Maternal love and its impact on moral life in Gordon's `Men and Angels'

Men and Angels, by Mary Gordon. New York: Random House. 239 pp. $16.95. Like ``Final Payments'' and ``The Company of Women,'' this, Mary Gordon's third novel, is about human love and its potential side effects: lust, jealousy, guilt, and fear. It is also, most emphatically, about the love of a mother for her children.

Anne Foster, with a Harvard PhD in art history, has found little outlet for her talents in the small New England college town of Selby, where she lives with her husband, Michael, and their children, Peter and Sarah. When a former professor, the archetype of the benevolent mentor, presents her with an opportunity to write a catalog for an exhibition, Anne cannot refuse -- although it means she will not join Michael when he teaches in France for a year, she can spend less time caring for her children.

Her research involves her intimately in the life of Caroline Watson, a fictitious composite of such painters as Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, pioneers in the male-dominated Parisian art world of the early years of the century. What Anne learns from her work has less to do with Watson than with herself, less to do with art than with the complex bond between mother and child. Anne's reverence for her children, her awe at the miracle of their lives is, she thinks, what mothering must be for everyone.

But of course it is not, and sometimes children suffer. Laura Post, the Fosters' live-in baby sitter, was cruelly rejected by a mother who claimed she hated Laura from the moment of the child's birth. Caroline Watson herself had deeply ambivalent feelings toward her own son, Stephen, leaving the child in Philadelphia for nine months of the year while she pursued her painting in Paris, suffocating from his attentions when she visited him for long, restless summers. Stephen eventually died of alcoholism.

Baby-sitter Laura, for a while buoyed by a perverted faith in a God that not only loves her but makes her His chosen child, eventually kills herself. Although the parallel endings for the two unloved children is unconvincingly pat, Gordon's questions are unsettling: What is the nature of maternal love? ``What do you think having children does to your moral life?'' Anne asks a friend.

``Men and Angels'' is peopled by women, a rich array of sometimes charming, sometimes irritating characters: the flamboyant Ianthe, an energetic advocate of recreational sex; the brilliant Jane Watson, Caroline's daughter-in-law; Barbara Greenspan, Anne's wisecracking neighbor; even Solange, a downtrodden saleswoman in an expensive shoe store. Gordon portrays her women characters the way her own Caroline Watson painted mothers and children -- with deep understanding, empathy, and an artist's eye. Her men, though -- the lascivious Adrian; the very academic Michael, who speaks as if he's defining a thesis; the burly electrician, Ed Corcoran -- all seem merely functional. Only Ben, Anne's mentor, in many ways curiously feminine, is palpable.

The central focus is on Laura and Anne, and here Laura's grotesque story is far less subtly rendered than Anne's domesticity. Laura's suicide is almost a clich'e. Anne is Gordon's heroine, a fully realized character who comes to her own understanding of goodness, of obligation, of liberation. Anne, who worries that ``so many people thought her good,'' is instead only cautious. Her real talent is for nurturing, and as she strives for intellectual fulfillment she concludes that for a woman to achieve she must ``get out of the way of her own body,'' to overcome the powerful visceral need to mother.

Confronted with disturbing patterns of motherhood, Anne begins to see the complexities of her own relationship with her children; and she sees, too, that her ability to create, to contribute to the world, did not end with the production of her children. Finally Anne is able to transcend the guilt and self-deprecation that come from her inability to love the unlovable Laura, or even to devote herself entirely to her children.

Mothering, she decides, ``was not all of life. And that was wonderful; it was a tremendous mercy.'' All she could do, all any mother could do, she says, was to share herself with her children, to say, ``This is life.'' To ask, ``What shall we make of it?'' And to join them in searching for an answer.

Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard and has written several biographies.

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