Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Some of the themes of the book are clear and straightforward: In her history of a family with five daughters, Oates has ample opportunity to explore the beginnings of feminism as those daughters react against the strictures of their times. There is a clear picture of the century’s attitudes toward...

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Some of the themes of the book are clear and straightforward: In her history of a family with five daughters, Oates has ample opportunity to explore the beginnings of feminism as those daughters react against the strictures of their times. There is a clear picture of the century’s attitudes toward female sexuality, for example, in the lives of Octavia and Malvinia. Neither seems to illustrate either a desirable or natural response to natural stimuli. The awkwardness of the time in explaining sex—an awkwardness that produced actual books such as Katherine Lee Bates’s euphemistic The Wedding Day Book (1882)—hampers rather than helps Octavia. Without guidance she has no standard of comparison.

Malvinia, on the other hand, cannot simply enjoy her sensual nature, even in marriage. She despises herself for being what she is, regarding her sexual enjoyment as a perversion rather than a reward. A character as physically satisfied in marriage as, say, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath would be incomprehensible to either Octavia or Malvinia. Few of the daughters seem to find an accommodation with sex. It is the thought of what must occur on her wedding night, after all, that sends Constance fleeing to the West. Only with Samantha is there no suggestion of neurotic sexuality. In her role as scientist and later as a woman who freely chooses her own husband, Samantha portrays the new woman that the new century would call into being. The most modern-seeming of the sisters, Samantha is also the most satisfied. Perhaps in the pictures of these sisters is there the strongest condemnation of the century’s treatment of women.

Closely connected with the theme of sexuality is that of religion. Many of the characters seem to regard spirituality as a medicine for sexuality. Even those who, like Octavia or Malvinia, find genuine fulfillment in charitable work seem to be in retreat from the urgings of their flesh. Religion makes Malvinia meek and compliant, a change made more, rather than less, dramatic because it is a change that she desires. The less pleasant underside of religion is illustrated by Deirdre. The spiritism that she practices is worse than a hoax. Under the control of the spirits, the unwitting Deirdre sometimes says vicious things. The spirits themselves become stronger through their association with her, strong enough to kill a team of doubters attempting to test the reality of Deirdre’s powers.

Another theme of dark destruction is displayed in the work of the father. Nineteenth century science is naturally the foundation of twentieth century science, and the bending of scientific means to perverted ends is explored in the story of John Quincey Zinn. The quiet of the Zinn household ends when Zinn is interviewed by a reporter from the Atlantic. As a result of the notoriety that follows the publication of the article, Zinn’s talents come to the attention of Congress. In a parody of congressional appropriation of contemporary times, the government funds Zinn’s research on the condition that he direct his efforts toward finding a new method of execution. The ever-creative inventor then builds the first electric chair. Until this point, Samantha has been her father’s faithful assistant and disciple, but she regards his latest work as a prostitution of his talent. She can no longer stay, but ironically when she runs away, it is with another younger inventor.

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