Foxfire

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang tells of girls lost in the bland, male 1 950’s, but girls who band together to work out a revenge for what has happened to women before and since. Foxfire is thus a novel about crimes against women and about what happens to the young women who unite to fight the people and the system that perpetuate those crimes.

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The novel begins on November 12, 1952, when sixteen-year-old Legs Sadovsky escapes from her grandmother’s house in Plattsburgh, New York-where the State Department of Human Welfare Services has sent her to get her away from her “unsuitable” Hammond home-and shows up at the home of Maddy Wirtz. That “is how FOXFIRE will come to be born.” On New Year’s Day, 1953, five Hammond high-school girls tattoo each other with the gang’s sacred emblem-a tall, erect flame-and sign their allegiance to FOXFIRE (it is always capitalized in Maddy’s chronicles). All outsiders, poor white teenagers from broken homes, they find in FOXFIRE the identity they never had in their dysfunctional families. Maddy’s father, for example, is dead, her mother not available; Legs’s mother is dead, and Ab Sadovsky, with his various girlfriends, may not be her real father. Under the leadership of Legs Sadovsky, the girls find love and purpose, and that purpose is aimed directly at men and at sexual exploitation.

Their first act of revenge is against Mr. Buttinger, the ninth-grade mathematics teacher who humiliates Rita O’Hagan, an insecure, overweight girl, and who also manages to touch her inappropriately whenever he gets the chance. They paint his car with his crime (“IM A DIRTY OLD MAN”) and their motto (“FOXFIRE REVENGE!”). Buttinger never returns to school after his humiliation, and FOXFIRE has learned the power that it holds; this power will be used throughout the novel to defend women against exploitative men. “Oh Maddy-Monkey,” Legs explains to her favorite, “we’re all Rita.”

Maddy finds out how true this is when she tries to retrieve an Underwood typewriter that her uncle, the owner of a men’s store in Hammond, is discarding. Uncle Wimpy, seeing her, wants money for it-worse, he intimates that the thirteen-year-old Maddy can get it free for certain sexual favors. The gang sends Maddy back as a lure, and they beat up Wimpy Wirtz when he exposes himself. Maddy knows the “certain talismanic power… in knowing how to write,” and the old Underwood will give it to her. More important, she has learned the power that women have in union, and that FOXFIRE gives each of its members. As she writes, “It was a time of violence against girls and women but we didn’t have the language to talk about it then.” Foxfire the novel is about the discovery of that language, as FOXFIRE the gang is about the revenge for the violence.

Yet, as in so many Joyce Carol Oates novels, less is more. Legs has befriended an old, alcoholic priest named Father Theriault, who gives the gang a semi-Marxist analysis of the class structure of history. Their initiation ceremony mixes this language of the “Revolution of the Proletariat” with biblical terminology-“Valley of the Shadow of Death.” One of their first acts is a protest against a pet store that is mistreating its animals, and from which they rescue Toby, their loyal Husky.

The enemy is thus not only men but also the institutionalized ideology of the 1950’s. The authorities assume that FOXFIRE is the auxiliary of some male gang, but male gangs are themselves threatened by FOXFIRE. One day, on the school grounds, Legs pulls a knife to defend a member of her gang; she is thereupon expelled from school. She steals a car, crashes it into a bridge (in a foreshadowing of the final scene of the novel), and is sent to the Red Bank Correctional Facility for Girls for fourteen months. In prison, her purpose is solidified. The truth she learns in Red Bank, she tells Maddy on her release, is “that we do have enemies, yeah men are the enemy but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too sometimes.” Yet the 1950’s ideology is not only sexist; at the celebration party for her release, the gang shuns the two black girls Legs has invited. FOXFIRE the gang is thus a part of the very ideological structure it is trying to fight.

Legs finds a house outside Hammond where the gang can live together, as well as a car (“Lightning Bolt”), and FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD begins. The gang’s purpose stays the same: When Legs finds a dwarf tied up outside another rural dwelling who is being used for sexual purposes, she burns down the house. It is hard to come up with the money for their new responsibilities, however, and “FOXFIRE HOOKING” begins; girls from the gang are used as bait to trap predatory men.

