A Mother and Two Daughters

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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...

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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 question stems from this society: What have you got to show for your life? Though they are both moving outside the conventional woman’s roles as housewife, mother, and volunteer, they still feel they must answer to the old demand for achievement. Lydia and Cate respond to this obligation by seizing opportunities for change in contrasting ways, yet each woman is so fully and sympathetically portrayed that the reader must like both.

Lydia Mansfield is the younger sister who always has traded heavily on being the good child and who, with unerring aim and control, arranged for herself a marriage with a solid, practical, nice man, Max Mansfield, who became just as successful in the banking business as she had expected him to be. Surrounded by a kind husband, two fine boys, and the material trappings she has anticipated, Lydia discovers at thirty-six that the world is somehow different from what she expected. When she realizes that she is spending a good deal of her time napping, she decides to search for something more stimulating. With her usual sense of fairness, she allows her compliant husband to occupy their house and keep one of the boys. With her other child, the sweet, tubby Dickie, she moves to an apartment and resumes the college education she had casually abandoned when she married Max. She suffers little of the sense of displacement which often afflicts women who take such belated steps toward independence. The more she learns from her studies, the more she feels she can control her world. Highly self-conscious, she is a person whose every thought is shaded by consideration of the impression she makes on others. Her self-assurance rests partly on her knowledge that she is an attractive, capable person of good family who tries always to do the right thing, but her self-esteem depends as much on other people’s perceiving her in this way.

A more sympathetic aspect of Lydia is her ability to test and realize new possibilities, to widen the limits of acceptability. With perfect propriety, she arranges to meet a handsome fellow-swimmer at the health club, who, she learns, is Stanley Edelman, a podiatrist. Although he is not, socially speaking, the sort of person with whom she would want to form a liaison, she discovers in Stanley both a sensitivity and an excitement that enlarge her experience. Through him she learns about Eros—and writes a term paper on the subject for her sociology course. Sociology is taught by Dr. Renee Peverell-Watson, a black woman with a Harvard Ph.D. and a teenage daughter in school in England. Renee’s boyfriend Calvin is a television producer. Fairly young, beautiful, and very upwardly mobile, Renee is an attractive figure to Lydia, and she is proud that she can think of Renee as her best friend. Again, she is breaking old boundaries. (Judgmental Cate, by contrast, thinks of Renee and Calvin as “walking dead people.”)

Lydia’s confidence in her future is justified when, thanks to a chance appearance on a cooking show, she becomes its hostess. Her charm, organizational ability, and intense self-awareness bring her not only success but also influence, glamour, and esteem. Yet, Lydia retains a vulnerability, a loving warmth, and an inner ability to question her life. Although Cate accuses her sister of having managed to garner accomplishments without ever climbing off her “table-model kingdom” or leaving her dollhouse, the reader can respect what Lydia has achieved and what she has become despite the limitations of a sense of conventionality bred in her bones.

Conversely, Nell’s older daughter, Cate Galitsky, is someone with whom it is difficult to be comfortable. Vibrant, intellectual, combative, she dwells with insecurities, always more concerned with principle than practicality. Having started out, conventionally enough, by marrying the eligible Lieutenant Pringle Patchett, she was inspired by a D. H. Lawrence novel to leave Pringle and go to New Mexico to study for a Ph.D. There, she married Jake Galitsky, whose social criticism, dreams, and visions ended in outright madness. Although her family sees her as a social rebel, always likely to do the outrageous and the unexpected, the only really blatant incident was Cate’s march protesting the Cambodian invasion, when she had led a group of uniformed little girls, her students at a New York private school, to block traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. In 1978, she is in Iowa teaching at Melanchthon College, which is on the verge of folding. It is, in fact, being supported for one last semester by a rich pesticide manufacturer, Roger Jernigan, in order that his son may graduate. Attracted by Jernigan’s energy and his off-beat personality, Cate has an affair with him and becomes pregnant, but being Mrs. Pesticide Manufacturer and queen of Jernigan’s castle (he literally inhabits a castle) is a role that. Cate does not wish to fill.

Angry and frustrated at the injustices and complacencies of the world, Cate is a nonconformist by Mountain City standards, yet she has absorbed her sense of social justice normally enough from her idealistic father, and like her mother, she manages most of the time to submit even to that which she criticizes. Though at thirty-nine she lacks a base—and, as Theodora wisely says, a middle-aged woman cannot live at the edge of her possibilities without a base—by the end of the novel she has found one, a mountain home. Although dissatisfied with her society, Cate has never joined the Peace Corps or set out to preach the end of the world. Instead, she begins a free-lance career teaching seminars in apocalyptic literature. She has not merely survived her society—she has accommodated herself to it, and it has accommodated itself to her in time, so that she can live quite freely within it.

