In the preface to them, Oates calls it "a work of history in fictional form," in fact the history of the Depression and the Detroit riots. She pretends that the character Maureen Wendall is based on one of her own students at the University of Detroit, and places "correspondence" from Maureen to a "Miss Oates" in the novel. A third- person narrator, flashbacks, vivid dialogue, fast-paced action, and a careful chronicle of two generations of the Wendall family make the novel significant, memorable, and intriguing. Another Oates technique, that of transformation or metamorphosis, is equally effective as the pretty Loretta becomes the vulgar but gritty housewife, the shy and bookish Maureen becomes the amoral prostitute and materialist. Finally the Oates sense of place—the degradation of Detroit, the ostentatious luxury of Grosse Point, the contrast between the world of privilege and the world of poverty— dramatizes the problem of survival for the unfortunate in modern America and the difficulty in believing that any kind of justice can exist in this environment.
People love her or hate her. Rarely are they indifferent. Given these strong reactions, discussions of Joyce Carol Oates promise to be animated, even heated. Participants in discussion groups will want to grapple with the ever-present question, "Why is she so violent?" Rather than merely reacting to the violence, they might ask how the violence connects to the realities of the twentieth century and how Oates's characters use violence as a protest against the realities they see. Beyond the questions about violence, readers will want to talk about how Oates manages to convey her huge range of characters from their internal perspectives, and how convincingly she presents their particular social milieu, whether they are lawyers or preachers or doctors or politicians or academics or teen-agers.
Oates is at once learned and accessible. Most of her work can bear comparisons to particular pieces of classic literature and interpretations from philosophical or religious perspectives. Readers who have an academic literary background will find Oates rich in allusions; those with less background will still find her accessible.
As readers discuss them, they will find it interesting to apply the general characteristics of Oates's fiction to the level of violence generated in the era of the 1960s, with the decade's war on poverty, its erupting cities, its experiments with open-enrollment colleges, and its emerging feminism.
1. them chronicles the lives of three members of the Wendall family: Loretta, Maureen, and Jules. What stages of development do each of these characters go through? Have they changed or remained static? Are they survivors only or have they found valuable responses to the lives they find themselves in? To what extent are they responsible for their own fates?
2. How does each character pursue the American dream? What is his or her American dream? Is it yours?
3. Oates never had a student whose letters she used as Maureen's. Why does she claim she did? Is Maureen the kind of student she could have had?
4. Do you find Nadine to be an affirmative voice in the novel? Why does she keep washing her hair?
5. Is the relationship between Jules and Nadine based on love? What kind of love? Romantic? Sexual? Obsessive? Controlling?
6. What kind of parenting happens in this novel? Is there any healthy parent/child relationship?
7. How is this novel not only about them, but also about us?
8. How well does Oates capture the atmosphere of Detroit? What is her attitude towards it? How does this city represent America?
them is clearly a naturalistic novel. It resembles Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) in its employment of a female protagonist, emphasis on power and sex, focus on the ordinary person, attraction of its characters to the glittering symbols of wealth, and careful research into the socio-economic background of the period. The fundamental difference is that while Dreiser's Carrie suffers for trying to improve her condition, Oates's characters suffer tragically merely by attempting to maintain their current status, to hold on to some affection, stability, and economic security. Oates surpasses Dreiser in her portraits of familial relationships and sense of dramatic timing, but she sometimes shares Dreiser's penchant for the clumsy, overblown style, and the repetitious insistence on the misery of the novel's characters.
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Creighton presents the first critical study of the novels Oates published between 1977 and 1990, including the mystery novels published under the name of Rosamund Smith.
Daly, Brenda. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996. An excellent study that argues that the “father-identified daughters in her early novels have become, in the novels of the 1980’s, self-authoring women who seek alliances with their culturally devalued mothers.” Offers a perceptive reading of the...
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