Joyce Carol Oates is a very American writer. Early in her career, she drew comparisons with such predecessors as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. The chiefly rural and small-town milieu of her earlier work expanded over the years, as did her vision of passion and violence in the United States in the twentieth century.
It is difficult to separate Oates’s short fiction from her novels, for she consistently produced volumes in both genres throughout her career. Unlike many writers who produce both long and short fiction, Oates never subordinated her stories to her novels: They represent in sum a no less considerable achievement, and Oates is by no means a novelist who sometimes writes stories, nor for that matter a storyteller who sometimes writes novels. Both forms figure centrally in her overall work. In many cases, her stories are crystallized versions of the types of characters and dramatic moments found in larger works; over the years, the themes and stylistic approaches in the two genres maintained a parallel progression.
Oates concerns herself with the formulation of the American Dream and how it has changed and even soured through the decades of American prosperity and preeminence. Her characters are often prototypes of the nation, and their growth from naïveté to wisdom and pain reflect aspects of the national destiny that she sees in the evolving society around her. In her short stories, the naïveté is often the innocence of youth; many stories focus on adolescent girls becoming aware of the potential of their own sexuality and the dangers of the adult world. Like the United States, however, such characters retain an unbounded youthful enthusiasm, an arrogant challenge to the future and the outside world.
An individual’s relationship to the world around him or her is key to many of Oates’s stories. Her fascination with images of the American Dream and the power of belief and self-creation implied therein translates to an awareness of her characters’ self-perceptions, and, equally, their self-deceptions. Many of her characters have a built-in isolation: That is not to say that they are not involved with other people, but that their perceptions are necessarily limited, and that they are aware, though not always specifically, of those limits. Oates often establishes their subjectivity with remarkable clarity, allowing the reader to bring wider knowledge and perspective to the story to fill it out and complete the emotional impact. Isolation, detachment, and even alienation create the obstacles that her characters struggle to overcome, and while Oates has been criticized for the darkness of her writing, as often as not her characters find redemption, hope, and even happiness. Neither the joy, however, nor the tragedy is ever complete, for human experience as Oates sees it is always a complex and mixed phenomenon.
Such complexity naturally emerges from human relationships, especially from those between the sexes. As a female writer, Oates had to deal with the “sexual question” merely in the act of sitting down at the typewriter, and her writing reveals a keen sensitivity to the interactions of men and women. While some of her works toward the end of the 1980’s manifest a more explicitly feminist outlook, Oates has never been a feminist writer. Rather, her feminism—or humanism—is subsumed in her refusal to write the kind of stories and novels that women have traditionally written or to limit her male and female characters to typically male and female behaviors, attitudes, emotions, and actions. Oates does not make the sexes equivalent but celebrates the differences and examines feminine and masculine sexual and emotional life without preconceived assumptions. Thus, reading an Oates story...
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is peering into a vision of the world where almost anything is possible between men and women. While they are eminently recognizable as the men and women of the contemporary United States, at the same time they are wholly independent and capable of full response to their inner lives.
Those inner lives often contain ugly possibilities. One of the major complaints that Oates faced, especially early in her career, regards the violence—often random, graphic, even obsessive—that characterizes much of her work. In 1981, in an essay in The New York Times Book Review entitled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” Oates branded such criticism as blatantly sexist and asserted the female novelist’s right to depict nature as she knows it. She clearly sees the United States as a nation where violence is a fact of life. In her novels, such violence takes the form of assassinations, mass murders, rapes, suicides, arsons, autopsies, and automobile accidents. In her short stories, the same events are treated with greater economy and precision but with no less commitment to the vivid portrayal of truth. She shies away from neither the physical details of pain and atrocity nor the psychological realities that accompany them. Even when the violence of her stories is a psychological violence performed by one character upon another, with no effusion of blood and guts, the effects are no less visceral. Oates’s stories are deeply felt.
