Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Joyce Carol Oates 1938–-

(Has written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith) American novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, dramatist, essayist, author of children's books, critic, and editor.

The following entry provides criticism on Oates's short fiction from 1989 through 2000.

One of the most prolific and versatile contemporary American writers, Oates has published myriad novels, short stories, poems, and plays, as well as books and articles of criticism and nonfiction. In these works, Oates focuses on what she views as the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual decline of modern American society. Employing a dense, elliptical prose style, she depicts such cruel and macabre actions as rape, incest, murder, child abuse, and suicide to delineate the forces of evil with which individuals must contend. The tales in Oates's short story collections are frequently unified through central themes and characters, and while she has written extensively in several genres, most critics contend that her short fiction best evokes the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes.

Biographical Information

Born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County—later represented in much of her fiction as Eden County. A bookish, serious child, she first submitted a novel to a publisher at the age of fifteen. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; the following year she earned a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor. From 1962 to 1968 the couple lived in Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit and published her first novels, short story collections, and poetry. She also witnessed the 1967 race riots, which inspired her National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). Shortly thereafter, Oates accepted a teaching position at the University of Windsor, Ontario, staying until 1978, when she was named a writer-in-residence at Princeton University; she joined the faculty there as a professor in 1987. Despite the responsibilities of an academic career, Oates has actively pursued writing, publishing an average of two books a year in various genres since the publication of her first book, the short story collection By the North Gate (1963). Her early novels consistently earned nominations for the National Book Award, while her short fiction won several individual O. Henry Awards and the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement in both 1971 and 1986. A poet of some merit and a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies, Oates is a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of a variety of topics. In 1987 she published the widely admired nonfiction study On Boxing, which led to at least one television appearance as a commentator for the sport. During the 1990s Oates gained additional recognition as a dramatist for producing many plays off-Broadway and at regional theaters, including The Perfectionist (1993), which was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play in 1994.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Oates's first two short story collections, By the North Gate and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966), established her reputation as an innovative and commanding voice in contemporary literature. Both collections explore the decay of modern morality through a series of stories depicting a nonchalant brutality that, according to Oates, thrives and is often fostered in American society. Her next collection, The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970) is frequently described as Oates's finest volume of short stories. In these pieces, Oates explores the complex and sometimes mystifying emotions of love and the crippling effects that result from a failure to fulfill the potential of human relationships. The female protagonist in the title story, for example, commits suicide when she feels overwhelmingly confined by her husband's love. Oates also examines human sexuality in the critically acclaimed allegorical story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie, the naïve teenage protagonist, is eager to experiment with sex. Yet, when a young man, who Oates symbolically portrays as the devil, presents himself, Connie slowly realizes the terrifying possibilities of their liaison. In the end, she loses control of their relationship, and the tale concludes with a strong implication of rape. The Goddess and Other Women (1974) is another of Oates's collections that is unified by themes of sexual tension—specifically, sexual oppression of women.

Thematic unity among collected stories is especially evident in Oates's volumes Crossing the Border (1976) and All the Good People I've Left Behind (1978). Seven of the fifteen tales in Crossing the Border concern an American couple, Renée and Evan Maynard, who move to Canada. These stories are linked by the central motif of borders, suggested by the actual boundary line between the United States and Canada, as well as the psychological barriers that characters in these tales build to isolate themselves from close personal relationships. In All the Good People I've Left Behind, Oates constructs tales around her characters' egocentric quests for love. In her more recent collections of short fiction, critics have noted a growing shift from an emphasis on interpersonal relationships to a tendency to contextualize these relationships within political and social conditions. In Last Days (1984), several of the stories focus on the figure of the failed father and the repercussions of abuse and neglect on the family unit—especially the female children. Other stories in the volume, such as “Our Wall,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner,” explore the symbolism of the Berlin Wall before the fall of Communism. In Heat (1992), the stories touch on the external and internal threats to the security of middle-class existence. In “Shopping,” a mother and daughter shop at a suburban mall, but are followed around by a bag lady. Their different reactions to her plight expose a growing rift between them and disrupt their well-ordered existence. The Collector of Hearts (1999) and Faithless (2001) are collections of Oates's horror tales. The stories comprising Small Avalanches and Other Stories (2003), a collection for young women, the pieces focus on vulnerable, rebellious girls who fall victim to older, predatory males.

