Beatrice, the protagonist of Mary Gordon’s story City Life, is quite preoccupied with cleaning. Having moved from her pristine and cherished house in upstate Ithaca to New York City, she is dismayed with her family’s new abode. Her “heart sank at the grayness of the grout between the small octagonal bathroom floor tiles, the uneven job of polyurethaning on the living room floor […] the frosted glass on the window near the shower that she couldn’t, whatever she did, make look clean”. So she sets to work, pouring a “lake of bleach on the bathroom floor” and having “left it for six hours, then sopping it up, found she had created a field of dazzling whiteness”. What the story makes tragically clear is how Beatrice’s obsession with cleaning is linked to a dark and personal history of neglect, as she struggles (and ultimately fails) to wash away the traumas of her childhood past.
Cleanliness, or lack thereof, is a recurring motif in Irish-American writer Mary Gordon’s work. In her first novel Final Payments (1978), the main character Isabel recounts her inability to keep her father’s house clean, the “grime” she “could never get out of the furniture”, while in the more recent novel Pearl (2005), protagonist Maria is repeatedly shamed as a child by her family’s housekeeper for being slovenly and “filthy”. Across the work, connections are established between cleanliness and an ascetic purity of the soul, something identifiable in the words of Muriel, a character from Gordon’s second novel The Company of Women (1980) – “She had brushed out with fire all the root connections of her life; she had kept clean for him and God, a sanctuary perfect in its stillness” – and in her third novel Men and Angels (1985), when Laura, a young and troubled evangelical woman does a “spring clean” on her employer’s house in a symbolic attempt to make clean the supposed impurities of the household.
Ideas about purity are at the centre of these representations of cleanliness, with Mary Gordon’s work taking on a philosophical critique of the concept, revealing its diminishing aspects. This is most clearly shown in the narrative of Final Payments, when Isabel adopts a mode of unbearable living based on what she mistakenly identifies as a “pure act of love”: “loving the unlovable”. Gordon’s work consistently engages such questions of moral philosophy: what is a pure act? What is beauty? What is justice? What is forgiveness? What is goodness? Her characters dialogically engage these questions with themselves, and with others around them. And none of this is dry. Gordon writes great dialogue balanced with expertly crafted internal monologues of her characters’ inner lives. One of her most notable achievements is to engage philosophical seriousness in fictions that are fresh and engaging, humming with humanness, brimming with desire.
Mary Gordon’s fiction is intimately concerned with the experience and cultural memory of immigration to the US, especially Irish, but also Jewish, Italian, and Polish to name but a few. She is dazzling on family drama and her characters are acutely aware of the complexity of their family histories, immigration stories, and interweaved cultural heritages. Indeed, an interweaved cultural heritage is something experienced by Gordon herself.
She was born in 1949 in Far Rockaway, New York to parents of Irish, Italian and Jewish ancestry. Her father, David Gordon, converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He died in 1957 when she was seven years old, something which made a lasting mark. Gordon’s first memoir, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search For Her Father, published in 1996, explores her memory of him and the love of books and writing which he bestowed, as well as uncovering some very painful and traumatic truths, most notably his virulent anti-Semitism. Following his death, Gordon moved with her mother, Anna Gagliano, to Long Island to Gordon’s maternal grandmother and she grew up with her mother’s family. She attended Catholic parochial schools and then went to Barnard College in New York City in 1971 for undergraduate study, followed by Syracuse University for a Masters degree in 1973.
Her writing has received many honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was named the Official New York State Author in 2008. Gordon returned to Barnard College in 1988 where she holds the position of Millicent Macintosh Chair of English. Married to fellow writer Arthur Cash, they have two adult children and spend their time between New York City and Rhode Island.
