Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart Summary
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is divided into three parts and an epilogue. With the exception of the omniscient perspective of part 1, the narrative is presented from the third-person point of view, allowing Oates to explore the perspectives of many different characters.

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart explores the impact of race and class on the formation of identity in America. Oates uses four families to illustrate this: the poor white Garlocks, the struggling black Fairchilds, the ambitious working-class Courtneys, and the upper-class Savages. All the individual characters are placed within the larger context of their families and social class.

The novel begins in 1956 with the discovery of the corpse of Little Red Garlock, the demented son of a poor white family. After this discovery, the novel begins its large second section, moving back three years in time to 1953. This crucial section concerns the relationship between Iris Courtney, a white working-class teenager, and Jinx Fairchild, a black teenager and star basketball player. It is Jinx who accidentally murders Little Red. In defending Iris against this repulsive sexual bully, Jinx finds himself committing a violent act that forges a secretive and powerful bond with Iris.

Iris Courtney is the central consciousness of the novel. Ambitious and bright, Iris is seeking to overcome the obstacles presented to her by her social class and by her alcoholic mother, Persia, and her gambler father, Duke. After the murder, Iris develops an erotic attachment to Jinx; she continues her obsession with him even after he breaks off their relationship. This is a side of herself that she keeps hidden from the outside world.

It is Jinx who carries the lion’s share of guilt. The overheated quarrel that ends with the murder of Little Red has a serious effect on Jinx. Although he is never caught, the crime destroys his hopes and dreams. He cannot trust the white community of Hammond to give him a fair trial, because he knows that as a black man he has no presumption of innocence. Jinx begins to keep up his guard, to feel alienated from the white world that once seemed to promise him great opportunities. His guilt feelings lead to a breakdown of his personality, and he develops a troubled and self-destructive side. This leads to an “accident” on the basketball court that ruins his career as an athlete; readers understand that this accident is an unconscious self-punishment. After the accident, Jinx must quit school and basketball and give up the dream of a college scholarship that was to be his bridge to the successful white world. He marries, works at a low-level job, and eventually is sent to Vietnam, where he will die, both self-defeated and defeated by the rigidities of the racist Hammond community.

The third section of the novel begins in 1962. Iris is in radically altered circumstances. Gone is the tragic world of Hammond, along with her guilty attachment to Jinx and her ties to her dissolute mother and her distant and feckless father. Iris has reinvented herself. This third section introduces its final representative American family, the Savages. They are not part of the grubby world of Hammond but belong to the upper crust of Syracuse, where Iris is attending the university. Using her strength, her intellect, and a single-minded ruthlessness, Iris has moved up the social and economic ladder into success and well-being. This section demonstrates the distance Iris has traveled from her origins. She is to marry Alan Savage, the patrician son of the cultivated, wealthy Savages, and she is determined to forget the past, which she keeps largely hidden from her new family. At the end of the novel, Iris models her bridal gown in front of the mirror and smirks, “Do you think I’ll look the part?” These final lines tell readers that Iris has constructed a persona that does not reflect her true self and that this duplicity has made her bitter and cynical....

(The entire section is 1,197 words.)