Joyce Carol Oates

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Hubert Zapf (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3759

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 Research in the Arts, Sciences, and the Humanities” (568) to interview potential Fellows of the Foundation. The story concentrates on a few days that Cecilia and Philip spend in Mainz, West Germany. Its central event is the rape of Cecilia by a young black American soldier, with which the story begins, and which psychologically recurs in a nightmarish form in Cecilia's dream at the end, where she is again being overtaken by her unknown pursuer.

The text, which for the most part deals with “psychohistorical” issues,2 with intercultural communication, and with the specific problems of a modern intelligentsia, is thus framed with a scene of terror and violence, with an existential threat to the protagonist's personal identity. However, Cecilia does not communicate her experience to the others, not even to Philip, but keeps it to herself in what could be described as a compulsive-heroic attempt to maintain herself as an autonomous human subject, in spite of this violent attack of brutal, “empirical” reality on her humanist, almost “transcendental” self-concept.3 This has two main consequences for the aesthetic process of the story. On the one hand, the external experience of violence as the initial shock which sets off the narrative-reflective process of the text is transformed into an internal experience. The confrontation of this highly sensitive and culturally refined woman with the “banality of evil”4 is turned into a symbolic confrontation with her subconscious, with the inner contradictions and unresolved conflicts of her psyche which she has hitherto suppressed—and continues to suppress—in her conscious self-image. This creates an internal tension within the narrative perspective between Cecilia's conscious subjectivity and the forces of her repressed subconscious, between the attempt to “rationalize away” the humiliating event (“no one has witnessed her humiliation; and no one need know. Though, surely, humiliation is too extreme a word, too melodramatic?” [567]) and the traumatizing effects of that event on her psyche.

On the other hand, the internalization of the rape scene creates an even stronger tension between the narrative perspective and the external world, because the event which is most crucial to Cecilia—and to the reader—is (at first sight) radically separated from the intellectual-cultural theme and from Cecilia's complicated, uneasy relationship to Philip, which dominate the textual surface of the story. As a result, the narrative perspective assumes a solipsistic quality. It appears strangely cut off from the incidents and dialogues that, like a neutral, mechanical voice, it records. But at the same time, because of its implicit presence in the mind of the narrator—and of the reader—Cecilia's traumatic experience forms a relativizing background, a kind of “deep structure” of negativity which undercuts, as in a continuous alienating effect, the apparent self-sufficiency of the intellectual-cultural world which is presented on the “surface structure” of the text.

The aesthetic experience of the story results from the specific way in which these different and conflicting levels of significance are made to interact in the process of the narrative. There are three main aspects that can...

(This entire section contains 3759 words.)

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be distinguished in this overall aesthetic composition of “Master Race”: (1) the aesthetic consciousness of the narrator as an art critic, which significantly influences her perception of the world; (2) the model of an initiation story which the text utilizes and simultaneously ironizes as a representative literary-cultural form, and which mainly structures the psychological action of the text; (3) the organization of the narrated experiences in such a way that it implies a critique of the various ideologies, of the stereotypes and cliches that the story dramatizes as the cultural “material” of the contemporary world, thus establishing a sociopolitical frame of reference.

(1) Ut Pictura Poiesis. Influences of Art on the Story's Aesthetic: Cecilia Heath's main interest as an art critic is nineteenth-century American art, particularly George Fuller, on whom she has written a monograph, and John La Farge, on whom she is currently writing another book (583). While George Fuller is noted in art history for his “haunting, dreamlike figure paintings,” for his “dark, mysterious canvases out of which emerged strange, glowing figures,”5 John La Farge, on whom Cecilia has specifically set her academic ambition, contributed to American art the conviction that “the sensuous refinement of art was inseparably mingled with a sense of history and a moving spiritual satisfaction.”6

There are some elements in the style of “Master Race” which are unmistakably influenced by these aesthetic preconceptions of the narrator's mind. For instance, there is the haunting, “dreamlike” quality which subliminally colors her experiences, and which repeatedly breaks through to the text's surface. She remembers the rape scene “in slow motion” (566); her vision of herself is “hazy and unreliable” (567); her walk across a public square becomes a “nightmarish occasion” which recalls to her the distorted memory of a “dream of childhood and early girlhood” (579)—a characteristic example in the text of a dream turning out as a nightmare, of which the most striking instance is Cecilia's dream at the end of the story, which again invokes initially pleasant childhood memories gradually changing into a catastrophic feeling of impending (self-) destruction.

Also, there is the inclusion of the “historical” dimension in the story, and its combination with contemporary themes. This is particularly emphasized by the fact that Cecilia's companion is a specialist in European history, and that they actually visit—and thus integrate into the story's framework—the historical places of European culture as exemplified by the city of Mainz. Indeed, the mixture of medieval and modern elements, of historical and contemporary architectural styles in the town, to which Cecilia is strongly attracted, seems to correspond to an imaginary architecture in her mind, i.e., to the aesthetic principles of La Farge, who also attempted to combine history and modernity, past and present in his work. Moreover La Farge, like Marc Chagall in St. Stephen's Church at Mainz (Chagall is mentioned twice in the text, 573, 586), designed stained glass windows for American churches; and, again like Chagall—and, for that matter, like Oates in her story—he used biblical and archetypal motifs for expressing his spiritual concerns.7

Apart from Fuller and La Farge, and from the surrealist mysticism of Chagall, there are still other potential influences of art on the story's aesthetic conception which are mentioned in the text: the German expressionists Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, and Oskar Moll,8 whose paintings Cecilia sees at the Mainz Museum. These painters, whom Cecilia “admired enormously” (577), belonged to the group of avant-garde artists who fell under the verdict of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) during the Nazi era, i.e., they represent a strain of art which resisted the political and the concomitant aesthetic ideology of the “master race.” The works of these artists uncovered the depths of the subconscious, depicted the grotesque horrors of war and the dehumanizing effects of mass societies, exposed the abysmal difference between people's social masks and their real characters, and yet at the same time they kept up an almost religious belief in the liberating potential of the “soul,” and in the possible salvation of humanity.9

Again, there are some elements in the text which are reminiscent of expressionist themes and techniques—e.g., the shrill, shocking opening with the rape scene; the arrangement of the story in heterogeneous parts, which are not finally reconciled into a harmonious unity; the constant interpenetration of conscious and subconscious levels, of external and internal world; the kaleidoscopic scenario of modern alienation, of historical nightmares having turned into a dubious “normality”; the dramatization of personal identities as social masks—which is illustrated, for example, in Cecilia's use of makeup for the evening dinner to cover up the injuries to her face she suffered at the hands of the rapist, a “mask” which seems to make her in a new, perverse way attractive to the Academic dinner guests: “Perhaps they sense her new, raw vulnerability—perhaps there is something appealing about her porcelain face, her moist red lips” (583).

Various dimensions of art, psychology, and history seem to converge in the final dream vision, which is not only a symbolic expression of Cecilia's subconscious, but also a kind of total “aesthetic” self-experience: angel-like, she seems to float like a Chagall figure, “her physical weight dissolved,” and she imaginatively experiences, from the perspective of a child, archetypal scenes from the past and “biblical motifs” like the Great Flood (589); she encounters the elemental, chaotic-creative forces of wind and water (which are so strikingly dominant in Nolde's paintings); and from the flooded world, she sees how “a sunken city is rising slowly to the surface, a city of spires, towers, old battlements, partly in ruins, blackened by fire … and now a cathedral of massive dimensions, its highest tower partly crumbled, its edifice stark and grim … “(590)—an image which not only recalls Edgar Allan Poe's dark visionary poem “The City in the Sea,” but Cecilia's impressions of what has remained of the medieval architecture and churches of Mainz, and thus simultaneously evokes the destructions of the War which form an invisible, but omnipresent background for the actions in the story.

(2) “Master Race” as a Self-Negating Initiation Story: A second aspect of the aesthetic composition of “Master Race” is the underlying pattern of an “initiation story,” which gives it a specifically “American” coloring.10 According to conventional definitions, the story of initiation, with its classical manifestations in Hawthorne, Anderson, or Hemingway, involves the confrontation of a young hero(ine) with the world of adults, of innocence with experience, of naivete with evil, of ignorance with knowledge, i.e., it involves an encounter with hitherto unknown dimensions of reality and of one's own self. It frequently has ritual or mythological overtones and it is usually connected with a symbolic journey between two different worlds which is initiated by a fatherly “mentor,” who is counterbalanced by the figure of an evil “tempter.” Its effect is a shocking experience of disillusionment, which leads to a severe crisis in the protagonist's psyche, and potentially affects and changes his/her whole previous view of life.

Now there are clear references to this pattern in “Master Race.” There is the innocent, almost “saintlike” narrator-protagonist Cecilia (nomen est omen), who is confronted with the brutal reality of evil which has been hitherto unknown to her. There is the motif of the journey between a familiar and an alien world—in this case from the US to Germany and back. There is the figure of the fatherly mentor, Philip Schoen, who takes her along on the trip. And there is the contrasting figure of the tempter, personified by the anonymous black soldier, whose group Cecilia, strangely attracted by their “otherness,” approaches in a pub. There is the crisis of her consciousness, as illustrated in the archetypical question of all initiation stories, the question of “Why?” which she keeps repeating to herself. There is the encounter with her own isolated, existential self: “It throws you back upon yourself, the starveling little core of yourself. The aloneness” (577). And there is the indication of a subsequent change in her personality, which is signified by her decision to break off her relationship with Philip, and thus to emancipate herself from the dominating influence of this academic father figure.

There are also significant deviations from the conventional model. First of all, in transferring Cecilia's initiation to Germany, Oates supposedly lets her encounter a foreign, non-American world. But in fact it is a black American soldier by whom she is attacked, i.e., what she encounters in the foreign country is her own culture and its inherent conflicts. The black man's attack on her is not only the sexual assault of an individual but is a form of cultural revenge, the revenge of a member of an underclass on the bourgeois class, of a former black “slave” on Cecilia as a member of the white “master race.” The divisions of class and race in American society, and the deep-rooted history of aggression that goes with them, are transformed here into a gender conflict, where one cultural victim revenges himself by turning another, physically weaker person—the woman—into his victim.

What is also unusual is the age of the protagonist in this initiation story. At thirty-four, Cecilia, in spite of her intellectual-academic maturity, is still in a state of belated adolescence. Remembering her “first gynecological examination” at eighteen (581), where she was rebuked by the doctor for her refusal to accept biological realities (or institutionalized gender roles?), she reflectively relates his authoritative comment to her present situation: “You better grow up fast./ And so she did. But perhaps she did not … ?” (582). And yet, in her mental habits and her moral attitudes, she seems at the same time very “wise” and prematurely old, thus when she “takes on, not quite consciously, the voice and manner of Aunt Edie” (578)), it is as if she is paralyzed by her repressive socialization to a degree that she is unable to escape from the terror of her compulsive self-defences.

On the other hand, however, there is yet again a counter-tendency in her characterization which increases the fundamental ambiguity of the text, inscribing a strangely inverted emancipatory meaning into her attitude. In this view, her resistance to experience appears as a desperate form of self-affirmation, of spiritual survival in a world where “experience” seems to be solely defined by violence, aggression, and indifference. In other words, it is a world in which the experiences one has to have to “know” it are simply not worth having. Consequently Cecilia, while she must recognize the factual reality of the rape and its wider cultural implications, at the same time negates it as a personally significant event, continuing to define herself, in contrafactual independence, as an autonomous human subject.

It is interesting here that Philip, who initially appears as the benevolent fatherly mentor who introduces her to the foreign world of Europe, undergoes a significant revaluation in the course of the story. In fact, he gradually seems to turn into a kind of “tempter” figure, who is secretly connected with Cecilia's “fall.” After the rape scene, he gains an uncanny affinity to the unknown black man, merging with him, in Cecilia's mind, into one ambiguous, potentially threatening figure of the aggressive male, whose one side is defined on a physical, the other on a psychological-intellectual level. Thus, when she returns to the hotel, she hopes to reach her room without being discovered by Philip, who has a separate room nearby, but like a phantom “Philip suddenly appears” behind her (581), distinctly recalling the sudden, frightening appearance of the rapist. As she withdraws into her room and is undressing for her bath, “the telephone rings. It is Philip, agitated, rather more aggressive” (581). It seems that Cecilia's relationship with Philip is irrevocably finished even before she actually decides to break it off, a fact which emphasizes once again the parallel between the two levels of the text and the sense of a symbolic complicity between the two contrasting male characters.

In different ways, then, the pattern of an initiation story, which Oates uses in “Master Race” to structure the action, is ironically reversed in the process of the text. “Master Race” is thus a self-negating initiation story, which in its “subversive conformity”11 to the culture from which it takes its model, implicitly exposes the empty, futile, paralyzed form that this archetypal “American” model of literary-cultural self-experience assumes under the conditions of a nihilistic world.

(3) Aesthetic Experience as Ideological Critique: This leads to the third aspect of the aesthetic composition of “Master Race,” to the ideological critique which is implied in the way the experience of the text is organized. What, then, are the specific ideologies that are evoked and simultaneously deconstructed in the text? The most explicit of them, of course, is the fascist ideology of the “master race” itself which has turned into a historical nightmare that has shaped and continues to overshadow the reality of twentieth-century Europe. Philip Schoen who, as a German-American, self-consciously looks everywhere for traces of that master-race mentality, has no great difficulty in finding them in contemporary Germany (e.g., 571). The stereotype seems to be repeatedly confirmed when Germans behave aggressively towards strangers, and particularly in their attitude towards blacks, whom they treat in Philip's view with complete indifference, rather than with what he sees as the hypocritical politeness of white Americans (575). Also, in the discussions he has with the Germans at the evening dinner, there are unmistakable nationalistic overtones in the way in which some of these intellectuals, who present themselves as liberal humanists, talk about Hitler, the War, the threat from the East, the fate of European states as “slave states” (587). And the increasingly belligerent, feverishly militant tone of the discussions intensifies for Cecilia, who listens as if from a traumatic distance, the sense of a ruthless rhetoric of power which pervades the otherwise incoherent debate.

But if Oates dramatizes the intellectual ruins of the German master-race ideology, she again uses this concept in a double way in which it simultaneously relates to the American side in this intercultural exchange. Indeed, in the logic of the text Philip Schoen appears as the representative of a new kind of scientific “master race” which, like the superpowers in a political and military sense, has come to dominate the world in an intellectual sense. Philip, after all, represents the Peekskill Foundation, which is an elite institution for scientific and humanist studies. The epistemological bias and the academic practice of the Foundation are ironically illustrated in a “symposium on contemporary philosophical trends” that Cecilia recalls. For what is striking about this conference is that only “scientific” forms of philosophy are represented—“linguists, logicians, mathematicians, a topologist, a semiotician, and others” (571), and that those disciplines dealing with specifically “humanist” questions are absent, “no aesthetician participated, no specialist in metaphysics or ethics” (571). And yet the chairman claims that “all viable philosophical positions” are assembled, and expects that therefore “certain key problems might finally be solved” (571). However, the hubris of this scientific ideology is exposed in the course of the symposium itself, for the exchange of opinions between these “scientists” does not lead them anywhere, and in the competitive-intellectual power struggle in which “each speaker wanted to wipe the slate clean and begin again” (572), they are unable to react constructively to one another and to enter into a communicative cognitive process. The symposium thus virtually deconstructs itself, and also the ideology of a purely formalized science of the humanities which it propagates.

Philip Schoen's attitude to life, to Germany, to his past, is clearly influenced by similar scientific principles. Against Cecilia's subjective, personal reactions to her environment, he insists on the importance of objective, factual knowledge, defining his personal life from his professional perspective: “He believes he knows the German soul perfectly, he says, but by way of his scholarly investigations and interviews primarily; not (or so he hopes) by way of blood. Historical record is all that one can finally trust, not intuition, not promptings of the spirit” (571). But at the dinner with the Germans, Philip undergoes a conspicuous change. In the increasingly chaotic and emotional debate, his initial distance more and more turns into sympathy, ending in his virtual identification with their political views—a reaction which surprises the Germans themselves (588). What is more, Philip not only participates in the power game of the discussion, and in its orgy of intellectual self-dramatization, but he is the implicit center to which the others react. Thus when he afterwards talks to Cecilia about the evening, and tries, with critical comments about the Germans, to reestablish his rational authority (“Wasn't it all supremely revealing? The casual remarks as well as the political -?”[589]), Cecilia reacts with an outburst of laughter which exposes in one, spontaneous gesture Philip's blindness to the self-reflexive implications of his statements, and thus the inherent blindness of his professed ideology of science to the complexities of the cultural and intersubjective human reality it claims to “master.”

On different levels, then, the aesthetic experience of Oates's “Master Race” is structured as a critique of contemporary ideologies and of their concomitant patterns of cultural power and dominance. In her aesthetic-humanist consciousness, Cecilia Heath is the medium which reveals these various forms of modern alienation and self-deception, but which simultaneously transcends them by affirming, however brokenly and subversively, the principle of a fully realized, morally justified human existence in the face of an amoral, “posthumanist” world.


  1. Joyce Carol Oates, “Master Race,” Partisan Review 4 (1984): 566-90. Subsequent quotations refer to this edition.

  2. For this aspect see Rose Marie Burwell, “Wonderland: Paradigm of the Psychohistorical Mode,” Mosaic 14 (Summer 1981): 1-16.

  3. One is reminded here of Husserl's “transcendental subjectivity” which exists beyond, and independent of, the empirical world. See Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations (Boston: Kluwer, 1977).

  4. Hannah Arendt's famous diagnosis of the “banality” of the evil of fascism as a monstrous outgrowth of everyday phenomena could well be applied to Oates's conception of evil as an omnipresent potential of the “normal” world. See, for example, H. Arendt, Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968).

  5. Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, 1973) 9: 996. Joshua Taylor, The Fine Arts in America (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979): 110.

  6. Taylor: 116.

  7. Taylor. 116-17.

  8. The reference in the text (577) is apparently not to Otto Moll but to Oskar Moll (1875-1947), who belonged to the circle of Henri Matisse, and who was dismissed as a professor at the Academy of Arts at Düsseldorf when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

  9. For an introduction see Bernard S. Myers, The German Expressionists: A Generation in Revolt (New York: Praeger, 1954).

  10. For a definition see Mordecai Marcus, “What is an Initiation Story?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14 (1960): 221-27; and Peter Freese, “Über die Schwierigkeiten des Heranwachsens: Amerikanische stories of initiation von Nathaniel Hawthorne bis Joyce Carol Oates,” in Die Short Story im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II, ed. P. Freese et al. (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1979) 206-55.

  11. M. L. Morrison uses this term in her Subversive Conformity: Feminism and Motherhood in Joyce Carol Oates (University of Maryland, phil.diss., 1983). It seems to me that this concept can also be applied to Oates's use of literary conventions.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1227

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.

Frank R. Cunningham (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8805

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 years in upper New York State in the mid-fifties when John Cheever sensed the onset of the postwar dissolution of value and coherence since noted by so many men and women writing in America. Perhaps it was this sense of almost overwhelming social and international forces that seemed to minimize our human stature, to displace and diminish us in relation to the vast organizational structures brought about by the war effort and the postwar institutionalization of the corporate way of living, that contributed to Oates's fascination over nearly the last three decades with the encirclement and twisting of human identity that is so prevalent in her fiction. Many critical observers have commented upon the almost pervasive pessimism and bleakness throughout her stories and novels,2 a vision sometimes approaching morbidity. From the psychotic who consumes broiled female human sexual organs in Wonderland (1971) to the suicidal violence in You Must Remember This (1987), from the emotionally dead brother smoking out the remains of his life in “A Legacy” (1961; collected in By the North Gate, 1963)3 to the raped suburban housewife of “The Double-edged Knife” (1987),4 Oates's characters are unique in contemporary American fiction in the frequency and severity of their destructive behavior, as Oates has created—and continues prolifically to create—a panoramic vision of an America in which, indeed, something has gone “terribly wrong.” Particularly in her realistic stories and novels, Oates seems intent to show us that forces both societal and natural have led to the crippling of a sense of willed, formed identity, a constructed selfhood, among large numbers of people of the middle and working classes in America who can (sometimes, we like to think) deal effectively with the pressures and even the horrors of contemporary life. Perhaps the greatest terror in confronting Oates's work lies in the critic's admission that, unlike most writers in the great humanistic European and American traditions, we are faced with a contemporary woman writing in America with formidable dedication who seems seldom to believe in human capacities for learning and for emotional growth and awareness, in the ego's connection to anything beyond its temporary sensory gratifications. Oates is engaged in writing a circumscribed moral history of what she appears to observe as a failed, decadent time in our national history.

Not all critics agree, despite Oates's considerable national reputation as a writer, teacher, and essayist, that she has so far been consistently successful aesthetically in her representation of retrenched contemporary life on native grounds. The scope of her attempt to portray the diminishment of self across a wide sweep of representative Americans is an impressive one. Oates has, as of autumn 1987, published nineteen novels and thirteen volumes of collected stories since 1963, many highly acclaimed, including a National Book Award for them in 1969 and several O. Henry citations for outstanding achievement in the short story.5 Indeed, some previous commentators on her work have judged her finest artistic achievement to have come in the short story. Despite considerable critical examination of such frequently anthologized stories as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” little scholarly attention has been devoted to Oates's considerable achievement in some of the predominantly realistic stories comprising roughly the first half of her short fictional career—including those to which I will devote focal attention in this essay—from By the North Gate in 1963 to The Goddess and Other Women in 1974, prior to Oates's shifts both in subject and in technique, in her next two collections of the mid-seventies, The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies and The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese. And given Oates's return to realism in her most recent novel and in Marya: A Life (1986), it may be valuable at this point in her career to examine more closely her ideas and concerns in the first five collections of stories.

Oates's career-long preoccupation with the self-enclosure and externally induced stifling of the development of mature and independent identity in men and women is a prominent concern in these five volumes of short stories.6 While her strong reputation as a psychological explorer of the stories of women of all ages is evident in these ninety-five fictions, Oates also writes with penetration and insight of men's situations; twenty-five of the stories are concerned either centrally or significantly with explorations of male personality and identity. Oates is less concerned in these stories with the formative stages of personality than with the full-fledged dilemmas of young and middle-aged men. Just two stories, “Wild Saturday” and “Boy and Girl,” trace the numbing of normal personality in children and young boys. In the former the boredom and purposelessness of a father and his current girlfriend, who take out a ten-year-old boy each week for a supposedly memorable celebration, begin to close down the boy's identity. By the story's end, he can only sit in the middle of a small, white room where “watchful and suspicious” he stares about him, beginning to be aware “how blank and open everything is, how much empty space surrounds him” (WL [The Wheel of Love and Other Stories], 169). “Boy and Girl” tells the story of two early adolescents, trapped by ritualized suburban lives and boring teenage parties, who take a wild drive in a borrowed car. The girl, Doris, also “borrows” her brother's baby and halfway through the ride suggests to Alex that they kill it for a thrill. As will often happen to Oates's older characters, these teenagers, stunted by a lifeless culture that allows limited opportunities for the expression of sane, organic emotions, must fill in their desert spaces with crazed ventures to try to make something happen.

In her earlier stories centering upon youths and young men, Oates reveals, particularly in By the North Gate and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, the enclosing influence an unforgiving, culturally sterile background can exercise upon the postadolescent personality. In “Boys at a Picnic,” three youths go on a Gothic spree of robbery and murder, until late at night as their car speeds across the countryside, the leader hallucinates the only death image he can comprehend, the biblical white horse, galloping along beside the car, and then begins to scream out the coming of his own inevitable death “at the jumbled, empty land … until the wind tore his words away” (NG [By the North Gate], 91). As Vale and Mae, in “What Death with Love Should Have to Do,” deepen their hopeless cycle of life through the image of their ceaseless and unrewarding motorcycle rides, Oates's narrator makes wise observations on the ignorance and indifference of the working-class poor. “Once begun, all races were alike: they were perhaps the same race: their noises dispelled all mornings, all previous nights, fused them into a sameness that seemed a broad, thick, muddy stream to which everyone had to return” (SF [Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories], 211). When Mae dies as a result of their mindless racing, Vale can only cry out at the end, “There's so much of it I don't know” (SF, 229), hurling his half-finished can of beer against the side of a house, yet another violent act of whose cause the youth possesses the dimmest understanding. And in “Archways,” the college instructor, Klein, is condemned by a working-class background that, despite his acquisition of a doctorate in literature, allows only for the technical assimilation of intellectual facts. He ends as lifeless as his doomed students in remedial composition, themselves from remote parts of the state, whose failure reminds Klein of the wild look of endangered animals as they find the university forbidden ground despite their high school diplomas, “its great machinery even now working, perhaps, to process cards, grades, symbols that would send them back to their families and the lives they supposed they had escaped” (SF, 168). Stunned out of lifelessness himself by an intelligent female student whose personal sufferings reflect his own, Klein enters and then withdraws from an affair with her, fearing, like Sister Irene of Oates's famous story “In the Region of Ice,” to risk an ultimate human commitment with another person who dares to need him. In the most cruel and impersonal way, he ends the affair, his mind already on his next essay on medieval poetry as he writes her a final note she will find taped to the door. Klein has used her to aggrandize his own faltering self-image; as he fails her in the class, he realizes only that her love for him has made him seem to himself more grand, more endowed with prestige. Buoyed by this illusion, Klein settles into another death-in-life upon completing his doctorate, leaving graduate school for a comfortable little college, marrying a wife of whom he is proud “for her chic competent womanly look,” accepting the values of his cultural group without examination, to the end of his days “grateful for and humble to the great academic tradition in which he would live out his life” (SF, 185).

The narrator's insistent irony in the story's final passage reminds us that Klein begins to die psychologically when he is still a very young man, never allowing for the completion of his being. As so often happens in Oates's group of stories about young men, an abdication of willed choice, combined with unfortunate external circumstances, manages to circumscribe very early on the individual's capacity for giving to others, for making future choices that could potentially enrich his life. Perhaps of all the stories concerning the development of identity in young men, Oates's “Edge of the World” is the most artistically and thematically convincing. Shell, the eighteen-year-old whose impoverished rural life is, again, defined by machines, is taught by an older farmer, Jan, the universality of bitterness, disappointment, and boredom. The youth has developed no identity except his fascination with his motorcycle, with the competition it allows him with his peers. Even earlier in his youth he has enjoyed the mechanical impression he makes on his boyhood friends. “His eyes were hidden by the merciless gleam of sunglasses, so that he looked impersonal, secret, and vaguely threatening” (NG, 148). Throughout the story the narrator ascribes to his friends two phrases, “you drew blood” or “he's got blood,” to characterize Shell's self-estimate of his strength and power. As with many of Oates's men, Shell's cultural values center on competitiveness and aggression and define his identity in ways he pathetically cannot begin to understand. On his way to the older farmer's junkyard, however, the boy begins to feel a sensation that he is falling; as he gets closer to the junkyard, the parts of machines seem to assume human shape, and Jan himself appears to Shell like a machine, his body and clothes matted together, stiff with grease. As he arrives at the farm and begins the “ritual” by combing his hair in a manner that will enhance his self-image and contempt for the older man, he feels a momentary anxiousness. “Shell shivered with excitement; he did not know why” (NG, 151). Among the primal feelings the youth cannot comprehend is his antipathy for the older man, his wish to set fire to his yard and all its machines. As he brags to Jan and his own motorcycle gang about his wish to escape the deserted farmland and get out to the world's edge, he senses with trepidation Jan's “ponderous, indifferent strength” as the narrator reminds us of the older man's “edge of humor that threatened them more surely than his anger” (NG, 150). Shell taunts the older man about the enclosure of his life and its rural sameness; Jan gradually goads the boy into a motorcycle exercise that is not really to be a race but an exhibition designed to reveal to Shell the old man's vision of the essential changelessness of things, that Shell's identity is fixed forever, just as Jan's is, and can never develop out to the edge of their world. He forces a dim recognition in Shell that he is nothing more than his machine. “It might be you just don't know enough about the world and what it does to you,” the old man says early in the story, and in one of Oates's most pessimistic passages, he adds: “But anywhere you go ain't no different than here. Don't you know that? … That's how this-here world was put together. It ain't no different, one side or another; an' there ain't no edge to it, neither, but only one side that keeps on goin' around. … Yet it's all the same, it never changes, it keeps the same in spite of you” (NG, 158). Inevitably, Shell succumbs to Jan's “lesson in drivin'” (NG, 159) and to his veiled suggestion of some harm to Shell, even though the youth is even stronger and, of course, decades younger than Jan. Suddenly, Shell senses dimly the real threat, in Jan's very existence, “a man who had always looked as he did … a man who had waited for Shell, standing just so, for years” (NG, 161-62). Shell is correct that the old man poses no physical danger to him, yet in the bloodstain he imagines on the track as the two prepare their slow cycle around it, Shell senses again that in thirty years he himself will occupy the center of this world, ready to impart the same mythic message of closure and defeat to another younger shell of a man.

Oates widens her focus beyond the mechanism and stasis of the rural scene in her group of stories concerning atrophied identity among middle-aged and aging men. Included in this contingent are such previously explored fictions as “The Census Taker,” “Swamps,” and “By the North Gate.”7 From old men like Walt Turner's dying father in “Stigmata” to men still in their physical prime, such as Norman in “Norman and the Killer” and Helen's father in “By the River,” Oates's older men are marked by a sense of lost opportunities, careers and families blunted and stifled by dimly perceived earlier choices in their lives. Norman's life, which “had attached itself” (SF, 126) to his family, is an ordinary one as manager of a clothing store. Essentially passive, Norman is wracked with guilt—as are so many men in Oates's stories. For he has not died when a nameless killer murdered his brother years ago during their boyhood. Suddenly and accidentally discovering a man upon whom he probably projects all of the frustrations of his life and the emptiness of his marriage, Norman decides that he is his brother's killer and sets out at least to destroy the man's peace of mind by confronting him with his past “crime.” Helpless like so many men drifting upon Oates's sweeping flood, Norman's game gets beyond his control, and he kills the man, as the narrator meditates upon the flaccid “airless routine” of the remainder of his life, “the numbed, beatific emptiness of one who no longer doubts that he possesses the truth, and for whom life will have forever lost its joy” (SF, 150). An overzealous certitude in possessing the “truth” frequently traps Oates's male characters; in her ironic “Stigmata,” both Walt Turner and his father foreclose their human development by a rigid adherence to faith or to an opposing cynicism. As Walt decides that his father's alleged miraculous hand markings are in reality a punishment and vengefully reviles with his bitter doctrines the dying man, his family, and the Catholic adherents at the hospital, Walt acts out his hatred of his father's rejection of the family in favor of what Walt considers his sanctimonious life. He does not realize that his own identity has become as static as his father's, his cruelty as hardened as his father's hypocrisy. “Walt understood what had happened to his father. Safe in his old age, before that safe in his tranquility, he had refined himself out of life—he had had, so easily, six children; he had given them nothing, not his own identity, not identities of their own, he had not distinguished one from the other … and, now, and old man, he had never been a man” (SF, 33). Walt fails to recognize that his father's emotional legacy has been well effected and will have far-reaching, never-ending consequences in the sterility of Walt's future life. Similarly, the young priest in “Shame,” Father Rollins, is so caught up in what he considers the “magical name” (WL, 103) conferred upon him by his church that he dissolves his personality in a word and cannot respond to the organic charity offered him by the young widow of his dead boyhood friend. As she gives him a symbolic robin's egg at the end of their meeting, he can only stereotype it within the ironclad canons of his faith as a “miracle achieved by some forlorn, enslaved robin” (WL, 126), exclaiming, “What the hell is this?” as he crushes it in his hand. In more secular worlds, the fathers in “Ruth,” “By the River,” “Extraordinary Popular Delusions,” “Upon the Sweeping Flood,” and “Wednesday's Child” all lack the flexibility to extend their full identities to their children, really to love them. Instead they foreclose their lives, stunting them either physically or spiritually and, in the case of Brenda's father in “Wednesday's Child,” serving as a symbolic correlative of the child's autism, “disliking silence because of its emptiness … he distrusted shapelessness” (MI [Marriages and Infidelities], 260). Such fathers, like those in “Delusions” and “Stray Children,” sometimes estranged from their own fathers, frequently seal off development of their personalities in professional specialisms of the sort the poet Snodgrass warns against in “April Inventory,” either never knowing who they are and what they feel or else never allowing themselves to feel what it is they truly feel.

Among the most thematically and aesthetically compelling in this group of stories is “An Encounter with the Blind.” Bethlehem Arnold Hollis, aged 42,—“whom folks would turn to look at” (NG, 114)—is one of Snodgrass's pathetic men defined only by his professional certainties, possessing little sense of personal identity beyond his position of power as a farmer and town “senator.” He is secure in his skills and even in his charity as he assures the blind boy who he meets in the town saloon, Robin, that he will help him on his way by giving him a ride in the same boastful tones that he conceives of his “thousand-acre spread that gave to the world potatoes and wheat and beans” (NG, 115). Driving out into the country, the senator hears the boy play one song on his harmonica, over and over again like Mr. Olaf Helton in Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine. As they talk, the senator's blustering bonhomie begins to fade as the boy talks of the man who seduced him at age fourteen because of his soft voice and delicate features and of his determination since to kill with his sharp-bladed knife all such men and, indeed, all sinners he encounters on his travels. Fearing for his life, Hollis promises the boy money, but Robin says that although he desires money for his mission, “that ain't half of what I want” (NG, 123). His knife pressed to Hollis's throat, seemingly crazed by his quasi-religious “duty,” Robin echoes the obsessiveness of many of Oates's characters of all ages and from all classes in contemporary America as he comments on his peculiarly enjoyable specialization. “Listen, mister … I ain't partial to this life myself. I ain't. A blind boy with no pillow for his head, no home to live in, no fambly to love. Just my duty an' the road an' the different men trapped. … But I got to be true to myself. I got to be true to my duty. There's all of us men trapped in ourselves, in our duty, an' can't quit till we die. My life all strung out on roads an' in cars an' in them men's faces I never get to see” (NG, 124). Against the senator's protest that he is without evil, Robin ironically assures him that “You're goin' to have the privilege of sharin' the world's sin, then, since you got none of your own” (NG, 125). Suddenly, the boy's symbolic purpose is achieved as Hollis strikes out, both physically and verbally, knocking the knife from his attacker's hand, and the town's supposedly most prestigious citizen hears “his own mad voice” confessing his past sins of exploitation of the town's Negro boys and other citizens. “Let me alone! You know too much! You found out too much—somebody tole you” (NG, 125). As Hollis lets the boy out for his next ride, the omniscient narrator observes that while the boy is serene the senator's heart is still pounding. Hollis stuffs money into Robin's pocket and returns the boy's ostensive authority, the knife, to him, but the act is needless, for the knife but reflects the facade the town leader has attempted to erect all his life. Robin's slow smile makes him gradually realize this as Hollis continues down the dirt road of his life. “When he tried to forget it he could not. His heart was cold and tight within him, like the part of him that had died” (NG, 127). Like so many “mature” men in Oates's stories, however, this man ironically has died long before he is made to realize it by circumstance, by a boy who, like Porter's Mr. Olaf Helton, seems more obsessive than he really is. In “An Encounter with the Blind,” the boy is the father of the man, leading him at last to areas of identity previously unrealized and unexplored.

While Oates's skill in depicting the diminishment of identity among her male characters is well exemplified in the stories just considered, her central fictional energies have, of course, been directed to the situations of female characters. In her first five short fiction collections, Oates focuses her main attention upon four groups of female characters: children or girls just on the edge of discovery of adulthood and sexuality; young women, generally in their twenties, as yet insecure of their position in career or marriage; and ostensibly more “mature,” middle-aged women, usually married or more professionally established in the world, some of whom—rather a small group—are somewhat personally and emotionally independent, having established, however tenuously, some measure of freedom and identity. Included in the first group of stories about women are some, such as “How I Contemplated the World …,” “At the Seminary,” “In the Warehouse,” and “Four Summers,” which have received explicatory treatment by previous scholars.8 Among the less well known and well studied stories in this group are some that deserve wider recognition, both because of their powerful treatment of the theme of confined and foreclosed identity during a crucial stage in women's development and because of their fine execution. In “The Daughter,” Thalia resents the burden her mother has imposed upon her via an unusual, foreign-sounding name, given, she senses, more to fulfill perceived lacks in her mother's sexual identity than to endow Thalia with an individual identity of her own. Oates is seldom better on mother-daughter rivalry, real and imagined, for the attentions of the all-dominating male image by which so many Oatesian women judge themselves throughout their lives and on girl children's sharp sense of betrayal that may close off their developing potential at this stage more than any other source. Thalia thinks, as her mother strokes her daughter's hair and attempts to compliment her nascent beauty, “of weakness, of the ignobility of being weak, delicate, vulnerable to betrayal, loving rather than everlastingly loved” (G [The Goddess and Other Women], 62). In “Images” Oates represents the development of a child's self-image based on memories from thirteen years ago to one year before the story opens; we are present at the formation of a frightened, insecure identity that fears to become anything definite, fears not conforming to expected social standards for a little girl of her class. In adolescence she is dominated by the roles and the images others have made for her, as she sees—and probably forever will see—“a little girl, a pale, thin-faced little girl with astonished, ashamed eyes.” And she also sees her parents and grandfather staring at her, trying to claim her, crying, “This is not you! You are someone else!” (NG, 146). Thirteen-year-old Gretchen, in “Stalking,” loosed by a pleasure-saturated society into the sterility of “Radio Wonderful” land and shopping malls as the sole source of support, aside from network TV, for her developing sense of self, must invent an “Invisible Adversary” to give her life any meaning, any identity at all. She can define herself only through a fiction upon which she can impose alternately masochistic and sadistic roles that will influence her life, one imagines, for many years to come.

One of the most evocative—and grisly—stories in this grouping is “Happy Onion.” Teenager Maryliz is a slightly older, somewhat prettier version of Gretchen in “Stalking,” whom Oates presents as deadened by the insulated, numbed world of the rock music in which she obsessively immerses herself, having already dropped out of high school to follow her lover, singer Ly Cooper, on his concert tour. Oates depicts well the insecurity underlying the exhibitionism of much in the rock world, its frequent preoccupation with external images rather than freely chosen values, the sense that Ly and Maryliz substitute showmanship for reality, while fearing the silences, self-restraint, and self-control, beneath which a deeper, though less showy, emotional range and fervor can often be found in people free enough to have gained personal maturity. Oates also sees the ironically close, parasitic relationship between free-enterprise culture, in this instance represented by Ly's doctor father, and the glitz and superficiality of rock culture that reflects it, as Ly sings at the “Megadome,” his face suffused with the drug overdose that will kill him before he has reached even his legal maturity. Ironically, Ly's group has won fame for the song that has given them their name, “The Happy Onion,” a lyric about the progressive peeling away of superficiality that must take place before authentic identity and personhood can be reached. But as they sing this, Maryliz primps and preens before the crowd, drawing her identity solely from her status as Ly's future wife. A showpiece, dressed all in white, enjoying the adulation of the less renowned members of her high school group, Maryliz is the conventional antithesis of the very values Ly preaches about on the stage each night. “Maryliz Tone, dressed in a white buckskin skirt … a violet shirt of the flimsiest see-through material … waving at him, hurrying down to the stage with her birdlike little walk. … So many little girls staring at her, at her, so many boys … her false eyelashes like tiny whisk brooms, maybe a little overdone when someone stares right into her face, but the hell with it. She knows she looks good” (MI, 204, 206). But even sad little Maryliz has some sense that all concerts finally end, and then there is the time that must somehow be filled up until the next series of electronic thrills begin again. In an Oatesian plot device that is too quick to gain verisimilitude, Ly dies very quickly of intestinal cancer caused by his habitual drug use; while this circumstance strains belief, particularly for such a young man, it is the results accruing to the adolescent girl's identity that seem to interest the author here. Worried as much that he recover from his illness in time to make the June wedding she stereotypically yearns for as about the severity of the illness, Maryliz becomes grotesquely sentimental after her lover's sudden death. Convinced that “it's my duty to be with you” (MI, 215), she requests to be admitted to Ly's autopsy, dressed now in yet another conventional outfit, that of the black, officially sanctioned widow's weeds. Oates now spares the reader no detail in the full presentation of Ly's autopsy, even to the drawing down of the scalp to obscure the face for removal of parts of the brain as Maryliz sees the once happy onion peeled back to reveal whatever reality their relationship seemed to possess during Ly's life. While the girl's motives are sincere insofar as she understands them, to be somehow closer to her lover, so sentimentally sensational are her ideas of attachment that the only way she can do this is through a procedure that leaves even the experienced pathologists and nurses shocked and speechless. Oates's satire is rich as she blends both the seeming unconventionality of this rock child's response to tragedy with the mundanity of her thoughts about the wedding gifts she might have enjoyed had the wedding taken place. The perhaps overly omnisicent narrator concludes the story with an indictment of the girl's absent identity, her complete absorption in her image of wedded bliss. “She walked in her rapid birdlike way, Ly's bride in black, his beautiful permanent darling” (MI, 219). As in “Stalking” and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Oates's revolting narrative in “Happy Onion” serves, if too broadly, her frequent thesis that the death of the spirit begins very young in contemporary America.

In Oates's grim vision of the inevitable results for adult lives that are too early truncated, there is little happiness for the slightly older sisters of the girls we have just considered. The married young woman of “Four Summers,” for example, is now more practiced than in her childhood at self-denial, in barring herself from her real feelings, at accepting the ceaseless struggle to inure herself to the forms that men expect of young women in her lower-class surroundings. In Oates's great early story, “Pastoral Blood,”9 Grace, thwarted by the mold of success, marriage, family so neatly laid out for her by her fatherless family and her society, plans suicide both as a means of escape from conventional boredom and as a way of asserting an attempt at identity somehow separate from their plans for her. Trying in every conceivable way to destroy the image her environment provides for her, she degrades herself with drugs, petty theft, and itinerant men. Failing on her first suicide attempt, significantly on the anniversary of her father's death, Grace sits in bed at the end of the story, watching her mirror image, planning her next attempt at death after the passing of an appropriate interval. “The girl in bed will resume her role, Grace knows, give her but the words to do it with, the correct glances. Time can be nursed, there is all the time in the world; give her time to be freed, time to arrange for another escape, another flight” (NG, 112).

The young women in “Demons,” “Bodies,” and “I Was in Love” are almost as fragmented from any sense of integrated identity as Grace; the first-person narrator of the latter story begins her tale with the insane logic that “I was involved with a man I couldn't marry so one of us had to die” (WL, 388). Love is often seen by Oates's younger women as a containment; they seem little more than physical space that requires filling, little more than abortive identities capable only of possessing or being possessed. The girl in “The Maniac” frequently finds herself thinking, “I Want … I Want … Helplessly, she would have to think herself back into nothing: a droplet of fluid, a single tear-sized drop of fluid in which a universe swam” (G, 114). Paula, the girl who has nearly died of a drug overdose, confesses to the orderly who has helped to revive her, in “The Narcotic.” “Jesus, I'm such a natural addict, it's in my blood … to need things … and I always needed people. … I can't control it” (G, 314-15). Paula has attempted suicide simply because her life is so vacant that “there was no reason not to.” Like Grace in “Pastoral Blood,” she is so cut off from her feelings, from any sense of a possibly integrated ego, that she was “curious to see what my hands would do; to see if I was serious or just bluffing” (G, 315).

Paula's instability will probably cause a more successful suicide attempt; so uncertain is she of her personal worth that, after sleeping with the orderly on an impulse, she immediately and again impulsively exiles him from her apartment. Such extreme manifestations of Adlerian insecurity and lack of personal integration abound among Oates's women who have managed to establish neither a satisfying work or professional commitment nor a sharing of somewhat developed personal identity with another relatively mature human being. A particularly horrifying example of this failure occurs in “Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?” in which a stewardess, saved from a war-protesting airline hijacker by an FBI sharpshooter's two rifle shots that have made the hijacker's head explode, covering her with blood on the tarmac, begins an affair with the FBI agent that obsessively focuses upon the violent act that brought them together. In a rented room with blinds always closed, he reminds her, “Nobody knows what we know” (MI, 284). Their very words during lovemaking are filled with images of the violence that was the occasion for two personally incomplete people to establish contact. “When they were together in the room she was brought up close to him, as if centered in the telescopic sight of a rifle” (MI, 284). The energy that gives them life does not “belong to either of them” (MI, 291); it stems from a destructive fantasyland suggested by her lover's name—Oberon, who tells her in response to her obsessive questions that he has never killed an American before. His death force was, however, immediately recognized by her when, one day after the incident, he appeared at her apartment saying, as from the grave: “You know who I am. … You know why I'm here” (MI, 302).

A more profound and equally horrifying story is one of Oates's best, “By the River.” Here, Helen, an unconventional free spirit, returned home after the failure of yet another relationship with a man to visit her parents, is picked up at the bus depot by her father, driven home by a river they both have loved for many years, and then savagely murdered at the story's conclusion. While the story has gained admiration for its gothic evocations, its psychological realism, especially the understated need of the young woman to sacrifice all to feeling and perhaps to find a love more fulfilling than she has experienced from her kind and supportive parents, also deserves recognition. Through Helen's chaotic memories, Oates imparts her unbridled desire for continual zeniths of feeling at the cost of all-balancing insight—the quality that ultimately, despite her kindness and charity, dooms her. As her father questions her about why she has run away from her husband and then come back to her father's home, she can only answer, “I don't know why I did it” (MI, 121). Slightly uneasy, yet mainly surprised that her father has taken her by the river and has not told the rest of the family that she is coming home, she can only wonder—“she was not used to thinking” (MI, 126)—that the relentless flow of the river's time is somehow apart from her relentless need for giving, for emotional love and sensation. (In fact, at her first appearance, at the bus station waiting for her father, her first thought is, “Am I in love again, some new kind of love? Is that why I'm here?” [MI, 112].) So disorganized and poorly integrated are her responses to the world, so lost is she in her beloved movies' way of presenting reality (in the city she has gone to weekday movies at eleven in the morning), that she cannot consciously understand her beloved father's long-repressed desire for her, mixed with his hope for her material rise in the world to compensate for his lifelong feelings of humiliation concerning his neighbors who “got money.” Nor can she understand how her return has catalyzed his sense of doomed vulnerability, his need to lash out at a woman he can never possess, not even through materialistic fantasy. His needs are made clear by the narrator's graphic description of the murder. “He did not raise the knife but slammed it into her chest, up to the hilt, so that his whitened fist struck her body and her blood exploded out upon it” (MI, 128). His needs are also clarified by something he says to her just before his intimate touch on her shoulder before the thrust. “It wasn't never money I wanted” (MI, 127). But as she sees “in his hand a knife she had been seeing all her life,” Helen may sense that she has been approaching this moment for many years. She needs more than she is aware her father's “rough hands,” her childhood memory of giving her tired father the jug of water and watching him “lift it to his lips and it would seem to Helen, the sweet child standing in the dusty corn, that the water flowed into her magnificent father and enlivened him as if it were secret blood of her own she had given him” (MI, 123). Truly, she has come to her home to die.

A volume of Oates's poetry, published after the last volume of stories considered in this essay, features these closing lines to the title poem, “Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money.”10

it is raining out back
or not raining
the relief of emptiness rains
simple, terrible, routine
at peace.

There is a sense throughout most of Oates's work in various genres, and certainly in the earlier stories, that the perversion of identity in contemporary America is almost inescapable, that Cheever's quagmire and the tear in the sky—threatening always, but never ubiquitous throughout Cheever's work—is a constant in Oates's world. While some relief beyond emptiness occasionally occurs in Do with Me What You Will (1973) and Childwold (1976) and in some of the romances of the eighties, there is scarcely surcease from the sterility and the horror ascribed to all in contemporary America in the first half of her short fiction career. Indeed, Oates has confirmed this pessimism directly in an early essay on Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine (1937),11 stating, as she has implied in interviews, that humankind cannot know itself. Yet her essay on Porter, another woman of rural background writing in America during difficult times, reveals a profound misunderstanding of Porter's great tragic novella, for though his sufferings would strain Job, Mr. Olaf Helton does understand himself. Though circumstances and Mr. Hatch bring him almost unendurable grief, Porter shows that the itinerant North Dakotan has not abdicated moral responsibility for his actions and that his pathetic life retains a hint of the tragic because he insists on a small portion of it remaining under his command. The one song he plays on his harmonica is expressive of his awareness of life's misery, and it is consciously played and replayed, just as the farmhand consciously works, earns his way in the world, and so brings some dignity and respect (and self-respect) into what has been a trying life.

If occasionally an Oatesian character in these stories does manage to gain, with considerable effort, a measure of self-respect and self-regard—as does Blind Boy Robin of “An Encounter with the Blind,” playing his harmonica and also bringing increased awareness into Hollis's heretofore spiritually mundane existence—in most of the stories there is little evidence to support Grant's assertion that Oates “is committed in her fiction to the raising of consciousness of those who are being destroyed”12 or that Oates's characters very often “work at defining themselves.”13 Oates's own views, expressed in an essay on modern tragedy, that tragedy should “deepen our own sense of the mystery and sanctity of the human predicament”14 seem not to be reflected in the reality of human lives represented in these stories. Sanctity cannot be possible without awareness and self-realization, and there is precious little of either human quality in much of Oates's earlier fiction. Walter Sullivan reminds us: “Literature requires action that is morally significant, which means that the characters must be at least theoretically free to choose for themselves. … There can be no question that life as we live it, as Miss Oates describes it, is enough to drive us crazy, but does this mean that we must continue to write the same story over and over—a chronicle where violence is a prelude to total spiritual disintegration and the only freedom is the total loss of self?”15 Sullivan probingly expresses the insufficient moral spaciousness in Oates's vision of the world in those fictions where the crucially significant function of human struggle is absent. In her stories concerning more mature and middle-aged women in these volumes, such as “Magna Mater” and “Assault,” Oates can tentatively indicate the liberating struggle beyond self-confinement in family and memory that forecloses the development of identities in so many women and men in her fictions;16 but more frequently in this group of stories—“You,” “First Views of the Enemy,” “The Goddess,” “Blindfold”—there can be no psychological liberation because there is no struggle, no effort at self-definition or self-understanding. Oates has frequently indicated in interviews and essays17 her hopes for a wide cultural transcendence of the egotistic isolation she considers endemic since the European Renaissance, but she confuses, both in these statements and in much of her fiction, the distinction between the destructive aspects of rampant egotism and the development, through the struggle toward consciousness, of the more imaginative and empathic use of reason that has been one of the most elevating aspects of our culture since the Enlightenment. Her dismissal of Freud's contributions to modern culture is not surprising;18 she insistently ignores the possibility that self-recognition can help humankind to become more loving and more free and seems unaware of Trilling's remarks in “Freud and Literature” praising Freud's lack of cynicism, that his classic tragic realism “does not narrow and simplify the human world for the artist but on the contrary opens and complicates it.”19 In contrast, her statement in a 1972 interview is revealing as she speaks of the importance to a person's memory of a beloved close circle of parents and family. “And if something has gone wrong inside this small universe, then nothing can ever be made right.”20 Oates's greatest failure as a writer of fiction is this frequent moral enclosure in her attitude toward her characters, her abdication of the necessity of struggle that alone can lift us from the unconsciously animalistic toward some measure of the human. Her completely circumscribed characters can be liberated only through accident or random violence, and that is no true liberation at all.

Among her stories dealing with somewhat more mature and middle-aged women, Oates can at times rise beyond her fascination with the inevitably circumscribed situation, the inevitably determined character, that sometimes become monochromatic case studies in Naturalism rather than rounded, multifaceted representations of the complex human condition.21 In “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body,” Nina develops a quiet strength through humor and a considered confrontation of the feelings engendered by her father's slow dying, as movingly demonstrated by her washing of her father's wasted body. Through suffering, admission of memory, and an ironic awareness rare in these stories, Nina builds an identity of her own, proud of the processes of her woman's body, but “at a distance from them, observing them as a man might observe them, without comment or shame” (WL, 332). In “Shame” the young widow reveals more awareness of human sympathies than the priest. Mrs. Taylor has struggled with the deaths of both her husband and her infant son. She refuses to sentimentalize her dead husband, frankly declaring that he was a drunk and a professional failure. Because she has not abdicated the personal responsibility to see feelingly her misfortunes, she gains a subtle, unspoken strength far more liberating than anything Father Rollins can conceive.

But it is perhaps in “Puzzle” that Oates succeeds best in representing uneducated working-class people capable of working toward some recognition, however dim, of the reasons why they suffer, why they are so frequently isolated from one another. Here life's truths are elusive and difficult to bear, but they are not evaded by the dead Jackie's parents, and so for them life is not a total trap, not a compulsive enclosure into hopelessness, because each parent shares some responsibility for all their failures that in part have contributed to the accidental death of their five-year-old son. Throughout the action the woman struggles against her enveloping sense of numbness, vacancy; she does not merely submit to the repeated refrain in her mind, “I am not really here” in her “boxlike house, a coop for people” (MI, 42, 46). When both husband and wife summon courage at the end to confess their belief to each other that each is responsible for the needless death, they gain a liberation that is rare in Oates, especially the woman, who thinks: “Now I will tell this man the things I must tell him. It is time. It is time for me to tell him of my hatred for him, and my love, and the terrible anger that has wanted to scream its way out of me for years, screaming into his face, into his body” (MI, 51). As both husband and wife begin to accept that their son's death was uncaused by anything but irrational accident, they press their bodies around each other, and she admits her lack of understanding of pain, of her marriage, of her suffering. If she does not grasp through to the heart's mystery, neither does she run from the attempt to grapple with it.

Alfred Kazin has written that Oates, more than most women writers in America, seems “entirely open to social turmoil, to the frighteningly undirected and misapplied force of the American powerhouse.”22 Perhaps her significant contribution thus far in her career is as a social fictionist, caught up, as Kazin says, in this avalanche of time, whatever the limits of her moral and psychological imagination and the reiterative style may be. Her exemplary energy and dedication, her successful attempts to move beyond her earlier Naturalistic realism in stories and novels after 1975 attest to the hope that she may one day achieve the national “struggle for consciousness” she spoke of with such apparent sincerity in her acceptance speech upon receiving the National Book Award.


  1. Herbert Gold, ed., Fiction of the Fifties (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1959), 22.

  2. Alfred Kazin, Bright Book of Life (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973), 198-205; Marvin Mudrick, “Fiction and Truth,” Hudson Review 25 (1972): 146; Mary Allen, The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1976), 133-59.

  3. In this essay the five volumes of Joyce Carol Oates's stories are identified in the following way, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the text. By the North Gate (NG); Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (SF); The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (WL); Marriages and Infidelities (MI); The Goddess and Other Women (G). Since I shall range across the volumes of stories, organizing my commentary by thematic groups and not by individual volumes, here follows a list of the ninety-five stories, by volume:

    By the North Gate: “Swamps,” “The Census Taker,” “Ceremonies,” “Sweet Love Remembered,” “Boys at a Picnic,” “Pastoral Blood,” “An Encounter with the Blind,” “Images,” “Edge of the World,” “A Legacy,” “In the Old World,” “The Fine White Mist of Winter,” “The Expense of Spirit,” “By the North Gate.”

    Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories: “Stigmata,” “The Survival of Childhood,” “The Death of Mrs. Sheer,” “First Views of the Enemy,” “At the Seminary,” “Norman and the Killer,” “‘The Man That Turned into a Statue,’” “Archways,” “Dying,” “What Death with Love Should Have to Do,” “Upon the Sweeping Flood.”

    The Wheel of Love and Other Stories: “In the Region of Ice,” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You been,” “Unmailed, Unwritten Letters,” “Convalescing,” “Shame,” “Accomplished Desires,” “Wild Saturday,” “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” “The Wheel of Love,” “Four Summers,” “Demons,” “Bodies,” “Boy and Girl,” “The Assailant,” “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body,” “Matter and Energy,” “You,” “I Was in Love,” “An Interior Monologue,” “What Is the Connection between Men and Women?”

    Marriages and Infidelities: “The Sacred Marriage,” “Puzzle,” “Love and Death,” “29 Inventions,” “Problems of Adjustment in Survivors of Natural/Unnatural Disasters,” “By the River,” “Extraordinary Popular Delusions,” “Stalking,” “Scenes of Passion and Despair,” “Plot,” “The Children,” “Happy Onion,” “Normal Love,” “Stray Children,” “Wednesday's Child,” “Loving/Losing/Loving a Man,” “Did you Ever Slip on Red Blood?” “The Metamorphosis,” “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For?” “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” “The Spiral,” “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Dead,” “Nightmusic.”

    The Goddess and Other Women: “The Girl,” “Concerning the Case of Bobby T.,” “Blindfold,” “The Daughter,” “In the Warehouse,” “Ruth,” “The Maniac,” “Free,” “… & Answers,” “I Must Have You,” “Magna Mater,” “Explorations,” “Small Avalanches,” “The Voyage to Rosewood,” “Waiting,” “The Dying Child,” “Narcotic,” “A Girl at the Edge of the Ocean,” “Unpublished Fragments,” “A Premature Autobiography,” “Psychiatric Services,” “The Goddess,” “Honeybit,” “Assault,” “The Wheel.”

  4. Redbook, May 1987, 50-56, 66, 194-97.

  5. Good discussions of the earlier novels are found in Joanne V. Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979); Diane Tolomeo, “Joyce Carol Oates,” in American Writers, suppl. 2, pt. 2, ed. A. Walton Litz (New York: Scribner's, 1981), 503-27; Ellen Friedman, Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Ungar, 1980); G. F. Waller, Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979); and Mary Kathryn Grant, R.S.M., The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1978). The most comprehensive study of Oates's novelistic career is Eileen T. Bender, Artist in Residence: The Phenomenon of Joyce Carol Oates (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987). The stories are treated according to genre theory in Katherine Bastian, Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation (New York: Peter Lang, 1983), and in relation to speech act theory by T. Norman, Isolation and Contact: A Study of Character Relationships in Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories, (Sweden: Acta I Universitat, 1984); by far the most intelligent criticism of stories treated is in Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, and Joseph Petite, “‘Out of the Machine’: Joyce Carol Oates and the Liberation of Women,” Kansas Quarterly 9 (Spring 1977): 75-79, and idem, “The Marriage Cycle of Joyce Carol Oates,” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 5 (Aug. 1984): 223-36.

  6. In my discussion I will set aside the approximately fifteen stories that may be classified as experimental or nonrealistic, such as “An Interior Monologue,” “29 Inventions,” and “Explorations,” as well as those stories clearly intended by their author as revisions of past masters' fictions, such as “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “The Dead.” A good interpretation of the important latter story appears in Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 134-36.

  7. Ellen Friedman, Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), 17-20, interprets the former story; Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 27-29, explicates “Swamps” and “By the North Gate.”

  8. See especially Keith Cushman, “A Reading of Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Four Summers,’” Studies in Short Fiction 18 (Spring 1981): 137-46; Doreen A. Fowler, “Oates's ‘At the Seminary.’” Explicator 41 (Fall 1982): 62-64; and Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, especially 115, 122-23.

  9. Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 31-32, offers a more detailed interpretation of this fine story.

  10. Joyce Carol Oates, Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1978), 4.

  11. Renascence 17 (Spring 1965): 157-62.

  12. Grant, Tragic Vision, 125.

  13. Ibid., 119.

  14. Joyce Carol Oates, “An American Tragedy,” New York Times Book Review, Jan. 24, 1971, 2.

  15. Walter Sullivan, “The Artificial Demon: Joyce Carol Oates and the Dimensions of the Real,” in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, ed. L. W. Wagner (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), 82, 86. For a perceptive discussion of the ironically detrimental cultural effects of Oates's position, see Benjamin De-Mott, “The Necessity in Art of a Reflective Intelligence,” in Wagner, Critical Essays, 22.

  16. For perceptive discussions of the ambiguities present in such struggles, see Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 125-27; and Bastian, Oates's Short Stories, 82-84, 92-97.

  17. “Interview with Oates,” in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, ed. Joe David Bellamy (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974), 23; Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 19-23.

  18. Joyce Carol Oates, New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (New York: Vanguard, 1974), 72-73.

  19. L. I. Lipking and A. W. Litz, eds., Modern Literary Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1972), 298.

  20. “Interview with Oates,” 29.

  21. Grant, Tragic Vision, 140-41; Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates, 142, 150.

  22. Kazin, Bright Book of Life, 199.

Principal Works

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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

Will You Always Love Me? 1995

The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque 1999

Faithless: Tales of Transgression 2001

Rape: A Love Story (short novel) 2003

Small Avalanches and Other Stories 2003

I Am No One You Know 2004

With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964

The Sweet Enemy (drama) 1965

Expensive People (novel) 1967

A Garden of Earthly Delights (novel) 1967

Women in Love, and Other Poems (poetry) 1968

them (novel) 1969

Wonderland (novel) 1971

Angel Fire (poetry) 1973

Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973

Love and Its Derangements and Other Poems (poetry) 1974

Miracle Play (drama) 1974

The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975

Childwold (novel) 1976

Son of the Morning (novel) 1978

Cybele (novel) 1979

Unholy Loves (novel) 1979

Bellefleur (novel) 1980

Angel of Light (novel) 1981

Contraries: Essays (nonfiction) 1981

A Bloodsmoor Romance (novel) 1982

Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970-1982 (poetry) 1982

Mysteries of Winterthurn (novel) 1984

Solstice (novel) 1985

Marya: A Life (novel) 1986

On Boxing (essay) 1987

You Must Remember This (novel) 1987

Lives of the Twins [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1988

(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (nonfiction) 1988

American Appetites (novel) 1989

Soul/Mate [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1989

The Time Traveler (poetry) 1989

Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (novel) 1990

Nemesis [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1990

I Stand Before You Naked (drama) 1991

Snake Eyes [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1992

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (novel) 1993

The Perfectionist (drama) 1993

What I Lived For (novel) 1994

You Can't Catch Me [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1995

Zombie (novel) 1995

First Love: A Gothic Tale (novel) 1996

Tenderness (novel) 1996

We Were the Mulvaneys (novel) 1996

Double Delight [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1997

Man Crazy (novel) 1997

My Heart Laid Bare (novel) 1998

Broke Heart Blues: A Novel (novel) 1999

Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon [under pseudonym Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1999

Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (essays and nonfiction) 1999

Blonde (novel) 2000

Middle Age: A Romance (novel) 2001

Beasts (novel) 2002

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (juvenilia) 2002

I'll Take You There (novel) 2002

Bad Girls (drama) 2003

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (nonfiction) 2003

Freaky Green Eyes (novel) 2003

Tattooed Girl (novel) 2003

Where is Little Reynard? (juvenilia) 2003

Stanley Trachtenberg (essay date 1989)

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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 include “a confusion of love and money, of the categories of public and private experience, of a demonic urge … an urge to violence as the answer to all problems, an urge to self-annihilation, suicide, the ultimate experience and the ultimate surrender.”2 Though Oates has claimed that violence is always an affirmation, she is disdainful of the isolated private figures commonly projected by the modernist imagination along with what she has called “the atrocious Id-pouring of much contemporary poetry.”3 The demonic struggles in her fiction are offered as hypothetical possibilities with which every artist must test reality and which must then be submitted to society for judgment.4 Accordingly, Oates has been astonished when critics, who want to “linger lovingly over every image, every punctuation mark,” refuse to recognize the essential cheerfulness of her characters, even the vicious ones. “Criminals,” she has commented acidly, “have a right to happiness just as much as staunch, well-educated tax-paying reviewers and academics.”5

At the same time, Oates has acknowledged that art may be limited to the ego's struggle to address a deeper self, a struggle serving as a means for purging the ghosts that haunt the writer's own consciousness.6 This conflict between the artistic functions of private exorcism and public record is paralleled by contrasting roles Oates has alternately envisioned for the artist. These roles take the form of someone who shapes fantasies into an external structure that celebrates the life force and of a passive figure who transcribes the text rather than initiates it. Seldom, however, are those opposing roles or the fictive impulses to which they point allowed to contest each other in Oates's fiction. Instead, disembodied voices—shrill, insistent, terrified, urgent, dazed—rehearse the difficulty of making contact with others, of being understood, of understanding what is happening around them. Women sense obscurely sexual assaults, as much desired as feared, finally yielded to with erotic satisfaction. Men—more shadowy still—appear at once threatening and indifferent; their centers are fixed outside the fevered consciousnesses that attempt to imagine and so possess them. Oates's characters surface chiefly in indeterminate settings—cities that have no streets or buildings, countrysides with only empty fields, abandoned automobiles. Frequently given only first names, these figures are fundamentally generic rather than individual; they are identified chiefly as husbands, wives, parents, children, and defined chiefly within the web of family or, on its periphery, as lovers. Unspecified anxieties are announced in fairy-tale cadences, marked by the absence of thematic closure. The oppressive daily events, no less than the acts of sudden violence into which they erupt, appear blurred, even hallucinatory. These acts merge finally into a single texture that refuses to distinguish between what is important, what inconsequential.

Oates has been particularly sensitive to critical attempts to see in these menacing situations any correspondence with her own life. Writing of D. H. Lawrence, she has remarked that most critics “assume that their subjects are ‘subjects’ and not human beings, and that their works of art are somehow crimes for which they are on perpetual trial.”7 Similarly, she has seen John Berryman as the victim of the familiar attempt to associate the writer with fixed meanings in his work and so to isolate him from a sustaining social and literary culture. “When the writer believes his critics in such cases,” she charges, “he has no course left but suicide.”8 Such suicidal ghosts are exorcised with satiric exaggeration in Oates's stories about academics.

Uniformly portrayed as egocentric villains, these academics are comically frustrated by their inability to impose a subjective vision upon the solidity of experience. Their single-minded efforts to do so result in joyless lives, shaped by the funneling of desire into an increasingly narrow vision. Malicious, petty, self-serving, pompous, frightened, they frequently conceal the shallowness of their thoughts behind inflated claims of importance for obscure literary figures with whom their scholarly reputations are linked. Few seem aware of the disparity between the manic intensity of their efforts and the worth of the advantages they seek. Fewer still evidence concern for the humanistic nature of their vocation; instead, they disguise mean self-interest by pious professions of concern for some ennobling ideal. Typically ineffectual, they find that their inability to control or even influence events only intensifies the anger that is their most authentic emotion.

In The Hungry Ghosts, a collection of seven short stories, each of which deals with some aspect of academic life, even the titles subtly suggest the lack of originality that characterizes the academic mind. Subtitled “allusive comedies,” several were changed after initial publication in periodicals to echo works respectively by Bunyon, Nietzsche, Blake, Tocqueville, and Booker T. Washington. The satirical judgment implicit in these imitative titles is reinforced by the contrast between the furious motion of the characters and the uninflected tone Oates adopts toward it. The lives of her academics are consumed with longing. Oates explains the reference of the title in an epigraph. “A preta (ghost),” she writes, “is one who, in the ancient Buddhist cosmology, haunts the earth's surface, continually driven by hunger—that is, desire of one kind or another.”9 In “Democracy in America,” Ronald Pauli's desire is to publish his manuscript, a 385-page study of the twentieth-century criticism of the works of Tocqueville and Grattan. The bulk of the manuscript and the contrasting narrowness of its subject suggest a comic disproportion of effort and value that is emphasized by Ronald's admission that the work is not even meant to be interesting. Its publication will simply help him keep his job.

When a part-time copyeditor at the press that has accepted the work dies suddenly with the manuscript still in his possession, Ronald nervously rushes to the man's apartment to reclaim it. The earlier loss of the only copy—at one point Ronald will paranoiacally insist it was stolen—has increased his anxiety, and when he discovers no clue to where the manuscript may be in the copyeditor's filthy apartment, he nears hysteria. Markedly fastidious—he is at first most afraid of finding roaches—Ronald forces himself to plunge into the mess; he painstakingly begins to assemble his scattered pages buried among insurance forms, overdue library books, dirty clothes, half-eaten food, crumpled balls of paper, mimeographed notices, and pages ripped from a phone directory. That the manuscript is almost indistinguishable from all this junk confirms its lack of value; in addition, Ronald's desperate search suggests the indignity to which an academic will submit in attempting to advance his career.

In the midst of his search, Ronald discovers that a number of pages belong to someone else's manuscript, one written with greater assurance and authority. Confirming his worst fear, this discovery persuades the increasingly panic-stricken scholar of his own terrifying insubstantiality. As the manuscript grows more important as a surrogate for his own ego, each solid object in the room seemingly resists his efforts to assemble his work. A wall bed, a quilt, a lamp, a bathtub, even the copyeditor's clothes, prove almost willful obstacles. At one point, Ronald becomes convinced he is being haunted by a ghostly presence, perhaps the phantom writer of the other manuscript, perhaps the copyeditor, we are never sure which. In either case, the ghostly sensation ironically echoes his own condition. Miraculously, he does recover his entire manuscript, whose destruction he had come to equate with his own. “I'm still living,” he whispers with relief. Once out of the room, however, he retreats in childlike terror when a sympathetic neighbor reaches to comfort him in a gesture obliquely sexual and at the same time reassuringly maternal.

Academic pressures similarly lead to the displacement of individual identity in “Pilgrim's Progress,” when newly appointed lecturer Wanda Barnett arrives at Hilberry, a small Canadian university near the border, which serves as the locale for several of Oates's academic satires. Almost at once Wanda comes under the influence of Saul Bird, a charismatic instructor whose radical politics mask a preoccupation with his own career. Theatrical, abrasive, peremptory, intense, Saul is an academic bully able to experience pleasure only in the exercise of power. His wife, Susanna, also a teacher, serves as a physical as well as intellectual complement to her husband. Where Saul's face is mobile, his manner nervous and demanding, hers is blank, unsmiling, like “a stone with the moss of her dark hair around it.” The metaphor, with its associations of dampness and concealment, qualifies Susanna's scholarly achievements and, by extension, that of all academics. More successful than her husband, she produced a book on Proust and their son Philip in the same year, a conjunction by which Oates slyly suggests the boy is merely another credit on her vita.

Though an English teacher, Saul has little interest in literature, and he contemptuously dismisses the value of scholarship. His obligation, he maintains, is to liberate students as human beings. Saul's political activism is brought into sharp relief by the myopic dedication to scholarship of Erasmus Hubben, a shy if somewhat clownish figure whose dissertation on Ernst Cassirer ran to 800 pages. Overwhelmed by Saul's intensity and exhilarated by the dramatic atmosphere into which he is drawn, Hubben, like Wanda, soon becomes part of a clique that surrounds their volatile colleague. Subsequently, Hubben agrees to take part in a campus demonstration that Saul organizes but in which he characteristically declines to participate. During a confrontation with campus police, Hubben has a breakdown and subsequently is institutionalized. To protest Saul's treatment by the university, Wanda resigns her job. Only then does she discover that Saul has found a new position and has abandoned his exploited disciples without a word. Their surrender of ego has brought these forlorn academics to the edge of violence, but without an ideological base of their own they are unable to find in their actions a cathartic release.

The inability even to recognize the destructive consequences of self-absorption becomes evident in “Up From Slavery.” Frank Ambrose willingly trades on his blackness to obtain status in the liberal, white academic community. Sexually restless despite his success with students, Frank's apparent assimilation only intensifies his unease until his sense of loss becomes almost physical, “as if he were actually hungry for something without knowing what it was” (p. 64). Frank's hunger leads him to mistake the intentions of Molly Holt, a young teacher he is instrumental in hiring. A feminist who complains about being exploited as a woman and, at the same time, about the difficulty of getting her husband to continue child support, Molly sees in Frank only another victim of social prejudice and indignantly rejects his sexual overtures. In his anger, Frank drops his cultivated Eastern accent to revert to a richer ethnic idiom. “There's anything I hate,” he tells her wildly, “it's a woman who talks too much.” “Go back to your honky wife,” Molly replies contemptuously.

At first Frank is rendered uncertain of his own judgment by this response, but he quickly reassures himself by persuading the sanctimonious chairman of the department that Molly's professional commitment is questionable. In a ballot taken hurriedly to allow the faculty members to make their next class, Molly is dismissed without any real chance to defend herself, or even to understand the vague charges leveled against her. Though she is the one fired, Frank, as her sponsor, is seen by his colleagues as the injured party. Frank feels no guilt at his vengeful deception. Instead he merely frames the incident in a self-satisfying melancholy that confirms his self-image of sensitivity.

Another departmental confrontation argued in terms of principle but resolved purely by self-interest occurs in “A Descriptive Catalog.” Up for tenure with only minor publications to his credit, Reynold Mason responds to an unintended slight by Ron Blass, the departmental poet, by bringing charges of plagiarism against him. In contrast with the characteristically worried Mason, who paces the corridors before mail deliveries looking “distracted, anxious, ghostly,” Blass is an affable and popular teacher. He is also the department's most frequently published member. His need to continue in that role long after he has anything to say has led him, however, to submit with only minor stylistic revisions the work of other poets. “It could be anything,” he confesses miserably to a departmental committee, “because nobody reads it” (p. 94).

The work of the committee members, however, proves only slightly more substantial. The chairman lists on his vita mimeographed memos to the faculty senate, speeches made at local PTA meetings, and brief contributions to a highly specialized newsletter edited by his former students. Other committee members publish only brief notices attacking the discoveries of other scholars, or they confine themselves to feuding over inconsequential issues. When Ron confronts them with documented evidence of their own questionable practices, they abandon their pose of ethical concern to exonerate him. Forced to resign his own position, Mason has a breakdown. Neither he nor the incident leaves any lasting impression on the university. Academic integrity, Oates makes clear, constitutes only a pose of rectitude that masks a hypocritical venting of personal spite.

In “The Birth of Tragedy,” Oates mixes ridicule with anger at pedantic faculty members who substitute exhausted scholarly concerns for vigorous commitment to their subjects and who use their tenured positions to tyrannize those attempting to enter the profession. At the last minute, an insecure Barry Sommer is hired at Hilberry as an assistant to Robinson Thayer, a senior professor whose lectures are repeated year after year without change, after having initially been copied from obscure literary sources. After unsuccessfully attempting to intimidate his terrified young assistant into spying for him on the indifferent students in his class, Thayer makes Barry the object of a shabby homosexual advance. When the overture is rejected, the professor drunkenly reveals the hypocrisy that pervades the administration. Along with other doctoral students, Barry has been admitted solely to maintain enrollment, though the university has long been planning to drop the Ph.D. program. Called upon to lecture on Hamlet to Thayer's class, Barry is led through his terror to the ecstatic truth that the meaning of tragedy is the exploitation of the living by the dead. Hamlet's problem, he decides, “was that he didn't run like hell to some other country when the ghost showed up” (p. 129). Like others haunted by the ghostly scholarship of hungry academics, Barry must free himself from its curse by accepting the challenge of life without an advanced degree. The sympathy with which Oates here views the need for individual fulfillment is seldom displayed in her writing. More commonly, the isolation of the individual from the community results only in tragedy. This isolation can be overcome only by a violent emotional reversal—that is, by witnessing the destruction of “self” and the breaking down of the barriers between human beings and the concomitant release of passion.10

No occasion parodies that release more than the carnival atmosphere generated in the university by the visit of professional writers who look to it for support. They become the subject of Oates's examination of desire in “Rewards of Fame.” Now in his fifties, the poet Murray Licht has never fulfilled his early promise. With several ex-wives and a number of children, he leads an uncertain existence by means of a series of one-year, nonrenewable contracts, night courses, and lecture-readings whenever possible. At one of these readings, held at a small midwestern college, Murray finds faculty and students alike more interested in the reputation of the panelists than in the quality of their poetry. Oates leaves no doubt about Murray's stature both as a man and as a poet. His pocket change consists mostly of pennies. He is concerned about the fickle affections of his current mistress. Most of all, he is intimidated by the discovery that among the panelists will be Joachim Myer, a former schoolmate and rival, whose failed career as a poet was transformed into critical stardom by his New York Review essay on Marshall McLuhan.

For the increasingly dazed Murray, who imagines himself a ghostly figure, the numbing sameness of the poetry circuit takes on the quality of a nightmare. Only the surprisingly youthful-looking Myer, who arrives late, appears to have any substance in this spectral scene. Stringing together a senseless jumble of references to fashionable philosophers, meaningless statistics, and cant phrases, Myer cheerfully attacks both the work of his fellow panelists and the very idea of literacy. “I bring you freedom!” he cheerfully announces to an enthusiastic audience, “total liberation! and the flood of the polymorphous-perverse cosmos denied you by your parents and by our arch-oppressor, Poetry” (p. 169). Though Myer then leaves, viewing the entire proceeding as something of a joke, Murray is sustained, even transfigured, by a condescending reference the critic had made to him as once having been famous.

In “Angst,” Oates makes clear that even the most casual involvement with academic pretensions is costly for a writer. Despite her anxiety about intimacy in any form, Bernadine Donovan is persuaded by her longtime suitor, Herman Geller, to attend a convention at which her finely crafted writing will be the subject of a seminar. Geller is an academic with the usual mixture of envy and self-serving praise for his colleagues. His interest in Bernadine's fiction, like theirs, derives exclusively from a desire for self-advancement. He does not even attend the session at which the humorless panelists distort Bernadine's intentions and meanings and even question her originality. After an embarrassing interruption during which Bernadine tries ineffectually to expose an attempt by a flamboyant graduate student to impersonate the author, she is left with only a near-mystical glimpse of the harsh realities of academe. Yet Bernadine's vision, like the frantic convention atmosphere, lies outside the scope of her imagination, and she is unable to use it even as a source of material for any future work she may do.

Oates has again written of Hilberry University in “The Transformation of Vincent Scoville” and in “The Liberation of Jake Hanley,” both of which appear in her 1976 collection, Crossing the Border. Anxious to begin what he hopes will be a normal faculty life—one of love, friends, marriage—Vincent Scoville is given the opportunity to establish his reputation by editing a group of letters written by a distant relative by marriage of Rudyard Kipling and now owned by the university. He soon recognizes they are worthless as literary documents and, in fact, were donated by a wealthy widow in the hope of embarrassing her husband. Still, Vincent finds himself under pressure from a partially senile university president who sees in the letters a chance to vindicate his otherwise lackluster administration. Vincent desperately attempts to establish some connection, however tenuous, between the letters and the famous author. At first an embarrassment, the project becomes in time a consuming passion and ultimately his life's work. The once-balanced teacher is almost hypnotically transformed into an obsessive pedant, isolated not only from the world but also from the classroom he had earlier considered the last anchor of his sanity.

The seductive appeal of academic isolation similarly accounts for Jake Hanley's escape from the disorders of everyday life. Having impulsively confessed to his wife an affair with a former student, Jake is forced out of his house. He spends more and more time at his office, where he discovers an underground faculty that literally has taken to living there. Among its members is Frank Ambrose. Like Jake, Ambrose is separated from his family and finds in this unreal retreat a perfect atmosphere in which to indulge his recently awakened interest in scholarship, with its endless cross-referencing, archives, and special-collection rooms. Like Frank Ambrose, like Vincent Scoville, like Wanda Barnett—all of whom haunt the office corridors at night—Jake also moves into the office. After a time, he can no longer remember how he got there or that any other world exists. He is content at last.

In contrast with a satirical stance grown so broad in the later tales that it comes to border on fantasy, Oates's earlier stories with an academic setting rely on more subtly ironic, and even melodramatic modes to depict the shallowness of the university environment. In “The Expense of Spirit,” she shows its shabby lives and failed ambitions, its lack of interest in ideas or in values, its exclusion of any life that might challenge its own intellectual pretensions. A young instructor's anxiety about his wife's leaving him causes him to pursue a beautiful undergraduate, whose vacuous social manner dissolves into near-hysteria when she accompanies him to a faculty party. The party proves a grotesquerie that shatters her naive fantasy of the graciousness of academic life. She finds only a strained attempt at nonconformity, marked by prepared expressions, facial tics, scatological references, and attempts to control conversations. No one is concerned about or even aware of anyone else except as an object of sex or envy. One instructor, Cowley, who is pointedly described as having come from the East, exemplifies Oates's contempt for the falseness of the university environment. Hiccuping violently, he drunkenly complains about the nonrenewal of his contract while acknowledging that the indolence of campus life has so spoiled him for any regular work that he now longs only to write scholarly papers.

In “Archways,” which appeared in Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, Oates's second collection of short fiction, Klein, a withdrawn graduate assistant, finds he is unable to interest his students in remedial composition or to convince them that he does not pose a threat to their career goals. The ruthless poverty of his own background, his social unease, his sense of the ugliness of his life, all drive him close to suicide. He is rescued from his depression when one of his students falls in love with him, despite—perhaps because of—her own insecurities, which mirror his. At first Klein, too, believes that he is in love, but the girl's wholehearted commitment to him triggers a feverish interest in scholarship, which leads him callously to abandon her. “He understood matters like that between the girl and himself happened often, perhaps daily at this great university.”11 Even Klein's ultimate discovery that he is only a mediocre teacher does not reveal to him the extent of his loss. He contentedly settles for an undistinguished career and the physical conveniences and satisfactions that signal a conventional existence.

The sterility of the university environment and the emotional rigidity it fosters result in more tragic consequences in “In the Region of Ice.” Sister Irene is a woman in her early 30s with “hard gray eyes and a face waxen with thought.” She is an instructor at a Catholic university where academic life is as anonymous as the inviolable convent rhythm to which she once dedicated herself. “Each day [was] dissociated from the rest with no necessary sense of unity among the teachers: they came and went separately and might for a year just miss a colleague who left his office five minutes before they arrived, and it did not matter.”12 The chilling sense that things do not matter, either to her cynical colleagues or to her indifferent students, leads Sister Irene to submerge her own personality in classroom attempts to communicate facts. When a mentally unstable Jewish student appeals for an intimate human relationship, she can make only a tentative response. The aggressive insensitivity of the boy's father causes her to back away even from this, and she withdraws into the safety of her academic routine. Only when she learns that the boy's unrelieved suffering has resulted in his suicide does she come to understand something of her own lack of feeling. So destructive is the effect of environment on her character, however, that Sister Irene realizes also that she is helpless to act upon her new insights. She retreats to a dreamlike self-absorption, more relieved than saddened by her experience.

An equally destructive self-indulgence takes the contrasting form of an excess of feeling in “Through the Looking Glass.” Father Colton, a liberal seminarian, is a popular teacher on a small but crowded urban campus. Though he is exhilarated by his work and genuinely fond of his students, his concern for their welfare leads him to take over their conversations with his own monologues. In the unhappiness and suspicion of one student, Frieda Holman, the good-natured cleric sees a rare opportunity to test his own patience and humility. His obverse pride proves fateful. Giving up his vocation to marry her, he finds himself deserted when Frieda's indecision proves symptomatic of a serious neurosis. Father Colton is left without support of any kind. The experience, he recognizes, has led him to cross some border of the spirit into the loveless world. He can return only after the discipline of a self-imposed exile among the harmless distances of the Midwest.

Distance, then, rather than intimacy proves a necessary restraint upon the academic unwilling to acknowledge the hostile independence of the human personality. Loving or not, such figures struggle ineffectually for self-fulfillment in Oates's fiction. They are defeated by a life-denying aridity whether they reject the claims of humanity or attempt to respond to those claims. In “Accomplished Desires,” the penalties for transforming the world into an instrument for the fulfillment of personal desires are distributed among all who attempt it. These include narcissistic Professor Mark Arber, his self-effacing wife Barbara, and the calculating student, Dorie, who becomes his mistress. Preoccupied with his career, Arber is unwilling to cancel his scheduled appearance on a panel even to drive Dorie to have an abortion. So completely has his wife submerged her own personality in his, however, that she is unable to resist the emotional needs of the younger woman and commits suicide to allow Dorie to marry her husband. Though Dorie thus accomplishes her desire, she finds herself excluded from Arber's life which, she comes to see, is governed by words “growing like weeds in his brain and his wit moving so rapidly through the brains of others that it was, itself, a kind of life.”13 Unable to escape the deadening domestic routine that follows her marriage to Arber, Dorie sits at a battered desk that reflects the condition of her own ego. She is trapped both by the existence she has manipulated others to bring about and by her emotional inability to deal with it.

Faculty wives are no more sympathetically viewed in Oates's fiction than are their husbands. Without the distractions of classes, campus politics, or even the pretense of literary scholarship, they find it difficult to cope with the stifling banality of academic life. In “Normal Love,” the forty-year-old narrator remarks with unintended irony that, despite a rising crime rate in the quiet college town in which she and her family live, nothing has happened to them. The deadening routine of this environment translates into terror at any sign of her own mortality, and she begins to suspect a sinister design in the most casual social encounter. Even her family, perhaps her family most of all, exerts unbearable pressure on her to sustain its own routine; this pressure, triggered by the estrangement of her vacuous professor-husband, and coupled with his childlike dependence on her, leads to a breakdown.

The deadness of life in an academic community is also partially responsible for the collapse of Ilena Williams, in “The Dead,” a loose reimagining of the well-known story in James Joyce's Dubliners. A part-time university teacher, Ilena becomes famous when she writes a novel about sex and drugs on campus. Though she is assured by her doctor that she is normal, Ilena is strongly attracted to death. Alienated in her marriage, Ilena finds even her love affairs have the grotesque, nightmarish quality of a Chagall painting. Though she has little professional commitment, she assures the loss of her job at a Catholic college by refusing to pass the examination of an obviously incompetent seminarian. The death of John F. Kennedy compels her interest more deeply than does anyone in her life. When one of her students dies of his heroin addiction rather than, as she had believed, in a Vietnam protest, she finds herself sexually stimulated. Her struggle with death, really the pull of self-effacement, finally proves overwhelming; at story's end she sits trembling, on the verge of a breakdown in a hotel room with her lover, as blank as the snow that begins to fall outside.

Oates has little sympathy for the difficulties many academics experience in choosing between the opposing pulls of freedom and safety. In “Magna Mater,” Nora Drexler cultivates a potential for disaster by her inflexible personality. A meticulous scholar, Nora reveals Oates's view that a successful career is often the result of imitative scholarship. Though Nora professes her reluctance to publish critical reviews of her colleagues' work, she takes great satisfaction in the rise of her reputation at their expense. Her professed belief that art stems from a higher consciousness than routine emotional life proves to be simply a fear of change. “I have visions of the floodgates opening,” she protests to a colleague,

our universities vulgarized, destroyed … our programs infested with grotesque “literature” written by all kinds of people … even oral literature, even … even illiterate work. … Unless we're courageous and fight these issues at once, we'll be teaching Pawnee bear songs before we know it.14

Nora's snobbish emphasis on the background of people who should be allowed to write—as well as her restrictive view of the forms literature may take—reveals the prejudices that often underlie supposedly impartial academic judgments. One rather candid, if cheerfully sadistic, colleague admits both his lack of intellectual considerations and the pleasure he takes in the viciousness of his criticism. Ultimately, Nora is patronized and ridiculed by her friends and ignored by her father, a noted scholar himself, who is indifferent to, when not threatened by, his daughter's achievements. She is abandoned as well by her husband, an academic whose books are acclaimed as revolutionary and at once forgotten, and who, like Nora's father, resents her success. Only her nastily precocious son remains subject to her influence. Though he demands her attention, he has nightmares about being smothered by it. He pleases his mother only by pretending to accept the artificial scheme of order she desperately imposes on experience and by denying his fear of being abandoned. Nora's consequent reassurances to him expose not only the destructive cycle of need and dependence that underlies her relationships but also the general academic environment that fosters it.

Oates divides the narcissistic academic personality into two figures in “In the Autumn of the Year.” Measured and deliberate, Eleanor Gerhardt attempts to control history; her more expansive, histrionic ex-lover, Edwin Holler, pretends to transcend its limits. Both present and past have become increasingly unreal to Eleanor, who remains convinced of her central importance in Holler's life and of the genuineness of his feeling for her long after their separation and his death. But from his son, now himself a professor, she receives a different view. A failed academic, Holler had been jealous of his colleagues and fearful of their contempt. He had tormented his wife and young son with operatic rages, during which he boasted of his many affairs. He justified his cruelty by attributing it to the passionate vitality of his nature. If less flamboyant, the son proves no kinder than the father. He vindictively confronts Eleanor with letters she had written imploring Holler to marry her. So threatening are they to the emotional shell that enabled Eleanor to cope with her rejection that she now denies, even to herself, ever having written the letters, even as one by one she burns them. The denial of the past allows her to deny as well her responsibility for the pain suffered by Holler's family. It enables her, finally, to cling to an idea of innocence that substitutes the rigid image of self for the shifting realities of experience.

The academic's fragile grip on reality, typically self-protective and marked by a professional immersion in language, dissolves completely in the ghostly “A Theory of Knowledge.” Sinking into senility, retired professor Reuben Weber is haunted by his failure to organize into a definitive system his ideas on the nature of human knowledge. As his fragmented thoughts wander among old grievances, Weber is visited by a strangely silent boy from a neighboring farm. The professor finds himself both excited by these visits and increasingly fearful of what he suspects is mistreatment of the boy at his home. After repeatedly hearing what he thinks are cries for help, Weber makes a fantastic night journey to the boy's farm. There he finds him abandoned and cruelly tied up. In a gesture that suggests both his desire to liberate himself and to reclaim his own imaginary youth, Weber unties the boy. The gesture signals a complete break with the restraints imposed on the intellect by reality. Both the professor and the boy join in conspiratorial laughter, suggesting the madness such freedom may occasion.

Relevant here are Oates's comments on the attenuated process of consciousness in the works of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Their writings, she claims, empty the natural world of much of the range of human experience as it is actually lived and people it instead solely with “spirits without personal bodies [who] inhabit time and space in a ghostly manner.”15 In contrast, Oates points to the more traditional novels of Fielding, Austen, or Thackeray, for whom identity is defined in terms of social judgment. “Why must art be painful?” she asks. “And if it is deliberately conceived of as a negative human activity, how can its products be anything less than death-affirming, despairing, an unnatural distortion of one of the most joyful of all human adventures, the mysterious flowering of the imagination into conscious forms?”16 Such objective forms are systematically reduced to nihilistic utterances by the academic refusal to accept mystery over reason. Academic ritual substitutes a desacralizing separation of incantation from sacrifice and so proves incapable of a healing violence. “I believe,” Oates has observed, “that any truly felt lyric poem (not simply some Midwestern professor's attempt to write a Poem, to add to his bibliography for the Head of the English Department) can be expanded outward into a story—a novel—anything.”17 The geographical qualification “Midwestern” parochializes the academic's pretension to poetry; the capitalization of the word “Poem” suggests a condescending self-consciousness. Combined they limit the approach to imaginative literature within the clearly prescribed boundaries of pragmatic advantage.

Oates indicates how we are to understand and evaluate this conventional performance in her analysis of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. At the play's center she finds a desire that never seems justified by the value of the objects toward which it is directed. Neither the dramatist nor the drama is thus able to arrive at any valid affirmation of values. The mockery is universal. Ambition—the assertion of self—is uniformly met not only by disappointment but also by the suspicion that all is hallucination. Those involved are unwilling to accept their fate even though it is the result of their character, perhaps because it is determined by character. We witness in tragedy the necessary submission of private ambition to public limits and so to universal good. Only in art can we realize the marvelous that we desire in life.18 That academics refuse to realize this may be what Oates finds most disturbing about them. Like Hamlet, whose tragedy she claims is that he cannot accept appearances, they struggle against the obvious. But academics lack Hamlet's faith and only imitate Shakespeare's eloquence. Accordingly they convert delusion to farce.

Structured more as problem comedies than satires, then, Oates's stories with academic settings are never seen against a larger world of which they are satirical offshoots. Even Oates's narrative voice does not maintain its distance. It often enters the consciousness of her characters, shaping itself in terms of their hesitations and confusions. Accordingly, it cannot provide either sudden knowledge or even partial insights. Though Oates conveys an implied judgment of her typical academics, her voice generally sounds neither angry nor impatient with their Faustian intention. Instead, she seems merely troubled by the inability to balance loss of ego with loss of ego control.

Her professors, then, end up in much the same condition as they begin. Their small successes are not only seldom satisfying, but also always quickly overshadowed by the difficulties resulting from an exclusive reliance on intellect as a way of perceiving the world. These characters reduce experience to a projection of the self, with a correlative refusal to believe in the existence of others. Internalizing the rage that results from this isolation, they are unable to force into consciousness the perverse and often terrifying conditions that Oates sees informing our time. They are condemned to remain immobilized in the trance of self. This picture of the academic echoes the despair Oates has attributed to Sylvia Plath. In that doomed poet, Oates saw “a furious impatience with the limitations of the ego (which she called the ‘mind‘), a raging self-disgust that, had it not ended in suicide, might have cleansed her of those impurities of her era she had absorbed and allowed her the visionary experience she sensed was a human possibility.”19

Despite, perhaps because of, her gravitation toward the visionary possibility, Oates offers in her academic fiction no hint of the complex educational or economic problems that currently beset the campus. Nor is there any suggestion in her fiction of how these problems affect or are affected by what was once innocently thought of as the life of the mind. Her academic tales lack characters struggling to develop their personalities in the recognizable fullness of human conflict; they offer no contrasting typological figures. There is in their narrow ironies no kindly if absent-minded professor or stern pedant who sharpens his students' minds by demanding an uncompromising intellectual rigor. There is no suggestion of the poignant self-assertion of Nabokov's Pnin, of the passionate devotion to teaching of Bernard Malamud's S. Levin, or of the rational decency of Lionel Trilling's John Laskell. Equally lacking is the nostalgic serenity with which Willa Cather's Gregory St. Peter thinks of his vocation or the naive idealism with which Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog plunges into the world of ideas as a refuge from his unstable personal relationships. Instability is an occupational hazard for Oates's academics, who refuse to acknowledge the murderous consequences of rationalizing their desires. The conflict between their inner compulsions and an unyielding reality often drives them beyond sanity. Comedy shrugs at this situation; irony indicates its disappointment from a position of superiority. Satire gets even. For academics who inflate their petty concerns into broad moral issues, Oates reserves a special comic punishment—that of ridicule.

She has described the central conflict in Chekhov's comedies of baffled expectation as a ghostly involvement in language divorced from both the images and realities that support it.20 Writers, critics, and teachers in her own fiction similarly shape their fantasies into obsessive concerns that continue to haunt them even as they themselves victimize others. Writer, critic, and teacher herself, Oates seems haunted by these same controlling roles and by the hypocrisies and desires they project. To the degree that her characters' morbid passivity and violent frustrations are enacted in her fiction, she can exorcise these ghostly figures. At the same time, she takes revenge upon them for their attacks on man's knowledge of a shared, universal condition. No matter how ingenious or arrogant, the individual ego, Oates is convinced, can never erase the memory of that knowledge from our collective consciousness. In her fiction it seems to be in the academic nature never to stop trying.


  1. The Assassins (New York: Vanguard Press, 1975), p. 101. This and all other citations are to the writings of Joyce Carol Oates.

  2. Remarks on accepting the National Book Award in fiction for them, repr. in Mary Kathryn Grant, The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1978), p. 164.

  3. Introduction to The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (New York: Vanguard Press, 1972), p. 6. See also “Transformations of Self: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” Ohio Review 15 (1973): 54.

  4. “The Myth of the Isolated Artist,” Psychology Today 6 (May 1973): 74.

  5. “Transformations of Self,” p. 58.

  6. Ibid., p. 52.

  7. “The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence,” in New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (New York: Vanguard Press, 1974), pp. 45-46.

  8. “Myth of the Isolated Artist,” p. 75.

  9. The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978). Further references will be given in parentheses in the text.

  10. “Forms of Tragic Literature,” in The Edge of Impossibility, pp. 3-8.

  11. “Archways,” in Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (New York: Vanguard Press, 1966), p. 183.

  12. “In the Region of Ice,” in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (New York: Vanguard Press, 1970), p. 32.

  13. “Accomplished Desires,” in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories, p. 145.

  14. “Magna Mater,” in The Goddess and Other Women (New York: Vanguard Press, 1974), p. 206.

  15. “The Art of Relationships: Henry James and Virginia Woolf,” in New Heaven, New Earth, p. 11.

  16. “The Hostile Sun,” pp. 39-40.

  17. “Transformations of Self,” p. 54.

  18. “The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida,” in The Edge of Impossibility,” pp. 11-36.

  19. Preface to New Heaven, New Earth, p. 7.

  20. “Chekhov and the Theatre of the Absurd,” in The Edge of Impossibility, pp. 119-20.

Further Reading

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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, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 45, 74, 113; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 19, 33, 52, 108, 134; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 130; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories,Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

Dieter Saalmann (essay date winter 1990)

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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 psyche. In the latter narrative, the specificity of the East-West barrier is elevated to encompass the philosophical underpinnings of all divides that constrict the mind. In both prose texts, the rigorous assessment of the historical facts underlying Berlin's special status, namely, its allied administrative regimen, is an impressive and convincing concretization of the principle of deconstruction.

In summary fashion, Oates' argument goes as follows: neither East nor West Berlin recognize each other's full legitimacy—the West by scrupulously adhering to the provisions of the Four Power Agreement, with the East blithely ignoring these arrangements. As a result, both sides engage, willy-nilly, in the act of deconstructing their own logocentric reasoning. Thus understood, the Wall has no presence; its foregroundedness is being denied by the unimpeded access of the Allied Forces to the antagonist's ideological sphere of influence. As an extension of the “non-being” of the Wall, East Berlin and West Berlin do not have a presence either. At the same time, the presumed entity of Berlin as an overarching concept does likewise not exist in an unambiguous sense. “Greater Berlin,” the author avers, is “a matter of facts that cannot contend with its presence.”1 In consequence, the Allies, by virtue of their mutually agreed upon obviation of the urban givens—West Berlin, East Berlin—do, nolens, volens, reaffirm the idea of an all-encompassing construct of sorts, but equally sous rature, or under erasure, as Derrida would have it: Berlin. Such an approach bestows the aura of timelessness on the Wall. It dehistoricizes the edifice. In deconstructive terms, it has been displaced, like its surrounding territory, but not actually obliterated: Berlin Wall. It is, therefore, revealed as a phenomenon without a language of its own to bestow meaning, except for the idiom of postponed existence and deferral of final certitude: “Speak to me in Berliner,” as the author articulates the current reality of the former capital of the German Reich by postulating its nature in terms of an ongoing discourse of differences (106-07). The two polities that share the designation “Berlin” are, fundamentally, semiotic, rather than semantic, notions subject to indefinite suspension. “Berliner,” then, is a linguistic concept that embodies the presumed exclusiveness and putatively determinate significations of the two Berlin entities, including the Wall, and the whole East-West constellation, as a system of incessantly changing signs.

It is the West German novelist and essayist Peter Schneider, who, in his treatise The Wall Jumper, emphasizes the fact that in the post-World War II era, “German” is valid solely in reference to language.2 This claim needs to be revised in the light of Oates' findings regarding the idiom of “Berliner.” Schneider tends to discount the metaphysical fallacy that debases German as a verbal medium. He fails to take into account that it incorporates the logocentric constraints imposed on it by capitalism and socialism alike. Hence, there exist only the ideologically preconceived versions of “German.” As an all-inclusive idea, it has been dislodged by antinomical ideational appropriation. It can, therefore, be conceived merely as a ceaseless movement of coetaneous dislocation and reconstitution: German. To paraphrase Oates, each logocentric version of German must be taken separately; it is comprehensible only within the restrictive sphere of its particular pre-determination. Thus, the contrarieties afflicting both Germanys preclude a holistic notion of the German language, as propagated by Schneider. It is Oates' sovereign use of impeccable and incontrovertible logic that denounces the ideological absolutism on either side of the Iron Curtain. In this way, she illuminates the common landscape of illogicality and irrationalism that links the opposing camps.

For Oates, history, too, needs to be deconstructed in order to fight the collective amnesia of Berliners regarding the past. As she writes in “Ich bin ein Berliner,”

Berlin was reduced to rubble and rubble has no memory so you cannot expect a poignant sense of history: and in any case does history exist? Everyone appears to have been born after 30 April 1945. If not, if they are older folk, they certainly served courageously in the Resistance; they may have been wounded, imprisoned, tortured—the usual. … They are patriotic. If they want the two Germanys united it is only in the interest of world peace, a bulwark, as the saying goes, against the Enemy.


The residents of this city—and, by implication, of the two German republics—are engaged, it seems, in a “deconstructive” practice of their own by disavowing any responsibility for what transpired in the pre-1945 epoch. These bygone years are buried under rhetorical clichés such as “resistance” and the illegitimacy of its universal claim. The present is reduced to cold-war stereotypes—e.g., the purposed role of West Berlin and the Federal Republic as beacons of democracy confronting the Feindbilder, or adversarial images of the German Democratic Republic: “‘The Wall’ is rarely used,” the narrator of “Our Wall” explains; “The expression over there is fairly frequent, as in (to a naughty child): If you don't behave I'll send you over there. (Over where? I once asked my mother boldly. Over where? Where?—You'll see over where, my mother said, slapping my face. Her breath came quick and hard; her own cheeks were burning.)”3

Such logocentrism accounts for the “claustrophobic atmosphere” that bedevils East-West relations, not only in physical, but more importantly, in notional terms. To wit: the rambling discourse of the State Department official in “Ich bin ein Berliner.” His breathless effusions impregnated with hackneyed terminology are dramatized and impressed upon the reader typographically by the complete absence of punctuation:

we are devoted to Berlin it is a very special city it is a phenomenon unparalleled in diplomatic history a stateless city a “Western” city in “East Europe” under our protection you must recall John F. Kennedy's famous words I am a Berliner in the very geography of totalitarianism the glittering city survives the jewel afloat upon the sea of darkness survives and flourishes under our protection for it will not be attacked by the Enemy an armed attack on Berlin is precisely the same as an armed attack on Chicago or New York or Washington. …


This kind of rhetorical imperviousness perverts the historical process itself. Such vacuous terminology adheres to the same preceptual dogmatism that is anathema to the deconstructive urge to directly confront and dislodge the Procrustean bed of ideological ritual and conformity. History is a continuous movement of variegated directions. Hence, the respite from German history sought by the American diplomat betrays a propensity for self-delusion. The annals of human activities, it must be noted, are not under the spell of supposedly unfathomable forces, as is so often proclaimed, but the product of personal initiative: “History”—Oates reiterates in “Ich bin ein Berliner” what should be self-evident—“cannot imitate itself without human participation” (110). Like the Wall, it is neither “finitude” nor an “absolute end,” but a constantly evolving discourse whose text it behooves us to decipher (110).

Oates suggests that traveling from West Berlin to the Federal Republic is, in a sense, tantamount to moving in an “easterly” direction because of the intervening GDR territory. Such a deconstructive attack on conceptual centrism undergirds the belief that “fact” need not be identical with “truth.” The resultant dislodging of terminological certainty relativizes the established precepts. It recalls Robert Frost's effort to find an answer to the query as to whether a human-made barrier “walls in” or “walls out.”4 It is the same inclusionary, as well as exclusionary, predicament that is ascribed to the Berlin Wall and its dual effect on the adjacent populations in “Our Wall”: “There is a paradise beyond The Wall in which men and women live ‘freely.’ (Though of course they must be bound—how could they fail to be?—by The Wall, just as we are. Perhaps it is somehow worse for them because our Wall surrounds them)” (238).

For Oates, the East-West boundary line in Berlin suggests a “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” configuration, a political trivialization of this ancient yearning for transubstantiation. In this sense, the Wall represents the Faustian myth of the two souls in the German breast, now reincarnated in two disparate bodies politic. German-German history is the story of the doppelgänger, with one country seeing itself continually mirrored in the other's image, thereby being forced into an endless confrontation with its destiny. Thus, the twain are compelled, because of self-inflicted historical circumstance, as well as intellectual tradition, to meet again and again, in accordance with the law of ineluctability. The ontological message of being a “Berliner,” then, intimates what seems to be an irreparably discontinuous state of existence.

As for Oates' deconstructive mindset, its most poignant manifestation is the raison d'être for the narrator's journey to West Berlin in “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The ostensible reason is to recover the brother's body after the young American has fallen victim to his unbridled infatuation with the East-West conflict in the very heart of the ideological controversy. Nonetheless, what counts, ultimately, is the how of his death, in congruence with the Derridean credo, rather than the why, however logical its primacy may appear. More central to the task at hand are the internal dynamics that constitute the Wall and that explain the brother's perdition. In view of such prioritizing, the visitor's own ideological motivation, or logocentric doctrine, must recede into the background. Any attempt to dwell extensively on the justification for the Wall and the human sacrifice it has demanded would bestow too much credence on the metaphysics behind its existence. As Oates explains in “Our Wall”: “why was The Wall constructed?” “But no one understands [the] question.” “No one, not even our oldest citizen, understands. Each of the … words, taken singly, is comprehensible; but the question in its entirety is incomprehensible. … Why was The Wall constructed?” (233-34). The individual word represents the pre-logocentric phase, whereas the sentence as a whole embodies the result of ideational encrustration. As a consequence, metaphysical obstruction is taken for granted, thanks to the seductive convenience of an all-too-facile submission to canonical rhetoric: “It is far easier—most of us find it easier—to assume that The Wall is eternal, that it ever was and ever shall be. And that the Forbidden Zone (which of course none of us has ever seen) is eternal too” (234). Hence, such a submissive attitude of unquestioning acceptance of the ideological status quo is bound to inhibit human inquisitiveness.

With respect to the Berlin Wall, Peter Schneider accentuates its invisible presence, as well as the difficulty of restoring its conspicuousness.5 It is the same observation that Oates makes in “Our Wall”: “The largest percentage of the population … does not ‘see’ the wall at all—that is, literally” (236). Thus understood, the structure has surrendered its distinctiveness, except for its myth-generating capacity, which diminishes its physical impact. For Schneider, this vanishing act is highlighted by the fact that the artificial Berlin Wall of a movie set commands a greater corporeal awareness than its real-life counterpart. In fact, the original “composition” has evolved into “a work of art” (236) in its own right; it has become the very incarnation of “Berlinart,” an exploration of the world of graffiti creations. It is thus in the Berlin Wall that the common denominator of “artistic” and “artificial” has found an objective correlative. It advocates a revisionary perception of history, not as the inescapable result of unalterable laws of a transpersonal origin, but as an uninterrupted sequence of unique events. Such a view mobilizes the creative attributes of the artistic endeavor for historical purposes in order to countervail the putatively inexorable course of history and the fatalistic attitude it entails. In aesthetic terms, the author, as artist of the word, reshapes the reality of the Berlin Wall through the transformational power of the imagination.

Creativity is synonymous with the visionary faculty. Thus, it is quite valid to assert that “dream precedes history in Oates' vision.”6 The author herself concurs: “In dreams, the most shameful and turbulent of dreams,” writes Oates in “Our Wall,” “where one is clambering up The Wall … in dreams we scale The Wall nightly, and keep our secrets to ourselves” (240-41). The Berlin Wall, in Oates' view, is made up of a multitude of metamorphic layers of ideations. Inured to logocentric intimidation, she senses the boundary's historicity, an amalgam of old and new ideological tissues. Highly attuned to the relationship of the Great Divide to art, she couches her description in aesthetic language of a distinctly nightmarish quality. Seen from a strictly deconstructive vantage point, constitution and notional dissolution of the structure, its past and present conjoin in a moment of heightened awareness and attendant ontological precariousness. In sum, the Berlin Wall, for Oates, incarnates the entelechy of individualization and its resistance to the societal forces that impinge on its prerogatives.

It is thus in the realm of the imagination that the author sees the most promising potential for surmounting the seemingly irreconcilable cleavage between East and West: “A very strange tale, too wild to be credible, about a family in a balloon who drifted across The Wall. Seven people including a baby. Romantic but implausible. … Wouldn't a large balloon make an irresistible target?” (241). Since the event in question is based on an actual incident, it emerges that the alleged irrationalism of such an action transcends the supposed rationality supporting the Wall. In this sense, the success of a balloon flight signals the triumph of the putatively romantic, i.e., irreal, over a concrete phenomenon. Thus, the fictitious exploration of the imaginative potential of the human mind exposes so-called sober facticity as a thoroughly fantastic reality. Factuality and dream coalesce in the romantic sphere of illimited imagining.

In her story “Crossing the Border,” Oates describes the American-Canadian boundary as follows: “The border between two nations is always indicated by broken but definite lines, to indicate that it is not quite real in any physical sense but very real in a metaphysical sense: so nature surrenders to politics, as mythology surrenders to physiology.”7 Regarding the Berlin Wall, the situation is considerably more complex. On western maps, as observed by Oates, it usually appears as a deliberately incomplete demarcation to signal ideological opposition to the concreteness of this “wall of shame.” The East resorts to the same rhetoric of logocentric occlusion by marking what it prefers to call its “antifascist protective wall” in the shape of a solid line. Deconstructively, the edifice defies depiction in either fashion. “Definite” and “indefinite” extensions are, ultimately, irrelevant criteria. The true character of the Wall, as Oates recognizes in “Ich bin ein Berliner,” is the fluidity of its meaning: “What is the Wall but a dotted line on my tourist map?” she opines in this context; “It's even difficult to locate that dotted line, tiny pale blue dots, aswim in a typographical picnic of livelier colors” (101). Such thinking negates dualistic reasoning through the deferring process of differing-differentiating with respect to the antinomical ideological tenets. The “metaphysical sense” that Oates discerns in the Canadian border is, therefore, identical with the notion of “metaphysics” invoked by Derrida in denouncing the nefarious consequences of linguistic totalization.

In view of these insights, it can be asserted that “Our Wall” fulfills substantially more than solely a “contrapuntal” role vis-à-vis “Ich bin ein Berliner.”8 In addition to its obvious function as a narrative counterpoint, “Our Wall” is, first and foremost, a sustained allegorical elaboration and deepening of its companion piece. Oates' use of allegory, adumbrated in “Ich bin ein Berliner,” turns the Wall into a more comprehensive metaphor. The allegory, by definition a figure of rhetoric that conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal significance, reaches beyond the realism of the Wall to elucidate the universal implications of all obstacles bifurcating human consciousness, “the wall in our heads,” to quote Schneider's succinct assessment of the contemporary world. In this context, Oates, too, avers in a similar vein in “Ich bin ein Berliner”: “The Wall is, by the sleight-of-hand of logic, all walls” (110; see also 109). In reality, however, it is more than a simple case of prestidigitation involving the rational faculties. It is decidedly not the magic, i.e., the implausibility of reasoning, but its natural, in other words, its consequential and compelling, rather than supernatural, attributes that extend the import of the Wall to the human domain as a whole. This given—namely, “the Wall = the wall”—thus emerges as a constitutive, definitely not as a fortuitous, comparison. It reaffirms the prejudicial disposition as being endemic to humanity's nature. Allegorical representation transcends the merely analogous, inasmuch as it appeals to the power of deconstructive imagination. Political allegory in particular, it should be noted, uncovers and conceals at the same time. It thereby disarticulates the hegemonic equation “West = good”-“East = bad” that precipitated the erection of the Berlin Wall in the first place.

