What is the theme of "Shopping" by Joyce Carol Oates?

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The theme of the story is the mixture of pain and love in the intergenerational conflict between mothers and daughters—and the difficulty, further, of truly knowing another person.

The story is told from the point of view of Mrs. Dietrich, who is taking her seventeen-year-old daughter, Nola, shopping. They are a well-heeled twosome, despite Mrs. Dietrich being divorced, and they can spend without thinking about it in an upscale mall with stores like Neiman Marcus. Nevertheless, the two can't seem to connect.

While we don't get to experience Nola's interiority, we can sense how she is pulling away from her mother, trying to grow up and become her own person. For example, she smokes a cigarette at lunch at the Creperie, openly differentiating from her mother, who has recently quit. She wants to go far away, to study in France, while her mother wants to keep her close.

Mrs. Dietrich does not understand her daughter, experiences anger at her daughter's opacity, and feels time passing by in a way that frightens her. At forty-seven, she doesn't want her daughter to leave her: she wants them to be close, but she doesn't know how to connect.

That Nola feels some of the same grief her mother does is suggested when Nola bursts into tears at the sight of the strange old woman everyone is avoiding. We never know exactly what triggers her sadness, any more than her mother does, but we do know that she needs her mother then—even if she doesn't know how to express it.

Point of view is crucial to the theme of the unknowability of another human being, even one you love. Like Mrs. Dietrich, we are left not fully understanding Nola.

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In her short story "Shopping," Joyce Carol Oates uses the mundane act of shopping to illustrate the theme of unconditional love that a mother has for her daughter.

Mrs Dietrich loves Nola with a fierce unreasoned passion stronger than any she felt for the man who had been her husband for thirteen years, certainly far stronger than any she ever felt for her own mother.

The forty-seven-year-old mother, divorced from her husband for the past five years or so, has constructed her life around her seventeen-year-old daughter Nola and her visits home from boarding school. She uses the daughter’s rare visits home as a way to reconnect with Nola, who is growing increasingly distant from her. But the mother’s overbearing actions end up pushing Nola further away. However, both enjoy shopping so they make their habitual trek out to the mall on a Saturday morning.

Yet this time it is hard for Mrs. Dietrich to avoid the contempt and coldness with which her daughter treats her. Although the mother tries to engage her daughter in conversation and tries to make her happy, it is clear that Nola is not interested in reciprocating the gesture as she tries to separate herself from her mother’s desperate desire to connect. She seems intent on keeping her ideas to herself except when she wants something. At lunch, Nola is especially difficult as she demands that she be allowed to study abroad for a semester during her senior year and refuses to listen to her mother’s protests. This reminds Mrs. Dietrich of what a friend had told her:

“I just don’t know her any longer, how can you keep living with someone you don’t know?” and the woman said, “Eventually you can’t.”

The lunch conversation, along with the three glasses of wine that Mrs. Dietrich drinks, triggers memories of previous arguments she has had with her daughter, as well as her troubled relationship with her husband. It escalates to such a point that she finds herself staring into her daughter’s eyes with hatred.

Cold calm clear unmistakable hatred. She is thinking. Who are you? What have I to do with you? I don’t know you. I don’t love you, why should I?

But immediately she is regretful and tries to smooth over the moment.

As they finish their shopping, they pass by a disheveled, old woman whom they had seen earlier. Nola had been angry as she passed by, wondering how people can treat her (and people like her) so poorly; however, she seemed quickly to forget the woman as they got caught up in the business of shopping. But as they depart, Nola walks faster and faster and the mother struggles to keep up with her. When they get to the car, Nola is overcome with sobs, and her mother gathers her in her arms, to comfort her, protecting her daughter from the stares of passersby. Whether Nola is upset by the disheveled woman or how she feels about her mother, or both, it is clear that the mother has resumed the role she has always had since Nola was growing in her womb, as that of her fiercest, most loving protector, no matter what.

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