Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

When the Mountain City book club decides to discuss The Scarlet Letter, Cate tells Nell that the novel “asks a very crucial question Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?’ ” The question is crucial to A Mother and Two Daughters also, as...

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When the Mountain City book club decides to discuss The Scarlet Letter, Cate tells Nell that the novel “asks a very crucial question Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live?’ ” The question is crucial to A Mother and Two Daughters also, as the three protagonists struggle to re-create themselves in a world where the rules are changing. The self-definitions at which they arrive and the adjustments they make represent the survival strategies of three strong-willed individual spirits.

Cate, the romantic truth seeker, finds that, in order to achieve her own goals, she must learn self-control; she must learn when rage is productive and when it is not. Her spirit compromises but does not give in. Lydia, who buys into society’s success story, is just as much her own creation as Cate but is rather less content, her spirit enslaved to some extent by her very success. Nell, who in the past protected the integrity of her individual spirit through critical detachment and self-defensive aloofness, establishes a more vital connection to her society through involvement and love. Perhaps because she has paid her social dues over the years, the little society of Mountain City is now ready to accept her on her own terms.

Certainly, all three protagonists recognize both losses and gains in the transitions they see going on around them. On the surface, the signs of disintegration are all too apparent. Colleges go bankrupt. Old landscapes give way to new shopping malls. Gasoline is scarce. Yet change also means new possibilities. The marriage of Leo Mansfield and Camilla Peverell-Watson, if not conventionally prudent, has nevertheless become one of those possibilities. So has the brilliant new career of Lydia, once a traditional, stay-at-home wife and mother. So has the self-invented career of Cate, which, in any case, suits her better than the job she previously held at her bankrupt college.

In the midst of all the changes, the family as locus of value is the one thing that gives stability to the lives of Godwin’s characters. Despite the rivalry and tension, the fights and reluctant compromises, family members need one another in a world that offers few other constants. Thus, neither Cate nor Lydia can truly validate her own success without making peace with the other. (It is no accident that Theodora Blount, who has no family to count on, sees fit to erect the Theodora Blount Medical Wing at the Episcopal Retirement Home in advance of her retreat to that institution.)

One reason that the family, in Godwin’s world, retains its vitality is that it, too, is in the process of being redefined. Nell’s extended family, at the end of the novel, includes not only her new husband and her blood relatives but also Lydia’s lover Stanley Edelman, Max’s child Liza, and possibly even Wickie Lee. If there is one message Godwin has for her readers in A Mother and Two Daughters, it is that people need to connect themselves with, but not submerge themselves in, others. The ideal sort of connectedness—the sort the protagonists work to achieve with those they care about—means, then, not loss of identity but the creation of a life-support system in which identity can struggle to know itself and may even flourish.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 156

A Mother and Two Daughters differs from Godwin's earlier, and less popular, works in that creativity and artistry are not dominant themes. The average reader can identify with all the main characters, even the intellectual Cate. The novel does not "announce" its themes as openly as The Odd Woman (1974) or Violet Clay (1978); hence, it is less self-consciously literary and can be read for enjoyment rather than analysis.

The straightforward title points to the themes of family and of comparison of the women's goals and lives. The abrasive Cate seems destined to rebel forever against family, commitment, or any sort of confinement. She cannot even get along with her deceptively gentle sister, Lydia. Late in the book, the building tension between the sisters explodes into a (literally) fiery confrontation, but then the book relaxes into a glowing, heartwarming family reconciliation which is entirely convincing and seems to express a faith in togetherness that is new for Godwin.

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