When looking at the trajectory of Gordon’s prolific writing career, which includes seven novels, four short story and novella collections, three memoirs, and three books of essays and biography, there is a shift from earlier representations of local place to a more recent interest in transnational crossings, something which in many ways reflects the compressions of time and space indicative to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In the 2005 novel Pearl, Gordon crosses the ocean to Ireland and, in the 2011 The Love of my Youth, to Italy. However, her earlier novels are focused on the northeast region of the US. In her first two novels – Final Payments and The Company of Women – the focus is on Irish Catholic communities in New York City and New York state in the 1960s, exploring the conflicted relationships of young women to an intractable and conservative Church. Looking back to a recent past, they provide incisive insight into the tensions and unrests of Catholic America post Vatican II, folding into them the more general cultural contexts of 1960s culture: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy deaths and student demonstrations.
At the centre of these two novels are daughters that rebel, in different ways, against the patriarchal structures of the Church and Irish-American communities, with each finding a new way of living their faith by the narrative’s end. For all her issues with the Church, Gordon identifies as Catholic and this is a major theme in her work, permeating her writings, from the representations of an Irish-American Catholic family in The Other Side (1989) to the Polish Catholicisms of Pearl. She has also written a number of religious books, which include a biography Joan of Arc (2000) and Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels (2009).
However, as her two first novels demonstrate, Gordon is no dutiful daughter and her work confronts many of Catholicism’s problems, especially with respect to women and their bodies. A signature of the Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion in 1984, the essay Abortion: How do we Really Choose in her collection Good Boys and Dead Girls (1991) also signals her pro-choice position.
Embodiment is a key motif in all her work, a filter of desire and feminist consciousness, as women’s subjectivities are figured in richly kaleidoscopic ways: sexual, maternal, familial, spiritual and artistic. In her third novel, Men and Angels, set primarily in a small college town in Massachusetts, she explores the difficult relationship between Anne, an art historian, and her evangelical babysitter Laura. Anne is working on the catalogue of a woman artist named in the novel as Caroline Watson. It shares with Gordon’s 1998 novel Spending an exploration of the place of the female artist (Virginia Woolf is an enduring influence on Gordon’s work), carefully unpacking the relations between desire, power and – especially in Spending – money.
Gordon’s writing powerfully explores women’s desires so as to interrogate and disrupt a patriarchal religious shaming of the female body. Her project is echoed in the novel Pearl: “Of all the malignities Maria traces to her upbringing, among the most heinous is the habit of thinking herself impure by virtue of femaleness. The female: insufficiently fine. The female: overfleshed”.
In Gordon’s work, practices of cleaning operate as a barometer of the problematics of purity. Messiness – the messiness of life, the messiness of bodies, the messiness of human love – intervenes and disrupts the cold machinations of purity. Maeve Brennan, the accomplished writer being celebrated in this series on Irish-American women writers, engages a similar strategy in her short story The Day We Got Our Own Back from her collection The Springs of Affection. With the narrator Maeve’s family home being aggressively searched by members of the Free State Army – and making quite a mess! – one of the men gets a face full of soot when looking up the chimney. The story thus ends with this subtle mode of resistance and, also, with laughter, as Maeve mother’s cries: “Oh, thanks be to God I forgot to have the chimney cleaned”.
We can extend the connection between Brennan and Gordon on this subject of cleanliness all the more, linking these two writers with the commentaries they make on class and gender politics. Critics Angela Bourke and Ellen McWilliams illuminate the ways in which Brennan’s stories in The Rose Garden perceptively identify the classed position of the Irish woman servant, the cleaner of upper- and middle-class American households. Gordon’s work also takes up this concern of domestic servitude, evident for example in the character of Margaret in Final Payments, Marie in Pearl, the grandmother of Intertextuality to name just a few.
Overall, her work is very attuned to the intricacies of class politics, something which she thoughtfully explores in The Company of Women as Felicitas negotiates upper-middle-class elitism as a student of Columbia University, which stands in sharp contrast to her own working-class upbringing. At one moment in the novel, while attending an anti-war demonstration in Washington DC, Felicitas imagines writer Mary McCarthy as a “daring older sister”, establishing a literary feminist lineage in the Irish-American tradition. We can trace a similar genealogy of sisterhood between Mary Gordon and her predecessor Maeve Brennan, with both casting spurious eyes on the classed and ethnic dynamics of clean living.
