Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Black Water is really a novella; it is only three times as long as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” for example, one of Oates’s many well-known short stories. Like that story, or her longer Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), Black Water explores the theme of what could be called “Death and the Maiden” (the original title for “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”). In work after work, Oates has probed this situation of the naïve young woman seduced by some powerful, almost demonic male figure. In “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections and Began My Life Over Again,” another regularly anthologized Oates story, the villain is a seductive young drug addict. In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” it is Arnold Friend (or “an old fiend,” a thinly veiled representation of the Devil) who lures Connie to her death.

In Black Water, the antagonist is much more lifelike and fleshy—but just as evil. Selfish and greedy, The Senator thinks of nothing but trying to save himself. In the end, he has, but another Oates heroine has drowned in the waters of male power and selfishness. Again and again, Kelly thinks of The Senator’s charisma, “his manly power,” as she is drawn to his presence that afternoon, and when he moves closer to her, she is lost.

This is not, however, merely another story of an older man misusing a younger woman. In one short paragraph, Oates defines two central concerns of her book: “Politics, the negotiating of power. Eros, the negotiating of power.” Readers witness both kinds of negotiation here; they are, she implies, two parts of the same violent American culture, and The Senator, in his charm and power, abuses both.