Snake Eyes Analysis

Ideas for Group Discussions

Those who read a great deal of popular thrillers are likely to enjoy Snake Eyes and groups can be encouraged to draw on their expertise to assess the value of this genre and to compare Oates's novel to others they have read. They could measure Oates against the standard for these novels to see whether or not she surpasses that standard.

1. How terrifying is this novel? Can you describe in what ways it is terrifying?

2. What other images of the snake do you find besides on Lee Roy's arm? How does the image connect to the idea of evil? Who is evil? How do people become evil?

3. How well does Oates capture Michael's gradual breakdown?

4. Is Michael's revenge against Lee Roy justified? Would you call him a murderer?

5. Was Michael responsible for his twin's death? Why does Oates make him a twin? What does the fact of Michael's twinness tell us about his sons?

6. Why does Oates have Michael find the quote from The Book of Matthew about an "eye for an eye'"?

7. What kind of a mother is Mrs.

O'Meara? What kind of a father is Michael?

8. What kind of a marriage do the O'Mearas have?

9. Why does Oates make Janet O'Meara a television personality?

10. Besides the twins and the image of the snake eyes, what other images of the double do you find in the novel? Why is Oates so fascinated with the double?

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Snake Eyes Techniques / Literary Precedents

Given her grounding in realistic fiction and her fascination with the obsessed or disintegrating mind, it is quite in keeping with her work that Oates has chosen to write a series of thrillers. She wants these to be popular novels, thus she writes linear, suspenseful plots that build tension by slowly increasing the level of madness in the characters. Precedents for Oates's techniques include Edgar Allan Poe's madmen in stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), "The Black Cat" (1843), and "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), and Henry James's invaded children in "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). Oates also draws on various religious and cultural beliefs in such images as twins, cats, and snakes and in concepts embodied in such abstractions as the nemesis and the soul.

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Snake Eyes Related Titles

Snake Eyes and the three other novels Oates has written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith can all be classified as thrillers. What distinguishes them from the thrillers of other novelists is their insistence on the idea of the double. Oates may be drawing on the work of Julian Jaynes, her colleague at Princeton, whose book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that the human mind once consisted of two parts, the speaking part and the hearing part. The mind, in other words, evolved from a split or double brain, with one part having an authoritative, commanding function and the other part an obeying function. Jaynes suggests that the schizophrenic brain may still be divided this way and Oates writes enough passages in each of these thrillers to suggest that she is using this theory to develop her artistic portrayal of the psychopathic mind.

Like Snake Eyes, Lives of the Twins, Soul/Mate, and Nemesis all use images of doubles and of commanding voices. Twins appear in Lives of the Twins, Nemesis, and Snake Eyes; the title Soul/Mate captures the idea of the double; images get doubled in tortoise shell cats, which have an unborn twin integrated in their genes (Lives of the Twins); the minds of characters retreat from themselves into an imagined Blue Room (Soul/Mate); and fugue-states provide an impulse to murder (Nemesis). These are terrifying novels...

(The entire section is 260 words.)