Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Odd Woman takes place during one week in the life of Jane Clifford, a young, single, untenured professor. During the brief transition between the fall and spring semesters, Jane copes with the death of her beloved grandmother, her highly charged relationships with family and friends, and her painful love affair with a married professor at another university. In particular, as Gail Godwin’s title suggests, Jane comes to terms with her own identity as an independent woman.

When the novel begins, Jane is lying wide awake, fretting about what grades to give her students, contemplating George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women (which she will teach the following semester), and analyzing her affair with Gabriel Weeks. Their relationship seems bland beside the romantic entanglements experienced by other women in her family—such as her great-aunt, Cleva, who eloped with the stage villain in a melodrama. As she lies awake, Jane also imagines being visited by the “Enema Bandit,” a prowler who molests solitary women.

Jane is awakened the next morning by her mother’s telephone call: Her grandmother, Edith, has died. Before Jane goes home for the funeral, she calls her friend Gerda to tell her about Edith’s death and has lunch with glamorous Sonia Marks. At the airport, she meets her student, Marsha, whose own long-distance love affair appears to be ending happily. Jane—who wonders miserably whether Gabriel truly loves...

(The entire section is 538 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Odd Woman is one of many feminist novels written in the 1970’s that portrayed new independent heroines, such as Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973). Godwin’s novel can also be read in counterpoint to earlier works of fiction by female writers, such as Ellen Glasgow’s short story about a romantic triangle, “The Difference” (1923), and Edith Wharton’s brilliant novel of social criticism, The House of Mirth (1905)—both of which are explicitly mentioned in The Odd Woman. Jane Clifford particularly resembles Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart, who finds herself tragically out of place as an unmarried woman in a society where women are chiefly valued as wives and mothers. Yet Jane is much more independent, thoughtful, and self-aware than Lily Bart.

A major aspect of Jane’s self-awareness, in fact, is her keen familiarity with Glasgow’s story and Wharton’s novel. As a professor of English literature, she naturally compares herself to other women in literature—ranging from the heroines of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary (1857), to the female novelist and critic George Eliot (1819-1880)—who have suffered or enjoyed the various fates that she imagines for herself. Jane compares herself, in particular, to the unfortunate heroines in Gissing’s novel of social criticism, The Odd Women, which she is reading in preparation for her course on women’s literature.

The Odd Woman, as its title indicates, can be read as an extended commentary on Gissing’s novel. Gissing suggests that unmarried women suffer a precarious existence which may be marked by loneliness, poverty, low social status, premature aging, early death, and even alcoholism. Yet he also warns that marriage—which provides companionship, security, and social status—may be an even worse fate, because it costs a woman her freedom. Godwin’s The Odd Woman offers a much more hopeful view, according to which a woman may retain her independence and still be happy, productive, self-supporting, and complete. Read in conjunction with Gissing’s novel, The Odd Woman shows how far women have already progressed—and, in their own lives, can continue to progress—as independent beings.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Allen, John Alexander. “Researching Her Salvation: The Fiction of Gail Godwin.” Hollins Critic 25, no. 1 (1988): 1-9. Although Allen focuses on Godwin’s A Southern Family (1987), he provides a useful account of the search for human dignity pursued by characters in all of her novels. The essay is followed by a brief note on her life.

Brownstein, Rachel M. “Gail Godwin: The Odd Woman and Literary Feminism.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989. In an insightful essay, Brownstein uses The Odd Woman to analyze Godwin’s development and critical reception in the context of her feminism. The essay is followed by two useful bibliographies, compiled by Pearlman, of Godwin’s complete works and of writings published about them.

Cheney, Anne. “Gail Godwin and Her Novels.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. This comprehensive essay, prefaced by a sketch of Godwin’s life and augmented by original biographical research, traces the autobiographical elements in her novels, up to and including A Southern Family. A bibliography of Godwin’s major works cites stories and essays as well as novels.

Current Biography 56 (October, 1995): 26-29. Profiles Godwin’s life and career as an award-winning novelist and...

(The entire section is 658 words.)