Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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:...

(The entire section is 550 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 410 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


(The entire section is 413 words.)