Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Wheel of Love is a collection of short stories that have to do with the complex nature of love in a degenerate society. Although nearly every story includes at least one relationship between a man and woman, romantic love is not the focus. Violence, adultery, religious vocations, and academia are part of the external setting, contributing to a confusing, empty inner life for individuals. Characters seem almost like sleepwalkers, unable to control their own actions yet acutely aware of the emptiness of their daily routines, their relationships and behaviors dictated by a society that has ceased to hold any meaning for the individual.

A prevalent theme in these stories is that of women being trapped in the terror of love and in a patriarchal system of relationships that seems to have changed little since the previous generation. All efforts by younger women to “break out” of the oppressive system seem to land them right back in the same circumstances of their mothers and the women before them. In “Unmailed, Unwritten Letters,” a young woman confesses her confusion and disappointment with life in letters that the reader assumes she will not actually write or send to her husband, lover, lover’s child, lover’s wife, and editor of the newspaper. “Accomplished Desires” is a disturbing story about how young Dorie moves in with the scholarly Arbers and then smoothly becomes the third Mrs. Mark Arber when the second, Pulitizer Prize-winning poet Barbara Scott, commits suicide. The women in this story suffer painfully in silence because, as the reader is told, Mr. Arber hates disruptions. Sharon, a young widow in “What is the Connection Between Men and Women,” searches for her elusive identity by moving to five different apartments after her husband dies, and still, when she makes eye contact with a stranger in the street who reminds her of her husband, she knows immediately that they have formed a mysterious bond and that he now “owns her.”

The difficult relationship between fathers and daughters is also explored in this collection. The stories “Demons,” “The Assailant,” and “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body” all contain a grown daughter who is present at the death of her father. The emotions are complex because each daughter feels strangely connected with a father to whom she was never emotionally close, as if to break the bounds of patriarchy a daughter must identify with men, look at the world “without comment or shame,” and become “no longer a woman,” as Nina does in “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body.” Yet the death of the father, perhaps the ultimate symbol of a patriarchal culture in the life of each daughter, is...

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The Wheel of Love Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

For almost three decades, Oates has continually produced highly acclaimed fiction, poetry, drama, and essays. She has been the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Book Award. Nearly every story in The Wheel of Love has won an award. Oates received the O. Henry Award for “In the Region of Ice,” which went on to win an Academy Award as a short film.

Sensitivity to women’s issues has been a hallmark in Oates’s writing. Many of her stories lend themselves to feminist readings. In Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, Greg Johnson wrote that the story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” is a description of “a young and sexually attractive girl’s enslavement within a conventional, male-dominated sexual relationship.” Other stories in this collection, specifically “You,” “Four Summers,” “Accomplished Desires,” “Demons,” and “Shame,” also portray a cycle of young women repeating the previous generation of women’s servitude to men.

Oates has continued to thrive as a writer, despite critical charges leveled against her. The two most common criticisms, Oates believes, are based not on her writings but on the fact that she is a serious and prolific woman working in a profession dominated by men. The prevailing, and perhaps traditionally more feminine, practice in fiction is to write stories of a more personal and domestic nature. Oates, however, in the tradition of prolific Victorian novelists such as Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and Anthony Trollope, is concerned with the role of men and women in the society of her own time. It has also been suggested that professional jealousy is behind the criticism (by mostly male critics) of Oates’s tremendous literary output.

Oates has been compared to American writer Flannery O’Connor and, like O’Connor, has been questioned about the violence in her writing, with the suggestion that such violence is not “lady-like.” She addressed this question by writing an article called “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” for The New York Times Book Review. In it, she labeled the question insulting, ignorant, and sexist. Oates is a serious writer who is concerned with the moral and social conditions of her generation in a profession that has too few women role models.

The Wheel of Love Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bellamy, Joe David. “Joyce Carol Oates.” In The New Fiction Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Contains comments by Oates on her writing style and several of her stories.

Bender, Eileen T. “Conclusion: Missing Views, ‘Last Days.’ ” In Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Examines “In a Region of Ice” and “Last Days.”

Grant, Mary Kathryn. The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978. Discusses Oates’s focus on violence and tragedy in her fiction.

Oates, Joyce Carol. (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988. These essays discuss writing by women, both Oates’s and others’.

Phillips, Robert. “Joyce Carol Oates.” The Paris Review 20, no. 73 (Spring, 1978): 198-226. Oates comments on her literary interests and personal experiences, and responds to criticism of her work.