Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861

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.

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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 documented by Oates—one chapter is devoted to a history of the cars they have owned—but the timelessness of these items, their inability to date those surrounding them, increases the reader’s sense of Bellefleur Manor as otherworldly and shows that the events of the past are inextricably bound up with the present.

Gothic elements—such as the stone castle with its several wings and towers and off-limits rooms, a would-be vampire, a family curse, and the vulture that steals a baby from the manor’s garden—add an atmosphere of gloom and impending doom in the novel. Its elements of Magical Realism, however, create a sense of abundance and possibility that better capture the novel’s feel. Young Raphael, whose only emotional connection is to a small, secluded pond, is absorbed into the pond that is, in turn, absorbed into the land. A deformed dwarf eventually straightens and grows tall after several years at the manor. One Bellefleur disappears into a mirror. The bigger-than-life passions of these characters have been so strong, they are transforming.

The sense of the possibility of the supernatural created by the Magical Realism pairs nicely with one of the novel’s most striking characteristics, its nonchronological approach to the telling of the story. Despite elements of traditional, historic narratives in Bellefleur, Oates presents the events of the novel for effect. The frequent time shifting, which usually occurs at chapter breaks, enables Oates to juxtapose, for the sake of contrast, events from the past with events from the nearer present. The nonchronological approach adds to the reader’s sense of the family as exerting a cumulative force on successive generations. The reader feels, along with the Bellefleurs, the power of their ancestry and the burden that is entailed in simply being born into the family. This burden is what drives many family members away and leads Gideon to finally destroy the family and the manor.

Oates’s nonchronological approach is a useful device in another way: It allows her to hint at things to come, thereby undercutting any tension or suspense that might be building around certain events in the novel. Readers know ahead of time about the murders of Jean Pierre, Louis, and their families; about Raphael’s being skinned; that Gideon will destroy the family; and other things. By undercutting much of the suspense or tension in the novel, Oates distances the reader from individual characters and maintains the focus on her more prevailing concern: the Bellefleur family. She uses the Bellefleurs to track both the ingenuity and potential that the United States represents, and the violence, lust, greed, and eventual destruction contained within the nation as well.

Bellefleur is a work remarkable in its scope, its vision, and its ability to work within, yet turn on, conventional storytelling devices. Events of the story are presented in waves, and the tension of the work is developed around seemingly insignificant events, while major plot points are frequently glossed over. At times, the reader is presented with pages-long lists of the things that surround the Bellefleurs. All these unconventional choices provide a multilayered, profound perspective on power and the American family.

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