A Mother and Two Daughters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

A Mother and Two Daughters, Gail Godwin’s finest novel, is a story of people adapting to change, surviving, and growing. Although focused on the characters of the title, Nell Strickland and her daughters, Cate and Lydia, it draws in the people of their world and explores the social structure of a small Southern city as it, too, changes under the pressures of modern life.

Most especially, the novel depicts the community mores that women create in Mountain City, a North Carolina town (presumably based on Asheville, North Carolina, where Gail Godwin grew up). The evening party with which the book opens is given by Theodora Blount, who dominates her own social circle and attempts to control any person and any group with which she has any connection. Heiress of the man who developed the famous “Energy Tonic,” and doomed to maidenhood when her fiancé jilts her, Theodora has crowned herself “Queen for Life of Mountain City,” where the Republican Women’s Club, the Episcopal Church, her book club, and the New Hope House (for unwed mothers) all benefit from her attention. A small group, most of whom are at odds with life or changing times, or both, are at her beck and call at the party. So, too, is Azalea, the elderly black servant to whom Theodora is deeply attached and to whom she would give practically anything—except a minimum wage. Most recently, Theodora has adopted a protégé, the pregnant Wickie Lee, who is not willing to say anything whatever about where she comes from or who has fathered her expected child.

Those who are part of Theodora’s world allow her the power she assumes for herself. Midway through the novel, another social occasion, the monthly meeting of the book club, reveals in elaborate detail the customs of her monarchy. There is a whole ritual to be known and followed: what to serve, when to seat the guests, what the centerpiece should be. Theodora not only presides over the business meeting but also determines the program (a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, 1850), riding roughshod over the program chairman’s selection. Although Theodora maintains her reign by inheritance (her grandmother was the book club’s founder), as well as through her own determination, her aristocratic pretensions are exposed as flimsy, going back no further than her backwoods grandfather’s success with the strong alcoholic “tonic.”

Shown through the eyes of Nell Strickland, still somewhat an outsider in her feelings even after many years in Mountain City, the customs, rituals, and power-plays of Theodora’s tight little world are evoked with skill and a satiric bite tempered by a certain affection. Gail Godwin has a gift for exact detail and revealing speech. Theodora is dreadful and entertaining, typical and individualized, irritating and sympathetic. The lives and personalities of those in her “social set,” moreover, illustrate both the binding force of the social structures and values of this community and the new loosening of the bonds. Nell’s husband, Leonard Strickland, a scholarly lawyer whose decision not to go to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War still looms large to him, quotes Michel de Montaigne to justify his placid, ordinary life, as if there were some new need to justify it. The dim-bulb mentality of former Congressman Latrobe Bell struggles in vain with the political problems of 1978. The Stricklands’ outspoken daughter Cate has already alienated her god-mother by accusing Theodora of atrophying. Wickie Lee—in whom, Cate observes, Theodora meets the Third World—refuses to allow her life to be completely dominated by her patron. Theodora is rich enough to maintain control over her own life to the end, but her social dominance is eroded by a tide of new customs, new values, new ideas.

Nell Strickland and her daughters find that change results in greater freedom and independence. One key to their lives is the question that Cate claims is at the heart of The Scarlet Letter: “Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?” Nell Strickland has always survived by adapting and continues to do so. Nell, who loses her husband in the early pages of the novel, is faced with loneliness, grief, an unwished-for self-reliance, and a new, unfavorable position as a widow. At sixty-three, she believes she would have been better off dying in the automobile accident caused by her husband’s heart attack. Slowly and calmly, however, with the gentleness she has learned from living with a husband who could not abide “scenes,” and with her humor and natural strength, she becomes independent. Her second marriage, to another gentle, idealistic man, one for whom the inability to endure change in the Episcopal Church has led to retirement from the ministry, proves as successful as the first because she is able to keep old and new in steady balance, reconciling conflicts as she has done all her adult life.