Critical Reception

Critics generally have been impressed with Oates's versatility and productivity; her profuse output has drawn comparisons to the work of such nineteenth-century writers as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Though some critics have condemned Oates for eschewing the contemporary literary trend of “less is more,” many commentators applaud her copious efforts, suggesting that her work may ultimately constitute an entire world of fiction. Commentators note that Oates occupies a controversial position in the feminist literary tradition. Her female characters are not considered feminist in nature: they are often dependent and passive and withdraw from sexual and emotional connections instead of articulating their needs and frustrations. Moreover, the objectification and abuse of women—sexually, physically, and emotionally—has been a recurring theme in Oates's work. Feminist critics view these female characters as masochistic and note the lack of strong, independent female role models in her fiction. Despite the general disregard of Oates as a feminist writer, a number of commentators have defended the feminist sensibility underlying much of her novels and short stories. They trace her changing portrayals of gender power in her later work, contending that her more recent fiction focuses on the power of female bonds and self-discovery. Most critics maintain that Oates vividly represents the underlying tensions of modern American society in her explosive tales and, at the same time, stretches the boundaries of the conventional short story.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

By the North Gate 1963

Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories 1966

The Wheel of Love and Other Stories 1970

Marriages and Infidelities 1972

The Goddess and Other Women 1974

The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies 1974

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America 1974

The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese 1975

The Seduction and Other Stories 1975

Crossing the Border: Fifteen Tales 1976

Night Side: Eighteen Tales 1976

Triumph of the Spider Monkey: The First Person Confession of the Maniac Bobb Gotteson as Told to Joyce Carol Oates (novella) 1976

All the Good People I've Left Behind 1978

The Lamb of Abyssalia 1980

A Sentimental Education: Stories 1981

Last Days: Stories 1984

Raven's Wing: Stories 1986

I Lock the Door upon Myself (novella) 1990

The Rise of Life on Earth (novella) 1991

Black Water (novella) 1992

Heat: And Other Stories 1992

Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque 1994


(The entire section is 466 words.)

Hubert Zapf (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Zapf, Hubert. “Aesthetic Experience and Ideological Critique in Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Master Race’.” The International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (1989): 48-55.

[In the following essay, Zapf delineates the three main aspects of the aesthetic composition of Oates's “Master Race.”]

Cecilia Heath, the protagonist and narrative voice of Joyce Carol Oates's short story “Master Race,”1 is a 34-year-old art critic who accompanies the renowned Professor of European History Philip Schoen on a three-week trip to Europe. Philip, an American of German origin, who is married and 53, is sent there by the “Peekskill Foundation for Independent...

(The entire section is 3759 words.)

Frank R. Cunningham (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cunningham, Frank R. “The Enclosure of Identity in the Earlier Stories.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 9-28. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

[In the following essay, Cunningham examines the themes of self-enclosure and identity in Oates's first five volumes of short stories.]

“Halfway through the decade, something went terribly wrong. The most useful image I have today is of a man in a quagmire, looking into a tear in the sky.”

—John Cheever1

Joyce Carol Oates was in her late teenage...

(The entire section is 8805 words.)

Stanley Trachtenberg (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Trachtenberg, Stanley. “Desire, Hypocrisy, and Ambition in Academe: Joyce Carol Oates's Hungry Ghosts.” In The American Writer and the University, edited by Ben Siegel, pp. 39-53. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg provides a thematic analysis of the seven stories in The Hungry Ghosts.]

