Critical Context

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer, and Solstice is her sixteenth novel. Joanne Creighton, in Joyce Carol Oates (1992), describes Oates’s style as “postmodern romantic.” This term accurately captures both the disjointedness of Oates’s novels and the focus on the self and feelings, which is especially evident in Solstice. This novel explores the opposite sides of the self, the “mirror-ghouls,” and presents two opposite women who essentially complete each other.

Oates’s earlier works explore the difficulty of creating an identity for oneself in the context of the American Dream, which focuses on materialism and financial success, as well as on the difficulty of defining oneself as a woman in a world where men define everything. Solstice seems to be the next step, in that it is both essentially void of any male principal characters and that both of the female characters are financially secure and living materially independent lives. As such, they face the next identity crisis: “What am I, now that I am alone and successful?”

In many of her novels, Oates explores sexuality and violence, often combining the two into acts of molestation or violent sex. However, in Solstice, sex is carefully avoided except for one short rape scene that almost seems to be a dream. The two women carefully avoid touching each other and also keep themselves separate from the men they date. It is clear, though, that there is an erotic tension between the two women, and each definitely has jealous tendencies when the other spends time away from the friendship. This tension serves to question whether female sexuality has strict borders, defined by sexual acts, or whether there are levels of sexuality and sexual relationships not defined by physicality.

Although Oates does not fit easily into any circle of writers, her work has made a definite impression on the American literary scene. She pushes the boundaries of the novel, using it to explore psychological and metaphysical questions and daring others to do the same. She is important specifically because she is outside the borders of traditional literature.