Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Maureen’s letters to Joyce Carol Oates are the author’s way of commenting on the novel’s naturalistic theme. As in Dreiser’s novels, human character is shaped by nature, by forces beyond the individual’s control. Unlike Dreiser’s creations, however, at least some of Oates’s characters are aware that they have real choices that can change the course of history. Education, for example, can alert one to certain tendencies in life. Books, as one of Jules’s mentors points out, encapsulate experience and can explain it in a way that cannot be understood by simply living. The mentor is implicitly providing an argument for them itself, for the novel that is of life but outside it as well. This is exactly what bothers Maureen about Oates, that her teacher can be both aloof and intimate with her students and colleagues.
Although Oates states that them is a story told to her, it is just as likely that the characters are projections of her imagination. The letters to her imply as much when Maureen observes that she sees aspects of herself and of her brother Jules in Oates. Many authors like to think of characters coming to them in their imagination. Oates has given a literal twist to this conceit by alleging in the “author’s note” that one of the characters did approach her, and that another one, Jules, may some day “be writing his own version of this novel.”
Oates is implying that she is as much a part of these...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
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Through the lives of the Wendall family, the novel explores the theme of social and economic inequality, of confronting an inexplicable, boring reality that can destroy an ordered or at least secure existence with dramatic suddenness. Loretta Wendall, in her metamorphosis from pretty girl to carping, ugly, middle-aged woman, manages to preserve her self-esteem and adapt to ever-changing and continually depressing circumstances. Her daughter Maureen moves from bookworm to prostitute to rape victim to "successful" housewife. Her son Jules, crushed by society and emerging from a life of crime, manages to hope, to maintain a belief in the American dream that is singularly at odds with the reality of his life. Things happen: people don't know why they happen, but they must make the best of it. Violence and catastrophe plague them at every turn; Detroit's uneasy blend of rich and poor, of urban blight and suburban splendor, only underlines the hopelessness of people's lives.
(The entire section is 155 words.)
Race and Racism
The characters in this novel are in a socioeconomic class that prohibits them from living in racially segregated areas, and the familiarity between the races boils over into contempt. Today, there are areas of all major cities that are associated with one race or another, but when them was published in 1969 separation of races was even more clearly enacted: the advancements in civil rights that allowed Blacks to legally enter all parts of society were just a few years old at the time, and their effects were hardly felt. As a lingering effect of racist housing and employment laws that had existed for almost a hundred years since the Civil War, the neighborhoods where black people lived were almost always poor neighborhoods.
In the novel, Jules Wendall often takes note of the black children playing in the streets where he lives, an indication that the Wendalls live in the poorer area of town. For most of the book black characters are mentioned infrequently, but more and more often they are referred to with anger and resentment, as examples of the kind of people that these characters look down on as they cling desperately to their self-respect. For example, Nadine, disgusted with herself for committing adultery, accuses Jules of thinking her “Like some little slut of yours. Some Negro woman.” Later, Jules has to assure the woman that he is living with, Marcia, that the affair he is having is not with a black woman,...
(The entire section is 1095 words.)