Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 108)
Joyce Carol Oates 1938–
American novelist, short story writer, poet, literary critic, essayist, nonfiction writer, and dramatist.
The following entry presents criticism on Oates's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 19, 33, and 52.
One of the United States's most prolific and versatile contemporary writers, Oates has published, since the start of her award-winning literary career in 1963: more than twenty novels; hundreds of short stories in both collections and anthologies; nearly a dozen volumes of poetry; several books of nonfiction, literary criticism, and essays; and many theatrical dramas and screenplays. In the words of novelist John Barth, "she writes all over the aesthetical map." Writing in a dense, elliptical, almost neutral style that ranges from realistic to naturalistic to surrealistic, Oates concentrates on the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual malaise of modern American culture in her fiction, exposing darker aspects of the human condition. Her tragic and violent plots abound with incidents of rape, incest, murder, mutilation, child abuse, and suicide, and her protagonists often suffer as a result of the conditions of their social milieu or their emotional weaknesses. Although her works in other genres address similar issues, most critics concur that her short fiction best conveys the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes. Assessing her own fiction, Oates remarked, "I do not think my work is grim. It is more of a real picture, grim for some people, triumphant for others. The drama of our lives."
Born June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, the daughter of a tool-and-die designer and homemaker, Oates was raised on her grandparents's farm in Erie Country—later represented in much of her fiction as Eden County. A bookish, serious child, she first submitted a novel to a publisher at the age of fifteen. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; the following year she earned a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor. From 1962 to 1968 the couple lived in Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit and published her first novels, short story collections, and poetry. She also witnessed the 1967 race riots, which inspired her National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). Shortly thereafter, Oates accepted a teaching position at the University of Windsor, Ontario, staying until 1978, when she was named a writer-in-residence at Princeton University; she joined the faculty there as a professor in 1987. Despite the responsibilities of an academic career, Oates has actively pursued writing, publishing an average of two books a year in various genres since the publication of her first book, the short story collection By the North Gate (1963). Her early novels consistently earned nominations for the National Book Award, while her short fiction won several individual O. Henry Awards and the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement in both 1971 and 1986. A poet of some merit, and a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies, Oates also is a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of a variety of topics. In 1987 she published the widely admired nonfiction study On Boxing, which led to at least one television appearance as a commentator for the sport. During the 1990s Oates gained additional recognition as a dramatist for producing many plays off-Broadway and at regional theaters, including The Perfectionist (1995), which was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play in 1994.
With Shuddering Fall (1964), Oates's first novel, foreshadows her preoccupation with violence and darkness, describing a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death by accident. Oates's best known and critically acclaimed early novels form an informal trilogy exploring three distinct segments of American society: A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) chronicles the life of a migrant worker's daughter in rural Eden County; Expensive People (1967) exposes the superficial world of suburbia; and them presents the violent, degrading milieu of an inner-city Detroit family. Oates's novels of the 1970s explore American people and cultural institutions, combining social analysis with vivid psychological portraits of frustrated characters ranging from a brilliant surgeon (Wonderland, 1971), a young attorney (Do with Me What You Will, 1973), and the widow of a murdered conservative politician (The Assassins, 1975), to religious zealots (Son of the Morning, 1978) and distinguished visiting poets and feminist scholars (Unholy Loves, 1979). Her short stories of this period, most notably in Marriages and Infidelities, (1972), and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, (1974), considered by many to be her best work, concern themes of violence and abuse between the sexes. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," for instance, tells of the sexual awakening of a romantic girl by a mysterious man, Alfred Friend; this story is considered a masterpiece of the modern short form and was adapted for film. Her novels of the early 1980s—Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—exploit the conventions of nineteenth-century Gothic literature as they examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, and the influence of family history on shaping destiny; likewise, many of her short stories rely on gothic elements (Haunted, 1994; First Love, 1996). Most of Oates's fiction of the 1980s features more explicit violence than does her earlier fiction, which tends more toward psychological afflictions but psychological obsessions nevertheless persist. In Marya (1986), for example, a successful academic searches for her alcoholic mother who had abused her as a child, and in You Must Remember This (1987), a former boxer commits incest with his niece during the McCarthyist 1950s. Oates's works of the 1990s continue to address relations between violence and such cultural realities of American society as racism (Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990), affluence (American Appetites, 1989), alienation (I Lock the Door upon Myself, 1990), poverty (The Rise of Life on Earth, 1991), classism (Heat, 1992), sexual-political power dynamics (Black Water, 1992), feminism (Foxfire, 1993), success (What I Lived For, 1994), serial killers (Zombie, 1995), and familial implosion (We Were the Mulvaneys, 1996). The series of mysteries published under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith—Lives of the Twins (1988), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), Snake Eyes (1992), and You Can't Catch Me (1995)—concern the psychopathic exploits of aberrational academics.
