Joyce Carol Oates Short Fiction Analysis
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 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...
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