Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“My Warszawa” is one of a sequence of stories set in Eastern Europe that Oates wrote between 1979 and 1983 and later collected in Last Days (1984). Several of these stories depict characters whose experiences as Americans abroad seem particularly unnerving and serve to aggravate conflicts between personal and public selves. “My Warszawa” is by far the longest and most complex of these stories, and the one that probes most deeply into the theme of role confusion on the part of the highly successful American woman.

Despite her reputation as an astute and often provocative critic of American culture, Judith Horne finds her thoughts from time to time turning helplessly toward love, marriage, and a conventional life. “She is in love and suspects that her love is not returned. Not pound for pound, ounce for ounce,” and she hates herself for what she perceives to be a “humiliating weakness.” Oates identifies these emotions as adolescent and associates them with Judith’s reading of Henry James’s The Awkward Age (1899). Judith is clearly ambivalent about her own femininity—she throws away a bouquet she receives after a successful lecture because she dislikes its implications, yet wears an “inordinate amount of jewelry”; she wants to be thought handsome, yet defends her use of makeup as emphasizing the intelligence rather than beauty of her eyes. This ambivalence is further complicated by ambivalence about her Jewish...

(The entire section is 561 words.)