Violence, however, is never the ultimate point of an Oates story. Rather, the violence acts as either catalyst or climax to a dramatic progression: Through violent events, characters undergo inevitable transformations, and the suddenness of violence or the sharpness of pain, either felt or observed, jolts characters into a greater appreciation of life. Frequently, the violent event or action is very peripheral to the protagonist or prime action of the story. Rather, it is often anonymous, perpetrated by unseen hands for unknown reasons, presenting mysteries that will never be solved. Violence becomes an emphatic metaphor for the arbitrary hand of fate, destiny, chance, God—or whatever one wishes to call it. Oates generally portrays it without naming or quantifying it: For her, it is simply the way things are.
Beneath the passion, deep feeling, and violence of her stories, there is a meticulously intellectual mind that is evident, looking at the larger picture, in the wide array of approaches and devices that Oates employs over the range of hundreds of stories. She uses first-, second-, and third-person viewpoints, both male and female. Sometimes dialogue predominates; at other times, the prose is richly descriptive. Some of her stories turn on the use of imagery, tone, or rhythm, and plot is all but nonexistent; others are journalistically rich in event and sparse in stylistic embellishment. Some stories approach the length of novels, others are mere brush strokes, several pages or even a single paragraph to express the crux of a character or dramatic situation. Some stories adhere to the traditional unity and structure of the short story, recounting a single event from beginning to end; others meander, circle in upon themselves, travel backward in time, or derive unity not from the narrative but from character or mood. In brief, Oates uses stories to explore the various tools available to her as a writer. As novelist John Barth noted, “Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map.”
In addition, while each story has integrity as a complete work of fiction, Oates devoted great attention to the composition of her collections, and each is unified structurally or thematically and forms an artistic whole as well as an anthology of smaller parts. For example, the stories in Oates’s first collection, By the North Gate, are largely set in rural, small-town America and show individuals seeking to find order in their lives. The Wheel of Love consists of stories exploring varieties of love, and those in The Goddess and Other Women are all about women. The volume entitled Marriages and Infidelities contains reworkings of popular stories by such masters as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce; not only do the stories deal with married people and marital issues, but also the literary approach itself suggests a “marriage” between Oates’s tales and the originals on which they are modeled. The collection The Hungry Ghosts is unified by the stories’ academic settings (places not unlike Oates’s own University of Windsor and Princeton) and the vein of satire that runs throughout. The stories in The Poisoned Kiss were, according to a prefatory note by Oates, written by a certain Ferdinand de Briao and deal with the exotic, rustic, and more authentically European material that such a gentleman—Oates’s own imaginary creation—would naturally devise. Night-Side and The Seduction contain stories that involve darker, psychologically ambiguous, sometimes surrealistic situations, and the stories in Last Days focus on individuals in upheaval and crisis, on the verge of emotional or physical breakdown. Many of the pieces in Crossing the Border are linked together by characters—Renee, Evan, Karl, Jake, Cynthia—who appear throughout, and many of those in Raven’s Wing are set in small towns on the New Jersey coast.
“The Census Taker”
A small rural town in mythical Eden County, based loosely on the region of western New York where Oates grew up, is the setting of “The Census Taker,” one of the notable stories from By the North Gate. It is a simple story involving four relatively anonymous characters—a census taker, a boy, a girl, and a mother—and it is told in simple prose against a hazy, fairy-tale-like landscape. A census taker comes to a remote home to ask questions, but instead of finding the father who can give him the facts that he needs and send him on his way, he is faced with a pair of relentlessly inquisitive children who peel away the layers of his protective delusion in an effort to bring order to their young existence. Eventually, they wear away his confidence in the meaning of any answers, factual or existential, and he leaves without having taken the simplest measure of their household. At heart is the profound mystery of life which, if not confronted with courage, will drive one to seek refuge in madness, blindness, or obsession.
