The novel’s primary theme, Violet Clay’s artistic and personal development, is emphasized by its design. Violet’s first-person narration alternates smoothly and effortlessly between chapters set in the past—during her summer in Charleston, her brief marriage, or her early days in New York—and chapters set in the present, as she confronts the meaning of her uncle’s suicide. Even within these specific chapters, Violet constantly refers to stories and memories of her past in order to make sense of her present. As a result of this narrative strategy, Godwin creates in Violet a fictional character of unusual depth and psychological complexity. More important, Godwin emphasizes Violet’s ability to learn from her past experiences. Indeed, the novel’s ending—which features a shift in narrative time—further illustrates Violet’s growth in terms of a movement from past to present. In the last chapter, “Sketches for a New Woman,” Violet’s narration suddenly changes tenses. She describes the painting of her extraordinary portrait of Sam (which has made her reputation as an artist) as occurring in the past rather than the present: “I like to remember that October morning. I like to go back into it from the ‘future,’ where I now live, and retrospectively paint into it all the prescient signs of my belated emergence.” Such a shift in narrative time provides the perfect ending for a novel whose narration consistently emphasizes its heroine’s growth.
Violet’s breakthrough painting, “Suspended Woman,” becomes itself a symbol for her development as a woman and an artist. At the beginning of the novel, Violet amuses herself by using her own face in an illustration of a gothic heroine fleeing from a shadowy mansion. That self-portrait suggests the many ways in which Violet, at the outset of her story, actually resembles the heroine, trapped in romantic plots of the past; it also foreshadows Violet’s own imminent flight. At the end of the novel, after her journey of self-discovery and after she has resolved her complex feelings about Ambrose, Violet paints a very different self-portrait. Now her subject is no imaginary gothic heroine, but Sam, an actual woman. Whereas the gothic heroine’s fate is predetermined—she will return to that shadowy mansion and live happily ever after with its brooding master—Sam’s fate is unknown. It is clear, however, that Sam will shape her own destiny as much as possible. Instead of the inherited mansion of the romance (or of Violet’s own Southern past), Sam lives in a shipshape little cabin that she has fixed up herself, and she eventually plans to design and build her own house. Unlike the gothic heroine, Sam looks resolutely to the future, and she has helped Violet to do the same.
“Suspended Woman” is thus both a portrait of Sam and a self-portrait of Violet, because it reflects the aspirations that they both share. For Violet, the painting embodies the way in which each woman has encouraged the other to reach toward her goals. As Sam modeled for the work of art she inspired, she studied for her high-school equivalency diploma and told Violet what she would like to accomplish with it. Violet remarks, “I like to believe I held the mirror for her. While she modeled for me, so patient and generous with the planes and curves of her body and what she had made of them, I held the mirror for her and helped her put into words what an indomitable spirit, even when victimized, can achieve.”
Godwin’s implicit analogy, in this passage, between paintings, mirrors, and words, invites her readers to identify “Suspended Woman” with Violet Clay itself. The painting, like the novel, is a complex psychological portrait of Violet. Yet both painting and novel are also “sketches for a new woman” (the title of the last chapter)—depictions of any woman who endeavors to realize her dreams on her own. In form and content, Gail Godwin’s novel emphasizes a woman’s ability to leave the past behind and to design her own future.