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The Southern Literary Journal 33.2 (2001) 134-145

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Theo and the Road to Sainthood in Gail Godwin's A Southern Family

Ron Emerick

Critics agree that the search for meaning and the search for self are central concerns in all of Gail Godwin's works. Anne Cheney, for example, claims that the prototypical Godwin heroine is "searching for happiness, academic or artistic achievement, love, respect, or, more generally, meaning in life" (212-213). Similarly, Candace Henry, in her recent dissertation on Godwin, argues that Godwin's heroines are consumed by the search for self, a search which often requires a return to the past as well as the use of art as a means of therapy and self-discovery (v). Religion, however, appears to play a less significant role in Godwin's work. As Cheney points out, "Within the Godwin canon . . . religion is a persistent but usually subdued theme. . . . Godwin's educated women seem to find more intellectual than emotional power in religion" (211).

However, in her discussion of Gail Godwin's eighth novel, Father Melancholy's Daughter, Lithong Xie identifies a "new spiritual direction" in Godwin's work, in which the search for self involves a dialogue among the heroine, her dead mother, her father, and God (12). Xie suggests that at the end of this novel the Godwin heroine embarks on a "religious journey towards self-identity and spiritual growth" (Evolving Self 29). In a personal interview with Godwin, Xie found confirmation for her theory of a religious journey in the novel. To Xie's question, "Is spiritual quest a new direction in your writing?," Godwin responded, "I have always been interested in spiritual aspects. In this book, I couch it in a religious setting. . . . I continue to be interested in the spiritual. . . . It permeates everything" ("A Dialogue" 169-170). I would certainly agree with Xie's [End Page 134] theory of a religious journey in Father Melancholy's Daughter, and I would propose that Godwin's interest in spiritual aspects is equally visible in her seventh novel, A Southern Family. The spiritual aspects of the novel have, perhaps, been overlooked because of the book's dialogic structure. Rather than tracing the religious journey of a central heroine, the book portrays the viewpoints of several characters. As Xie explains in her analysis of the novel's dialogic approach, the various voices interweave and contest with each other. There is no single universal truth, just "competing individual truths," and Godwin seems to show that all are equally valid (Evolving Self 171-176). However, Godwin creates unity among the various viewpoints by couching all of them in a religious framework and symbolism. In addition, the constant references to religion throughout the novel suggest a distinctly spiritual vision in the book. 1

Examining Godwin's use of spiritual elements may help to explain an aspect of A Southern Family that has puzzled some readers and critics: the novel's ending. The book is composed of twelve chapters, each presented from the limited omniscient point of view of a major character, including several members of the Quick family as well as Clare's best friend Julia and Clare's husband Felix. However, the final chapter offers the viewpoint of a minor character, Sister Patrick, who has appeared only briefly during the novel's more than five hundred pages. Why does Godwin allow a seemingly minor character to take center stage in the final chapter? Does the use of Sister Patrick as the climactic narrator weaken or strengthen the novel? Given Godwin's statement that the spiritual "permeates everything," we can more easily understand the role of Sister Patrick and her central position in the last chapter, where she helps to clarify Godwin's vision in the book. Equally puzzling is the novel's blatantly religious ending--when Sister Patrick and the other nuns pray for all the suffering sinners in the world. But Godwin's ending is not imposed without preparation. In fact, the role of religion is stressed throughout the novel in a variety of...


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