When still more money is needed, Legs proposes “the final solution.” In prison, she has met the daughter of a Hammond steel magnate on a visit of charity. Invited to their mansion after her release, Legs takes the beautiful Violet, and the two lure Whitney Kellogg, Jr., into his own kidnapping. The plan goes awry, however, when Kellogg finds Christ and refuses to cooperate at all, and when his wife is so emotional that the gang is unable to relay their demands over the phone. By mistake, Kellogg is shot, the plot unravels, the gang scatters, and Legs and the girl who shot Kellogg are chased by the state police. In an accident resembling the earlier one, they slide off the road into a river and disappear.

In the epilogue, a fifty-year-old Maddy returns to Hammond, from a successful life away, and meets Rita. They reminisce about Legs, and Rita shows Maddy a 1961 newspaper photograph of Legs- with Fidel Castro. Nevertheless, what has happened to her will always remain a mystery. What remains is the devotion the other girls have for this now-legendary heroine, love that has a certain sexual tension to it. The confessions that Maddy is transcribing here from the old notebooks are her gift to Legs, their adolescent larger-than-life leader.

Foxfire explores the 1950’s from the peculiar perspective of a member of a gang of girls, and in that sense it is distinctive. The narrative, broken into five parts, slips easily from first person into third and back, as Maddy describes her own feelings at the same time that she is chronicling the gang’s exploits or getting into the head of Legs in prison. As with many other Oates works, readers are carried into a historical moment and into the minds of younger people experiencing it.

Yet Foxfire is also a 1990’s novel looking backward, for its subject and its perspective clearly reveal a contemporary understanding of exploitation and sexual violence against women. In this sense, Foxfire resembles E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), which takes place at the turn of the century but has at its center a violent black gang (like the Black Panthers of the 1970’s). Foxfire is a novel of the 1950’s written with a 1990’s feminist consciousness. “Rebel Without a Cause” has become “Rebels with One,” Laverne and Shirley have become Thelma and Louise, as women in the novel are working out their revenge against men. “It’s true as I stated at the outset of these Confessions, FOXFIRE was an outlaw gang, and became even more so as time passed. And we were pledged not to feel remorse-FOXFIRE NEVER LOOKS BACK!”

Foxfire contains many recognizable Joyce Carol Oates trademarks. In work after work, Oates has probed the situation of a naive young woman seduced by some powerful male figure. In her classic 1970 story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” for example, the demonic Arnold Friend lures Connie to her death. In the novel Black Water (1992), the powerful unnamed “Senator” drives the naive Kelly Kelleher to her death (in a car accident that anticipates the two in Foxfire). Oates has often depicted this power struggle from the perspective of the victim, and her psychological realism is usually overwhelming. Here, in Foxfire, the perspective is the same: that of members of some white underclass who are looking up at their personal and institutional exploitation. What is different is that the women in this novel have gained power against men, and gained the knowledge that language can give them to act in their power. Foxfire is a novel of 1950’s life written with a 1990’s feminist and linguistic consciousness.

Bibliography

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Bender sees Oates “as a writer who is always in some sense a critic” and considers “her intentions and achievements as part of a larger statement about contemporary American life and letters.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection of essays “brings together a representative selection of the most useful criticism so far devoted to the work of Joyce Carol Oates.”

Booklist. LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p.1275. A review of Foxfire.

Boston Globe. August 1, 1993, p.35. A review of Foxfire.

Chicago Tribune. August 8, 1993, XIV, p.3. A review of Foxfire.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. A discussion of fifteen of Oates’s novels written between 1977 and 1990; in American Appetites (1989) and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), for example, “the American dream is fractured by an unintentional killing; in both, violence is an upwelling of tension, breaking through the civil games of society and the conscious control of character; in both, appetites remain unfulfilled.”

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. A survey of Oates’s most important work and her “compassionate, clear-sighted exploration of American life and culture in the last half of this century.”

Library Journal. CXVIII, April 15, 1993, p.127. A review of Foxfire.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1993, p.3. A review of Foxfire.