Oates actively engages the reader in the constitution of the text. By necessitating a perennial reevaluation of the asseverations implicit in the verbal material, she forces the recipient of her linguistic signals to duplicate the process of concurrently taking apart and rebuilding what is unfolding in her discourse. In this way, she shifts the focus of her narrative, as outlined earlier, from content-based categories—the why—toward the dynamic pattern of relationships—the how. The socio-political polarities that have begotten the Wall, but whose impact reaches far beyond the parameters of Greater Berlin, are not aufgehoben, or sublated, in the Hegelian sense of the word. Instead, the entire East-West conflict is merely “erased,” as understood by Derrida, in order to do justice to the multiplicity of history's enduring movement of (re)affirmation and denial, a “ceaselessly” operating “mechanism …” (107).

“The explanation is—the Wall” (109). Oates' narrative approach in “Ich bin ein Berliner” extends the concept of the textual field to the Berlin Wall itself because it is viewed as the inevitable consequence of a rhetorical operation. The very existence of the structure, as we have had occasion to observe, is engendered by German-German interaction and required by both systems as a matter of political convenience to ensure the survival of these independent logocentric entities. In a genuinely deconstructive manner, however, this assumption is instantly called into question by Oates, to the extent that it only “appears” to be a matter of ideological expediency (110). She thus advocates the discourse of oppositions as against the idée fixe of identity. In order to escape the prison house of doctrinaire fictions, she adheres to the politics of referentiality. The goal is to liberate the spirit of the children allegedly buried in the Wall. Their voices attest to the truth that the edifice is more than just “The Wall,” i.e., the entombed presence of the victims of the dichotomous East-West metaphysics it incarnates. These “faint” and “incredulous” voices of childhood have a paradigmatic function. They evince ideational innocuousness, the proverbial blank page that is the human mind in its infancy unencumbered by pre-established harmonies. Hence, the Berlin Wall is a “living memorial” of German-German relations in the potentially regenerative meaning of the term. As such, it does indeed embody the peril of death, but it also contains the promise of survival: “for the Wall is Death”; “the Wall is Life” (110).

The key motif in “Our Wall” is the notion of a “Day of Grace” when the obstruction may be scaled with impunity. The choice of a terminology imbued with religious, i.e., metaphysical, connotations makes this an especially effective means of deconstructive technique to displace the supposedly “holy writ” that is the Wall. The “Day of Absolution,” to be sure, functions as a symbol of atonement for logocentric sins. At the same time, the unpredictability of this event accords with the undecidability inherent in the principle of what Derrida calls différance, to put it another way, a pattern of speech that differs while postponing a secure grasp of its meaning. Alas, this exorcism of what Schneider in The Wall Jumper calls the “Church Latin of East and West” (127) is susceptible to unwarranted logocentric manipulation: “It may be claimed,” Oates writes in “Our Wall,” “that a Day of Grace has been announced for a certain area—a privileged area—and not for another” (234). Suchlike rumors and speculation are indicative of the kind of ideational appropriation that leads to a veritable fascination with the ideal of dispensation from the monopolyzing pressures of ideology. The ensuing paralyzing effect can be characterized as logocentric closure in reverse: “certain obsessed and rather pathetic individuals who can speak of nothing else (though—of course—these are the very individuals who would never dream of trying to scale The Wall)” (235).

The aporetic language used throughout the stories—“it is said,” “it is rumored,” “I surmise,” “it is believed,” “it appears,” “evidently,” “suspicion,” “perhaps”—confirms the principle of deconstructive indeterminacy as the guiding axiom of this prose. Concomitantly, the author of “Our Wall” conjures up the utopian vision of a better future: “For we are, as our historians have noted, a hopeful people” (235). However, her optimistic appraisal is immediately countermanded in concordance with the stringent ethos of disbelief germane to post-structuralist thinking: “To the east, to the west?—difficult to judge. … What is there to say?” (236). Once again, the deconstructive effort to destabilize the ontology of the projected world points to the fact that matter—e.g., the Berlin Wall—is the means, not the object, of significance. Oates' artistic creed is based on the assumption that ultimate truth must elude human percipience. Only the intrinsic operations of language are accessible to the inquiring mind. This, needless to say, is tantamount to conceding the primacy of skepticism over predestined knowledge. Such textual agnosticism counteracts the menace of totalitarian hermeneutics. It does not condone withdrawal from political responsibility and subversion of commitment at all, though. On the contrary, the author's stance represents peremptorily a linguistic aporia. Its intent is to purge language—and, in consequence, the mental landscape—of all notional contamination in order to create a tabula rasa of idiom and mind. This, then, sets the stage for broaching the realm of politics from an unbiased perspective of genuine openness. It permits an authentic restructuring of ensconsed canons.

As for the death of his younger brother at the hands of East German border guards, the narrator of “Ich bin ein Berliner” proffers the following observation: “Identification?—gone. He had thrown away his passport. … He had thrown away being American, it seems, preparatory to throwing away being human, preparatory to throwing away being alive. I hate him for that logic” (107). This is also the logic of deconstructive rationalization carried to its ultimate conclusion. The inexorable movement from the specific to the general, i.e., allegorical, from presumed identity to nonentity, highlights the extreme consequence of allegory as an emblem of physical extinction. The strictly rhetorical process of dispossessing established verities has thus taken a profoundly “morbid,” indeed destructive turn. Like the concepts “East” and “West,” life itself, for the deceased brother, is primarily a state of mind, a quintessentially logocentric phenomenon. As such, it, too, is subject to the same process of not only displacing, but actually invalidating existential meaningfulness, a deferral of signification clearly gone awry: “Who can know,” the narrative voice initiates its ontological inquiry, “who can be sure of these things?—premonitions—anticipating suicide—death?” (98). In the end, even the act of dying, be it of the personal or general variety—“that particular death … some death … someone's death”—needs to be divested of its metaphysical import (98). In a related vein, the propensity of West Germans for submerging their Germanness in a universal milieu—“They are Americans at heart”—is, in essence, a comparable attempt to eschew the burdensome idealist legacy of history (109).

The historical precedent for the brother's sacrifice on the ideological boundary line was set by Peter Fechter, killed on August 17, 1962. (See “Ich bin ein Berliner,” 102; see also “Our Wall,” 240.) His death, like the demise of the fictitious persona, must be desacrilized. The martyred youth, an image akin to the victimization that attaches to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in the Federal Republic, has become a propaganda tool for the West. The original purity of his idealism has degenerated into logocentric petrification. Oates writes in “Ich bin ein Berliner”: “He was … allowed to bleed to death for a long, a very long, a famously long time.” “He is bleeding to death still: you can see the snaky black blood on the pavement. Propaganda hero. … Granted you die only once: but how long does it take?” (102; see also 105). Thus, the idea of freedom has deteriorated into an unwholesome obsession, not only on the part of the principal actors, but also with regard to posterity. Such a charge can likewise be leveled against the reporting “I” which is deeply entangled in this web of metaphysical obfuscation. In this sense, German history, from the incipient days of Berlin in the thirteenth century to the present, has become a single totalizing gesture of putatively unimpeachable certainties. The task confronting the narrator now is to de-center such institutionalized privilegings. In accordance with the deconstructive mode, the proclaimed mimetic pretense—“I am reporting what I see and failing to alter a syllable”—is instantaneously canceled by the aporetical modalities of the narration: “It is America. But no it is Berlin. West Berlin. Germany. But no it is America. No? Yes?” (100); “ruddy thug-faces cruising in their Mercedes, pigs' snouts, small blinking beady eyes, but I am being unfair, am I being unfair?” (102). “Morbidity,” a key term in Oates' argument against the proselytizing penchant of odeological obscurantism, is, therefore, synonymous with Derrida's seminal notion of logocentrism. Thus, the pained sounds of the dying Peter Fechter in “Our Wall”—“A high faint voice. An incredulous voice. Not a voice I recognize”—have been completely deconstructed (240). The narrator's refusal to acknowledge any familiarity with them implies the categorical denial of the ideational prerogatives claimed by the youth's fate. In the same manner, even the “I's” next of kin, after sacrificing himself for whatever ideological cause he may have championed, falls victim to this procedure of rigorous de-mythologizing: “who am I,” the narrator of “Ich bin ein Berliner” declares, “pretending to be a younger brother of the deceased … ?” (98). “I don't have any brother, I shouted,” says the narrator of “Our Wall” (240). The true “enemy,” then, is neither East nor West, but instead the “Forbidden Zone” of logocentric closure in which all the warring parties are condemned to reside (233).

“To caress—just once—the blank face of The Wall. To get that close. To lay your hands upon it. Just once! … and being riddled by the guards' bullets at the same time (for death too, at such a time, in such a manner, would be exquisite)” (240-41). The experience of dying is described in terms that suggest death to be a thoroughly aestheticized, in effect, sensuous experience, with almost voluptuous overtones bordering on the sadistic. It proffers a sensation that skirts the macabre: “The Wall, where small yellow butterflies impale themselves upon the barbed wire. … A delirium that must be love …” (241). It is precisely the Wall's almost pleasurable allurement that provides an explanation for the brother's sacrificial offering of himself, for his having been captivated by, and truly enamored with, the enigma of life and death, as enunciated in Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that this work has held a well-nigh morbid interest for the young American. “The aim of all life is death”—this is the very Freudian tenet of unrelieved exclusionism and contrariety that the narrator's deconstructive stance seeks to undo. Her unswervingly skeptical outlook posits the absence of any teleological finality attending textual representation. To wit: references to focal points of terminological authority such as Checkpoint Charlie de-face the same mythical veneer, or mask of meaning, that encumbers the two states' mutual perceptions as unverifiable hypotheses. In Oates' view, even the fact of death, the highest expression of antithesis and finitude, represents, in actuality, nothing but the fallacy of premature closure. In this sense, the Berlin Wall, it has been observed, is indeed a sort of reality check. The German-German product functions as “a kind of hologram, an endlessly defracting set of images. …”9 The Wall's displacing characteristics accentuate its deconstructive effect, in contradistinction to the refracting, or mimetic, impact of positively embodied verity. The déplacement of this fissure alleviates the historically conditioned sense of claustrophobia that continues to haunt what is nowadays a two-track German mind. Demythologizing the engrossing structure, in turn, defuses the inclination of the German language to luxuriate in the perceived isolation afflicting the two German republics.

The story “Ich bin ein Berliner” concludes with an “old legend” set in the Bavarian Alps during the epoch of the Holy Roman Empire. By historicizing the question of liberty versus bondage—“Once upon a time …”—Oates imbues her argument with a mythical quality of an atemporal nature. It provides the proclaimed anteriority of the Wall—“Long before many of us were born,” reads the first sentence of “Our Wall,” “The Wall was”—not only with the patina of yore, but also with the legitimizing force of the past (233; see also 241). The parable-like narrative gives credence to the concept of a relational universe that re-evaluates the traditionally antinomical view of life and death. In this sphere of relative values, the idea of freedom is equated with the possibility of destruction, whereas imprisonment guarantees a life of sorts, however restrictive it may be. Thus, incarceration is tantamount to existence, while independence is identified with non-being. The putatively unreal ambience of “Ich bin ein Berliner” with its reversal of conventional criteria makes the irreality of contemporary German-German affairs even more convincing. The aperture in the wall of the castle tower, an apparent means of escape, causes an obsessive concern with this supposed window on a world that presumably transcends closure, but beyond which the prisoner cannot see. To be sure, such fascination with the thought of escaping from the dungeon must be viewed as a form of logocentric closure. Yet the lesson to be learned at the same time is to persevere in an indefatigable and intrepid effort to improve the human condition, irrespective of the unpredictable, if ineluctable nature of such a quest. The legend, needless to say, is a less-than-veiled analogy to German-German relations. The tower, in this context, functions as the paradigmatic representation of a city and nation rent asunder by the Great Divide. The indeterminacy factor in this historical field of textuality, as in the case of its present-day equivalent, is of such magnitude that the narrative process un-projects its own allegorical purpose. The final comments in “Ich bin ein Berliner,” returning to the present, reinforce the iterative and skeptical nature of the creative modalities underlying Oates' deconstructive method: “Unless Rudi, or one of the others, is telling me lies. Unless they are confusing me with someone else” (112; my emphasis). This “tireless research” espoused by the author is the hermeneutic imperative; it is itself subject to the epistemological uncertainty principle, as espoused by Heisenberg in 1927. “Absolute truth,” Oates concludes in “Our Wall,” “is impossible to come by …” (238). In this sense, then, the Berlin Wall indeed is, and is not, the Berlin Wall. To put it differently, it concomitantly eliminates and rewrites itself against a richly endowed background of historical antecedents.

The axiom of undecidability symptomatic of the deconstructive posture is unmistakably enunciated in the reference by the narrator of “Our Wall” to “the interminable month of August” (237). The Berlin Wall—built on August 13, 1961—has evolved into a factor of indefinite duration in intra-German contacts. Its captivating impact testifies to the power of logocentric petrification and spellbinding metaphysics:

The Wall: which stretches out forever. Mesmerizing and boring and beautiful, so beautiful! … our Wall! … Gray concrete. Miles. Years. A lifetime. An eternity. … At peace. So beautiful. … The Wall is absolutely motionless … one cannot imagine a time when it was not. … I want to sit for long … mesmerizing hours. … I am at peace, gazing at The Wall. Its wonderful sameness, its mysterious strength. … I am at peace here. … I am content to live my life on this side.


Nonetheless, the critical observer does not fail to perceive the rain that has erased the contours of the Wall. Such trenchant perception establishes, even in a physiological sense, the non-presence of the edifice, however ephemeral its obliteration may be. It complements the boundary's ideational non-existence, as noted by Schneider. As a result, Oates reiterates in “Our Wall” her quintessentially de-centering stance: “My own theory? I have none. I think only of The Wall. The fact of The Wall, which settles so massively in the mind. The Wall exists to be scaled, like all walls: it is the most exquisite of temptations. The Wall poses the question—How long can you resist?”—i.e., defy the irrepressible lure of narrative subversion (239). This interrogative disposition invites a dispassionate reappraisal of the Wall's raison d'être. “I have never seen The Wall desecrated” (239). Surrounded by an aura of sanctity, the border has become a religious faith, in fact, an ideological icon to be deprived of its stifling metaphysical halo. The same can be said of the Mercedes-Benz star atop a building in West Berlin in “Ich bin ein Berliner”: “A sacred vision beamed over the Wall into the shadowy East” (100). The gospel of capitalism incarnate must also be disenfranchised in order to uncover the treacherous nature of its pseudo religious message.

This can be accomplished through an intense visual examination of the Wall's intrinsic properties: “So few of my fellow citizens ‘see’ The Wall at all,” Oates remarks deploringly in “Our Wall” (240). Such a deconstituting vision, then, requires the ability to see through the sham of ideological presuppositions that form the very essence of the dividing line. Trenchant observation, however, is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, a searching analysis reveals the enticing nature of logocentric pretense: “The Wall, in the midday sun, appears to show a certain benevolent aspect. If you stare for a very long time, your eyes held open wide, this benevolence becomes obvious” (240). By the same token, undue curiosity may also invite retaliatory action on the part of those responsible for the metaphysical obstructionism: “Of course there are lurid tales: men and even women shot down and dragged away and never heard of again, and never spoken of again. Because they stared too hard at The Wall. Might have seemed to be studying it, memorizing it. Adoring it” (241). Yet, critical “adoration” of the structure can also expose almost invisible chinks in its conceptual armor, thus setting the stage for desanctifying the object of “theological” veneration: “For the first time I can see fine cracks in The Wall …” (241). By cleansing the impediment of its preordained truths, the author initiates the process of turning it, once again, into a pristine presence, i.e., untainted by predetermined certitudes, a pure sign, as it were. In this primordial sense, objects, like the Berlin Wall, “are mere facts. They point toward nothing beyond themselves,” to put it differently, their being resides solely in their innate value system (239). Any attempt to foist prior notions on them would mean a violation of their essential “thingness,” as Rilke would have it. It stands to reason, though, that the entrenched position of metaphysical totalization, as attested to, for example, by the admittedly remote threat of secret pan-German dreams to reconquer the world as “Germany's” supposed “destiny,” must be accepted as a given (241). Thus, even the appearance of the first signs of erosion in the East-West schism does not obviate the continuous need for countermeasures to weaken the repressive ambience of notional hegemony: “long before you were born The Wall was, and forever will The Wall endure” (241). Such is the nature of logocentric encirclement. It furnishes the impetus, in the age of ambivalence, to revoke putatively untouchable assumptions. Ultimately, however, it is the same deconstructive practice that questions its own premise in the very process of carrying out its mandate of dislodging embedded veraciousness. This explains the all-pervasive presence of a self-negating tenor in Oates' prose.

The intent of “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall” is to dull the “edge of impossibility,” the injurious abrasiveness of the Berlin Wall.10 While such a strategy is bound to come to naught in its attempt to completely eradicate the tragic implications of internecine strife among nations, it does contribute to alleviating the immediate impact of these polemics on human conduct. Like the balancing act of the boundary walker straddling the ideational tightrope in Schneider's “wall jumping” adventures, the narrators in Oates' stories reside in the ideological no man's land atop the Great Divide, i.e., in the existential locus of logocentric disengagement from the hierarchic signified that is the Wall. Thus, the utter precariousness inherent in teetering on the ontological abyss evolves into the cutting edge of deconstructive reasoning. Its purpose is to eliminate the verbal “humiliation” that the narrator of “Our Wall” sees as being inflicted by the powers-that-be on the casualties of the political antagonism: being branded “‘Traitors’—‘criminals’—‘subversives’—‘degenerates’—‘enemies of the People’—‘victims of abberation.’” This kind of stereotypical labeling is the “sacred experience” of rhetorical dogmatism to be divested of its cherished sanctity (239).

To synthesize the Derridean qualities of Oates' “Wall” stories: the “I” in both narratives begs to “differ” in order to “mean,” while “deferring,” in the deconstructive manner of différance, which is what does not exist, any conclusive resolution as to the ultimate nature of such signification. Deploying ordained truths sous rature, the discourse contained in the textuality of the Berlin Wall formulates and, simultaneously, disarticulates itself. Representation and significance remain incompatible. Thus understood, “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “Our Wall” are, in effect, as the author herself suggests, the allegories of their own reading, in compliance with Paul de Man's epistemological maxim.11 Hence, the resultant image of the Berlin landmark proffers, in a sense, only the simulacrum of a presence.


  1. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” in Last Days: Stories (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984), p. 106; subsequent citations are in the text.

  2. The Wall Jumper (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).

  3. “Our Wall,” in Last Days: Stories, p. 236; subsequent citations are in the text.

  4. See the poem “Mending Wall,” in The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), p. 34.

  5. See Deutsche Ängste (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1988), especially Schneider's remarks concerning the making of the film “The Man on the Wall,” which is based on his treatise The Wall Jumper (pp. 8-10).

  6. Samuel Chase Coale, “Joyce Carol Oates: Contemporary Spirits,” in Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), p. 126.

  7. “Crossing the Border,” in Crossing the Border: Fifteen Tales (New York: Vanguard Press, 1976), p. 13.

  8. See Greg Johnson, Understanding Joyce Carol Oates (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1987), p. 190.

  9. Cited in Jane Kramer, “Letter from Europe,” The New Yorker, November 28, 1988, pp. 69 and 92; my emphasis.

  10. See Joyce Carol Oates, The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (New York: Vanguard Press, 1972).

  11. See Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Rilke, Nietzsche, and Proust (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979).

Catherine Chauche (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5834

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 police … de les en empêcher … Jamais une révolution n'aura été si pacifique … Elle prouve que, contrairement à ce que l'on a cru longtemps, la résignation au totalitarisme n'a qu'un temps, et que rien n'est plus naturel à l'homme que l'aspiration à la liberté. »

André Fontaine, Le Monde, November 11, 1989.

The Berlin Wall, as it appears in “Our Wall,” a collection of six short-stories, gives rise to all the types of behaviour and imaginings that contribute to the making of myths. In Joyce Carol Oates' short fiction, the word « myth » is to be taken in its ancient meaning of a narrative on the origins of a religion or of a religious mentality.1 The three stories which form the subject of this paper go through the stages of the imperceptible passage from history to mythology. In “Ich bin ein Berliner,” a young American is attending the birth of a persecution myth; “Our Wall” gives its title to the whole book and describes the organized worship of the Berlin Wall once it has turned into a merciless idol; lastly, “Lamb of Abyssalia” explores the theme of sacrifice as the true basis of a myth and thus puts the reader in a position to appreciate the relations and distorted links between mythology and some contemporary events. Although Joyce Carol Oates' analysis may fit in with René Girard's theory of the Scapegoat, she does not confine herself to this reductive approach and shows the way out of a mythological world.


In “Lamb of Abyssalia,” an American professor becomes mad after witnessing a ritual sacrifice in a tribe of “Abyssalia,” an imaginary country in Equatorial Africa. Instead of analyzing the whole myth evoked through the sacrifice of a lamb, J. C. Oates concentrates on the ritual itself and on the spectators' reactions: “The lamb was dragged to the little stone altar at the center of the village and killed with an ordinary knife … blood was sprinkled in all directions … then the villagers were anointed … Then most of the lamb was devoured raw”.2 “People were so happy afterwards”, concludes the hero who is so eager to regain at any cost the incredible happiness experienced by the community. Yet he is overlooking the fact that the ritual and the myth first of all belong to the people of Abyssalia and that the initiation was not meant for him, a stranger: “It is death to witness the sacred ceremony.” The punishment he is doomed to receive comes under the guise of the fever that is devouring him and of fits of madness that may turn the effects of an ordinary ritual into a family tragedy. Back in the United States, this man who has felt so guilty for abandoning his children to work in Africa imagines he is invested with the divinity usually bestowed upon sacrificial victims; he thinks he has just been designated by God to be the Saviour, the one who proceeds to the ritual. In a state of intense excitement, he crouches over his son's bed and pulls a strand of hair out of the boy's scalp as he saw the natives pull hairs from the lamb's body.

As it is described in this short-story, the sacrifice of the lamb ensures the good functioning of the Abyssalian community. According to Frazer's pronouncements in The Golden Bough,3 when the whole tribe consents to these sacrifices, they take on a propitiatory value and perfectly fit in with the worldview of the community. Simultaneously, we are made to witness the psychological disturbance and regression of a stranger faced with an event he should not have any concern with. In fact, J. C. Oates is trying to establish another relationship by putting forward a parallel between the Abyssalian world and western culture. When she coined the term “Abyssalia”, she actually meant to bring the reader back to the Ancient Testament where it is clearly stated that the best lambs used to graze in the abyssal pastures of the Dead Sea. Furthermore, Israel was saved from Egyptian rule by the sacrifice of the Lamb, which accounts for the paramount importance of this animal as the symbol of the Israelite within God's flock. In the Gospel, Saint John refers to Christ as the Lamb of God whose bloody death saved the Christians. Unique of its kind, “Lamb of Abyssalia” stands out among other stories taking place in Berlin or capitals of Eastern Europe. It cannot but draw the attention to the violence which is at the basis of the Judaeo-Christian culture, a violence which is likely to come up in Berlin and of which the sacrifice of the Lamb constitutes the main archetype.

J. C. Oates literally conjures up this background of archaic violence and imposes it upon the reader through her description of the professor's madness which gives its structure to the whole narrative. Right from the beginning we can follow the hero's wanderings through his American home until his wife manages to trick him out of his son's room. “Quietly, I made my way through the sleeping house”,4 this comment should not be taken to the letter, the professor is actually letting himself be carried along by the flow of his perturbed consciousness, the prey to obsessions which recall the symptoms of persecution mania: Guilt, “I drew near their beds [The children's beds] trembling, of course they had forgiven me for being away”; messianism and megalomania: “I slipped from my bed and went downstairs to my study … you will accomplish great things my elders told me.” His perception of the African reality totally distorted by the buzzing of insects, he is progressively sinking into the realm of symbols: “We camped on the River of Faith. The Blessed River of Forgetfulness excited my curiosity …” No wonder this pilgrim's progress ends up in cosmic union! “The sun shook itself like a giant … descended from the sky and dwelt among us and caused us to swim through him.”5 The analogy between the sacrifice of the Lamb and the sacrifice of a child indicates that, when the victim is selected among the members of the community, the ritual turns into a plain murder. Unfortunately, the professor had completely overlooked this essential difference as he watched the villagers enacting a human sacrifice on the mask representing the features of a child: “A kind of death's-head, the eyes, nose and mouth darkest, as if shaded in by crayon or charcoal.”6 Undoubtedly, the professor had not failed to realize that, in the Abyssalian religion, the initial myth originates from the murder of a real child; yet he confused the first murder with the mere ritual whose only function is to simulate the founding event of the myth in order to symbolically restore the link between mythical time and historical time.

In Le Bouc Emissaire, René Girard repeatedly asserts that murder is the founding event of most religions; it is the murder of the person who attempts to restore the original chaos. Thus Girard can put forward the assumption that myths are necessarily related to real persecutions and that “une victime et une violence collective réelle seraient à l'origine du mythe”.7 The reflection of a barbarian mentality, the myth would then result from the juxtaposition of four stereotypes which can be spotted in historical documents: “Il n'est pas nécessaire que les trois stéréotypes soient tous là. Trois d'entre eux suffisent et même souvent deux. Leur présence nous conduit à affirmer que: 1. les violences sont réelles, 2. la crise est réelle, 3. les victimes sont choisies en vertu non des crimes qu'on leur attribue mais de leurs signes victimaires, de tout ce qui suggère leur affinité coupable avec la crise, le sens de l'opération de rejeter sur les victimes la responsabilité de cette crise et d'agir sur celle-ci en détruisant les dites victimes ou tout au moins en les expulsant de la communauté qu'elles polluent.”8

From Abyssalia to Berlin, J. C. Oates interweaves her stories with Girardian stereotypes and dissects the whole mechanism of a persecution myth.


J. C. Oates sets the founding murder of what might be called a Berlin myth on the 17th of August 1962, a year after the construction of the Wall, on the day when Peter Fechter, a young Berliner, was shot by the guards as he was trying to go West. The case of Peter Fechter, as it appears in “Ich bin ein Berliner,” is in keeping with Girard's theory. Many photographs still bear witness to the actual violence of the event: “You can see the snaky black blood on the pavement.”9 The victim in the prime of his youth,—he is 18, his distinctive feature—has fallen to remind everyone that the Berlin crisis started a year ago to the day. His person has become the very embodiment of the crisis since he repeated the action of so many Germans who trespassed the limit to go West. In his attempt to abolish the frontier between the two Berlins and to restore the original chaos of post-war Berlin, he has committed the crime of “indifferentiation”. Paradoxically, Peter Fechter's death reverses the meaning of his action; a living symbol of liberty, Peter has now become a symbol of Berlin's division. The mechanism that has just been set going will call for other expiatory victims, new scape-goats will have to be sacrificed to remind everyone of the insurmountable omnipotence of the Wall.

J. C. Oates can now move on to the following theme, that is the repetition of the initial murder. A young American flies to Berlin in order to investigate about Peter Fechter's death. After a few months' research, he becomes aware of being undesirable and spied on. Literally driven mad, he finally yields to the fascination of death and “walks into the bullets” of East-Berlin guards. There again, J. C. Oates' narrative fits in with Girard's theory according to which men are sustained by a mimetic desire. Nevertheless, J. C. Oates is not content to apply Girard's theory, the following part of the narrative shows that the individual may discover his own desire. As a matter of fact, the I-narrator—who happens to be the brother of the young American shot in Berlin—is the only character that succeeds in escaping this mimetic process.


“Obviously Peter Fechter gave my brother the idea—the inspiration—the goad … The distinction between suicide and murder might be overrated.”10 This is how the I-narrator accounts for his brother's death. The theory of the Scape Goat is again reflected in the circumstances of this second murder. Like Peter Fechter, the narrator's brother was the real victim of a collective murder; occupied by the Allied and the Soviets, the city of Berlin is still undergoing the same crisis; besides, the distinctive signs of the victim are made more and more conspicuous: a foreigner, he belonged to one of the occupying nations; and last but not least, he seemed to be so disturbed that one could easily take him for a drug-addict, for one of those “American hippies of the Sixties”. Although neither of these two stereotypes actually applied to the young man, they had crept so deeply into his subconscious that he felt guilty for being an American citizen and got rid of his papers before dying: “He had thrown away being American, it seems, preparatory to throwing away being alive.”11

The young American was therefore quite prepared to disrupt a pre-established order and to bear the whole “responsibility of the crisis” in Girard's terms, all the more as he was doing some research-work on Berlin: “Berlin in the Forties, Berlin in the Thirties … The Germanys, and the Reich, the Republic, and of course, the Wall … and gradually the fixation increased.”12 This work turned out to be so disquieting that people feared it might bring to the surface hidden truths, as if the mystery of the Wall's erection and a reflection on the past might no longer justify a divided Germany. Without taking sides on political or historical issues, J. C. Oates lets the mystery hang over the nature of those hidden truths: “What is the Wall but a dotted line on a tourist map … ? An irrelevant fact … The city is under the jurisdiction of those who conquered the Nazis.”13 Undoubtedly, the division of Germany originates from the fiat of the victors who ignore the Wall since their soldiers daily go through it. The young man's research was in fact threatening the order established by the victors after the Second World War. But, from the very moment when he allowed himself to be contaminated by the Berliners' silent fear, he immediately turned into “ein Berliner”, in accordance with President Kennedy's famous “ich bin ein Berliner” when he expressed his sympathy with the inhabitants of the walled city. Unfortunately, the young man made a confusion between sympathy and identification, he even surrendered to the illusion that the Wall was a natural, everlasting limit and thus prepared himself to die. With this denial of the historical dimension of Germany's division, he unknowingly complied with the wish of those who decided that time had stopped with the political consequences of the war. The last sentence from his note-book is no longer the remark of an American student but that of a living-corpse, of a Berliner about to bury himself at the foot of the Wall: “Hitler is forever.”

Through this character's destiny, J. C. Oates achieved a forceful illustration of the process which is making the Berlin Wall sacred, a process whose key-word could be “Hitler is forever”, in a town “forever” submitted to the malediction of national-socialism.


The I-narrator arrives in Berlin a year after his brother's death; he soon finds himself in the selfsame position of the witness who, under the present circumstances, is likely to become a martyr. Berlin has not changed since the year before, it is the same Babylon without a memory, without a future: “Why not content yourself in the surfaces of life … There are so many lively bodies … memory fades so swiftly in this part of the world.”14 The population opposes the same resistance to the investigations of the narrator who, like his brother, once more is seen as a trouble-maker. Taking refuge in his hotel—“my sanatized bunker of a hotel room”—he repeats the same incantation as if to escape the fascination of the Wall and of his brother's death: “I am not an obsessive personality, I celebrate health, I celebrate clarity.”15 Although the narrator is aware that “some things can only be performed in secret”, he soon realizes that his retreat into seclusion will not assume the value of an initiation unless he is confronted with Berlin and its dangers. He finally burns the few objects his brother left behind “in a tidy funeral pyre”.

This modest ritual is the first step that helps him to check the mimetic deathly process and to go down into this town permeated with its “odor of grief” and “fear”. Then, he finds himself in a better position to understand the Berliners' feelings and language. “Speak to me in Berliner”, he says to a woman who once knew his brother. Yet it soon dawns upon him that he might be running the same dangers: “Are the poisonous gases being filtered in?” Death through asphyxiation looms up both as the haunting reminder of the past and as the Wall's impending threat. The narrator has got to come as close as possible to the Berlin Wall to become fully aware that the Wall is, at the same time, the very reason for his brother's renunciation and the symbol of this renunciation; then, he will be able to grasp the double function of the Wall that, simultaneously, recalls and obliterates the past: “As one nears the Wall, the curious thing is, history is left behind … Berlin was reduced to rubble and rubble has no memory, so you cannot expect a poignant sense of history … they are Americans at heart …”16 If he stays in Berlin, he is bound to die as did Antigone who, in Sophocles' tragedy, buried herself alive with Polynices' corpse. Lost among the rubble, he will be deprived of his identity and self-control; “drunk-euphoric or too depressed”, living from hand to mouth in a town that is but a figment of his imagination, he will meet his “ludicrous fate” and “silly death”. In order to escape this deadly chain, the narrator claims his American nationality louder than ever and even shouts at the passers-by: “I'll make you regret laughing at me an American … If they imagine … I am going to repeat his [his brother's] performance … They are mistaken … History cannot repeat itself without human participation.”17

The hero and narrator of “Ich bin ein Berliner” has succeeded in checking what Girard would call the mimetic process. Thus he can at last differentiate himself from his brother, his symbolical twin. This initiation that goes the opposite way to his brother's enables him to lay the true basis of his individuality and to divest the Wall of its mythical quality: “Why did he [his brother] die matters less than how precisely did he die.”18 Stage by stage, the reader is made to realize that confinement is bound to drive human beings out of historical time into a kind of silent and deadly veneration. Peter Fechter's death only takes on its value as the founding event of the Berlin myth at the moment when a second murder occurs in the selfsame conditions. Then, logically, it stands out as the ritualistic rehearsal of the initial murder. At the beginning of the mythical process, the ritual is still identical to the very first murder because the cruelty of the origins has not yet been disguised by the sacrifice of an animal or replaced by a mock-sacrifice. In Berlin, archaic violence reveals itself in its wildest form.


“Ich bin ein Berliner” develops around the narrator's progress and reflection on West-Berlin. J. C. Oates thus lays the emphasis on the anguish, perplexity and isolation of the individual who is determined to find his place in the contemporary world. For, he who takes the risk of living beyond the Wall and beyond its rule must engage himself in a constant evaluation and interpretation of events which he cannot fully apprehend.


When he was in his hotel-room, the narrator suffered the throes of confinement. Although J. C. Oates does not expressively refer to a gas-chamber, she makes it clear that this gruesome place is at the origin of a Berlin myth: “A sealed capsule, a bunker ventilated by a ceaseless humming mechanism, which might from time to time emit its own subtle gases.”19 Completely paranoid—“a foreign pulsebeat is evident … An infection from without”—, the young man physically goes through “cette violence collective réelle à l'origine du mythe”, according to Girard's words.

Nevertheless the interest of J. C. Oates' story does not only lie in the return to the origins of a Berlin myth; the author also draws the reader's attention to the behaviour of a person who is confronted with a primeval truth. In order to attain the knowledge of truth and to relive the pangs of the origins, the initiate has to give up the routine of daily life like the inhabitants of Abyssalia when they enter into a collective trance: “children screamed with excitement—women rocked from side to side, clutching their breasts”.20 In “Ich bin ein Berliner” as well as in “Lamb of Abyssalia,” the hero's fits of madness appear as the western version of the primitive trance; they will take on the value of a ritual, provided the initiate has the strength to overcome mental troubles such as megalomania or persecution mania—troubles of which J. C. Oates' heroes are often the victims. Contrary to the American professor (“Lamb of Abyssalia”) the hero and narrator of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is able to make the difference between sacrifice and initiation. Instead of setting himself up as a saviour, he first of all blames Hitler, then the victors of the Second World War for maintaining the curse of the Nazis upon Berlin. His short fit of paranoia is actually a means of attaining an emotional knowledge of the truth and of establishing a link between gas-chambers and the Berliners' confinement within the city. Whereas his brother turned into a trespasser as soon as he approached the Wall, “transgresseur et même fondateur de l'ordre qu'il transgresse”,21 the I-narrator of this short-story becomes a true initiate since his painful experience and newly acquired knowledge enable him to better understand the significance of his action. It only remains for him to decipher the signs he can distinguish in this place where history either stands still or ironically repeats itself.

Indeed, Joyce Carol Oates is very careful not to draw unjustified comparisons between the walled city of Berlin and death camps; she never alludes to tortures or mass exterminations. However the whole story makes it quite clear that confinement, the basic pattern of nazi persecution, has repeated itself for forty years with the complicity of the great powers. “In certain areas tall wire-mesh fences have been erected as well, in front of the (concrete) Wall; and these fences are topped with barbed wire through which Death silently and secretly and ceaselessly pulses.”22


J. C. Oates does not go further than this technical evocation of Berlin's confinement and concludes “Ich bin ein Berliner” with the story of an ancient German legend which dates back to the remotest times of the Holy Roman Empire. We are told that a Bavarian nobleman used to lock up his prisoners ensuring them the most comfortable life, provided they did not yield to the temptation of watching or even rejoining the outside world through a very small aperture pierced through the stone wall of his fortress. Besides, this opening constituted a sort of tunnel from which it was impossible to retreat back into the dungeon: “Without exception, prisoners became obsessed with the aperture in the wall … they abandoned the guarantee of undisturbed animal life for the possibility—no, the probability—of non existence.”23

At first sight, J. C. Oates' treatment of this legend may appear as a somewhat simplistic method of analyzing the Berliner problem; but its place, at the very end of the whole narrative, indicates that the writer's aim is not to enter into some kind of political controversy on Berlin but to lead the reader to a reflection about man's predicament. In fact, the Bavarian legend raises post-war Berlin on to a much wider plane and thus establishes a link between German history and man's history. Then the specific situation of Berlin takes on the value of a paradigm since the persecuted and the persecutors are caught in the same logic, a logic which regularly shows itself in the sacrifice of all the scapegoats, whether they die in Berlin or somewhere else.

Above all, this legend throws a philosophical light on the whole short-story, but it simultaneously clouds its mythological significance. For one thing, it breaks the spell of the narrative, and it also may distort and weaken the process of initiation. Furthermore, the conclusion to this legend might be understood as the only solution to a so-called Berliner enigma: “Yet the legend would have it, and indeed, our legend of human nature concurs, that the perversity of even the most ignorant peasant was such, that freedom (though also Death) exerted its ineluctable attraction over imprisonment (though also Life) through many and many a year.”24

A superficial reader who would take such a comment literally might be led to consider the narrator—of “Ich bin ein Berliner”—as a sort of Don Quixote and his initiation as a mere illusion in a world ruled by the only alternative of freedom-in-death versus confinement-in-life. Such a reader would overlook the very last lines of the short-story in which the narrator tries to give his impressions of the Bavarian legend he has just told: “Such is the folk wisdom my tireless research daily yields … unless Rudi and the others are telling me lies. Unless they are confusing me with someone else.” Unless … unless, this final restriction actually warns the reader against the temptation of paralleling folk wisdom and philosophical reflection. Whereas the first part of the story, which makes up three-quarters of the whole narrative, progressively develops from the intricacies of West-Berlin's reality, the legend is constructed around an over-simple scenario whose sole object is to illustrate the conclusion of the story. Hence, the final doubt which arises within the reader's mind should be understood as a warning against the sayings of folk wisdom which is not necessarily the vehicle of truth, but merely reflects tradition and people's chattering … This chattering in which Berliners as well as Bavarian peasants indulge in order to better comply with the ineluctable law of the Wall and of any wall. In this sense, the Berlin Wall looms as the object of a universal metaphor: “The Wall is finitude. An absolute end. The headboard of the crib, against which your baby skull pressed … The rocky earth, the coffin: finitude: a way of making an end.”25

J. C. Oates ultimately focuses our attention on the freedom of an individual who is confronted with a truth he has just found out. In the face of tradition, man's freedom has to equal his unshakeable will not to be a mere on-looker, not to be a hero or a martyr in the mythical scene that is now taking place in Berlin, it also has to equal his determination not to die in front of the Wall.


Whereas “Ich bin ein Berliner” explored the initial stage of a persecution myth, “Our Wall,” the last story of the collection, depicts its ultimate stage as the representation of a religion.

A mere barrier in the first story, the Wall has turned into a sort of inaccessible altar protected by a “Forbidden Zone” and whose appeal is utterly indefinable: “Mesmerising and boring; so boring; so boring and so beautiful, our Wall.”26 Strangely enough, this frightening deity perfectly fits in the landscape and there is, sometimes, something benevolent about it: “Beds of yellow and purple pansies lend a cheerful touch; nothing extravagant but welcome to the eye.” The town has lost its name as if it were totally excluded from historical time; apart from older people, the inhabitants have lost the memory of the origins: “It is difficult to posit a time when the Wall was not.” Time has lost its value as a “principle of individuation”27 since people are no longer able to make plans for their future: “It [the Wall] protects us from our future.” As a matter of fact, they are left with no choice but to become cowards—if they accept to remain within the precinct—or to become traitors—if they try to escape.

Not surprisingly, we are going to witness the repetition of the same pattern: the narrator's brother has been shot by the Wall's guards, yet the similarity between the two narrators stops there. The narrator of this third story is determined to comply with the unbearable, in the name of his duty—“I would not abandon my family”—and out of mere cowardice, since he is ready to deny his brother has ever existed: “He deserved it, I don't have any brother.” At this point, the author does not even pass any judgement on this character, she is just trying to imagine the psychology of the children who were born within the precinct and whose life has been conditioned by the Wall's presence: “The elderly tell us that there was no Forbidden Zone in the days of their youth … we are incredulous … and somewhat frightened, it is easier for us to assume the Wall is eternal.”28 Although these children cannot conceive of any other way of life, their conversations with the elderly stimulate their curiosity about the origins of the Wall: “If there was no Forbidden Zone then why was the Wall constructed?” Such a fundamental question would trigger off a change in the mentality, if the inhabitants were not content to lose themselves in conjectures on what there might be beyond the Wall—paradise—psychotic people—a graveyard—an ordinary world—a mirror image. These assumptions cannot but reinforce the mechanism of the new religion, a religion whose sole basis is the wish to infringe the law, a wish, a yearning fostered by some indefinable hope: “We are, despite our history, a hopeful people … even those who have never witnessed a single successful escape continue to have faith.”29 But what can these people yearn for if they have no memory, no “Sehnsucht”? Their only wish is to become the martyrs whose sacrifice will once again justify the presence of the Wall. No one has ever thought of knocking down the idol. The religion of the Wall has definitely abolished their chance of personal salvation and the possibility of questioning the sense—or let us say the “nonsense”—of their lives.

With “Ich bin ein Berliner,” J. C. Oates warned the reader about the dangers of silence and ignorance; with “Our Wall,” she follows her doubts and fears to their logical conclusions and conveys an eschatological dimension to the myth. The story sounds like a desperate message to the great powers; she makes it clear that the punishment inflicted on the Berliners is bound to fuel the revival of murderous ideologies: “some day it is whispered … we will conquer the world”.

This story was published in 1982, at that time, Joyce Carol Oates was far too pessimistic to envisage any kind of solution to the questions she had raised or to predict that the process of “deconstruction,” in its political and physical meaning, might come from the East. At least, the reader is left with a faint glimmer of hope when the hero realizes he can see “fine cracks in the Wall, and weeds growing lavishly at his base”. Those weeds are the only symbol of a rebellion that might weaken the incantation of the final sentence: “Long before you were born, the Wall was, and forever will the Wall endure.”


Michel Tournier, in his Météores, had already found his inspiration in post-war Berlin, the place of his hero's symbolical rebirth. In 1986, Wim Wenders, the German director, after seven years in the United States, made up his mind to shoot a film “in Berlin and on Berlin”, a town which he considers as “the heart of Germany but also the heart of the world”.30 “Les Ailes du Désir”, the French title of the film recalls the Berliners' past hardships and privations; yet the German title “Der Himmel über Berlin” (The Sky over Berlin) brings in an entirely different outlook on the town. We actually see the Berliners living under the silent protection and invisible benevolence of angels whose sympathy for the mortals is so deep that some of them are ready to share their lives with them. These Rilkean creatures willingly abandon the prospect of an eternal life when they realize that, on either side of the Wall, love is the true key to human survival.

How far we are from J. C. Oates stern awareness! No doubt, the writer means to identify with the Berliners, but she remains an observer speaking in the tone of a woman obsessed with the collective and individual violence which is haunting her whole work. After visiting the Berlin of the 80s, she selected the most ominous and alarming elements, the elements which could make up the negative, the grim side of Wim Wenders' film.

In spite of these discrepancies, Wenders' and Oates' Berlin stands out as a unique place, as a privileged microcosm of man's predicament which Wenders calls in French “un lieu de vérité”. For J. C. Oates, the Wall, a dual symbol of life and death, is a constant reminder of the risk man has to take in the fulfillment of his destiny. And conversely, the violence associated with the Wall symbol is double: obviously enough, it is the violence of murder and sacrifice, but it is also the violence indispensable to any action in the world; it is Heidegger's “Gewalt-tätigkeit”, this sort of violence we must exert on ourselves in order to break away from the secure well-being of a comfortable, uneventful life, from these Walls that have become homely and familiar in their “sameness”.31

Great credit is due to J. C. Oates for her unshakeable awareness; nevertheless, we may reproach her for not explaining clearly enough the relation between the awareness of the origins and the search for truth. The young American of “Ich bin ein Berliner” died because he was carrying out some research-work on Berlin's history. In the course of the story, the narrator avoids the repetition of the same neurotic process; yet he achieved personal salvation at the expense of truth, since he had destroyed his brother's documents before leaving Berlin. In a way, this man's escape from Berlin denies the political meaning of Kennedy's speech. In fact, it would have been interesting to see J. C. Oates bring her hero and narrator to this ultimate stage when the truth she has constantly alluded to is finally unveiled.

In spite of this slight reserve, J. C. Oates' great merit is to have literally got her characters “with their backs to the Wall”, she has confronted them with an existential challenge.


  1. Last Days: Stories, Joyce Carol Oates, Obelisk.

  2. The Lamb of Abyssalia in Last Days: Stories, p. 232.

  3. Le Rameau d'Or, Frazer, édition française, Robert Laffont.

  4. The Lamb of Abyssalia, p. 223.

  5. Ibid., p. 224.

  6. Ibid., p. 227.

  7. Le Bouc Emissaire, René Girard, Livre de Poche, 1982.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ich bin ein Berliner in Last Days: Stories, p. 98.

  10. Ibid., p. 102.

  11. Ibid., p. 107.

  12. Ibid., p. 100.

  13. Ibid., p. 106.

  14. Ibid., p. 106.

  15. Ibid., p. 101.

  16. Ibid., p. 106.

  17. Ibid., p. 110.

  18. Ibid., p. 110.

  19. Ibid., p. 104.

  20. The Lamb of Abyssalia, p. 232.

  21. Le Bouc Emissaire.

  22. Ich bin ein Berliner, p. 111.

  23. Ibid., p. 112.

  24. Ibid., p. 112.

  25. Ibid., p. 110.

  26. The Wall in Last Days: Stories, p. 237.

  27. Le Concept du Temps, Heidegger, Cahiers de L'Herne.

  28. The Wall, p. 233.

  29. Ibid., p. 234.

  30. La Revue du Cinéma, n° 431, interview de Wim Wenders en français.

  31. Introduction à la Métaphysique, TEL: Gallimard, p. 157. Heidegger.

Višnja Sepcic (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4407

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 literary career. In fact, as many connoisseurs of her work agree, the short story is “a central concern in her work.”1 She has proved a life-long devotion to this form, exploring its possibilities by a variety of techniques. As she herself said: “Radical experimentation, which might be ill-advised in the novel, is well suited for the short story. I like the freedom and promise of the form.”2

In her collection of short stories Marriages and Infidelities3 there appears a group of short stories which represent her programmatic remodelling of the great classic texts such as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Joyce's “The Dead,” Chekhov's “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and Thoreau's Where I Lived and What I Lived For. About these short stories she said the following in the interview she gave to Joe David Bellamy:

“These stories are meant to be autonomous stories, yet they are also testaments of my love and extreme devotion to these other writers; I imagine a kind of spiritual “marriage” between myself and them, or let's say our “daimons” in the Yeatsean sense—exactly in the Yeatsean sense, which is so exasperating and irrational!”4

These stories represent a highly interesting case of intertext. As Laurent Jenny says, in intertextual citation “the semantic relaunching takes place whenever the element is placed in a new context.” He argues that: “In general, the new context seeks to subdue the borrowed text to its own requirements. Either this intention remains hidden, and then the intertextual reworking amounts to a “paint job” whose effectiveness depends on how skillfully the borrowed text is adapted, or else the new context proclaims its critical rewriting and gives a demonstration of how a text is reworked.”.5

Joyce Carol Oates's short stories obviously fall in the latter category. This article will be concerned with three of these stories, each of which powerfully reconstitutes the meaning of the architect, “encircling it, enclosing it within another discourse.”6


As Joyce Carol Oates profoundly admires the art of Thomas Mann, it is only natural that among the great classic texts she reimagined there should be one by him. Her story, bearing the title “The Turn of the Screw”, is a remake of Death in Venice. It differs from her reimagining of Kafka's Metamorphosis and Joyce's “The Dead.” It is a special case because a very free reimagining of the characteristic themes and motives of Death in Venice is interpenetrated with the pervasive Jamesian influence so that her remake is, in fact, a contamination of two textual presences, Mann's and James's.

The outline of her story is very simple. The place of action: somewhere on a “wide stony beach” in England. The time of action: the Victoria jubilee. The main characters: a middle-aged writer who has come to the seaside resort under the threat of a fatal illness and a young man escorting an elderly uncle who is rich and whose wealth he will presumably inherit. The middle-aged writer becomes infatuated with the young man and daily writes him letters in which he takes the role of his guardian spirit and admonishes him to live his life to the full. The young man, who is erotically obsessed with various woman and has, at the beginning of the short story, a brief sexual encounter with a vagrant girl on the shore, receives these letters with interest but reads their message in his own way as a call to live beyond morality. At the end of this short story, the middle-aged writer, who is fully in the grip of his obsession, thinks he has received a “benediction” from the young man. What happens, in fact, is that he casually encounters the young man and reads his gesture as a “benediction”.

While following the main motive of Mann's Death in Venice, that of Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio, the Oates story crosses it with the Jamesian motive which gets its most powerful articulation in the poignant injunction which the middle-aged Strether gives to the young American Chad in The Ambassadors and which is summed up by the words: “Live all you can. It's a mistake not to.” The warning which Strether, a shy and diffident spectator of life's spectacle, an onlooker and never a participant, gives to the young man as the bitter fruit of his life's experience enters as a textual element into the Oates story, enriching it with its overtones.

The obsession of the middle-aged writer with the young man in the Oates story—a strange blend of eroticism and spirituality—echoes Aschenbach's fascination with Tadzio. In its intensity, its exclusiveness, its utter disproportion to reality, it cannot be measured by any standard external to itself. Like Aschenbach's sombre passion which burns him out, it represents a fantastic structure which the mind raises, nourishing itself on the subjective emotions which are out of all proportion to what takes place in outer reality. Subjectivism is the basic premise of the total action as in Death in Venice, whose basic thrust, in spite of the fact that the narration is unfolded in the third person, is towards radical subjectivity (we never see Tadzio apart from Aschenbach). In Oates the subjectivity is achieved by the usage of the convention of diary writing. (She refers to it in the already quoted interview as a “Victorian cliché”—which is in keeping with the ambiance of the story and the time in which it takes place). While keeping out of her story many of the thematic elements of Mann's Death in Venice which make up its incredible semantic richness, she strongly foregrounds an element which is present in Mann but is not given priority, namely the absence of communication between the two main actors in this drama of the spirit. As E. A. Dyson states in his article on Death in Venice: “Isolated from his past and from any possible future he (Aschenbach) passes also out of the range of effectual communication—whether with the beloved, or with his fellow men, or with himself.”7 Aschenbach, whose inner life is raised to the point of incandescence by his illicit passion, communicates with the object of his infatuation only in “enigmatic glances”. And while the privateness of the dominant experience, the primacy of the subjective consciousness, is stressed by both writers, Joyce Carol Oates shifts the gravity centre of the referent text, changes the hierarchic order of its constitutive elements and rearranges it, with new priorities established. Oates heavily foregrounds the insularity of the dominant passion and solipsism as the premise of the experience of reality. Unless we take longing as a frustrated form of communication, the Oates story strongly stresses the complete absence of communication between her two characters, whose lives so strangely interpenetrate but at the same time solipsistically revolve round their respective private obsessions.

While basing her story on the main thematic motive of Mann's Death in Venice—Aschenbach's infatuation—Oates leaves out whole complexes of its rich thematic cluster. Aschenbach's intense preoccupation with the aesthetic values and with the moral ambivalence of art is absent in Oates. Mann's profound questioning of the interrelationship of Eros and civilization, Eros and art, Eros and Thanatos, as well as of the turbid sources of artistic creation in the context of his general problematizing of the relation of the consciousness to the unconsciousness is equally absent from Oates. There is no rift in the main character between his conscious and his unconscious life, and the Oates story does not recapitulate the source text in its labyrinthine descent into the depth of the main character's unconsciousness. In her story, death is present as a threat, as a shadow hanging over both the middle-aged writer, whose infatuation the story traces, and over the rich uncle whom the young man escorts. It is present also in the form of the intense revulsion against the processes of ageing and biological decay which the young man feels. But death as an obverse side of Eros, death as an omnipotent presence imbuing every detail of both internal and external reality, is absent from Oates. Also, the strange force of the ambiance, the rich atmosphere of overripeness and decadence, of rottenness at the heart of so much splendour, which characterizes Mann's Venice and which acts in powerful congruence with what takes place in the inner reality, is not mimicked by Oates in her story “The Turn of the Screw”.

Oates takes some textual fragments from Mann—primarily Aschenbach's obsession—and contaminates it with the thematic elements from James, finding “analogous points” where they are congruent.8 These analogous points are: a predominant concern with the intangible internal reality, an adventure of the emotions and of the spirit, which in the Jamesian universe has the highest priority, and the concern with the refractions and distortions of the subjective perspective of which James, like Mann, was a passionate and profound student.

The complex imagery, the dense symbolic structure of Mann's tale, with its constant parallelisms between the outer and the inner reality which give such rich resonances to his narrative texture, are not mimicked by Oates, who sketches the basic situation in her short story with quick, vigorous touches and pithy, robust characterization of persons and events.


Another classic story Joyce Carol Oates reimagined is Kafka's Metamorphosis. The double patterning reveals that profound similarity goes hand in hand with radical dissimilarity. If “unsteadying our trust in the reliability of every day occurrences” represents the hallmark of Kafka's universe, “the most obscure lucidity in the history of literature” represents the hallmark of Kafka's style.9 While Joyce Carol Oates respects fully the first characteristics, she does not mimic the second. She reimagines the central situation within the medium of psychological realism, without taking recourse to the oneiric and the grotesque, without using the gnomic and the parabolic forms which distinguish Kafka's style. How then does she “unsteady our trust in the reliability of everyday occurrences”, how does she bring about the fateful metamorphosis?

