them Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context

Both a critical and a popular success, them was the recipient of the National Book Award in 1970. Already the author of three highly regarded novels—With Shuddering Fall (1964), A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), and Expensive People (1968)—and several volumes of short stories and poetry, Oates was hailed as one of the most promising and prolific writers of her generation. She has continued her enormous output, publishing several volumes of literary criticism as well as a steady stream of novels and stories.

Many readers have been disturbed by the prominence of violence in Oates’s fiction. Joanne Creighton, for example, cites discussions with college students who find it difficult to accept Jules’s rebirth through violence. Oates has made it clear, however, that certain kinds of violence—individual and collective—may be therapeutic and lead to important changes in human character and in society. The Detroit riot, at the end of the novel, reflects an energy that is not condemned, since it at least holds out the hope of shaping a world that is different and perhaps better than the one the rioters are destroying.

In much of her work, Oates takes a philosophical tack, trying to blend her interest in Eastern religious ideas about the unity of human beings with the traditional Western concept of individuality. Violence enters into her concerns because she cannot envision a change in human consciousness without radical action being taken. Thus Jules excitedly responds to the Indian author Vinoba Bhave: “We are all members of a single human family. . . . My object is to transform the whole of society. Fire merely burns. . . . Fire burns and does its duty. It is for others to do theirs.” Jules echoes these last words while putting a part of Detroit to the torch during the riot.

“History isn’t a natural sequence, it’s made by man. We create it. Man does and undoes everything.” This statement, made by one of her characters on the eve of the Detroit riot, is neither endorsed nor disowned by Oates, but it remains as part of the equation of change. The other part of the equation is nature, the rhythms of repetition that make it difficult for a person to be himself or herself. In all of Oates’s novels, people struggle to express themselves in a culture that would coerce them into becoming an extension of itself.