“In the Region of Ice”
One of Oates’s early triumphs in the short story, also dealing with obsession and madness, is a piece entitled “In the Region of Ice.” First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1965, and later in The Wheel of Love, it was an O. Henry Award-winner for 1967. The protagonist of “In the Region of Ice” is Sister Irene, a Shakespeare lecturer at a small Catholic university. For all practical purposes, she lives “in the region of ice”—a region void of feeling and passion. Perfectly comfortable in front of a class, she is otherwise timid and essentially incapable of developing meaningful human contact.
Into her insulated existence comes Allen Weinstein, a brilliant but emotionally disturbed Jewish student. Obsessed with the reality of ideas, he comes to dominate one of Irene’s classes, inspiring the hatred of his classmates but awakening intellectual and emotional life in the professor herself. The story, narrated through Irene’s viewpoint, charts the emotional journey that she travels in response to Allen’s erratic behavior. Their relationship, through her perception, becomes a dance of intellectual passion and spiritual magnetism.
Allen, however, stops coming to class and, after a prolonged absence, contacts Irene from a sanatorium with a plea that she intervene with his father. The Christian awakening and power that Irene feels as she approaches the Weinstein home disappear when she is faced with Allen’s hateful, exasperated, unsympathetic father. Later, released from the sanatorium, Allen comes to Irene for emotional and financial support, but she painfully and inarticulately denies him, incapable of establishing a meaningful connection. While Allen is clearly on the edge of sanity, Irene’s situation is more pathetic, for she is knowingly trapped within the trivial limits of her own selfhood. At the story’s end, even the inevitable news of Allen’s suicide provokes only a longing for feeling but no true emotional response.
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Another story that details the effects of a male intruder into the life of a female protagonist and the difficulty of connection between two very different people is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” one of Oates’s most anthologized early stories. This tale of confused adolescence, based on a true story of a serial killer in Tucson, Arizona, is about Connie, a fifteen-year-old who abhors her parents, haunts suburban malls, and passes the hot summer nights with her equally precocious girlfriends. Through it all, however, she privately harbors innocent dreams of ideal love. One day, while home alone, she is approached by a strange man ominously named Arnold Friend, who is determined to seduce her and take her away. Rather than use force, Friend insinuates his way into Connie’s mind and subdues her vulnerable and emerging sexuality. In the end, it is clear that he is leading her to some sort of death, spiritual or physical, and that his love is empty, but she is powerless against him.
Oates tells the story naturalistically but includes dreamy and surrealistic passages that suggest allegorical interpretation. The title implies both the uncertainty of adolescence and the changelessness of feminine behavior, or, possibly, the slow pace of social progress in improving women’s lives. Subtly crafted and typically Oatesian, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is in some ways a precursor to many later Oates stories. “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” is a first-person account of a wayward adolescent girl in search of love and self-definition; the much later “Testimony” portrays a teenage girl who is so devoted to her older boyfriend that she serves as his accomplice in the abduction, rape, and murder of her perceived “rival”; and “April” is a simple sketch of two young adolescents rebelling against maternal authority. These four, and many others, portray moments in time when youth teeters on the brink of adulthood, when innocence is subtly transformed into sophistication, and when desire and love become stronger than life itself.
The struggles with desire, rebellion, and identity are subtler but no less intense in a story entitled “The Scream.” It is a mood piece, in which little happens; the emotional impact is found in the images and the tension of stillness. The protagonist is a woman named Renée who, like many of the characters in the volume Crossing the Border, is an American living across the border in Canada. Floundering in a loving but lifeless marriage, she has been having an affair with a man for whom she feels passion but little trust.
The narrative of the story follows Renée as she wanders through an art museum, intentionally absent from an appointed rendezvous with her lover. An old man approaches her; she eavesdrops on talkative tourists; she peruses the art; she ruminates on her marriage, her affair, and her various uninteresting options. One photograph especially catches her attention: that of an Indian woman holding out a dead child, her face frozen in an anguished shriek. After gazing a long while at the photograph, losing herself in it, Renée swiftly leaves the museum and goes to meet her lover. The story ends as she stands outside their meeting place, no more determined to enter than when she started.