The protagonist of her story is, like Kafka's, a common salesman. Like Kafka's hero, he is subjected to terrible punishment for no definable guilt, but he does not get transformed into something out of nature; he suffers a stroke of paralysis and dies. Thus Oates repeats in her own way the deep structure of The Metamorphosis: a fateful change of mode of being, resulting in the total alienation of the hero from the others, a stroke of fate which brings interminable suffering and finally the agony of death. I will enumerate briefly the basic reference points of the structure of Kafka's story which Oates is faithful to:

1) An abrupt and unaccountable transformation occurs and creates an insurmountable barrier between the hero and his ambiance. (In Oates it is a severe stroke of paralysis which removes the control of bodily functions.)

2) The hero preserves a dim sense of the continuity of the self but communication is impossible. While attempts at communication are made on both sides of the barrier, they are soon given up in despair as they are utterly ineffectual.

3) There occurs the breakdown of communication. In Kafka, incomprehension quickly gives way to either brutal hostility or icy indifference. In Oates, love gives way to indifference or revulsion.

4) The state of affairs which is irreparable ends in ignoble death among the unheeding kinsmen.

The basic deep structure is the same in Oates as in Kafka: the disturbance, defamiliarizing the familiar, distancing the protagonist abruptly from the familiar routine and the habitual world, plunges him unaccountably into chaos and pain. The kafkaesque formula—chaos erupting in the midst of the commonplace and the everyday, without warnings, without preliminaries—is recapitulated by Oates. The known world is irreversibly changed, its coordinates dislodged beyond recall.

But while the archetypal kafkaesque situation is enacted, the stylistic contrast is great. At the beginning of Kafka's story, a fantastic transformation is calmly announced in a matter-of-fact way. The reader is plunged into the central situation explored by the story without any attempt to make the implausible plausible. The central event is essentially a mystery but, however fantastic, it impresses itself upon the reader's mind with an overwhelming reality of its meticulous presentation. At the beginning of the story by Joyce Carol Oates, the scenic background is carefully built up; the reader is gradually led into the central situation, a bodily transformation owing to a disfiguring and fatal illness. The building up of the setting, the introduction of the situation into which the main protagonist will be plunged, is done fully within the context of realistic narrative. The day of the car salesman is evoked in circumstantial detail, with the only ominous signal of what will shortly follow in the shape of an unaccountable day-dream in which he envisions without knowing his own immediate future. In his day-dream there appears an enshrouded figure inspiring terror.

While Kafka uses a system of obscure motivation all throughout (why is Gregor Samsa so terribly transformed, what agency effected it, what was the purpose behind it), Oates practices a system of clear motivation which carries the narrative forward and within which every narrative event is fully explained. The characteristic kafkaesque feature of blurring the outlines between the real and the fantastic, possible and impossible, ordinary and surrealistic, is wholly absent in Oates. The gnomic quality is equally absent in Oates, whose style clears up all uncertainties and does not cultivate ambiguities.

To sum up: if Heller's dictum on Kafka's world that “his is an art more poignantly and disturbingly obscure than literature has ever known” does not hold good for Oates, his archetypal situation of the dislocation of reality and the displacement of the protagonist owing to the defamiliarizing of the familiar world is ingeniously reimagined by Oates.


In its basic structure, Joyce Carol Oates's story “The Dead” follows closely Joyce's famous story. Both stories mix some autobiographical elements10 with textual fragments from some literary models. It is a curious feature of Joyce's story that, as Richard Ellmann ascertains in his book James Joyce, he took over the basic situation and its development from the now forgotten novel by George Moore entitled Vain Fortune. The love triangle, the situation in which the dead lover intrudes himself between the living lovers, and the feeling of weary resignation that characterizes the main protagonist at the end of the story, were absorbed by Joyce and powerfully reimagined. It became organized, in a typical Joycean manner, round an inner crisis which culminates in the revelation of an inner truth which has up to that moment been kept from the full knowledge of the main character and now, under the impact of a seemingly slight external event, it fully enters his consciousness. The Joycean ending gains in power and complexity as he portrays Gabriel Conroy's overwhelming feeling of resignation which includes all the living and all the dead in his final sense of defeat and doom.

Joyce Carol Oates's story reimagines the Joycean model. The associational framework in which the Joycean reminiscences bring in their values make of it an echoing chamber, resounding with the double pattern, her own and Joyce's. The Joycean model is imaginatively transposed to another ambiance and time, the double measure making its internal harmonies more complex. In both stories a sudden sharply vivid memory of a dead person (direct in the case of Oates's protagonist, vicariously experienced in Joyce's protagonist) brings their inner life to a crisis which represents a moment of truth, with all pretensions torn off. A preoccupation with time, memory and identity characterizes both stories. In both stories the dead person who is suddenly evoked in memory sets a standard of feeling which is sadly absent from the present. In Joyce's story the dead youth Michael Furey, who once loved Gabriel's wife Gretta, is with his singleness of passion superior to the living and is used as a contrast to their passionless existence. In Oates's story the dead boy Emmett whom Ilena remembers, who was once her student and who loved her, is set in vivid contrast with her own incompleteness and incoherence, which are a concomitant of the disintegrative processes going on in her own being. In both stories a dramatic climax is reached in the silent self-communings of the major character, who thus achieves a new quality of self-recognition.

While the main protagonist holds the centre of the stage, the wider social implications of his case are constantly present in both stories. In writing The Dubliners, Joyce, as he himself said, wanted to write “the moral chapter” in the history of his city and country so that all the fifteen stories of The Dubliners, culminating with “The Dead,” take place in the ambiance of the “paralysed city”, each story mirroring general stagnation. Joyce Carol Oates's story effects a transposition of the Joycean deep structure into another ambiance and time, that of America in the sixties. If, as Florence Waltzl says in her article on Joyce's “The Dead,”11 one of the implications of his stories in The Dubliners is that Ireland betrays her children and is betrayed by them in turn, the same may be said for Oates's story: America betrays her children and is betrayed by them. The ambiance and the self are inextricably linked in Oates's story as in Joyce's.

Both stories are concerned with the state of death-in-life and both move towards the stasis of death at the end. It is instructive to compare the endings of both stories because it demonstrates very well the double patterning Oates practices throughout in her remodelling of the Joycean structural paradigm.

Both endings move towards the stasis of death. Both give expression to the final feelings of the protagonists, summing up their central life situations. But there are subtle differences within the basic structural model. In Joyce, the dominant emotional tonality is that of sadness and weariness, in Oates it is a sharp sense of loss and despair. Joyce's Gabriel has an overwhelming sense of the slow process of decay (moral, spiritual and emotional), going on in himself and others as a function of being immersed in the irreversible flow of time. Oates's Ilena has a sharp sense of self-betrayal, of the reckless squandering of her gifts and her life, of the destructive processes in her being gaining ground.

In Joyce's story, the landscape plays a powerful role as an outer correlative of the inner action. The snow landscape in Joyce suddenly opens a cosmic perspective on a particularized event and is the prefiguration of the apocalyptic “last end”, explicitly mentioned by the text. The dominant melancholic feeling of the main protagonist as he watches the snow falling accompanies his strong sense of the irreversible flow of time, corroding values and relationships, ending in the stasis of death. This feeling is exteriorized by the image of the snow falling all over Ireland, levelling all configurations of terrain, enshrouding the earth, bringing everything to a state of final inertia and silence. Joyce's Gabriel, his soul “swooning” as he listens to the snow falling, has an almost mystical sense of the interdependence of all life as well as a sensation of the dissolution of the solid world into something impalpable, immaterial, which is a part of the general movement of his thought towards death and non-being. His final emotion is resignation, giving in to weariness and sleep and, by extension of meaning, death.12

Joyce Carol Oates structures her ending in such a way that she closely follows the Joycean model, echoing the key words, using the same reference points but introducing subtle modifications all throughout.13 In a searing moment of self-recognition, Ilena realizes how profoundly she has betrayed her innermost self. Her sharp sense of the disintegrative processes going on in herself and in the people round her, most particularly her lovers, is crystallized in the image of their personalities flowing into one another, becoming indistinguishable from one another, becoming one gigantic, amorphous, gelatinous mass in which the individuation principle has been extinguished. As Gabriel, whose thoughts move towards the stasis of death, thinks with pleasure of the snow falling outside and enshrouding the world, Ilena in an “elation of fatigue” thinks of the snow falling outside with relief, thinks of the world beyond the clammy, sticky, embarrassing and frustrating humanity, suggesting the peace and “otherness” of death, silence and non-being.

Although with less intensity, she also uses the snow landscape, with the same basic connotations. Joyce uses complex imagery to enrich the realistic narrative. His use of detail is a link between naturalism and symbolism, as Harry Levin noticed long ago. Joyce Carol Oates's robust realism has at its core the Joycean prototype, which it both discloses and conceals, and becomes all the richer for its constant evocation of both similarities and subtle differences.


In conclusion we can say that each of the stories by Joyce Carol Oates, which represents a conscious remaking of a classic text, differs from the others in its procedures.

Her story “The Turn of the Screw” is based on Death in Venice but, in using this literary model, she amplifies certain of its constitutive elements and ignores others. She rearranges the hierarchy of its elements and while some are heavily foregrounded, others are relegated to the background or obliterated. Moreover, she contaminates elements from Mann with elements from James in constructing what Renate Lachmann calls “analogous points”.

Oates's story “The Metamorphosis” is an ingenious reworking of the archetypal kafkaesque model in a different literary medium. She avoids the usage of the fantastic, the oneiric and the grotesque and recreates the kafkaesque archetype in the medium of psychological realism.

Finally, her remodelling of Joyce's story “The Dead” follows closely the referent text while subtly shifting the accents within the same basic structure and thus establishes the double measure, which greatly enriches the narrative texture of her story.

Thus Joyce Carol Oates's stories prove that “intertextuality is a way of spelling out the functioning of text, a “verifying” of reading through writing. It is a definitive rejection of the full stop which would close the meaning and freeze the form.”14


  1. William Abrahams, “Stories of a Visionary”, Saturday Review, 23, September, 1972, p. 76.

  2. Michael Schumacher, “Joyce Carol Oates and the Hardest Part of Writing”, Writer's Digest, April, 1986, p. 34.

  3. Joyce Carol Oates, Marriages and Infidelities, Vanguard Press, New York, 1972.

  4. The New Fiction, Interviews with Innovative American Writers by Joe David Bellamy, University of Illinois Press, 1974, p. 22.

  5. Laurent Jenny, “The Strategy of Form”, in French Literary Theory Today, A Reader, ed. by Tzvetan Todorov, Cambridge University Press, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, trans. by R. Carter, 1982, p. 60. and p. 58.

  6. Ibid., p. 59.

  7. A. E. Dyson, “The Stranger God: Death in Venice”, Critical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 1971, p. 6.

  8. The term is used by Renate Lachmann in her study of intertextuality in the work of A. Beli. In her article on St. Petersburg Renate Lachmann studies intertextuality in this early modernist novel. She demonstrates how Beli uses the literary models of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, Gogol's The Petersburg Tales, Tolstoi's Anna Karenina and Dostoievski's Crime and Punishment to create a complex field of reference. In studying the forms this intertextuality takes and the multiple relations between the referent texts and the manifest text, she establishes interesting terminological distinctions and works out a typology of devices used by Beli in his novel. She states that the alien elements by means of which the manifest text is linked to the source text or the referent text are presented by Beli mainly in two ways: as “contamination” and as “anagram”. In her words: “Contamination is a result of the selection of individual elements from various referent texts and a combination of these elements in the sense of their montage or overlapping and their inclusion in the manifest text. The primary referent framework of some element is forsaken as well as its value in the textual tonality, and a link is established with the elements of some other alien texts. Thus heterogeneous clusters or layers are born: after the process of taking apart, there occurs the process of putting together of a new pattern. In contrast to this, an anagram consists of the elements ranged over the whole manifest text which, when they are linked, make possible the recognition of the coherent structure of an alien text; the referent text is, so to say, present as an “anatext”. The anagramic structure of the alien text creates a “structural enigma” which is decoded by means of retrospective and prospective reading, while the contaminational signal demands a reading which by way of compensation re-establishes the individual primary textual orders and re-directs these recognized elements back to their framework“. Renate Lachmann, “Intertekstualnost kao konstitucija smisla (Petrograd Andreja Belog i ‘tudi tekstovi’)”, Intertekstualnost i intermedijalnost, Zavod za znanost o književnosti, Zagreb, 1988, pp. 101-102 (translation mine).

  9. Erich Heller, Kafka, Fontana Modern Masters, 1974.

  10. See Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, New York, 1959, pp. 252-263, and The New Fiction by Joe David Bellamy.

  11. Florence L. Waltzl, “Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of ‘The Dead’”, James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1967, p. 27.

  12. In his sensitive and thorough-going interpretation of Joyce Carol Oates's story The Dead in juxtaposition to Joyce's Winfried Herget takes a different standing. He says: “Für die Entfaltung des Geschehens und die Gestaltung der Hauptfiguren haben die Schlussszenen der beiden Erzählungen einen unterschiedlichen Stellenwert. Gabriel gelangt zu einem Wendepunkt, eine positive Entwicklungsfähigkeit wird ihm zugestanden. Ilena dagegen wird am Ende eines Prozesses der Persönlichkeitszerstörung gezeigt, der sich als ein allmähliches Absterben durch Betäubung der seelischen Regungen, Abstumpfung der körperlichen Empfindungen und geistige Lähmung vollzogen hat”. “Joyce Carol Oates' Re-Imaginationen”, in Theorie und Praxis im Erzahlen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Studien zur englischen und amerikanischen Literatur zu Ehren von Willi Erzgraber, ed. by W. Herget, K. P. Jochum, and I. Weber, Tübingen, Narr, 1986, p. 362.

  13. Cf. Winfried Herget, op. cit.

  14. Laurent Jenny, “The Strategy of Form”, p. 60.

Hanspeter Dörfel (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6548

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 vast number, to my knowledge, only three stories have a German setting—“Master Race” (1984),2 “Ich bin ein Berliner” (1982), and “Our Wall” (1982).3 Several of the stories in the collection Last Days are set in Eastern Europe and contain allusions to Germany and the Germans that are of some interest in the context to be discussed. In addition, there are literary or cultural allusions in some of Oates' stories with an American or Western European setting: In “Further Confessions,”4 for example, Oates ‘adds a new chapter’ to Thomas Mann's Felix Krull; in another story of this collection, “The Thaw,” a young woman sings “a song a friend of hers had composed, setting the words of a Hölderlin poem to music,”5 etc. And there is the frequently established link between Germany and the Third Reich, for example in “Soul on Ice,” where the Jewish-American student Weinstein professes to have traveled “everywhere in Europe except Germany” adding a little later: “After the Nazis, only the Jew is authorized to understand humanism, its limitations and its possibilities.”6

Following a few general remarks on Joyce Carol Oates' use of setting in her short fiction, the first part of this paper will briefly deal with the allusions to Germany and the Germans in two of the stories with an Eastern European setting—“My Warszawa: 1980” and “Old Budapest”.7 After that, the German setting in the three relevant stories will be discussed with particular reference to Oates' conception of ‘German-ness.’ The final part of the paper will focus on the Berlin Wall in its functions both as fact and metaphor.

Images of a foreign culture in works of short fiction certainly cannot be expected to express a well-balanced, unprejudiced view intended as an objective judgment of a world different from an author's own. Thus, owing to the fact that Oates' primary objective is to show the impact of the foreign culture on her protagonists, her images of Germany and the Germans in the few relevant stories are fragmentary, sometimes superficial, sometimes stereotyped and not likely to be fully representative of the author's overall personal insight into the contemporary German scene. But in spite of these reservations, it appears to be interesting enough to find out which particular observations on the German situation Oates makes in her stories, how her characters react to it and what opinions they express about it.

Before, however, discussing such thematic issues in Oates' European stories, the quality and function of the setting in her stories should be briefly commented upon. Joyce Carol Oates states in an interview: “For me, stories usually begin […] out of some magical association between characters and settings. There are some stories […] which evolved almost entirely out of their settings.”8 This is certainly a valid statement with respect to many of her ‘American’ stories, particularly the better ones. There, character and setting are mutually dependent or closely interwoven; setting often has an anthropomorphic function, mirrors the state of mind of the figures, etc. One is reminded of early Capote stories or some of D. H. Lawrence's fiction. In Oates' European stories, however, the setting has a different function. It is, so to speak, a separate entity, it is something that the characters are confronted with, not part of. In the ‘American’ stories the characters are thoroughly familiar with their setting, in the ‘European’ ones the characters react to it as to something foreign and unfamiliar. When I mentioned this in a letter to Joyce Carol Oates, she wrote back: “Yes, in my European stories, setting is a thematic force, almost a ‘character.’”9

Perhaps one can even say that in the stories that resulted from her travels in Germany and Eastern Europe, Oates not only made different use of the element ‘setting,’ but chose an altogether different mode of presenting her material. Linda Wagner observes, obviously with the typical ‘American’ story in mind:

Oates seldom reports, and she tends to judge implicitly. She is content to observe people in their usually mundane world; she is content to present them in their touching inarticulateness; and she is usually content to ascribe little if any ‘meaning’ to their suffering. Recognizing the mysteries of life—especially at this commonplace and often silent level—is Oates' accomplishment; translating that mute suffering so that readers are moved by it even when they do not fully understand it is her aim.10

In “My Warszawa: 1980,” “Old Budapest,” or “Master Race” there definitely is a good deal of ‘reporting,’ the stories can even be said to have a travelogue aspect.


The female protagonists of “My Warszawa: 1980” and “Old Budapest” are American intellectuals “participating in cultural/political conferences that bring them face to face with their Eastern contemporaries and throw into dramatic relief the enormous gulf separating the two cultures.”11 Judith Horne, the Jewish-American writer of “My Warszawa: 1980,” in quite a few ways Joyce Carol Oates' alter ego, is an extremely sensitive and vulnerable character in contradistinction to Marianne Beecher in “Old Budapest” who, as a member of the National Science Education Foundation, moves not only from one international conference to the next but also from one lover to the next. Like Judith, she is confronted with the disturbingly unfamiliar, but she is too superficial a person to be upset or even hurt by the dismal world she encounters. Both women experience the drab, run-down, impoverished foreignness of the two cities and their inhabitants, encounter hostility and desperation, but also the Old World charm. The allusions to Germany and the Germans in these two stories remain two-dimensional, partly stereotyped. Especially in “My Warszawa: 1980” particular emphasis is put on recent European history: For Judith Horne the Nazis, World War II, the terrible events in the Warsaw ghetto, the holocaust, anti-Semitism seem to be ever-present. She appears to make the Nazi occupation during World War II rather than the Communist regime responsible for the drab economic and social conditions in Warsaw and Poland. (She is, however, aware of the permanent censorship and surveillance exercised upon the Polish people by state authorities.) This concern with recent history, in Judith's case, turns out to be an increasingly personal concern. Johnson correctly states that she “confronts the tragic history of Warsaw” in an “almost visceral way.”12 “I never felt Jewish before. Before Warsaw” (p. 173), she says at one point. And she remembers that “aunts and uncles, cousins […] were shipped away […] to die […] at Auschwitz” (pp. 140f.). or discovers a swastika scratched on a Jewish tombstone (p. 170). Another important point which Oates makes in the two stories is the observation that the wealthy West Germans, in spite of their Nazi past, are not only tolerated but even welcomed in the poor Eastern countries on account of their strong Deutschmark. Ottó, Marianne's native guide, trying to make Marianne understand the situation in Budapest, links these two themes when reporting:

He was part Jewish, Marianne must know that it was very, very hard to be Jewish, in this part of Europe, his grandparents had been shipped ‘to Germany’ in March 1944 and not survived. Now the Germans—that is to say the West Germans—the former Nazis—were not only allowed to visit Hungary as tourists, but positively welcomed for their hard currency: which was the hardest currency in Europe. The Deutschmark was prized even above the American dollar, did Marianne know the outrage that there were places in Budapest where Hungarian currency wasn't accepted! and the old Nazis were driven about in their black Mercedes and the Hungarian lackeys bowed low for tips in hard currency, the old Nazis even dined in splendor in the very best restaurants in the city, beautiful restaurants Ottó had never stepped into, did Marianne know the comedy that some of these restaurants were in buildings formerly used for German fortifications and Gestapo headquarters! oh it was very amusing, it was very funny, Ottó agreed that one must laugh.

(p. 192)

Noisy arrogance and showiness on the part of West Germans in East European countries—“At a table to Judith's right German is being spoken briskly and loudly […] West Germans” (p. 184)—is coupled, as Judith sees it, with a tendency to forget and suppress recent history and feelings of guilt: “A journalist friend of Judith's, who once interviewed West German soldiers reported that the young men had never heard of Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau … they had never even heard the names” (p. 185). In the lines before this quotation, however, Oates has Judith reflect upon her flight back to Frankfurt in the following way:

They will fly out of Poland to Frankfurt, to the West; immediately they will recognize their home territory. Posters of left-wing Terroristen are prominently displayed in the Frankfurt Airport—sad sullen intelligent faces, their eyes rather like Judith's own—and young German guards stroll around in pairs, their submachines cradled casually in their arms.

(p. 185)

This passage reveals two things: quite a bit of naivety on the part of Judith/Oates concerning German terrorists, whom she seems to see as an idealistic if anti-Capitalist group and who—that appears to be the second implication—with their intelligent faces are certainly superior to the guards. The second point is that Frankfurt, that Western Europe, is considered “home territory.” This idea will be further discussed in connection with the ‘German’ stories. Oates herself wrote to me that “Germany is the only European country I have traveled in extensively.”13


Cecilia Heath, a 34-year-old art historian, member of the Peekskill Foundation for Independent Research in the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, an extremely sensitive young woman and even more, it seems, Oates' alter ego than Judith Horne, is traveling in Europe with Philip Schoen, age 53, eminent senior fellow of the foundation and specialist in European history. The events of the story take place in Mainz in the early summer of 1983. In the opening scene Cecilia is raped, or rather near-raped, by a black American soldier. On her humiliating way back to the hotel Cecilia reflects upon the terrible event, upon her relation to Philip, upon her experiences since their arrival in Mainz and upon her previous life. She gets to the hotel and, even though she has very much wanted to evade Philip, runs into him in front of her hotel room. She refrains, however, from telling him what happened. They spend the evening as guests of the US Consulate together with an information officer and six German intellectuals—writers and American Studies people from the university. The evening passes in animated discussion. At the end of it Cecilia decides to leave Schoen, i.e. not to accompany him on his trip to West Berlin the following day but rather to take a plane back to the United States.

The story is told from Cecilia's point of view, she is the center-of-consciousness; outward action is mainly presented through her thoughts; the author's interest is clearly focused on her protagonist's states of mind, her inner development. Cecilia's confrontation with the unfamiliar world of the foreign country Germany, in a similar way as Judith's confrontation with Warsaw, is instrumental for her development; when she decides to detach herself from Philip, it is on account of her recognition of his basic ‘German-ness,’ which she cannot accept.

The heterogeneous images of Germany as they confront the two Americans, as they are seen and interpreted by Philip and as they finally accumulate in Cecilia's mind will now be discussed in detail. Two themes are of particular interest in this story: the German-American relations and the definition of the German character or, as Oates puts it, of ‘German-ness.’ The two themes are connected with each other and also with that of the East-West dichotomy, which plays a far more important role in the two Berlin stories.

These themes are partly theorized about in the story, partly dramatized, i.e. shown in the action: Thus Cecilia and Philip learn about or have read about anti-American, especially anti-military tendencies among Germans—young Germans in particular and members of the Green Party (cf. p. 574). Hans, one of the Germans at the dinner party, points out German fears to Cecilia by stating that “Germany has become a land-mine” with all the Pershings stored on its territory. “The Soviets boast that they will destroy us how many times, and the Americans are to retaliate by destroying them how many times … ?” (p. 587) When Cecilia and Philip meet black American soldiers, they discuss the difficult situation these soldiers are in serving in a foreign country. According to Philip “the Germans ignore them completely […]. They aren't sentimental about certain things, as we are” (p. 575). He implies overt racism on the part of the German population as opposed to the “hypocritical politeness of white Americans.”14 Whether on this occasion or when the two visitors experience or observe instances of German behavior towards foreigners, especially towards themselves, Philip, considering himself an expert on ‘German-ness,’ assumes the role of Cecilia's mentor, wants to instruct her, wants to open her eyes to what he feels is really happening. He does not accept or even consider Cecilia's impressionistic views or her interpretations of their common experiences. Philip's view of Germany is rather ambiguous: he sees and discovers everywhere traces of the fascist ‘master race’ ideology;15 on the one hand he rejects it, on the other he is strangely attracted to it, i.e. he partly consciously, partly unconsciously sympathizes with it. How is this attitude accounted for in the story? Philip tells Cecilia in great detail about his German ancestors. He describes them as “Lutheran, clannish, supremely German […]. Until such time as it was no longer politic in the United States […] to proclaim the natural superiority of the Homeland and the inevitable inferiority of other nations, races, religions” (p. 570f.). He adds: “The Germans really are a master race, […] even when they—or do I mean we?—pretend humility” (p. 571). “He believes he knows the German soul perfectly, he says, but by way of his scholarly investigations and interviews primarily: not (or so he hopes) by way of blood” (p. 571). And he goes on to say: “Historical record is all that one can finally trust, not intuition, not promptings of the spirit; a people is its actions, not its ideals; we are (to paraphrase William James) what we cause others to experience” (p. 571). In the same context he points out that one of the most disagreeable character traits of the Germans is their “self-loathing” and adds that his wife would consider exactly this “the secret of […] [his] being” (p. 571). Cecilia is puzzled and asks him why he thinks of himself as German rather than American. Philip does not answer this question. His ambiguous attitude towards the Germans becomes more and more obvious when on one occasion he reacts aggressively to the behavior of a clerk at their hotel (“The very essence of the German personality,” Philip muttered to Cecilia, “—either at your throat or at your feet” [p. 572]), but on another, as an historian, challenges the absolute and exclusive condemnation of Nazi Germany without considering the role of other European countries:

It is his role as a professional to challenge, for instance, the media's image of such countries as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary. How innocent are they, historically—objectively? What are their records concerning the treatment of the Jews and other minorities, and neighboring countries—[…] how many Americans know anything at all about Poland's terrifying history of anti-Semitism […] If the Germans became outlaws […] who could prove that, following the Treaty of Versailles, they were not forced into an outlaw mentality: which is to say—outside, beyond, beneath the law? Perhaps Hitler was no more than the Scourge of God.

(p. 575f.)

Cecilia, who admits to a “haphazard and blurred” knowledge of European history (p. 575), is upset by Philip's views and, at this point, considers telling Philip “that she doesn't care for his facts, his precious History, if they contradict what she wants to believe” (p. 576).16 Towards the end of the story she arrives at her own conclusions about Philip.

The description of the dinner party gives Oates an opportunity to present a wide variety of German views of and American reactions to intercultural questions and matters of current German interest. The meeting with the Germans covers about six pages or one fourth of the entire story: This kind of extended theorizing is, as has already been stated, unusual in Oates' art of short fiction writing. However, by presenting the lengthy discussion as it is reflected in Cecilia's roaming mind, Oates avoids giving it a merely expository quality and manages to make it an integrated part of the story. Again the focus is on the impact of what Cecilia absorbs from the conversation on her state of mind.

The positions of the German intellectuals range from conservative (Dr. Eisenach) to leftist (Rudolph). After a conversation about nineteenth century intercultural relations it shifts to political questions such as the pacifist, ecological and vegetarian movements among the young, the Green Party, the hoax of Hitler's diaries, Aryan mythology and the manufacture of Nazi memorabilia in the GDR for export to the West, the ironies of a new dream of German unity, anti-Semitism in the 1920s, ‘forced de-Nazification’ and ‘forced democratication’ of Germany by the United States (which is interpreted by Rudolph as “an act of imperialist aggression” [p. 586]), Böll's engagement in the blockade of the US base at Mutlangen, etc. As Hubert Zapf correctly observes, “the increasingly belligerent, feverishly militant tone of the discussion intensifies for Cecilia, who listens as if from a traumatic distance, the sense of a ruthless rhetoric of power which pervades the otherwise incoherent debate.”17 This is particularly the case when Philip dominates the conversation: at instances like that she cannot be sure whether he is entirely serious or only trying to provoke the Germans:

Now Rudolph and Philip are speaking animatedly together, for the benefit of the whole table, of the folly of German submersion in ‘European civilization’—that phantasm which had no existence, could never have any existence, since Europe is by nature many Europes, nation-groups, language- and dialect-groups, clamoring for autonomy but, for the most part, fated to be slave states. Slave states! Does Cecilia hear correctly?

(p. 586)

Cecilia observes that Philip and Rudolph are “clearly attracted to each other's insolence. So very German, thinks Cecilia, feeling a wave of faintness” (p. 586). Finally the subject of East Germany comes up. August wants to know whether the Americans feel sorry for the East Germans and goes on to say: “If so they are fools and must be better informed, for the East Germans went from Hitler to Stalin with ease—‘It's all the same to them! The same!’” (p. 588) Philip's reaction again is rather ambiguous. He assures his audience that

he himself feels no sympathy for the East Germans; his sympathy is solely for the West Germans, amnesiac for so many years, and made to be on perpetual trial in the world's eyes … made to feel shame for being German. Indeed, words like ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ strike the ear, Philip says, as distinctly hypocritical. Is German ‘shame’ indigenous, for instance, or a matter of import? And ‘guilt’ … ?

(p. 588)

Oates does not indicate how Cecilia feels about German amnesia, however she shows that her protagonist senses a sympathy for fascist or fascistoid ideas on the part of her companion. Without becoming fully conscious of this she feels that there is a link between the ‘master race’ attitude with its discrimination against and suppression of other ethnic groups or minorities and rape as violence against the female sex. She intuitively recognizes “a symbolic complicity” between the black rapist and Philip.18 Zapf, in his careful analysis of the story, referring to the description of a symposium at the Peekskill Foundation, arrives at the conclusion that the ‘master race’ idea can also be applied to the new kind of science that Philip Schoen stands for. It is

a new kind of scientific ‘master race’ which, like the superpowers in a political and military sense, has come to dominate the world in an intellectual sense. […] Schoen's attitude to life, to Germany, to his past, is clearly influenced by similar scientific principles.19

Cecila's recognition of Schoen's connection with these ideas which, to her, are the epitome of ‘German-ness,’ destroys their personal relationship.


In the two Berlin stories the most important theme is the rift between East and West with the Wall as its pervading manifestation and image. The narrator of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is an American in his early thirties, whose brother got himself killed by East Berlin guards when he approached the Wall on foot and tried to pass it from East to West the year before (on 17 June 1981). The young American has come back to West Berlin in order to find out why his brother martyred himself. He talks to his brother's acquaintances and studies the personal effects he finds in his brother's apartment and he also tries to form an opinion about the Berlin environment that obviously influenced the behavior of the dead relative. The story ends with a legend about a nobleman in the Bavarian Alps in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, who had a “dreaded, and yet respected” way of depriving wrongdoers of their freedom (p. 111).

With “Our Wall” Oates presents, as Greg Johnson correctly states, a “contrapuntal […] parable like” story.20 It is told from the point of view of an eighteen-year-old Easterner. When Erica Jong refers to the whole collection of stories in Last Days as conveying “a state of mind familiar to us from Kafka's stories,”21 this holds particularly true for “Our Wall.” Jong goes on to say that in this story “Miss Oates reaches beyond realism to create, in metaphorical terms, the philosophical underpinnings of all walls.”22 These two technically quite different stories—the one told from the perspective of the West, the other from that of the East—supplement each other in a presentation of “that common landscape of hysteria that […] [linked] the East with the West in the nuclear age”23 before the opening of the Wall at the end of 1989.

Prior to a discussion of the various aspects of the wall image, some of the concepts that have been observed in “Master Race” and the Eastern European stories and are also presented in “Ich bin ein Berliner” should be briefly dealt with. Firstly, Oates in this story again suggests that the Germans have far too quickly suppressed their memory of their recent history—“memory fades swiftly in this part of the world,” the narrator observes in a more general context (p. 102), but it becomes clear later in the story what he really has in mind when he sarcastically states:

Berlin was reduced to rubble and rubble has no memory so you cannot expect a poignant sense of history: and in any case does history exist? Everyone appears to have been born after 30 April 1945. If not, if they are older folk, they certainly served courageously in the Resistance; they may have been wounded, imprisoned, tortured—the usual. They are Americans at heart. They are patriotic. If they want the two Germanys united it is only in the interest of world peace, a bulwark, as the saying goes, against the Enemy.

(p. 109)

Secondly, the concept of the fading memory is underscored, is reinforced by the concept of the ever-presence of Nazi-Germany. Thus the narrator's dead brother has left behind a written message: “Hitler is forever—he has made the rest of us fiction” (p. 109). In another instance the narrator is seized by panic in his hotel room:

A ludicrous fate, to die locked in a windowless bathroom in a sealed hotel room, my invaluable passport only a few yards away, and the telephone too: but the door will not open because the doorknob will not turn. Help help I cry, bitte, danke I cry absurdly, O help, I know you are listening, is the doorknob riveted in place?—are the poisonous gases being filtered in?

(p. 108)

This is an obvious allusion to the holocaust, to Auschwitz as it also occurs in the Eastern European stories. The narrator here and at other points in the story (cf. pp. 105, 107) suspects that he is being observed, spied on.

Thirdly, quite a few obviously stereotyped images of the Germans can be found in “Ich bin ein Berliner,” some of which can also be observed in the other stories: The narrator wonders, for example, about the German girls he meets in Berlin. They are “skeletal-thin. Something has happened to the robust Aryan mammalian form” (p. 101); or, at another point, he describes the affluent Germans cruising about in their Mercedeses as having “ruddy thug-faces, […] pig-snouts, small blinking beady eyes” (p. 102) and, with this kind of description comes pretty close to the presentation of German SS-officers in American post-War movies. In “My Warszawa: 1980,” Judith observes that the stone figures of the monument to the Warsaw ghetto all “boast a craggy Aryan look—not a Jew in their midst” (p. 162). These examples should suffice to point out once again a stereotyped concept of ‘German-ness.’

Joyce Carol Oates, in her two Berlin stories, focuses on the division of the contemporary European world into a materialistic, shallow and pleasure-hunting Western and a drab, dismal Eastern sphere. In “Ich bin ein Berliner” the narrator describes “the sparkling West” with the “radiant Mercedes-Benz cross, rotating nobly overhead! A sacred vision beamed over the Wall into the shadowy,” or at another place, the “glum, barbed-wire East” (p. 100). Carol Rummens, in her review of Last Days, stresses the convincing “montage effect, cutting between the night-life of the Hardenbergstrasse and the rubble-strewn environs of the wall, Eros and Thanatos.”24 The people of West Berlin seem to be basically interested in enjoying themselves, they are not aware of the Wall anymore, they are uninterested in or negligent of each other's fates or difficulties. The Wall, the place where Peter Fechter died, the locked Brandenburg Gate—all these sites are equally exploited by tourist industry (cf. p. 102). It should be mentioned, however, that this tourist carelessness, for the narrator (or Oates) is not restricted to the Germans or West Berlin. Viewing the Hardenbergstrasse scene, the narrator ponders: “It is America. But no it is Berlin. West Berlin. Germany. But no it is America. No? Yes? America?” (p. 100) And it is the representative of the US State Department who accuses the narrator's dead brother of having had a morbid interest in German history, of having become “disturbed, and it enraged him that other people were people less disturbed, less morbid” (p. 100). When the narrator asks him to define the word ‘morbid,’ the official says: “any interest at all, pursued beyond a certain point” (p. 100), and thus clearly shows that he shares the general attitude of non-commitment, non-involvement and disregard of recent history.

The narrator views the Wall with ironic ambivalence. It appears to him as a symbol of death, yet also of life, for approaching it stirs emotions, “note how the pulse helplessly quickens” (p. 110). The legend added at the end of the story demonstrates that Man's hunger for freedom is eternal to the extent of becoming desperately absurd: all the prisoners try to squeeze through the hole in the dungeon wall in spite of the smell of the rotting flesh of those who have tried to escape before them.

“Our Wall,” which predates “Ich bin ein Berliner”25 is, as has been stated before, not a realistic story but something like a parable. In order to convey the degraded situation of the Easterners to the reader, Oates for this story has chosen a form that combines realistic details with a good deal of non-realistic elements, suited to provide abstraction and generalization. Oates, for example, makes use of a variety of fairy-tale motifs. This allows her to treat the atrocities of the (communist) regime in the detached, quasi matter-of-fact way typical of the genre ‘fairy-tale’ and to create a dimension of timelessness und undecidedness. In this atmosphere moral considerations do not exist, the actions and measures of the regime are shown to be arbitrary, inscrutable, sadistic. The first-person narrator is basically a ‘we’-narrator with only few individual characteristics, spokesman of his generation rather than a distinct personality. His world view is inconsistent, even at times illogical; on the one hand he is clearly indoctrinated by the regime, on the other he shows a vague longing for freedom, of which he is only partly conscious.

A few examples must suffice to demonstrate the realistic and non-realistic aspects of the story. The Wall is described in realistic details: electrified barbed wire, sentries with submachine guns, dogs, antitank obstacles, landmines detonated by “nocturnal hares”; height and solidity of the Wall are described, the fact that the top “has been rounded for aesthetic and security reasons” (p. 235), etc. In fact, most of the details which the narrator mentions are realistic even if the context is non-realistic. Such non-realistic, fairy-tale like or night-marish passages characterize the story as a whole. No one knows, for example, what is beyond the Wall. One can only speculate about the so-called “Forbidden Zone”:

What, precisely, is the Forbidden Zone, from which the citizens of our country must be protected?

Absolute truth is impossible to come by, since anyone who climbs The Wall successfully disappears from our world and never returns; and anyone who climbs The Wall unsuccessfully is killed on the spot.

(p. 238)

The popular theories include the possibility that there is a paradise beyond the Wall; or that “there are dangerous, diseased, psychotic people” on the other side of it, “a race not unlike ours, but degenerate. A brother-race? But degenerate;” that “there is nothing but a graveyard beyond The Wall: a mere dumping ground for the dead” or, finally, that “there is an ordinary world beyond The Wall—our own world, in fact—but it is a mirror-image, a reversal. None of us could survive in it” (p. 239).

The institution of the so-called “Day of Grace,” in an exemplary way, conveys the nightmare aspect of the story: several times a year certain citizens (above age eighteen, free of debt and familial responsibilities) are allowed to scale the Wall “without fear of punishment or reprisal” (p. 234). The catch, however, is that nobody knows exactly when that day is, whether it starts “on the first stroke of noon instead of the last, or on the first stroke of midnight instead of on the last” (p. 234). The wrong information or rather the wrong rumors result in butchery: “the unstable rush forward too soon, or too late, or on the wrong day entirely and […] are shot down, or blown literally to bits by landmines, or savagely mauled by dogs” (p. 234).

The rumor goes that children's bones are buried in the Wall: “children of exceptional beauty or talent—children who were orphans, or in some way unprotected—too high-spirited for their own good and for the good of the community” (p. 236). This is also a fairy-tale motif and at the same time, on a realistic level, points to the fact that so many young people died in their attempt to cross the actual Berlin Wall. It remains open whether the narrator's brother was killed in an attempt to escape to the other side. The narrator's parents deny it, but, according to the young man, they lie to him anyway “as they lie to each other; but out of necessity; out of love” (p. 239). Oates, by introducing a brother who was killed/may have been killed trying to cross the wall in this story foreshadows the theme of “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Peter Fechter is expressly alluded to in the later story, here it is an anonymous person: “They shot him during the night but did not kill him and so he lay for hours […] bleeding to death […] and calling for help” (p. 240). The image of the brother, of course, attains a metaphorical quality in both stories. It has been stated that the narrator is inconsistent in his attitude towards the situation in his country. On the one hand he assures several times that he does not want to know what is beyond the Wall, does not want to leave his family, on the other he envies the guards, who “themselves are frequently defectors” (p. 238). A final observation on the narrator concerns his indoctrination by the regime and his “almost religious devotion to the wall:”26 “I want nothing from the Wall, I am content merely to gaze upon it. Knowing that it is there. That it exists. That one cannot move in that direction. That there is a Forbidden Zone […] from which we are to be protected forever.” (p. 237)

For the young man the wall holds a strange fascination: even if it is boring (this epithet is used several times, e.g., p. 237), its “gray uniformity” (p. 237) is a “wonderful sameness” (p. 238); the wall is “attractive,” “beautiful” (p. 237), “so beautiful my heart plunges” (p. 237); it is “mesmerizing” (pp. 237 and 238), has a “mysterious strength” (p. 238) so that he wants to “caress it” (p. 240). But his feelings about the Wall are ambivalent. He considers the Wall to be “eternal” (p. 234), thinks that it will be there forever, yet in his dreams “we scale The Wall nightly, and keep our secrets to ourselves” (p. 241). At the end of the story, he not only discovers “fine cracks in The Wall” (p. 241), but also, in parentheses, mentions the rumor that someday “we will overcome The Wall. And mate with those men and women on the ‘other side.’ As we are destined to do. As we had done in history. We will breed a race of giants once again, we will conquer the world” (p. 241). Here the reservations about German unification are finally added to the other reservations and prejudices that have already been observed in the five stories under discussion. It must be stated here, however, that Oates' reaction to the remarkable changes in Eastern Europe has been unambiguously positive: “Yes, I am very moved and fascinated by the recent developments in the German Democratic Republic. How dramatic and unexpected!”27


How then are we to understand the scepticism about Germany and the Germans that is directly and indirectly expressed in Oates' ‘Eastern European’ and ‘German’ stories? It is rather obvious that the knowledge of the Nazi holocaust has strongly influenced her image of Germany. In an article written in 1980 she expresses surprise, even shock that a young Polish person should ask her why her writing was so violent:

That this familiar question was asked of me in Warsaw, where in September of 1944 the insurrection against the Germans by the Polish underground had begun, with the eventual consequence that 200,000 Poles were slaughtered; that this question was asked of me in a city blown up by the departing German Army […] struck me as so painful and so ironic and so dispiriting and, in a sad way, so amusing that I could only offer some judiciously chosen and diplomatic words in response.28

She adds that she was asked the same question in “that dramatically ‘Western’ city in Eastern Europe known for its encircling wall […] not many miles from where Adolf Hitler proclaimed the Second World War and Dr. Goebbels advanced the notion of ‘total war.’”29 Thus we are probably to assume that during her travels in Germany she was constantly aware of the Nazi past and that when she wrote to me, “I visited Berlin in May 1980; West Germany in 1980 and 1988, with much pleasure and edification,”30 the word “edification” also comprises her very critical evaluation of some aspects of contemporary Germany.

It should be added here, by way of a short epilogue, that even though the image of Germany and the Germans in the United States has gradually improved in the course of the years since the end of World War II, the fears, reservations, prejudices voiced by Joyce Carol Oates are still shared by certain American media and in various political publications and have, in fact, been restated not infrequently after the opening of the Iron Curtain at the end of 1989. William Safire, for example, in the New York Times of November 13, 1989, expresses his doubts as to whether Gorbachev made a wise decision when he allowed the Germans to tear down their Wall. He compared it to tearing up the insurance policy that prevented the Germans from a third attempt at world domination.31 But also much more moderate observers of the German scene have kept cautioning against an unconditional belief in a new and changed Germany. In his very important and certainly fair evaluation of the Germans in 1982, Gordon Craig still considers them as convalescing from a terrible disease32 and Jörg von Uthmann is certainly correct when, observing the American reactions to the Bundestag elections of 1987 he describes the American-German relations as relaxed but goes on to say: “Gewiß, da ist der Holocaust. Die im deutschen Namen begangenen Verbrechen an den Juden bleiben eine Hypothek, mit der die deutsche Politik auch in Zukunft rechnen muß.”33 In the same article, von Uthmann makes another important point which can also—with caution—be applied to Joyce Carol Oates' position: the problem of German-American relations, he feels, is not that the Americans do not like the Germans but that they know too little about them.34 Oates certainly knows a lot about the German past, but maybe not enough about mainstream contemporary Germany.


  1. Leif Sjöberg, “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” Contemporary Literature, 23 (1982), 280.

  2. Partisan Review, 51:4 (1984), 566-590.

  3. Both in: Last Days: Stories, London: Jonathan Cape, 1985; all page references are to this edition.

  4. Night-Side: Eighteen Tales. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1977.

  5. Night-Side, p. 300.

  6. Wild Saturday and Other Stories. London, Melbourne: Dent 1984, p. 153.

  7. Both collected in Last Days.

  8. Robert Philips, “Joyce Carol Oates: The Art of Fiction LXXII,” Paris Review, 74 (1978), 216.

  9. Correspondence of January 26, 1990.

  10. “Oates: The Changing Shapes of Her Realities,” Great Lakes Review, 5 (1979), 17.

  11. Greg Johnson, Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987, 191.

  12. Op. cit., p. 195.

  13. Correspondence of January 26, 1990.

  14. Hubert Zapf, “Aesthetic Experience and Ideological Critique in Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Master Race,’” The International Fiction Review, 16:1 (Winter 1989) p. 53.

  15. Cf. Zapf, p. 53.

  16. In “My Warszawa: 1980,” by the way, it is Judith Horne who tells Carl Walser about a pogrom in a Polish village in 1946, i.e. after World War II.

  17. Op. cit., p. 54.

  18. Cf. Zapf, p. 53.

  19. Op. cit., p. 54.

  20. Op. cit., p. 190.

  21. New York Times Book Review, 5 August 1984, p. 7.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Times Literary Supplement, 18 October 1985, p. 1170.

  25. Correspondence of January 26, 1990.

  26. Carol Rummens, op. cit., p. 1170.

  27. Correspondence of January 26, 1990.

  28. “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1981, p. 15.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Correspondence of January 26, 1990.

  31. Cf. Jörg von Uthmann, “Wie viele Deutschlands?—Blick in amerikanische Zeitschriften,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, November 18, 1989.

  32. Karl-Heinz Bohrer, “Romantik als Metapher,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 30, 1982.

  33. “Das ruhelose Volk,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 18, 1987.

  34. Ibid.

Pamela Smiley (essay date February 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5778

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, deserts, forgets her). The terms of her victimization are most often violent and sexual, her control minimal, and her chances of repeating the pattern good. In fact, the woman seems almost to invite victimization through her very passivity and vulnerability.

The Goddess and Other Women (1974), for example, is a collection of stories about individual women pitted against patriarchies. The collective moral of the stories is that it does not matter whether one is beautiful (“The Girl”), intellectually powerful (“Magna Mater”), objective and scientific (“Psychiatric Services”), or artistic (“A Premature Autobiography”), whether one seduces her father (“Ruth”) or battles with her mother (“The Daughter”). If one is a woman, one is doomed to victimization.

Powerless in a sexually violent world, the women of The Goddess and Other Women tirelessly repeat a tripartite Oatesian pattern of enmeshment. First, the small, pretty, young, and aimless feminine character drifts into a dangerous situation that leaves her vulnerable; second, a manly man (associated with masculinity through boxing, cars, machinery, or patriarchal power and knowledge), as if sensing her powerlessness and disorientation, finds her and initiates her into violent sexuality; third, instead of being repelled by the initiation, the feminine character is drawn back to the man or his substitute in a repetition compulsion. Again and again Oates's couples meet—he violent and sexual, she passive, dependent, and seemingly separated from her body—until she, in Oates's terms, absorbs his violence and “wins.”

Critics have noted this oddity of the Oatsian feminine character. Those who are sympathetic, Elaine Showalter, Cara Chell, and Charlotte Goodman, for example, claim Oates as a feminist writer portraying the condition of women in America. While Oates disclaims the feminist label (Sjoberg 273), she agrees that her work is a realistic portrait of American life whose project is to deepen her readers' understanding of the sanctity of human life (Oates, “American Tragedy” 2).

But to accept the Oatsian feminine character as realistic and representative seems to me problematic. Oates's feminine characters are often better understood by looking at their specificity rather than their representative realism. Any generalization about Oates's work is challenged by the sheer volume of her writing. Therefore I will argue that in “The Virgin in the Rose-Bower; Or, The Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor” from Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) and With Shuddering Fall (1964), one can see how far she deviates from the representative in that her feminine characters are products of their incestuous and Roman Catholic contexts. So extensive is Oates's use of incest and Roman Catholicism that they are virtually tropes in these works for the daughter's position within the Law of the Father.

To accept Oates's project as spiritual enlightenment is also problematic. While no critic finds easy solutions to the modern condition in Oates, some critics, such as Frank R. Cunningham and Walter Sullivan, note that any solution is impossible in her fictional world: the ideal, “sanctity,” implies enlightened choices leading to liberated self-definition, and in Oates there is no struggle for self-definition because there are no choices; there is only violence and spiritual disintegration. By positing the incestuous profile and the Roman Catholic context as usual, she makes the exceptional representative, normalizes the passive and aimless feminine character, and renders invisible the differences among women that might make choice, struggle, self-definition, and sanctity possible.

To claim that Oates uses incest as a trope presumes a feminist and political reading (as opposed to, for example, Freud's traditional reading that makes incest invisible by identifying it as the daughter's fantasy of desire, and ahistorical by placing it within an inevitable narrative of human development). Seeing incest depends upon a feminist position outside of the patriarchal norm, a position furnished in this paper by such feminist theorists as Louise DeSalvo, Judith Lewis Herman and Lisa Hirschman, Jean Renvoize, and Linda Gordon. Likewise, responding to it (beyond accepting victimization as inevitable) presumes an arena of political action in which change is possible. As an extension of patriarchal power and the presumption that women are property, the incestuous family—in which the mother is absent or powerless, the father and his needs are central, and there is no alternative to capitulating to male desire—is often invisible because it differs from the “normal” patriarchal family in degree rather than in kind. Because the incestuous relationship is predicated on power expressed through sexuality, it includes bullying, physical violence, temper tantrums, and isolation, as well as sexual intercourse. It differs from other forms of abuse in that incest creates in its victim a highly sexualized self-image.

Markers of the incest victim's profile are described by all of the feminist critics above. For my purposes here, I am consolidating these markers into four traits important to reading Oates (for simplicity collapsing subtle distinctions among the different incests, perpetrators, and victims): the female incest victim is angry with and isolated from women while being dependent upon and sympathetic to men; she has an impaired sense of self-esteem (believing that she “deserves” abuse and reacting passively to it, having the sense that she is hollow); she is vulnerable to repeated victimizations (in the form of repetition compulsions that mimic the original incestuous relationship and self-destructive impulses such as eating disorders, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide attempts); and she is highly sexualized yet sexually dysfunctional (sexualizing all relationships with men at the same time as she experiences sexual anesthesia or feelings of separation from her own body).

To identify the Roman Catholic in Oates's work also requires some elaboration. Oates claims to have laid to rest her Roman Catholic background with the writing of With Shuddering Fall. Yet Roman Catholic symbols (priests, nuns, sacraments, and saints) and orthodox presumptions (a postlapsarian world, violence, the mind-body split, the goal of sanctification, the repulsiveness of female sexuality) still permeate her work. While Roman Catholicism shares with other patriarchal hegemonies a definition of human as male, a repression of the feminine, and a mind-body split, it is unique in grounding these divinely revealed Truths in a male God and an all-male hierarchy without allowing for direct access to spiritual enlightenment. It is also unique in its particularly virulent misogyny, inherited from the monastic tracts and canonized by the Church Fathers. When this Roman Catholic context is combined with Oates's particular incestuous twist, it becomes an especially insidious trap for female characters. Oates's presumptions of sadistic sexuality, passive and victimized women, a mind-body split, and inevitable female entanglement in a web of male sexual violence can better be understood when seen as effects of specific cultural conditions—Roman Catholicism and incest—than as a realistic inevitability of contemporary America.

The most obvious reason for identifying Oates with an incest trope is her fondness for using incest as an example of the violence of modern society. While I do not claim it as comprehensive, the following sampling reveals just how prone she is to treat incest as a norm of cultural violence and misogyny. For example, in Bellefleur (1980) the child Little Goldie is raped first by Ewan, “grinding himself into her, one big hand covering her mouth and nose so that she was unable to cry out,” and then by Gideon: “Eyes shut, head ringing out with an urgency that was more anger than lust, Gideon groped to silence the screams, pressing the palm of his hand hard over a mouth and part of a nose. Be quiet. Be quiet or I'll hold your head underwater” (163). In another example, from You Must Remember This (1987), Felix “liked being just a little angry with Enid [his 12-year-old niece], it made him feel less guilty fucking her: what he might do as her punishment” (317). And Enid responds as though his hatred is just: “He didn't always take care not to hurt her, and Enid scarcely cared—whatever happened she deserved. She knew she deserved it because it happened” (347). In these examples, sexual violence, mind-body split, and incest are taken as representative rather than as evidence of Roman Catholic revulsion for female sexuality and of exceptional, dysfunctional family patterns.

These examples are not uncharacteristic. Many an Oatsian feminine character is the victim of incest; many others exhibit the incest survivor's profile. Of the 25 stories in The Goddess and Other Women, three contain literal incestuous relationships (“Blindfold,” “The Daughter,” and “Ruth”). Incestuous relationships are also central to Bellefleur (Gideon and Ewan's rape of Little Goldie), to Marya: A Life (1986; Marya and her cousin, Lee), to You Must Remember This (12-year-old Enid and her uncle Felix), to “The Virgin in the Rose-Bower” (Georgina and her father, Justice Kilgarven), and to With Shuddering Fall (Karen and Hertz).

Consider “The Virgin in the Rose-Bower” as an example of Oates's use of literal incest in a Roman Catholic context. Oates deems this work “uniquely American,” its characters “both our ancestors and ourselves,” and its purpose an exposé of the “historically authentic crimes against women, children, and the poor” (Oates, (Woman) Writer 372-73). In other words, she asserts the representative nature of these characters across time, material conditions, and culture. Any site of resistance to such “historically authentic crimes” therefore lies in the Romantic promethean individual, since political contexts matter so little. However, the universality of Oates's feminine character is negated by the specificity of traits that define her: incest and Roman Catholicism.

“The Virgin in the Rose-Bower” is a Gothic about the haunting of a room painted with the image of the Virgin Mary holding her child, surrounded by angels, seated in a rose bower. On a visit to the late Justice Kilgarven's daughters, cousin Abigail and her babe in arms sleep in the bower room, where, late at night, the angels come alive, hungrily nip at the woman's breast, and jealously eat the head of their flesh-and-blood rival, her son.

Reading “The Virgin in the Rose-Bower” as though it were a mystery story encourages the naming of the unnamed crime behind the haunting as the father-daughter incest of Georgina and Chief Justice Erasmus Kilgarven. Details about the Kilgarven family mark it as incestuous. Outside his home, Kilgarven is a patriarch, lawgiver, and pillar of his community. Inside his home, he kills two wives through the violence of his demands, calls Georgina home from school to run the house, and shuts her in a dungeon during her pregnancies. Tongues wag at the Justice's behavior, but no one opposes his will; his family is his family, after all.