Critics hold diverse opinions about Oates's work, particularly about her repeated use of graphic violence, which some have called a "distorted" vision of American life. Eva Manske has summarized the general view: "Some of her novels and stories are rather shrill in depicting the human situation, remain melodramatic renderings of everyday life, highly charged with unrelenting scenes of shocking, random violence, or madness and emotional distress that Oates chronicles as dominant elements of experience in the lives of her characters." Many other scholars, however, have identified the naturalistic influence of American writers, William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell, to justify the violence of her narratives. Despite the general disregard of Oates as a feminist writer, a number have defended the feminist sensibility underlying much of her fiction; "her works actively challenge restrictive gender ideology," according to Marilyn C. Wesley. Janis P. Stout found that "by compelling the reader to experience the inadequacies and injustices of the past through a technique of heightened realism, [Oates] does become a voice of feminist awareness." Although some critics have dismissed her gothic fiction as whimsical, others have suggested that it invigorates the gothic literary tradition, particularly feminist critics who often have likened Oates's ghosts to the cultural status of "invisible woman," as Cara Chell has pointed out. Scholars also have observed the symbolic value of "place" in Oates's fiction, both literally and figuratively. Margaret Rozga has shown how the Midwestern settings of Oates's fiction "can be places of refuge or places of terror"; on the other hand, Sally Robinson has contended that her "voyeuristic technique has risks, for it can place the writer (and the reader) in a comfortable position above those whose sad lives seem to compel Oates's attention." Ironically, Oates's prolificity often has aroused more suspicion than praise; her response: "perhaps critics (mainly male) who charged me with writing too much are secretly afraid that someone will accuse them of having done too little with their lives."
By the North Gate (short stories) 1963
With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964
Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (short stories) 1966
Expensive People (novel) 1967
A Garden of Earthly Delights (novel) 1967
Women in Love and Other Poems (poetry) 1968
Anonymous Sins and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
them (novel) 1969
Love and Its Derangements: Poems (poetry) 1970
Ontological Proof of My Existence (drama) 1970
The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
Wonderland (novel) 1971
The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (criticism) 1972
Marriages and Infidelities (short stories) 1972
Angel Fire (poetry) 1973
Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973
Dreaming America (poetry) 1973
The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence (criticism) 1973
The Goddess and Other Women (short stories) 1974
The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (short stories) 1974
Miracle Play (drama) 1974
New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (criticism) 1974
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) 1974
The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975
The Fabulous Beasts (poetry) 1975
The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the...
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SOURCE: "Growing up Assured," in The Sunday Herald Tribune Book Week, October 25, 1964, pp. 21, 23.
[In the following review, Joseph comments on the plot, themes, and characters of With Shuddering Fall.]
The enthusiasm that greeted Joyce Carol Oates last year upon the publication of her first volume, a collection of short stories called By the North Gate, clearly was not misplaced.
Her new book, a novel titled With Shuddering Fall, is set in the same world as the stories, a world of harsh weather, gratuitous destruction, inarticulate men without the veneer of culture facing the extreme experiences of life.
The central figures are Karen Herz, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of a dominating but indulgent farmer, and the racing car driver Shar, who encounters Karen when he comes to attend the death of his demented father in a junk-filled cabin on the edge of the Herz property. From their meeting follow rape, car-wreck, murderous confrontations, enraged lovemaking, the death of a rival driver, miscarriage, raceriot, suicide and insanity.
This list indicates the external events of the story. What it fails to indicate is that Miss Oates, although her action scenes are vivid and intense, is not at all interested in shock value but in why her characters communicate with violence, how these events drive them to new realizations and growth. The...
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SOURCE: "Clara the Climber," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1967, pp. 5, 63.
[In the review below, Janeway draws thematic parallels between A Garden of Earthly Delights and Theodore Dreiser's fiction.]
This isn't the best book that Joyce Carol Oates is going to write, but if you want to see a big, solid talent getting under way, I suggest you read [A Garden of Earthly Delights.]
