Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Joyce Carol Oates had published more than sixty works—including novels, plays, and collections of stories, poems, and essays—by the mid-1990’s, making her one of the United States’ most prolific writers. Bellefleur, which is generally acknowledged as her masterpiece, characterizes Oates’s tremendous output through its abundance of events, characters, pages, even words per sentence. A huge, sprawling novel of 558 pages, Bellefleur covers seven generations and more than fifty members of the Bellefleur family, which dominated a region of the eastern United States that resembles upstate New York. In addition to elements of gothicism and Magical Realism, the novel is characterized by its nonchronological approach to relating the Bellefleur saga, its overabundance of specific details, and Oates’s unusual habit of undercutting the story’s tension by mentioning hints regarding the outcomes of various events before those events have even been related.

The Bellefleur family history parallels that of the United States, operating sometimes within the context of American history and culture, but more often in the separate, parallel world of Bellefleur Manor. A sense of otherness is brought about largely by the massiveness of the manor and the miles of land surrounding it, including a range of mountains, all of which are owned or otherwise dominated by the Bellefleurs.

Increasing this sense of otherness is the fact that there are few details that reveal the particular time period of the novel’s events. Oates does not provide birth and death dates for the characters beyond 1830 in the family tree found at the beginning of the novel. That readers are not able to pin a specific time to the events of the story makes the lives of the characters seem more fluid and adds to the novel’s expansiveness. Not only do the Bellefleurs have an abundance of wealth, land, children, rooms in which to dwell, works of art, horses, and cars, they apparently live longer and more fully than the average human. The things that surround the Bellefleurs are carefully, specifically...

(The entire section is 861 words.)