Gail Godwin


The Evolving Self in the Novels of Gail Godwin

by Lihong Xie

“Lihong Xie has placed all admirers of Gail Godwin’s fiction in her debt by insightfully demonstrating how Godwin’s heroines, like the author herself, refuse to let fashionable cynics discourage them from taking the female self seriously . . . Not least, Dr. Xie illuminates the subtlety, craft, and sophistication of [Godwin’s] work . . . All readers of southern literature will enjoy and profit from Dr. Xie’s acute and sensitive reading of Godwin’s fiction.” —Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Emory University

Gall Godwin, author of nine well-received novels, including the critically acclaimed best seller A Mother and Two Daughters, is one of the most articulate of contemporary writers to pursue the idea of the self. As Lihong Xie shows in this innovative study, the southern women who are nearly always Godwin's heroines find themselves caught between the ideal of southern womanhood and the brave new world of contemporary feminism. Yet each of Godwin's heroines struggles to form a personal identity that is strong, complex, dynamic, and meaningful.

Drawing on a rich vein of feminist theory and research, Xie illuminates Godwin's representation of female identity, the development of her vision, and the evolution of her art. Xie's explorations proceed chronologically through Godwin's oeuvre, capturing the essential themes of her novels: female victimization and self-search, in The Perfectionists and Glass People; becoming a heroine, in The Odd Woman; restructuring the self, in Violet Clay and The Finishing School, dialogic interaction, in A Mother and Two Daughters and A Southern Family; and the journey beyond personal identity, in Father Melancholy's Daughter. As Xie leads us through these works, we find Godwin's evolving heroines emerging out of lively, intense, sometimes painful dialogue with both the self -- past, present, and future -- and the social world of family, birthplace, culture, and friendships.

Xie reveals Godwin's very idea of the self as mediating between the humanist concept of a centered identity and postmodernism's radical denial of selfhood. Fluid and in process, Godwin's heroines, she argues, become more coherent through constant self-examination, more autonomous through the exercise of memory and interpretive power, more authentic by means of continuous self-redefinition. They affirm the humanist ideal amid the challenges of a fragmented modern world. Of special value is Xie's integration of the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin with contemporary work on the female Bildungsroman. She clearly demonstrates how Bakhtin's concept of language, with its stress on plurality and multiplicity, helps us understand Godwin's experimentation with and deft handling of diverse voices.

This is a timely, unique, and essential study of a novelist the Atlanta Journal and Constitution calls "one of the best writers we have today." It will be welcomed by all who are interested in gender studies, women's studies, twentieth-century American literature, and southern literature.

Lihong Xie is editor of University Council and Faculty Senate Publications at Northern Illinois University.

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Published by Louisiana State University Press
Hardcover - 1995
ISBN: 0807119245