Miss Oates's approach to fiction is more like Dreiser's than that of anyone else I can think of. She is as absorbed in the interaction between individual Americans and the society they live in as he was. Her writing is clumsy in places, as his was (though less clumsy in language), inhabited by strong, vivid characters—ordinary, unromantic, but thoroughly alive. There are passages that could be cut and pages, contrariwise, that want fleshing out with action. But when Miss Oates is good she is very, very good; and she is good often enough in the right way and in the right places to prove that she knows what she is doing. I found a distinct advance in her work over her deservedly praised volume of short stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood.
This is the story of Clara Walpole, who was born sometime in the twenties someplace in Arkansas in the back of a truck used for transporting migrant workers from one picking job to another. Clara's mother, Pearl, and her...
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SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Suburban Night," in Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1968, p. 5.
[Below, Cassill calls Expensive People "a prophetic novel," alluding to several literary precedents.]
The question is no longer whether Miss Oates is a very good writer—she is, indeed—but just how far and high she can thrust the trajectory of brilliant accomplishment she has begun. It appears to me that her gifts are at least equal to those of the late Flannery O'Connor. If she is not absolutely more serious than Nabokov—whose Lolita this present novel resembles in its virtuosity—she is more obviously "ours" and therefore to be taken more seriously by us. Everything she touches turns to such blistering gold that sometimes I suspect she must have had Rumpelstiltskin in to help her spin it in the night.
Expensive People contains and exploits a little of everything. It is satire, confession, dream, report on suburbia, gothic tale in contemporary dress, with even some touches of the pop novel thrown in to show that the author can find a valid use for the screech of that untuned fiddle, too. But though her technique is eclectic, parodistic, sheer magpie, her bits of everything are fused into a prophetic novel as singular in effect as the night cry of a hurt animal.
The Ancient Mariner who narrates this journey to the end of the suburban night...
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SOURCE: "Catatonia and Femininity in Oates's Do with Me What You Will," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, May/June, 1983, pp. 208-15.
[In the following essay, Stout discusses the motif of passivity in Do with Me What You Will as a key element of stereotypical femininity.]
Despite her involvement with women characters and the unsparing accuracy with which she has depicted their lives, Joyce Carol Oates is not generally regarded as a feminist writer. One of her more thoroughgoing critics has observed that Oates actually "appears impervious to feminist and liberationist ideas." That appearance derives, in part, from Oates's stance vis a vis historic time and from her tone in speaking out of that stance. Poised at the threshold of social change, she chooses to look back at the gloomy interior or sideways at others poised on that threshold. She does not map out visionary vistas of the future or sound a summons to the bold to make that future real. Nor does she speak of the past, with its institutionalized modes of feminine subservience, with loud and obvious denunciation. Instead, even when her works are experimental and strange in their forms and effects, she writes fundamentally as a realist. But it is precisely this scrupulous realism in depicting women's lives that makes Oates's fiction finally a feminist document. By intensifying and magnifying the realism of her...
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SOURCE: "Un-Tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1985, pp. 5-23.
[In the essay below, Chell examines Mysteries of Winterthurn for the diverse ways that Oates uses conventions of the ghost story to indicate feminist concerns.]
Joyce Carol Oates has matured into writing feminist fiction. She says (or has said) she isn't doing that: "I am very sympathetic with most of the aims of feminism, but cannot write feminist literature because it is too narrow, too limited." However, while some critics may have defined feminist literature narrowly (insisting on only sympathetic female—not sympathetic male—characters, for example), feminist literature covers as breathtaking a range as feminists, or as women, do themselves. Joyce Carol Oates is writing it. Her discussions of being a "(woman) writer" include recognition of the difficulties specific to a female writer. She is continually "insulted" by "sexist" (her words) questions like "Why is your writing so violent?" A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) is obviously "a feminist romance with a lot of axes to grind" and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) is a thematically sophisticated feminist novel in which Oates explores what it means, as in the title of her recent book of poetry [Invisible Woman], to be literally or figuratively an "invisible woman."
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SOURCE: "Art and Myth in Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Sacred Marriage,'" in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 540-52.
[Below, Martin analyzes "The Sacred Marriage" as a parable of the transformative power of art, highlighting the influence of ancient myths about art on the narrative's development.]
Art is magnificent, divine, because it records the struggles of exceptional men to order their fantasies, their doubts, even their certainties, into an external structure that celebrates the life force itself, the energy of life, as well as the simple fact that someone created it—and especially the fact that you, the audience, are sharing it.
