(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Joyce Carol Oates is one of America’s most prolific authors. Her novels, short stories, criticism, and poetry have been pouring out with startling regularity for almost two decades. Her work has varied from the almost naturalistic realism of A Garden of Earthly Delights to the social commentary of them to the impressionistic effects of Do with Me What You Will and Son of the Morning. Many of her stories are frankly experimental, exploring with subtlety and daring the furthest reaches of human emotion and consciousness. Not all of her fiction is completely successful, but the intensity of the attempt and the sincerity of the intent, as well as the sheer volume, always have remained impressive.

With Bellefleur, Oates moves into a new realm, carrying her experimentation into the Gothic romance genre. As might be expected, however, when she attempts a Gothic novel, complete with mist-shrouded castle and mysterious supernatural forces; she stretches and twists the form, making it into a new and daring structure quite her own. The book is not completely successful, but taken as a whole, it is, despite its flaws, a remarkable literary effort.

Oates’s intent, was to raise the popular form of the Gothic romance to the level of art, and to create within the genre a dark masterpiece which would encompass much of the American experience. This is an ambition of great daring, and the faults of the book tend to be the faults of the basic form. In addition, the Gothic romance structure and style tend to emphasize the faults which always have existed in Oates’s writing: a tendency to the exaggeratedly romantic, to the verbose, and to the overly emotional and overwrought.

While it is true that Oates does incorporate into her narrative actual historical events—such as the War of 1812, John Brown’s abolitionist activities, and the building of the Erie Canal—these episodes are not sufficient to root either the fantasy or the romantic violence in a plausible reality. Perhaps Bellefleur succeeds best as a vast allegory, a kind of prose poem about the dark side of the American spirit. Certainly, the book does convey much of the restlessness, the eccentric vision, the ruthless ambition, and the romantic longing which has characterized the growth of the nation from its earliest days.

Beyond this, however, Oates has captured a great deal of the American nightmare, of the horror that lurks not only in the collective subconscious, but also in each individual born into this hectic, ghost-dominated society. For, while Americans always have been proud of having no past—of building a great nation out of nothing—the fact is that America has, from the beginning, been haunted by its past, by the Europe from which its founders fled, and by its own injustices and crimes (slavery, to name the most obvious, and the rape of the Native Americans, for another). Like dark currents within each American psyche, these ghosts struggle to find expression. In Bellefleur, they are allowed to surface and show their hideous naked faces. And, if the symbolism at times seems heavy-handed, perhaps it is forgivable, since most of it was waiting for Oates to discover and use, as genuine symbols always are waiting to be found, rather than invented.

The Bellefleurs are a wealthy and notorious family that dominates a large section of a mountainous area of the Eastern United States. They overrun their neighbors, influence the government, buy and sell lands, arouse the fear and hostility of nearly everyone with whom they come in contact, and they come to symbolize all of the cruel and ruthless clans which are part of American history....

(The entire section is 1516 words.)