Study Guide

Solstice

by Joyce Carol Oates

Solstice Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

During the early part of her career, Oates was viewed as a woman writer on the periphery of the women’s movement. In the 1980’s, her writing began to focus more frequently on stories and characters with particularly feminine or feminist concerns. Solstice, like Marya: A Life which followed it, exemplifies this development, portraying a relationship between two women in a small Pennsylvania town.

Monica Jensen, recently divorced and attempting to start a new life in the wake of her failed marriage, has relocated from New York City and accepted a teaching assignment at the local boys’ academy. Sheila Trask, older and more worldly, is a successful artist, the widow of a famous sculptor; she lives alone and detached from the community in a fine old country house. The novel, which is told from Monica’s viewpoint, is divided into four sections that reflect four stages in her development.

The first, titled, “The Scar,” details Monica’s adjustment to country life, her first casual encounters with Sheila, and her growing attraction to the other’s lively personality. Sheila is the stronger of the two, and Monica, in emotional recovery, is timid, hesitant, and flattered to accept Sheila’s friendly attention.

As the two become acquainted, their friendship becomes the foundation of their social lives. “The Mirror-Ghoul,” the second section, shows the process by which the women come to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to provide necessary support, to reflect each other. On Sheila’s urging, they begin frequenting local taverns and bowling alleys, pretending to be lively country divorcees; this activity delights Sheila but leads to adventures and moral considerations that discomfort and frighten Monica....

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Solstice Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Solstice is divided into four parts, with Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain a formal feeling comes” serving as an epigraph to the novel. It is the story of two women seeking balance in their lives.

The novel is written in a third-person limited voice. The reader is allowed to know Monica Jensen’s thoughts and feelings but can only guess at Sheila Trask’s, as Monica does. The story begins with Monica’s move to Glenkill, Pennsylvania, to teach at an all-boys private school, Glenkill Academy. She rents an old farmhouse that is next to Sheila Trask’s estate, which is called Edgemont. Although the two women meet briefly at a party, they do not really speak until Sheila makes an unannounced visit by horseback to Monica’s new home.

Sheila quickly takes over Monica’s life and becomes her main social outlet. Monica works long hours at the academy and is often required to work late into the evening at home. However, she always manages to find time for Sheila. They meet weekly for dinner, and gradually, Monica finds herself spending most of her free time with Sheila, in Sheila’s studio or on jaunts that Sheila suggests.

Eventually, Sheila convinces Monica to accompany her on her weekly pub-crawling escapades. For these adventures, both Monica and Sheila assume other identities. Sheila becomes “Sherrill Ann,” and Monica becomes “Mary Beth.” Sheila/ Sherrill Ann is always the leader of these forays into the rural nightlife; she is careful to maintain control of any situation the women encounter and to make a hasty exit if the men in the bars get too aggressive.

The women always say that they are divorced with children and that they must get home right away because their babysitters have strict rules. Monica/Mary Beth is shy in the bars and must be coerced into dancing with the men, but Sheila/Sherrill Ann is flirtatious and sexy. She easily draws the attention of men, and she enjoys their attention. However, she avoids anything more than semiserious flirtation. When Sheila/ Sherrill Ann’s behavior raises the anger of a man who insists that Sheila/Sherrill Ann had told him she was interested in him, the scene erupts into a car chase from which...

(The entire section is 908 words.)