother, in helping people to live well and die comfortably. Although, after Leonard’s death, retreat from life and from people is a temptation for Nell, the needs of others cause her to become more fully engaged in life than ever. It is Nell who mobilizes the women of the book club when Wickie Lee goes into labor during a meeting; Nell who eases the last days of her old school friend Merle Chapin; Nell who finds happiness and even passion married to Merle’s widower, Marcus.
If, out of deference to Leonard, Nell has largely suppressed her skeptical, defiant side, Cate is the rebel Nell has never allowed herself to be: a twice-divorced, 1960’s-style liberal, who in 1970 found herself briefly in jail for leading her students from a New York girls’ school in a demonstration at the Lincoln Tunnel to protest the invasion of Cambodia. It should be noted that, in this story of family relationships and correspondences, Cate’s activism results not only from the critical perspective she has inherited from Nell but also from the idealism she has absorbed from Leonard. She cannot see a wrong without wanting to right it and has done the sorts of things Leonard “would have liked to do, had he been less prudent, more furious and full of fire.” As she approaches forty, Cate is alternately gratified and irritated by the knowledge that family members regard her as excitingly, but disturbingly, unpredictable.
While Nell has sacrificed open criticism of social pretensions to the proprieties observed by her society, Cate has “sacrific[ed] people to ideals”: insulting Theodora, alienating Lydia, and aborting the baby of a man with whom she could have been happy. Still, if Cate is hard on others, she is even harder on herself. Her zealous pursuit of the truth and her impetuosity cause her more pain than they do anyone else. After her momentous fight with Lydia, Cate’s long walk on the windy beach—during which she castigates herself for enviously trying to destroy her sister’s pride in her own accomplishments—results in Bell’s palsy, a temporary numbing of the facial muscles. This experience gives Cate a sense of her own limits, and thereafter, she cultivates a “detached observer” side of her personality to protect herself and others from her own worst excesses.
On the surface, Lydia is more conventional, the obedient Nell rather than the rebellious one. She has always been the perfect wife and mother—pretty, feminine, loving, and sufficiently well organized to have time to spare for frequent escapist naps. When she decides to leave her husband, Max, she manages that perfectly too, doing well in school and at love—and feeling no more need for naps. If she is less daring than Cate (and she has always resented Cate’s taunts to that effect), she is equally self-willed, and she dislikes Cate’s wide-ranging diatribes against the conventional, traditional society in which she, Lydia, hopes to make her mark.
While Cate most wants to see the truth for what it is, Lydia most wants to be “widely admired and influential.” Lydia gets her wish, but, because the measures of her success are external, she never feels secure in that success and always feels that something is lacking. Her relationship with her sons is emblematic of her internal conflict, for she most loves not the beautiful, self-contained boy who is like her but the messy, artistic one who is spiritually akin to Cate.
Cate, Lydia, and Nell are all painted in broad, clear strokes by Godwin, who portrays their sufferings with understanding and their self-delusions with a fine, ironic appreciation. Occasionally, there is less subtlety than there could be, as when Godwin repeatedly uses Cate’s uptilted chin as a symbol of her independence and free spirit. Nevertheless, if Godwin’s symbolism is sometimes obvious, it is also appropriate, and its clarity makes the novel accessible to a wide range of readers.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 200
All three main characters, a mother and two daughters, are nonconformists —most obviously, daughter Cate, who has some qualities of an "aging" Beatnik/hippie/feminist, unable to remain comfortably at one job or in one environment, let alone one relationship, although at the end she shows some (faint) signs of mellowing and stability. Cate is argumentative, narrow-minded, often infuriatingly alive, tempting the reader to argue with her harsh judgments or stubborn, self-destructive choices. Her sister, Lydia, is a less vivid but perhaps more realistic character. Leaving her eighteen-year marriage, she succeeds in a new life — at college, at a career, and at sex — with a bit more ease than most "real" women would.
The mother, Nell, is by no means a typical representative of the older, more conventional, "unenlightened" generation that populates many other such novels. She has had an unusually strong, stubborn streak from girlhood, and is not a helpless widow when her husband's death opens the novel. She is somewhat tough and acerbic with the community and with her daughters (especially the difficult Cate), refusing to fit into the clubs and gossip of other local widows — so she, like Lydia, finds another life and a man for herself.