Although Do with Me What You Will features many of the consistent themes in the work of Oates, such as early scenes of family violence, a male character seeking liberation from limitations, a passive female character without her own identity, and a rendering of the powerful magnetic force between a man and a woman, it is her first work to transcend a bleak projection for the future and offer the reader the means for a happy, though unresolved, ending.
Elena Howe struggles through some five hundred pages as an ill-defined character who is pushed, prodded, and manipulated by all those around her. The reader can only surmise that this character really exists through her identity to others—she is Ardis’ daughter, Marvin Howe’s wife, Jack’s lover—while being dragged into the void of her narration. Through her mother’s encouragement to disguise her true self, and through the will of her husband, who is attracted to her distance from the world, Elena becomes a statue long before she arrives, stonelike, in front of one. She is a character desperately in search of love and thus becomes defined by anyone who says that he loves her. Although the reader is never actually privy to her full realization, there is some sense of optimism as Elena is metamorphosed in the end through the real love of Jack and the metaphysical love of Mered Dawe.
Violence is a prevalent theme in most of Oates’s work, but although present in this novel, it becomes secondary to Elena’s struggle to achieve a sense of her own identity. Elena Howe is the most passive of Oates’s heroines, and therefore her transformation is the most drastic. Although she becomes more rounded through Jack’s intervention and love, she is determined to find herself and to live aggressively. Uncharacteristically, in the end of the work Elena becomes the aggressor, seeking out her lover and refusing to leave until he comes to her. Yet the sign of her genuine liberation is her relish for independence and her obvious delight in selecting her own mode of transportation and her own path for the future. She also becomes receptive to risk, realizing that regardless of whether she “gets” Jack, she is now free to explore the world on her own.
Although the book was generally well received by the critics, some pointed out that the...
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