Authors: Gail Godwin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Perfectionists, 1970

Glass People, 1972

The Odd Woman, 1974

Violet Clay, 1978

A Mother and Two Daughters, 1982

The Finishing School, 1985

A Southern Family, 1987

Father Melancholy’s Daughter, 1991

The Good Husband, 1994

Evensong, 1999

Short Fiction:

Dream Children, 1976

Mr. Bedford and the Muses, 1983

Evenings at Five, 2003


The Last Lover, pr. 1975

Journals of a Songmaker, pr. 1976

Apollonia, pr. 1979


Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings, 2001

Edited Text:

The Best American Short Stories, 1985


Gail Godwin is one of the foremost novelists of her generation. Her career has done much to advance the acceptance of women as writers of serious literature. She was raised in Asheville, North Carolina, by her mother, Kathleen Krahenbuhl, a divorced journalist, teacher, and writer of romances, and her maternal grandmother. Both of these women proved to be strong influences on Godwin’s fiction, and each has served as the model for one or more of her fictional women. Her fiction also shows the influence of her father, Mose Godwin, who is a model for Uncle Ambrose in Violet Clay, and her stepfather, Frank Cole, whom Godwin’s mother married in the late 1940’s. Both Ray in The Odd Woman and Ralph in A Southern Family owe something to Cole.{$I[AN]9810001064}{$I[A]Godwin, Gail}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Godwin, Gail}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Godwin, Gail}{$I[tim]1937;Godwin, Gail}

Gail Godwin

(©Jerry Bauer)

Godwin was educated at Peace Junior College and the University of North Carolina, where she earned a B.A. in journalism. She was a reporter for the Miami Herald for a year, worked for the U.S. Travel Service at the American embassy in London, and eventually returned to the United States, earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa. Like another premier novelist from Asheville, Thomas Wolfe, Godwin is considered an autobiographical novelist. Her novels bear a striking resemblance to events or locales from her personal experience. A typical Godwin theme is that of the modern woman and her dilemma in defining self and others in an era when the old frameworks and definitions have broken down. The conflicts she portrays most often arise between a character’s work, usually of an artistic nature, and her desire for security, love, and connection, most often through a relationship with a male. Thus, the theme of the woman struggling for identity divides into two separate thematic strands: identity as artist and identity as lover.

Godwin’s characters also long, in many cases, to penetrate the identities of others. Yet these characters are conscious of the questionable morality of such invasion. Finally, her most important theme is the role of the artist in relation to self, others, and art itself. Her main characters tend to be self-conscious “artists” even when they are lawyers or psychiatrists or unemployed. They make life itself into an art.

The Perfectionists and Glass People feature women who are trapped in bad marriages, who do not have meaningful work, and who are too insecure to make the inevitable and necessary break from their spouses to pursue an independent life. In The Odd Woman, Godwin creates Jane Clifford, her first unmarried heroine, and allows her to grow toward a valid understanding of herself, her strengths, and her limitations. This novel also introduces the important theme of family life, of learning how to relate to one’s birth family in adulthood, a theme that has continued to be central to most of Godwin’s subsequent work. Violet Clay was Godwin’s first novel written from a first-person point of view and her first overt exploration of an artist protagonist. Violet is a painter, and like Jane Clifford she must come to terms with self and family. Another of Godwin’s first-person narrators is Justin Stokes of The Finishing School. An actress looking back on her childhood, she seeks to recover the magic of the yearning she felt during her fourteenth summer.

A Mother and Two Daughters, one of Godwin’s biggest commercial successes, uses multiple perspectives. Although the narrator is omniscient, the shifting of attention among the three title characters ensures a broader scope than in the previous novels. The cast of characters in A Mother and Two Daughters is larger than Godwin usually handles; the resolution of the conflicts, which are not so different from the conflicts facing her earlier protagonists, are more blatantly optimistic.

A Southern Family, an ambitious work for Godwin, is based in part on the unsolved death of her half brother. The novel has many of the same autobiographical fragments as her earlier work, including an artist figure (this time a writer), a strong mother-daughter relationship, an ambivalent relationship between the relocated artist and her native South, and the struggle to define the relationship between self, others, and art. The real breakthrough in this novel is in narrative technique. For the first time, Godwin employs multiple narrators, using first-person in some cases and a tightly limited third-person perspective in others, allowing all the characters to take on a significance and an integrity heretofore reserved only for the typical Godwin heroine.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter and The Good Husband continue Godwin’s themes of female self-development through meaningful work and relationships. Both also concern themselves with spiritual issues for women and men confronting mortality in the chaotic, modern world. While Father Melancholy’s Daughter focuses on Margaret Gower’s struggle to find her identity and regenerate herself from the ashes of a troubled family past, The Good Husband (similar in its themes) is more complex. It is told from four narrative perspectives–two husbands’ and two wives’–whose marriages are ending in crises (death and divorce). In both novels, protagonists undergo painful spiritual journeys to begin to fulfill the promise of their lives. Evensong, a sequel to Father Melancholy’s Daughter, is a contemplative novel that depicts a pivotal period in the life of Margaret Gower Bonner, now an Episcopal pastor whose marriage, family, community, and church undergo a trial by fire.

