Waiting for the Knock : Gail Godwin's New Novel Bestows an Advanced and Complex Life Lesson: The Importance of Realizing Self through an Outward Focus on Others

By Harris, Jennifer Austa | The World and I, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Waiting for the Knock : Gail Godwin's New Novel Bestows an Advanced and Complex Life Lesson: The Importance of Realizing Self through an Outward Focus on Others


Harris, Jennifer Austa, The World and I


Jennifer Austa Harris is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She works with the Legal Writing and Research Program at the University of Minnesota Law School and has been a writing tutor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. She last wrote for The World & I on Susan Howatch (February 1998).

Margaret Gower is among the most likable characters I have encountered in my years as a reader. She is a contemplative and empathic girl who struggles toward adulthood with the help of a very devoted but chronically depressed clergyman father. In Gail Godwin's Father Melancholy's Daughter, I delighted in Margaret's imaginative sensibility about amorphous subjects such as morality, death, and duty, which were poignant themes even though seen from a child's perspective. Margaret was precocious, sensitive, and responsible as a small girl stumbling toward womanhood, and I was genuinely aggrieved by the idea that I had seen the last of her at the novel's end. Fortunately, Margaret's evolution continues in Godwin's recently released Evensong, a smart and fulfilling sequel that chronicles her ongoing development as an adult.

To appreciate the richness and depth of Margaret's majority, one must understand the particularities of her youth. For this reason, I recommend that these two books be read as a pair. It is possible for both novels to be enjoyed individually, but each is made more complete and meaningful by reading the other, and the totality of Margaret's characterization through the combination should not be missed. Godwin extends subtle aspects of Margaret's six-year-old personality into adulthood by weaving recognizable cognitive threads from her young development into her adult narrative voice in Evensong. This artful technique makes the sequel seem a very personal, sensitive, and internal progression of Margaret's continuing life story.

The 1991 publication of Father Melancholy's Daughter heralded a distinct change in Godwin's literary focus. From her first publication, The Perfectionists (1970), through her 1987 best-seller, A Southern Family, Godwin wrote consistently about southern women who rebelled against the traditional social roles thrust upon them by their paternalistic culture. These women typically embarked on a journey to discern their individual identities through the realization of their previously thwarted careers or talents. Often these characters returned to their past, either geographically or emotionally, in an attempt to integrate their roots with their new independent selves.

By means of her early work, Godwin was designated a southern feminist author and was subsequently grouped with the likes of Anne Tyler and Shirley Anne Grau. The Odd Woman (1974), Violet Clay (1978), and A Mother and Two Daughters (1982) were nominated for National Book Awards. Godwin was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment grants for fiction and libretto writing, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

With such an auspicious career backing her, Godwin apparently felt that she had the freedom to allow her work to mature and change focus at the beginning of the 1990s. Father Melancholy's Daughter, narrated by a 22- year-old Margaret Gower through continual flashbacks that range the preceding sixteen years, reverses the scenario common to most of Godwin's earlier fiction. This is done through concentrating not on the young character's need to escape her circumstances to find herself but on the lives of those left in the wake of such liberating escapes.

Father Gower and daughter

Margaret's mother, Ruth, abandons her family and the demands of being a small-town rector's wife when Margaret is six. Ruth leaves with Madelyn Farley, an old friend who is portrayed as a very stereotypical 1970s urban feminist.

Madelyn provides a sharp contrast with the life that the Gowers have established in their Virginia Anglo-Catholic rectory. …

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