A Garden of Earthly Delights is a novel that portrays the American economic system and the ills suffered both by those who fail and by those who succeed in it. Oates tells the story of Clara, from the day of her birth among migrant laborers to her waning years watching television in a nursing home, and the men—father, lovers, son—who define her life experience.
The title is taken from a dramatic triptych by the fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. The three panels of the original Garden of Earthly Delights illustrate Eve’s creation in paradise, the debauchery of her descendants, and humankind’s punishment in hell. Oates’s novel mirrors this structure in its three sections. The first, titled “Carleton,” focuses on a bitter migrant laborer named Carleton Walpole as he takes his growing family from state to state, struggling to control his rage and maintain his lost sense of dignity. Clara, the third and favorite of his five children, learns to look beyond the distress and misery of their migrant existence and eventually runs off with a virtual stranger to find a better life.
The second section, “Lowry,” follows Clara through adolescence. The stranger, an enigmatic drifter named Lowry, sets her up in a small southern town, but he is involved in shady activities and soon disappears, spurning her obsessive love and unknowingly leaving her pregnant. Clara, a survivor, has attracted the attentions of a wealthy landowner, Curt Revere; she becomes his mistress, leads him to believe he is the father of her child, accepts his boundless generosity, and, with the death of his ailing wife, becomes the second Mrs. Revere.
Now established in comfort and wealth, having achieved a perfect vision of the American Dream, Clara consolidates...
(The entire section is 738 words.)