Claire Bracken is associate professor in the English department at Union College, Schenectady, New York, where she teaches courses on Irish literature and film. She is author of Irish Feminist Futures (Routledge, 2016) and is co-editor of Anne Enright (with Susan Cahill, Irish Academic Press, Spring 2011) and Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts (with Emma Radley, Cork University Press, 2013).
Women Writers and Irish-American Literature is a week-long series to celebrate the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birth on January 6th, 2017, comprising articles on Maeve Brennan, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon and Alice McDermott, co-ordinated by Ellen McWilliams and featuring contributions from Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan and Sinéad Moynihan
Argumentative Essay Sample on Abortion
I would like to first point out the fact that abortion is one of the most controversial issues in the United States. The progressive left stands strong on the argument that women deserve the sole right to decide on abortion. As for the conservative right they base their judgment of abortion on religious aspects than on women’s rights. Whether your stance on abortion is pro or anti it is a legal operation in the United States. In the year 1973 abortion laws were decided by the states. Most of the states banned legal abortion unless the woman’s life was at risk. The controversial case Roe v. Wade changed the outlook on abortion. “In that year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the controversial case Roe v. Wade. The Roe decision acknowledged both a woman’s ‘fundamental right’ to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability and the state’s legitimate interest in protecting both the women’s health and the ‘potential’ of the fetus.
It prohibited states from banning abortion to protect the fetus before the third trimester of a pregnancy, and it ruled that even during that final trimester, a woman could obtain an abortion if she could prove that her life or health would be endangered by carrying the term”(Gordon, 214). This ruling gave woman the ability to make a decision of aborting a child based on their own rights and beliefs. As of 1973 to the present year of 2003 abortion is a legal procedure but is unfortunately looked upon by some, as murder.
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My standpoint on abortion is developed by both the progressive and conservative sides. I most definitely feel it is woman’s right to decide if she has a valid reason to abort a child. Although I feel it is the woman’s right on deciding this issue, the concern of whether it is a valid reason or not is a major issue. With out a doubt, if a woman is raped I believe abortion is the right choice, but on the other hand a bad decision made one evening, in my belief, is an unmoral reason to abort. I do not see abortion as a sin due to the good points Mary Gordon makes in “A Moral Choice.” The most important point she makes is stating, “The moral discussion of abortion centers on the issue of whether or not abortion is an act of murder. At first glance it would seem that the answer should follow directly upon two questions: Is the fetus human? And is it alive?”(Gordon, 223). These two questions can only be answered based on opinion. If you are an extremely religious individual you are probably more likely to say an abortion is murder. As for the less conservative citizens abortion is seen less as an act of sin. For example as Mary Gordon states “Our ritual and religious practices underscore the fact that we make distinctions among fetuses. If a woman took the bloody matter-indistinguishable from a heavy period-of an early miscarriage and insisted upon putting it in a tiny coffin and marking its grave, we would have serious concerns about her mental health.”(Gordon, 223). This is a very true statement. When woman we know have a miscarriage it is unlikely for them to be destroyed. It is an unfortunate occurrence but not a wrong doing that causes heartache. The discussion of miscarriage and deciphering at what point someone can declare a fetus human, is one of the biggest arguments of abortion. I believe that third trimester abortions should be banned. I feel this way because it is factual that a third trimester fetus can live outside of the mother’s body (Gordon, 224). Although third trimester abortions happen in rarity, late abortions in order to protect the mother should be decided case by case. “For myself, I am made uneasy be the third trimester abortions, which take place when the fetus could live outside the mother’s body, but I also know that these are rare and often done on very young girls who have had difficulty comprehending the realities of pregnancy. It seems to me that the question of late abortions should be decided case by case” (Gordon, 224). Gordon’s feelings on this specific issue are exactly the way it should be viewed. But with major technology on the anti-abortion side it may be difficult in the near future for even early abortions to be thought of as humane. Once scientists can prove a younger fetus can possibly live outside of the mother’s body, dramatic changes will take place on this topic (Gordon, 224).