New Statesman and Society. VI, August 6, 1993, p.38. A review of Foxfire.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, August 15, 1993, p.6. A review of Foxfire.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Converstions with Joyce Carol Oates. Edited by Lee Milazzo. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. This collection of fifteen interviews with the writer over twenty years raises a number of important questions and answers about her fictional themes and issues.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 31, 1993, p.40. A review of Foxfire.

Robinson, Sally. “Heat and Cold: Recent Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.” Michigan Quarterly Review 31, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 400-414. This analysis recognizes how Oates has always “specialized in a narrative technique that intrudes upon the private pains and pleasures—but mostly pains of Others. Her narratives often explore the dynamic of a voyeurism in which subject and object confront one another across a gulf of social difference.”

The Times Literary Supplement. August 13, 1993, p.19. A review of Foxfire.

The Washington Post. July 30, 1993, p. G2. A review of Foxfire.

Wesley, Marilyn C. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Family, power, and resistance are the key terms “to understanding the urgency and effectiveness of Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction.” In part, her “young protagonists enact a trenchant critique of the American family and of the society which has formed it.”

Form and Content

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 741

Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang is a novel about young women lost in the violent male-dominated 1950’s who band together to work out a revenge for what has happened to women before and since. Foxfire is thus a novel about crimes against women in the United States and about what happens to the young women who unite to fight the people and the systems that perpetuate those crimes.

The novel begins when sixteen-year-old “Legs” Sadovsky escapes from her grandmother’s house in Plattsburgh, New York—where the State Department of Human Welfare Services has sent her to get away from her “unsuitable” Hammond home—and shows up at the house of Maddy Wirtz. It is November 12, 1952, and that “is how FOXFIRE will come to be born.” On New Year’s Day, 1953, five Hammond high school girls tattoo one another with the gang’s sacred emblem—a tall erect flame—and sign their allegiance to FOXFIRE (as it is always capitalized in Maddy’s chronicles). All outsiders, all poor white teenagers from broken homes, they find in FOXFIRE the identity that they never had in their dysfunctional families. For example, Maddy’s father is dead, and her mother is emotionally or physically unavailable to her for much of the novel. Under the leadership of Legs Sadovsky, however, the girls find love and purpose, and that purpose is directed against men and sexual exploitation.

Their first act of vengeance is against Mr. Buttinger, the ninth-grade math teacher who humiliates Rita O’Hagan and touches her inappropriately whenever he gets the chance. They paint his car with his crime (“IM A DIRTY OLD MAN”) and their motto (“FOXFIRE REVENGE!”). Buttinger never returns to school after his humiliation, and FOXFIRE has learned the power that it holds, power that will be used throughout the novel to defend women against exploitative men. They have also had their first taste of the power of language.

Maddy finds out how powerful words are when she tries to retrieve an Underwood typewriter that her uncle, the owner of a men’s clothing store in Hammond, is discarding. Uncle Wimpy now wants money for it—worse, he intimates that the fourteen-year-old Maddy can have it free for certain sexual favors. The gang sends Maddy back as a decoy and beats up Wimpy Wirtz when he exposes himself. Maddy already recognizes the “certain talismanic power . . . in knowing how to write,” and the old Underwood will give it to her. More important, she has learned the power that women have in union and that FOXFIRE can give to each of its members.

One day on the school grounds, Legs pulls a knife to defend a member of her gang and is expelled from school. She steals a car from a local gangster, crashes it into a bridge (in a foreshadowing of the final scene of the novel), and is sent to the Red Bank Correctional Facility for Girls for fourteen months. In prison, her purpose is solidified. The truth that she learns in Red Bank, she tells Maddy, is “that we do have enemies, yeah men are the enemy but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too sometimes.”

After her release from Red Bank, Legs finds a house outside Hammond where the gang can live together, as well as a car (“Lightning Bolt”), and FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD begins. Yet the gang’s purpose stays the same: When Legs finds a dwarf tied up outside another rural dwelling and being used for sexual purposes, she burns the house down. When it is hard to come up with the money for their new responsibilities, “FOXFIRE HOOKING” begins, in which girls from the gang are used as bait to trap predatory men.

