Study Guide

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart

by Joyce Carol Oates

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is divided into three parts and an epilogue. With the exception of the omniscient perspective of part 1, the narrative is presented from the third-person point of view, allowing Oates to explore the perspectives of many different characters.

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart explores the impact of race and class on the formation of identity in America. Oates uses four families to illustrate this: the poor white Garlocks, the struggling black Fairchilds, the ambitious working-class Courtneys, and the upper-class Savages. All the individual characters are placed within the larger context of their families and social class.

The novel begins in 1956 with the discovery of the corpse of Little Red Garlock, the demented son of a poor white family. After this discovery, the novel begins its large second section, moving back three years in time to 1953. This crucial section concerns the relationship between Iris Courtney, a white working-class teenager, and Jinx Fairchild, a black teenager and star basketball player. It is Jinx who accidentally murders Little Red. In defending Iris against this repulsive sexual bully, Jinx finds himself committing a violent act that forges a secretive and powerful bond with Iris.

Iris Courtney is the central consciousness of the novel. Ambitious and bright, Iris is seeking to overcome the obstacles presented to her by her social class and by her alcoholic mother, Persia, and her gambler father, Duke. After the murder, Iris develops an erotic attachment to Jinx; she continues her obsession with him even after he breaks off their relationship. This is a side of...

(The entire section is 696 words.)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart has many of the elements that readers come to expect from Joyce Carol Oates—violence, drama, mystery—but also the complex social and economic portrait of American life in the 1950’s and 1960’s that she is so good at drawing. The story of Iris Courtney and Jinx Fairchild is another Oates account of adolescent love and frustration, but it is also a searing portrait of the effects of social class and race in the United States.

The novel is broken into three parts and an epilogue. Part 1 opens with the discovery of the body of “Little Red” Garlock in the Cassadaga River in Hammond, New York, sixty miles south of Lake Ontario. Vicious and deranged, the boy has followed fourteen-year-old Iris one night in April, 1956. When Jinx tries to protect her, the two boys fight, and Jinx kills Little Red with a rock and dumps his body in the river. The murder is neither witnessed nor solved, but its consequences will haunt Iris and Jinx. Drawn by mutual attraction and guilt to each other, they speak of their connection only rarely. Iris is isolated in a downwardly mobile white family, with an alcoholic mother and a gambler father. She avoids her parents through schoolwork, and after their separation, the mother dies of her addiction. Iris wins a scholarship to nearby Syracuse University and loses herself in the study of art history, but she continues her isolated life.

Jinx Fairchild’s...

(The entire section is 501 words.)