Themes and Meanings
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...
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