Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738
A Garden of Earthly Delights is a novel that portrays the American economic system and the ills suffered both by those who fail and by those who succeed in it. Oates tells the story of Clara, from the day of her birth among migrant laborers to her waning years watching television in a nursing home, and the men—father, lovers, son—who define her life experience.
The title is taken from a dramatic triptych by the fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. The three panels of the original Garden of Earthly Delights illustrate Eve’s creation in paradise, the debauchery of her descendants, and humankind’s punishment in hell. Oates’s novel mirrors this structure in its three sections. The first, titled “Carleton,” focuses on a bitter migrant laborer named Carleton Walpole as he takes his growing family from state to state, struggling to control his rage and maintain his lost sense of dignity. Clara, the third and favorite of his five children, learns to look beyond the distress and misery of their migrant existence and eventually runs off with a virtual stranger to find a better life.
The second section, “Lowry,” follows Clara through adolescence. The stranger, an enigmatic drifter named Lowry, sets her up in a small southern town, but he is involved in shady activities and soon disappears, spurning her obsessive love and unknowingly leaving her pregnant. Clara, a survivor, has attracted the attentions of a wealthy landowner, Curt Revere; she becomes his mistress, leads him to believe he is the father of her child, accepts his boundless generosity, and, with the death of his ailing wife, becomes the second Mrs. Revere.
Now established in comfort and wealth, having achieved a perfect vision of the American Dream, Clara consolidates her power. The third section of the novel, “Swan,” focuses on Clara’s son Steven (whom she calls Swan) and the pressures he feels growing up an outsider among someone else’s wealth, destined to inherit it but unable to make sense of his destiny or to fulfill his mother’s exaggerated expectations for him.
Within this structure, the narrative moves chronologically but with a greatly modulated pace. Oates relates individual scenes or periods in the lives of her characters with slow and careful accuracy and feeling, and then shifts the action months or years ahead, establishing the passage of time casually with age or year references. Such shifts highlight the suddenness of the events and changes that have occurred. This irregular flow serves to emphasize, as if microscopically, certain telling moments or encounters. Carleton’s rage explodes during an arm-wrestling match, and he kills his best friend, an event that Clara recalls throughout her life. A jaunt into a nearby town where Clara impulsively steals a flag, her first night with Lowry, and her decision to run away are vividly portrayed and establish the fearlessness and pride that will bring tragedy in later life. A pivotal encounter comes at the end of the second section when, after years of silence, Lowry shows up at Clara’s house to reclaim her: She does not love Revere, and she feels a flood of emotion at the sight of Lowry, but her resolution to accumulate power at any cost is too firm, and she sends her former lover—and her only hope for true happiness—away forever.
Swan, however, only three years old at the time, is affected by Lowry—by some deep instinct of his own paternity—and the knowledge of that ominous visitor stays with him. Swan is not at home with Revere and his rightful sons, for Swan’s true identity has been sacrificed to Clara’s lust for power. Though she acts with his future supremacy in mind, she cannot understand his psychic needs, and, in the novel’s ultimate violent act, he refuses the power she has achieved for him and renders the struggles of her life meaningless.
Clara’s is a very American story, for her ascent and accomplishments reach a point of diminishing returns, but she refuses to relent. Set against a subtly drawn backdrop of national events from the 1920’s through the 1960’s—the Depression, the renewal of industrial prosperity, the transformation of race relations and erosion of class structures in the South—Clara’s story takes on wider repercussions as an American fable, with implicit commentary on the misguided motives and empty values of American political and materialistic ethics.
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