“The difficulty with stories, even true ones,” one of Joyce Carol Oates's characters complains, “is that they begin nowhere and end nowhere.”1 In place of recognizable structure, Oates has relied on just such narrative aimlessness to project the obsessive confusions troubling midcentury America; these...

(The entire section is 6971 words.)

Dieter Saalmann (essay date winter 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saalmann, Dieter. “Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Speak to Me in Berliner,’ or Deconstructing the Logocentric Closure in East-West Relations.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 1 (winter 1990): 21-34.

[In the following essay, Saalmann elucidates the function of the Berlin Wall and the status of East-West relations in “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall.”]

It was a time of platitudes. …

—Joyce Carol Oates, “Détente”

In Joyce Carol Oates' stories “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall,” the Berlin Wall functions as the objective symbol of the tragically divided human...

(The entire section is 6587 words.)

Catherine Chauche (essay date spring 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Chauche, Catherine. “Joyce Carol Oates in Berlin: The Birth of a Myth.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 14 (spring 1990): 9-23.

[In the following essay, Chauche asserts that “Our Wall,” “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and “Lamb of Abyssalia” “go through the stages of the imperceptible passage from history to mythology.”]

“Parts of the Wall are taken down …”

Herald Tribune, November 11, 1989.

« Si les manifestants avaient voulu forcer la Porte de Brandebourg, symbole entre tous de l'enfermement, il n'aurait été du pouvoir d'aucune...

(The entire section is 5834 words.)

Višnja Sepcic (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Sepcic, Višnja. “Joyce Carol Oates's Remaking of Classic Stories.” Studia Romanica et Anglica 35 (1990): 29-37.

[In the following essay, Sepcic considers three of Oates's short stories as imaginative reworkings of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, James Joyce's “The Dead,” and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.]

Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938) is a writer of prodigious creative energy. In her massive literary output she has written novels, short stories, poetry, plays and literary criticism, attaining a rare degree of excellence in all these genres. But the short story has remained in the focus of her creative interest all throughout her brilliant...

(The entire section is 4407 words.)

Hanspeter Dörfel (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dörfel, Hanspeter. “Images of Germany and the Germans in Some of Joyce Carol Oates' Short Stories.” In Germany and German Thought in American Literature: Proceedings of the German-American Conference in Paderborn, May 16-19, 1990, edited by Peter Freese, pp. 267-84. Essen, Germany: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1990.

[In the following essay, Dörfel discusses aspects of Oates's short stories set in or alluding to Germany.]


Germany and the Germans do not play an important role in Joyce Carol Oates' total short story output. In a 1982 interview she claimed to have written more than 300 short stories.1 Yet among this...

(The entire section is 6548 words.)

Pamela Smiley (essay date February 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Smiley, Pamela. “Incest, Roman Catholicism, and Joyce Carol Oates.” College Literature 18, no. 1 (February 1991): 38-49.

[In the following essay, Smiley argues that Oates's frequent depiction of exploited and abused female characters can be better understood as effects of specific cultural conditions, particularly a background of Roman Catholicism and father-daughter incest.]

Common in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates is what I call her “feminine” character: the young woman who wanders into new territory (gets on a bus, walks down a street, gets off a bus, takes a graduate class) where she meets a man who victimizes her (he beats, rapes, exploits,...

(The entire section is 5778 words.)

Sharon L. Dean (essay date spring 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dean, Sharon L. “Literature and Composition Theory: Joyce Carol Oates' Journal Stories.” Rhetoric Review 10, no. 2 (spring 1992): 311-20.

[In the following essay, Dean examines several of Oates's stories written in the epistolary or journal form, asserting that these pieces provide insight into her interest in the relationship between literature and composition.]

Joyce Carol Oates began her career as a teacher and a writer in the 1960s, a decade of tremendous ferment in theories of composition and the relationship between writing and thinking. Much of the groundwork for the published research of the 1970s was begun in the 1960s: Peter Elbow focused...

