Study Guide

The Falls

by Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Niagara Falls plays a major role in Joyce Carol Oates's aptly titled novel,The Falls. The grandeur and mystical attraction, along with the thunderous roar of the falls, permeate the action. The ever-present mist that is generated by the cascades of water seeps into the lives of the people who dwell in its presence. Not only do the falls serve as a backdrop for the human conflict that resembles the intensity of the unharnessed water, but their turbulence also defines the novel's style. Typical of Oates's work, the plot unfolds in torrents of action, which sometimes appear murky. Yet powerful emotions churn beneath to reveal the human condition in all its shapes—most often in its tormented states. Just as the visitor might view Niagara Falls with fear and trepidation, so does the reader of “The Falls” approach the novel early on with apprehension, knowing full well that the characters will suffer and struggle in the uncertain waters of life—perhaps finally to reach the peaceful shore.

Considering that couples flock to the city along the Niagara River and its spectacular falls to spend their honeymoons, the novel's opening episode carries a heavy note of irony. After a catastrophic sexual experience on his wedding night, the Reverend Gilbert Erskine rises before daybreak, leaves his bride in the garish honeymoon suite, makes his way to the falls, and jumps to his death. Ariah awakens to find her husband gone, sets out to search for him, and eventually learns that he has committed suicide. Although recalling their sexual encounter with horror and expressing little love for the man, “the Widow Bride of the Falls”—as the newspapers call her—keeps a seven-day vigil by the river until her husband's bloated body finally surfaces.

A local attorney, Dirk Burnaby, accompanies Ariah as she keeps watch for the remains of her fallen husband. Although Dirk's motivation and reasoning remain somewhat unclear, the charming, well-established lawyer from a prominent family falls hopelessly in love with this austere, agitated woman, the twenty-nine-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister. A few months later they marry, and Ariah discovers the joys of both sex and alcohol.

After this fateful prelude that ends in contentment, the novel follows the idyllic course of Ariah's second marriage. The happy couple have three children, Chandler, Royall, and Juliet, whom they adore. They live in a fashionable suburb with all the amenities. Dirk's law practice flourishes and, having set aside his promiscuous bachelor ways, he becomes an upstanding and well-liked member of the city's upper echelon. Ariah indulges in her love of music and gives piano lessons. For the only time in the novel, she seems happy. Yet her anxiety takes over gradually as she expresses fear that Dirk will desert her, even though he gives no signs of dissatisfaction. The marriage does disintegrate—mainly through Ariah's neurotic demands. Much of the narrative turns into a character study of this perplexing woman, who believes from the outset that she is damned.

The narrative moves away from the family into the public arena when Dirk meets “the woman in black”—that is, Nina Olshaker, who secures his legal services to investigate the pollution penetrating the blue-collar neighborhood where she and her family live. At this point, Oates relies on a highly publicized and well-documented historical event: the ecological disaster of Love Canal, which is located near the American city of Niagara Falls. In the nineteenth century, a developer named William T. Love set out to build a canal that would connect the upper and lower Niagara River. Lacking financial resources to complete the project, his dream turned into a vast trench that lay desolate until the 1930's, when chemical companies used the site as a dump for more than twenty thousand tons of toxic waste.

Long after Love's death, the new owner of the land filled in the failed channel and turned the tract over to developers...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)