The power of the story lies in the photograph as an image. On one hand, the Indian woman’s scream touches Renée’s own internal anguish, which is magnified by the relative paltriness of her particular discontent. On the other hand, the static quality of the photographic image—the scream does not vanish when Renée looks away and back again—figures her own emotional paralysis. She can see and feel the inherent contradiction of her quandary—frozen in anguish—and through the experience at the museum can only barely begin to take action for self-liberation.
“In the Autumn of the Year”
An even more mature woman is at the center of “In the Autumn of the Year,” which received an O. Henry Award in 1979, a year after its first publication in The Bennington Review, and which is included in the collection A Sentimental Education. Eleanor Gerhardt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, an articulate spinster who has come to a small New England college to accept an award. Her host for the visit is Benjamin Holler, a man she knew when he was a boy in Boston when she was his father’s mistress. She was never married, and her passion for Edwin Holler and the dramatic dissolution of their relationship form a memory that she sustains, though she had not seen him in the decades before his death. Upon meeting Benjamin, her consciousness shifts back and forth from the uneventful present to the tumultuous and deeply felt past. Oates here uses balance to create powerful emotional dynamics. The juxtaposition of immediate experience and memory communicates the dislocation with which Eleanor perceives her existence in the “autumn” of her life.
The second half of the story comes suddenly and unexpectedly. In a seemingly casual conversation, Benjamin expresses accumulated anger and hatred at Eleanor and his father. Confronted with the sordidness of their affair and their responsibility for the emotional misery of his childhood, Eleanor’s sentimental vision of the past is shattered. Benjamin offers her the love letters and suicide threats that she sent to Edwin upon their separation, but she cannot face them and denies their authenticity. In the end, alone, she tosses the unopened letters in the fire, as if so doing will alleviate her guilt and folly. Benjamin’s brutal honesty, however, has provided a missing piece to the puzzle of her life. Without the delusions by which her past drained her present of meaning, she is forced to face the past honestly and, recognizing its mixed qualities, to let go of it. Through this encounter, she can begin to take responsibility for her continued existence and her continued potential to think, feel, do, and live. As so often in Oates’s stories, small encounters bring great transformations, and in pain there is redemption.
“Raven’s Wing,” a story in the volume of the same title, first appeared in Esquire and was included in The Best American Short Stories, 1985. It is a subtle story that portrays a rather ordinary marriage and lacks the violence and passion of much of Oates’s other work. Billy and Linda have been married for barely a year. Though Linda is five months pregnant, Billy treats her with indifference; Linda, in turn, baits, teases, and spites him. A horse-racing enthusiast, Billy becomes fascinated with a prize horse named Raven’s Wing after it is crippled during a race. He finds a way to visit Raven’s Wing in Pennsylvania, where it is recovering from major surgery, and, eye to eye with the animal, feels a connection, an implicit mixture of awe, sympathy, and trust. The story ends soon thereafter in two brief scenes: Billy gives Linda a pair of delicate earrings and finds excitement in watching her put them on, and, weeks later, as he talks on the phone, Linda comes to him warmly, holding out a few strands of coarse black hair—a souvenir from Raven’s Wing—and presses close against him.
In “Raven’s Wing,” rather than stating the characters’ true feelings, of which they themselves are only hazily aware, Oates suggests them through the details of external reality. This is a story about perception—about how things appear differently through the blurring lens of familiarity and routine. Billy’s fascination with the crippled horse betrays an unconscious awareness of his own crippled psyche, and the enormous, beautiful, and priceless creature’s inevitable consignment to a stud farm is an ironic reminder of Linda’s pregnancy and the very human power that a man and woman share to love, to support, and to create.
