Places: The Company of Women

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1963-1977

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedConvent of Our Lady of Sorrows

Convent Company of Women, Theof Our Lady of Sorrows. New York City convent at which five working women of different backgrounds come together on a retreat in 1932. The retreat is the creation of the dynamic priest Father Cyprian Leonard. Though he is as rigid as the church he represents, his faith and charisma endear him to the women, and they begin a lifelong devotion to him. Meeting throughout the 1930’s the women develop close friendships with one another outside of the convent, but Father Cyprian is the linchpin that holds them together.

*New York City

*New York City. City in which four of the women in the retreat group work and live, and two of them marry. Populated with millions, New York City is a lonely place for single women, and loneliness is one of the things that drives the five women to the religious retreat, where they become friends.

Orano

Orano. Fictional farming town in western New York State that is the birthplace of Father Cyprian and his home after he returns there in 1959. A few years later, the women from his New York City retreat begin spending their vacations in Orano. Its small-town warmth is a contrast to the indifferent atmosphere of the big city. During the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, Orano is also an oasis from the troubled demonstrations and stormy political environment of the city.

Though tranquil and peaceful on the surface, however, Orano has its underlying realities as evidenced by Father Cyprian who, in a moment of cruel pique, forces Felicitas to experience the foul stench of farm animal excrement. Also, the beautiful countryside belies the underlying poverty of the community and reflects the underlying emotions of the protagonists, each jealous of the other, each vying for Cyprian’s attention during their vacations. Eventually, Orano does measure up to the positive image of small towns everywhere and brings solace and refuge to Felicitas, the daughter Charlotte conceives while she is a student at Columbia. At the story’s end, the women settle in the farming community and find the peace they sought in New York City, where they first met at the religious retreat.

*Worcester

*Worcester (WEW-ster). Massachusetts city in which Muriel lives. The only woman of the group who does not reside in New York City, Muriel lives with her mother, whom she takes care of, and works as a typist. She is as lonely in Worcester as the women who live in New York City. After her mother dies, she builds a house in Orano and lives next door to Cyprian for six months of the year.

*Columbia University

*Columbia University. New York City university to which Charlotte’s daughter, Felicitas, transfers from St. Anne’s College during the late 1960’s. Her pursuit of classical studies–the reason for her transfer–becomes less important to her than experiencing real life and fitting in with her peers. Her sheltered background of Catholic schools and vacations spent with her mother, her mother’s women friends, and an aging priest do not prepare her for college life in a big city. In 1970 the Vietnam War is on, and the word “hippie” is new to the language. Naïve Felicitas revels in her new-found friends and freedom but is seduced by a professor. Surprisingly, her resulting pregnancy is not only supported by the older women, but Father Cyprian welcomes them all back to live in Orano.

BibliographyAtlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, March, 1981, p. 89.Bauman, Paul. “A Search for the ‘Unfettered Self’: Mary Gordon on Life and Literature.” Commonwealth 118 (May 17, 1991): 327. Offers brief but highly useful comments.Christian Century. XCVIII, April 22, 1981, p. 454.Clark, Diana Cooper. “An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Commonweal 107 (May 9, 1980): 270-273. Gordon responds to questions about her interest as a novelist in exploring the limits and potential of religious belief.Critic. XXXIX, April 1, 1981, p. 3.Gordon, Mary. “Radical Damage: An Interview with Mary Gordon.” Interview by M. Deiter Keyishian. The Literary Review 32 (Fall, 1988): 69-82. Includes Gordon’s specific comments on the characters Cyprian and Felicitas.Gordon, Mary. “A Talk with Mary Gordon.” Interview by Le Anne Schreiber. New York Times Book Review, February 1, 1981, 26-28. A particularly important interview in which Gordon addresses the major themes of The Company of Women.Gray, Francine du Plessix. “A Religious Romance.” The New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981, 1, 24, 26. Gray focuses on the religious themes in Final Payments and in The Company of Women and notes Gordon’s conclusion in both novels that friendship is the most important requirement for human happiness.Kessler-Harris, Alice, and William McBrien, eds. Faith of a (Woman) Writer. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Susan Ward’s chapter, “In Search of ‘Ordinary Human Happiness’: Rebellion and Affirmation in Mary Gordon’s Novels,” is a thoughtful, interesting study of the heroines of Gordon’s first two novels.Lardner, Susan. “No Medium.” The New Yorker 57 (April 6, 1981): 177-180. In this review of The Company of Women, Lardner compares Gordon’s second novel to her first, Final Payments, and notes that the overriding theme in both is the question of whether female self-sacrifice is a form of self-indulgence.Library Journal. CVI, February 1, 1981, p. 368.Nation. CCXXXII, February 28, 1981, p. 245.The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, March 19, 1981, p. 7.Newsweek. XCVII, February 16, 1981, p. 89.Pearlman, Mickey, ed. American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. An interesting collection of essays, each followed by bibliographies. While John W. Mahon’s essay on Gordon focuses on her third novel, it comments briefly on The Company of Women. His bibliographies–writings by and about Gordon–follow.Perry, Ruth. “Mary Gordon’s Mothers.” In Narrating Mothers, edited by Brenda O. Daly and Maureen T. Reddy. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Perry explores the nature of what she calls the “motherlessness” of the mothers in Gordon’s fiction. The discussion centers primarily on Men and Angels (1985) but can be applied as well to The Company of Women.Saturday Review. VIII, February 21, 1981, p. 62.Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Of Belief and Unbelief: The Novels of Mary Gordon.” Christianity and Literature 40, no 1 (Autumn, 1990): 37-55. Seabury’s analysis of the female protagonists in Gordon’s first four novels and her critiques of other scholars’ analyses are insightful.Time. CXVII, February 16, 1981, p. 79.Zinsser, William, ed. Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft of Religious Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Includes Gordon’s significant lecture “Getting Here from There: A Writer’s Reflections on a Religious Past.”
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