But all these clues are red herrings. The crime in the rose-bower room cannot be father-daughter incest, since the image of that crime (a provocative example of Oates's theory that oppression fosters art by ensuring a woman's privacy) is written on the walls of the dungeon in Georgina's own Emily Dickinsonesque verse. It is not the dungeon but the rose-bower room that is haunted, and haunted not by the voice of the repressed woman but by the voices and the nips of Georgina's murdered babies. Lying overhead in the attic (with copper wires at their throats, milky eyes, mummified bodies) and inhabiting the painted angels surrounding the cold icon of the Virgin, these lost souls chant, “Impatient with waiting. With longing. So lonely. So hungry. These many years. O cruel beloved Mother: our time now approaches” (144). While Chell argues that these angels avenge Georgina and are therefore a manifestation of feminist resistance, their initial attack is on a mother, and their cries protest their mother's desertion, not their grandfather/father's crimes. The ghosts haunt the rose-bower room to redress the crime committed against them, a crime having less to do with incest than with the betrayal of a mother who fails to love enough to intercede against the power of the father.

It is only fitting that Oates places the haunting at the center of her Gothic, the rose-bower room at the center of the haunting, and the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the center of the room. The Mother replaces the Father as key player. This positioning is appropriate to the Gothic, since as Claire Kahane claims, fear of the Mother's body haunts that genre. It is appropriate to the incest narrative, which feminist theorists argue is only superficially about the father, and is more deeply a narrative of longing for the absent mother. And it is also appropriate to Roman Catholicism. At the center of the rose bower is not just any mother, but the Blessed Virgin Mary, the icon of the Mother's power appropriated by Roman Catholic patriarchy and rendered impotent against the power of the Father. The placid and benign image of the Virgin (she who, when given the choice between obedience and self-definition, replied, “Thy will be done”) domesticates the feared Mother powerful enough to create, castrate, and kill. Mary is, as Marina Warner notes, “alone of all her sex,” and as Mary Gordon adds, a stick to beat smart girls with.

The power of Georgina's particular narrative draws on the entangled emotions, the longing for and hatred of the absent mother, felt by the abandoned child. Outside the Roman Catholic or the incestuous pattern—where strong women are not by definition absent—it might be possible to find a substitute for the absent mother or to recognize alternatives to orthodox definitions of femininity. But in this Oatsian universe there are no choices, and as Oates adds, once “something has gone wrong inside this small universe [the family], then nothing can ever be made right” (Bellamy 29). In normalizing both incest and the Roman Catholic appropriation of the Mother's power, Oates eliminates choice and its potential sites of feminine resistance.

Deprived of a site of resistance, those Oates characters who exhibit the incest victim's personality profile—though in works differing in details, techniques, and generic conventions—are affected by changes in context only as superficially as they would be by changes of costume, as Oates's use of nonliteral incest in With Shuddering Fall demonstrates. Oates claims this novel as her retelling of the Abraham and Isaac story, thereby neatly collapsing time, material conditions, culture, and gender. While the novel is certainly about revenge and sacrifice, it is the specificity of the sacrifice—the feminine woman as a consequence of Roman Catholicism and the incestuous American version of the Law of the Father—that sets the protagonist, Karen, apart. Karen is an illustration of Oates's use of the incest-victim profile as a paradigm for femininity, not a representative of the modern condition.

At its simplest, the story of With Shuddering Fall is as follows. It begins in Eden, as Oates names her American farm country, from which the patriarch of the Hertz family sends his daughter Karen to avenge him against Shar, a one-time neighbor who is at present a race-car driver. Karen follows Shar and has a violent sexual affair with him, carried on against the backdrop of the demimonde of car racing. The violence of their relationship builds until it erupts: Karen miscarries her child, Shar kills himself in a race, and the city explodes in racial violence. After Karen is hospitalized for an emotional breakdown, she returns to Eden, where she tries to make sense of her experience. She concludes that her father is not God, she is not Christ, and there is no meaning to her suffering.

The first section of the novel is dominated by Mr. Hertz, who, having outlasted (and by implication sexually exhausted) his two wives, runs the family farm without mature, strong women who could serve as models for Karen. The only other woman is Karen's older sister, for whom she feels nothing but pity. As is common with incest victims, the absence of a strong maternal figure makes inevitable Karen's premature identification with and responsibility for her father. She measures her legs against his and is pleased when others speak their shared last name in respectful tones (28). On the surface, the relationship between Hertz and his daughter Karen is that between the patriarch and his favorite child (“In his company she was never more than eight or nine years old: she sensed rather than knew this and it pleased her. She was his littlest girl” [28]). But the intensity of the bond between them and its sexual translation in Karen's relationship with Shar betrays its incestuous pattern.

Their bond is more passionate than that of parent and child. Karen's father's needs are central to the decisions she makes. She quits school early and “surrender[s] most of her life outside the home” in order to care for him (44). She is “jealous of the drain of energy the routines of life demanded—drawing out her father, for instance, into different roles, different masks, so that she could never hope to know him entirely” (44). Karen is responsible for her father because she replaces the absent woman, her mother. Hertz justifies this transference of responsibility by noting that Karen, small and blonde and fragile, “looks just like her mother—a queer thing to see, at breakfast and such. Gives me a start” (21), and occupies the same dependent (female) position in his household. He insists that Karen, as her womanly duty, take his wife's place on an errand to Mr. Rule, Shar's dying father. That this relationship is premature and inappropriate does not occur to Hertz or Karen. Others, however, recognize its unusual intimacy. When Karen appears uninterested in a young suitor, he suspects Hertz of forcing her self-sacrifice: “He's got you to promise something. … To take care of him in his old age—something like that. Sure. And you want to do it” (51).

Karen cannot resist her father, though her obedience is not really tested until Hertz tangles with Shar Rule, the son of his neighbor. Lying on the ground after a fight with Shar, Hertz looks at Karen and whispers, “Don't come to me until you get him. Kill him. Kill him.” Though Karen is “blinded by terror” and cries, “Not me! Not me! … Let me alone!” (76), she goes after Shar.

Not only is Karen unable to disobey her father's command, but, consistent with her incest-victim profile, she feels culpable. Her sin, as she understands it, is that she has left her “child's bed” too early:

Perhaps she had even understood the price of forcing herself up from sleep and, in going down to the men, the price of violating her role … the rejection of her child's bed would lead, after a series of insane, vivid scenes, to the picture of her father lying in the cold mud, bleeding, staring up at her—how right he was to judge her, to find her guilty!


Claiming inordinate power for herself, Karen thinks her sexuality has caused the violence between Shar and her father, not recognizing that if her sexuality is an issue, it is one only insofar as it is a token of male power. As the cause of the violence, she feels responsible for restoring peace. Her guilt, therefore, is entangled with her sexuality—relative to her father, Shar, and by extension all men.

The emphasis on Karen's “child's bed” and on Hertz's thinking of her as always eight or nine years old indicates that their relationship is not overtly sexual, but not that it is not incestuous. Incest is a relationship in which an older caretaker (for whom I have used “father” as a convenient categorical term throughout) prematurely initiates a child into sexuality, unmasking the oedipal moment as being not the girl child's desire for the father, but the father's desire for the daughter—the perfectly dependent and obedient object of desire. Karen is not only pressed into her mother's role as her father's mate, but is also coerced into her first sexual relationship in obedience to her father's command, with a man who might have been his double.

Karen's relationship with Shar is predicated on her relationship with her father. The two men are the same type. Shar is “masculine” as Hertz is “masculine” (large, powerful, in control of his masculine microcosm—for Shar the world of race cars and machinery, for Hertz land management and leadership of men). Both men position Karen in isolation from community and other women. Shar's demimonde of car racing is as protected from conventional standards as is Hertz's farm. Most obvious, however, is the neatly parallel gesture of their exchange of Karen. Shar returns the lost child Karen to her father (22), as Hertz gives Karen to Shar in his command for revenge.

In obedience to this command, Karen follows Shar across the barren landscape, her behavior becoming more and more schizophrenic. Karen shows the same odd combination of mindless wandering and indecision that marks the women from many Oates stories. She resists her father's order as she obeys it. She is the aggressor as she is the victim. She is in her body as she is separated from it, “able to think clearly and sanely” (82), yet unaware that she is bleeding. This self-division climaxes in a mind-body split, characteristic of the incest victim's defensive response to trauma: “Karen began to experience a strange sensation then—that of being eased suddenly away from herself and able to watch from a distance her slow progress. A frail girl with blond hair blown ragged by the wind, and a blank exhausted face, pale blue eyes that probably reflect madness” (82). When she catches up to Shar at a rat-infested barn, Karen is at first drawn back into her body, only to distance herself in recognition of the sexuality of his touch: “His touch seemed to awaken her: she felt the reality of the moment, the strength of the strange man who held her. She turned aside and put her hands to her face, shielding it, and looked back to the field and the empty road” (91). Karen's passivity, her obedience, her guilt, her feelings of separation from her body: all are traits she has in common with the incest victim.

After Shar rapes Karen in the barn, the narrative breaks. When it picks up again, Karen and Shar are an established couple, although the exact nature of their relationship is unclear. The narrative voice sometimes labels it “love,” sometimes “hate.” (Such confusion is not uncommon; incest victims express both hatred and compassion for their abusers, and Roman Catholicism has traditionally portrayed women's love as a snare dooming men.) Closely related to the confusion between love and hate is the blurring of the boundaries between sexuality and violence, manifested in Shar's description of his relationship with Karen:

She resisted him at the same time she gave herself to him, he thought; she did not love him, she mocked him, she used his infatuation to degrade him. In the face of such mockery Karen's gentleness, her silence even to his deliberate coarseness irritated him until he felt like striking her, forcing her to cry out—as she sometimes did—in sharp surprised pain.


As is common in Oates, a characteristic (here, violence), once established, is pushed to its extreme. Karen and Shar's battle for power escalates: “Shar pushed her before him. His jaws had begun to clench convulsively; he could hardly speak. Karen did not back away but faced him calmly; his bitter rage seemed absorbed and defeated by her, mocked by her” (244). The intensity crescendos until Shar's “bitter rage” causes Karen to miscarry, and, within a few pages, Shar to kill himself and the city to erupt in a race riot.

His violence, her sexual anesthesia and impulse for self-destruction, sexuality as an issue of power rather than pleasure, victimization guaranteed by repetition compulsion: Oates would like us to believe that these comprise a realistic portrait of American culture. But Karen is less a study from modern life than she is the consequence of the ideological contradictions defining her, unique because Roman Catholic and incestuous. As a daughter, Karen must be obedient and asexual, as an incestuous daughter she must be obedient and sexual; as a woman she is “carnality” and therefore without soul, but as a saved Catholic woman she must be all soul. Together, incest and Roman Catholicism make a heady combination, defining women as sexual objects through which male agents work out their own empowerment and salvation.

Defining “femininity” so narrowly shrinks the field of possible actions until (as in Flannery O'Connor's “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”) death becomes an attractive choice: “A warning from Karen would have avoided this [her miscarriage], but Karen had not wanted it avoided. She had demanded it; probably it had been her own death she had wanted—she would have pulled Shar into death with her” (248). Karen's masochistic self-martyrdom both fits the incest victim's self-destructive pattern and gives her a resemblance to early Catholic martyrs whose deaths gave their lives meaning.

Given such a narrow definition of woman, it is inevitable that Karen should internalize her sexualized self-image. Her sexuality is not a part of her; it defines her. Consequently, Karen finds her “self” in the sexual violence of her relationship with Shar; she translates all her relationships with men into sexual terms, and she locates her power in her sexuality.

Karen's “self” is hewn in the violence of her sexual relationship with Shar. As he rapes her, she retreats into herself and finds a silent pebble from which her self-definition grows: “Karen closed her eyes and felt her soul contract itself into a tiny pebble-like thing, safe in her brain” (121). Safe in her brain, her “self” is protected from Shar's assault, even as it is discovered in his abuse. Safe in her brain, the pebble is disturbingly outside of history. Roman Catholic and incestuous definitions of her—though obviously cultural and historical—claim similar ahistoricity, in defiance of change and political intervention. As a result, the sexual violence Karen suffers seems inevitable—female sexuality is, after all, repulsive (as St. Jerome wrote, “a temple built over a sewer”), and woman the logical sacrificial victim in the incestuous American version of the Law of the Father.

As horrible as is a self dependent upon sexual violation, even more horrible is its consequence: Karen translates all of her relationships with men into sexual terms. Hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, Karen cries in frustration at being blocked from making all of the men in the hospital happy through her sexual favors: “She had cried hysterically, ‘You don't want me! None of you want me! You won't let me make you happy!’” (297). After Shar's death, she approaches a group of men as she approached Shar at the barn—disoriented, bleeding, silent. Standing unflinchingly, Karen, like Christ, comes closest to being a cultural icon in her violation and physical suffering, dramatizing Oates's judgment that it is in her passivity that the heroine absorbs male violence and “wins.”

It is true that Karen's sexuality, however masochistic, affords her what little power she has. Just as early Roman Catholic tracts warn of a female sexuality so powerful that young monks could not be left alone with their infant sisters, just as incest victims ascribe supernatural powers to their sexuality (feeling that if they have seduced the father, their power must be almost limitless), so does Karen translate her father's command to kill Shar into sexual terms. When she returns home after her release, she fantasizes how she, like Eve, might destroy Eden with her sexuality, seducing her sister's husband, the hired men, and all the men of the community:

I can continue with what I have become … and begin this afternoon when the dishes are cleared away, with the closest man—that will be Albert. I can wear twenty pounds off him and make his eyes swim behind his glasses and I can make him and Celine tear each other apart if I want. Then after Albert one of the hired men. There are enough men for me to feed on until I lose my youth. … And I can hurry my father to death, who richly deserves it, for now I see that he is a cruel, ignorant old man who has disguised himself with his strength.


Unlike Eve, however, neither Karen's sexuality, her sacrifice, nor her deliberate exposure of patriarchal contradictions has any meaning. But while Oates claims this as the universal modern condition, she fails to see that its specific expression in Karen is the effect of cultural conditions that limit and define her.

Karen accedes to the conditions of life as her incestuous and Roman Catholic context has defined them and as her suffering has demonstrated them. Her self-image is highly sexual (her choice of sexuality as her means of destroying Shar, her sexualizing of relationships with men, her fantasy of destroying Eden). Yet she is sexually dysfunctional, splitting off from her body during sex. Sexual relationships—Karen and Shar's, and those Karen fantasizes in the hospital and at Eden—are battlegrounds for power. She tends, in repetition compulsion, toward victimization (her choice of Shar, her desire to die as a result of her miscarriage, and her impulse to “continue with what I have become”). In general, what Karen has learned is what the incest experience teaches all its victims, an early and indelible lesson in the woman's degraded condition in patriarchy (Herman 34). Incest does not introduce the child to sexuality so much as to the power structures (here Roman Catholic) that define her gender. She is a woman and therefore has no power over her body: “Thus did the victims of incest grow up to be archetypically feminine women: sexy without enjoying sex, repeatedly victimized yet repeatedly seeking to lose themselves in the love of an overpowering man, contemptuous of themselves and other women, hard-working, giving and self-sacrificing” (Herman 108).

Oates's use of incest as a trope for the position of the feminine woman within the Roman Catholic Law of the Father is particularly appropriate. In fact, feminist theorists have noted that incestuous families tend to be conservatively religious. Both incest and Roman Catholicism are dominated by fathers, God the Father, priests, and husbands being the chain of command through which Truth is disseminated, and by the father's needs—an early examination of conscience tract, for example, lists lesbian sexuality as a venial sin because it does not involve men and is therefore invisible. Both contexts are without strong mothers. Both have older male caretakers (fathers, priests, popes, and Fathers of the Church) who prematurely and negatively give a sexual identity to girl children in their care. Both are unable to integrate adult female sexuality without exposing their own inherent ideological contradictions. In her incestuous profile and Roman Catholicism Karen is doubly disempowered and different from the majority of American women.

Any quest Karen makes for an authority beyond ideology short-circuits back to Hertz, authority's representative. At her first communion she kneels next to him at the communion rail and feels herself altered, more than human. But her experience unites her not with God, but with her own father: “Her father had understood. He had said little but his eyes on her were fierce, bright, proud” (41). In her final reverie, again at the communion rail, Karen hears in her mind Hertz's voice denying the significance of her suffering:

You were not crucified and changed into flat pieces of bread—and if Christ were not God, but only Christ, only a man, is His suffering any less? It is more, certainly more; we men do not have resurrections. But you are still alive. Consume yourself with bitterness, destroy your own life—but remember that all that you have done is your own doing.


The combination of incest and Roman Catholicism makes Karen's failure inevitable, determined by the final image of the father's inescapable voice internalized by his daughter.

In a world without mothers and without alternatives, Karen's efforts to escape the limitations of patriarchal definitions always circle back to her father, patriarchy's representative. Karen's condition is not representative of all modern women any more than it is representative of all Roman Catholic women. Karen is too violently erotic, too incestuously determined, too split between body and soul to represent those who do not share her incest-victim profile and her Roman Catholic context. Oates's fictional world, lacking mothers, dominated by fathers and their needs, offers few alternatives to violence and spiritual disintegration. Little wonder that the feminine Oates characters mindlessly wander until sexually initiated and victimized. But Oates's assertion that this passive victim is “representative” makes invisible the differences among women, wherein lie choices for self-definition and spiritual liberation.

Works Cited

Bellamy, Joe David. “Interview with Oates.” The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Ed. Joe David Bellamy. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1974. 19-31.

Chell, Cara. “Untricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story.” Arizona Quarterly 41 (Spring 1985): 5-23.

Cunningham, Frank R. “Joyce Carol Oates: The Enclosure of Identity in the Earlier Stories.” American Women Writing Fiction. Ed. Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1989. 9-28.

DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Goodman, Charlotte. “Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates.” Women and Literature 5 (Fall 1977): 17-28.

Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence—Boston 1880-1960. New York: Viking, 1988.

Gordon, Mary. “Coming to Terms with Mary.” Commonweal 109 (15 June 1982): 11-14.

Herman, Judith Lewis, with Lisa Hirschman. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Kahane, Claire. “The Gothic Mirror.” The (M)Other Tongue. Ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Springnether. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 334-51.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “An American Tragedy.” New York Times Book Review (24 Jan. 1971): 2.

———. Bellefleur. New York: Dutton, 1980.

———. The Goddess and Other Women. Greenwich: Fawcett, 1974.

———. Marya: A Life. New York: Dutton, 1986.

———. Mysteries of Winterthurn: A Novel. New York: Dutton, 1984.

———. With Shuddering Fall. New York: Vanguard, 1964.

———. (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: Dutton, 1988.

———. You Must Remember This. New York: Dutton, 1987.

Renvoize, Jean. Incest. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Showalter, Elaine. “Joyce Carol Oates: A Portrait.” Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 137-42.

Sjoberg, Leif. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Contemporary Literature 23 (Summer 1982): 267-84.

Sullivan, Walter. “The Artificial Demon: Joyce Carol Oates and the Dimensions of the Real.” Hollins Critic 9 (December 1972): 1-12.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Sharon L. Dean (essay date spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4878

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 attention on writers rather than teachers; Janet Emig studied the composing processes of 12th graders; Young, Becker, and Pike popularized the tagmemic heuristic; colleges revised admissions policies with CUNY's open enrollment experiment that served as the focus for Mina Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations in place by 1970; Ken Macrorie wrote the radical composition text Writing To Be Read, which became available for classroom use in 1968; and Donald Murray joined the faculty of The University of New Hampshire in 1963 where he began work that led to the sometimes abused and misused term the writing process.1 It would be foolish to argue that Oates knew any of this work in composition specifically or well, but in the 1960s she was teaching in the kind of student climate that generated such work. She has always been a teacher and a writer who thinks about composing processes in ways that are compatible with composition theory, particularly theory that emphasizes expressive modes over traditional rhetoric. In an Author's Note to her novel them (1969), she speaks about the years 1962-67 when she taught at The University of Detroit and about how her character Maureen Wendall was based on a student she had in an evening class. She claims to integrate this real student's letters into her own text and says that the epistolary “‘confession’ had the effect of a kind of psychological therapy” for the student (11). Years later, Oates admitted that she made up this student, but the way she uses the fictional Maureen's letters to a writer-teacher named Miss Oates indicates her early concern with the connections between life and literature and with how writing can deaden those connections or can free the writer's individual voice. Maureen cannot accept the vision she perceives as her teacher's, that books are “more important than life” (333). She cannot understand red-inked comments about “Lack of coherence and development” (335), and she fails the course. But Maureen is a writer, as her letter clearly shows. She has a personal voice, and the letter form allows her to articulate what she remained silent about in traditional literature and composition classes (she not only failed her literature class, she also received a D in her composition class). She questions the very notion of form: “You said, ‘Literature gives form to life,’ I remember you saying that very clearly. What is form? Why is it better than the way life happens, by itself?” (330). But she yearns for form even as she questions its value: “I wish I could write down my thoughts not in a mess like most of my life but in some order—I want to explain something, I want to get it clear” (309).

Through her ruse of the real-student/real-teacher, Oates reflects her belief in the power of writing to give form to life, however messy that life or that form may be. Through Maureen's letters she challenges the traditional boundaries of academic writing and, by doing so, underscores the possibility of uniting literature and composition theory. Maureen's letters are both an image in a literary work and a way of providing a character, who is symbolic of real students, with a voice. In other words, in a decade that marked the beginning of the split between literature and composition, Oates uses the traditional literary form of the letter in a nontraditional way that connects it to emerging composition theory. Early in her career, before her treatment of the academic world became more cynical in its exposure of publish or perish pseudo-criticism,2 Oates pursued her interest in the relationship between literature and composition by writing a number of metafictional stories in epistolary or journal form. Reading these stories can help us to see how literature informs composition and composition informs literature and how both connect to theories about language and art.

Oates' story that most reflects composition theory is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again.”3 The story consists entirely of notes that a writer/narrator generates for an English class, notes which help her give form to her experiences: being caught in an act of kleptomania, running away from her wealthy, insulated, but cold home to the Detroit world of prostitution and drugs, being beaten in prison. The full title of Oates' story is one invented by the writer/narrator: “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending. …” The title thus makes the crucial connection between the literary work and the writing process. The story illustrates the writer/narrator's use of writing as a way of knowing; it also illustrates Oates' own recognition of and use of the process and her distinction between process and product, art and reality.

Using the full title of the story, we can see how Oates uses the persona of the writer/narrator to set up several stages in the writing process. The writer/narrator does not at first know where to begin but can “Poke Around in Debris.” As she does so, she uses many of the heuristics typical of writing classes. She makes of her notes a kind of recursive outline, moving at will between events, people, and places. For example. in the notes labeled Roman numeral I, “Events,” she free-writes about five events numbered, in outline style, 1-5: a scenic view of an “excellent” (I.1) department store where she is about to steal a pair of gloves; a confrontation with her mother over the theft, which has been fixed by the family's connections; a scenic view of an even more exclusive shop where her mother wants to deal with the kleptomania by buying things for her; and two truncated views of herself walking out of school and of herself arriving at the Detroit inner city. Because she is flexible with her notes, the girl returns to the stealing scene in section VII.1 and to her arrival in Detroit in VII.3. She uses this kind of process throughout her notes, focusing on “Events,” “Characters,” or specified places. If something does not generate an idea, as in the sections labeled “World Events” and “People & Circumstances Contributing to This Delinquency,” she simply writes “Nothing” (III.IV) and goes on.4 Within the notes, the girl does a great deal with her need to question; questions generate more significant questions as her process enters another stage where her “Disgust and Curiosity” are piqued. Only toward the end of her notes when her world begins to fall back into place and she reaches some insight, albeit an insight short of a “Revelation of the Meaning of Life,” do the questions begin to diminish. As her notes progress, she also begins to acknowledge herself in these events, to call herself “I” rather than distancing herself by using the term “the girl.” By the end of her writing, she believes she is “home,” that the writing has helped her to reach “A Happy Ending.” But of course she is not, for she has not recognized that she has not turned her writing into a product and, even if she does so, she could resee, rethink, revise as she continues to change and to grow.

Although “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” is not, then, a fixed, final product for the persona, it does represent Oates' completed narrative, or as complete a narrative as an artist can produce given the fact that she, too, must constantly deal with new data and new angles of vision. As a published writer, Oates has declared a temporary peace between product and process. Through her details, she has clearly illustrated how writers observe in order to know, how they observe things they may ultimately discard. Through her own role as writer creating a character creating, she has composed a self-aware piece of metafiction. But more than in most metafiction that is so highly conscious of the text as text, this text's details also serve to create a realistic psychological portrait. The following passage, where the girl tries to come to terms with Simon, her lover, illustrates Oates' use of both composition heuristics and literary techniques:

Imagine Simon in this room, in my pink room; he is about six feet tall and stoops slightly, in a feline cautious way, always thinking, always on guard, with his scuffed light suede shoes and his clothes that are anyone's clothes, slightly rumpled ordinary clothes that ordinary men might wear to not-bad jobs. Simon has fair long hair, curly hair, spent languid curls that are like … exactly like the curls of wood shavings to the touch. I am trying to be exact … and he smells of too many pills coating his tongue with a faint green-white scum.

(XI, 1)

This girl, as student, has learned the teacher's lessons about being “exact” and, by being exact, has recorded her own responses to the events in her life. But over and above the persona, Oates as writer controls the story. She chooses words for the girl who seems to choose words. It is Oates who sometimes has the girl stop short of an insight the reader may reach and that, if the writing process continued for the girl, she might come to herself. For example, in section II.1 the girl's notes reveal the students at Baldwin Country Day to be squeaky clean, perfectly molded academy girls. Her notes are extraordinary for their implied insight, and they help us to see why she cannot, should not, adjust. But as soon as the girl writes the words, she goes on to another topic, so that we do not feel that she has had the insight Oates allows us to have. Had her invention carried her farther, she might feel less comfortable about her return “home.” Or again, Oates creates her as a persona who presents a sterile view of the houses on her street, all in terms of their status symbols. She comes to her own house: “Next is our house. Classic contemporary. Traditional modern. Attached garage, attached Florida room, attached patio, attached pool and cabana, attached roof” (V). The girl, later, recognizes her attachment to home and she accepts it despite this earlier sarcasm, perhaps even because her phrasing led her to see that we cannot escape who we are or what we come from. But Oates allows us as readers to see here what the persona does not, an indictment of this sterile suburb world that accepting will not make right or happy. Oates does not let us escape our own discomfort with the girl's world, our sense that to say that “World Events” (III) come to “Nothing” or that no one contributes to her delinquency (IV) reveals the girl's refusal to connect to any reality. For the girl, the writing process has been merely that. It has helped her to confront her experience, but it has not delivered her to a meaningful reality.

Like Maureen Wendall, the girl in “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” uses a composing process that has “the effect of psychological therapy.” Oates ended this phrase from her Author's Note to them with another equally significant phrase: “of probably temporary benefit” (11). For while she uses composition theories that connect writing to knowing, she also uses theories that question the possibility that there is any stable knowledge. When she speaks about her own writing process, she shows herself the heir of linguistic theory that emphasizes reality as a language construct and that Terry Eagleton has ably traced to Saussure and Heidegger. In a preface written for Linda Wagner's collection of critical essays about her writing, Oates explains that an artist is always someone different when writing than after writing and that what writers write is always different from the indefinable something they were working through. The piece of art that a critic describes is only something of what the writer had in mind at the time; it is like the recollection of a dream, never the dream itself, which is impossible for the writer ever consciously to articulate. Like the process, the product of writing is at best a portion of reality that is in a state of constant flux (xi-xiii). One implication of such a belief about language and reality is that if someone uses writing as a way of understanding the self and the world, a “happy ending” lies out of reach because an “ending” is impossible. Even had the girl in “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” turned her process notes to product, she would have to pick up the process again if she is to continue to grow in understanding.

“How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” is clearly a story that relates to composition theory. Oates' nonstudent journal keepers also write metafictional narratives that we can connect to composition theory: these stories read like self-reflective journals with the character using a composition heuristic that Oates turns into the product of art.5 The story “Plot,” collected in Marriages and Infidelities, illustrates this most clearly. Here, a writer/narrator keeps a journal where he begins to compose the plot of a short story and where he also comments on that plot and its autobiographical significance. The lines between plot and autobiography blur and the narrator even speculates on whether, having completed his plot, a violent one involving a suicide via self-immolation, he is destined to fulfill that ending; that is, whether his language will create instead of reflect reality. Oates has said that she wrote this story at a particularly difficult time in her life and that she was using it to explore the therapeutic nature of art (Creighton 18). Clearly the narrator, like Maureen Wendall, uses his plot as personal therapy:

What do you do when your love dies so quickly, so strangely? You must write about it. Rewrite it. You can change both your names, exaggerate your love for her, exaggerate her beauty.


But within the plot of the story, the narrator's created character (the persona's persona we might call him, who also at this point is using writing as therapy) also has this insight:

But having written twenty-two pages he discovered that X could not be explained away so easily. There was the X on paper, and the X out in the street. Two X's. X out in the street is never in the narrative, but only mentioned.


What Oates is suggesting is that the journal is one view of a situation, the plot another, the product, if it is completed, yet another, all words that represent a separate reality from the one we live.6

With their emphasis on language as a fluid process of perception, Oates' narrative journals also connect to reader-response theories. But Oates is not a conceptual relativist who locates differences of interpretation solely in the interpreter. Reed Dasenbrock's cogent defense, in College English, of Donald Davidson's theory of literary perception over the relativism of people like Barbara Hernstein Smith and Stanley Fish helps explain Oates' view. Unlike Hernstein Smith and Fish, Oates, like Davidson, seems to believe that even as we know that our interpretations are unlikely to all be true, we articulate them as if they are true in order to make sense of the world. We behave as if there is a reality that we live and that language helps us to read and write toward an understanding that is at least temporarily true. As the narrator of her retelling of Thoreau's “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” (Marriages and Infidelities) puts it, “… everything dies. Therefore nothing exists that is not true” (384). Or as the narrator of “Plot” says, “A ‘plot’ is not a fiction, as you know, but very real; it is the record of someone's brain” (209). The narrator of “29 Inventions” (Marriages and Infidelities) also explains the connection between reading and writing. She sounds much like a traditional first-person narrator, but her metafictional voice has the closeness to a reader that we find in an epistolary form or in a journal written by someone conscious that it will be read. She identifies herself, variously, as a nurse/stenographer/technician/friend and describes her work for a psychologist who is treating a patient, a patient who may, in fact, be another version of herself. Throughout her narration, she sees that her 29 versions of reality are really inventions of reality, and so she freely changes versions until the only reality we have are the words of the inventions that she has not erased; that is, the words that Oates in the moments that she was performing as Oates the writer, has chosen to have her not erase. “I am,” the narrator says, “a process that is dying, disappearing, moving away./ Of all of us, only you remain” (100). In other words, the story that has not been erased exists only as readers interpret it, but, just as dying exists, the possibility of interpretation does exist and does matter.

By retelling canonized stories, Oates reflects a reader-response theory that is not relativistic. The story in Marriages and Infidelities most relevant for its connection to both writing and reading is “The Turn of the Screw,” Oates' version, among other things, of the distinction James so often notes between art and “The Real Thing.” In Oates' story, two personae keep journals, one a young man trying to survive his uncle's difficult old age and one an aging Jamesian writer voyeuristically transforming the young man into a figure for art. The artist, of course, does not in his journal see the young man as the young man in his journal sees himself. But, Oates implies, this does not, finally, matter. The artist ends his journal:

He has understood my message. [The young man, of course, has not.] My love. I will live through him and he through me: born again in my writing, in something I will, must write, something I will begin soon in honor of his youth and the perfect power of his face.


Here, the artist is implying that the product of writing may become a reality, may serve as a monument, in a significant way that the process cannot. In a letter to Joanne Creighton, Oates has said of this story that it is a parody of journal-keeping that leads her characters into self-delusion. But this delusion, she goes on, does not matter, for the “young man, misread by the artist, will nevertheless inspire him to create one of his most powerful and mysterious novellas” (159). If truth is not possible, a well-crafted writing product still may enable a writer to create a significant, though temporary and relative, new version of truth for readers.

With the endorsement of the attempt of writing to articulate meaning, Oates seems to me much closer to composition teachers who urge their students to use writing to learn about themselves and the world than to the literary theorists Dasenbrock excoriates in his discussion of Davidson versus Fish. I do not wish to argue here whether or not Dasenbrock's assessment is accurate, but his distinction is useful for describing Oates' view. Conceptual relativism, says Dasenbrock, represents “a particularly arid and impoverished notion of what constitutes literary study, the entire world of reading reduced to interpretation as a virtuoso performance.” Such a notion leads to classrooms where “from one side enters the student, with an unconscious but tenacious prior theory that works of literature can teach us about life; from the other, enters the professor, armed with the prior theory that literary texts aren't really about anything or that we can't know what they're about, doomed as we are to write the text we read according to our own beliefs and values” (15). In an interview with Judith Applebaum, Oates makes her position very clear that literature can teach us about life (Publisher's Weekly, 26 June 1978). There, Oates explains that she believes art creates a convincing state of mind that we experience. By seeing how others get through, we learn and do not make their errors (Milazzo 49). Ultimately, she believes in the meaning of writing and reading, even though she is always willing to raise questions about the possibility of meaning. Two illustrations from the collection Night-Side show just how conscious she is of the dilemma. In “The Dungeon,” a journal keeper, an artist, feels compelled to show his journal and some obscene sketches to a woman he has become obsessed with. He writes of her response: “—Tried to see it as art, did you? Aesthetic reaction. Yes of course it is art—is meant to be, at least—but it is also LIFE & SORROW & INARTICULATE YEARNING out of the dungeon—” (146). In “Exile,” the journal keeper, a physician whose work on the “neurophysiological … relationship between the brain mechanism and consciousness” (199) is dismissed as insanity, speculates that language itself may be the “primary obstacle to communication” (198). Through her journal keepers, Oates asks, What is art? When does it become art? How much does art reflect life? Their answers acknowledge that art and the languages of art—words, musical notations, sketched lines—are processes that grope at reality and are doomed to be inarticulate representations of reality. Such an acknowledgment can be terrifying, but as a writer who validates the attempt of writers to articulate what they come to know—even if this knowledge is that they cannot know—Oates transcends the terrifying.

The last essay in Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature contains this statement:7

I have tried to reveal the mechanism of those wonderful toys—literary masterpieces. I have tried to make of you good readers who read books not for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters, and not for the adolescent purpose of learning to live, and not for the academic purpose of indulging in generalization. I have tried to teach you to read books for the sake of their form, their visions, their art. I have tried to teach you to feel the shiver of artistic satisfaction, to share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of the author—the joys and difficulties of creation.


By creating personae who call attention to themselves as writers, Oates forces us to look at her vision of language that constitutes her vision of art. But Oates does not want her art to minimize the “emotions of the people in the book.” In an interview for Atlantic (Fall 1972) with Joe David Bellamy, she explains that she is “temperamentally hostile to the weighting down of a natural and spontaneous story with self-conscious significance. … The gifts of a Thomas Hardy … are far more remarkable than the gifts of a writer like Malcolm Lowry, who so painfully and doggedly and willfully created a novel of symbols/ideas/significance” (Milazzo 141). In other words, Oates is very deeply interested in the “infantile” way readers respond to characters as people.

While literature and linguistic theory in the last quarter century have focused on whether or not one can know anything, composition theory has emphasized writing as a way of knowing. Oates wrote her journal narratives early in her career when her classrooms were closer to what Mina Shaughnessy found at CUNY than to what she now finds at Princeton, and these narratives reveal how student, as well as nonstudent, writers struggle to make meaning. As a writer-teacher-scholar, Oates has managed to inform her own writing by acknowledging the contradictory world view inherent in literary and composition theory. Describing her epistolary and journal stories, again to Joe David Bellamy, she has said her technique is “a kind of Victorian cliché; among other things, I wanted to suggest how interior lives touch upon one another in odd, jagged, oblique ways, without communicating any essential truth. … [T]he epistolary form is a way … of sending out cries for help, not meant to be heard; simply a way of articulating private bewilderment” (25). The statement at once questions the possibility of truth and acknowledges the need to articulate personal bewilderment in the face of such a world view. Oates' literary works recognize bewilderment at the same time that they validate writing. Her journal keepers are like students of composition, particularly those being taught to use expressive modes. Like her journal keepers, students use writing as a process to make meaning of their lives. Whether or not they recognize the inability of writing to solidify meaning, we teach them in the way traditional literary theory reads characters: as people involved in the very serious business of trying to make sense of the world. These characters and these students do not play with language; rather, they use language to discover what they know and can articulate about the people and events and places and ideas they are confronting in their lives and their writing. As scholars and teachers, whether of literature or composition or both, we, too, can expand what we know—or cannot know—by connecting rather than severing the ties between literature and composition.


  1. At conferences, Murray, now retired, often speaks about regretting the phrase, which has been associated incorrectly with exclusively personal writing and with inattention to a grammatically correct product.

  2. Most of Oates' stories about academics are collected in The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1974) and All the Good People I've Left Behind (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1979). Her cynicism is strongest in “Angst” (The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies) where a writer hears her own work being discussed at an MLA-type convention and is upset by the nonsense being said and by the presence of an imposter in the audience who claims to be her.

  3. “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” was first published in Triquarterly (1969), then collected in The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (New York: Vanguard, 1970) and again in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (Greenwich, CN: Fawcett, 1974). It is also widely available in college literature anthologies. For convenience, references are to section numbers rather than to page numbers.

  4. See Sue Simpson Park, “A Study in Counterpoint: Joyce Carol Oates' ‘How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,’” for a discussion of the contrapuntal patterns between Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, the mother and Clarita, and the father and Simon. Park uses the disorganized notes to jump into her concern with the girl's state of mind.

  5. Eileen Bender, in particular, has discussed Oates' metafiction in the context of current debates, including Roger Shattuck's charges that metafictional stories are “‘fragments,’” “‘shards,’” and “‘cock-and-bull’” stories and John Gardner's charge that they are pieces of “‘literary gimcrackery’” (Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence 165, 183).

  6. For a full discussion of “Plot” and the futile attempt to use fiction to order reality, see Carolyn Walker, “Fear, Love, and Art in Oates' ‘Plot.’”

  7. Oates knows Nabokov's work well, having told her version of Lolita in her novel Childwold.

Works Cited

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. “Do We Write the Text We Read?” College English 53 (1991): 7-18.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Emig, Janet. The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders. Urbana: NCTE, 1971.

Macrorie, Ken. Writing To Be Read. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1968.

Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt, 1980.

Oates, Joyce Carol. All the Good People I've Left Behind. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1979.

———. Childwold. New York: Vanguard, 1976.

———. The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974.

———. Marriages and Infidelities. New York: Vanguard, 1972.

———. Night-Side. New York: Vanguard, 1977.

———. “Preface.” Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

———. them. New York: Vanguard, 1969.

———. The Wheel of Love. New York: Vanguard, 1970.

Park, Sue Simpson. “A Study in Counterpoint: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again.’” Studies in Short Fiction, 22 (1976): 213-24.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Walker, Carolyn. “Fear, Love, and Art in Oates's ‘Plot.’” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 15 (1973): 59-70.

Young, Richard E., Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, 1970.

Greg Johnson (essay date winter 1993)

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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 remains her most-discussed longer work. In particular, her earliest short-story volumes have received little scrutiny, since most analysis has focused on The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970), which contains such familiar anthology staples as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again.” Yet her first collection, By the North Gate (1963), 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. Even its weaker pieces repay close study, for they show with special clarity the philosophical and literary influences that were shaping Oates's thought and aesthetics as a very young writer, and that she would assimilate with greater skill and subtlety in her later work.

By the North Gate may be viewed as a microcosm of Joyce Carol Oates's entire career in fiction. Though at first glance it seems relatively narrow in scope—dealing mostly with dispossessed characters living in “Eden County,” a setting that mythologizes the rural area in upstate New York where Oates grew up—the collection scrutinizes with dogged thoroughness the moral conditions of an unstable American reality. By the North Gate provides a carefully detailed portrait of the post-Depression rural poor; it investigates women's experience in a patriarchal mid-twentieth-century culture that conformed to long-standing social, religious, and family models; and it suggests the moral vacuum at the heart of such “sacred” American institutions as the law and academe. Although the stories are not technically adventurous, since Oates was not yet experimenting with form and technique in the bold manner of her later volumes and of American writing generally in the later 1960s and early 1970s, they exhibit aesthetic predilections that would remain constant in her later career and that suggest certain major writers—especially Nietzsche, Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor—as significant influences on her early career.

Perhaps most immediately striking is the Faulknerian mythmaking, for Eden County is clearly intended as a Northern analogue to Yoknapatawpha;1 Oates is here staking out her own postage stamp of earth, its ironic name suggesting an allegorical microcosm of humanity in general and, in particular, of an American paradise lost, its bewildered inhabitants spilled out into a ruthless, barren world where mere survival is a kind of triumph. A major characteristic of this modern world—and here O'Connor's influence becomes patent—is its random violence, symbolic of its loss of social cohesion or philosophical meaning. For O'Connor, however, such loss is only in the minds of her prideful, hard-headed characters, who must be moved by violent means into collisions with divine grace; in Oates's case, this dark reality becomes a potentially overwhelming convergence of forces—natural, social, psychological—against which her characters pit their human will to endure. Oates, who repudiated her inherited Catholicism as fervently as O'Connor embraced hers, has observed that “the world has no meaning; I am sadly resigned to this fact. But the world has meanings, many individual and alarming and graspable meanings, and the adventure of human beings consists in seeking out these meanings” (“The Nature of Short Fiction” xii). This suggests the basic humanistic goal (as distinct from O'Connor's theological one) of Oates's fiction; and her focus upon a multiplicity of “meanings,” rather than an orthodox system of belief, helps explain why the shorter forms of fiction are particularly suited to her (at this writing, she has published more than 500 stories) and why they are the most appropriate vehicle for her fragmented but powerful vision.

Examining twentieth-century America in the contexts of gender, race, and economic and social institutions, By the North Gate exhibits the influence of Nietzsche—whose philosophy was likewise expressed in fragmentary nuggets of truth—not only in its ironic vision of Christian civilization.2 The stories also controvert other Romantic pieties—especially our received visions of nature and of human love—to which the modern world, in both Nietzsche's and Oates's views, has remained in thrall, worshiping them as false idols. The unstable, seething network of social and personal relationships dramatized in Oates's stories suggests both Nietzsche's amoral will to power and Freud's view of civilization as based upon the suppression of brutal instincts; her interviews and essays are studded with quotations from both writers.3 Not surprisingly, Oates chose a sentence from Nietzsche as the epigraph to her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, published a year after By the North Gate: “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” (vii).

Like the work of her literary and philosophical mentors, Oates's earliest stories view love as a violent force through which individuals strive for power and ironically reinforce their own isolation. Moreover, their struggles are set against the backdrop of a voracious and indifferent nature that, Oates has remarked,

eludes us even as it prepares to swallow us up, books and all. … Nature has no instructions for mankind except that our poor beleaguered humanist-democratic way of life, our fantasies of the individual's high worth, our sense that the weak, no less than the strong, have a right to survive, are absurd.

[(Woman) Writer 67, 70]

This vision of nature has surely inspired what Harold Bloom has called Oates's “immense empathy with the insulted and injured” (2); the frequently noted compassion in her stories arises from an identification with her people and her view of their painful struggles—again in contradistinction to O'Connor—as a contention with environmental or emotional forces they cannot possibly control, and at times cannot even perceive. In a 1972 interview, Oates remarked on “our constant battle with nature (Nature), trying to subdue chaos outside and inside ourselves, occasionally winning small victories, then being swept along by some cataclysmic event of our own making. I feel an enormous sympathy with people who've gone under, who haven't won even the small victories” (Bellamy 21). Sanford Pinsker has pointed to this quality of “empathy which is Miss Oates's special magic. [Her characters'] inner lives have a way of being unsettling, not because we are so different from her protagonists but, rather, because we are so close” (“Some Versions of Gothic” 899). Thus even the darkest stories, in Oates's view, represent an artistic testament—even an “homage”—to her characters' bitter but dignified personal defeats.4

As David Madden points out, however, in an excellent early discussion of By the North Gate, Oates's “compassion does not dim the harsh glare she casts upon the violence in human nature” (29).5 In conveying her turbulent vision Oates is essentially an American allegorist whose “power of blackness” can be traced back from O'Connor to Melville and Hawthorne. Oates, who has defined her own aesthetic as a conjunction of the realistic and symbolic modes,6 creates in her Eden County both a naturalistic portrayal of a particular social reality and an intuitive, poetic vision of all human striving against inimical natural and social forces, of which human phenomena (including short stories) are merely the temporary expressions. Most early commentators remarked upon the breadth of vision and the technical authority of this debut volume:

In this collection, an ability to conceptualize is in control, and a vision begins to take shape. … The universal family and society of man is projected with an almost pure radiance in the violent light of a dismal rural landscape, devoid of the pastoral, observed in extremes of summer heat, autumnal decay, and winter snow.

(Madden 28)

Thus the appropriateness of the epigraph from which Oates derives her title, an Ezra Pound translation of the eighth-century poet, Rihaku:

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers to watch out the barbarous land.


Eden County's barbarity is notable particularly in economic terms: by far the majority of characters in By the North Gate lead grim, impoverished lives. As chronicler and mythmaker, Oates begins several stories with the same phrase—“Some time ago in Eden County …”—and creates protagonists whose clash with the land suggests a mythic struggle for survival. Recurrent character types include the titanic, larger-than-life old men—the grandfather in “Swamps,” Rockland in “Ceremonies”—who recall Old Testament patriarchs in their fist-shaking arguments with the world and God. In “Swamps,” the grandfather has cleared his land with his own hands and now lives alone in an isolated shack, while his son, representing capitulation to an exploitative industrial economy, works at a gypsum mill in town and has declared himself “sick of life” (13). The old man, battling his son's cynicism, assures his young grandson that “This-here is a damn good world, a goddam good world,” yet shortly thereafter the grandfather is robbed both of his manhood and his optimistic vision by a mysterious young pregnant woman who has appeared on his property. Representing the mindless breeding of nature in a way that recalls a demented version of Faulkner's Lena Grove in Light in August, the woman is an early example of the Oatesian earth mother who has internalized the earth's inherent savagery: after the grandfather aids her in childbirth, she drowns her baby and brutally attacks the old man, who is left at the story's end simply moaning, “They robbed me. They robbed me” (27).

Placed first in the collection, “Swamps” is an appropriate introduction to Eden County and establishes a vision that leads with seeming inevitability to the title story, placed last. In “By the North Gate,” another formidable old man, living alone on his desiccated farm, discovers that his only companion, a hound named Nell, has been tortured and killed by a pack of local boys. But unlike the grandfather in “Swamps,” old Revere refuses to be robbed of his optimistic vision of life. Telling himself that the boys' act of senseless cruelty doesn't represent a “judgment upon the world” (251), he recalls his friendship with a schoolteacher who had introduced him to the world of books, which Revere intuitively understood as a possible means of transcendence. Yet Revere has “forgotten everything” (240) he learned from the schoolteacher—who was eventually driven away from the area after being attacked by a student—and is left “waiting for death” (253) in a state of willful ignorance.

These two characters suggest the opposing philosophical positions available in Oates's world: miserable capitulation to a brutal, chaotic environment, or a deliberate self-serving blindness to its darker manifestations. In “Ceremonies,” the allegorically named Rockland is yet another formidable patriarch, a wealthy farmer who intimidates other Eden County residents. Like Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” the story is narrated in a first-person plural suggesting the typical viewpoint of the local citizenry, and likewise recalls both Faulkner and O'Connor in its allegorical method: the setting is simply called “The Town” (43); the road through Eden County is a “snake trail” (43); and Rockland embodies not only the brutality of the land his name evokes but also the devil himself, for he wears red boots, a black hat, and seems to the townspeople “as if he were an apparition out of the stories our mothers and older sisters told to frighten us into behaving” (44). The story is framed as a reminiscence, told after Rockland's death, which explains to the younger generation that Rockland almost single-handedly transformed Eden County from a farming community into an industrial area, after Rockland's farm had been destroyed by fire, an “exorcism” caused by a lightning strike (57). As the serpent in Eden, Rockland represents both natural and economic destructive powers, which are socially validated through such human “ceremonies” as weddings, funerals, and various communal gatherings. Rockland is particularly sinister in that, like the devil of Christian mythology, he assumes a pleasing guise as a force for economic and social development; yet this is attained by instituting social ceremonies that replace “human love altogether” (65). As in “By the North Gate,” the townspeople seem unaware that the one compensation for their barren version of pastoral life—the presence of human love and genuine communal ties—has been eliminated for the sake of a spurious progress toward “civilization.”

Thus Eden County embodies a clash between two worlds—an agrarian “old world” whose citizens battle the land and hold fast to moral absolutes; and a frightening modern world of an industrialized economy, random violence, and an absence of moral guideposts. Ironically, the protagonist of “In the Old World” recognizes that European settlers had hoped to establish an innocent new world in America, but “When they came they made it old” because they brought their human natures with them (192); yet there had been the illusion, at least, of an Adamic, pastoral way of life, an illusion that has been shattered by the encroachments of technology and urban development. For Oates, as for O'Connor, the mid-twentieth century is the historical moment in which this mythic old world (as opposed to the corrupt, European old world that spawned it) seems to be giving way to the new.

In O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for instance, the grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate over the decline of moral values, a reality that O'Connor dramatizes forcefully when the grandmother and her family are murdered by the Misfit. “Boys at a Picnic” is Oates's earliest variation on this theme, and is far more pessimistic: here the killers are teenage boys rather than a middle-aged, self-styled “intellectual” who has, at least, thought out a motive for his violence; and for Oates's victim, a young girl whom the teenagers murder brutally inside a church, there is no moment of redemptive grace such as that which visits the grandmother. By contrast, Oates stresses the inefficacy of religious institutions: her church, with its tilted and tarnished steeple, clearly provides no sanctuary against violent secular invasions. Yet the motives for violence in both stories are essentially similar. Just as the Misfit cannot locate himself inside a redemptive vision of grace and salvation, and thus finds his own perverse salvation in “doing meanness” to others, so does Oates's teenaged protagonist seem to be striking out against an Eliotic wasteland that refuses to make sense. After the murder, “He wagged his fist at the rushing countryside, the dark, anonymous hills, the wasteland, and cried in wonder: ‘I'm goin' to die! I'm goin' to die!’ He shouted at the jumbled, empty land, at the rushing shapes and forms, all shadows, black against the lighter sky, ‘I'm goin' to die too—’ until the wind tore his words away” (91).

This passage suggests another debt to O'Connor, in that Oates's Eden County has symbolic features resembling those of O'Connor's rural Georgia. Throughout By the North Gate, references to the “great colorless sky” (180, “In the Old World”), “the clear empty sunshine of the day” (253, “By the North Gate”), and the “jumbled, empty land” (91, “Boys at a Picnic”) recall the stark tonality that pervades O'Connor's work. In both writers, the natural world is an allegorical landscape—vacuous, colorless, morally neutral—which provides a ruthless battleground for human vs. supra-human forces. Oates's view of O'Connor's fiction, in fact, might well serve as a description of her own: “Her world is that surreal primitive landscape in which the unconscious is a determining quantity that the conscious cannot defeat, because it cannot recognize. In fact, there is nothing to be recognized … there is only an experience to be suffered” (New Heaven, New Earth 176). Yet that last phrase is not really applicable to O'Connor, for whom painful experience is redemptive; rather it reflects Oates's own vision of unmediated and unrewarded human suffering.

Oates's earliest stories likewise resemble O'Connor's in their use of allegorical proper names—Rockland, Grace, Bethlehem, and Jason, to list only the most obvious—and in documenting the “manners” of the social world while dramatizing the “mystery” of spiritual dislocation. But a telling difference is that Oates lacks not only O'Connor's theological perspective but, for the most part, her outrageous humor. O'Connor intends her grotesque characters and violent situations as highly colored allegorical lessons, and views her characters as stubbornly but amusingly hardheaded; in Mystery and Manners, she wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (34). Yet Oates conceives her artistic role far more modestly. Hers is that “deadpan” humor, as she herself has called it (Phillips 72), of the artist who acknowledges that her own condition is one with that of her characters.

Thus at the beginning of her career Oates viewed herself not as a didactic writer but as one who felt compelled simply to dramatize the nightmarish conditions of her time; unlike O'Connor, who seems abstracted from her stories in the manner of an impersonal puppet-master, the young Oates saw herself and her readers as part of the “jumbled, empty world” reflected in her fiction, a world that has no central meaning but, rather, a bewildering multiplicity of small yet “graspable” truths. In a 1969 interview, Oates suggested that her disavowal of the supernatural in her work represents less of a rebellion than a capitulation to “the problem of living in the world. It seems to me a sufficiently intricate hopeless problem itself without bringing in another world, bringing in an extra dimension.” Oates further remarks that in her early stories she is interested in ethical or “religious” problems—especially the issue of free will—as formulated by such writers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Kafka, but that her concern with human fate within the ceaselessly turbulent visible world engages the full range of her artistic energies (Kuehl 11).

“In the Old World” and “The Fine White Mist of Winter” dramatize with particular clarity such issues as free will, human justice, and personal identity against the forbidding backdrop of a monolithic old world crumbling into a fragmented new one. Not surprisingly, for a book published in 1963, both stories focus on race. In “In the Old World,” as in “Boys at a Picnic,” a pastoral gathering of rural folk has been the scene of horrific violence: several white teenagers have attacked a black boy, cutting out his eye with a knife. One of the boys, Swan, has come into town to visit the sheriff's office—where the black boy works, a patch over his eye—and to learn whether a justified retribution (“an eye for an eye”) will be forthcoming. But the sheriff's badge, which was “a little tarnished and in the poor light did not even seem metallic,” represents a spurious moral authority, and Swan is told that “it don't matter about [the black boy], it don't matter one bit” (197).

Similarly, “The Fine White Mist of Winter” features a sheriff's deputy caught in a snowstorm while transporting a black criminal to jail. A proud, self-satisfied man, Rafe has never questioned his moral values (which include a sense of racial superiority and authoritarian privilege), but he is badly shaken when the snowstorm forces him and the criminal, “Bethl'em Aire,” into a mechanic's garage for shelter. In this garage, occupied by several black men, Rafe is abruptly removed from the familiar world of his upbringing. As one of the blacks tells him, “there's no law here—not here, not tonight. Where is there any law? Where is it? Or any one of us better'n another? All of us caught here in a storm, a blizzard, who's to say if there's anything left but us? Any laws? Any ol' sheriff?” (213). The “white mist” of the storm, expressing the larger world's moral neutrality and mocking Rafe's own whiteness, forces him to see the arbitrary nature of his long-held assumptions about race, the law, and himself. Ironically, the black men affirm Rafe's values by taunting Bethl'em Aire (whose name suggests Rafe's opportunity for moral rebirth; in fact, he will later claim that “he was born on that day” [100]) and giving Rafe a mocking reassurance of his own superiority: “Why, there ain't a one of us ain't had it done to him,” Rafe is told, “an ain't a white man here don't know it. … That's how it is. An' him too, him too, he is got to have it done to him too …” (215). Though the storm abates and Rafe returns to his ordered world, he tells everyone that he has entered “his second period—his new period” (198); but when spring arrives Rafe forgets everything, the mud-strewn moral landscape of Eden County returning in full force. Thus the narrative events, unlike those of a typical O'Connor story, offer no genuine moral change: like the teenage killer whose words are “torn away” by the wind, the words of the story seem torn away from any possible vision of transcendence. We are offered, again, merely the nightmarish conditions of the present.

