Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

Violet Clay, by Gail Godwin, is a terrible book. Not terrible in the sense of bad literature. In fact, it's excellent. No, it's terrible in the sense that it inspires terror. It's a story of loneliness, fear, self-doubt, and survival by sheer bloody-mindedness. Anyone who reads it with a modicum of self-awareness will cringe in recognition of the interior journey the title's eponymous artist makes, from despair right through to liberation. It's the stuff of nightmares and, as one reads, of suicide. It's brilliant, and you should read it. You should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

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The book is often called "feminist" because it portrays a female character in positions usually available only to men. That's true in the literal sense, because Violet is the protagonist and wields all the emotional power in the story. But it's not a feminist story in the way that feminism is supposed to mean women getting agency and getting power over their lives, like men do. Violet struggles to affect anything, even her own well-being. She certainly doesn't exert influence on the important things or people in her life. Even her own beloved, inspiring uncle escapes her, followed by what she thinks is her artistic talent, igniting a frenzy of self-pity. What she manages to claw back by the end of the story isn't agency but self-respect. Feminists might enjoy this novel, but it's hardly an empowering tale.

Violet Clay is, though, a lesson to everyone, feminists included. If you want talent, implies the author, you must summon it. That means shedding all the emotional baggage, pretensions, and lies you tell yourself. It means getting power over your own ego, so you can see yourself as you really are in the world, not as you think you are. Anyone who's done this knows it's a harrowing experience, hence the name of Violet's employer, perhaps. In another context, someone once said, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." That's about right for Violet.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

Violet Clay is a thoughtful, carefully crafted tale of one woman’s development as a painter. The novel alternates between accounts of Violet’s present experiences— during a two-month period in New York City and the Adirondacks—and flashbacks to the past: her Southern childhood; a summer spent with her grandmother in Charleston after graduating from college; her short-lived marriage; her early struggles as a young divorcée and would-be artist in New York; and her ambivalent relationship with her beloved uncle Ambrose, a writer. By the end of the novel, Violet has exorcised her past failures, confronted her present circumstances, and moved confidently toward a new future as a successful painter.

When the novel begins, Violet is contemplating “the fate of fleeing maidens” (the first chapter’s title) while painting one such maiden for the cover of a gothic romance—a job that has paid her rent for nine years but falls far short of the glorious future that she once imagined for herself. A sudden phone call interrupts both her work and her reverie, and initiates the end of her complacent life. This call, from the new art director at Harrow House, is the harbinger of Violet’s dismissal later that day. Yet losing her job is not the worst thing that happens on this “Day of Lost Options,” as Violet calls it. Later, after she has spent an evening drinking, rehashing her past, and feeling sorry for herself, Violet receives another call: Her uncle Ambrose has shot himself in the Adirondacks, where he had gone to complete his second novel.

Grieving, hung over, and ashamed of her earlier self-pity, Violet packs a bag and flees to the house of her friend Milo. The next morning, she calls Ambrose’s former wife, Carol, to tell her of his death, and then she sets off for Plommet Falls. During the trip, Violet remembers her complicated feelings about her uncle at the time of his opportunistic marriage to Carol and his girlfriend Sheila’s breakdown. Violet also wonders what became of Ambrose’s novel, what drove him to commit suicide, and what role his elusive neighbor, Sam, played in these mysteries. Eventually, Violet decides to stay in Plommet Falls herself, in order to come to terms with Ambrose’s death and to confront her own situation.

At first, Violet works hard at her painting there, but she soon grows despondent and disillusioned. Wondering whether this was how Ambrose too had felt, she tries to reenact his suicide—even holding his unloaded gun to her head. Suddenly, Sam, who has avoided Violet’s overtures, storms into the cabin, wrests the gun from her grasp, and tells her to take herself and her sickness elsewhere. Sam later gives Violet the unfinished manuscript of Ambrose’s novel, which she had hidden from the police. It helps Violet to make sense of his death.

