Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Wondering bitterly how she and Kessler could have loved each other, Stott tries to “still her lover’s anguished voice” by reading from Saint Augustine: “To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears.” Herein lies the novel’s main theme and the source of its title. The presence or absence of spirituality in the modern world appropriately coincides with the architectonics of the novel: the poet’s presence or absence at the Woodslee gatherings. Quoting George Santayana’s definition of masks as “arrested expressions and admirable echoes of feelings once faithful” as her introductory epigraph, Oates early in the novel refers to the few holy and many unholy loves jostling one another in Stott’s mind. Stott is destined once more for disappointment in the poet as a possibility for an unholy love and then later in her erotic love for Kessler. Only as she emerges from these loves do her memories of her childhood in Norfolk, Virginia, intrude on her present failures and does she decide to return to a holy love, the fictive re-creation of her conscience through those childhood influences. She wrestles with her creative urges, and these will transform the chaos and the “aloneness” into life, much as the gregariousness at academic parties dispelled her “dark somber joyless thoughts.” Novelist Oates writes about the darker depths of the psyche through which fictional novelist Stott must pass before she can once more create. Like her creator, Stott is both a university professor and a novelist.

On the external level of events and social activity, the novel offers a brilliant satiric gallery of academic types. Demanding male egos, mediocre wives, jealousies, backbiting, infidelities—all acquire a ceaseless rhythm of their own and exist not only for satiric purposes but also as an integral part of Oates’s gothic vision of life.

As a feminist, Oates reflects the heightened consciousness of the 1970’s through Gladys Fetler, who was the only woman in the English department until Stott was hired, primarily as a result of affirmative action pressure.