This inefficacy of language is an important theme in By the North Gate, and adumbrates a quality in Oates's oeuvre generally that many critics have found troublesome. In a 1969 essay, Benjamin DeMott complained that Oates's work to that date betrayed “an inability to perceive or create meaning” (89); similarly, in 1970, Elizabeth Dalton remarked that events in Oates's fiction “seem simply to happen in the random and insignificant way of real life” (76); and in 1983, James C. Robison argued that “her stories often erupt into violence and dissolve into chaos. Her fiction raises problems that it seldom probes or clarifies” (86). But Oates's work as a whole makes clear that her stories are deliberately mimetic transcriptions of experience as felt by her characters, rather than a “created meaning” imposed by an omniscient narrator; only by cutting to the heart of an experience, in all its unmediated rawness and violence, can Oates suggest its allegorical significance for the culture.

One of Oates's major themes, in fact, is that writers, intellectuals, record-keepers—all those who attempt to describe and calibrate the contours of experience—are themselves summarily defeated by the swirling chaos of natural and social forces in Eden County. Representatives of literature and culture—the schoolteacher in “By the North Gate,” for instance—are ineffectual and ultimately expelled from this barbarous world. Similarly, in “Pastoral Blood,” a young woman named Grace had been praised for her writing, but now feels that her education had been “worth nothing”; her only memory from college is a short passage from an ancient ballad that she had found in a “dusty, disintegrating” volume and that, like the passage from Rihaku, could serve as an epigraph to By the North Gate: “The hawk had nae lure, and the horse had nae master, / And the faithless hounds thro the woods ran faster” (105).7 In “Sweet Love Remembered,” the despairing lover of the protagonist, Amie, is dismissed as “a teacher of some sort … he wrote things” (76). “The Expense of Spirit” is Oates's earliest example of what would later become a virtual subgenre in her career: the academic satire. Like the stories in The Hungry Ghosts (1974) and the novel Unholy Loves (1979), “The Expense of Spirit” portrays writers and academics as irresponsible, mean-spirited drunkards; the one man in their group who takes literature seriously is the butt of their cruelest jokes.8 But the story most centrally concerned with writing is “The Census Taker.” Here the protagonist, a rather officious and foolish Eden County bureaucrat, visits a rural family in an attempt to complete his census records; but a young girl in the house says scornfully that the world of Eden County is constantly being “washed away,” and can't be tracked or calibrated: “it all up an' left, all washed away! An' them people in the book, all washed away, that he thought he caught an' could keep still, by writin' down” (39). Like the schoolteacher in “By the North Gate,” the census taker beats a hasty retreat.

It's tempting to see the angry girl in “The Census Taker” as Oates's portrait of her younger self, especially since this character is described as “small, lifelessly thin, with … large eyes” (33). A similar character is the girl in “Images” who, like Oates, grows up Catholic, fears her rough-and-tumble environment, and escapes the area through a university scholarship. Such characters in By the North Gate recall what Oates has termed her “peasant” origins. In 1972, she told an interviewer that

I'm like certain people who are not really understood—Jung and Heidegger are good examples—people of peasant stock, from the country, who then come into a world of literature or philosophy. Part of us is very intellectual, wanting to read all the books in the library—or even wanting to write all the books in the library. Then there's the other side of us, which is sheer silence, inarticulate—the silence of nature, of the sky, of pure being.

(Clemons 34-35)

The occasional self-portraits seem present in By the North Gate as additional reminders that the author and her works are themselves vulnerable to the nature that is waiting to “swallow us up, books and all.” Oates seems intent upon providing correctives to her own intellectual temperament, countering the potential arrogance of a writer who might try to impose an arbitrary artistic shape upon the flux and turmoil of Eden County. Not surprisingly, a 1976 novel set in this same rural area begins with this epigraph from William James: “We are not the readers but the very personages of the world-drama” (Childwold v).

Though Oates's rural, post-Depression landscape is clearly a man's world, Oates uses autobiographical characters and portraits of women generally in ways that anticipate the feminist concerns of her later work (especially Marya: A Life [1986], which Oates has termed “the most ‘personal’ of my novels” [(Woman) Writer 376]). On the one hand, to be female in By the North Gate is often to be a victim, like the children murdered in “Boys at a Picnic” and “Swamps.” In “Pastoral Blood,” Grace is attacked by a man with a knife, and in “A Legacy” a girl named Laura, visiting her beloved brother in jail, receives the contemptuous gift of a cigarette butt as a remembrance. Yet these female characters—like Oates herself, mythologizing her childhood environment in her fiction—are also the repositories of memory, reflection, and a bleak form of nostalgia. “A Legacy,” for instance, ends not with Laura's painful last meeting with her brother Kess, but with a memory of “Kess's grinning face … laughing with her: her brother Kess, again no more than thirteen years old” (179).

One of the volume's finest stories, “Sweet Love Remembered,” dramatizes hauntingly this theme of memory, its structure counterpointing the heroine's remembered childhood love for her brother, Jarley, with her fleeting and rather tawdry affair with an older man. Amie now works as a waitress in a seaside town. Though she had grown up in the country, her adult experience has brought her “a sense of isolation and a knowledge that the world was false and painful” (70), forcing her to grab at this love affair even though “There was nothing personal in it, nothing lasting” (71). Again Oates contrasts the lost innocence of the old world, in which Amie had loved her brother deeply but had not been able to tell him, with the superficial clamor of her present life. Her lover tells Amie despairingly, “What we say has a meaning only for now, and for this place, and as soon as we go off somewhere else it all changes, it can't even be remembered correctly” (77). While Amie's own remembrance of things past contradicts his despair, Amie herself suffers, like Rafe in “The Fine White Mist of Winter,” an epiphany of loss: “she could feel a fine cold mist rise and subside within her as though some tension, some brink, had been passed, as though some part of her life was over” (79). The story dramatizes subtly the small moments in which Eden County natives feel their lives moving relentlessly forward into a fearsome, unknown future. Like the women in later Oates collections such as The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970) and The Goddess and Other Women (1974), Amie is clearly doomed—despite her sensitivity and the essentially loving, gentle nature her name suggests—to an adult female experience characterized by anxiety, fear and paranoia.

Such attributes already belong to Grace in “Pastoral Blood,” the earliest Oates story to dramatize the specifically female terror that has become a hallmark of her work. As Mary Allen has pointed out in The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties, “Many of Oates's best scenes … reveal women's solitary, haunting fears,” adding that Oates “is at least as effective with her more affluent women as she is with her poor ones” (141). Along with “The Expense of Spirit,” “Pastoral Blood” is unusual in By the North Gate in that it deals with an affluent urban world. Grace is a beautiful young woman, engaged to a sophisticated man and sporting a large diamond; yet in the story's first sentence, as Grace sits at her vanity table, she has the sudden thought that “she no longer cared to live” (92). She leaves home, withdraws all her money from the bank, and drives aimlessly into the countryside on a half-conscious journey toward self-destruction. Although Sanford Pinsker remarks that the story's effects are achieved “without substructures of myth or irony” (55), both the story's title and its heroine's name are surely intended to suggest her flight from a false contemporary Eden of materialism and stultifying gender roles. Like the affluent but unhappy women of Oates's later collections, Grace has become dissociated from her false identity as a “golden girl” of the 1950s, and now grasps wildly at alternate forms of experience. She picks up a man and they have sex in a wooded area, an occasion that drives Grace into a further awareness of her own numbness and that inspires in Oates the kind of mordant, “deadpan” humor that Pinsker and other commentators have failed to recognize: “When the man's panting had subsided, Grace waited for a feeling of some sort to come to her. It had been no worse than, say, the Saturday she had had five teeth drilled, or the rabies shots after a stray dog had bitten her” (107).9 Grace's ultimate degradation—she is apparently gang-raped by a group of sailors in a riverfront saloon—is followed by recuperation in a hospital before she returns to “civilized” life. She stares without recognition at her own mirrored reflection, but even though her dissociation from her false identity seems complete, Grace has no choice but to resume her old life and her marriage plans (having decided against suicide), to try and nurture a “shy feigned germ of love” (113). Yet Oates makes clear that another, more determined attempt at self-destruction will soon follow.

Oates's women in By the North Gate can succumb to their sense of terror and vulnerability through the trance-like resignation assumed by Grace after her doomed bid for freedom; or they may, ironically, become one with the savage natural and social forces threatening to destroy them. Thus the homeless woman in “Swamps,” who drowns her baby and brutally attacks the old man who tries to help her, may be seen as enacting a fierce denial of her role as a subservient nurturer. At the other end of the social spectrum, Elizabeth Rockland in “Ceremonies” is the passionate but friendless daughter of the country's richest man. She angrily rejects her father's peculiar, symbolic gift of a rifle for her eighteenth birthday, but despite her bold spirit and her attempt, recalling Grace's in “Pastoral Blood,” to escape her fate, she finally becomes a figurehead in her society's ceremonial rituals of love and death, retaining only her identity as Rockland's daughter. By the time of his death, she has become a faceless veiled woman of forty, helping to stage his funeral “in a grand, solemn, and slightly self conscious manner” (41).

For all the book's compassion for its women, By the North Gate is hardly a doctrinaire feminist work. One of its most remarkable features is its ambitious inclusiveness toward experience as suffered by both women and men, the poor and the affluent. Oates has insisted throughout her career that she feels great compassion for her male characters and that she values male and female writers equally (Myers 182). For her, all personages in the world-drama are similarly vulnerable to the barbarous forces of violence and materialism in twentieth-century America. Published in 1963, By the North Gate can best be viewed as an allegorical transcription of the large-scale social and psychological unrest that would erupt violently through the remainder of that decade. The finest of the stories—“Sweet Love Remembered,” “Pastoral Blood,” “The Fine White Mist of Winter,” and “By the North Gate”—clearly heralded a young author equipped both to recognize and to dramatize forcefully the moral dilemmas of that turbulent new world.


  1. Reviewing By the North Gate, Stanley Kauffmann remarked that Oates “seems determined to prove that the ‘Southern’ story can be written in the North” (4).

  2. Oates has described her early, rapturous discovery of Nietzsche's work: “To have read Nietzsche at age eighteen, when one's senses are most keenly and nervously alert, the very envelope of the skin dangerously porous; to have heard, and been struck to the heart, by that astonishing voice—what ecstasy! what visceral unease!—as if the very floor were shifting beneath one's feet” [(Woman) Writer 59].

  3. In an early interview, Oates remarks that Freud and Nietzsche are “almost real personalities in my life” (Clemons 5).

  4. In a 1982 interview, Oates says that in her writing she hopes to achieve “a kind of homage or worship, very difficult to explain” (Sjoberg 102).

  5. See also Frank R. Cunningham's more recent essay on Oates's early stories, in which he remarks: “Oates seems intent to show us that forces both societal and natural have led to the crippling of a sense of willed, formed identity, a constructed selfhood, among large numbers of people of the middle and working classes in America. … Oates is engaged in writing a circumscribed moral history of what she appears to observe as a failed, decadent time in our national history” (10).

  6. In 1983, she remarked: “My method has always been to combine the ‘naturalistic’ world with the ‘symbolic’ method of expression, so that I am always—or usually—writing about real people in a real society, but the means of expression may be naturalistic, realistic, surreal, or parodistic” (Charters 1081-82).

  7. Oates discusses this ballad, entitled “Sheath and Knife,” in her essay “‘In the Fifth Act’: The Art of the English and Scottish Traditional Ballads,” saying that these lines are “an evaluation of order and lawlessness” (Contraries 134). Elsewhere in this essay she remarks that “Human tragedy is a matter of particulars, and will vanish; but the chorus of nature, of the natural universe, will not vanish, and its slow, sure, deadly vision constitutes an ironic consciousness of the way the world is” (Contraries 133).

  8. For a book-length study of Oates's academic stories, see Severin.

  9. Of this passage, Pinsker remarks: “One does not have to insist that lovemaking be accompanied by the earth moving, etc., to be disturbed by Grace's clinical, coldly detached metaphors” (“Oates and the New Naturalism” 57). Samuel F. Pickering similarly comments that the early stories are “devoid of humor. … An inability to laugh is Miss Oates's greatest limitation” (222). Such remarks are puzzling not only in light of the absurdist passages in otherwise serious stories such as “Pastoral Blood,” but especially considering such hyperbolic tales as the O'Connor-inspired “An Encounter with the Blind” or the hilarious “The Death of Mrs. Sheer” (collected in Upon the Sweeping Flood [1966]), which narrates the adventures of a pair of bumbling hit men. The passionate, often violent world of Oates's fiction has never prevented her from highlighting its comically absurd manifestations.

Works Cited

Allen, Mary. The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976.

Bellamy, Joe David. The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1974.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 1-6.

Clemons, Walter. “Joyce Carol Oates: Love and Violence.” Milazzo 32-41.

Cunningham, Frank R. “Joyce Carol Oates: The Enclosure of Identity in the Earlier Stories.” American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space. Ed. Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1989. 9-26.

Dalton, Elizabeth. “Joyce Carol Oates: Violence in the Head.” Commentary 49 (1970): 75-77.

DeMott, Benjamin. “The Necessity in Art of a Reflective Intelligence.” Saturday Review 22 Nov. 1969: 71-73, 89.

Kuehl, Linda. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Milazzo 7-13.

Madden, David. The Poetic Image in 6 Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.

Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

Myers, George, Jr. “Oates Writes out of ‘Fascination,’ Not Zeal.” Milazzo 181-86.

Oates, Joyce Carol. By the North Gate. New York: Vanguard, 1963.

———. Childwold. New York: Vanguard, 1976.

———. Contraries. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

———. “The Nature of Short Fiction; or, The Nature of My Short Fiction.” Preface. Handbook of Short Story Writing. Eds. Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1970. xi-xviii.

———. New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature. New York: Vanguard, 1974.

———. With Shuddering Fall. New York: Vanguard, 1963.

———. (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: Dutton, 1988.

Phillips, Robert. “Joyce Carol Oates: The Art of Fiction LXXII.” Milazzo 62-81.

Pickering, Samuel F., Jr. “The Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates.” The Georgia Review 28 (1974): 218-26.

Pinsker, Sanford. “Isaac Bashevis Singer and Joyce Carol Oates: Some Versions of Gothic.” The Southern Review 9 (1973): 895-909.

———. “Joyce Carol Oates and the New Naturalism.” The Southern Review 15 (1979): 52-63.

Robison, James C. “1969-1980: Experiment and Tradition.” The American Story, 1945-1980: A Critical History. Ed. Gordon Weaver. New York: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Severin, Hermann. The Image of the Intellectual in the Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986.

Sjoberg, Leif. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Milazzo 101-18.

Nancy Bishop Dessommes (essay date summer 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3881

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 seen as religious works with this other rather creepy dimension in the background, whereas in my writing there is only the natural world.

(Kuehl 307)

A few weeks later, Oates was to publish collection of stories (eventually titled The Wheel of Love and Other Stories) on the theme of love, including the much-debated, often anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Perhaps this story stands out from the others in the collection because of its uncharacteristic “other rather creepy dimension in the background.” Critics cannot seem to decide whether Connie, the 15-year-old protagonist of the story, has had a dream, seen the devil, or simply been seduced and possibly murdered by a psychotic intruder. But one thing is certain. The story is fraught with religious overtones and nightmarish imagery, and it is doubtful that “only the natural world” is presented. Joyce Carol Oates's respect for Flannery O'Connor's work is well known, and despite Oates's claim to the contrary, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is very much like O'Connor's short stories, most notably “Greenleaf.” Readers of O'Connor will recognize in Connie the shortcomings of such popular O'Connor figures as Mrs. Turpin, Hulga, and Julian. As in most of O'Connor's stories, the central character is self-centered, complacent, haughty, and essentially, though unwittingly, devoid of true moral conscience. But Connie and her story have the most in common with Mrs. May, the selfish widow of “Greenleaf.” Both women are forced, in a moment of self-realization, to recognize the divine presence in the world; they must, if only for an instant, come to terms with moral responsibility and concern for affairs other than those of the self.

The plots of the two stories seem to have little in common; however, both are initiations of a woman who, in response to an intruder—a male sexual figure—is forced to see herself and the world as she never has before. Whereas O'Connor emphasizes the exposition of her story, concentrating on the events that lead up to Mrs. May's being gored by the Greenleafs' bull, Oates sustains the suspense of Connie's meeting with her abductor, suggesting that Arnold Friend's violation of Connie's mind and body, while seductively gradual, is nonetheless as violent as Mrs. May's death.

In Oates's story, Connie has chosen to stay home alone, having declined the offer to accompany her parents and older sister, June, on a family barbecue at her aunt's house. While she is drying her freshly washed hair in the sun, tuned in to a popular teen music station, a stranger, accompanied by a companion, drives into her driveway, claiming he has come to pick her up for a date. Connie has a vague recollection of having seen the stranger peripherally—and having snubbed him—the night before at the local drive-in hamburger joint. As the stranger, who identifies himself as Arnold Friend and his silent companion as Ellie Oscar, continues to pressure Connie into getting into his car, an old jalopy painted gold, Connie gradually realizes to her horror that the visitor is actually much older than he wants to appear. Connie becomes more and more frightened as Arnold Friend makes sexual suggestions and intimations that he is about to seize control of her mind. He has an uncanny knowledge of Connie's family and personal life and suggests that he may have murdered one of Connie's neighbors. After making a veiled threat to hurt Connie's family upon their return, Arnold manages to convince her to come out of the house and join him. She then crosses over into the other world of adulthood: into “the vast sunlit reaches of the land … so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it” (Oates 54). What actually happens to Connie from that point is not shown, but to most readers there is little doubt that she will be raped and possibly killed by this gentleman caller who has come to show her what “love” is: “Yes, I'm your lover. You don't know what that is, but you will” (47).

“Greenleaf” is a similar story. Mrs. May, a widow and dairy farmer by necessity, is forced to deal with an intruder on her property, the scrub bull of her tenant family, the Greenleafs. Mrs. May, who struggles to keep her business in order, becomes unhinged at the threatening presence of a Greenleaf bull on her property, one that she feels is sure to breed with her superior dairy cows and “ruin the breeding schedule” (O'Connor 28). After unsuccessful attempts to get Mr. Greenleaf to retrieve the bull, Mrs. May drives him to the pasture and orders him to shoot the animal. During the quarter of an hour or so that Mr. Greenleaf pursues the bull through the woods, Mrs. May becomes impatient and blows the horn, apparently exciting the bull, who then emerges from the trees, charges her, and finally “burie[s] his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover” (52). Mr. Greenleaf arrives, running for the first time in the story, and executes the beast with four shots from the rifle. “She did not hear the shots but she felt the quake in the huge body as it sank, pulling her forward on its head, so that she seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf reached her, to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal's ear” (53).

Though on the surface the carefree teenaged Connie and the frustrated middle-aged Mrs. May seem to have little in common, they are strikingly similar in character and share many of the same problems. Both live in an egoistic world psychologically separated from family and spiritually isolated from religion. Typically teenaged, Connie thinks of little beyond maintaining her own good looks, impressing boys, and living for the excitement of the moment. Her greatest challenge in life is to escape parental supervision long enough to sneak across the highway from the mall, where she is supposed to be seeing a movie with a friend, to the forbidden zone: “Sometimes they went across the highway, ducking fast across the busy road, to a drive-in restaurant where older kids hung out” (36). Unlike her dull and obedient sister June, Connie thrives on risk. On her trips across the highway, she is so “breathless with daring” (36) it is no wonder that she dismisses her family as tedious; like most teens, she prefers peer approval to parental and depends on it for her identity: “She had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors, or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right” (34). Understandably, Connie prefers the hangout to her homelife, which is characterized by antagonism and indifference. Her mother is a source of aggravation, nagging at Connie to “Stop gawking at yourself, who are you? You think you're so pretty?” (34). Her father and June barely exist to Connie. As Joyce M. Wegs points out, “Connie's parents, who seem quite typical, have disqualified themselves as moral guides for her.” Wegs continues, “Because [Connie's father] does not ‘bother talking much’ (30) to his family, he can hardly ask the crucial parental questions, ‘Where are you going?’ or ‘Where have you been?’” (Wegs 88).

Though Connie's self-absorption can be excused as normal, her lack of religious training nonetheless creates a serious deficiency in her ability to be aware of the potential for evil in the world. In Connie's family “none of them bothered with church” (38) and the only reference Connie makes to a deity occurs during her panic over being caught without enough warning to prepare her face and hair for company: “Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered ‘Christ. Christ,’ wondering how bad she looked” (40). It is clear from Oates's use of imagery that Connie has replaced traditional religion with the false religion of secularism. The drive-in restaurant, steepled with “a revolving figure of a grinning boy who held a hamburger aloft,” (36) stands in grotesque tribute to a belief in the superficial world of self-indulgence that “give[s] … [Connie and her friends] what haven and what blessing they yearned for” (36). It is little wonder that Connie, unprepared for dealing with evil realities of the adult world, succumbs to the pressure of the satanic Arnold Friend. A young woman whose thoughts about sexual love are “of the boy she had been with the night before and about how nice he had been, how sweet it always was … sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs” (39) is set up for a fall. As Connie is soon to learn, she only thinks she is in control of the boys, of her love life; a few moments with Arnold Friend, however, and Connie is under his control: “She watched herself push the door slowly open as if she were safe back somewhere in the other doorway, watching this body and this head of long hair moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waited” (54).

Similarly, Mrs. May thinks she is in control of her domain; her family and farm, however, are in decay. Mrs. May is really controlled by Mr. Greenleaf, who takes advantage of her from the first, when he responds to her notice for a farmhand: “I seen your ad and I will come have 2 boys” (34). As Mr. Greenleaf soon reveals, he has cleverly failed to mention his wife and five daughters, who are apparently part of the package. Soon the farm is populated with three generations of Greenleafs.

Just as Connie cannot look to her parents for protection from the likes of Arnold Friend, Mrs. May cannot depend on her family to help ward off the invasion of the Greenleafs. Her relationship to her sons is at least as antagonistic as Connie's is with her parents. Mrs. May's two older, still unmarried sons—Scofield, an insurance “policy man,” and Wesley, an “intellectual”—offer their mother no help on the farm, only ridicule. Aware of her airs of superiority and fear of a Greenleaf takeover, they tease her without mercy: “Scofield would yodel and say, ‘Why Mamma, I'm not going to marry until you're dead and gone and then I'm going to marry me some nice fat girl that can take over this place … some nice lady like Mrs. Greenleaf’” (29). Mrs. May's greatest fear is that her farm will degenerate to Greenleaf level, though her family structure is already in the same state as her semicollapsed farmhouse.

Mrs. May, like Connie, doesn't bother much with religion, but her substitute for faith is her attachment to her good name and the defense of her property. God comes last. In Mrs. May's world God is a cliche: “I thank God for that!” she exclaims in response to Mr. Greenleaf's observation that “all boys ain't alike.” But Mr. Greenleaf offers a penetrating and sincere reply: “‘I thank gawd for ever thang,’ he drawled” (41). Mrs. May tolerates the Greenleaf variety of religion, but she herself has put religion away, compartmentalizing it into its proper place: in a building to serve as a warehouse of nice girls for her boys to meet and a place to contain Jesus' name. “She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true” (31). David Eggenschwiler, in The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor, classifies Mrs. May as a Kierkegaardian Philistine figure: “Mrs. May is one of those characters who exalt intellectuality or common sense and deny their passions, their animality, and the power of the irrational” (52). No one better embodies the power of the irrational than Mrs. Greenleaf, whose rites of healing include rolling in the dirt and swaying on all fours over the news clippings of movie stars' divorces. Mrs. May, who finds Mrs. Greenleaf's behavior abhorrent, considers herself an expert on what Jesus would want: “‘Jesus,’ she said, drawing herself back, ‘would be ashamed of you’” (31). But it is the Greenleaf spirit of surrender to the religious realm of existence that is embodied in the powerful yet humble scrub bull that visits Mrs. May at night “like some patient god come down to woo her” (24). And it is, of course, the bull that is victorious and helps Mrs. May discover, too late, her error.

The most intriguing similarity between the stories is the authors' use of the nightmarish, sexually alarming, male intruder who appears unexpectedly to disturb the comfortable universe the female character has built. Both females are threatened by the grotesque embodiment of spiritual reality and are conquered by that force in a cataclysmic vision at the end of the story. Interestingly, both intruders are anticipated, if not experienced, in a dream. Although the question of whether Arnold Friend is a vision, a “daymare,” or a literal abductor has been thoroughly argued, a close reading does reveal that Connie's experience has all the earmarks of a nightmare, one that has been triggered by the shaggy-haired boy in the gold car whom she had seen at the drive-in.1 Critics who have argued that Arnold Friend is real (and those who have argued the dream theory) have overlooked one detail from the drive-in scene: the car itself, “a convertible jalopy painted gold” (37). Oates makes no mention of the dented bumper, strange slogans, or cartoonish pictures that Connie notices right away when the car is parked in her driveway. The reader would think that such an unusual sight at the local teen hangout would be sure to draw a comment, if not a crowd. But only Connie—not even the group she is walking with—notices the boy who speaks only to her: “Gonna get you, baby” (37). During Connie's imaginary encounter with Friend, the details about the car—especially the sexist comment “DONE BY CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER” written around the smashed fender—take on psychological significance, as does the character of Friend himself.

Connie's vision expresses the anxiety typical of dreams: the search for self-identity, fear of the future, and suppressed sexual desire. Larry Rubin concludes that “the episode with Arnold Friend, then, may be viewed as the vehicle for fulfillment of Connie's deep-rooted desire for ultimate sexual gratification, a fearsome business which, for the uninitiated female, may involve destruction of the person” (59). Greg Johnson sees the dream strictly as feminist allegory: “The story describes the beginning of a young and sexually attractive girl's enslavement within a conventional, male-dominated sexual relationship. … [It] is a cautionary tale, suggesting that young women are ‘going’ exactly where their mothers and grandmothers have already ‘been’: into sexual bondage at the hands of a male ‘Friend’” (102-03). Connie cannot help but feel an attraction to this composite of all the boys she has met, the embodiment of all the urges her parents would have her resist. Still, Connie fears that Friend will enter the house where she stands just inside the screen door and take her on his own terms, for she knows instinctively that he is evil. As Joyce Wegs points out, “Although Arnold has come to take Connie away, in his traditional role as evil spirit, he may not cross a threshold uninvited; he repeatedly mentions that he is not going to come in after Connie, and he never does. Instead, he lures Connie out to him” (90). Connie, like Mrs. May, has not thought much about her own vulnerability and what lies past her immediate concerns of daily living, nor does she expect to meet up with an exaggerated picture of the spiritual dimension of life that she has heretofore not recognized. Just as Arnold Friend appears as a representation of all Connie's desires and fears, the menacing scrub bull that has been stalking Mrs. May has also entered her dreams, wherein its presence suggests the same moral and sexual uncertainties that Connie feels. In the blur between sleep and wake, Mrs. May imagines the bull dominating her space the way Arnold Friend invades Connie's house: “[It] had eaten everything from the beginning of the fence line up to the house and now was eating the house and calmly with the same steady rhythm would continue through the house, eating her and the boys, and then on, eating everything but the Greenleafs” (25). Awakened by the steady chewing sound, she peeks through the blinds and spies the bull “chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor” (25). Like Arnold Friend, the bull is in no hurry to possess her; he waits like a “patient god” to make his move. He has his territory marked from outside her bedroom window just as Arnold Friend marks Connie with an “X” in the air soon after his arrival. In both stories, with the first appearance of the intruder, the conflict is defined as a struggle for power over the female's body as well as her property. Suzanne Paulson points to Mr. Greenleaf as the real threat to Mrs. May's security—even her sexual security: “Mr. Greenleaf appears to represent male potency: his phallic nature is emphasized in the figure of his sons' bull, which he allows to run loose in Mrs. May's herd—his way of asserting power over his female employer and of establishing his own territory” (40). The bull is an obvious symbol of male sexual aggression, and Mrs. May, who believes that certain “other words [should be kept] inside the bedroom,” has likely denied her own sexuality since becoming a widow and assuming the traditional male role of caretaker. It is little wonder that such sexual repression would surface in a dream as an image of fear.

On the spiritual level, the bull is more closely associated with Mrs. Greenleaf, whom Mrs. May describes as “large and loose,” yet for all her dirtiness and uncouthness, she is Mrs. May's moral superior. Since Mrs. May is unpracticed at praying for suffering souls and screaming out to Jesus, she feels threatened by these ritual performances she happens upon in the woods, and she attaches to them the same fear she feels toward the bull: “She felt as if some violent unleashed force had broken out of the ground and was charging toward her” (30-31). What Mrs. May senses in this scene is, of course, a foreshadowing of the disaster to come, one that will prove to be her “moment of grace.” According to Suzanne Paulson,

Depicting the worst in human nature is for O'Connor an act of faith, a repetition of God's intention to shock us into ‘grace.’ What some readers see as cynical and distorted views of human life, O'Connor sees as honest representations—however exaggerated and symbolic—of human suffering and sin repressed by the community in order to assuage the guilt of individual members.


Connie's bizarre experience with Arnold Friend could likewise be interpreted as a “cynical and distorted view of human life.” But in a more significant reading of the story, Connie's grueling Sunday afternoon appointment with evil symbolizes her coming to terms with the internal and external struggles evident in her life, as well as those of countless young women like her. Like Mrs. May, Connie has been blindsided by a force buried in the mundane that was too obvious for her to recognize. And this force bears the face of evil. David Eggenschwiler speaks of O'Connor's use of the bull as a symbol of evil in “Greenleaf”:

[Mrs. May] even experiences revelation through a demonic form: she becomes aware of God through a symbolic, Dionysian immolation of her self, which is not to say that such immolation is a Christian ideal any more than being pierced by a bull is an ideal form of sexual behavior. Such patterns of reaction also help to explain why Miss O'Connor so often uses satanic instruments to enlighten her characters: she is not only showing that God moves in mysterious ways and brings good out of evil; she is also exploring the psychological and religious view that demonic characters experience God's mercy through demonic structures that oppose or caricature their own forms of idolatry.


The same could be said of Oates and her story. While it is difficult to view Mrs. May or Connie as demonic characters, they are both idolaters of sorts, and both are in need of God's mercy and grace.

At the outcome of each character's ordeal is a moral insight, or revelation, one that elevates the ordinary woman to the state of religious hero. Mrs. May dies getting only a glimpse of the “last discovery” that has come too late for her to act on, but Connie actually becomes a savior to her family. Connie, who has only resented her parents and sister before, cries out for her mother in the end; and in a final act of heroism, surrenders herself to Arnold Friend, who has just reminded her that he plans to harm her family upon their return should she refuse to come out to him. “You don't want them to get hurt” (53), he says, and immediately she stands up to leave with him. She receives her “moment of grace” in classic O'Connor style: by having it violently thrust upon her. Unlike other O'Connor protagonists, she is not hit in the head with a book, forced to watch her mother collapse and die on the sidewalk, or even taken in and mentally raped by a deranged Bible salesman. Instead, like the lonely widow, she endures sexual intimidation by a stranger and is at once destroyed and, ironically, saved by the force that conquers her.


  1. Larry Rubin argues convincingly that Connie has fallen asleep in the sun and has had a dream about a composite figure that symbolizes her fear of the adult world. He discusses the references to sleep that frame the Arnold Friend episode and the nightmare quality of her inability to control the situation.

Works Cited

Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1987.

Kuehl, Linda. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Commonweal 91 (1969): 307-10.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Wheel of Love. New York: Vanguard, 1970. 34-54.

O'Connor, Flannery. “Greenleaf.” Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, 1965. 24-53.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O'Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Rubin, Larry. “Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Explicator 42.4 (1984): 57-59.

Wegs, Joyce M. “‘Don't You Know Who I Am?’: The Grotesque in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975): 66-72. Rpt. in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: Hall, 1979. 87-92.

Ildikó de Papp Carrington (essay date fall 1994)

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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 Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese, we experience these supposed translations as deliberate displacement of Portugal and its literature into a marginalized other, to a periphery where they are possessed, appropriated, and expropriated in a literary act that seeks to explore the ironic pretense of its author having herself been appropriated by “an imaginary author” of “an imaginary work, Azulejos” (15). Refractions aside, Oates gazes directly at her specular invention, the “mystical ‘Portugal’” (15) and finds, not surprisingly, herself, just as character after character in the collection looks at the other to sense at once confirmation and dissolution.

Oates tells us immediately that the author of these stories is a Fernandes de Briao (the usual diacritical marks of the Portuguese language do not occur in the Oates text), whom she calls her “very real” guide (15) in a process that brings her to “recognize” within herself “authority” (15). That authority is double at least (one invented author, one possessed author, each doubling the other) and extends over “a world-view quite antithetical” (15) to Oates's.

The name Fernandes is a name Oates gives to several writers in the collection. In “The Letter,” for instance, Fernandes figures as a well-connected banker who has written a letter to his lover. He hides in fear of blackmail and of dishonor to his family because of this letter. And in his attitude is a superiority to the apparently illiterate, humble, and boorish man he loves, whose body's “surfaces … undulate like the streets” of Lisbon (156). This wealthy man now seeks to re-claim the letter to keep his own cover secure; he finds instead amidst the clutter of his lover's room a different love letter, one he did not write. As happens so often in this collection of short stories, the writer of one text merges with the writer of another, almost compulsively yielding and assuming authorial identity: “I am this other person” (157), Fernandes muses. “What does it matter which of the two men I am?” (158), he concludes.

Thus, Oates comments on her own ironic strategy of claiming and denying authorship and authority over the texts of The Poisoned Kiss [The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese]. What does it matter?, she makes us ask. What does it matter that one author (the wealthy banker one) keeps the other unknown and anonymous? What does it matter that this same author assumes a name to protect his privileged interests over those of another author and of an unnamed readership he deems inferior in education and in status? It matters immensely if we pay attention with Oates to the uses of power and authority.

Oates admits of a power drawn from the privileges of wealth and lineage and of a sexual power used by men against both men and women. So, in the Afterword she says she “was besieged by Fernandes” (188) who, without some compromise, “would have overwhelmed” her (188). What was possessed in “The Letter” was the text the banker had not written as well as the lover as reader (or illiterate addressee) whose time and body were bought in exchange for shelter and clothing. In The Poisoned Kiss Oates possesses the texts while mocking simultaneously the appropriation by Fernandes in a kind of trompe l'oeil effect similar to the ones that beguile the wife into powerlessness and fear in the story titled “Husband and Wife.”

In claiming to be the translator of these stories, Oates allows translation to work as a powerful metaphor in The Poisoned Kiss. The book purports to be translation, and it opens with a translation, Roy Campbell's of a verse from “En una noche oscura” by St. John of the Cross. Already in The Poisoned Kiss's epigraph, Roy Campbell as translator changes the Spanish text written by a man in the voice of a woman. St. John writes: “Oh noche, que juntaste / Amado con amada, / Amada en el Amado transformada!” (26). Campbell's translation, though, re-writes the transformation of St. John the “amada” into the divine “Amado,” the female into the male. By such changes the translation refuses to acknowledge the power that is in (and lost in) the transformation and the translation. Campbell's text says that the night joins “the lover / To the beloved bride / Transfiguring them each into the other” (27). So, too, Irving Malin tries to see Oates's works emerging out of this epigraph as “marriages” (39), somehow benign. And Oates as woman author-translator asserts the use, and submits to the use, of the same power that Roy Campbell exercised over St. John's text. However bodiless Oates may wish to seem in her writing—and I am thinking of her argument in “(Woman) Writer: Theory and Practice”—she yields (and ironically does not yield) her identity and authority up to a male author, this imaginary Fernandes, in a literary erasure in the sense that she develops the image in her essay on “Pseudonymous Selves.”

There, Oates wants to believe that this kind of “erasure of the primary self” (385) has therapeutic value as it can bring about the release of “another (hitherto undiscovered?) self” (385). She argues that a woman's assumption of “a male or a male-sounding pseudonym” (385) can “stimulate the imagination in unanticipated ways” (385). It can be an act of “redefining oneself” (388).

While Oates “explains” in her Afterword to The Poisoned Kiss that “the Fernandes stories came out of nowhere” (187), at least as an idea they must have come out of M. C. D'Arcy's introduction to Roy Campbell's translation of St. John. There D'Arcy ends by saying that “translation can be a stimulus and an original pleasure to a genuine poet” (24), a worthwhile, if self-serving, literary and personal experiment. Years later we hear Oates echo D'Arcy's words in her essay on pseudonyms.

The “Letters to Fernandes from a Young American Poet” comments on the metaphor of translation. The young American poet is himself a translator, here of the work of Antonio (again, the expected accent in the Portuguese name of Antonio does not occur in Oates's text), a poet detained by the Salazar regime. Just as Antonio's work (let alone Antonio himself) is in danger of being erased (141), so too the translator feels the threat of this political canceling out of his being, the threat of disappearance, of a fall even deeper than that into anonymity. “When the language is erased we will all be erased” (141). Since she recognizes the privilege of the politically powerful to erase words, why then does Oates in “Pseudonymous Selves” stand behind some therapeutic value in self-erasure? Twice in the “Letters to Fernandes” the young American poet joins with the translated author, becomes that author. Early on he writes that his “blood was drained” (140) into the translation, and at the end again he claims his “blood has gone into translations” (148) of Antonio. He continues:

I am he and he is myself. Let the world sit in judgment on how his Flesh is Resurrected in my Midwestern soul. Poets & translators. Poets & lovers. Men & language. Men & men. Language.


What is the process of translation here? Is it a betrayal of self? Is it some kind of negative capability? Or is it the exercise of power that takes flesh and blood for the self's own stimulation, here portrayed, as so often in the collection, as homosexual? Once again, the link between possession, sexual appropriation, and violence disturbs. Can Irving Malin be right in calling the supposed act of translation in The Poisoned Kiss part of a strategy of “joining opposites” (39)? If there is joining, it is not without a force that results in the disappearance of the translated work and of the author Antonio in favor of the young American poet.

In “Plagiarized Material” Oates again seems to decry art that erases, that annihilates “all private and public experience” (171), art that is so lacking in originality that it is itself a copy of other works and is endlessly re-copying itself. In the story, Cabral, a Portuguese author so full of himself he cannot consider his own insignificance (emphasized in all the references to miniature qualities), loses his sanity and his life as he sees text after text he is writing merge with texts by others. He fears these other texts and their authors (which and who, of course, in his aesthetics do not exist but still manage somehow to produce in him Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence); “They will appropriate you,” he hears a cautionary voice say (167). Here we do sense some of the tension in being overwhelmed that Oates writes of in the Afterword as she imagines herself appropriated in the act of appropriation.

We establish, then, one source in the desired stimulus translation may provide and also a motive: metaphor. Do we routinely misread the last sentence of Oates's Afterword, misread its deep irony? It claims that “In truth none of it [the possession by Fernandes, the stories themselves] was metaphorical, any more than you and I are metaphorical” (189). Each of us, of course, is metaphor, now and then one or another of the “lost selves” (91) of the characters in the stories, just as each of these “parables” is a pernicious metaphor for colonialism in literature. In her own quite humorous debunking of Simone Weil's mysticism (whose lack of originality Oates opposes to the originality of St. John of the Cross), Oates ridicules the idea of a dispossessed self. Her review of Weil glosses the Afterword to The Poisoned Kiss as it points without hesitation to its irony and to the irony with which Oates can view her own work: “Is Weil speaking in parables? and is the body [my emphasis] of her multifarious prose pieces really a kind of poem or extended metaphor … ?” (149).

While this collection masquerades as translation, so the work masks a kind of anachorism when it comes to Portugal. Sure, there are plentiful references to real places, to Lisbon and its Alfama quarter, to Estoril, to Sintra, for example, most of them piled on in “Plagiarized Material.” Can we accept G. F. Waller's understanding of—or excuse for—Oates's obsession with a Lawrentian “spirit of place” (163) and “not with its surface or geographical details” (163)? James R. Giles argues less convincingly that “the Portuguese setting allows Oates to use overt fascism as a metaphor for corrupted American democracy” (145), and Irving Malin offers a puzzling justification that lets critics and authors “write about ‘Portugal’ but our ‘Portugal’ is not the real country—we use it (or are used by it) for our ceremonies” (40). He sees the stories as “ceremonies of creation—sexual, artistic, theological” (41). What little ceremony is here if we understand ceremony as initiation into or celebration of some transcendent value. With no reverential or ceremonial gesture at all toward Portuguese literature, Oates substitutes her own literature for that of a country she claims not to know (187). We must fall back on Giles's realization that the settings in The Poisoned Kiss “more closely” approximate “allegory than Portugal” (141).

When Joyce Carol Oates looks at Portugal, she sees herself. Mirroring, specular gazing, provides another metaphor for the translation process. In story after story in the volume, a character looks upon or endures the gaze of the other, only to become the other. In the most well developed story, “Our Lady of the Easy Death of Alferce,” the statue of the Madonna experiences such translation into the other. Immobile, she lives an inner life that extends her vision and her effect outside the confines of the statue so that she knows the social and natural quotidian. That vision transports (or should I say, translates?) the religious figure beyond itself for momentary relief from the constant burden of adoration, of being the other, the one who holds the Christ Child but cannot see his face or know his affection. Distance, then, prevails, whether of time as in the centuries during which Mary has not gazed upon the Child or of space in the yards (no metric measurements in this Portuguese village church) of pews that separate the women who pray from the woman to whom they pray for intercession. Mary's petrified body yearns for a response forever denied: a voice, an expression of surprise, an embrace for those who adore her with a “trembling hot love” (18). The distance deepens as we see the Virgin Mary further petrified by the ages of artistic and literary representations of simultaneous virginal and motherly beauty. When the miracle happens, when Mary cries one tear on behalf of a boy who loves her in a “panicked rage” (19), she gains momentary release again from the reified body her worshippers demand. That release, though, leads to a redefinition (or, more accurately, a paralysis or loss) of self that the mother of the young boy now insists on in light of her son's having been taken away, we know not where. So the mother attacks Mother Mary as “thief, a murderer” (23), as one who has “poisoned” (23) her son. In her anguish, the boy's mother breaks off and steals the Christ Child, leaving the statue to endure the re-placement of a replica “in place of the Son of God” (24). Mary's motherhood drains away into the boy's mother, draining away all but “madness” (24) in a woman now “blank” and “darker than the shadows ever get …” (25).

Likewise, specular gazing figures as a metaphor for the translation process in Oates's story “Loss.” There, a woman, displaced from home in Portugal to Rome, gazes at and is gazed upon by a male figure. Like the Madonna of Alferce, the female character V in “Loss” senses the self in paralysis and is seen as paralyzed: the voice of the other who watches her from behind a window in an adjacent building refers to her “perfectly immobile … body” (29). When this voice intrudes into the narrative, it talks of V's body in ways that can only be heard as invasive and violent, as possessive: we hear of the “body of a bride” (29), the woman's “supple, full body” (31), its blond hair tied tightly to the “skull” (32) and leading down to the “graceful neck and torso, bare arms, a small waist” (34) on to the “wide, fleshy thighs” (34) of “a new bride” in “white clothing that covered but did not contain her body, her gleaming nakedness” (35). Finally, as the voice and the figure of V's husband merge in their violence, the owner of the voice intrudes to loosen the woman's hair and tug and tear at her dress (36). She ends in the story under “heavy and stifling” bed covers that “seemed bunched up around her, as if bunched up about a human body” (38). Joanne V. Creighton's analysis of “Loss” misses the violence; she sees the voice as belonging to one who “responds sensitively to” V (137), “creating graceful prose translations of her appearance and movement …” (137). Indeed, the words are translations of V's person but with none of the grace we expect from translators. Rather, translation becomes a violent act of power. Creighton goes on to argue that the on-looker's “disappearance shatters” the woman's “self-esteem” (138). It is not the disappearance of the voice or of the on-looker we must regret; rather, the voice becomes clearly that of the husband and even of the wife who internalizes his values. The on-looker does not disappear; V, as self and perhaps as body, disappears. Contrary to Creighton's notion that the loss of self occurs because of the disappearance of “this flattering reflection and imaginative re-creation” (138), V loses because the woman's identity is threatened with annihilation in marriage. The building from which the shadowy man speaks and observes “architecturalizes” the threat V feels and he so anonymously figures: the building has walls of a “green, muddy color” (31) and balconies phallically “decorated with dull spikes and spirals” (31) in a “masculine style” that “looked weary and heavy” (31). In this threat V's self becomes one with the stranger who looks upon her: he becomes her mirrored self as she assumes descriptions earlier given only to him, as a soul in “a glow of light” (35) and “a kind of shadow within intense light” (35). Is she experiencing herself and the man, as Toni Morrison's Sula experienced Nel (119), simultaneously as self and other? Or is it a more noxious loss of self within marriage that allows the look and voice of the other to colonize and transfigure the self (as in the mystical marriage merging the “amada” into the Amado”), leaving it indistinguishable after the intrusion? Near the end, V seeks in the avoiding darkness of a church “to illuminate the part of her mind in which she herself existed” (37). That search for the self lost to the other in marriage finds only a self with a fragment of a name, V, a blur of an age as “a young woman” (37), and the beginning of a status as “a bride” (37). “But for some reason she could not remember herself” (37), and she remains “absolutely anonymous” (37), translated out of essence into the transfixed soi pour autrui.

Similarly, other stories from the collection suggest the ways in which characters lose themselves in specular strategies. “Distance,” for example, is a story that, from a male side, mirrors “Loss.” It views the loss of self through the specular strategies of a displaced and nearly anonymous P on assignment from Lisbon to the embassy in London. He gazes out the window of his flat at the “inert bodies” (59) of vagrants in a park, only to lose the self in the mirrored image by the story's end. And in “The Secret Mirror,” a transvestite dresses himself and gazes upon his specular invention, “hypnotized” (91) and in despair at being “untouched, unpursued” (91). And “The Cruel Master” has Dr. Thomaz, another paralyzed figure, endlessly dreaming of a scene of a suffering peasant boy on whom he gazes through a window until the dreamer cannot be in any world other than that of the dream.

All of these stories that treat of specular strategies also treat of the kind of brutal violence Joyce Carol Oates incorporates in her fiction. The Madonna of Alferce is Our Lady of the Easy Death; V's body seems doomed to repetitive violations; P in “Distance” considers killing the vagrants and shudders “with disgust” (63) at the possibility of one of the vagrants being a woman; the transvestite before his mirror imagines the assault and shaming with which a derisive public would meet him and yearns for a female body able to be penetrated (91); and Dr. Thomaz's repeated dream with variations of a boy trampled by a horse evokes the kind of playing with the plot in which Robert Coover's sado-masochistic characters engage in Spanking the Maid. Oates does choose more authority over her narrative. Still, in considering all the violence in Oates's work, I do remember Mary Campbell's preface to Roy Campbell's translation of St. John of the Cross. Writing of Roy Campbell, she assures us that the “apparent violence in his life or work was not the most characteristic side of him” (13) and that “the violent side of his character was used as a cloak for a vulnerable contemplative soul” (13). Perhaps Oates seeks a public with a similar assessment of her and her work as author and “translator.”

James R. Giles does not see the “parables” of The Poisoned Kiss as “a thematic departure for Oates” (146), though he urged her to return to “a realistic prose foreground” (147). As I read the parables, though, they do represent a departure from Oates's work elsewhere in “sanctifying the real world by honoring its complexities” (188), a task she embraces for her work in the Afterword. Giles is correct and enlightening in seeing in these stories an elaborate satire by Oates of those “minimal” (141) artists who refuse the sanctifying role. Oates herself refuses that role in these stories “from the Portuguese.” Just as the stories force us to face the lure and the consequences of anonymity and the look of the other, so Oates's possessed authorship of a little bit of literature for Portugal forces us to face the danger of such work rendering Portugal's literature anonymous, of inscribing it only in and by the look of an American other.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Campbell, Mary. Preface. John of the Cross 9-15.

Coover, Robert. Spanking the Maid. New York: Grove, 1982.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

D'Arcy, M. D., SJ. Introduction. John of the Cross 17-24.

Giles, James R. “Oates' The Poisoned Kiss.Canadian Literature 80 (1979): 138-47.

John of the Cross, St. Poems. Trans. Roy Campbell. Baltimore: Penguin, 1960.

Malin, Irving. “Possessive Material.” Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: Hall, 1979. 39-41.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “‘May God Grant That I Become Nothing’: The Mysticism of Simone Weil.” The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews. New York: Dutton, 1983. 147-58.

———. The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese. New York: Vanguard, 1975.

———. “Pseudonymous Selves.” (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: Dutton, 1988. 383-97.

———. “(Woman) Writer: Theory and Practice.” (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York: Dutton, 1988. 22-32.

Probyn, Elspeth. “Travels in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local.” Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 176-89.

Waller, G. F. “Through Obsession to Transcendence: The Lawrentian Mode of Oates's Recent Fiction.” Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: Hall, 1979. 161-73.

Robert McPhillips (essay date 1994)

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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 in the Trailways Bus Terminal on Canal Street, New York City, New York, as good a place as any.”1 Such a mechanical “birth,” coupled with the chapter's title, “Nativity,” suggests that Oates is operating on an allegorical as well as a realistic level in the narrative. In twenty brief chapters whose rhythm is staccato, Oates has spliced together the monologue of Bobbie, addressed to a judge and jury (which, by extension, the reader becomes), on trial as a serial murderer; the monologue nonetheless shifts voice and perspective, reflecting Bobbie's schizophrenic personality. The novella illustrates the split between the inner, true Bobbie Gotteson, and the external, false Bobbie, this “child” born of the heartlessly rural United States of mid-century—“Time: 6:05 PM. Date: February 13, 1944” (Triumph [Triumph of the Spider Monkey], 11)—raised in foster homes and institutions in the bleak gray landscape of Newark and industrial northern New Jersey, and forced to become so false by his environment, the entire American continent from New Jersey to California.

This split is presented as one between soul and body, as dramatized in Gotteson's explanation of “Why I Hacked Nine Women to Death”: “The ‘hacking’ was only physical and incidental. Don't ask me about the ‘hacking’!—my body took over, and when bodies take over the spirit sails over the horizon. … The various messes of the human body, though natural enough, have always caused me to cringe and reach for my guitar, in order to transcend physical distress. Atop a rumpled stained bed I have been known to compose an original ballad, flicking my hair out of my eyes and strumming wildly in order to transcend the field of battle. Bobbie, you are so beautiful! some of them cried” (Triumph, 54-55).

Bobbie typifies, in many ways, the Oatesian character “locked in the flesh” (them, 34), who would transcend his or her physical self through art—the “spider monkey” body who would be pure spirit through his music and guitar and later become a successful musician with a desire “to be a face on a billboard!—was that too much to ask?” (Triumph, 75). This is a peculiarly American dream.

But, like so many characters in Oates, Bobbie never achieves either transcendence or a stable ego. Throughout the book, he is likened to various animals besides a spider monkey—a “little ape” (33), a “scavenger bird” (61), a “scorpion” (75), or simply a “beast” (49). Bobbie remains both childlike and, as the spelling of his name indicates, feminized throughout the narrative, in search of love from such inadequate maternal and paternal figures as Melva, an aging Hollywood actress; Vlad J., a Polanski-like director who promises him a screen test; and Melva's erstwhile husband, Mr. V., a Howard Hughes-like movie producer, a spectral figure who heads the mysterious Vanbrugh Corporation. And yet, despite his frequent role as a gigolo, Bobbie has a pathological hatred of women which he claims to have derived from his “Old Man,” a lover from prison, another inadequate father figure, “Danny Minx, also known as Danny Blecher.” Danny “warned ‘Bobbie,’ he whispered in my ear in his meaty hot breath—warning, just a little friendly warning, ‘If you even think about them, Baby Bobbie, I'll cut off your balls. How's that?’” (Triumph, 34).

Symbolically emasculated by his environment, denied transcendence through sex or music or film, all of which the Vanbrugh seemed to promise him, Bobbie lets his frustrations erupt into a series of violent murders of women—“hack[ing]” them “free of being Female” (Triumph, 76), as he chillingly puts it. That Oates is able to elicit a form of empathy for this murderer so pitifully “trapped in his body, sobbing long ugly Melva-hoarse sobs because he is Gotteson the Spider Monkey and nobody else is Gotteson and Gotteson cannot get born into being anyone else, Gotteson is Gotteson is Gotteson forever” (Triumph, 89)—this from the novel's ironically titled final chapter, “The Redemption of the Maniac Gotteson”—is a measure of her uncanny ability to fathom the depths of the most grotesque of characters. It is an accomplishment she will repeat with more subtlety in The Rise of Life on Earth (1991).

Oates's second novella, All the Good People I've Left Behind, is less successful than her first. Coming as it does at the end of a collection, bearing its title, of shorter stories, All the Good People I've Left Behind reads less like a work aesthetically conceived as a novella than it does a short story; it follows the lives of two couples who met as idealistic graduate students at Ann Arbor in 1960 through 1976 in five dated sections, no doubt roughly up to the point at which the story was written. Its subject matter is similar to that of many of Oates's stories of the period. The Enrights, Alex and Fern, and the Mandels, Ted and Maxine, are young couples. The graduate student husbands, both “brilliant young men”2—Alex working on his doctorate in biochemistry, Max in philosophy—enjoy discussing philosophy together at faculty parties like the one thrown by Jerry and Deanna Hecht in the novella's opening section. The wives, on the other hand—though Maxine is the more intellectual of the two—are more concerned with gossip and speculations about domestic life, whether or not to have children.

The couples keep in touch over the years. The Enrights have children—a source of friction between Fern and Maxine—while the Mandels do not. Alex leaves academia to work for a chemical company and achieve a steady middle-class existence, while the seemingly prudish Fern drifts, out of boredom, into an affair. Ted, who never completes his dissertation on Hume to his satisfaction, drifts from one low-paying visiting professorship to another before settling into a relatively secure position at a community college, until the school has financial difficulties. The Mandels have an open marriage, a situation that proves more pleasing to Ted, a charismatic professor who attracts many young female students, than to the increasingly distraught Maxine, who begins to psychically degenerate when her marriage finally does break up, Ted taking off with one of his students hoping to live an idyllic life in Vermont.

Page for page, this novella is as readable and insightful as any of Oates's shorter fiction of this period, and its conclusion, with the suicide of one character and the recognition of an unspoken, unacted upon erotic attraction between two others, is dramatically satisfying. Yet Oates's one stylistic innovation here, an extensive use of long, qualifying parenthetical statements, ultimately serves no overall aesthetic purpose; it merely extends a story that would probably have been more effective as a story a third as long.

