Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart continues Oates’s return to the psychological realism of her earlier fiction. After a series of historical novels that deployed the techniques of the Magical Realists, Oates returned to the familiar contemporary terrain of upstate New York and to her usual explorations of the social and psychological issues that confront postwar America. This novel is of a piece with the two novels closely preceding it, Marya (1986) and You Must Remember This (1987). All three concern the psychological development of a gifted young woman who overcomes a troubled small-town 1950’s youth.

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, like the highly acclaimed You Must Remember This, explores the world of sports in contemporary America, especially the way in which the sports world is a gateway to success for the underprivileged male. Both novels also deal with forbidden love and offer a revisionist reading of the 1950’s as a decade that was not so much a celebration of the American Dream as a realization of its worst nightmares. As with all of Oates’s work, the human personality is depicted as a seething cauldron of excitations; these surges of emotion create an atmosphere of intensity and passion that comments on the intemperate side of the American character. The typical “Oatesian” personality is overwhelmed by fears and wishes only partially understood. One can detect the influences of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and D. H. Lawrence in this presentation of the self.

A popular and prolific writer, Oates has been publishing novels, essays, stories, poems, and plays continuously since 1963. The two most-discussed aspects of her work are its quantity and its propensity for violence. Oates attributes these concerns about excess to a wish to limit her creative potential as a woman. Although her recent work suggests elements of autobiography, moreover, Oates maintains that her writing is not confessional but rather representative of the social and psychological issues that make up the American experience. In this regard, Oates is a good example of what she has called the “visionary” novelist, who writes not for herself or out of her own experience but as a medium for the lives of those around her.