Do with Me What You Will

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

Although stylistically reminiscent of much of Joyce Carol Oates’s earlier work, Do with Me What You Will is the first novel in which the protagonist, as victim, walks away from her bondage and moves toward self-realization and full identity. When the work was published, it was considered the most affirmative of Oates’s novels because it depicts a female character who is awakened and strengthened through the power of redemptive love.

The novel deals with the profession of law and the search for human rights, and the law provides the framework through which the characters seek identification. It is clearly stated, however, that the law cannot absolutely determine guilt or innocence, sanity or insanity, justice or injustice, because the system deals with “fictional” characters created by attorneys interested in conviction or acquittal. Thus the law in the novel comes to symbolize the manipulation and bondage that are the foundation of the protagonist, Elena Howe. In the final outcome, then, it is love, not law, that becomes the vehicle of liberation for her and for the story. Because the courtroom is an integral part of the tale, the book is arranged in four parts that loosely correspond to a trial.

Part 1, “Twenty-eight Years, Two Months, Twenty-six Days,” focuses strictly on Elena. It traces her story from the point at which she is kidnapped and traumatized by her estranged father, through her return to her self-involved mother, to her marriage to the possessive Marvin Howe, to a point where she becomes incapable of action, movement, or thought in front of a statue near her husband’s office.

Part 2, “Miscellaneous Facts, Events, Fantasies, Evidence Admissible and Inadmissible,” features Jack’s story as the author sketches the parallel lines between his life and Elena’s. Although not abused in the strictest sense of the word, Jack suffers his own childhood trauma as he watches his father deteriorate after the death of Jack’s mentally incapacitated brother. Eventually, this uncontrolled emotion leads Jack’s father to commit murder, at which point he secures the services of attorney Marvin Howe. Jack is so mesmerized by Howe’s manipulation of the legal system that he opts for a career in law. The section leads from his work with the Civil Rights movement, through his meeting and marrying Rachel, to his first encounter with Elena. A frozen tableau in their own marble existence, Jack and Elena come together in front of a statue, where she has become immobile and he attempts to awaken her.

Part 3, “Crime,” recounts the affair of Jack and Elena. Although the reader may find the entry into this liaison a bit simplistic, the affair and the ensuing bond of love nevertheless become the springboard for Elena’s leap of faith into independence. From an initial meeting in San Francisco, Elena and Jack maintain the affair for several months before they realize that fate has brought them together. The section is aptly named, for although the work is replete with criminals, it is love that becomes the ultimate crime and the only one that is finally punished.

Part 4, “The Summing Up,” reintroduces most of the characters and gives their retrospective perspective on parts of the foregoing action. Here Elena becomes fully awake and realizes that she must leave Marvin Howe and his world. Although she reclaims her lover, Jack, in a mock-kidnapping to bring the novel full circle, she is truly free because she realizes that with Jack or without him, she must seek independence and self-definition.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

Although the narration is loose, almost surreal, and the tone is dark, the book does present an inconclusive fairy-tale ending, with the prince and princess reuniting after undue duress to live happily ever after. It is ironic that this ending is made possible only through criminal behavior: When Elena commits adultery, abandons her husband, and abducts her lover, she becomes visible.

Despite the ramifications, Oates wishes the reader to view Elena’s awakening as an emblem for all women’s liberation. Regardless of the feminist view that woman can become whole without male assistance, Oates is aware of the pervasive force of sexuality and the power it wields. If nothing else, the work demonstrates that even the weakest-willed can break the bonds of sexual stereotypes and confront life with anticipation and vigor. The book was generally well received by reviewers and critics. Despite the negative comments on narrative technique, some even called the book “popularly accessible.” Regardless, Do with Me What You Will stands as an affirmation of the human spirit in its struggle to survive.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979. The scope of the book is limited to Oates’s fiction, including both short stories and novels, published between 1963 and 1976. The author places Joyce Carol Oates and her work within proper biographical and critical contexts and attempts evaluation from a reader-response perspective.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. A companion to the earlier work (above), this critical study covers the period between 1977 and 1990 and is limited to the fifteen novels written during that time. It includes some plot summary and critical appraisal on each published novel, as well as discussion of other critical reaction to Oates’s work and her label of “the dark lady of American letters.”

Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Features a critical overview of the body of Oates’s work, addressing themes and style. There follows an in-depth breakdown of nine of her novels, including extensive information on Do with Me What You Will. A selected bibliography is included.

Grant, Mary Kathryn. The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978. The work is a detailed discussion of Oates’s predilection for violence as a theme that leads to the emergence of hope. Several novels are discussed with considerable attention given to Do with Me What You Will. Contains an extensive bibliographic listing of other sources for study.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Woman Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988. A collection of essays by Oates, including criticism of other authors, a selection of her writings about boxing, prefaces to five of her own works, and commentary on the writing process and the art of self-criticism.

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Critical Essays