Oates's next novella, A Sentimental Education: Stories (1980), is far more carefully structured than People [All the Good People I've Left Behind], and a more solid accomplishment. A tale of love and murder among a wealthy East Coast family spending the summer on Sky Harbor, an island off the coast of Maine, the novella is told from an ironic perspective that gives its “happy” ending a chilling turn of the screw. The protagonist is nineteen-year-old Duncan Sargent, the son of a Georgetown physician; suffering from a psychic disorder resembling anorexia, he was forced to withdraw from all of his courses during his freshman year at Johns Hopkins. Obsessed with order, with living up to his father's reputation and his mother's expectations, he is convinced that “if he was genius, why then he was nothing. Simple as that. Pudgy, unattractive, nearsighted, cowardly.”3 Determined to spend the summer meticulously studying his textbooks so that he might reenter Johns Hopkins in the fall as a sophomore, he is a loner who spends much of his time in his imagination—at night in bed, “his secret time” (Sentimental [A Sentimental Education: Stories], 148), and during the day in his “secret cove” (Sentimental, 126) on the island.

But Duncan's private psychic retreat is invaded that summer by a younger cousin, Antoinette, with whom he falls in love and begins a furtive, secret affair that leaves him plagued with guilt; for, not unlike Bobbie Gotteson, Duncan is revolted by the lack of control he associates with the body:

Part of his sickness earlier that year had been his fear that other people would discover the truth about him. His unclean habits, his soiled clothing, his dirty body, his secret thoughts. … There were times when he disliked his mother very much and he feared she would guess. There were times when it seemed to him incredible that she should not guess. And that she should not know (and tell his father) every humiliating secret about him: the near-invisible dirt that lodged stubbornly between his fingers and his toes, and his neck, and on his groin; the vicious thoughts that sometimes careened crazily through his head like maddened birds.

(Sentimental, 154)

The irony is that when Duncan's disgust with the flesh, and with the lack of control over his passion for Antoinette, causes him to murder her after making love to her in “his” cove, no one suspects him of the murder, assuming it to have been committed by some of the youths who had been vandalizing the Sargents' property all summer.

The novella, then, culminates in murder and in a mother's willful belief that “‘Once we get back home and things return to normal, you'll feel much better,’” an opinion contradicted by Duncan “in a soft, rather dignified voice: ‘I don't think so, Mother’” (Sentimental, 196). Here, one is reminded of the fiction of John Cheever, specifically of “Goodbye, My Brother,” about a problematic family reunion on an island off the Massachusetts coast. In that story, a man strikes his brother in the head with a tree root with the intention of killing him, though instead he merely drives him away from the island. Cheever's clearly Christian view of the possibility of grace and redemption contrasts with Oates's starker, secular, ironic perception of human nature.

In her most recent novellas, Oates has used the form more experimentally than in A Sentimental Education: Stories, each with a different focus and all with powerful results. The first of these, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990), is “based” on the Fernand Khnopff painting of that name from 1891, which features the Pre-Raphaelite face of a red-headed woman, her face on her crossed hands, her eyes staring madly, Ophelia-like, at the viewer. To her right, there is an orange calla lily, and above that the white winged bust of a mythical god. The novella, narrated by Calla Freilicht Honeystone's granddaughter, tells the eerie story, justly compared to Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, of Calla's unhappy marriage, her doomed affair with a black man early this century in Oates' Eden County, and her death-in-life survival through much of the ensuing century. Brief, fable-like, written in rhapsodic prose that flows with the violence of the Chautauqua River, the novella sweeps the reader along as it does the rowboat containing Calla and her lover, Tyrell Thompson (a water diviner) over Tintern Falls, Tyrell to his physical and Calla to her psychic death. The book is best read as a companion volume to Oates's Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, a much longer and powerfully naturalistic novel set in the 1950s and 1960s in a small upstate New York city on a river.

While Because has all the strengths of a novel like them, dramatizing the profound impact that racism has on its white heroine, Iris Courtney, and its black hero, Jinx Fairchild, who killed a white punk to save Iris's life, I Lock My Door Upon Myself is a lyric reprise of this theme, emphasizing the persistence of racism in American society. But Oates's strongest achievement in this novella is the subtlety of its language, which sings like poetry from its very first lines, which begin with an ellipsis:

… there on the river, the Chautauqua, in a sepia sun, the rowboat bucking the choppy waves with a look almost of gaiety, defiance. And in the boat the couple: a man, rowing, a black man, the woman a white woman whose face is too distant to be seen. The man is rowing the boat downstream in a slightly jagged course yet with energy, purpose, the oars like blades rising and dropping and rising and again dropping, sinking into the water only to emerge again dripping and impatient; the woman is facing him, close, their knees touching, or so it appears from the shore.4

Oates's ear, her use of consonance and assonance is as deft as her eye—corresponding to the temporally complex narrative eye observing the scene from the shore as if in 1912, past and present conflating. The w's and v's and sibilant s's combined with the long a's and long and short o sounds to simulate the boat's choppy but steady movement in the river, while the juxtaposition of the soft w's with the hard b's—contrasting white and black—and d's attest to the extreme emotion contained in the scene, the white woman and black man locked in a defiant tableau for anyone on shore to observe.

From Eden County at the beginning of the century, Oates shifts to them's Detroit of the 1960s and early 1970s in The Rise of Life on Earth (1991), once again examining the inner thoughts of a serial murderer, though this one far less obvious, more subtly rendered than Bobbie Gotteson. Early in the novella there is a trial scene reminiscent of Triumph. On a hot summer day in Detroit in 1961, Joseph Hennessy, “forty-two years old, unemployed, formerly a metal worker, no prior police record though well known to the county welfare agency as a ‘difficult client,’”5 is charged with, among other things, beating his six-year-old daughter Nola to death in the motel room where he lived with his frequently absent wife and two daughters. Though he denies the charges, the eerie tape-recorded voice of his other daughter, eleven-year-old Kathleen, who was also badly beaten, is so effective when played back in the courtroom—“that bodiless child's voice profound because bodiless, that slow flat dull dazed hypnotized voice beyond any apparent capacity for subterfuge as it was beyond any apparent human volition” (Rise [The Rise of Life on Earth], 17-18)—that her father changes his plea to guilty; he will subsequently die in jail. But this narrative belongs to Kathleen, quiet, innocent-seeming Kathleen so reminiscent of them's Maureen Wendall, and Rise reads like a hypnotic case study focused on one character rather than on many, another path the abused Maureen's life could have taken; it is them in miniature.

It is Kathleen, we discover to our horror early on, who has killed her sister as brutally as Duncan Sargent killed his cousin, in a rage at realizing that her mother has abandoned her, disgusted with Nola's crying, “banging [her head] methodically against the floor to quiet her … [until] with astonishing abruptness, Nola stopped screaming, went limp, her little body limp” (Rise, 24). Moved from foster home to foster home—one of which she sets on fire—Kathleen, less intelligent than Maureen, keeps her rage hidden and, with the help of some motivational teachers and sheer willpower, eventually becomes a nurse's aide. She gains some emotional solace by joining a Christian group, and will always keep the set of rosary beads given her by a nurse when she was hospitalized at eleven. Kathleen also pursues a number of sexual affairs—none bringing her much pleasure—most notably an affair with a young intern, Orson Abbott, whose life she will destroy more deviously than Maureen Wendall did that of her hapless composition instructor, Jim Randolph. Oates evokes at once a kind of pity and macabre comic horror in her unflinching portrayal of Kathleen Hennessy's life.

Though it bears some resemblance to her fictions of upper middle-class life, Oates's most recent novella, Black Water (1992), is among the most audacious, original, and successful of her recent books. The novella is based on the tragic accident in 1969 when Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned in a car driven off a bridge in Chappaquiddick on Martha's Vineyard by Senator Edward Kennedy, who managed to save his own life even as he effectively ended his presidential hopes along with Kopechne's life. Oates's focus is not on The Senator (as he is called) but on the last hours of the life of the endlessly optimistic victim of the accident, Kelly Kelleher. The novella is not sensationalistic, but rather a model of ingenious narrating and nearly seamless poetic prose even more resonant than that in I Lock My Door Upon Myself. Chappaquiddick is a national nightmare that has arguably altered the course of American history, and Oates clearly has brooded upon the event for two decades. By setting the novella in the late 1980s, Oates is able to dramatize how the liberal promise represented by the Kennedy White House had by and large collapsed when George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, extending the Republican control of the White House begun by Ronald Reagan to twelve years. Kelly Kelleher is presented as a decent, educated, representative young woman, an idealist who wrote her senior thesis at Brown on “The Senator,” who worked for the Dukakis campaign and was genuinely shocked by his defeat, and who, at the time of her death, was employed by a liberal political journal in Boston and taught remedial courses, albeit with a sense of frustration, in Roxbury. Living in the age of AIDS, Kelly meticulously carries a condom in her purse, though she has not found an occasion to use it since the painful breakup of a serious relationship sometime before the events of the fateful Fourth of July, on Grayling Island off the coast of Maine, that form the novella's narrative backbone.

The novella opens with a brief chapter describing the accident, a scene Oates circles back to throughout the narrative, juxtaposing it with scenes chronicling Kelly and The Senator's mutual attraction; The Senator's good-natured but excessive drinking; The Senator's escape from the car, using Kelly's body for leverage and leaving one of his shoes behind in her hands; and Kelly's reflections on her life and her family as she struggles to stay alive in the shrinking air pocket in the Toyota sunken “in black rushing water,”6 confident that The Senator will return to save her life.

Of course, as readers we know the novella's outcome, but its final lines are unusually haunting, with Kelly finally “raising her arms to be lifted high kicking in the air as the black water filled her lungs, and she died” (Water [Black Water], 154). In Black Water we experience both the tragic death of a young woman, whom we have come to know well in this compact but wide-ranging work, and, more broadly, the tragic limitations of our politicians, however noble their political ideals may be. The novella is heartbreaking.

If Joyce Carol Oates's novellas began as experiments in form, freeing her from the conventions of the traditional novel and short story at which she excelled so early in her prodigious career, they have become, in near-perfect work like Black Water, a form she has made uniquely her own.


  1. The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1976), 11; hereafter cited in text as Triumph.

  2. “All the Good People I've Left Behind,” in All the Good People I've Left Behind (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1979), 145-227, 152; hereafter cited in text as People.

  3. “A Sentimental Education,” in A Sentimental Education : Stories (New York: Dutton, 1980), 113-96, 147; hereafter cited in text as Sentimental.

  4. I Lock My Door upon Myself (New York: Ecco Press, 1990), 3.

  5. The Rise of Life on Earth (New York: New Directions, 1991), 11; hereafter cited in text as Rise.

  6. Black Water (New York: Dutton, 1992), 6; hereafter cited in text as Water.

Brenda Daly (essay date winter 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4969

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 explored. Furthermore, critical attention to a few frequently anthologized stories tends to obscure the fact that Oates carefully arranges almost all of her short stories in collections. As she explains in “Stories That Define Me,” at the age of 14 she discovered the technique of arranging stories into books when she read Hemingway's In Our Time “and saw how chapters in an ongoing narrative might be self-contained units, both in the service of the larger structure and detachable, in a manner of speaking, from it” (15). Between 1963 and 1993 she has published nineteen short story collections, each of which explores a single theme in a variety of short story forms. She says, “My story collections are not at all mere collections; they are meant to be books, consciously organized” (Schumacher 145). Perhaps one reason Oates is such an effective writer of shorts stories is that she sees them, like individuals, as self-contained but also part of larger socio-political structures. She told Walter Clemons in 1972, “We are interconnected—it seems we are individual and separate, whereas in fact we're not” (73-74).

Consequently, these stories are better understood not only in relationship to each other but also to the social context in which they were published. That social context includes the feminist movement, which has exerted a powerful influence on Oates's fiction. Yet as Jane Gallop notes in Around 1981, Oates occupies a controversial position in the history of feminist criticism. For example, Elaine Showalter views Oates as a feminist who “has never had the acknowledgment from feminist readers and critics that she deserves” (“My Friend” 44), but Gayle Greene declares bluntly that Oates, who is “not feminist,” did not participate in the revolution that took place both in women's lives and women's writing between the years 1963 and 1977. Of those writers she considers feminist, Greene says, “So close was this fiction to the pulse of the times that it is possible to use it as documentary of and commentary on the social and political scene” (33). Yet few writers have taken the pulse of the past three decades better than Oates. As Henry Louis Gates says, “A future archeologist equipped only with her oeuvre could easily piece together the whole of postwar America” (27); nevertheless, he adds, Oates has had a “troubled relationship” with what he calls “normative feminism” because she “insists on exploring the nature of female masochism” and because she refuses “to add to our supply of positive role models” (28).

However, not all feminists refuse to analyze female masochism—Jessica Benjamin's The Bonds of Love confronts the problem directly—and not all feminists require positive role models in fiction. Showalter says, for example, “No one can argue with the writer's need to grow, to experiment, to take all of human experience for her province” (“Women Who Write” 31). Ironically, since Greene's definition of feminist fiction does not necessarily require positive role models, I am using it to argue that, despite Greene's objections, Oates is a feminist writer. Greene requires that a novel or, one assumes, a short story, may be defined as “feminist” if it analyzes “gender as socially constructed,” has a “sense that what has been constructed may be reconstructed,” and an “understanding that change is possible and that narrative can play a part in it” (2). Even Oates's first collection of short fiction portrays women “in ways that anticipate the feminist concerns of her later work” (10), as Johnson has noted, but he adds, “for all the book's compassion for its women, By the North Gate is hardly a doctrinaire feminist work. One of its most remarkable features is its ambitious inclusiveness toward experience as suffered by both women and men, the poor and the affluent” (Understanding 13). Greene's definition of a feminist novel is certainly not “doctrinaire” in this sense, for it does not require exclusive compassion for women.

Furthermore, Greene would probably agree that far from being hostile to men, feminist attention to gender generally requires both sexes to change destructive behaviors. In short, Greene's definition of feminist fiction requires only that the writer recognize that gender roles can be transformed by narrative. In this sense, Oates has been writing feminist fiction since the women's movement began. For example, during the sixties, as Greene says, the sense of social change “was sufficient to disturb categories that are fixed in more stable times (including gender definitions), but not so cataclysmic as to render the aesthetic response irrelevant, so that art can be envisioned as the means of ‘making it new’” (35). Such disturbances of fixed categories has been and remains a frequent theme in Oates's fiction, often influencing the experimental shape of individual stories and also providing organizational frameworks for entire collections. Categories or divisions, walls or borders—all are fluid in Oates's fiction, whether they divide individuals, short stories, or countries. Gender is often such a wall, but it intersects with hierarchies of race, class, and ethnicity, as illustrated in The Wheel of Love [The Wheel of Love and Other Stories] (1970) and in the more recent collection, Last Days (1984). A comparison of these two collections should establish the fact that throughout her career, though with increasing effectiveness in the eighties, Oates has been a feminist writer whose fiction has been attentive to the potential of narrative to transform gender roles.

The title of the final story in The Wheel of Love, “What Is the Connection Between Men and Women?” poses a question that opens itself to readers, just as the woman in this story opens her door to a man. The last sentence reads: “She reaches up to slide the little bolt back and everything comes open, comes apart” (389). Opening one's self is always a risk, the story implies, but such risks are necessary. Certainly the question, “What is the connection between men and women?” was in the air; in 1970 Kate Millett published Sexual Politics, and the women's movement had already created a market for fiction that claimed such new subjects as “female sexuality and physiology, female socialization and objectification, women's relations with mothers, daughters, and other women” (Greene 54). Female sexuality and physiology, as well as female socialization and objectification are portrayed in a number of stories, but nowhere more powerfully than in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” both of which depict teenage girls who, having been conditioned to behave submissively, are vulnerable to male attack when they try to leave home. Neither of these young women has the capacity to define herself, and while waiting to be defined, each encounters violence. The collection also explores mother and daughter relationships in “Matter and Energy” and “You,” both interior monologues. The daughter/narrator of “Matter and Energy” thinks, “I don't want love from this man! I want love from her” (307). She realizes that her lover “does not love me, but he loves his reflection in me, as if I were a screen in which he can view himself endlessly, admire himself, his words, his language, the magic of his manliness, his immortality” (312). Similarly obsessed with her mother, the daughter in “You” understands that beauty has been a burden to her mother: “Years ago, when you were hardly a woman, you were driven crazy by the activity that centered around your body” (320), but “Really,” observes the daughter, “you despise men” (316).

Sexual politics, the pervasive theme of The Wheel of Love, is also the theme of “Lovers Relentlessly,” the Stanley Kunitz poem that prefaces the title story: “Some must break / Upon the wheel of love, but not the strange, / The secret lords, whom only death can change.” Nadia in “The Wheel of Love” is not a secret lord, but a secret lady who has committed suicide, leaving her husband, David, feeling “eclipsed” and “obliterated.” He thinks of himself as a minor character in his wife's story, someone who “would always be pointed out as the man whose wife killed herself” (174). Nadia had cried out: “Everyone is like me! They want to have other lives, be other people. Don't tell me. If I have to be just another person I'll kill myself—” (176). Lacking any creative outlet—with no opportunity to “have other lives, be other people”—Nadia had left home more than once, but her husband had always taken her back. Yet he is part of the problem, part of what she wants to escape. When her imagination had moved away from him, “he was bitter with jealousy” (176), for he thought of her as “a kind of possession” (177). In her role as this man's “wife,” Nadia's imagination is an obvious liability. David's jealousy condemns Nadia to act out the frustration she feels at the confinement of her marriage; her imagination, hobbled by her husband's jealousy, does not become an alternative avenue of escape, a way of leaving home. David is nevertheless bitter at the loss of his prized possession.

A wife in “Accomplished Desires” also commits suicide, this time motivated by her husband's infidelities. Probably because it has been eclipsed by more famous stories from The Wheel of Love, this story has received almost no critical attention even though it is an important precursor to Oates's feminist fiction of the seventies. “Accomplished Desires” transforms into fiction certain details of the marriage of Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman, which ended in Jackson's suicide in 1965. Jackson's biographer, Judy Oppenheimer, does not hold Stanley Hyman fully responsible for his wife's death, but “Accomplished Desires” establishes a direct causal relationship between the husband's infidelities and his wife's suicide. It is the husband's jealousy of his wife's accomplishments—both are writers but only she has won the Pulitzer—that motivates him to replace her with a younger woman who is less threatening to his male ego. If the transformation of such a marriage plot is a necessary feature of feminist fiction, this story falls somewhat short; however, since it comments ironically on the younger woman's “accomplishment” in marrying an older man, at least the tone of “Accomplished Desires” makes it a precursor to the feminist fiction of the next decade.

The wife in “Accomplished Desires” is a writer, but she seems not to understand that her own narrative skill might save her life. When her husband moves his young mistress into their home, introducing her as the new “housekeeper,” his writer-wife accepts the situation, finally killing herself rather than supervising the younger woman's abortion. The story begins with the point of view of a student named Dorie who is having an affair with her English professor (a fictionalized Stanley Hyman, who taught at Bennington) at a small New England women's college. Although the story ends with Dorie's “accomplished desires”—her marriage to her professor—she is undone by her achievement. In order to become as accomplished as the “formidable” wife, Dorie literally replaces her even though she knows that her desire “was not just for the man but somehow for the woman as well, a desire for her accomplishments, her fame, her children, her ugly house, her ugly body, her very life” (113). Not until she is herself a wife does Dorie finally understand, while seated at the attic desk of her now dead predecessor, that marriage has actually deprived her of what her husband's former wife possessed: the accomplishment of writing. Looking out of the same window from which Barbara Scott (a fictionalized Shirley Jackson) once observed the town and wrote poetry, Dorie “felt strangely cheated, a part of her murdered, as if the abortion had taken place that day after all and something had been cut permanently out of her” (129). In fact, it is only the man who has accomplished his desires: he has replaced his “formidable” wife, winner of a Pulitzer he desires for himself, with a younger woman whose only accomplishment will be to care for his house and his children.

In the fiction of the eighties, Oates continues to bear witness—on a global scale—to social injustice that often leads to violence. “I'm more or less of the school of the writer as witness. Witness to history and society” (177), she told David Germain in 1988. An example of such witnessing occurs in the story, “Our Wall,” which was published in 1982 in German as “Unsere Mauer” in Die Zeit. Just two years earlier, Oates had traveled to Europe, an experience transformed into the stories in Last Days (1984). The stories in the collection, which is divided into two parts, “Last Days” and “Our Wall,” are arranged to mirror each other in a variety of ways. They also move us, literally and figuratively, from the United States to Europe. This motion is not linear, but spiraling so that the final story, at once “real” and metaphorical, expands the definition of communal consciousness. Erica Jong says of “Our Wall” that “Oates reaches beyond realism to create, in metaphorical terms, the philosophical underpinnings of all walls” (7). Like the image of the north gate in her first collection, the image of the wall undergoes a transformation in Last Days so that readers see, not either reality or metaphor, but both at once. Moreover, though the literal wall is located in Berlin, the figurative wall is within the psyche, a point made in “Last Days,” “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” and “Our Wall.” These stories, depicting the “last days” of doomed romantics, explore the geography of consciousness, as well as nations, at the end of the twentieth century.

Since the Berlin wall finally came down in 1989, Last Days might be described as predicting the “last days” of the wall itself. As Johnson points out, the title of this collection sounds apocalyptic, but Oates's vision remains optimistic. “Last Days should be read,” Johnson argues, “not as fatalistic but as hopeful, in the sense that a breaking down, even though involving the emotional violence and terror endured by so many of these characters, is the necessary prelude to the ‘communal consciousness’ Oates has envisioned as replacing the divisive, ego-centered philosophies of the past” (Understanding 199). As in all of Oates's collections, the arrangement of individual stories in Last Days establishes connections, often feminist connections, between the personal and the political. In “Détente” the relationship between art and politics is the focus of a conversation between an American woman writer and a Russian male writer Vassily. When Vassily says, “My books are political … as all art,” Antonia responds that “in essence art isn't political, it's above politics, it refers only to itself” (Last Days 123). However, Vassily argues through a translator that “art seeks to alter consciousness, hence it is a political act. A mere glass of water is an occasion for politics,” he asserts, explaining that “he is referring to an article about the poisons that have drained into the mountain lakes in this area” (124-25).

As Johnson points out, Last Days has the “dual focus” of all of Oates's fiction: “the detailed, compelling presentation of individuals plunged into various kinds of emotional and psychological upheaval, combined with the larger social, political, and philosophical crises for which these individual narratives serve as nightmarish emblems” (Understanding 180). The collection itself may narrate the “last days,” as Johnson says, “of a few doomed individuals” (181), but these individuals share a romantic conception of the self which Oates sees as in its “death throes.” Of one of these doomed romantics, the suicidal young man in “Last Days,” Johnson rightly says, “The Berlin Wall becomes the objective symbol of the tragically divided psyche suffered by someone like Saul Morgenstern, impelling him toward self-destruction” (Understanding 191). A knowledge of the historical context of such stories as “Last Days” is critical to a full appreciation of this collection. Not only did the Berlin Wall come down during the “last days” of the eighties, but the feminist movement, which had made considerable progress in the seventies, suffered a “backlash” that Greene sees reflected in women's fiction of the decade. The “backlash,” Greene argues, came not only from outside the feminist movement—in the shift to reactionary politics and negative media coverage—but also from within the movement itself.

Both in feminist fiction and academic criticism, Greene sees a return to the separation of the personal and the political. She says that works such as Jean Bethke Elshtain's Public Man, Private Woman (1981) “valorize the family and urge a separation of private from public life” (195), while fiction by writers from Anne Tyler to Marianne Wiggins is engaged in “the privatization and depoliticization of their concerns, the sentimentalization of the family, the resignation to things as they are” (201). Greene argues forcefully that “women's fiction in the eighties denies or forgets the syntheses of the seventies and, losing sight of the connections between individual and collective, participates in the dismembering and disremembering of the decade” (201). If Greene's generalization is accurate, then we have even more cause to appreciate the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, for during this period she is definitely not retreating from the world, but rather expanding her depiction of it; moreover, she is not engaged in privatizing the suffering of individuals, but rather, has become even more effective in establishing the symbiotic relationship between psyche and culture.

Many of the stories in Last Days emphasize how unjust hierarchies of class, gender, and ethnicity shape the most personal relationships. For example, in “My Warszawa: 1980,” after a few days in Eastern Europe a writer named Judith Horne experiences herself as “Jewish at last. And womanly—in the very worst sense of the word. A Jew, a woman, a victim—can it be?” (148). Erica Jong says of “My Warszawa” that “Oates is beginning to chronicle experiences only a mature writer can have” (7). At the same time, the mature (woman) writer's vision often includes memories like those depicted in the collection's opening story, “The Witness.” In “The Witness” a young girl, age 11, escapes from her oppressive home by daringly stealing $3.87 from her mother's purse and taking a bus to Waterman Park, a place she associates with pleasure and freedom. There she learns what Judith Horne learns—or learns again—in Warsaw: the limits of a woman's freedom. When she tries to tell about witnessing a murder, she also learns that a child's testimony is not necessarily credible to others. Her sister says, “You tell such lies” (4), and her mother is ambivalent about whether her daughter is telling the truth. “You never saw anybody” (18), she says; “‘You just tell them you don't remember,’ my mother says. ‘Tell them you don't know. Anyway you made it up—didn't you?’”

However, the story itself supports the child's point of view. The narrator, now an adult woman, resists denial—her mother's, her own, and society's—in order to bear witness against male violence. Told in fragments, as a gradual revelation of repressed memories, the child recalls not only what she witnessed in the park, but also the sense of danger she felt within her family. The child remembers that her father, injured in a foundry accident for which he receives no financial compensation, lay in bed, smoking heavily until, finally, he had burned their apartment down. The narrator's mother, when asked, “Isn't he dangerous? If he was arrested for trying to kill that guy,” had said, “That won't happen again” (11). Yet her denial is set against the already established fact that the home did burn down, information imparted with dramatic brevity in an opening line: “It is the last summer we will be living above Harders Shoes on Main Street, Main Street at the corner of Mohigan, a few weeks before the fire, before everything is changed” (4). Although the father's voice betrays no anger, the child, feeling the weight of his suppressed rage, responds by imagining herself an invisible winged horse: “I am running across the roof of our building. Running, flying, my arms outstretched. No one can catch me. No one can see me” (5). Because no one knows her at the park, the child imagines herself free there, but what she sees one day—as she witnesses a man murder a woman—takes away her freedom. However, by finally bearing witness against violence, the narrator achieves another kind of freedom—the freedom and power of telling her story.

The notion that walls are illusory, whether between inside and outside the family, between violence and security, is also a point made in the last story in the collection, “Our Wall.” Written in a surrealistic mode, the story depicts the wall as a state of consciousness no less “real” than an actual, material wall. It begins, “long before many of us were born, The Wall was” (233). The “once upon a time” voice of the story immediately recalls the story-within-a-story at the close of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” The story begins,

Once upon a time, in the remote days of the Holy Roman Empire, there was a cruel landowner, a nobleman of immense wealth, who built a great castle in the Bavarian Alps, and instituted so terrifying a means of punishing wrong doers amongst his peasants that, for many centuries, his name was associated with a certain species of tyranny: dreaded, and yet respected. And known throughout the land.

(“Ich Bin Ein Berliner” 111)

This story-within-a-story is a highly economical way of explaining why, when surrounded by the walls of a prison, even a comfortable and well-fed prisoner desires to escape. This desire often becomes overwhelming, despite the fact that escape may mean death. The story intimates that any empire that erects walls must, eventually, come to an end, as did the Holy Roman Empire. In the meantime, of course, many will die in their attempts at escape. Both “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and “Our Wall” are narrated by brothers who, having lost brothers at the wall, are seeking to understand why. In the process, they too become obsessed with the riddle of the wall. As in the story-within-a-story, “Without exception, prisoners became obsessed with the aperture in the wall, and spent all their waking hours (and, doubtless, their sleeping hours as well) in contemplation of it” (“Ich Bin Ein Berliner” 111-12). One of the mysteries, as stated in “Our Wall,” is, “If there was no Forbidden Zone then, why was The Wall constructed?” (233).

The collection as a whole, like earlier collections, attempts to transform readers, moving them beyond the social and literary conventions that establish walls between races, genders, or generations. “Literatur is eine Form der Sympathie,” reads the headline in Die Zeit (1980), quoting from Oates's public address in Hamburg, Germany. Her stories, individual or in collections, are designed for just this purpose: to stimulate our sympathy for others. It is a quality usually absent in the world of diplomacy. Stories of international diplomacy in part two of the collection, such as “Détente,” “My Warszawa: 1980,” and “Old Budapest” mirror domestic stories in part one, such as “Funland,” “The Man Who Adored Women,” and “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.,” all of which depict the lack of imagination that makes it possible for one human being to victimize another. In domestic stories—“domestic” in both senses: set in the US and in the home—it is most often men who are the egoists and victimizers, driving their wives, their children and lovers to madness and death.

The misogyny in these stories is as appalling as it is commonplace. For example, “The Man Who Adored Women” portrays a man who uses and abuses women until finally he becomes the victim of his own ego: imagining himself desired by a woman young enough to be his daughter, he finds himself the butt of a cruel joke. He also finds that he has lost yet another wife, along with his youth and his privilege. The story itself shows the power of narration, for the narrator, a writer who was one of William's victims, does tell his story, but not with the adoration he anticipated. The story opens when the woman writer spots her former lover on the street: “Was this derelict William?” (54), she wonders, recalling that he had once said, “Suppose you were to write about me someday” (59). The story ends as the derelict asks again, “Will you write about me, do you think?—someday—?” (76). The mirror image of this story, “Old Budapest,” is also a tale of betrayal, this time by a woman accustomed to adoration. Marianne Beecher, a beautiful, blonde American travels in diplomatic circles, enjoying her power to attract men. When Marianne meets with a Hungarian man named Otto, who is part Jewish, he disappoints her with his lack of sexual interest; instead, on the assumption that she is a “good” person, he asks her to smuggle a manuscript out of Hungary. Unfortunately, Marianne carelessly betrays the Hungarian's trust in her; she sleeps with a series of men from different countries—the US, Britain (or is it Russia?), Japan, and possibly Germany—one of whom steals the document. Although Otto entitled his manuscript, “The Bringer of the End,” hoping to bring an end to the corruption in his country, the title is diminished by Marianne's betrayal of him and, in the final analysis, alludes only to Otto's own certain death. For after Marianne sleeps with a man whose “rather mechanical English,” suggests that he might be “K. G. B.” (215), the manuscript disappears.

Despite Michael Holland's British passport and his protest that he knows little of the Hungarian language, he translates the manuscript's title and, when Marianne asks the meaning of “The Bringer of the End,” takes her to a museum “to show her a crude statue of the hooded dwarf Telesphorus. He was a mythological creature of Roman origin whose mission it was to escort the dead to the underworld” (219). Marianne does not, of course, see herself in this ugly creature, but she is certainly the “bringer of the end” for Otto. Were Otto a “real” rather than a fictional character, he is one of those who probably would not have lived to see the Berlin Wall, “our wall,” come down. Read superficially, this story might be construed as anti-feminist because of its negative depiction of a woman; however, the story actually criticizes Marianne's failure to recognize the relationship between the personal and the political. Though Marianne might have chosen to join the collective feminist effort to fight abusive men, she has chosen an individualistic, and ultimately destructive, strategy of revenge. Tragically, since her anger is repressed, it ends up harming the very man who, despite great risk to himself, treats her with respect. As this story illustrates, psychic walls between those of different genders remain firmly in place, but Oates continues to bear witness against them.

Although Oates does not always write stories that end happily or that feature women as good role models—such a feminist strategy would make good propaganda but poor art—these stories illustrate that the power of narration is, itself, a method for liberating women (and men) from destructive gender roles and plots. In short, as Greene requires, Oates clearly views “gender as socially constructed,” and these stories illustrate her belief “that change is possible and that narrative can play a part in it” (2). Oates depicts women who bear witness against violence and, in the act of narration, acquire power as agents of change. She herself is a powerful example of a woman who, despite many attacks on the violence in her fiction, has consistently refused to write as a “lady.” As a result, she is frequently asked, “Why is your writing so violent?” as if, simply by depicting violence, she were transgressing an invisible boundary, claiming territory that rightfully belongs to men. Weary of this question, Oates finally answered it in “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” The question, she says, is always “insulting,” always “ignorant,” always “sexist” (35).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Clemons, Walter. “Joyce Carol Oates: Love and Violence.” Newsweek 11 Dec. 1972: 72-74, 77.

Gallop, Jane. Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Murder She Wrote.” Rev. of Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.The Nation 2 Jul. 1990: 27-29.

Germain, David. “Author Oates Tells Where She's Been, Where She's Going.” Milazzo 173-80.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1987.

———. “A Barbarous Eden: Joyce Carol Oates's First Collection.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (1991): 1-14.

Jong, Erica. “Uncanny States of East and West.” Rev. of Last Days. The New York Times Book Review 5 Aug. 1984: 7.

“Literatur ist eine Form der Sympathie.” Die Zeit 27, 4 Jul. 1980: 15.

Michaelis, Rolf. “Lautlose Schreie.” Die Zeit Nr. 10, 9 Mar. 1979: 19.

Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

Oates, Joyce Carol. By the North Gate. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1963.

———. Last Days: Stories. New York: Dutton, 1984.

———. “Stories That Define Me: The Making of a Writer.” The New York Times Book Review 11 July 1982: 3, 15-16.

———. The Wheel of Love. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1970.

———. “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” New York Times Book Review 29 March 1981: 15, 35.

Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Lives: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

Showalter, Elaine. “My Friend, Joyce Carol Oates: An Intimate Portrait.” Ms. Mar. 1986: 44-50.

———. “Women Who Write Are Women.” The New York Times Book Review 16 December 1984: 1, 31, 33.

Schumacher, Michael. “Joyce Carol Oates and the Hardest Part of Writing.” Milazzo 135-46.

Margaret Rozga (essay date 1995)

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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 University of Wisconsin (M.A., 1961), Oates published her first two volumes of short stories, By the North Gate (1963) and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966), before she was age 30. Shortly thereafter, she received a special award from the O. Henry Short Stories Award Committee for continuing achievement (1970). Since then, Oates has more than justified the judgment of the committee, publishing “literally hundreds of short stories of considerable formal and thematic range” (Bender vii).

Critic Greg Johnson singles out the stories in two collections, The Wheel of Love (1970) and Marriages and Infidelities (1972), as being those that “established her as one of America's preeminent masters of the short story” (5). Two of these stories, “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and “The Dead,” are particularly important in demonstrating what Eileen Teper Bender calls the central concern of the whole body of Oates's work; it is “essentially revisionary” (viii). Bender reviews the often contradictory assessments of Oates to conclude that her “criticism and her imaginative literary expression reflect a curious sense of transition and expansion, the ‘blur’ of genres caused by the interpenetration of old pieties and new visions” (9). Concentrating on Oates's novels, Bender sees that they “test and rediscover values of the literary and cultural past” and, at the same time, yield “statements peculiarly her own” (9).

In her revisions of well-known stories by Anton Chekhov and James Joyce, “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and “The Dead,” Oates has the same kind of twofold purpose Bender finds in the “revisionary” novels. She expresses admiration for the earlier writers as she expands the range of their concerns to embrace new visions, especially a new vision of women characters, whom she sees not as passive beings to be provided for, but as more active shapers of their own plots.

Oates's admiration for Chekhov and Joyce is well documented. In an interview with Joe David Bellamy, for example, just after she had written “The Dead” and “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” Oates said, “These stories are meant to be autonomous stories, yet they are also testaments of my love and extreme devotion to these other writers” (Milazzo 19). Oates's devotion, however, is not merely of the cheerleading variety. If she imagines, as she told Bellamy, “a kind of spiritual ‘marriage’” between herself and these other writers, it is a marriage in which two voices are heard. There is the echo of Chekhov or James, but there also resonates a voice concerned with how the visions of these earlier writers apply to the lives of late twentieth-century women.

As Joyce Carol Oates reimagines “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and “The Dead,” then, she accomplishes at least two goals. First, she pays homage to these earlier writers whom she admires for their sensitivity to women's issues and for their vivid dramatic scenes. Secondly, she brings the woman's point of view to the foreground and thereby offers a critique not only of the social world of the earlier stories but also of the contemporary social world. She would not have the male character always the focus, always the guide to what we see and how we see it. The change in point of view results in an important reversal of focus; instead of stories of pompous, self-important male characters who are brought to a more humble sense of self, we have stories of uncertain and undervalued women characters who nonetheless find the strength to influence the shape of their destiny.

All of the central female characters in these four stories are at odds with the roles assigned them, but Oates's characters seem more so than Chekhov's or Joyce's. Chekhov's Anna is bored in her marriage to a “flunky”; Oates's Anna, unable to find a sense of herself in her marriage, is suicidal. Joyce's Gretta still longs, we find out at the story's denouement, for her youthful lover; Oates's Ilena is disillusioned with both husband and lovers much earlier in the story than Joyce's Gretta.

In the resolutions of the stories as well, Oates's characters find themselves further from traditional choices. Chekhov's Anna trusts that Gurov will find a way to create a place for them, and Joyce's Gretta sleeps. In contrast, Oates's Anna balks at the idea that love is the answer, and her Ilena sleeps only with the aid of drugs. But Oates's Anna is also able to resist suicide, and Ilena thinks her way through the drugged consciousness. Their early disenchantment with traditional social roles allows the major concern of their stories to be not the process of their disillusionment but the process by which new insights propel the characters to new conclusions.

In the stories by Chekhov and Joyce, contact with the natural environment offers a new perspective on life. In Oates, the perspective offered by the natural world is more ambiguous. Oates's characters retreat from large open spaces to smaller spaces, bathrooms or cars, as if the confinement and/or reduction of space would simplify the world, make it proportionately more manageable, or lock out the troubling elements. But that reduction is also dysfunctional and, in fact, deadly; a new sense of space is needed, and it is toward this we see the characters struggle.

In her story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” Oates stays closer to the Chekhov counterpart in character and plot so that the points of contrast more clearly stand out. Points of contrast in presentation of place especially stand out. In the original Chekhov story, the action takes place in three different settings: Yalta, Moscow, and the provincial city of S_____, each place clearly distinguished by some feature of its physical geography and social climate.

Despite the differences in the settings, Anna never takes possession of more than the limited space of a hotel room. Gurov, on the other hand, is seen outdoors in all three places, in contact with nature and in control of himself. The denouement occurs when the self-concept he has outdoors is challenged by a vision he has when he is indoors, within the hotel room with Anna. In the most famous scene in Chekhov's story, Gurov sees himself in the mirror as a man who is aging and losing his attractiveness. “Now at last, when his hair was turning gray, he had fallen in love—real love—for the first time in his life” (302). With this vision he is more kindly to Anna, attempting now to comfort her as she cries, whereas in a similar scene earlier, he simply ate watermelon. He tells Anna that they will talk and think of some answer to their predicament, but he cannot answer his own question, “How?”

The story, then, ends with their perception that “the hardest and most difficult part was only beginning” (303). Gurov has transcended the rigid social structure that assigned everyone a place and assigned him to a loveless marriage. He is inspired both by the mountains and sea at Yalta, and by Anna, who is presented mostly as a factor in his life, rather than as her own person, who begins with no illusions that she is in control, and who lets Gurov have the last word.

In her story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” Oates acknowledges a debt to Chekhov by keeping the basic love triangle plot, by naming her character Anna, and by building upon the idea that place is as much a matter of social relations as it is a matter of geography. But she updates the story, setting it in twentieth-century America, and she brings the point of view of the woman character to the foreground.

As a counterpart to Yalta, where Chekhov's lovers meet, Oates gives us Nantucket. Her Anna had come to be alone in the house of her family. But even the memory of their presence still affects her sense of place, in the sense of social role: “It was a two-story house, large and ungainly weathered. It was mixed up in her mind with her family, her own childhood, and she glanced up from her book perplexed, as if waiting for one of her parents or her sister to come up to her” (337). Even when she looks back at the book she has selected, she feels the presence of her father in the passages that he has underlined. She does not, however, get much sense of herself in this “large, drafty house” (338).

She does not fare much better when she goes out to a restaurant with the man who will become her lover. She arranges “her own face” to match the expression on the drawing he had done of her. She wonders, “Did he see me like that, then?—girlish and withdrawn? She felt the weight of his interest in her, a force that fell upon her like a blow, a repeated blow” (337-338).

Nor does she find solace in nature. The natural world emerges here almost as another imposition upon the character. Nantucket has no quiet sea as did Yalta: “On the beach everything had been noisy with sunlight and gulls and waves” (339). Even at the start, Oates's Anna finds that social relations outweigh geography as the most distinctive feature of a place.

In place of Gurov's home in Moscow, Oates gives us her lovers on the road as they drive Anna to her sister's home in Albany, New York. In the new setting, Anna feels that “she did not know [her lover] at all” (339). The change of scene is a time of questioning, as was the case in Chekhov's Moscow, a time to ask if the relationship has any permanent meaning. Oates's Anna asks herself: “What did it mean to enter into a bond with another person?” (329). She comes to a conclusion: “No, she did not really trust him; she did not really trust men” (329). Her distrust of men initially emerges the night they first make love. She sends her lover from her house and thinks, “He was a man who drew everything up into himself, like all men, walking away, free to have his own thoughts, free to envision her body, all the secrets of her body” (339). At this point, his independence seems a threat to her.

On the road these doubts reassert themselves, overshadowing the memories of the talk and the laughter on the beach. As if to protect herself from such thoughts, Anna retreats to a smaller space. “At a gas station she splashed her face with cold water. Alone in the grubby little rest room, shaky and very much alone. In such places are women totally alone with their bodies. The body grows heavier, more evil, in such silence” (339). Being alone and being in a small space may provide a respite, but it does not provide a healthy sense of self.

Unsettled by the experience in these two places, Oates's Anna returns home to Ohio, her counterpart to Chekhov's provincial S_____. Though it is less oppressive in appearance than is the home and home town of Chekhov's Anna, it is a place characterized only by her husband's concerns: “his own loneliness, his worries about his business, his health, his mother” (330). As a result, Anna can achieve no sense of herself there: “Her spirit detached itself from her and drifted about the room of the large house she lived in with her husband, a shadow-woman delicate and imprecise. There was no boundary to her, no edge” (330).

Again Anna retreats to the bathroom, as if the smaller space would give her a sense of self. The small space is, as before, temporarily comforting. She relishes long hot baths, but even this refuge has a dysfunctional aspect. Anna finds herself acting suicidally: “One day in January she drew a razor blade lightly across the inside of her arm, near the elbow, to see what would happen” (331). Her flirtation with suicide shows that the comfort of the smaller space does not solve the problem of finding her identity. Insofar as she makes herself comfortable despite the fact that she has “no edge,” that is, no self-definition, she drifts further toward boundlessness, or nonbeing. To have a sense of identity is to have boundaries—an ability to be this but not that. To give up one's life is, in this case at least, to give up the attempt to draw personal boundaries. The blood flowing from Anna's arm is an effusion, a physical dispersal that matches her self-abnegating, rather than self-assertive, psychological state.

After her lover comes to her in Ohio, the pressure to make choices, to define herself, increases. Once again she seeks the refuge of a small space, but she now finds she has outgrown the image she finds there. In her closet, she finds the drawing her lover had done of her in Nantucket. Now she views it critically: “The dog in her lap hardly more than a few snarls, a few coarse soft lines of charcoal, … her dress smeared, her arms oddly limp, … her hands not well drawn at all” (340). The image that she has of herself, an image she got from him, is now less satisfying, but she is able to define her own feelings. Whenever her lover comes to visit, she has two men, two claims upon her, and two contradictory feelings about the one man: “Ah, what despair!—what bitter hatred she felt!—she needed this man for her salvation, he was all she had to live for, and yet she could not believe in him” (341).

She takes the next step, to a vision beyond this tangled knot of old roles and new desires, when she gets a sense of perspective from the depth that a mirror gives to a small space. In a scene that echoes and yet innovates on the mirror scene with Chekhov's Gurov, Oates's Anna sees in the mirror not herself but her lover as he is preparing to leave the hotel room. The image of his independence is no longer threatening. Quite the contrary, it is now liberating for her: “The image of her lover fell free of her, breaking from her … and she realized that he existed in a dimension quite apart from her, a mysterious being. And suddenly, joyfully, she felt a miraculous calm” (343).

With this insight, Anna suddenly gains the ability to determine her own relation to places and to the people that define those places: “This man was her husband, truly—they were truly married, here in this room—they had been married haphazardly and accidentally for a long time. In another part of the city she had another husband, a ‘husband,’ but she had not betrayed that man, not really” (343). It is a difficult, apparently contradictory, passage, but it makes sense if seen as evidence of Anna's ability to define for herself her place and her relationships to others.

She has decided in favor of her new desire rather than her old role. She appropriates the language of the old relationship and applies it to the new one. For her, her lover, not the man to whom she is married, is her “husband.” The quotation marks around the word “husband” in Oates's text are significant. The word has, as it is ordinarily used, a set meaning. Anna upsets that meaning. Her use of the term outside its conventional meaning indicates that she now actively defines meaning for herself.

The experiences she had in Nantucket and on the way to Albany unsettled her and forced her to face difficult questions about her own life until she was able to come to a new vision, one that could sustain her. The effectiveness of her new vision is such that her lover is startled. Their roles seem to have been reversed; now he feels threatened by her independence: “She felt the abrupt concentration in him, the focusing of his vision on her, almost a bitterness in his face, as if he feared her” (343-344). Thus Oates's Anna has a more powerful effect on the conclusion than did Chekhov's Anna. Oates's couple may not settle themselves into marriage either, but the story ends with a sense that whatever agreement has taken shape between them, the conditions of their relationship at least partially on Anna's terms and with Anna's affirmation.

Oates, then, pays tribute to powerful scenes in Chekhov's story by making parallel contemporary scenes come to life. But her vision adds a dimension to Chekhov's. Like Chekhov, she sympathizes with the plight of those confined to unfulfilling social roles. Unlike Chekhov, however, Oates focuses on the female character as decision maker. Her Anna is not waiting, like Chekhov's, for a lover to find a path for her. Instead, Oates has her character redefine the terms of her relationships and set the tone both for herself and for her lover. Her story ends with the lover beginning a question and Anna cutting him off with her affirmative response. In other words, she is no longer retreating into the privacy of her mind, her closet, or her bathroom, where she grappled with these intensely vital questions. That struggle is over. She has arrived at her definitions. She is not passively awaiting his answer, awaiting to see what he can arrange for them. As Anna articulates her own answer, Oates gives us a much more assertive view of a woman's role.

In “The Dead,” Oates departs more radically from the original story by Joyce. Characters' names and circumstances, as well as particulars of the plot, are just different enough to confound attempts to draw easy comparisons. Once again, Oates's protagonist is a woman, and therefore, she is the counterpart of two different characters in Joyce's story. Oates's Ilena is the protagonist as was Joyce's Gabriel, and like Gabriel, Ilena is the guest of honor at a party. Alternately, she has qualities or actions reminiscent of Joyce's Gretta.

Gabriel's story is summarized well by Lucy Maddox. She writes, “The evening at his aunts' party has made him aware of his inadequacies as intellectual, Irishman, husband, son, father, even nephew; what remained was his anticipated success as a lover” (276). We know, of course, that he fails as lover as well, learning that his wife has, since their youth, carried in her heart the image of another man. As a result, a “radically revised image of himself” is “forced upon him” (276). That is, Gabriel gives up his patronizing posture and sees himself in more modest terms.

Oates's Ilena, on the other hand, for most of the story, is clearly undervalued by others, and as a result, her own sense of self suffers. At the Detroit university where she had taught, she was “disappointed by the low salary and the bad schedule” (385). When she begins to have some success as a writer, a psychiatrist friend tells her that her husband is jealous and advises her to “fail at something yourself” (384). When she moves to Buffalo, New York, with greater success as a novelist behind her, colleagues “cautioned her against believing the praise that was being heaped upon her, that she would destroy her small but unique talent if she took all this seriously” (395). Even when she returns to Detroit and is guest of honor at a reception for the “most esteemed ex-staff member” (402), Ilena senses in the attitude of the department chair, Father Hoffman, “a barely disguised contempt for her—for all women” (402). Clearly, then, Ilena moves through most of her story from a position on the opposite end of the spectrum from Gabriel's. Her literary accomplishments and profound political sense contrast Gabriel's pretensions. While Gabriel luxuriates in an exaggerated estimation of his own value, Ilena struggles to maintain any sense of self-worth.

Her struggle comes to a head when Ilena returns to Detroit. She attends a reception hosted by the university where she had taught. From her new vantage point as outsider, however, she can now see exactly what is happening. The social group at the university functions as a defense mechanism for the faculty there. The words of their conversations do not so much deal with the harsh realities that seem to be the subject matter as much as they act as a shield against those realities. Ilena sees “these people talking so casually of Vietnam, of drugs, of the death of little Emmett Norlan—these people—the very words they used turning flat and banal and safe in their mouths” (405).

Ilena herself, for much of the story, would like to hide behind a defensive wall. The wall she chooses, however, is one of narcotics, not words. She ponders the label on the pill bottle with its caution against use where “complete mental alertness” is required. She questions what the words mean and thinks “it wisest to avoid complete mental alertness. That was an overrated American virtue” (380). She takes the pills as a defensive measure. She retreats from the university party at its worst to the comforting, enclosed space of the bathroom, where she takes whatever pills are available. To the end, however, she nevertheless keeps herself attuned to what she values: academic integrity, belief in marriage as a sacred “plunging into another's soul” (398), and, most of all, belief in her own worth as a writer and as a thinking human being.

In some of these values, Oates's Ilena is more a counterpart to Joyce's Gretta than a parallel to Gabriel. She has loved and has found that, though the power of her love is not enough to give or to sustain life, love does have powerful and enduring effects. In Oates's story, the portrayal of that love, its insufficiencies and results, is more direct and central.

Detroit is a place where love dies. Though Ilena believes that “marriage was the deepest, most mysterious, most profound exploration” (397), Detroit is the place where her marriage dies. She and Bryan had fallen in love “years ago in Madison, Wisconsin” (403), for Ilena a place like Gretta's western Ireland, where love could blossom. But transplanted to the “cataclysmic flowering” (383) of hatred in Detroit, the love is too fragile to survive.

Ilena's student, Emmett Norlan, for whom Detroit is literal death, is an echo of Gretta's love, Michael Furey. Emmett is young and intense, and after Ilena has left for Buffalo, he confesses that he was in love with her. Like Michael Furey, Emmett is kept from following through on his love. He dies, partially because of a police beating, partially because of his own drug use.

Death and destruction characterize Detroit on many other levels. It is also a place where values die. Father Hoffman, head of the English department at the small Catholic university where Ilena taught, is “a little corrupt in his academic standards: The Harvard years had been eclipsed long ago by the stern realities of Detroit” (392). Hoffman's corruption costs Ilena her job there. She resigns quickly rather than risk being fired for refusing to agree to grant a degree to Brother Ronald, a master's candidate, when she realizes during his master's exam that his command of literature is almost nonexistent; in fact, he cannot even name any poem at all. Ilena's sense of value leaves her “astonished” that “anyone would allow him to teach English anywhere” (393). Her academic integrity, her taking on the brotherhood, the male hierarchy that dominates the university, costs her a job and plunges her into a new search for life outside the negative atmosphere of Detroit.

Freed from her attachment to Detroit, she can begin to see it for what it is, a place where larger external pressures have become for her intertwined with personal issues. At one point Ilena had even seen the Detroit riots as an outgrowth of the decay of her relationship with Bryan. She needs to gain the perspective of distance from this place, both artistically and geographically. She moves on to teach at Buffalo and completes the novel that brings her success. The places to which she journeys may not be much better, but being away from Detroit allows her some respite and a chance to see how fragile anyone might be facing the pressures that had come together for her in Detroit. Not the love of husband and wife, nor the love of lovers, nor the love of student and teacher for each other can withstand these greater forces—war, rioting, collapse of educational standards.

Gretta retained an image of youthful romantic love that apparently sustained her when her lover died and life became less romantic. But we do not know exactly how she fared on a daily basis. On the other hand, Ilena's losses and her reactions are seen in detail. Her days are frantic, her nights sleepless or nightmarish. The loss of romance, the traditional female catastrophe, is only partially the cause. More important is the refusal of those around her to take her and their own careers seriously. Whereas the Joyce story shows us a character who finally sees through the delusions of his place in his aunts' household and in Dublin society, the Oates story shows a character whose values are affirmed by the writer and reader, if not by the other characters. Ilena demonstrates not only the strength to maintain any sense of value, despite the overwhelming odds presented by Detroit and, in fact, all of America but also the strength to act on that sense of value.

In the end we see Ilena in a position beyond the questions that have troubled her, with focus on the simple drawing of her breath. She finally eases up on herself, and instead of trying to account for the whole past, she focuses on the present life, the breathing of her lover in congruence with the rhythm of the snow, another image transposed from the James Joyce story: “Her brain seemed to swoon backward in an elation of fatigue, and she heard beyond this man's hoarse, strained breathing the gentle breathing of the snow, falling shapelessly upon them all” (409). The snow does not obliterate everything that has happened. Ilena is aware, this seems to say, of the particulars of her life in perspective, in relation to life itself. In contrast, moreover, to Joyce's Gretta, at the end of her story, Ilena is awake.

Ilena's wakefulness by itself is significant. Though she had disavowed the benefit of “complete mental alertness,” neither does she want to drift into unconsciousness, hard as she has struggled to maintain a sense of herself. The sleeping beauty of Gretta is no longer the ideal.

Nor is Ilena's wakefulness the nightmarish insomnia that plagued her earlier, when she feared dreams of “the assassination of Kennedy,” rerunning “in her brain like old newsreels” and bringing “him back to her not as a man: as a corpse” (384). Instead, Ilena's state now has a modified tone; it resembles the Chagall lithograph Ilena had studied as her lover approached her at the party: two “lovers embraced, in repose; yet a nightmarish dream blossomed out of their heads, an intricate maze of dark depthless foliage, a light window, faces ghastly-white and perhaps a little grotesque” (405). This image is similar to what we see after Gordon drives them to her hotel. “They were suddenly very comfortable together, sadly comfortable” (406). The sadness continues, but the comfort is the first Ilena has felt in a long time, and their time in her room is spent “gently.” Like Joyce's couple, they do not make love; Ilena frightens Gordon off as she stifles a scream thinking of Emmett Norlan. Ilena remembers her husband Bryan, as well as her dead student. She is brought back, however, not to a corpse, but to Gordon's breathing and the sense of life it represents.

Such details contrast both Ilena's own state at the beginning of this story and Gretta's greater unconsciousness at the end of the Joyce story. Unable to shake the nightmare completely even in repose, Ilena has nevertheless proven herself a survivor. Her story, in fact, suggests such survival is no mean feat. Even though her colleagues, especially those who are male, may deny a woman's talents and pressure her to succumb to whatever may be the exigencies of her “Detroit,” a path through that world can be forged. Though it has taken most of her strength, this Ilena has done.

Both Ilena in Oates's “The Dead” and Anna in her “The Lady with the Pet Dog” are frustrated with the roles assigned them by their time and place. Their pain and anguish is vividly depicted. Because of this pain they seek, in one way or another, an escape from those places. Their means of escape—love affairs, taking drugs, retreating to smaller places—may include self-destructive elements. But by breaking out of the routine, the role or the place that had earlier confined them, they are thrown into a new realm where there is more potential for them to define themselves. The degree of success that they have in achieving self-definition may be ambiguous, but the comparison to the female characters in the Chekhov and Joyce stories shows them clearly to be women of the late twentieth century. They have more of the initiative of the male protagonists in the Chekhov and Joyce stories while they retain the perseverance of the women for whom they are counterparts.

