Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Joyce Carol Oates takes the title of her twentieth—and perhaps most assured and impressive—novel from Stephen Crane’s poetry sequence, “The Black Riders and Other Lines,” wherein the narrator comes upon a creature in the desert who is consuming his own heart and likes it not because it is “good,” but precisely for its bitterness, and because it is his alone. There are many justifiably embittered hearts among Oates’s characters, and if the morally most aware among them hang on tenaciously to their bitterness, it is not from some senseless clinging to their own misery, but from a desire to remain in touch with feelings and passions that others either cannot comprehend or refuse to countenance.
Urban upstate New York from the mid-1950’s through the early 1960’s—the years of the Civil Rights movement, the ascendency of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—as Oates depicts it in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a place where distinctions and exclusions based on class and gender and especially on race are rigidly enforced. Oates’s novel is filled with incidents of racial prejudice, some only reported, many brutal and violent:
Blacks relegated to the backs of buses; the courts depriving a woman of her children when she marries a mulatto; a bigoted mayor preaching the supremacy of whites as the foundation of the republic; white police murdering or intimidating...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Like many of Oates's novels, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart can be read as a coming-of-age story in a society where too many adolescents grow up surrounded by violence. The novel will prompt discussion of the violence and racism that continue to mark the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Some will object to Oates's language and her graphic depictions of violence, but rather than dismiss her because of this, readers would do well to ask why Oates offends them, and perhaps even wants to offend them.
1. Oates takes the title of her novel from the beast's words in a Stephen Crane poem. What do you think the beast means when he says that he eats his heart "Because it is bitter/And because it is my heart"? Why do you think Oates chose this title?
2. How do class and race shape the Garlock family? the Fairchild family? the Courtney family? the Savage family? In what ways do the individuals in these families hope to reach the American dream? Do any of them reach it?
3. In what ways are Iris and Jinx mirror characters? Why the names?
4. In what ways does Iris transform herself into an art object? Do you find this response to her life experiences destructive? protective? sustaining?
5. Does Iris marry successfully? Why does Alan marry her? Why is Jenny estranged from the family?
6. Why does Jinx marry Sissy Weaver? How are his motives for marrying similar...
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Techniques / Literary Precedents
As in You Must Remember This, Oates creates the atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s by numerous references to popular culture and political movements: Jack Palance and Ava Gardner; Hell's Angels and "Great Balls of Fire"; the Kennedy assassination that precipitates the opportunity for Iris being attacked and that, along with the Vietnam War, is the central metaphor for the character of the twentieth century.
Oates cuts back and forth between families. Iris is at the center of the Courtney family and connects it to the Garlock and Savage families; Jinx is at the center of the Fairchild family, which Oates examines less closely than the Courtneys. Perhaps this is because she feels better able to fictionalize a white, female experience than a black, male experience. She juxtaposes Iris's upward mobility against the downward mobility of most of the other characters. With its quick cuts between families, the novel is a bit like one of Leslie Courtney's photographs, a snapshot look at how social structures frame who we are and become. Its title places it in the tradition of Stephen Crane, a writer who also used a photographic technique but whose vision of life was more bitter than that of Oates.
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Since 1985 Oates has returned to the unmitigated look at violence that drew negative criticism in her early work. In Marya, You Must Remember This, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart she looks at violence in the lower and middle classes, while in American Appetites (1989) she shows that the American appetite for material and intellectual success can turn as nightmarish as the appetites of any of the social classes. With its theme of racism, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart most recalls them (1969), although Oates in her later fiction is spending less time creating a consciousness of violence and more time using art to shape a way to respond to violence.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bomberger, Ann M. “ If I Was Colored . . . I’d Know Who I Was’: Yearning White Women, Guilt, and the Past.” Women’s Studies 27 (November, 1998): 581-612. Explores the concept of white racial identity in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. “Whiteness” is perceived to affect the idea of gender, especially for women. Bomberger also discusses the novel’s characters, who have hidden their past so well that they do not acknowledge who they really are.
Chicago Tribune. April 15, 1990, XIV, p.1.
Cosmopolitan. CCVIII, April, 1990, p.44.
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. A discussion of fifteen Oates novels written between 1977 and 1990. Of American Appetites (1989) and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, Creighton comments, “The American dream is fractured by an unintentional killing; in both, violence is an upwelling of tension, breaking through the civil games of society and the conscious control of character; in both, appetites remain unfulfilled.”
Gates, Henry Louis. “Murder, She Wrote.” The Nation 251 (July 2, 1990): 27. While he singles out Oates’s rendering of racial resentment, Gates maintains that “the real spine of the book may be...
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