Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952
Although Do with Me What You Will features many of the consistent themes in the work of Oates, such as early scenes of family violence, a male character seeking liberation from limitations, a passive female character without her own identity, and a rendering of the powerful magnetic force between a man and a woman, it is her first work to transcend a bleak projection for the future and offer the reader the means for a happy, though unresolved, ending.
Elena Howe struggles through some five hundred pages as an ill-defined character who is pushed, prodded, and manipulated by all those around her. The reader can only surmise that this character really exists through her identity to others—she is Ardis’ daughter, Marvin Howe’s wife, Jack’s lover—while being dragged into the void of her narration. Through her mother’s encouragement to disguise her true self, and through the will of her husband, who is attracted to her distance from the world, Elena becomes a statue long before she arrives, stonelike, in front of one. She is a character desperately in search of love and thus becomes defined by anyone who says that he loves her. Although the reader is never actually privy to her full realization, there is some sense of optimism as Elena is metamorphosed in the end through the real love of Jack and the metaphysical love of Mered Dawe.
Violence is a prevalent theme in most of Oates’s work, but although present in this novel, it becomes secondary to Elena’s struggle to achieve a sense of her own identity. Elena Howe is the most passive of Oates’s heroines, and therefore her transformation is the most drastic. Although she becomes more rounded through Jack’s intervention and love, she is determined to find herself and to live aggressively. Uncharacteristically, in the end of the work Elena becomes the aggressor, seeking out her lover and refusing to leave until he comes to her. Yet the sign of her genuine liberation is her relish for independence and her obvious delight in selecting her own mode of transportation and her own path for the future. She also becomes receptive to risk, realizing that regardless of whether she “gets” Jack, she is now free to explore the world on her own.
Although the book was generally well received by the critics, some pointed out that the clouded, abstract narration could be a technical flaw. The story does meander as point of view shifts from the major to minor characters, from present setting to flashback as Jack and Elena’s remembrance of those events is interjected in italics, and from observable reality to stream of consciousness as the narrative perspective changes from third-person narration to the first-person thought processes of the protagonist. Even though this circuitous narration is often difficult to follow, it does give a more rounded portrait of the action and the characters, lending point of view objectivity coupled with the intimacy of first-person recollection. It also foreshadows a happy ending, as the reader realizes that the italicized conversational blurbs are in retrospect.
As in the majority of Oates’s work, the city, in this case Detroit, figures prominently in the action. Without the urban setting, Marvin Howe and Jack Morrissey would not have the prime pickings for their legal machinations and Elena’s isolation within herself would not be so clearly delineated. It is only when Elena escapes the grip of the city and is taken to a rural retreat in Maine that she is freed to make her escape. Additionally, Oates employs other settings in the work, such as the courtroom and the segregated South, to complete a portrait of the troubled decade of the 1960’s.
Analysis of this work would not be complete without a discussion of the roles played by some of the minor characters, who serve to round out an almost derivative Cinderella motif. Elena, cast as Cinderella, must work as a model to add income to the coffers of her “wicked stepmother,” Ardis. Although attractive, Elena/Cinderella cannot achieve her full potential and snare the handsome prince/Jack without the intervention of a supernatural guide, in this case Mered Dawe.
Although not introduced until the latter half of the story, Mered Dawe becomes a pivotal figure for both Elena and Jack. He is a shaman who preaches passive resistance (as opposed to passivity) and the power of universal, metaphysical love. In this role he becomes a type of Christ figure, the ultimate redemptive force for Elena’s transformation. Because the Establishment considers Dawe a threat, he is arrested on a drummed-up possession charge and eventually becomes a client of Jack Morrissey. Dawe is the only defendant in the novel who is completely innocent and becomes the only one not acquitted—thus shaking Jack’s belief in his god, the justice system. Because Dawe is “crucified” for his rantings about love, he also serves to unite the two themes of love and the law.
Elena’s mother, Ardis, is one of the most intriguing characters in the work. Part of Elena’s trouble with procuring identity has to do with the fact that she considers Ardis the stable portion of her life. Having played sculptor to Elena’s statuelike existence, Ardis sets out to create and re-create herself. Unlike Elena, whose beauty is natural, Ardis must alter not only her physical appearance but her personality and identity as well. As a type of archetypal trickster figure, a shape-shifter, Ardis changes her name, profession, and appearance at least six times throughout the story. It is of interest that once Elena’s quest to become real comes closer to fruition, Ardis becomes more vaguely drawn.
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