This affirmation of the nature and power of art, made by Joyce Carol Oates in an interview in 1972, just before the publication of her collection of short stories, Marriages and Infidelities, provides a hint to the meaning of the opening story in that collection, "The Sacred Marriage," a story that one critic called "bewilderingly evocative," but that can be understood in terms of Oates's theory of the power of art. A testimony to the transforming power of art and the artist, the story is in keeping with Oates's practice of reworking—or "re-imagining" as Oates herself calls it—the stories of earlier artists. In this volume alone she has...
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SOURCE: "Who Is Arnold Friend? The Other Self in Joyce Carol Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,'" in American Imago, Vol. 45, No. 1, Summer, 1988, pp. 205-15.
[In the following essay, Weinberger analyzes the doppelgänger motif in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," highlighting its implications about violence and sexuality.]
When Connie faces Arnold Friend, she faces her other self, in Oates's treatment of the Doppelgänger motif, which informs such well-known works as Poe's "William Wilson," Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," among many others. The principal outward difference between these and Oates's version, Connie's alter ego being of the opposite sex and extremely threatening, results from Arnold Friend's representing not only a protagonist's mythic, irrational side (one of several characteristics he shares with his literary forerunners), but also a cluster of insights into the violence and sexuality of adulthood. His indeterminate age, somewhere between eighteen and thirty, emphasizes the transition which Connie must undergo, one reflected in the future-past duality inherent in the title of the story.
We first see Connie at home, an ordinary middle-class setting, complete with a mother who runs the household and nags, an older "maiden" sister, and an...
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SOURCE: "The Grace of Slaughter: A Review-Essay of Joyce Carol Oates's On Boxing," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 173-86.
[In the essay below, Early meditates on the themes of On Boxing in literary and critical contexts, contrasting the spectacle of boxing with wrestling.]
Boxing ain't the noblest of the arts….
—middleweight champion Harry Greb, whose loss to Tiger Flowers in 1926 permitted the first black ever to hold the middleweight title
God didn't make the chin to be punched.
—Ray Arcel, boxing trainer who numbered among his students the legendary Roberto Duran
At that time [Georges] Carpentier was only 14 1/2 years old and I, 21 years old. So his first fight was with Georges Salmon at the Cafe de Paris, Maison Laffitte, and he was making good until the 11th round then he blew up. That was really because he was inexperienced on the square circle … but again he was knocked down several times after the 10th round so I said to Deschamps [Carpentier's manager] to stop it. He said No. So I jumped into the ring and stopped it, picking little Georges up in my arms and took him to his corner amidst the cheers of the crowd. He was always game to the toes.
—Black American fighter Bob...
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SOURCE: "Threatening Places, Hiding Places: The Midwest in Selected Stories by Joyce Carol Oates," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 34-44.
[Below, Rozga discusses the significance of Midwestern setting in Oates's short fiction, focusing on her representations of Madison, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan.]
Joyce Carol Oates has employed numerous settings for her short fiction over the course of her twenty-five years as a publishing writer. Frequently she has chosen to set her stories in the location where she herself resided at the time of the story's composition. Thus having grown up in rural New York state, Oates often used rural settings for her earliest stories. But these rural settings are generic rather than specific; no actual places are named. Several early reviewers compared her settings and her characters to those of William Faulkner. Oates did, in fact, at first begin to establish her own fictional territory, Eden County.
Oates moved on, however, to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and later to teach at the University of Detroit. When she chose to write stories set in these locales, she did not fictionalize in the same way. Instead in this later group of stories, she names the actual cities, and, moreover, she names specific streets and sites in those cities. Despite this move toward the more realistic, place continues to play a symbolic...
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SOURCE: "The Transgressive Heroine: Joyce Carol Oates's 'Stalking'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 15-20.
[In the essay below, Wesley explains how Oates's fiction challenges gender ideology by describing the characterization of the protagonist of "Stalking."]
Although Joyce Carol Oates has frequently been labeled a non-feminist and criticized for the passivity of her female characters, her works actively challenge restrictive gender ideology. A case in point is the Oatesian figure I will define as the transgressive heroine, whose murderous early debut is the short story "Swamps," the first story in Oates' first collection, and whose continuing truculent influence is felt in the Kalistruck heroines of The Goddess and Other Women, in the powerful women of Bellefleur, and in the wilful artist of Solstice, and who is most fully present as the protagonist of the 1972 short story "Stalking."
