You Must Remember This (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
“As Time Goes By,” a popular song of the 1950’s, serves as a motif for the eighteenth of Joyce Carol Oates’s extraordinary novels and provides its title as well: The opening words of the song are “You must remember this.” One of the favorite songs of the protagonist, Enid Maria Stevick, “As Time Goes By” is playing the first time her uncle Felix notices Enid and dances with her at a family wedding. In this narrative, there are many lovers; there are “hearts full of passion, jealousy, and hate”; certainly, life as seen by the Stevicks is “a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.” The novel’s real subject, however—time and its effects—is indicated by the lines that close the first verse; “The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
The most important lovers in this novel of the Stevick family are Enid Maria and Felix. Their passionate, obsessive affair provides the focus for the second of the novel’s three sections, “Romance.” Other lovers of importance include the compassionate Warren, Enid’s older brother (who falls in love with a woman he rescues from the roof of his rooming house), and Lyle, the father of the Stevick family, whose resurgence of love for his wife Hannah provides the epilogue’s closing scene and the novel’s most effective meditation on time.
Love and time are not the only themes of the novel. As one has come to expect in a novel from this socially conscious writer, there is a powerful evocation of an era; the 1950’s are rendered through their social and cultural preoccupations. The Korean War, the development of the H-bomb, the defeat of Adlai Stevenson, the Supreme Court’s decision on school desegregation, UFO’s, bomb shelters, and even the comics play important roles in the novel. Those readers who come to Oates’s work for its psychological rather then social insight, however, will not be disappointed. Complex and vivid characters, often stretched to their limits and enduring existential isolation, constitute one of the strengths of You Must Remember This. While the most fully realized characters are Enid, Felix, and Lyle, other members of the family—Hannah, Warren, Lizzie, and Gerry—are vividly presented. Symbol and imagery are skillfully employed: The underground silvery-white room of Lyle’s nightmare, the secret paths in the wallpaper of Enid’s room, Shoal Lake with its ghostly, icy undertow, and the Green Island are particularly memorable. These and other symbols and images illuminate and enrich Oates’s work. Perhaps the novel’s strongest asset, however, is its plot. Suspenseful and filled with significant action, the story carries the reader on irresistibly through the novel’s more than four hundred pages.
The tripartite structure of this novel is familiar to Oates’s readers. The three parts—“The Green Island,” “Romance,” and “Shelter"—represent places as well as time segments. “The Green Island” (132 pages) covers the longest time period, November, 1944, to June, 1953. Setting the love plot of Enid and Felix in motion, this section also draws in the other characters and subplots. The major plot strand resembles that of Oates’s earliest novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), a work in which a passive female, much younger than her lover, by her quiescence undermines his violence and ultimately his sense of personal identity. Enid’s attitude recalls that of Elena Ross Howe, the protagonist of Oates’s sixth novel, Do with Me What You Will (1973), who also has an “enigmatic face” and who thinks that “nothing will happen as long as you keep quiet.” Enid identifies with the saints of whom she learned in confirmation class who passively offered their bodies to their torturers, saying, “Do with me what you will.” Enid writes, “Felix I want you to love me. Anything you do to me—it’s what I want.” Sitting in a green square outside Felix’s apartment building, Niagara Towers (whose name has the same overtone of the quest perilous as does the Green Island), where she cannot resist going although she does not know what she wants from Felix, Enid thinks of herself as lost among the paths of her wallpaper. This section ends with Felix in control, slapping Enid violently.
Section 2, “Romance” (122 pages), begins violently with Enid’s suicide attempt and ends with the violent death of the young prizefighter Jo-Jo Pearl, a surrogate for Felix and a counterweight in his life to Enid. The focus of section 1 had been Enid—her awareness of the divided self (her alter ego is called Angel-Face), her attraction to death and her resistance to this attraction (“She’d thought it was her very life she wanted to kill, but it was only Enid Maria”). Section 2, however, focuses on Felix and the beginning of his loss of control. Felix, who is reminiscent of Shar Rule in Oates’s first novel, is possessed by a need to dominate that causes the novel’s major conflict.
Section 2 also initiates the theme of time’s effects through Felix’s surrogate relation with Jo-Jo Pearl. Like Felix a stylish boxer rather than a sturdy one, Jo-Jo is a protégé of the same mafioso Italian family. He is trained by Felix’s former trainer and managed by the same manager. Most strikingly, he experiences “the joy of the body as Felix Stevick had once known it before he’d been made to...
(The entire section is 2242 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Creighton presents the first critical study of the novels Oates published between 1977 and 1990, including the mystery novels published under the name of Rosamund Smith. She offers an insightful analysis of You Must Remember This.
Daly, Brenda. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. An excellent study that argues that the “father-identified daughters in her early novels have become, in the novels of the 1980s, self-authoring women who seek alliances with their culturally devalued mothers.” Offers a perceptive reading of the evolution of feminist elements in Oates’s work.
Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. An illuminating look at the novelist once dubbed “the dark lady of American letters.” Drawing on Oates’s private letters and journals, as well as interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, Johnson offers a definitive study of one of America’s most gifted novelists. Includes a careful reading of You Must Remember This.
Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Part of the Literary Conversation series, this volume has seventeen pages containing references to You Must Remember This. The author also responds to the frequent criticism of the violence in her writing. Essential for a student of Oates, especially of You Must Remember This, the book contains an introduction, bibliography, chronology, and index.
Updike, John. “What You Deserve Is What You Get.” The New Yorker 63 (December 28, 1987): 119-123. This thoughtful, insightful essay by one of Oates’s most well-respected contemporaries offers perceptive comments, both positive and otherwise, about the novel, which he calls “exceedingly fine.”
Wesley, Marilyn C. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. An interesting study spanning the spectrum of Oates’s work. Includes a helpful bibliography and index.