Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

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 are tied to age, and aging is the enemy of women’s success in the movies.

A macabre archetype named the Dark Prince shows up in various disguises in Norma Jeane’s life. The Dark Prince character is a nod to a Rudolph Valentino film, suggesting a romantic and mysterious man who rescues the Princess (Norma Jeane). He is, in part, her missing father, who haunts her memory. He is also photographer Otto Öse as well as lovers and husbands. Norma Jeane often called husbands or lovers Daddy, a term of endearment possibly deriving from her strong desire to experience her father’s love and attention.

Norma Jeane never stops yearning for a chance to meet her father. She hangs out at a Bel Air address in a borrowed car, on the eve of her twenty-third birthday, in the driveway of a man who might have been her mother’s lover in 1925 (Mr. X). A security guard shoos Norma Jeane away. Her thoughts show a longing for love and acceptance, which always eluded her.

Norma Jeane, according to one character, “was the kind of girl who obeys . . . so if you’re responsible, you take care what you tell her to do.” She thus falls prey to a sexist Hollywood milieu. As Öse explains, “girls like you are luscious pieces of candy for whomever’s got the dough to buy them.” When in the middle of her first nude photo shoot, he says, she “obeyed” him “unquestioningly. . . . She might have been hypnotized.”

On several occasions, Norma Jeane tries to educate herself or talk about complex issues; each time, she is dismissed by mentors and teachers, and her questioning is interpreted as disobedience. For example, with her first husband, Bucky Glazer, she brings up reading H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds; Bucky erroneously tells her that War of the Worlds was a radio show, and takes over the conversation. When she asks Öse about political theory or American collaboration in the death of Nazi victims, she is dismissed as “a joke.” However, Öse would say later, “Her problem wasn’t that she was a dumb blonde, it was she wasn’t a blonde and she wasn’t dumb.” When Norma Jeane arrives at The Studio for an audition, she mentions Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski and is mocked by the director. However, he would later remark that he considered her to be the first actress of the twenty or more he’s auditioned for the role . . . who seems to have given the role any intelligent thought and who has actually read the entire script (or so she claims) and has formed some sort of judgment on it.

Isaac E. Shinn, Norma Jeane’s first Hollywood agent, believed that Norma Jeane could have finished her education. However, he thought she had acting talent and potential for stardom, thus dissuading her from finishing her education and encouraging her toward being a star. Indeed, she could not shy away from the cameras. The photographer’s camera had control over her, and that camera also symbolized destruction. During her first nude photo shoot, the third-person narrator explains that “From the eye of Otto Öse’s camera, as from the very eye of Death, nobody hides.” This theme of hiding was illustrated well by Norma Jeane’s lover Cass Chaplin, who said “being Charlie Chaplin’s son was a curse that others stupidly wished to believe must be a blessing—’Like it’s a fairy tale, and I’m the King’s son.’”

Hypnosis, dreams, and a film-like unreality thread through Oates’s novel. Some of Norma Jeane’s dreams are based on real events. Other threads in the story are a mouse and references to fate. The mouse motif symbolizes her low status in society: Mouse is her nickname at the orphans’ home and she squeaks when she laughs, “like a mouse being killed.” Doom is a pervasive plot element. For example, characters mention that Norma Jeane might hurt herself if she suffers a disappointment. Toward the end of her life, her internal monologue gets garbled, jumps back and forth in time. Shorter, disconnected fragments signal a breakdown of cohesive reality and a movement toward chaos and loss.

Blonde reveals the reality (versus the myths) of Norma Jeane’s life. The best and worst of her life are fully disclosed, much like her famous nude calendar, and the novel shows how she moved beyond others’ expectations. Oates chose a complex topic worthy of her writing style. Blonde provides a dense, full look at a complex life in the context of its time.

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