Final Payments, 1978
The Company of Women, 1980
Men and Angels, 1985
The Other Side, 1989
Spending: A Utopian Divertimento, 1998
Temporary Shelter, 1987
The Rest of Life: Three Novellas, 1993
Good Boys and Dead Girls, and Other Essays, 1991
The Shadow Man, 1996
Joan of Arc, 2000
Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity, 2000
Conversations with Mary Gordon, 2002 (Alma Bennett, editor)
Mary Catherine Gordon is a major Catholic writer of novels, short stories, and essays. She was born the only child of David and Anna (Gagliano) Gordon; both her parents were devout Catholics. Her mother was of Irish and Italian ancestry; her father was a convert from Judaism who, according to Gordon, romanticized working-class Irish Catholics. Gordon was reared by her father, while her mother worked, until his death just before her eighth birthday. It was her father who encouraged her, even at her young age, to always take her studies seriously. In The Shadow Man, perhaps her most important piece of nonfiction, Gordon chronicled her search for her father’s past.
Gordon attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. The pious atmosphere of both family and school deeply affected her, though not always positively. Determined to be a nun in grade school, she was equally determined to be a rebel in high school. Being reared Catholic provided her with a wealth of themes, characters, and images for her writing. In 1967, Gordon entered Barnard College of Columbia University and studied creative writing, though she wrote verse rather than prose; she would remain a practicing poet but would not publish her work. After receiving her B.A., Gordon enrolled in the writing program at Syracuse University in 1971. She completed the master’s degree in 1973 and a year later began teaching English at Dutchess Community College. She married James Brain in the same year. In 1975, she published her first story and began a novel.
Two years later, Gordon met the British novelist Margaret Drabble in London. Drabble read the manuscript for the novel Final Payments and put Gordon in touch with a literary agent who sold the book to Random House. At an editor’s urging, Gordon rewrote the third-person story as a first-person narrative. The novel was an immediate popular and critical success. A best-seller in both hardcover and paperback, Final Payments was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and made The New York Times Book Review list of outstanding works for 1978. Reviewers were intrigued by Gordon’s evocation of Catholicism and charmed by her straightforward yet image-filled prose. The novel describes the midlife odyssey of Isabel Moore. Living at home until her early thirties to care for her zealous, indomitable father, Isabel finds herself liberated by his death. The responsibility for keeping up with modern mores (both career-related and sexual), however, proves too much for her. Isabel seeks out her father’s crotchety, pious housekeeper, now herself an invalid, and plans to dedicate her life once more to the care of another. The housekeeper soon proves a tyrant, and Isabel cannot be a martyr for a second time: She leaves to brave the outside world again. Gordon won the Janet Kafka Prize in 1979 for Final Payments.
By 1978, Gordon’s marriage to Brain had ended. She then accepted a visiting faculty position at Amherst College, where she began work on her second novel; she has since worked at several colleges, including Barnard, as a professor of English. She married Arthur Cash in 1979, with whom she had a daughter and a son. The year after her marriage, her second novel was published. The Company of Women explores explicitly a feminism that was latent in Final Payments. The novel concerns four older women and one younger one, Felicitas, who gather about a conservative priest, Father Cyprian. Hoping to escape the modern, secular values eroding their traditional church, the group retreats to a farm in upstate New York. Their isolation cannot survive the death of Cyprian and the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of the rebellious Felicitas. They are forced to make their compromises with the world. For Felicitas, compromise means acceptance of the ordinary life of marriage.
The Company of Women posits another theme that underlies many of Gordon’s stories as well as the novels. Women understand one another because they share experiences, but men are alien beings. (Conversely, men find women equally alien.) If men are not powerful, dominating figures such as fathers and priests who fulfill mythic roles, they are puzzling, impenetrable beings to their daughters, lovers, friends, or wives. Yet because the sexes must live, work, and love together, no one escapes the confusion. Gordon stresses that the burden of this mutual alienness usually falls upon the woman. An archetypal situation occurs in “The Other Woman,” winner of the 1976 Pushcart Prize for short fiction and republished in Gordon’s first collection of stories, Temporary Shelter. Its protagonist is a wife whose husband admits, in a maudlin moment, to an affair years earlier. Jealous that he treasures the memory of a married lover who sacrificed their passion for the good of ordinary life, the wife must nevertheless comfort her husband. Even as she soothes him to sleep upon her breast to ease his pain, she senses her own pain that can find no easing.
Men and Angels focuses on the gap that separates women: the gap between a youthful, single woman still absorbed in faith and the married woman determined to make a secular life. Technically more complex than Gordon’s previous novels (alternate chapters have different narrators), Men and Angels reaches a tragic climax that leaves one woman dead and the other wrestling with guilt. The conflict between Laura Post and Anne Foster is psychological and emotional; the novel does not concern the manners and mores of a specifically Catholic environment, as the previous works did. It wrestles instead with general issues of self-knowledge, charity, and love.
Gordon continued to experiment with technique. The Other Side, her fourth novel, is her most complicated treatment of point of view. The central consciousness in this narrative shifts between several characters, each of whom are from a different generation. The story is about members of a family that have had to adapt to America since coming to New York from Ireland.
Spending, artist Monica Szabo’s fantasy of sex and money, seems at first to be a departure from Gordon’s more overtly moral novels. Upon closer examination, however, there are similarities in its first-person narrative, its interiority, and its concern with art and life and how women combine the two. Monica finds a patron and a lover in B, a wealthy and handsome commodities trader. In his complete sacrifice of himself and his goods to Monica’s needs and desires, the Jewish B becomes a Christ figure.
Gordon’s faith shapes life with subtle, unpredictable forces. Like gender, geography, and genes, religion constitutes one of the givens of identity. Neither a static set of beliefs nor a permanent state of soul, faith is a ceaseless fountain of old habits, untested answers, and new questions. Vividly and honestly, Gordon chronicles the state of post-Vatican II Catholicism.