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Genre as Hermeneutical Instrument: Mary Gordon's Novels as Test Case for the “Catholic” Novel

  • Mary Gerhart (a1)


Whether a book is a “good book” is a matter not only of taste but also of genre. The genre of every book sets up certain expectations which the reader must engage and assess in order to understand the text. The reader uses genre to differentiate among multiple ways in which texts “work.” Genre minimally enables the reader to avoid the uncritical expectation that the success or failure of a text depends on the presence or absence of a particular theme. Maximally, a generic analysis can suggest new ways of disclosing the religious significance of literary texts. Genre as hypothesis provides a heuristic method for interpreting a text by itself and in relation to others. Generic analysis overcomes the deficiencies of thematic analysis to show how Mary Gordon's Final Payments succeeds as an action novel and The Company of Women as an apologue.



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1 Rosberg, Pat, “A Woman's Emergence into a Narcissistic Land,” Chicago Tribune, 9 April 1978, Sec. 7, p. 1.

2 Both Final Payments and The Company of Women are published by Random House (New York).

3 du Plessix Gray, Francine, “A Religious Romance,” NYTBR (February 15, 1981), 1.

4 du Plessix Gray, p. 26.

5 Gordon, Mary, Final Payments, p. 3.

6 See the distinction made by Sacks, Sheldon in Fiction and the Shape of Belief (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957) between satire, apologue and action novels.

7 du Plessix Gray, p. 26.

8 Much more restrained in tone, the passage recalls an epiphany from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking Compass, 1956 [1916]), pp. 170–71. After Stephen has rejected the vocation of priesthood for himself, he sees a girl gazing out to the sea: “Where was his boyhood now? Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny …? He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand…. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him….”

9 See Sacks, Fiction and the Shape of Belief.

10 Eliot, T. S., Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 29.

11 See Generic Studies: Their Renewed Importance in Religious and Literary Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45 (1977), 309–25.

12 Hirsch, E. D., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

13 In “The Catholic Novel: A Generic Approach,” an unpublished paper presented as the Ida Mae Wilson Lecture, Vanderbilt University, October 10,1980,1 define the Catholic novel in relation to the “new” novel, the apologue, the fantastic or occult novel, and the naturalistic novel.

14 Todorov, Tzvétan, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Literary Genre (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973), p. 3.

15 du Plessix Gray, p. 26.

16 See, for example, Tracy, David, A Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1975), pp. 2242.

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  • ISSN: 0360-9669
  • EISSN: 2050-8557
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