The Quick and the Dead Essay - Critical Essays

Joy Williams

Literary Criticism and Significance

Joy Williams is a highly respected writer of novels and short stories and is often described as the heir to Flannery O’Connor. The Quick and the Dead, her fourth novel, was met with a great deal of critical acclaim. She has also received plaudits from her peers, including Bret Easton Ellis and Don DeLillo. Williams’s work has been nominated for many prestigious awards, including the National Book Award; The Quick and the Dead was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Quick and the Dead is in many ways a strong representation of Williams’s body of work. Williams has developed a reputation in her fiction for difficult and unsettling endings, thus Alice’s movement from independence to pitiable impotence should not come as a surprise. Williams has sympathized with animal rights activists and environmentalists in both her fiction and her journalism, specifically the essay collection Ill Nature. While Alice may not emerge the stronger for her radical positions on animal rights and the environment, Jessica Schuessler of The New York Times points out that when J.C.’s penis is blown off, it is “authorial rough justice” for his attack of Thomas, Corvus’s dog. The Quick and the Dead offers yet another example of Williams’s characteristically unique and fascinating prose.

Critics also often praise Williams for her characterization and dialogue. All of her characters are prone to bold and unique declarations that are often as humorous as they are shocking. In fact, the characters of The Quick and the Dead are extremely quotable, and often their declarations, though touching on morbid subjects, are hilarious. Still, S.B. Kleinman suggests that this unusual dialogue is taken to an extreme, arguing that

having everyone speak either in Zen koans or as if reading lecture notes gets old real fast.

However, other critics have applauded the way Williams manages to juxtapose humor with sadness using dialogue.

Williams’s writing may be rich and her treatment of her characters and themes subtle, but the plot of The Quick and the Dead is thin in comparison. Though bleak and thought provoking, this is a novel nearly as devoid of events as its desert setting is of life. Carson Brown suggests:

Structurally, the novel is rough. [Williams] rashly introduces and discards minor characters to illuminate points that are relevant but marginal and therefore jarring.

However, Brown also concludes that if it is a contest between the form of novels and Williams’s vision as a novelist, then it is better for the form to bend before her work.

Ultimately, most critics agree that Joy Williams is a powerful and thoughtful writer, though her work may not be considered easy reading. The Quick and the Dead is a well-received piece from an impressive author.