Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The main focus of “Heat” is the reality of violence in the world. As she does in many of her stories, Joyce Carol Oates examines the mysterious and more horrifying aspects of life. What happened to the little girls is revealed by inference and minimal description of the scene. Clearly, they were sexually assaulted and bloodied by Roger Whipple, a character who represents the negative components of humanity in general and American society in particular. He represents the strong, simplistic male force that is seen as stronger than innocence, laughter, or good. The violence in this story is overwhelming to the reader because it is not graphically described. Readers are allowed to imagine the terrible reality based on their experiences.

Another theme that runs through this story is the eternal question of fate or God in the lives of human beings. Oates says that death waits for everyone. Sometimes people see it coming, sometimes they do not. The child narrator questions whether the children were punished for stealing from their own grandmother, even as she ponders the reality of death. The murders are exciting—even fun—for innocent eyes to read about in some ways. However, the finality of death is a hard lesson learned: The narrator sadly notes that the twin’s friends missed them.

The adult narrator still carries that sorrow in her heart, along with a sense of guilt at having survived the twins. She is drawn back to the scene of the murders as she experiences her own sexual adventure in the form of an affair. While she has sex with her nameless partner, the murdered girls are constantly in her thoughts. She cannot escape her past. The power of the interconnections between fate and personal choice permeates every word of this story. The reader is constantly drawn into not only the events of this story but also into the thoughts of the characters. As the reader learns more and more about the twins, the Kunkels, the narrator, and the Whipples, questions about individual mortality and morality come into play. Oates forces her reader to examine personal beliefs, based on individual experiences, circumstances, and how one perceives the order of the universe, within the context of daily living in a small town.