(The entire section is 4878 words.)

Greg Johnson (essay date winter 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Greg. “A Barbarous Eden: Joyce Carol Oates's First Collection.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Johnson contends that Oates's first collection of short fiction, By the North Gate, “not only investigates virtually all the important themes that characterize her dozens of subsequent books, but also contains several stories that remain among her finest.”]

The sheer abundance of Joyce Carol Oates's fiction has tended to forestall careful critical analysis of individual works, especially of her books published before her 1969 novel, them, which won the National Book Award in 1970 and...

(The entire section is 6334 words.)

Nancy Bishop Dessommes (essay date summer 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dessommes, Nancy Bishop. “O'Connor's Mrs. May and Oates's Connie: An Unlikely Pair of Religious Initiates.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 3 (summer 1994): 433-40.

[In the following essay, Dessommes finds parallels between the character of Connie from “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Mrs. May, the protagonist from Flannery O'Connor's “Greenleaf.”]

When Joyce Carol Oates was asked in a 1969 interview whether she was like Flannery O'Connor, she responded,

I don't know. I used to think that I was influenced by O'Connor. I don't know that I am really. She is so religious, and her works have to be...

(The entire section is 3881 words.)

Ildikó de Papp Carrington (essay date fall 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. “The Portugal of Joyce Carol Oates.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 4 (fall 1994): 675-82.

[In the following essay, Carrington explores the metaphor of translation as well as other aspects of the stories in The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese.]

Remembering Adrienne Rich's “Notes toward a Politics of Location,” Elspeth Probyn cautions against dangerous maneuvers for women writers and critics: “In creating our own centers and our own locals, we tend to forget that our centers displace others into the peripheries of our making” (176). When we open Joyce Carol Oates's volume of short fiction, The...

(The entire section is 3629 words.)

Robert McPhillips (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McPhillips, Robert. “The Novellas of Joyce Carol Oates.” In Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Greg Johnson, pp. 194-201. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, McPhillips surveys the central thematic concerns of Oates's early novellas.]

The most successful of Oates's early novellas is the first. Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976) focuses on the life of a man, the “maniac” Bobbie Gotteson, born not to privilege but to squalor. Indeed, in the gruesomely ironic first chapter, the infant Bobbie, in a parody of Christ's birth, is found in a locker, “held up to the lights and declared Still alive...

(The entire section is 3384 words.)

Brenda Daly (essay date winter 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Daly, Brenda. “Sexual Politics in Two Collections of Joyce Carol Oates's Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 1 (winter 1995): 83-93.

[In the following essay, Daly maintains that through an examination of the short story collections The Wheel of Love and Last Days we can see that Oates “has been a feminist writer whose fiction has been attentive to the potential of narrative to transform gender roles.”]

There is little question that Joyce Carol Oates is one of America's greatest writers of short fiction, but as Greg Johnson comments in “A Barbarous Eden,” the nature of her contribution to the genre has yet to be fully...

(The entire section is 4969 words.)

Margaret Rozga (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rozga, Margaret. “Joyce Carol Oates: Reimagining the Masters, or, a Woman's Place Is in Her Own Fiction.” In American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 281-94. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.

[In the following essay, Rozga offers a feminist interpretation of Oates's reworkings of Anton Chekhov's “The Lady with the Dog” and James Joyce's “The Dead.”]

Novelist, poet, playwright, and critic, as well as short story writer, Joyce Carol Oates achieved mastery of the short story at an early age. Born in Millersport, New York, on June 16, 1938, educated at Syracuse University (B.A., 1960) and...

(The entire section is 5189 words.)

Dieter Saalmann (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Saalmann, Dieter. “A Deconstructive Approach to the Berlin Wall: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Berlin Stories’.” In The Berlin Wall: Representations and Perspectives, edited by Ernst Schürer, Manfred Keune, and Philip Jenkins, pp. 170-80. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Saalmann explores the symbolism of the Berlin Wall in Oates's “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall.”]