Many of us can safely say that the media and press shape our perceptions on a daily basis. Since abortion is a very touchy topic and is based on moral issues, our perception is constantly changing. With the help of the media the anti-abortion group is one step ahead. It is very easy for this group to put graphic displays on the TV to help get their point across. As for the pro-choice side the position morally is hard to exhibit. “Anti-choice proponents can offer pastel photographs of babies in buntings, their eyes peaceful in the cameras gaze. In answer we can’t offer the material of an early abortion, bloody amorphous in a paper cup, to prove that what has just been removed from the mother’s body is not a child”(Gordon, 224). The most important point that needs to be understood is early abortion is a legal procedure. Abortion can not be debated upon whether it is legal or not. More scientific research needs to be done before people can make a definite decision on whether or not abortion is a murder. This research will help to clarify this topic on a wider basis. My opinion on abortion can be explained by simply saying it is a legal and moral choice decided by a woman. No one person has a say on a person’s decision or is fully informed on their personal issues. I feel strongly that banning abortion and possibly jeopardizing a woman’s entire future should not be permitted. Although Robert George defends the position of anti-abortion he clarifies the thoughts of the pro-abortion side very thoroughly in saying, “In contrasting the pro-life advocate with the pro-choice advocate by depicting (only) the latter as viewing abortion as ‘a decision to be made in accordance with the best scientific opinion as to when the beginning of life…occurs’ (George 217). This statement shows the number one argument amongst both sides. The anti-abortion thinking is that each one of us was a human from conception. “Conception was the occasion of substantial change (that is, change from one complete individual entity to another) that brought into being a self –integrating organism with a specifically human nature” (George, 220). The pro-choice advocates base all their feelings toward the life of a human entirely on scientific research.
Although the pro and anti abortion followers argue on where the human life actually begins, the other big discrepancy is moral choice. For example if a young girl exploring the sexual world decides to have intercourse, forgets the condom and becomes pregnant, should she be accountable? The anti-abortionists would declare this girl as irresponsible, selfish, and having heartless morals if she decided on an abortion. What if this young girl had an entire future ahead of her? If she wanted to become a doctor, nurse, or a lawyer her entire future would be destroyed. But the problem is the question of morals. If this young child didn’t want to jeopardize her entire future is that morally wrong? No, because how could you insist that a young girl has bad morals based solely on one bad decision. Some girls that get pregnant these days aren’t even passed the seventh grade. Put yourself back in the seventh grade and try to remember the important things in your life at that time. Unfortunately many of us knew little about sex and the consequences that may follow. These things need to be looked at in order to make a final judgment on abortion. My stand on this issue is very broad. I feel abortion is a right for woman. No other person should be allowed to make judgment on your body and decide for you whether or not to go through this procedure if necessary. Many close friends of mine had to go through this tragic experience of aborting a child. I think many citizens feel that women don’t really care and are completely heartless and self involved. That is not the case at all. One of my close friends made a huge mistake and did not use protection one night. Once finding out a month later she was pregnant, her life was a mess. She was not eighteen at the time so the court got involved. Not being able to tell her mother because she was a very religious person. Going to court and proving herself incompetent to have a child in her life was her only option.
Before knowing anyone who got an abortion and understanding this topic a little better is was very anti-abortion. After accompanying my friend in court for support, my thoughts and views on this topic completely changed. Abortion is something that needs to be decided upon based on a person’s own principles and beliefs. No one has the sole right to decide this for someone else. Basing abortion laws on religious and many views of men, is surely not the answer. This is the millennium many of us practice a certain religion but aren’t so involved, unlike earlier times. Another point to be made is that many men involved in politics are speaking out about this issue. What man should decide or even have a say of what a women should do if becoming pregnant. Does a man know what it is like being a young goal oriented woman having an entire future? Then she is suddenly faced with a difficult decision of choosing her future or having a child. You decide?
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