Marya: A Life Analysis

Ideas for Group Discussions

The most autobiographical of Oates's books, Marya will bear comparison not just to her life, but also to the lives of successful women. It might generate discussion about the options open to women since the feminist movement of the 1970s and to issues raised by the feminist movement.

1. How is Marya a novel about mother-daughter relationships? Does it seem an accurate depiction of the legacy of alcohol abuse?

2. How does Oates deal with issues of child abandonment? How crucial is it for children to come to terms with their relationships with parents from whom they are estranged?

3. What stages of growth does Marya go through? How does the female coming-of-age story differ from similar male stories?

4. Why is Marya drawn to Father Shearing and his Catholicism? Why does she abandon the religious path?

5. Oates has never had children. Does she capture the world of childhood accurately? How well does she understand teenagers?

6. How does this novel help you to understand power struggles within female relationships?

7. To what extent is this a novel about the difference between those who stay tied to home and community and those who leave? What type of person stays? What type leaves?

8. How do the various images of violence — for example, the shorn hair, the conference on torture — relate? What is Oates saying about the nature of violence?

9. Is...

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Marya: A Life Techniques / Literary Precedents

Marya's eleven chapter episodic structure creates a female heroic journey involving departure, initiation, and return. Where the male heroic structure tends to propel the hero on a solitary journey with encounters that involve conquering obstacles, Marya's journey propels her into encounters that involve negotiating relationships. Her return home does not complete the journey as much as it begins the most significant part where she will negotiate her sense of self by coming to terms with her mother. Marya is a twentieth-century Jane Eyre who survives an abusive childhood, but where Jane Eyre (1847) comes to a neat closure involving the heroine's marriage, Marya ends without any outcome predicted in the search for the mother.

Many of the chapters of Marya were published as separate short stories, and they stand up well as complete stories. This does not, however, detract from the sense of the wholeness of the novel, Oates achieves this wholeness by repeating image patterns—stones or barriers that block relationships; cars, bicycles, roads, canals that define the territory of the journey; voice and dream patterns that keep recalling Marya's past; images of blighted nature, such as the image of Queen Anne's lace marred at its center by a black dot. These images keep the novel recursive and memory driven. Its first chapter is modern with its fragmented, disconnected voices, but the novel is also realistic and traditionally...

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Marya: A Life Related Titles

With the publication of Marya, Oates returned to the rural landscape of her early fiction set in western New York. Its beginning chapters connect to Oates's large output of stories about adolescents. Its chapter on Father Shearing connects to the theological issues Oates has addressed in many essays, particularly ones on Kafka and Flannery O'Connor in New Heaven, New Earth (1974), and on O'Connor and Simone Weil in The Profane Art (1983), in numerous short stories, and in Son of the Morning (1978). Its later chapters about Marya's academic life address issues Oates has looked at in her short stories and in her academic novel Unholy Loves (1979), and its chapter about Marya's college friends echoes the adult version of female friendships in Solstice.

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