Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
“Heat” tells the story of the murder of eleven-year-old identical twins, Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel, through the eyes of a childhood friend who is now an adult. Joyce Carol Oates weaves the story together like bursts of heat on a sultry day. The story begins with a reference to the “rippling” heat of the summer day as the girls ride their bicycles toward Whipple’s Ice.
In the next scene, the twins are in matching white caskets in a funeral parlor. Again, reference is made to the heat. In a narrative that boarders on stream of consciousness, Oates introduces the girls, the narrator, and Roger Whipple. The child narrator describes the girls as inseparable, full of life, and drawing energy and power from each other. She describes their lives and their death with the innocence of a child’s perceptions as she relates her experiences with the twins, who were lively and nice but would steal from their own grandmother.
The twins were active and freckle-faced with bright red hair; then they were dead. The narrator questions whether their death is related to their stealing. She philosophizes about fate and God and relates her image of what the murder must have been like, with an eleven-year-old’s perspective. She was not there, but she knows what happened in Roger Whipple’s upstairs room. Even as an adult, she continues to be haunted by the murder; the violence has become a part of her being. The narrator is a victim as well.
The twins are seen as one girl. They go everywhere together; they seem to function as a unit. They seem to know instinctively that one must have the other as a source of strength or both will die. Always known as “Rhea-and-Rhoda,” they seem to have one voice. Alone each appears voiceless and powerless. In the scene under the Kunkels’ veranda, when the twins force the narrator to strip, they do so too. They are energized by the power they have together. There was no touching, no harm done, just the realization that the three young girls have much in common.
The Kunkel twins stand out from other children. They share a special bond that only twins can fully understand. They do everything together. They plan to steal from their grandmother together, and they ride their bikes together. They visit the ice house together; they suck ice chunks and tease Roger together in the heat of the day. Rhea, the first born, always must be first, so when Roger invites the twins to visit his room to see the “secret things” that belong to his brother Eamon, it is she who goes up the stairs to his room first. Rhoda stays behind, but suddenly, having lost the power and the confidence she shares with Rhea, she experiences first fear, then anger at having been left out of whatever is happening in the bedroom.
Rhoda tries to leave, to go out on her own, but she cannot leave Rhea. Something, be it fate, God, or simple intuition, tells her she must go back for her sister. She turns her bicycle around in the driveway and seals her fate. She knows they must stay together, and so she returns to get her sister. The terrible events that happened in Roger’s room are not described in detail, but the reader knows that these girls die together. There can be no other outcome.
The bodies, hidden in the icehouse, are discovered by Roger’s father. The girls are buried together in perfect little white coffins, side by side. Roger is institutionalized, and blame is tossed around in the town. Some blame the girls; some blame the Whipples for not supervising Roger. All involved, directly or indirectly, are forever changed by the tragedy. The narrator carries the unseen scars of the incident with her into adulthood. She still sees the murder scene in her mind’s eye. It is a permanent part of her psyche, affecting all of her interactions. The Kunkel twins seem to retain some power over her, in that the fear that was generated by their murder has been ameliorated over time, but the scars of lost innocence will never leave her damaged soul.