Study Guide

Unmailed, Unwritten Letters

by Joyce Carol Oates

Unmailed, Unwritten Letters Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because the action of the story occurs primarily within the consciousness of one character, Joyce Carol Oates has necessarily limited her control over meaning. One must remember to distinguish what Oates means from what her character means.

This writer of unmailed, unwritten letters is trapped in a tortuous world of uncertainties. She looks to Mother, Father, husband, and lover for a sense of security; her parents are literally and figuratively distant, her husband is good but ineffectual, her lover is appealing but weak. At one point, in a letter addressed to “The Editor,” she asks the startling question, “Why are white men so weak, so feeble?” Rephrased, it might be, “Why cannot the men in my life make me a strong woman?” The question comes from the vantage point of a deep-seated neurosis, from the neurotic position of being a well-educated, middle-class woman in the United States who regresses into an infantile dependency.

The nature and consequences of this neurosis manifest themselves in the very form of the story. Because Oates allows her subject to reveal herself through a series of unuttered utterances, the story remains open-ended, unresolved. The reader remains trapped in the claustrophobic confines of an unproductive mind. The form of the story is in itself meaningful. The narrator exists within the cycle of modern lovings and leavings. Her life is directionless, pathetic. She is forced to make love in transit—on a staircase in an airport.

Appropriately, the collection of stories in which this story is included is entitled The Wheel of Love, and Other Stories (1970); as this story ends, the wheel is about to take another turn. Oates may be questioning whether the identity of this last “darling” makes a difference at all to her troubled letter unwriter.