Joyce Carol Oates's prose pieces, “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall”1, delve into the perilous ramifications of ideological antinomies, as exemplified by the Berlin Wall. “Ich bin ein Berliner” explores the bifurcation of the German...

(The entire section is 4871 words.)

Vladimir Zviniatskovsky (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Zviniatskovsky, Vladimir. “Two Ladies with Two Dogs and Two Gentlemen (Joyce Carol Oates and Chekhov).” In Chekhov Then and Now: The Reception of Chekhov in World Culture, edited by J. Douglas Clayton, pp. 125-36. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

[In the following essay, Zviniatskovsky contrasts Oates's “The Lady with the Dog” with the original version by Anton Chekhov.]

Love. Either this is the remnant of something which is dying out, which was vastly important at one time, or it is a part of something which will develop in the future into something vastly important; at present though it does not satisfy and gives much less than you...

(The entire section is 5190 words.)

Diane Long Hoeveler (essay date fall 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Postgothic Fiction: Joyce Carol Oates Turns the Screw on Henry James.” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 4 (fall 1998): 355-71.

[In the following essay, Hoeveler considers the relationship between “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” and Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw.”]


Readers of James's classic gothic conundrum, “The Turn of the Screw,” have been asking themselves essentially the same questions since the tale appeared in 1898. That is, the central puzzle has been to understand the psyche of the governess, and, if she is...

(The entire section is 8235 words.)

Marilyn C. Wesley (essay date winter 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wesley, Marilyn C. “The Transgressive Heroine: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Stalking’.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no 1 (winter 1999): 15-20.

[In the following essay, Wesley examines Oates's transgressive heroine in the short story “Stalking” and the ways in which the figure defies restrictive gender ideology.]

Although Joyce Carol Oates has frequently been labeled a non-feminist and criticized for the passivity of her female characters,1 her works actively challenge restrictive gender ideology. A case in point is the Oatesian figure I will define as the transgressive heroine, whose murderous early debut is the short story “Swamps,” the...

(The entire section is 2556 words.)

Stephen Slimp (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Slimp, Stephen. “Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” The Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 179-81.

[In the following essay, Slimp contends that what the character of Connie experiences physically in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” “leads her to an increasing awareness of the horrors of human existence and a resulting growth of her spiritual nature.”]

One of the most arresting features of Joyce Carol Oates's short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is the way in which the story's powerful theme about the spiritual condition of late-twentieth-century American culture is conveyed with an almost...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)

Stan Kozikowski (essay date autumn 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kozikowski, Stan. “The Wishes and Dreams Our Hearts Make in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 33 (autumn 1999): 89-103.

[In the following essay, Kozikowski investigates Oates's use of the Cinderella motif in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”]

Joyce Carol Oates's story remains prominent among those short fictions most anthologized in American college texts—an achievement no doubt attributable to its enduring, wide-ranging appeal.1 Aside from having been made into Tom Cole's screenplay and Joyce Chopra's much-admired film Smooth Talk, the twice-award winning...

(The entire section is 6260 words.)

Monica Loeb (essay date autumn 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Loeb, Monica. “La spirale: Joyce Carol Oates's French Connection.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 35 (autumn 2000): 85-98.

[In the following essay, Loeb compares Oates's “The Spiral” to Gustave Flaubert's outline for an unpublished novel, La]

“Pour vivre, je ne dis pas heureux …, mais tranquille, il faut se créer dehors de l'éxistence visible … une autre existence interne et inaccessible.”

Gustave Flaubert

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded off with a sleep.”


(The entire section is 5203 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Johnson, Greg. Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994, 235 p.

Critical study of Oates's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Oates's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 15, 52; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography,...

(The entire section is 220 words.)