Themes and Meanings
The Catholic priesthood was a favorite subject of J. F. Powers. In “The Valiant Woman,” he gives a sly and witty account of an ongoing struggle between a priest and his housekeeper. This small and ironic comedy is quite successfully set off against larger and darker issues involving human needs and limitations, and the theology that guides the characters.
Quite against his inclinations, Father Firman, a celibate priest, has “married” Mrs. Stoner by passively allowing her to assume the role of his domestic partner. Unlike the suggestion buried in his name, he has been anything but firm and has steadily dwindled into the role of a husband. Without asking for these responsibilities he has allowed them to overtake him, and he can no longer in good conscience back away. He cannot divorce her, just as his religion forbids divorce. In his fantasy, a Filipino housekeeper would give him the life of freedom he craves—not sexual freedom, but freedom from responsibility in his personal life. The priest is thrust into the commitment his theology teaches, and which he has no doubt preached to others.
Although the reader need not accept any particular religious view to appreciate its argument, the story is deeply rooted in its Catholic theology. None of the three characters has an unusual spiritual gift. With her garrulous and trivial nature, Mrs. Stoner is indeed a millstone around the neck of the priest. Father Firman, although conscientious in his duties, seeks only a comfortable and trouble-free life, an ideal that Father Nulty urges on him. The author thus creates limited human beings who are confused and frustrated by their needs and fantasies. On the surface, their religion is only a social framework into which they have fallen. However, the demands of that religion make Father Firman stand larger than he ever could on his own. Husbands, as well as priests, take vows before God. Father Firman finally begins to realize that his responsibility is not simply defined by the vows he took as a priest. In becoming a “husband,” he is bound by the spirit as well as the letter of the law.