Places: Final Payments

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Early 1970’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Queens

*Queens. Final PaymentsBorough of New York City that provides the novel’s backdrop as the place in which the narrator, Isabel Moore, has spent her first thirty years living with her father in a one-family house on Dover Road. Nineteen of those years she has spent nursing her invalid father. To Isabel, Queens offers only sameness, dullness, predictability–not the cultural enrichments of opera, ballet, theater, concerts that nearby Manhattan offers. In Queens, domesticity is Isabel’s role, one of duty and devotion. She leaves her Queens home only to go to stores or church. Filled with ordinary and dim days, Queens reflects Isabel’s life itself, triggering tiredness and predictability in its sureness, until her father dies and she finds herself free.

Roman Catholic Church

Roman Catholic Church. Though not a specific place in the novel, the Church occupies a consuming place in Isabel’s home and in her mind. Matters of spirituality and faith dominate all conversations between her father and the priests who visit her home. Indeed, the very first line of the novel mentions that Isabel’s father’s funeral is full of priests. The Church represents authority, devotion, liturgy, guidelines, rules, and holiness. The Church occupies a central place in the life of Isabel’s father, and its characteristics engulf her life, too. Patriarchal and authoritative, the Church is sheltering, loving, demanding, and contemplative. It is the place and space in which Isabel is formed and the place that she must ultimately leave to avoid suffocation.


Ringkill. New York town, up the Hudson River from New York City, to which Isabel moves after her father dies. While visiting the home of her friend Liz Ryan, she finds Ringkill a place where there are mountains and water and a freshness that is not only in the air but in the newness of a different place. Liz also offers her something new–a relationship with a woman who is confident, independent, and individualistic. The prospect of these changes makes Ringkill a suitable setting for Isabel to change her life. There she takes a job with a social services agency surveying the arrangements of people who care for the elderly in their homes, a position that makes her look into a variety of homes, both loveless and loving. Simultaneously eager to experience life and made uncertain by her inexperience, she has an affair with Liz’s husband, John Ryan, and confronts her own needs and sexuality. She also has a second affair with another married man, Hugh Slade. While John represents power, Hugh represents authority, both of which defined Isabel’s life in her father’s house in Queens. Finally, in revulsion, she leaves both lovers to care for Margaret Casey in Ramona to do penance for her earlier behavior.


Ramona. Town five hours by bus from Ringkill that is home to Margaret Casey, the now elderly woman who kept house for Isabel and her father for eleven years after Isabel’s mother’s death, until Isabel fired her when she realized that the woman wanted to marry her father. Now anxious to atone, Isabel goes to Ramona to take care of Margaret. There, however, she experiences loss, change, and feelings of servitude. She is demeaned and debilitated by a self-centered, old, and angry Margaret. Only time and introspection and acceptance of herself as a worthy person allow Isabel to leave the coldness of Ramona and return to the life she wants, devoid of guilt, trusting in love, valuing her friendships, and finally valuing herself.

BibliographyBecker, Brenda L. “Virgin Martyrs.” The American Spectator, August, 1981, 28-32. This acerbic analysis notes that many of Gordon’s religious themes are hackneyed relics of James Joyce and many feminist writers, but Becker praises the quality of Gordon’s detailed observation and her ability to characterize the Catholic church both in its repressive qualities and in its triumphs.Cooper-Clark, Diana. “An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Commonweal 107 (May 9, 1980): 270-273. Gordon addresses Final Payments at length, discussing Isabel as one who sees everything in metaphors of Catholicism even though her path of self-identification is not a religious one. Gordon also discusses her debt to Virginia Woolf, about whom she was writing her dissertation while working on Final Payments.Gordon, Mary. “More Catholic than the Pope: Archbishop Lefebvre and a Romance of the One True Church.” Harpers 257 (July, 1978): 58-69. Gordon discusses her own Catholic upbringing and her visit to the Society of St. Pius X, radically conservative followers of Archbishop Lefebvre. She writes of having sought “miracle, mystery, and authority” but finally being disillusioned.Gordon, Mary. “Radical Damage: An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Interview by M. Dieter Keyishian. Literary Review 32 (Fall, 1988): 69-82. This informative interview gives substantial space to Final Payments. Gordon discusses her powerful relationship with her own father and with the Roman Catholic church.Gray, Francine du Plessix. “A Religious Romance.” The New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981, 1, 24, 26. Gray gives primary attention to religious themes in Final Payments and in The Company of Women (1981) and notes Gordon’s conclusion in both novels that friendship is the prime ingredient in human happiness.Lodge, David. “The Arms of the Church.” Times Literary Supplement, September 1, 1978, 965. Lodge analyzes the character of the narrator, praising Gordon’s portrayal but noting that other characters are less well drawn. He also looks at the novel’s picture of the Catholic church and sees Isabel’s father as a metaphor for the church’s power.Neary, John M. “Mary Gordon’s Final Payments: A Romance of the One True Language.” Essays in Literature 17 (Spring, 1990): 94-110. Neary focuses on Isabel’s central crisis, which he sees as a realization that the human world cannot provide an absolute presence of God, of parent, or of an ordered world.Schreiber, Le Anne. “A Talk with Mary Gordon.” The New York Times Book Review 86 (February 15, 1981): 26-28. Gordon points out that a central issue for her is the phenomenon of women who could be very powerful in their own lives and in their outside accomplishments but instead buckle under the authority of men.Ward, Susan. “In Search of ‘Ordinary Human Happiness’: Rebellion and Affirmation in Mary Gordon’s Novels.” In Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien. New York: Greenwood, 1988. Ward addresses three themes that run through Gordon’s work: Self-assertive, intelligent young women must rebel against any code they were raised to obey unthinkingly; fathers are often dominant influences and growing up must involve replacement and reconciliation with the father; and patriarchal institutions offer little hope to modern women.Wolcott, James. “More Catholic than the Pope.” Esquire 95 (March, 1981): 21, 23. Wolcott discusses Gordon’s second novel, The Company of Women (1981), comparing it to Final Payments. He faults both novels for inadequate characterization and overly refined writing.
Categories: Places