Most critics prefer Godwin’s novels to her short fiction. Similar to her novels in technique and subject matter, her stories tend to go against the grain of most contemporary short fiction, often shifting perspectives or using an omniscient narrator, and often covering longer stretches of time and more complicated action than is customary for the contemporary story. Godwin is sometimes pigeonholed as a “woman’s writer,” but her accomplishment is greater than that limited title would suggest. Hers is an intelligent approach to fiction, much aware of the traditions of the novel. Her richly detailed portraits of sensitive, striving women seeking fuller lives will remain an important contribution to the literature. As her work turns increasingly toward an examination of faith and spiritual matters, it is likely that the limiting classification of “woman’s writer” will fall away.

BibliographyCheney, Anne. “Gail Godwin and Her Novels.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. A comprehensive overview of Godwin’s career through A Southern Family. Emphasizes the autobiographical elements of the works, the contemporary love-hate relationship with the traditional South, and the evolving maturity of the author’s vision.Crain, Jane Larkin. “Dream Children.” The New York Times Book Review (February 22, 1976). In this review, Crain argues that the atmosphere of the stories is largely dark and defines Godwin as a “chronicler of life on the edge,” depicting states of alienation, isolation, and madness. As in Godwin’s novels, the principal concern in the stories is the nature of womanhood.Frye, Joanna S. “Narrating the Self: The Autonomous Heroine in Gail Godwin’s Violet Clay.” Contemporary Literature 24 (Spring, 1983): 66-85. A strong and important article dealing with narrative technique in Godwin’s fourth novel which has significant implications for her later works as well.Gies, Judith. “Obligation, Fascination, and Intrigue.” The New York Times Book Review (September 8, 1983): 14, 37. A critical review of Mr. Bedford and the Muses, which faults the stories for being too neatly resolved at the end and regrets the “chatty and oddly schoolmarmish” tone of the book. Regards “A Cultural Exchange” as the most successful story.Halisky, Linda H. “Redeeming the Irrational: The Inexplicable Heroines of ‘A Sorrowful Woman’ and ‘To Room Nineteen.’” Studies in Short Fiction (Winter, 1990): 45-54. Examines the parallels between Godwin’s story in Dream Children and Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen.” Argues that because these stories possess similar plots, Lessing’s story is an analogue to Godwin’s and can help to explain the behavior of Godwin’s heroine.Hill, Jane. Gail Godwin. New York: Twayne, 1992. The best study of Godwin for the general reader. Hill concentrates on the novels, while commenting that the stories deserve a study of their own. Hill approaches Godwin’s work through plot and character, and although she acknowledges the regional and gender-related aspects of Godwin’s work as a southern woman writer, she points out that Godwin’s novels also connect with the larger tradition of novels in America and Europe.Mickelson, Anne A. “Gail Godwin: Order and Accommodation.” In Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent Fiction by Women. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979. Mickelson identifies with some accuracy the attitudes toward order in Godwin’s work, primarily The Odd Woman, but then indicts those attitudes as inappropriate to contemporary women.Shands, Kerstin W. “Four-telling, Foretold: Storytelling in Gail Godwin’s The Good Husband.” Southern Quarterly 35 (Winter, 1997): 77-86. Explores the controlling metaphor of matrimony by examining alliances among and within characters. Explores the multiple fourfold patterns in the book as well as its complex blending of oppositions such as death and birth, stasis and development, endings and beginnings.Smith, Marilyn J. “The Role of the South in the Novels of Gail Godwin.” Critique 26 (1980): 103-110. Deals with the conflict in Godwin’s protagonists between their impulse to flee the South and their need to hold onto certain southern ideals. Smith argues that this conflict remains unresolved through Violet Clay.Westerlund, Kerstin. Escaping the Castle of Patriarchy: Patterns of Development in the Novels of Gail Godwin. Stockholm, Sweden: University of Uppsala, 1990. Discusses the short stories only briefly, noting that they frequently echo the main themes of Godwin’s novels. Analyzes the novels up to A Southern Family in terms of female development, which is linked to Godwin’s treatment of male-female relationships. Includes a chapter on Godwin and American feminism.Wimsatt, Mary Ann. “Gail Godwin, the South, and the Canons.” Southern Literary Journal 27 (Spring, 1995): 86-95. Presents Godwin’s best-seller status and her feminism as reasons she is excluded from the southern literary canon. Argues for her inclusion based on her strong portrayals of characters’ struggles with difficulties caused by family, race, and class in a changing South.Xie, Lihong. The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. Argues that instead of accepting the postmodern deconstruction of the self, Godwin has constructed a concept of the self as evolving, finding itself not in essence but in process. The book explores the nature of this “self-in-the-becoming.”
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