A previous stage in the evolution of the transgressive heroine is the figure of the anti-hero—the protagonist who is "not simply a failed hero but a social misfit, graceless, weak, and often comic, the embodiment of ineptitude and bad luck in a world apparently made for others"—a commonplace in our contemporary literature. "The Hero, who once figured as Initiate, ends as Rebel or Victim," Ihab Hassan explains [in Radical Innocence,...
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SOURCE: "An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates," compiled by David Y. Todd, in Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 291-99.
[In the following interview, compiled from various question-and-answer sessions during the fall of 1990 while Oates visited at Bellarmine College, Oates addresses influences, her writing habits, the recurrence of violence in her work, and her personal literary philosophy.]
Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, in 1938. She earned a B.A. from Syracuse University and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin. Since 1978 she has taught at Princeton University and, with her husband, Raymond Smith, she runs the Ontario Review Press. Oates has published more than forty books of fiction, poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, and her novel them won the National Book Award in 1970. Recent works include a long essay, On Boxing (1988), the novels You Must Remember This (1987), American Appetites (1989), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), and Black Water (1992), and short fiction collections The Assignation (1988) and Heat and Other Stories (1991). In a review of her novel Bellefleur (1980), John Gardner wrote: "Oates's vision is huge, well-informed and sound…. By one two-page thunderstorm she makes the rest of us novelists wonder why we left the farm." In the fall of...
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SOURCE: "Heat and Cold: Recent Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 400-14.
[In the following review, Robinson surveys the themes and storytelling techniques of The Rise of Life on Earth, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, and Heat and Other Stories, focusing on representations of 'otherness' in her fiction.]
To read Joyce Carol Oates is to be placed in the uncomfortably fascinating position of voyeur. From the early novels them and Wonderland to her most recent fiction, Oates has specialized in a narrative technique that intrudes upon the private pains and pleasures—but mostly pains—of Others. Her narratives often explore the dynamics of a voyeurism in which subject and object confront one another across a gulf of social difference. In some cases, the confrontation takes place between characters in the story; in others, Oates stages a confrontation between the reader and the object of that reader's gaze. In her preface to them (1969), Oates thematizes her relation to the underprivileged lives she narrates. Confessing that she has appropriated the story of a former student and, in the process, has become fascinated with the "various sordid and shocking events of slum life," she describes how the intrusion cuts both ways: "Their lives pressed upon mine eerily, so that I began to dream about them instead of about...
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SOURCE: "The Transgressive Other in Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 255-62.
[In the following essay, Wesley surveys Oates's later fiction to describe the function of "the transgressive other" in her narrative technique.]
According to Tony Tanner [in Adultery in the Novel, 1979], "Very often the novel writes of contracts but dreams of transgressions," a paradoxical statement well illustrated in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Although Oates has been thought of primarily as a realist, even a moralist, her work may often be understood with respect to its dialectic with the text, its superimposition of a narrative leveled against the text itself to decenter the social codes through which it is organized. This radical contradiction is regularly mounted by the intriguing and anti-social character that I designate as the transgressive other, who is defined by a narrative position in contrapuntal relation to domestic norms and standards of communicability within which the text is located. The most famous example of this "transgressive other" is Arnold Friend in Oates's frequently anthologized short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but other such figures are a recurrent device throughout her career and a dominant feature in her most recent novels.
In "Where Are You...
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SOURCE: "The Nightmare of Reality: Gothic Fantasies and Psychological Realism in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates," in Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Kristiaan Versluys, Rodopi, 1992, pp. 131-43.
[Below, Manske details conventions of Gothicism and realism in Oates's fiction, emphasizing the breadth and violence of her representation of American life.]
"All art is autobiographical. It is the record of an artist's psychic experience, his attempt to explain something to himself: and in the process of explaining it to himself, he explains it to others." This statement by Joyce Carol Oates comes from her introduction to a collection of contemporary American short fiction which she edited under the title Scenes From American Life. While the title of the short story collection could easily serve as a very general description of Ms. Oates' own wide ranging, prolific oeuvre—an exploration of widely differing scenes from American life—her conviction that all art is autobiographical leaves the critic baffled and wondering when looking at her impressive output of novels and short stories which are dominated by traumatic experiences and obsessions, violent themes and conflicts. Although one does not know how much of her fiction is, in fact, autobiographical, there are recurrent places, settings, events, experiences, memories and insights into peoples' feelings that seem to suggest...
