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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

Godwin is above all a realist. Therefore, when she takes a realistic look at what women now call their “options,” it is not surprising that her conclusions are less than simplistically sanguine. In A Mother and Two Daughters , Godwin shows that, because women’s options are now far more numerous...

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Godwin is above all a realist. Therefore, when she takes a realistic look at what women now call their “options,” it is not surprising that her conclusions are less than simplistically sanguine. In A Mother and Two Daughters, Godwin shows that, because women’s options are now far more numerous than they were a generation or two ago, contemporary women have even more difficulty mapping out their lives than did their mothers and their grandmothers. At the same time, she dramatizes the plight of those older women who once chose to be full-time wives and mothers and now find themselves not only alone but also deprived of an identity and a reason to live.

Godwin’s women characters are not only interesting in their own right but also represent the different kinds of lives that women live. Nell Strickland, for example, grew up at a time when women were expected to choose marriage as a vocation. She was programmed for her career by her father, who urged her to repress her wilder impulses in order to make herself fit for matrimony. Even though Nell’s husband Leonard was in no way tyrannical, he did rule his household in his own quiet way, and Nell enabled him to do so by effacing herself, just as she had been taught to do. Ironically, after Leonard dies, Nell does not feel a new freedom, but instead panics because she no longer has someone to restrain her. Obviously, she had been thoroughly dependent; she does not know or trust herself.

Nell also worries about what she will do to pass her time. There is a hilarious passage in which she receives the possibilities, as reflected in the lives of those of her friends who are deprived of men. One drinks; one enjoys her ailments; one travels constantly, affecting an interest in architecture. Then there is Taggart McCord, a woman younger than Nell, who, after spending her life shocking society, has killed herself.

One cannot expect Nell to change the habits of a lifetime at the age of sixty-three. She does come to know and to respect herself during the course of the novel, but in the conclusion of the novel Godwin somewhat begs the question she has raised by providing Nell with another husband, a rather conservative widowed minister who is evidently far from dull in bed.

Like Taggart McCord, a number of Godwin’s women characters are rebels by nature. In Nell’s own generation, it was Theodora Blount who most firmly refused to play the game. After being jilted by her fiancé, she decided not to marry but instead to spend her life imposing her will on Mountain City society. It takes the kind of wealth Theodora had to succeed in such a project. Moreover, a domineering woman can always be diminished by age and illness, as Theodora eventually is, and she can also find herself stymied by younger women who have wills as strong as hers. This is what happens to Theodora, first in her confrontation with Cate and then in her quarrel with the independent little “hillbilly” Wickie Lee, who refuses to turn over her future or her baby to Theodora. When she sees her powers slipping, Theodora must either compromise, as she does, or break, like Taggart McCord.

Cate and Lydia, too, find themselves modifying their attitudes toward life. Initially, they had opposite reactions to their mother’s diffidence in the presence of her husband. Cate rebelled, and in her two marriages, as well as in her relationship with the “Resident Poet,” she has continued to battle against any threat to her independence. For that reason, she rejects Roger Jernigan’s proposal of marriage and has his baby aborted. As the novel progresses, however, Cate begins to realize that she has become not independent but self-centered and self-pitying, and at the end of the story it is suggested that she will finally be able to admit someone else into her life. Meanwhile, Lydia, who had chosen to imitate her mother, has realized that she has no sense of her own identity. Just before her father’s death, she has left her husband and has gone back to college. During the course of the novel, Lydia moves first toward independence, then back toward her old dependency. Fortunately, in a black professional woman, she finally finds a role model, which enables her to develop a stable self.

Despite the fact that he is no longer alive, Leonard Strickland is very much present in Godwin’s epilogue. In the general reconciliation can be seen the fulfillment of the goal that Leonard had embraced so many years before: instead of the drama of a war for social justice, the attainment of quiet domestic harmony.

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