Gail Godwin has written an expansive, old-fashioned novel, carefully structured and patterned. Three parties, at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, give a structural and thematic foundation within which certain incidents illuminate the parallel yet contrasting situations of characters. The book club’s discussion of The Scarlet Letter, for example, allows the reader to set the case of Hester Prynne against that of Wickie Lee, about to bear an illegitimate child with society’s patronizing approval, and that of Cate, about to abort an illegitimately conceived fetus, thanks to a decision which is painful but nevertheless legally possible. When, later, angry Cate and Lydia surface their burning resentments against each other, they also literally burn down the family’s summer cottage at Okracoke, destroying an old relationship to make a new one possible.

Although A Mother and Two Daughters is not altogether a novel about women and their efforts to enlarge their freedom, it does focus on this subject, moving from the consciousness of one woman to another so that all three become familiar and richly developed. In many novels of this type, the ending is unsatisfying or inconclusive: either a woman returns to a husband she has outgrown, or she does not know quite what she will do. Gail Godwin, however, has achieved a splendid conclusion here, going well beyond the vagueness of her earlier novel The Odd Woman (1974). Set ironically in 1984, the final scene of A Mother and Two Daughters, a wedding celebration at Cate’s mountain cottage, presents the chief characters reconciled, reasonably happy, and giving evidence of something to show for their lives. Their children are all promising. The adults have come to terms with their limitations and realized as many of their possibilities as one could realistically expect. That this should be so creates a sense of almost irrational joy. Satire dissolves in triumphant comedy.

Form and Content

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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 of 1979. There is also a brief epilogue, which covers a single day in 1984. The first two sections take place in Mountain City, North Carolina; the third and climactic section, on Ocracoke, an island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the Stricklands have a summer home. The epilogue finds the family and their friends once again gathered in Mountain City, or, rather, at nearby Big Sandy, high in the hills above the town, this time for another family gathering, the wedding of Lydia’s older son.

Although Godwin always keeps her chronological structure evident, she feels free to range both in time and in setting as she explores the mind of first one character, then another. Still another obvious pattern in A Mother and Two Daughters is closely related to the conflict between the individual and the larger unit, with which each of the three women has to contend. After the three formal gatherings with which the book begins, the party, the funeral, and the Christmas celebration, the three women disperse. Throughout the remainder of the first book and the second book, Nell, Cate, and Lydia pursue their own interests separately. Nell broods about being cut off from life, Lydia moves further away from her husband and her old self, and Cate refuses a proposal and has an abortion. The breaking of family bonds is symbolized by the fact that after having her baby, Wickie Lee walks out on her would-be mother Theodora, so distressing her that Theodora promptly has a stroke. In the third book, the mother and two daughters once again come together, and this time, although they manage to burn down the house on Ocracoke, they do seem to come to some understanding of themselves and of one another.

The purpose of the epilogue is to demonstrate that the movement toward community, if not conformity, has triumphed. The occasion is in itself a symbol of healing, since Lydia’s son is marrying the daughter of her best friend, a black woman. Moreover, Theodora has been reconciled with Cate and with Wickie Lee, and among those who have either married or committed themselves to relationships are not only Wickie Lee, who is once again pregnant, but also Nell, Cate, and Lydia.


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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

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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 its techniques. In fact, this novel is notable for its absence of self-conscious techniques. It contrasts especially with The Odd Woman (the author's largest novel before this) which is filled with allusions, quotations, stories-within-stories, summaries of novels real and imagined, all of which make for fascinating intellectual exercise, but probably limited its popularity. The scholarly reader may miss the rich pattern of parallel fictions presented in The Odd Woman, but the newer novel may also strike one as the author's least pretentious work.

Social Concerns

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Gail Godwin has been quoted in Contemporary Authors as objecting to the "Fad" for analyzing novels from a sociological or political point of view, and she also has no desire to be classified as a feminist novelist, yet all her works lend themselves superbly to analysis of contemporary "relevant" issues. One of the main characters in A Mother and Two Daughters, Lydia, has left her marriage and returned to school. Her doubts and growing confidence are typical emotions experienced by numerous women who change their lifestyles. Lydia, who eventually becomes a successful and independent television personality, is an outstanding "role model." But so is her mother, from an earlier generation, a nurse who also has made a strong identity for herself. The novel embraces about sixty years of women's changing status and choices, with two clear successes and the equivocal case of Cate, the drifting, complaining, unsettled teacher.

As in many of Godwin's books, the women make clearer impressions than the men, who are absent or perfunctorily dealt with, except for one heroic rich man, living in splendor on a hill, who wishes to be a rescuing knight in shining armor, but is kept waiting.

