Foxfire (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang tells of girls lost in the bland, male 1 950’s, but girls who band together to work out a revenge for what has happened to women before and since. Foxfire is thus a novel about crimes against women and about what happens to the young women who unite to fight the people and the system that perpetuate those crimes.
The novel begins on November 12, 1952, when sixteen-year-old Legs Sadovsky escapes from her grandmother’s house in Plattsburgh, New York-where the State Department of Human Welfare Services has sent her to get her away from her “unsuitable” Hammond home-and shows up at the home of Maddy Wirtz. That “is how FOXFIRE will come to be born.” On New Year’s Day, 1953, five Hammond high-school girls tattoo each other with the gang’s sacred emblem-a tall, erect flame-and sign their allegiance to FOXFIRE (it is always capitalized in Maddy’s chronicles). All outsiders, poor white teenagers from broken homes, they find in FOXFIRE the identity they never had in their dysfunctional families. Maddy’s father, for example, is dead, her mother not available; Legs’s mother is dead, and Ab Sadovsky, with his various girlfriends, may not be her real father. Under the leadership of Legs Sadovsky, the girls find love and purpose, and that purpose is aimed directly at men and at sexual exploitation.
Their first act of revenge is against Mr. Buttinger, the ninth-grade mathematics teacher who humiliates Rita O’Hagan, an insecure, overweight girl, and who also manages to touch her inappropriately whenever he gets the chance. They paint his car with his crime (“IM A DIRTY OLD MAN”) and their motto (“FOXFIRE REVENGE!”). Buttinger never returns to school after his humiliation, and FOXFIRE has learned the power that it holds; this power will be used throughout the novel to defend women against exploitative men. “Oh Maddy-Monkey,” Legs explains to her favorite, “we’re all Rita.”
Maddy finds out how true this is when she tries to retrieve an Underwood typewriter that her uncle, the owner of a men’s store in Hammond, is discarding. Uncle Wimpy, seeing her, wants money for it-worse, he intimates that the thirteen-year-old Maddy can get it free for certain sexual favors. The gang sends Maddy back as a lure, and they beat up Wimpy Wirtz when he exposes himself. Maddy knows the “certain talismanic power… in knowing how to write,” and the old Underwood will give it to her. More important, she has learned the power that women have in union, and that FOXFIRE gives each of its members. As she writes, “It was a time of violence against girls and women but we didn’t have the language to talk about it then.” Foxfire the novel is about the discovery of that language, as FOXFIRE the gang is about the revenge for the violence.
Yet, as in so many Joyce Carol Oates novels, less is more. Legs has befriended an old, alcoholic priest named Father Theriault, who gives the gang a semi-Marxist analysis of the class structure of history. Their initiation ceremony mixes this language of the “Revolution of the Proletariat” with biblical terminology-“Valley of the Shadow of Death.” One of their first acts is a protest against a pet store that is mistreating its animals, and from which they rescue Toby, their loyal Husky.
The enemy is thus not only men but also the institutionalized ideology of the 1950’s. The authorities assume that FOXFIRE is the auxiliary of some male gang, but male gangs are themselves threatened by FOXFIRE. One day, on the school grounds, Legs pulls a knife to defend a member of her gang; she is thereupon expelled from school. She steals a car, crashes it into a bridge (in a foreshadowing of the final scene of the novel), and is sent to the Red Bank Correctional Facility for Girls for fourteen months. In prison, her purpose is solidified. The truth she learns in Red Bank, she tells Maddy on her release, is “that we do have enemies, yeah men are the enemy but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too sometimes.” Yet the 1950’s ideology is not only sexist; at the celebration party for her release, the gang shuns the two black girls Legs has invited. FOXFIRE the gang is thus a part of the very ideological structure it is trying to fight.
Legs finds a house outside Hammond where the gang can live together, as well as a car (“Lightning Bolt”), and FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD begins. The gang’s purpose stays the same: When Legs finds a dwarf tied up outside another rural dwelling who is being...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang is a novel about young women lost in the violent male-dominated 1950’s who band together to work out a revenge for what has happened to women before and since. Foxfire is thus a novel about crimes against women in the United States and about what happens to the young women who unite to fight the people and the systems that perpetuate those crimes.
The novel begins when sixteen-year-old “Legs” Sadovsky escapes from her grandmother’s house in Plattsburgh, New York—where the State Department of Human Welfare Services has sent her to get away from her “unsuitable” Hammond home—and shows up at the house of Maddy Wirtz. It is November 12, 1952, and that “is how FOXFIRE will come to be born.” On New Year’s Day, 1953, five Hammond high school girls tattoo one another with the gang’s sacred emblem—a tall erect flame—and sign their allegiance to FOXFIRE (as it is always capitalized in Maddy’s chronicles). All outsiders, all poor white teenagers from broken homes, they find in FOXFIRE the identity that they never had in their dysfunctional families. For example, Maddy’s father is dead, and her mother is emotionally or physically unavailable to her for much of the novel. Under the leadership of Legs Sadovsky, however, the girls find love and purpose, and that purpose is directed against men and sexual exploitation.
Their first act of vengeance is against Mr. Buttinger, the ninth-grade math teacher who humiliates Rita O’Hagan and touches her inappropriately whenever he gets the chance. They paint his car with his crime (“IM A DIRTY OLD MAN”) and their motto (“FOXFIRE REVENGE!”). Buttinger never returns to school after his humiliation, and FOXFIRE has learned the power that it holds, power...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Foxfire is a 1990’s novel looking backward, for its subject and its perspective clearly reveal a contemporary feminist understanding of the exploitation and sexual violence inflicted upon women. In a sense, Foxfire most resembles a novel such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), which takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, but which has at its center a violent black gang and thus projects a 1970’s racial consciousness onto the early 1900’s. Likewise, Foxfire is a novel of the 1950’s written with a 1990’s feminist consciousness: The crimes are those of the 1950’s, but the perspective is that of several decades later, when questions of race, class, gender—even animal rights—would move center stage.
Foxfire contains many recognizable Oates trademarks. In work after work, she has probed the situation of naïve young women seduced by some powerful male figure. In her classic 1970 story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” for example, it is the demonic Arnold Friend who lures the young Connie to her death. In the story “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” from about the same time, it is the drug addict Simon who seduces the high school-aged narrator. In the novel Black Water (1992), the powerful unnamed “Senator” drives the naïve Kelly Kelleher to her death (in a car accident which anticipates the two in Foxfire). Oates has often depicted this power struggle from the perspective of the victim, and her psychological realism has usually been overwhelming.
In Foxfire, the perspective is the same—from the members of some white underclass who are looking up at their personal and institutional exploitation. What is different is that the women in the novel have gained power against men and have gained the knowledge that language can give them to exercise it. The women in Foxfire are “taking back the night” with the power of language and community. Oates, however, is adding a warning to women of the ultimately self-destructive nature of the violence, no matter for what cause it is being used.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Bender sees Oates “as a writer who is always in some sense a critic” and considers “her intentions and achievements as part of a larger statement about contemporary American life and letters.”
Bloom, Harold, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection of essays “brings together a representative selection of the most useful criticism so far devoted to the work of Joyce Carol Oates.”
Booklist. LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p.1275. A review of Foxfire....
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