Money is always needed, however, and Legs proposes “the final solution.” Invited to the Kellogg mansion after her release, Legs has the beautiful Violet lure the millionaire Whitney Kellogg, Jr., into his own kidnapping. The plan goes awry when Kellogg finds Christ and refuses to cooperate at all, and when his wife becomes so emotional that the gang is unable to relay their demands over the phone. By mistake, Mr. Kellogg is shot, the kidnapping unravels, the gang scatters, and Legs and the girl who shot Kellogg are chased by the state police and—in an accident resembling the earlier one—slide off the road into a river and disappear.

Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

Foxfire is a 1990’s novel looking backward, for its subject and its perspective clearly reveal a contemporary feminist understanding of the exploitation and sexual violence inflicted upon women. In a sense, Foxfire most resembles a novel such as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), which takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century, but which has at its center a violent black gang and thus projects a 1970’s racial consciousness onto the early 1900’s. Likewise, Foxfire is a novel of the 1950’s written with a 1990’s feminist consciousness: The crimes are those of the 1950’s, but the perspective is that of several decades later, when questions of race, class, gender—even animal rights—would move center stage.

Foxfire contains many recognizable Oates trademarks. In work after work, she has probed the situation of naïve young women seduced by some powerful male figure. In her classic 1970 story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” for example, it is the demonic Arnold Friend who lures the young Connie to her death. In the story “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” from about the same time, it is the drug addict Simon who seduces the high school-aged narrator. In the novel Black Water (1992), the powerful unnamed “Senator” drives the naïve Kelly Kelleher to her death (in a car accident which anticipates the two in Foxfire). Oates has often depicted this power struggle from the perspective of the victim, and her psychological realism has usually been overwhelming.

In Foxfire, the perspective is the same—from the members of some white underclass who are looking up at their personal and institutional exploitation. What is different is that the women in the novel have gained power against men and have gained the knowledge that language can give them to exercise it. The women in Foxfire are “taking back the night” with the power of language and community. Oates, however, is adding a warning to women of the ultimately self-destructive nature of the violence, no matter for what cause it is being used.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Bender sees Oates “as a writer who is always in some sense a critic” and considers “her intentions and achievements as part of a larger statement about contemporary American life and letters.”

Bloom, Harold, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This collection of essays “brings together a representative selection of the most useful criticism so far devoted to the work of Joyce Carol Oates.”

Booklist. LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p.1275. A review of Foxfire.

Boston Globe. August 1, 1993, p.35. A review of Foxfire.

Chicago Tribune. August 8, 1993, XIV, p.3. A review of Foxfire.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. A discussion of fifteen of Oates’s novels written between 1977 and 1990; in American Appetites (1989) and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), for example, “the American dream is fractured by an unintentional killing; in both, violence is an upwelling of tension, breaking through the civil games of society and the conscious control of character; in both, appetites remain unfulfilled.”

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. A survey of Oates’s most important work and her “compassionate, clear-sighted exploration of American life and culture in the last half of this century.”

Library Journal. CXVIII, April 15, 1993, p.127. A review of Foxfire.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1993, p.3. A review of Foxfire.

New Statesman and Society. VI, August 6, 1993, p.38. A review of Foxfire.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, August 15, 1993, p.6. A review of Foxfire.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Converstions with Joyce Carol Oates. Edited by Lee Milazzo. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. This collection of fifteen interviews with the writer over twenty years raises a number of important questions and answers about her fictional themes and issues.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 31, 1993, p.40. A review of Foxfire.

Robinson, Sally. “Heat and Cold: Recent Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.” Michigan Quarterly Review 31, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 400-414. This analysis recognizes how Oates has always “specialized in a narrative technique that intrudes upon the private pains and pleasures—but mostly pains of Others. Her narratives often explore the dynamic of a voyeurism in which subject and object confront one another across a gulf of social difference.”

The Times Literary Supplement. August 13, 1993, p.19. A review of Foxfire.

The Washington Post. July 30, 1993, p. G2. A review of Foxfire.

Wesley, Marilyn C. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Family, power, and resistance are the key terms “to understanding the urgency and effectiveness of Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction.” In part, her “young protagonists enact a trenchant critique of the American family and of the society which has formed it.”

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