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SOURCE: "A Working-Class Sorority," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, p. 15.
[In the review below, Bader elucidates the feminist themes of Foxfire, noting the questions raised by the text.]
The place is Hammond, New York, far upstate, near Canada. For five girls—Legs Sadovsky, Goldie Siefried, Lana Maguire, Rita O'Hagan, and Maddy Wirtz—working class kids from the shabby, hopeless section of town, the truth is indisputable: "We didn't belong and never would."
Foxfire, the girl gang they create in 1953, is their antidote, their way of thumbing their noses at the teachers, bosses, upper-class students, landlords, and politicians who disdain them. The brainchild of Legs, Foxfire starts as a tiny, secret society and gradually evolves into a complex organization dedicated to exacting justice for the disenfranchised, especially women. Maddy, alternately known as Maddy-monkey and killer, chronicles the group's development; Oates's novel [Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang] is written as an expanded version of Maddy's notes.
This journal-of-sorts reveals the inner workings of a protofeminist support or consciousness raising group. But Foxfire is also the stuff of every adolescent girl's dreams: a brash, inventive sorority out of adult earshot and adult control. Unlike Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which...
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SOURCE: "He Could Not Tell a Lie," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Carroll assesses What I Lived For, finding that "the structure of this straightforward mystery is transformed into art of another order entirely, an exemplary work of moral investigation."]
John Gardner once said that a novel is a vivid and continuous dream. In What I Lived For, Joyce Carol Oates has written a vivid and continuous nightmare: a savage dissection of our national myths of manhood and success, a bitter portrait of our futile effort to flee the weight of the past, a coldeyed look at our loss of community and family, a shriek at the monsters men and women have become to each other and a revelation of our desolate inner lives. What I Lived For is an American "Inferno."
The novel is set in Union City, a fictional place on the New York shores of Lake Erie, something like Buffalo. It tells the story of Jerome (Corky) Corcoran, a two-bit politician and businessman. Though the book opens with the murder of Corky's father in 1959, the bulk of the action takes place over one long weekend in 1992. A lost weekend, it begins when Corky learns that his lover, Christina Kavanaugh, has been conducting their affair with the permission of her crippled husband, a discovery that shatters Corky's ego and sets him ricocheting all over the city, from one...
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SOURCE: "American Psycho," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1995, p. 13.
[Below, Marcus links the main character of Zombie with the recurrent theme of violence in Oates's fiction, faulting the novel's premise.]
Divided into 57 mini-chapters, composed with typographical tics and oddities (many capitalized words, phrases and sentences; italics, ampersands and so forth), featuring crude and often pointless line drawings, Zombie is Joyce Carol Oates's effort to dramatize, in diarylike form, the psychotic, monstrous consciousness of a serial murderer. This creature is simultaneously intensely self-absorbed and extremely depersonalized and derealized. He speaks of himself indiscriminately in the first and third persons and uses his initials to refer to himself most of the time. Apart from his recurrent obsessions and fantasies, he is unable to retain either conscious inner stability or a reliably steady or coherent sense of the outside world.
Many of the details of Zombie owe much to the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed a large number of homosexual murders in Milwaukee. Dahmer dismembered the bodies of his victims, saved some of their body parts and other grisly souvenirs, tried cannibalism on at least one occasion, was finally apprehended in 1991, convicted of 16 murders and was himself killed in prison.
In another sense,...
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Daly, Brenda. "Marriage as Emancipatory Metaphor: A Woman Wedded to Teaching and Writing in Oates's Unholy Lives." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXVII, No. 4 (Summer 1996): 270-88.
Examines the significance of community—both feminist and ideal—in Oates's fiction, particularly the academic novel Unholy Lives, likening teaching and writing to marriage.
Garner, Dwight. "When Bad Things Happen." Washington Post Book World (22 September 1996): 4.
Favorable review of We Were the Mulvaneys, observing that "rarely has [Oates's] gift for broad, galloping narrative been this much on display."
Gates, David. "American Gothic." The New York Times Book Review 101 (15 September 1996): 11.
Assesses the gothic element of First Love and the "family" theme of the "richly observed and engagingly peopled" novel We Were The Mulvaneys.
Showalter, Elaine. "Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Dead' and Feminist Criticism." Faith of a (Woman) Writer Greenwood Press (1988): 13-19.
Showalter demonstrates how "The Dead" comments on the relation of women's writing to contemporary feminist criticism and the female literary tradition....
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