The collection The Assignation is stylistically noteworthy, as Oates departs from standard forms and offers a variety of stories, character sketches, mood pieces, and other experiments in short fiction. Many of the pieces are deceptively short; lacking in plot information and often anonymous regarding character, they portray an emotional situation, interaction, or moment through the economic uses of detail and action. The first piece, “One Flesh,” is no more than a paragraph suggesting the richly sensual relationship shared by an old couple. In “Pinch,” a woman’s fleeting emotions during a breast examination create a tense picture. In “Maximum Security,” a woman’s tour of a prison invokes a disturbing sense of isolation while invigorating her appreciation of nature and freedom. “Quarrel” and “Ace” are about how events of random violence affect, respectively, a homosexual couple’s communication and a young street tough’s sense of identity. In all these pieces, Oates provides the essentials of a fuller story and invites the reader’s imagination to go beyond and within the story. The characters are no less unique, the prose no less picturesque, and the situations no less compelling; the economy with which Oates evokes these tales is testament to the depth of her craft.
Will You Always Love Me?
Will You Always Love Me? is a collection of twenty-two narratives based upon childhood memories, suffering, and reason for hope. Oates cuts to the core of everyday life, revealing the truth about what people know but are not willing to admit. She portrays a profound commentary on the human condition by acting as a witness in describing the needs, cruelty, and violence displayed by humankind. Three of the stories, “You Petted Me, and I Followed You Home,” “The Goose-Girl,” and “Mark of Satan,” won O. Henry Awards.
A lost dog is a central figure in “You Petted Me, and I Followed You Home,” a story that first appeared in TriQuarterly. Dawn, who fears the erratic behavior and sudden violent acts of her husband Vic, pets a little lost dog, which subsequently follows her and Vic home. Oates skillfully unveils how Dawn’s feelings of fear for what lies ahead—of betrayal by loved ones and a terrible sense of lost feeling—parallel the feelings of the dog. By treating the dog with care and kindness, Dawn relays to Vic the need for similar consideration.
Oates examines some of the consequences that result from unbridled thoughts of passion in “The Goose-Girl,” which first appeared in Fiction. Lydia, a respected suburban mother, helps her son Barry humiliate their new neighbor, Phoebe Stone. Phoebe, who reminds Lydia of the goose-girl in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, propositions Barry at a neighborhood party. Struggling with deep feelings of guilt, Barry eventually reveals the incident to his mother and pleads with her to call Phoebe. After allowing Barry time to worry, Lydia finally makes the call and wittingly embarrasses Phoebe over the proposed sexual encounter with her son.
In “Mark of Satan,” which first appeared in Antaeus, Oates brings protagonist Flash to a renewed definition of self, even a renewal of spirit. During a visit from Thelma, a female missionary, Flash attempts to seduce her by drugging her lemonade. Thelma instinctively avoids the ploy and tells Flash that Satan is present in his home. Ironically, after Thelma leaves, she returns and prays for Flash. Finally, he realizes that someone cares about him, even though he does not deserve it.
Included in The Best American Stories, 1996, “Ghost Girls” emerged from Oates’s childhood image of a small country airport isolated between cornfields. Ingrid Boone, the child narrator, is intrigued by the mysterious lives led by her parents. Because she cannot fully comprehend or do anything about the strange adult world that surrounds her, Ingrid’s life, influenced by the example of her attractive mother and her frequently absent father, eventually spirals down into a tale of grotesque horrors. “Ghost Girls” is the seed of Oates’s Man Crazy (1997), a novel of many stark images.
Perhaps the most concise articulation of the Oatesian aesthetic can be found in a story entitled “Love. Friendship.,” from The Assignation. In recollecting a friendship with a sensitive man who became obsessed with her marriage, the narrator Judith reflects:Our lives are narratives; they are experienced in the flesh, sometimes in flesh that comes alive only with pain, but they are recollected as poems, lyrics, condensed, illuminated by a few precise images.
Such descriptive narratives—long, short, lyrical, violent, experienced, recollected, full of precise images portraying real-life situations filled with deep heartfelt emotions—form the bulk of Oates’s short fiction.