Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Some of the themes of the book are clear and straightforward: In her history of a family with five daughters, Oates has ample opportunity to explore the beginnings of feminism as those daughters react against the strictures of their times. There is a clear picture of the century’s attitudes toward female sexuality, for example, in the lives of Octavia and Malvinia. Neither seems to illustrate either a desirable or natural response to natural stimuli. The awkwardness of the time in explaining sex—an awkwardness that produced actual books such as Katherine Lee Bates’s euphemistic The Wedding Day Book (1882)—hampers rather than helps Octavia. Without guidance she has no standard of comparison.

Malvinia, on the other hand, cannot simply enjoy her sensual nature, even in marriage. She despises herself for being what she is, regarding her sexual enjoyment as a perversion rather than a reward. A character as physically satisfied in marriage as, say, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would be incomprehensible to either Octavia or Malvinia. Few of the daughters seem to find an accommodation with sex. It is the thought of what must occur on her wedding night, after all, that sends Constance fleeing to the West. Only with Samantha is there no suggestion of neurotic sexuality. In her role as scientist and later as a woman who freely chooses her own husband, Samantha portrays the new woman that the new century would call into being. The most...

(The entire section is 563 words.)