Study Guide

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates Essay - Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 1)

Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 1)

Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–

An American short story writer and novelist, Miss Oates is the author of them, With Shuddering Fall, and Expensive People. She has won a National Book Award. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[The questions posed by Joyce Carol Oates in Expensive People] are the kind of puzzle we find in all those instances of the satirist satirized, of the rage that is looked at skeptically and perhaps undercut, whether it be the misanthropy of Gulliver or the outrage of John Osborne's early heroes. The puzzles are only as compelling as the rage over which they play, and this vision of the American family and the larger patterns of our suburban subculture has a somewhat tiresome familiarity…. If all that rage confers is a vision in its own way rather conventional, the puzzles lose their urgency and begin to seem labored, as this book does in spite of its occasional brilliance.

Martin Price, in Yale Review (© 1969 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1969, p. 469.

[In her] "Author's Preface" to them, [Joyce Carol Oates noted] that she deliberately understated the known violence of slum life "because of my fear that too much reality would become unbearable." Yet fiction can absorb unlimited violence; the kind of esthetic decorum that Miss Oates wishes to preserve is threatened not by the intensity of fictional experience but by the degree to which that experience is portrayed as arbitrary, as affecting characters without in turn being affected by them. Truth is stranger, not tougher, than fiction, and segments of them are "strange" in precisely the sense that that old adage employs.

Miss Oates is possessed of prodigious narrative gifts…. Paradoxically, though, the surging plot that carries the three main characters along eventually drowns the very human individuality that Miss Oates is at such pains to bestow upon them.

Paul Edward Gray, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1970, pp. 433-34.

The poems in this book [Anonymous Sins, and Other Poems] are singularly difficult to grasp. The problem is not that they are obscure—they are not—but that they deal with delicate shades of mood, feeling, and perception; they must be difficult to grasp. There is throughout a Shelleyan sort of insubstantiality, for these poems are not "imitations of life" but explorations into the turnings of a sensitive mind, a mind easily jarred into a disequilibrium which only the poem can resolve….

Reading through this book, one becomes aware of recurrent themes and the words that identify them: pain, dark, dream, love….

"The excellence of every art," said Keats, "is its intensity"; and so it is here. One encounters an occasional flatness, to be sure, but the characteristic poem in this volume is charged with a nervous excitement that draws the reader irresistibly into its fictions.

Roberts W. French, "The Novelist-Poet" (© 1970 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1970, pp. 177-78.

[With Love and Its Derangements] Joyce Carol Oates has written a novel of poems. The terrain of her world is hostile and hard, but it is also ripe for exploration and, because it is limited to the confines of the poet's skull and bears her boundaries, she is our welcome guide. Her brilliance and control extol the harsh landscape of love and, at the end, we are so toughened, so enlarged, that her land is almost ours, and well worth the winning….

[It] is not the artist's careful control that sets this book apart; we have come to expect that from Miss Oates. Her novels shine with it. It is her choice of the central image that controls this book, an old image of love: the small death that changes woman to "a cage of ribs and a smile/locked between … [her] jaws;" pursued and taken, she is reborn "firm as tiny beads of frost," an icy phoenix, the very antithesis of Sylvia Plath's frost-flower. It is as if, by giving us the jagged stones of her poems, by storming us for pages with their terror and glare, she gives the true dimensions of the country from which they come and draws in full the triumph of its conquest.

Hilda Gregory, "Love's Country" (© 1971 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Spring, 1971, pp. 78-80.

Joyce Carol Oates doesn't pick at her characters' brains. Having escaped the fascination that motive and mental state have for other contemporary writers, she keeps the unfortunates who populate her novels so busy they have hardly a moment for introspection. Miss Oates tells what happens to her characters and what their experiences—usually terrible—do to them but she rarely explains what they are thinking about their plights.

In her later work Miss Oates has grown more and more withdrawn, and less willing to discuss what's inside peoples' minds. Since A Garden of Earthly Delights her technique has become ascetic, denying all indulgences, and her work has improved with each renunciation. Wonderland, her new book, surpasses even them, which in 1969 won a National Book Award….

To her credit, Miss Oates writes as if she never made the connection between cause and effect, as if she were simply a reporter, not an interpreter. She's calm when she might have been shrill, and her coolness turns what might have been a feckless story into a powerful one.

A number of the major themes of literature are recognizable in Miss Oates's work. She has Tolstoy's sense of history as it overwhelms the individual, and she reveals a classical affinity for fatalism and lost innocence. Her characters are afflicted with the anomie explored by the French existentialists. On a lesser scale, she shares James Agee's reverence for the terror and frailty of childhood and, like D. H. Lawrence, she scorns the life of the mind as ineffectual and irrelevant.

But, most of all, Miss Oates's ties are to the twentieth-century school of American naturalism, particularly Theodore Dreiser. Although she is less concerned with sociology than he was, Miss Oates's stories unfold in the same harsh settings, and her characters fight to survive with the same befuddled amorality as those of An American Tragedy.

Of course, there is a difference: the Dreiser novel is a tragedy; Wonderland is not. Even when he's the hero of the operating room, Jesse never has enough hope to be a tragic figure. His story is mere catastrophe.

Brian P. Hayes, in Saturday Review, October 9, 1971, p. 38.