Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Like Walking to the Drug Store, When I Get Out” is much more than a threatening letter. It is an embodiment, in the person of Oates’s own psychotic “pen-pal,” of the rage and hostility society’s outcasts feel. One cannot be sure whether or not the prisoner writing the letter in the poem is a real-life or a fictional person, but Oates, like most celebrities, has been threatened several times by persons who might be considered mentally disturbed and dangerous. In a Writers at Work interview (1981), she recalls a time when she was not allowed to teach a large lecture class at the University of Windsor because, during the previous night, one of her students had received a phone call from an angry, distraught man who announced he intended to kill Oates. The poem is about the irrational anger the prisoner feels toward Oates and others, but it is also about the palpable terror he is able to inspire in the reader.
The reader feels victimized just as Oates must have in the above threatening situation. The end result of the poem is to make the reader feel hunted and powerless. When one is the object of a fantasy or an imagined slight or wrongdoing and the fantasy is uncontrollable (by the imaginer or the victim), it is truly terrifying. Oates is often asked why her writing is so violent, a question she considers insulting and sexist, as though a woman cannot explore dark, intense, violent themes successfully. Oates is particularly...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
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