For Nell, life is less difficult than it is for her daughters because she moves always and without too much pain inside the middle-class rituals and values that are fundamental to Mountain City—values which have constricted the lives of every character in the book. For Lydia and Cate, the overwhelming and unavoidable...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Mother and Two Daughters is the story of a few eventful months in the lives of three women; it is also the story of their husbands and lovers, their friends, and their extended families. It begins in Mountain City, North Carolina, on December 16, 1978, at the home of the redoubtable Theodora Blount. Among those who are attending her holiday party are quiet, gentle Leonard Strickland and his devoted wife Nell Strickland. While they are driving home from the party, Leonard has a heart attack, and Nell awakens in the hospital to find that her husband is dead. Then follow, in close succession, Leonard’s funeral and a muted Christmas celebration, the first of several gatherings that Godwin uses to bring her characters together and to advance the action of the book.

Unfortunately, the two daughters of Nell and Leonard have never gotten along. Although they believe that their differences are matters of personality and principle, in fact Cate Strickland Galitsky, an outspoken, liberal English professor, and Lydia Strickland Mansfield, her conventional younger sister, have never stopped seeing each other as rivals for the approval and love of their parents. This conflict, however, is only one of the problems facing the mother and two daughters of the title. All three of the women are trying to discover who they are and what direction their lives should take.

The novel is divided into three sections, tracing the action chronologically from that fateful December night in 1978 to the summer...

(The entire section is 619 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In previous novels such as The Odd Woman, Gail Godwin explored the difficulties that face contemporary women. On the one hand, society and their own instincts urge them to become wives and mothers. On the other hand, many of them do not want to be trapped in domesticity or subjected to the whims of men. In the conservative South, the pressure to conform is particularly intense. When Godwin wrote her essay on “the Southern Belle,” she pointed out that the stereotypes still existed and concluded that most Southern women would have to choose between acting a role that confines them and leaving their native area.

A Mother and Two Daughters is the first of Godwin’s novels to offer another alternative. She now believes it possible that Southern women can continue to enjoy their gracious way of life, with its rich heritage, while at the same time escaping the Southern Belle stereotype. The answer can be seen in the characters of Cate and Lydia. At the beginning of the novel, although they do not realize it, both women are still reacting to their family history and to each other rather than acting out choices they make because they know themselves and understand their own needs. Lydia still wants to be the child who is loved because she is so good; Cate still enjoys being the child who is noticed because she is so bad. Their reconciliation becomes possible only when each of them becomes so secure in her own identity that she no longer sees the other as a threat. The fact that Cate and Lydia, the rebel and the conformist, become more alike as the novel progresses certainly symbolizes the new kind of balance that can be achieved by Southern women. Because their society has finally changed enough to permit them to develop their own roles, Southern women can remain true to themselves without leaving the South. Godwin’s optimism is echoed in other contemporary Southern writers, ranging from Anne Rivers Siddons to Lee Smith and Elizabeth Spencer, all of whom share Godwin’s belief that indeed it is possible to live in a community without sacrificing the self; in other words, to have the best of both worlds.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Just as the themes in A Mother and Two Daughters are more subtle and less "literary" than those of Godwin's previous novels, so are...

(The entire section is 107 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gail Godwin has been quoted in Contemporary Authors as objecting to the "Fad" for analyzing novels from a sociological or political...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A Mother and Two Daughters marks a turning point in Godwin's work, not only in popularity, but in themes, techniques, and precedents....

(The entire section is 293 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

America. CXLVI, April 17, 1982, p. 305.

Current Biography 56 (October, 1995): 26-29. Profiles Godwin’s life and career as an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Critical reaction to her work is discussed, providing a valuable framework within which to compare Godwin’s novels with various other of her writings.

Godwin, Gail. “A Dialogue with Gail Godwin.” Interview by Lihong Xie. The Mississippi Quarterly 46 (Spring, 1993): 167-184. Godwin discusses her works, comparing them to major or minor keys in music depending on the emphasis she gives them in relation to certain plot...

(The entire section is 721 words.)