Literary Precedents

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A Mother and Two Daughters marks a turning point in Godwin's work, not only in popularity, but in themes, techniques, and precedents. Such early novels as The Perfectionists and Glass People, and most of the stories in Dream Children, reflected a world-weary anomie. The characters' spiritual malaise recalled the paralysis of James Joyce's Dubliners (1914) stories, the lovelessness of Eliot's "Waste Land" (1922), and the ennui of Camus's The Stranger (1942). (One critic, Crain in The New York Times, also classified these as part of the more contemporary "Mad Housewife" school of fiction.)

Godwin's next works, The Odd Woman, Violet Clay, and most of the stories in Mr. Bedford and the Muses (1983), were especially concerned with creativity, literature, art, and the problems of creative people trying to bring order to real life. Henry James's Stories of Artists and Writers is the most illustrious precedent for these works.

A Village Voice reviewer, Carol Sternhell, traced A Mother and Two Daughters back to such rich, fully plotted and characterized nineteenth-century novels as George Eliot's. While such leisurely, emotional women's fiction has flourished throughout the last fifty years or more, it has seldom had such resonance and depth as Godwin's. Her novel has the surface of popular fiction, but the richness to transcend its genre, and to last.

One might also note that there has been a sharp increase in popularity and stature for women's fiction since the feminist movement and since the success of Marilyn French's The Women's Room in 1977, but Godwin's book, while benefiting from these trends, lacks the anger of feminism in general or French in particular. The angry character, Cate, is frequently depicted as wrong or foolish. A Mother and Two Daughters emerges as among the most benign of modern women's books, including Godwin's own.


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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 elements and characters. Among the topics she covers in this interview are characterization, as well as the southern influence on her writing.

Godwin, Gail. “The Southern Belle.” Ms. 4 (July, 1975): 49-52, 84-85. Defines the ideal of behavior held up to Southern girls by their mothers. Some young women adopt stereotypical behavior; others escape by leaving the South. Essential to the study of A Mother and Two Daughters as well as Godwin’s other fiction.

Kissel, Susan S. Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996. This critical analysis of Grau, Tyler, and Godwin reveals how the work of Chopin, McCullers, O’Connor, and Mitchell, as well as other southern women writers, has influenced each author. Also discusses Godwin’s universal communal vision.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, January 10, 1982, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LVII, January 18, 1982, p. 129.

Newsweek. XCIX, January 11, 1982, p. 62.

Pelzer, Linda C. “Visions and Versions of Self: The Other Women in A Mother and Two Daughters.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 34 (Spring, 1993): 155-163. Focusing on A Mother and Two Daughters, Pelzer explores the identity crisis of three women who must define themselves in relation to their families and the social contexts of their communities. An interesting study in the theme of self-creation in Godwin’s works.

Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. An important compilation of critical essays on Godwin and other Southern women authors. In her perceptive study “Gail Godwin and the Ideal of Southern Womanhood,” Carolyn Rhodes argues that A Mother and Two Daughters is the first of Godwin’s novels in which women are able to reject “hypocrisy and shallowness” while remaining within Southern society. The initial chapter of this work also contains interesting comments made by Godwin in an interview.

Saturday Review. IX, January, 1982, p. 64.

Sternburg, Janet, ed. The Writer on Her Work. 2 vols. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980-1991. Essays by various writers on their craft. Godwin writes about the unusual household in which she was reared, which consisted of three women: her grandmother, her mother, and the author. As the breadwinner and a writer, Godwin’s mother had an important influence on her view of the roles of women.

Time. CXIX, January 25, 1982, p. 72.

Times Literary Supplement. March 5, 1982, p. 246.

Tyler, Anne. “All in the Family.” The New Republic 186 (February 17, 1982): 39-40. A review of A Mother and Two Daughters by a major Southern novelist. Although her work is somewhat lacking in suspense and ends too suddenly, writes Tyler, its minor flaws are more than made up for by its major virtues, including the author’s superb characterization, especially her new skill in developing “solidly believable” men. Praises Godwin’s accurate descriptions of everyday life and the richness of her narrative.

Wimsatt, Mary Ann. “Gail Godwin, the South, and the Canons.” The Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 86-95. Explores the two major causes of Godwin’s exclusion from the canon: her feminism and the fact that her novels are bestsellers. Godwin’s novels are saturated with autobiographical elements, and her portraits of women ensnared in unhappy marriages are derived from her own life experiences.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Gail Godwin: A Novelist at the Height of Her Powers.” Washington Post Book World 11 (December 13, 1981): 3. Sees the major theme of the novel as “the joy of living.” Like Faulkner, Godwin uses her characters to represent all humanity. There is a “quality of compassion” in A Mother and Two Daughters which has not previously been evident in Godwin’s novels.

Xie, Lihong. The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1995. A critical appraisal of many of Godwin’s novels, including a chapter devoted to A Mother and Two Daughters. A bibliography and index round out this outstanding resource.

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Critical Essays