Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mysteries of Winterthurn deals with the intricacies of the human personality, its tendency to embrace both good and evil. The novel asks the question: Can we ever be simple enough, completely pure and not a complex of intellect and passion, good and evil? Oates’s choice of the detective genre, especially the detective tale of the nineteenth century, makes an excellent vehicle for her theme. The central character, the detective whose nature is defined almost entirely by his intellect and his belief in a beneficent God, labors through three cases, each entangled with a sense of unknowable evil. In the end, though, he succeeds neither in bringing evildoers to justice nor in simplifying his own soul, for he ultimately succumbs to an overpowering passion for a woman capable of the most atrocious deeds. He forsakes his intellectual profession, ignores the pure and abiding Thérèse, and sets off into the new century in a marriage to a woman hardly likely to look back to the ideals of Victorianism.

Oates deals with her theme of complexity, of rejection of simple Victorian values, by critiquing the nineteenth century, especially Victorian attitudes toward sex and the restriction of women, through the use of its own narrative style and attitudes toward character presentation. As such, the novel is both postmodern and subtle, for Oates fashions a fascinating story loaded with wry humor as she both lovingly emulates a borrowed style and manages to satirize that bygone style and its era with gentle good humor. Withal, her story is edged with suspense, and she is a master at creating an atmosphere of dread.