This climactic encounter transforms the lives of both women. Violet encourages Sam to return to school and study architecture; Sam, in turn, models for Violet and inspires her new series of extraordinary paintings. One such painting, “Suspended Woman,” brings about Violet’s long-awaited success as an artist. More important, it portrays the way in which she and Sam are both reaching toward the future and the fulfillment of their dreams.

Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

Violet Clay is comparable to other pioneering novels of the 1970’s, in which feminist writers created new self-reliant heroines and imagined new futures for them. In Violet Clay—as in her previous novel, The Odd Woman (1974)—Gail Godwin focuses on a single independent working woman. In each of these novels, Godwin seeks a happy ending for her heroine, but one that does not depend on her marriage.

Indeed, Violet Clay can be read as a critique of the formulaic marriage-centered plots of women’s gothic romances—such as the paperbacks that Violet herself illustrates at the beginning of the novel. This literary tradition is exemplified by such classic works as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1939). Violet Clay parodies the narrative conventions of such novels—particularly the happily-ever-after marriage, which in Violet’s case occurs before the action begins, does not last long, and is largely irrelevant to the story of her life. In its self-reflexive feminist critique of the female gothic tradition, Violet Clay can also be compared to other contemporary novels such as Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) and Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983).

Godwin’s novel, however, is less satirical and less overtly feminist than Lady Oracle or She-Devil. This is partly because Godwin does not merely subvert the formulaic plot of the gothic romance. Instead, she replaces it with another familiar plot structure, the Künstlerroman—a narrative about an artist’s development, which is, perhaps, best exemplified by James Joyce’s classic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914). Violet Clay, however, portrays the successful development of the artist as a young woman. For this reason, it can be read in counterpoint to The Story of Avis (1877), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s early feminist novel about a woman of genius whose brilliant artistic career ends with her marriage.

As a feminist Künstlerroman, Violet Clay most resembles (and was perhaps influenced by) Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972). In both novels, a young female artist must retreat to the wilderness in order to free herself from her own past and from patriarchal structures. Whereas Surfacing ends on an ambivalent note, however, Violet Clay holds out hope that a woman can find freedom, power, and self-fulfillment through art. Godwin’s novel encourages all women to realize their dreams through their own efforts rather than through their relationship to a man.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

Allen, John Alexander. “Researching Her Salvation: The Fiction of Gail Godwin.” Hollins Critic 25, no. 2 (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 analyzes Godwin’s development and critical reception in the context of her feminism. The essay is followed by two useful bibliographies, complied 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.

Frye, Joanne S. “Narrating the Self: The Autonomous Heroine in Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay.” Contemporary Literature 24, no. 1 (Spring, 1983): 66-85. Frye’s exciting essay focuses on the novel’s complex narrative technique. It argues that Violet first defines herself in terms of others’ stories but gradually learns to create the narrative of her own life.

Godwin, Gail. “Becoming a Writer.” In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. A candid and witty account of Godwin’s artistic development.

Westerlund, Kerstin. Escaping the Castle of Patriarchy: Patterns of Development in the Novels of Gail Godwin. Uppsala, Sweden: University of Uppsala Press, 1990. This solidly researched book—the first ever published on Godwin’s fiction—shows how consistently she focuses on her heroines’ gradual journeys toward self-discovery. It also shows that Godwin’s novels, read in chronological order, reveal her own development as feminist writer. Westerlund’s fourth chapter, “Suspended Woman,” compares The Odd Woman and Violet Clay as novels whose heroines seek fulfillment outside marriage and traditional gender roles but who still perceive men as obstacles to that goal.

Wimsatt, Mary Ann. “Gail Godwin’s Evolving Heroine: The Search for Self.” Mississippi Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1988/1989): 27-45. During the course of Godwin’s career, Wimsatt argues, her female characters have steadily grown in confidence, independence, and self-definition.

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