Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde fictionalizes the life of Norma Jean Baker from the time she was six years old. Synecdoche—the blending of multiple events into one or two events, based on facts—is used throughout the novel. Like an unfolding film script, the narrator takes the reader inside Norma Jeane’s thoughts and the feelings of other characters to reveal the life of film star Marilyn Monroe.
At the outset, the third-person omniscient narrator sets the tone for story. Before long, a first-person (“I”) narrator—Norma Jeane in her own words—enters the story. The third-person returns, accompanied by periodic “guest appearance” omniscient narrators, such as the camera crew at one of Norma Jeane’s early photo shoots. The guest narrators are cruel toward Monroe, objectifying her as a sexual object.
In Blonde, Oates reintroduces themes found in her other works. These themes include the potential for violence and its occurrence when least expected, the oppression and domination of girls and women, and the dichotomy between outward appearance and reality and deception and truth. Additionally, in Blonde, there is the foreboding of death.
Oates weaves into the novel a predestined fate to show how Norma Jeane’s life was a struggle for survival. For example, Norma Jeane writes a poem in a high school notebook that her mother used to read to her, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Fate works against the odds of resolving the actor’s search for true love versus scripted, false love; against motherhood; against being reunited with her mother; and against a happy ending.
Readers witness vivid scenes in Norma Jeane’s life in chronological order. All concrete details—names, dates, addresses—are gathered and presented as if from Hollywood magazine clippings of the day. Her happiest childhood memories are from driving around with her mother and looking at mansions of the stars in Beverly Hills.
Norma Jeane’s thoughts and dreams are based on movie plots. The people who come and go in her life are compared to film stars. For example, her high school drama teacher, Sidney Haring, “looked like a weaker, less amiable Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath.” Visits to her mother are often accompanied by background music. Everyone—Mr. X, V, the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright—has a role in Norma Jeane’s life, as in a script. The reader has to maintain a sense of distance to view these scenes, because they are so raw and shocking.
Substance abuse dominates Norma Jeane’s life and the lives of the people who are closest to her, including Della, Gladys, and Cass. The novel also includes many references to others who died from drugs or alcohol. For example, actor Jeanne Eagels, a “hophead drug fiend,” dies from overusing, and Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelist, dies from an overdose. The substance abusers named in Blonde, not to mention the nameless bodies found along roadsides, are almost exclusively female. It is clear, also, that drugs and alcohol...
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