Thus a close reading of these stories substantiates Elaine Showalter's general assessment in “My Friend, Joyce Carol Oates: An Intimate Portrait.” Within these stories there certainly are “transforming revisions of perspective that come from female experience” (Milazzo 131). Oates's protagonists speak to the issues Oates admires Chekhov and Joyce for raising. Like these “masters,” Oates sees women yearning for a more meaningful social role or greater affirmation of their points of view. Denied that, their frustration causes pain both for themselves and for others. Oates's fiction then takes another step, transforming that grief into a vision of a place of one's own making.

Works Cited

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” The Image of Chekhov: Forty Stories in the Order in Which They Were Written. Ed. Robert Payne. New York: Knopf, 1963, pp. 284-303.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. New York: Modern Library, 1954, pp. 224-288.

Maddox, Lucy B. “Gabriel and Othello: Opera in ‘The Dead.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 24 (Summer 1987): 271-277.

Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Dead.” Marriages and Infidelities. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1973, pp. 380-409.

———. “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” Marriages and Infidelities. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1973, pp. 327-344.

———. The Wheel of Love and Other Stories. New York: Vanguard Press, 1970.

Dieter Saalmann (essay date 1996)

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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 consciousness from a Western perspective. “Our Wall” adopts an Eastern viewpoint. The thematic and semiotic interplay between these putatively antagonistic perspectives engenders the heuristic particularities of Oates's discourse.

The Great Divide functions as the objective symbol of the human psyche rent asunder by dogmatic incompatibility. The specificity of the East-West barrier is elevated to encompass the philosophical underpinnings of all that constricts the mind. In both texts, the rigorous analytical assessment of the historical facts underlying Berlin's special status, namely, its allied administrative regimen, is a convincing concretization of the principle of literary deconstruction.

Briefly, Oates's argument goes as follows: neither East nor West recognizes each other's legitimacy—the West by scrupulously adhering to the provisions of the Four Power Agreement, and the East by blithely ignoring these rules. As a result, both sides engage, willy-nilly, in the act of dismantling their own logocentric reasoning. In this sense, the Wall has no actual “presence;” its foregroundedness is being denied by the unimpeded access of the Allied Forces to the antagonist's sphere of influence. As an extension of the “non-being” of the Wall, West Berlin and East Berlin do not have a true “presence” either. At the same time, the presumed entity of Berlin as an overarching concept does also not exist in a totally unambiguous sense. “Greater Berlin,” Oates avers, is “a matter of facts that cannot contend with its presence.” (“IBEB” [“Ich bin ein Berliner”], 106) In consequence, the Allies, by virtue of their mutually agreed upon obviation of the urban givens—West Berlin, East Berlin—do, nolens, volens reaffirm the idea of an all-encompassing construct of sorts, but equally sous rature, or under erasure, to use Derrida's classic paradigm of deconstructive suspension.

In consonance with its surrounding territory, the quintessential incarnation of the city's spirit, namely, the Wall, is likewise not aufgehoben, or sublated, in the Hegelian sense of the word. In poststructuralist parlance, the societal polarities that have begotten the East-West rampart have been displaced, but not actually obliterated. The latter, analogous to the metropolis as a whole, is, therefore, revealed as a phenomenon without a language of its own to bestow meaning, except for the idiom of postponed existence and deferral of certitude: “Speak to me in Berliner,” as the author's deconstructive discourse articulates, linguistically, the irreality of Berlin by postulating its nature in terms of an on-going rhetoric of “differences.” (“IBEB,” 106) The two polities that share the designation “Berlin” are, thus, fundamentally grounded in signs, rather than in semantic notions, and subject to indefinite perceptual postponement. “Berlin” prior to 1989, then, is presented by Oates as a rhetorical concept. It reveals the presumed exclusiveness and putatively pre-determined signification of the separate German entities, including the Wall, and, by implication, the entire East-West constellation as a system of incessantly changing verbal signals. Hence, Oates's analysis confirms Derrida's suspicion that there are, in reality, only contexts without any genuine center or absolute anchorage.

According to Jonathan Kalb, Berlin is a metropolis of powerful surface phenomena. In an essay entitled “Berlin by Metaphor,”2 the author describes the city as projecting “a permanent condition of ephemerality,” as suffering from the lack of “a durable iconic image,” and as an urban conglomerate where “the Wall's disappearance turns out to be as metaphorically provocative as the Wall itself.” In short, Berlin is “a city of surfaces, […] a city unashamed to value texture above color, shape above function, style for style's sake, means at the expense of meaning.” (15) This, of course, is the classic definition of postmodernism. Kalb's verdict is echoed by Oates who likewise postulates an uneasy, i.e., characteristically postmodern coexistence between externalities and depth as far as the city's physiological condition is concerned: “But why not content oneself in the surfaces of life. After all.” (“IBEB,” 100) In the area of urban design, such attributes have been reinforced by postmodern additions to Berlin's newer physical landscape, highlighting its role as “foster parent” of architectural postmodernity. (17) However, the city's postmodern ambience is said to be mirrored, most acutely, in its penchant for counting on the world's uncertainties and the concurrent perennial search for identity. (17)

The latter finds its most prominent expression in the quest for an appropriate language. In this context, Peter Schneider, in his treatise, Der Mauerspringer3, argues that in the post-1945 era the term “German” is valid only to the extent that it is used to designate the German language. To be sure, Schneider's assumption needs to be reassessed in view of Oates's analysis of the idiom—“Berliner,” as she calls it—that is most indicative of the German state of mind. Schneider conveniently disregards the metaphysical fallacy that inheres in the concept of “German” as a supposedly unifying linguistic medium. He remains oblivious to the fact that this language embodies the logocentric constraints imposed on it in both East and West. In poststructuralist terms, “German” as such does not exist, solely its ideologically pre-ordained versions.

Hence, to paraphrase Oates: the two logocentric variants of German are fully comprehensible only in their pre-arranged adversarial relationship with their respective “other.” Thus, contrary to Schneider's assumption, “German” as an all-encompassing idea is functional merely by virtue of the contestatory interdependence of its two variations. The result is a continuous linguistic movement of concurrent displacement and reconstitution. The “presence” of the “German” language as a holistic notion is, therefore, no longer valid. Instead, it is, according to Oates's poststructuralist verdict, neither “finitude” nor an “absolute end,” but rather a constantly evolving discourse that requires perpetual (re)deciphering. (“OW” [“Our Wall”], 110) Such iterative process is the result of what Peter Schneider and Uwe Johnson, among others, have denounced as the obsessive urge, in the East as well as the West, to define one's identity almost exclusively by dint of comparison with the presumed adversary.

This, then, is Oates's way of analytically deconstructing the ideological absolutism on both sides of the Iron Curtain. She illustrates her argument rather poignantly by suggesting that traveling from West Berlin to the Federal Republic is, in a sense, equivalent to moving in an “easterly direction” because of the intervening GDR territory. (“IBEB,” 104) Her dislodging of conceptual normality underscores the conviction that “fact” need not be identical with “truth.” Such relativizing of terminological certainty recalls Robert Frost's query as to whether a human-made barrier “walls in” or “walls out.” It is the same inclusionary/exclusionary predicament that attaches to the Berlin Wall. In this sense, German-German history, for Oates, relives the story of the Doppelgänger. Each country sees itself continually mirrored in the other's image. Each half is thereby being forced into an endless confrontation with its destiny. The latter, in turn, is ineluctably intertwined with the fate of its antipode. Thus, the twain are compelled to meet, again and again, in accordance with the logocentric imperative.

As for the Berlin Wall, Oates accentuates its “invisible” presence: “The largest percentage of the population […]does not “see” the wall at all—that is, literally.” (“OW,” 236) Thus understood, the structure has surrendered its distinctiveness, except for its myth-generating capacity, which, in turn, diminishes its physical impact. This “vanishing act” is confirmed by Schneider's assertion that the artificial Berlin Wall of a movie set commands a greater corporeal awareness than its real-life counterpart.4 In this sense, the true “presence” of the divide, as Oates argues, is inscribed by the “presence” of that which is “absent.” In her view, the “actual” Berlin Wall is made up of a multitude of layers of ideations. Inured to ideological intimidation, she senses the boundary's historicity as an amalgam of old and new weltanschaulich tissues. “Absolute truth,” Oates concludes, “is impossible to come by […]” (“OW,” 238) In this sense, the Berlin Wall is, and is not, the Berlin Wall. To put it differently, it concomitantly eliminates and rewrites itself against a richly endowed background of historical antecedents. From a deconstructive perspective, physical constitution and notional dissolution of the structure, its past and present, join in a moment of heightened awareness of its ontological fragility.

It is in the realm of the imagination that Oates sees the most promising potential for surmounting the seemingly irreconcilable antagonisms. To wit: “A very strange tale, too wild to be credible, about a family in a balloon who drifted across The Wall. Seven people including a baby. Romantic but implausible … Wouldn't a large balloon make an irresistible target?” (“OW,” 241) Since the event in question is based on an actual incident, it emerges that the putative irrationalism of such an action transcends the supposed rationality supporting the Wall. In this sense, the success of the balloon flight signals the triumph of the allegedly romantic, or irreal, over a concrete phenomenon. Oates's fictional exploration of the creative potential of the human mind reinforces the fantastic nature of so-called sober facticity. In this way, factuality and dream coalesce in the romantic sphere of illimited imagining.

In her story, “Crossing the Border,” Oates ruminates on the universal implications of national frontiers under the impact of the American-Canadian boundary: “The border between two nations is always indicated by broken but definite lines, to indicate that it is not quite real in any physical sense but very real in a metaphysical sense: so nature surrenders to politics, as mythology surrenders to physiology.”5 As for the Berlin Wall, the situation is considerably more complex. On Western maps, the author observes, the border usually appears as a deliberately incomplete demarcation to signal ideological opposition to its concreteness as an alleged “wall of shame.” The East resorts to the same rhetoric of political occlusion by marking what it prefers to call its “antifascist protective wall” in the shape of a solid line. Thus, the “metaphysical sense” that Oates discerns in the United States-Canadian border, is reminiscent of the dualistic reasoning undergirding the political chasm in Europe with its equally “definite” aspirations. A deconstructive perspective would suggest, though, that the edifice defies the logocentric depiction proffered on either side of the Iron Curtain. It is no coincidence that Oates invokes the notion of “metaphysics” in this context to dramatize the “indefinite” attributes of the Berlin Wall through the reciprocal action of differing and deferring: “What is the Wall but a dotted line on my tourist map?,” she opines in this regard; “it's even difficult to locate that dotted line, tiny pale blue dots, aswim in a typographical picnic of livelier colors.” (“IBEB,” 101) For this author, the true character of the Wall, or any other obstruction for that matter, is the fluidity of its meaning. Her compelling manner to accentuate its indeterminacy as a political statement countermands the metaphysics of linguistic totalization, as denounced by Derrida. In this way, Oates adopts a genuinely premonitory stance, especially in view of the collapse of logocentric conclusiveness in Europe.

The axiom of undecidability symptomatic of the deconstructive position is unmistakably enunciated in the narrator's reference to “the interminable month of August.” (“OW,” 238) From August 13, 1961 to November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall evolved into a factor of seemingly indefinite, albeit, deconstructively speaking, finite duration. All the same, the observer's critical gaze does not fail to perceive the rain that has erased the contours of the structure. This careful perception clearly establishes, even in a tangible sense, the non-presence of the edifice, however ephemeral its obliteration may be. It complements the boundary's ideational absence noted at the outset. As a result, the author reiterates her quintessentially de-centering stance.: “So few of my fellow citizens “see” The Wall at all,” she remarks. (“OW,” 240) Such a deconstituting vision is tantamount to laying bare the sham of conceptual presuppositions underpinning the Cold War landmark. However, incisive observation is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, painstaking analysis reveals the enticing nature of ideological pretense: “The Wall, in the midday sun, appears to show a certain benevolent aspect. If you stare for a very long time, your eyes held open wide, this benevolence becomes obvious.” (“OW,” 240) By the same token, undue curiosity may also invite retaliatory action on the part of those responsible for such metaphysical obstructionism: “Of course there are lurid tales: men and even women shot down and dragged away and never heard of again, and never spoken of again. Because they stared too hard at The Wall. Might have seemed to be studying it, memorizing it. Adoring it.” (“OW,” 241) Yet, “critical admiration” of the structure can also expose almost invisible chinks in its conceptual armor, thus setting the stage for desanctifying the object of “theological” veneration: “For the first time I can see fine cracks in The Wall […]” (“OW,” 241) By cleansing the impediment of its premeditated truths, the author initiates the process of turning it into a pristine presence, i.e., a pure sign, as it were. In this primordial sense, constructs, like the Berlin Wall, “are mere facts. They point toward nothing beyond themselves.” (“OW,” 239) In other words, their being rests, first and foremost, solely on their innate value system. This is the very essence of what Derrida calls, différance in other words, “‘before’ the concept, the name, the word […]”6 Or, as Oates echoes these sentiments: “The explanation is—the Wall.” (“IBEB,” 109)

Epistemologically, the author's argument is indicative of the very nature of deconstructive reasoning. To be sure, it does furnish the impetus to revoke supposedly untouchable assumptions. Ultimately, however, it is the same anti-logocentric practice that questions its own premise in the very process of carrying out its mandate of dislodging embedded veracities. This explains the all-pervasive presence of a self-negating tenor in Oates's prose. To wit: her heuristic approach extends the concept of the textual field to the Berlin Wall itself because she views it as the inevitable consequence of on-going rhetorical operations. Its existence is predicated on the specifics of German-German verbal interaction. Such mutual recriminations are a prerequisite for ensuring the political survival of these putatively independent logocentric entities. However, this belief is instantly challenged by the author, to the extent that it “appears to be merely a political expediency required by both sides, it is, in fact, Life.” (“IBEB,” 110) She thus advocates the discourse of calling into question any absolutely stable grounds for representation, as against the idée fixe of an allegedly immutable identity. This also clarifies Oates's seemingly paradoxical undermining of her own disclaimer regarding the theoretical basis of her text: “My own theory?. I have none.” (“OW,” 239) It stands to reason, though, that the entrenched positions of conceptual exclusivity in East and West require an ongoing need for countermeasures to weaken the repressive ambience of notional hegemony: “[…] long before you were born The Wall was, and forever will The Wall endure.” (“OW,” 241) In concrete terms, the “wall,” symbol of the divisiveness that haunts humanity as such, is a phenomenon that predates the erection of the “Wall.” The latter is a specifically twentieth-century manifestation of the self-division endemic to the world. Given the mental gulf which continues to split Germany as a political entity that pretends to be “unified,” the underlying mood of these stories is indeed foreboding. In this respect, Schneider reaches exactly the same conclusion: “[…] those walls,” he contends, “will still be standing when no one is left to move beyond them.”7

In order to escape the prison house of doctrinaire pretensions constituting the Berlin Wall, Oates adheres to the strategy of contesting the codified values that have accrued on account of the “politics of meaning” indulged in by both Germanies. The goal is to liberate the spirit of the children which are said to be buried inside the Wall. The “faint high voices” of childhood have a paradigmatic function; in postmodern terms, they are “doubly encoded.” (“OW,” 236) On the one hand, they attest to the truth that the Wall incarnates the entombed physical presence of the casualties of the East-West dichotomy. In addition, these children are the phonocentric personification of their own metaphysical closure that ensues from the rigidity of their ideological idealism: “[…] too high-spirited for their own good or for the good of the community […].” (“OW,” 236) On the other hand, the victimized youngsters also evince ideational innocuousness. To put it differently: they represent the proverbial blank page that is the human mind in its infancy, unencumbered by the presumed “harmonies” of preexistent signifieds. As the author explains: “For the Wall is Death […] the Wall is Life,” namely, the regenerative potential of the age of innocence. (“IBEB,” 110)

Hence, the Berlin Wall is a “living memorial” of German-German “deconstruction.” As such, the barrier serves as an artifact in perennial perceptual decomposition and restoration, due to the vagaries of political oratory. Oates's text fictionalizes this process of dislocation. In so doing, and in consonance with Derrida's precepts, her narrative displaces itself: “But no: there are no voices: there are no spirits. The Wall is only (only) The Wall. (“OW,” 236) […];”

“The Wall is forever […] but nothing is forever.” (“IBEB,” 104) Simultaneously, and in keeping with the same Derridean prerogative, the author reverses her position by reasserting the authority of the creative imagination, thus upholding the promise of spiritual survival: “But the rest of the world—a fiction.” (“IBEB,” 110) For the duration of the physical presence of the Berlin Wall, “German” reality was indeed held in abeyance, to put it another way, it was deferred on account of German-German differentiation.

The flux of postmodernity has dislodged the entrenched role of history as “metanarrative” and its professed goal to buttress preestablished norms. This is the “crisis in history” that Oates alludes to. (“IBEB,” 104) It also affects the historical atttributes of the Berlin Wall: “As one nears the Wall the curious thing is, history is left behind. There is nothing here to indicate what year this might be, which language might be spoken if there were anyone at hand to speak …” (“IBEB,” 106) As a result of such a disruption of ingrained language patterns, the traditional juxtaposition of putative historical objectivity and alleged literary subjectivity has also been dislocated, thereby preventing any lapse into teleology. The postmodern appropriation of historical “texts,” rather than “objects,” throws into relief the propensity of contemporary hermeneutics for coeteanously affirming and eroding the given point of view. This kind of disjunction is bound to problematize the notion of historical knowledge: “And in any case does history exist?,” Oates asks (“IBEB,” 109) More precisely, the postmodern ethos holds that political subjects, “closed” as they are, should be marginalized, i.e., they ought to assume an ex-centric locus in today's interpretative scheme: “Hitler is forever,” the author claims in this regard; “he has made the rest of us fiction.” (“IBEB,” 109) The intent is to undo binary opposition, as well as to rethink the entire notion of reducing representation to mere simulacra. In either case, the human idiom is to be detached from its ideological referents.

As for the political importance of historical phenomena, their rhetorical articulation, so Oates's argument goes, is not inherently political. Narrative recollection qua recollection has no fixed and final value in and for itself. To compensate for this deficiency, postmodern writing advocates a productive system of disseminating differences. Contravening the Western tradition of conceiving knowledge and order dualistically, postmodernism explores the very process of generating meaning. Language as pure instrumentality is viewed as the source of signification, rather than a surrogate for transcendent ideals. It is only in this sense that the invocation of the past is able to carry out a political function. Such a reconstruction does not mirror or convey reality, but creates and signifies its own actuality. Thus, for Oates, the shape and significance of historical episodes, for example, post-war Berlin, are not to be found in the events themselves. Their import emerges from the underlying experiential and conceptual structures. These motivating forces convert the past occurrences into the present historical “facts” and intertextuality of “Our Wall” and “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The aporetic language used throughout the stories—“it is said,” “it is rumored,” “I surmise,” “it is believed,” “it appears,” “evidently,” “suspicion,” “perhaps”—confirms the principle of deconstructive indeterminacy as the guiding axiom of Oates's prose. Concomitantly, she conjures up the utopian vision of a better future: “For we are, as our historians have noted, a hopeful people.” (“OW,” 235) However, her optimistic appraisal is immediately countermanded in accordance with the stringent credo of disbelief germane to poststructuralist thinking: “To the east, to the west?—difficult to judge. […] What is there to say?” (“OW,” 236) Once again, the Derridean effort to destabilize the ontology of the projected world points to the fact that matter, such as the Berlin Wall, is the means, not the target, of signification. In poststructuralist fashion, Oates shifts the focus of her narrative from content-based categories—the why—toward a dynamic pattern of relationships—the how. In this way, her poetological procedure does justice to the multiplicity of history's enduring movement of (re)affirmation and denial, a “ceaselessly” operating “mechanism,” as the author observes in a truly deconstructive vein. (“IBEB,” 107)

Oates's artistic creed is based on the assumption that ultimate truth must elude human percipience. Only the intrinsic operations of language are accessible to the inquiring mind. This, of course, is equivalent to conceding the primacy of scepticism over predestined knowledge. Such textual agnosticism counteracts the menace of totalitarian hermeneutics. It does not condone withdrawal from social responsibility and subversion of commitment, though. On the contrary, the author's peremptorily structural precept of aporia purges language and, in consequence, the mental landscape of all notional contamination. The avowed purpose is to create a tabula rasa of idiom and mind. This sets the stage for broaching the realm of politics from an unbiased perspective. It permits an authentic transformation of ensconsed canons.

As for the death of his younger brother at the hands of East German border guards, the narrator in “Ich bin ein Berliner” offers the following observation: “Identification?—gone. He had thrown away his passport […] He had thrown away being American, it seems, preparatory to throwing away being human, preparatory to throwing away being alive. I hate him for that logic.” (“IBEB,” 107) This is also the logic of deconstructive rationalization carried to its ultimate conclusion. The inexorable movement from the specific to the general, formulated as an articulatory process of dispossessing established verities, has thus taken a profoundly morbid, indeed destructive turn. Like the concepts “East” and “West,” life itself, for the deceased brother, has meant a thoroughly logocentric state of mind. His private “metaphysics” has provoked an irrepressible compulsion to fight the ideological disguise of the Berlin Wall. As such, his existence, too, is subject to the same process of not only displacing, but actually nullifying existential meaningfulness, a deferral of signification clearly gone awry: “Who can know,” the narrative voice initiates its ontological inquiry, “who can be sure of these things?—premonitions—anticipating suicide—death?” (“IBEB,” 98) In the end, even the act of dying, be it of the personal or general variety—“[…] that particular death […] some death […] one's death […]” needs to be divested of its metaphysical determination. (“IBEB,” 98) Carried to its ultimate conclusion, such an uncompromisingly rigorous deconstructive stance also invalidates the Rilkean pretense of “one's own death.”

The historical precedent for the brother's sacrifice in the no man's land between East and West was set by Peter Fechter killed on August 17, 1962. (“IBEB,” 102 and “OW,” 240) His murder, like the demise of the fictitious persona, must be desacralized. The martyred youth was turned into a political tool by the West. Thus, the original purity of his idealism has degenerated into ideological petrification: “He was […] allowed to bleed to death for a long, a very long, a famously long time. He is bleeding to death still; you can see the snaky black blood on the pavement. Propaganda hero[…] Granted you die only once: but how long does it take?” (“IBEB,” 102) Hence, the idea of freedom has deteriorated into doctrinaire fanaticism and moral obfuscation, not only on the part of the principal actors, but also with regard to posterity.

In this sense, German history as a whole, from the incipient days of Berlin in the thirteenth century to the present, has become a single totalizing gesture of putatively unimpeachable certainties. The task confronting the narrator now is to de-center such institutionalized privilegings. In accordance with the deconstructive mode, the proclaimed mimetic make-believe—“I am reporting what I see and failing to alter a syllable”—is instantaneously cancelled by the aporetical modalities of the narration: “It is America. But no it is Berlin. West Berlin. Germany. But no it is America. No? Yes? America?” (“IBEB,” 102 and 100) Thus, the pained sounds of the dying Peter Fechter—“A high faint voice. An incredulous voice. Not a voice I recognize”—have been completely displaced. (“OW,” 240) The narrator's refusal to acknowledge any familiarity with them implies, beyond the question of human empathy, a categorical denial of the ideological prerogatives claimed by the youth's fate. In the same manner, even the “I”s next of kin, after sacrificing himself for whatever noble cause he may have championed, falls victim to this procedure of unfaltering demythologizing: “[…] who am I,” the narrator declares, “pretending to be a younger brother of the deceased … ? […] My brother? Whose brother? I don't have a brother. […] don't have any brother, I shouted.” (“IBEB,” 98 and “OW,” 240)

The true enemy, then, is neither East nor West per se; instead, it is the “Forbidden Zone” of ideational blockage, in which the warring parties are condemned to reside. (“OW,” 233) In Oates's view, even the fact of death, highest expression of antithesis and finitude, represents, in actuality, nothing but the fallacy of premature closure. In this sense, the engrossing appearance of the Berlin Wall is indeed “a sort of reality check […]”8 The German-German product functions as “a kind of hologram, an endlessly defracting set of images […]”9 The Wall's displacing characteristics accentuate its deconstructive effect, in contradistinction to the refracting, or mimetic, impact of what is perceived to be its positively embodied verity. Paradoxically, and in response to Frost's poetic inquiry, it is, therefore, a wall which alleviates the historically conditioned sense of isolation and claustrophobia that encumbers the mutual perceptions of the two German states as unverifiable hypotheses.

To conclude this presentation: In “Our Wall,” Oates, by way of her fictional alter ego, reiterates her quintessentially deconstructive position: “I think only of The Wall. The fact of The Wall, which settles so massively in the mind. The Wall exists to be scaled, like all walls: it is the most exquisite of temptations. The Wall poses the question—How long can you resist?” (“OW,” 239) To paraphrase the author: how long can one defy the lure of narrative subversion? Surrounded by an aura of sanctity, the border fortifications have become a religious faith, in fact, a holy icon to be deprived of its stifling metaphysical halo. The same can be said of the Mercedes-Benz star atop a building in West Berlin: “A sacred vision beamed over the Wall into the shadowy East.” (“IBEB,” 100) Comparable to the evangelical favor exuded by its socialist-made counterpart, namely, the Berlin Wall, the neon-gospel of capitalism must also be disenfranchised, as the poststructuralist would have it, in order to uncover the seductiveness of the pseudo-religious message inherent in such idolatrous hegemony prevalent on either side of the Iron Curtain. As a result, Oates's rather skeptical dictum—“Berlin was reduced to rubble and rubble has no memory so you cannot expect a poignant sense of history” (“IBEB,” 109)—has been disproven conclusively by her own effort to deconstruct the binary impasse that is Berlin, thereby exposing the city's profoundly historical core. For Oates, the reality of Berlin continually rebuilds itself through the process of constant reinscription. These heuristic modalities manifest themselves between the parameters of “The Wall offers the felicity of an object that is, yet is not, a metaphor” and “The Wall offers the felicity of a metaphor that is, yet is not, an object.” (“IBEB,” 110) Such, then, is the nature of, or unremitting return to the absent center, as proposed by Jacques Derrida and articulated by Joyce Carol Oates with respect to once-divided Berlin. Its reputedly monolithic nature has now been eclipsed by what one might call “applied deconstructionism.”


  1. Joyce Carol Oates. Last Days: Stories. New York: E. P. Hutton, 1984. For reference purposes in the text of the article, “Our Wall” and “Ich bin ein Berliner” have been abbreviated as OW and IBEB, respectively.

  2. Jonathan Kalb. “Berlin by Metaphor.” The Threepenny Review 43 (1990). All page references to this article are in the text.

  3. Peter Schneider. Der Mauerspringer. Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1982.

  4. Peter Schneider. Deutsche Ängste. Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1988, 8-10.

  5. Joyce Carol Oates. Crossing the Border. Fifteen Tales. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1976, 13.

  6. Jacques Derrida. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Eds. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, 9.

  7. Peter Schneider. Deutsche Ängste, 139.

  8. Jane Kramer. “Letter from Europe.” The New Yorker (November 28, 1988): 69.

  9. Ibid., 92.

Vladimir Zviniatskovsky (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5190

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 expect.

(From a notebook of A. P. Chekhov1)

Surely … anyone … might acknowledge the difficulties that arise when language (or a single term, “androgyny”) is evoked to gain an emotional response … The synthesis of “masculine” and “feminine” impulses has always been the ideal of all cultures.

(J. C. Oates)

I am putting together a group of short stories called Marriages and Infidelities, which include stories that are reimaginings of famous stories …

(J. C. Oates, an interview)

Marriages and Infidelities by Joyce Carol Oates seems a typical book of the early 1970s. It reflects the situation at the beginning of the crisis after the euphoria of the sixties. In terms of plot this crisis took the form of a “reimagining” of classical stories, and the crisis in behaviour patterns provoked an interest in such types of classical short story as those by Kafka and Chekhov.2 “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by J. C. Oates differs not only from other “marriages and infidelities” in the book, but from Chekhov's version of the incident as well. This is not just because of the American couleur locale of Oates's story, but rather because, unlike Chekhov, the American writer gives us the point of view of the heroine.

Every culture has its own brief description of love as well as its own brief description of culture. By “culture” I mean here elite twentieth-century western culture, which for me includes Chekhov and Russians “educated on Chekhov” on the one hand, as well as Americans “educated on Chekhov” (and also on Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, and others) on the other. I interpret this “education” in the broad sense, not as an assortment of names but as an education sentimentale. In this sense both “cultured” Russians and “cultured” Americans have been “educated,” in addition to everything else, still more on Bakhtin, even if they have never heard his name, for in a culture of the given type the brief definition of culture and the brief definition of love coincide, moreover they do so in one key word: “dialogue.” Dialogue, as a culture of this type understands it, is the opposite of a set of monologues such as we find in every Chekhov play. The theme that unites all of these plays is the characters' longing for love and for culture. These are absent because there is no dialogue, and there is no dialogue because there is no love and not enough culture. It is a closed circle, a Minotaur's labyrinth from which no one knows the way out … not even the woman you love, not even if her name is Ariadna, like one of Chekhov's heroines. Ariadna does not have a thread, she has not received an education sentimentale.

Unlike drama, a work of prose—nineteenth-century classical prose that is—cannot be just a set of self-enclosed monologues. Chekhov's mature prose is not a set of monologues, “voices,” or points of view. It expresses one single “voice,” one single point of view, although, of course, not the author's but that of one character. It thus becomes of interest to see whose point of view is usually selected. “Ariadna” and “About Love” are key stories about love, for in them there is not only a storyteller character, but also a narrator-listener. However the function of the latter is to express doubt and incomprehension: if the story-teller (Shamokhin, Aliokhin) understands what he, strictly speaking, does not understand, then the narrator, it seems, is convinced of the fact that the story-teller does not understand even this. The narrator then knows what neither the story-teller nor he himself understands. In the last analysis, the one who is omniscient is the author, who could easily make do without a “story-teller” but not without his point of view, which is expressed by more complex and subtle features of the narration than the overall narrative or the individual voices.

When I was a student, the story “Lady with Lapdog” was a mystery to me. I understood that everything was incomprehensible, but it was not so simple to put together a list of the things I did not understand, for it seemed that, taken separately, each individual item was comprehensible. Joyce Carol Oates with her “The Lady with the Pet Dog” helped me to discover this “list.” “Item one” on her list also remains for me the very first and the most important to this day, as I shall explain.

In her story a certain external event takes place, a certain fact in the biography of the characters, albeit an extremely banal one, precisely defined by the description “adultery” or as the dust-cover of Oates's book has it: “infidelity.” Like any fact it must be somehow perceived and evaluated by its participants. Perception and evaluation, not with the intention of moralizing, but in order to depict, is the task of the artist-psychologist whom we imagine Chekhov to be. In essence, his whole story “Lady with Lapdog,” as is usual with the later Chekhov, is none other than a detailed picture of the inner world of a character and his evolution: a picture of the perception by Dmitry Dmitrievich Gurov of what has happened between him and Anna Sergeevna von Dideritz, the “lady with the lapdog.” If Chekhov wanted to show how the same event in the lives of these two was perceived by the “lapdog,” he could have done this easily and brilliantly, as he demonstrated with his splendid, remarkable story “Kashtanka” where, in essence, we have no other “narrator” besides the “little dog.” But as far as the lady's perspective is concerned, the question is more complicated. “Not often do I have the fortune to meet young ladies who are both young and interesting,” says Trigorin in The Seagull, “I already forgot and am unable to imagine clearly how people feel at age 18 or 19, and for that reason in my tales and stories the young ladies are usually false.” Here the most telling words are “forgot” and “for that reason.” Trigorin thinks that, having recalled himself at age eighteen or nineteen, he can easily show “how eighteen year-old girls feel”! And since it is difficult for him or he is too lazy to remember his own feelings, he decides to “get closer” to Nina.

Let us now examine “Lady with Lapdog” a little more closely:

Here there was still the same diffidence and angularity of inexperienced youth—an awkward feeling; and there was also the impression of embarrassment, as if someone had just knocked at the door. Anna Sergeevna, this lady with the lapdog, regarded what had happened in a peculiar sort of way, very seriously, as though she had become a fallen women. So it seemed, and it was odd and disconcerting.3

“In a peculiar sort of way”—but what sort of way? To whom did “it seem” that she regarded what had happened “as if she had become a fallen woman”? To whom was it “odd and disconcerting?” Only on the following page do we find out: “Gurov could not help feeling bored as he listened to her; he was irritated by her naive tone of voice and her repentance, which was so unexpected and so out of place; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was joking or play-acting.”4 Only here does the attentive reader receive an indirect indication from the author about what is “odd and disconcerting” on the previous page. This is not the feeling that the author intends the reader to experience, but simply Gurov's feelings. And if the reader manages to experience this feeling after all, then all the worse for the him.

However, further on the attentive reader easily notices that there is an evolution in Gurov's attitude towards “what had happened,” which then grows into a new feeling never before experienced by him. At first it is described as “what had happened”; then Gurov calls it, to himself, an “adventure” (“And he told himself that this had been just one more affair in his life, just one more adventure …”5) then, when the memory becomes obsessive, Gurov, already at home in Moscow, is forced to move it to another shelf, it becomes a “love” (“But at home it was impossible to talk of his love, and outside his home there was no one he could talk to”) and hence a “secret” (“was so anxious that his personal secrets should be respected”) and, finally, at the highest stage of development, in the finale, it is almost an “eternal love”: “It was quite clear to him that their love would not come to an end for a long time, if ever.6 But this is for him. What about for her? For the answer to this question let us now turn to the story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Unlike extreme feminist treatments, the position of the author of this western, contemporary woman's version of “Lady with Lapdog” is by no means cannibalistic or amazon; in general she is not even aggressive. Moreover, her protagonist, whom we might call the American Gurov, is, for an American, surprisingly Russian. I would even venture to say (and will endeavour to prove) that he is more Russian than Gurov himself. This is all the stranger considering that at the same time that Oates was writing her “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” the American screen version of Doctor Zhivago with Omar Sharif in the title role was popular in America, even among intellectuals (some would say especially among intellectuals). Not long ago I finally saw this film and fell into despair over the level of misunderstanding by westerners of those people whose mother tongue is Russian. An analysis of the film exceeds the framework of my theme. I will say only that that eastern Don Juan who figures into the film could not conceivably write the poem “Meeting” (Svidanie), let alone “The Christmas Star” (Rozhdestvenskaia zvezda), “The Garden of Gethsemane” (Gefsimanskii sad), “In Holy Week” (Na Strastnoi) nor any of the other “Poems of Iury Zhivago” from chapter seventeen of the novel. I might add that the man portrayed by Oates is deeper and more poetic than D. D. Gurov to the same degree that Pasternak's Zhivago is deeper and more poetic than Omar Sharif's … but does not the crux of the matter lie perhaps in the fact that we see Oates's hero through the eyes of the heroine? And that the heroines of our novels really do see us with such eyes? (While we see ourselves the way Gurov does).

To be sure, differences are perceivable already at the level of both Russian and English titles, for in the English title the word “lady” suggests the word “gentleman” with all its connotations as inevitably as the Russian word dama suggests kavaler (womanizer). And indeed, Gurov plays the role of a health-resort “womanizer,” a “ladies' man” (as Thomas Winner calls him), so that his attitude towards to a dama and especially towards one “with a lapdog” cannot help but be ironic. Oates by contrast even makes the man the owner of the “pet dog,” which in no way detracts from his image. But far from being satisfied with this, she devises for him a “detail” that is completely unthinkable for Chekhov—a blind son. This makes his image melodramatic and, for the romantically disposed “lady,” truly irresistible: “she thought of that man, the man with the blind child, the man with the dog, and she could not concentrate on her reading.”7

However, the reader who focusses on reading Oates's story quickly understands what is going on: Oates rejects totally any Chekhovian irony, preferring melodrama instead. The heroine must at all cost become the “lady with the pet dog,” not in a primitive health-resort sense, but in a Chekhovian symbolic sense. Here you will probably object that Chekhov does not allow and could not allow the basis for a “pure” symbol (we recall in The Seagull two remarks by Nina—first: “This is apparently some sort of symbol, but, I'm sorry, I don't understand” and second: “I am a seagull … That's wrong. I'm an actress”). But while for Chekhov's heroine the “seagull” is “wrong,” for Oates's heroine “the lady with a pet dog” is absolutely right.

In Oates' story there is an episode where he draws her portrait with his dog. A leitmotif emerges from this episode: twice, at the beginning and at the end of the story, the heroine examines the drawing carefully: “Did he see her like that, then?—girlish and withdrawn and patrician?”8 It is interesting that not only the heroine would like her lover to see her exactly that way, the author would like this too, even if it is contrary to the reality that the author, of course, knows but does not want to know. And if for the slightest moment the author wished to raise an objection to this last point (that she “does not want to know”), I would be ready to defend it with a textual critic's weapons in hand. The textual critic's weapons are, as we know, the early versions and their comparison with later ones. Here is just one example from the magazine version: “‘Lady with pet dog,’ the man said, smiling oddly.” In the version in the collection the last two words are missing; the hero has nothing at the back of his mind: his words are a pure symbol like the words of Treplev about the murdered seagull, but unlike Nina, Oates's heroine does not say “I do not understand …”

True, the question arises here of the Chekhovian peculiarities of Oates's narrative, i.e., the poetics of the narration. As Chekhov consistently tries to look at events through Gurov's eyes throughout the story, so Oates tries to maintain exclusively the point of view of her Anna (more consistently in the version in the collection than in the magazine). And she, Anna, does not notice (perhaps she does not want to notice?) the hero's strange smile. If we add to this the fact that the Oates text is intentionally not self sufficient, needing as it does the context of the Chekhov story, then it becomes, in the consciousness of the reader who is aware of this context, no longer a “reimagining” but a “deconstruction” (almost exactly in the sense that Jacques Derrida uses this word). In Chekhov's story, as we have seen, the man perceives the woman as “angular” and girlish, in a patently negative sense, while in Oates “girlish” as a trait of the man's portrait of the “lady with pet dog” (!) is perceived favourably by the “lady” herself. In both versions the symbolic sobriquet “lady with pet dog” (in quotation marks) is linked precisely to the “angularity of inexperienced youth” and relates contextually to everything that in the heroine's external appearance and inner consciousness is described as “girlish and withdrawn and patrician.” True, in Gurov's imagination the picturesque genre-painting differs somewhat from the American amateur painter's image of the “lady with pet dog.” She appears to him in the image of a “sinner in an antique painting” (evidently a repentant Magdalene), but this is because, unlike his American “colleague,” the Russian Don Juan looks at his victim not before the fall, but after. In both cases, however, the look of the man is the look of a refined and cold aesthete, a distant look, what feminist criticism calls “voyeurism.”

On the basis of the material under discussion, it would be possible, perhaps, to classify voyeurism into two types: “hard” (e.g., Gurov's in this episode) and “soft,” an example of the latter being the poem “Meeting” by Iury Zhivago mentioned above. This poem, by the way, contains an unnoticed yet overt (although it is unclear to what extent it is deliberate) reminiscence of the episode under discussion in Chekhov's story. Contrast Gurov's negative, exasperated attitude towards the humility of the “repentant sinner” Anna, whose “features had lengthened and drooped,” with the attitude of the lyrical hero of “Meeting.” The poem also contains a “painterly” image, although here instead of a canvas we find the lyrical hero's heart:

As if with a burin
Dipped in antimony
You have been scraped
across my heart.
And in it for ever will remain engraved
the humility of your trait …

The poem goes on to describe (of course, from a totally lyrical perspective) the evolution of a Gurov-like relationship—in essence the plot of “Lady with Lapdog,” for we should not forget that if we are to “insert” Zhivago's poem in the narrative, then the only person to whom he could dedicate it is Lara—and his relationship with her is of the “infidelities” category.

Thus the American who sketches the “lady with pet dog” with such (as it seems to both of them) profound understanding, perspicacity and spiritual warmth has a closer predecessor than Dmitry Gurov—namely Iury Zhivago. Both these heroes of Russian literature, having understood the woman to the degree of which each is capable (and which is different in the two cases), find it necessary to engage her in a dialogue in order to resolve the problems they have in common, in order to find a way out of the impasse: “Let's talk now, let's think of something.” Here Chekhov tells the reader that “the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning”9 whereas in Pasternak this is where it all ends: “There remained only the discussions,/ But we are no longer in the world.” Essentially this is one and the same thing, for it is impossible to “think of something,” and what is needed is simply to understand “female logic”—which is also impossible for men with such a mindset and feelings.

In her article “Rereading Femininity” Shoshana Felman makes a remark with which one would like not to agree, but with which it is difficult not to agree, especially since it applies not only to literature, and is valid not only for literary characters, but for authors too: “Women … are considered merely as the objects of desire, and as the objects of the question. To the extent that women ‘are the question,’ they cannot enunciate the question; they cannot be the speaking subjects of the knowledge or the science which the question seeks.”10 To quote the poet (evidently describing men?): “we keep posing the tricky answer, but don't find the necessary question.” To be sure, the history of science contains many examples of how science finds the question with the same facility with which poetry demolishes formerly immutable idioms (“the tricky question”) to create new ones (“the tricky answer”). It is interesting that none other than Chekhov a hundred years ago tried to combine the tasks of science and poetry, declaring that it is the business of the writer to “formulate the question correctly.” The vexed “female question” was one of those for which Chekhov tried to find the right formulation—assuming, evidently, that it had not been formulated correctly before him. It was not for nothing that he gave the heroine of “Lady with Lapdog”—Chekhov's formulation of the question of mutual understanding between the sexes—the same name as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (in this sense Oates's Anna is not the second, but the third in the series). And if we take Chekhov's portrait of a “woman in love” not as a formulation of the question, but as the answer to the question, then of course Virginia Llewellyn Smith is right when she formulates the answer (on Chekhov's behalf) as follows: “For women love is something assumed rather than felt, a kind of acquisition prompted by custom, like an article of clothing.”11

However, she is not right, for in such a case how would Chekhov differ from Trigorin? They are almost no different from each other: both admit honestly that they cannot “imagine clearly how young girls feel,”12 but Trigorin feels that such an inability to understand is a chance, rectifiable matter (and indeed “rectifiable” in the most primitive manner), while for Chekhov the inability to understand is fatal or at least, at the given point in time, unrectifiable with the means that have been tried thus far. It is this that constitutes the true scientific nature of his thought: that he understands the limits of his competence.

At the risk of far exceeding the limits of my own competence, I will nevertheless say in conclusion that in her version of “Lady with Lapdog” Joyce Carol Oates boldly tries to answer the question that Chekhov has posed and look over the edge that she in one of her own critical works described shortly and clearly as “the Edge of Impossibility.” I hasten to add that such boldness seems to me justified if only by the fact that the author is a woman herself.

We part for ever from Chekhov's characters at that very point when “they had a long talk” and “tried to think how they could get rid of the necessity of hiding, telling lies, living in different towns, not seeing each other for so long.” Gurov, having now become grey-haired and extremely serious, himself resembles a repentant sinner in his gloomy pose, clutching at his head and repeating three times “how?” It is here that we say farewell to him. We will thus never know what Anna was doing at the time that Gurov was clutching his head, although it would seem that in a Chekhov story this is fundamentally unimportant, for the author, we recall, never goes beyond a simple description of his hero's feelings and thoughts, and the hero himself has likewise receded completely into his own seriousness at the end, just as at the beginning of the love affair he had been completely absorbed in his own lightness, irony, and unwillingness to get involved.

When the two Annas—Chekhov's and Oates's—cry, it is totally in the spirit of Anna Karenina, that invention of Tolstoy, who was convinced that he understood women as well as he did men (if not better). The heroines' tears are explicable: they are unhappy, for each of them lives with one man, but loves another. But what Oates said to the world about her Anna should evidently shake the male half of humanity as powerfully as it shook the hero of her American story: it turns out that Anna is happy. That which Chekhov sought all his life for himself and his characters, that which was in Tatiana's words “so possible, so close,” but which always slipped out of his grasp at the end of each work13—that occurs in Oates precisely at the point where for Chekhov and Pasternak everything is finished (“But we are no longer in the world”).

Before we try to understand how this occurs and thus end our discussion, here is a little “pre-history” to happiness as Oates describes it, based on elements in her story that are not present in Chekhov but which are to be found in Tolstoy, as Thomas Winner notes: “Chekhov's treatment of the adultery theme is … different from the expected. There are no dramatic turns of action … Parallels to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina … emphasize this contrast. While both are stories of an Anna who, unhappily married … finds a lover, Chekhov's Anna does not think of suicide. Rather, her love affair brings her contentment and some happiness.”14 Oates read Winner, for in her scholarly works there are references to his book; I therefore think that she was influenced not only by Chekhov, but by this Chekhov scholar. Her heroine has constant thoughts of suicide, like Anna Karenina, but she needs them precisely in order to create a foil for the heroine's happiness at the end—not just “some happiness,” but a large and complete one.

Did Oates's heroine achieve that dialogue of love so sought after by all post-Chekhovian culture?—Undoubtedly! But with one reservation: it is a wordless dialogue. To demonstrate this I must give a long quotation. If any commentary is necessary, then it is again a textological one, for in the magazine version of the story the passage reads as follows:

They would marry, perhaps. Or break off their relationship.

They would come to rest permanently in each other, pressed permanently together, or they would grow old and forget each other and be free forever …

“You look so beautiful. You look so happy,” he said, as if jealous at this life inside her, this radiance he could not share. What, was it beginning all over again? Their love beginning again, in spite of them?

“Why do you look so happy? Why?”

“Do I look happy?” she said, startled. “I don't know—I can't help myself.”15

The book version reads as follows:

This man was her husband, truly—they were truly married, her in this room—they had been married haphazardly and accidentally for a long time. ‹ … › And she did not hate him, she did not hate herself any longer; she did not wish to die; she was flooded with a strange certainty, a sense of gratitude, of pure selfless energy. It was obvious to her that she had, all along, been behaving correctly, out of instinct.

I shall interrupt the quotation here to express a hunch: it would appear that Oates is aware not only of the differences between Anna Karenina and Chekhov's Anna, but also of Tolstoy's opinion of the latter's behaviour expressed in his diary: “I have read Chekhov's ‘Lady with Lapdog.’ It is pure Nietzsche. People who have not developed in themselves a clear world-view that distinguishes good from evil. Formerly they would be intimidated, would search. Now, thinking that they are beyond good and evil, they remain beyond it—i.e., they are practically animals.”16 What for Tolstoy is extremely negative—animal instinct (although Tolstoy himself had once admired the instinctive life of Natasha Rostova)—is for Oates extremely positive.

The “happy end” of Oates's story is as follows:

“What triumph, to love like this in any room, anywhere, risking even the craziest of accidents!”

“Why are you so happy? What's wrong?” he asked, startled. He stared at her. She felt the abrupt concentration in him, the focusing of his vision on her, almost a bitterness in his face, as if he feared her. What, was it beginning all over again? Their love beginning again, in spite of them?

“How can you look so happy?” he asked. “We don't have any right to it. Is it because … ?”

“Yes,” she said.

Unlike the magazine ending, this is unexpected in a truly Chekhovian way—albeit of a totally different type than the unexpected ending in Chekhov's “Lady with Lapdog.” There the entire unexpectedness consists in the fact that nothing is finished, that it is only “beginning,”—although, as we have seen, this is an illusion, and Pasternak's ending “But we are no longer in the world” is more honest. On the one hand, in Oates the purely verbal incomprehension and absence of a dialogue with any abstract concepts in it is brought to an extreme precisely in the finale. The man's remarks are truly exquisite: “Why are you so happy? What's wrong?” and “How can you look so happy? We don't have any right to it”—the last remark being a echo not of Chekhov, but of Turgenev's A Nest of Gentlefolk,17 from which Chekhov's idea that “there is no happiness nor should there be” (“Gooseberries”) is derived at least as much as from Pushkin (for the latter at least has “peace and freedom”). On the other hand, there exists, it turns out, or at least it is possible to conduct, a dialogue on another, so to speak, non-verbal, instinctual level. Does not the ending of Oates's story simply signify something Chekhov not exactly did not dare say out completely, but simply was not sure about, namely whether a woman in such a situation could be truly happy? As for the man (Gurov), he is completely focused on himself, so that in some measure he is happy. Again Oates would appear to be right: all this clutching of the head was done so as not to appear happy: “How can you look so happy?” Woman is able to forgive this too: comprendre c'est pardonner.

To be sure, hard-core feminists cannot forgive Oates this ability she has to take a woman's point of view and yet understand and forgive a man. For them this is something pathological, and they have even pinned on her a rare and special label: androgyny. In spite of this, “repeatedly, Oates has called herself a ‘feminist’ … but she acknowledged her sense of the disjunction between masculine and feminine experience: ‘Though I don't believe that there is a distinctly ‘female’ sensibility, I know, of course, that there has been a distinctly female fate’.”18


  1. Sochineniia, XVII, 77.

  2. J. C. Oates's article about Chekhov's impact on Absurdist Drama seems to be an important source for her “reimagining” of Chekhov's story.

  3. Anton Chekhov, Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories (Penguin: 1984): 268. The translation has been changed slightly to render the Russian more closely (trans.).

  4. Ibid., 269.

  5. Ibid., 272.

  6. Ibid., 280.

  7. Joyce Carol Oates, Marriages and Infidelities (New York, 1972): 403.

  8. Ibid., 403.

  9. “Lady with Lapdog,” 281.

  10. Shoshana Felman, “Rereading Femininity,” quoted in Barbara Heldt, Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature (Bloomington, 1987): 62.

  11. Virginia Llewellyn Smith, Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog (London, 1973): 28.

  12. In this sense Chekhov's Vera (Faith) and Nadezhda (Hope) from whose point of view respectively the stories “V rodnom uglu” and “The Fiancée” are narrated, are reduced consciously and to an extreme degree to generalized, symbolic names.

  13. The only exception is “The Student,” in which the “inverted perspective” and the sense of happiness occur precisely at the end. With this story Chekhov proved (first of all to himself) that by nature he was not a “pessimist,” but only a “realist” who knows that dialogues like the one in “The Student” occur seldom in life, but are possible. (“How am I a pessimist?” he said to Bunin. “After all my favourite story is ‘The Student’” (I. A. Bunin, O Chekhove: Nezakonchennaia rukopis'[New York, 1966]: 57.)

  14. Thomas Winner, Chekhov and his Prose (New York, 1966): 216-17.

  15. Partisan Review, 30 (Spring 1972): 238.

  16. L. N. Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 54 (M., 1935): 9.

  17. In Turgenev's work Lavretskii says to himself the following: “Show me your claim to complete, true happiness! Look around you: who is there who is experiencing bliss or pleasure?” On the influence of this conception of happiness on Chekhov see my article V. Zviniatskovskii, “Zamysel i prototipy (K istolkovaniiu rasskaza Chekhova ‘O liubvi’,” Dinamicheskaia poetika (M., 1990): 147-158.

  18. E. T. Bender, Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence (Bloomington, 1987): 131.

Diane Long Hoeveler (essay date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8235

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 insane, as the reader increasingly suspects, then how does one read a text that is completely occluded, inseparable from her self-serving strategies of deception and paranoia?1 Certainly critical opinion has focused on the governess, or the children, or Douglas and the narrator—the living, in other words—in order to comprehend the meaning and significance of the events in the story. But focusing on the living alone has led these same critics to the proverbial dead-end of interpretation: how can one interpret a text that is riddled with suppressed hysteria, perhaps insanity so profound that it appears as a manifestation of normative behavior? Or, as Oates would claim, is there any such thing as “normative” behavior? How does one understand a narrative voice when it is so clear that it is actually impenetrable while all the time appearing completely penetrable? And so we are back at the beginning; it would appear that we cannot understand the events in this story if we attend only to the living. There is, in fact, an entire layer of meaning to the tale that is buried in the dead lives whose ghostly presence continues to motivate the actions of the living.

Another way of approaching the mysteries of the story has been taken by Joyce Carol Oates, who has rewritten the tale twice. The first time was in a story entitled “The Turn of the Screw,” published in 1972 in her collection of stories Marriages and Infidelities. In this early rewrite of James she writes in a double-column format and essentially puts the main characters from Mann's Death in Venice in something like a homosocial nexus of obsession. The story is not particularly successful, nor is it an important rewrite of its source in James. Twenty years passed, however, and Oates must have felt the need to revisit the issue. In 1992, she published a rewrite of both James and herself from the point of view of the ghosts and entitled it “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (1992; rpt. 1995). This story attempts to answer the conundrums that have plagued critics for generations. Is the governess insane and imagining the ghosts? What happened between the children and their dead governess and valet? And what force is so strong that it can draw the dead back to the living? What haunts the living and the dead? This essay will place James and the second Oates text in some sort of juxtaposition in an attempt to answer the first questions by posing a second set of questions: in reading Oates's story, what does the reader see from the point of view of the dead that one did not see in James's text? And in reading Oates's rewriting of James, what does it mean to read from a postmodern position that acknowledges the architectonic nature of the narrative voice? What, in short, constitutes what I would call the “postgothic position”? Can one write from beyond genre the same way one can speak from beyond the grave? Can one read either text with both tales simultaneously in one's head and see, not a partial vision of the “screw,” but the whole perspective? This essay will attempt to answer these questions, all the while recognizing the fictiveness of the critic's position, the self-reflexive futility of trying to decipher the indecipherable.

James's tale is notoriously subtle on one level, or hopelessly transparent on another. That is, the governess is either insane or she is not.2 The governess—the only major character who is unnamed in the story—is either hysterical, sexually perverse and repressed in her attraction to the Master and the children, or she is not. The ghosts have to be manifestations of her madness, her repressed and oedipally inflected sexuality writ large for only her to see, because there are no such things as ghosts, no one else sees them after all, and therefore she cannot be seeing anything except her own psychotic projections. And so she is insane, you see. But she has told the tale to a family friend, Douglas, who passes the story on to a narrator (gender unspecified), who in turn regales a group of women with the events as a Christmas time fireside chat. And the governess, unlike the majority of insane people who insist that they have seen ghosts and who are believed to be responsible for the death of a child in their charge, has lived out her life in respectability and credibility. These are the basic problems in reading James's “Turn,” a work that has puzzled, baffled, annoyed, and enraged its readers since its publication in 1898.3 If the governess is mad, then somehow the patriarchal system that has propped her up and placed her in charge of innocent lives is also perverse and corrupt. Somehow that aloof “Master,” living in splendid isolation in London and untouched by the tragedies occurring in his family, stands finally as a representative of Empire, or a clockmaker God or, most damning of all, the omniscient author who sees all but fails to intervene with a moral or a lesson.

If the governess is not mad—if ghosts have appeared to her—then what exactly is the story about? Are the ghosts evil and seeking to claim the children? Or are the ghosts themselves victims and doomed for some reason to haunt the environs of their crimes? And what exactly were those crimes? In other words, whose story is it? These are the starting points for Joyce Carol Oates's second rewrite of the story, collected in her Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994). In a collection that contains several unforgettably strange and perverse tales (most noticeably “The Doll” and the lead story, “Haunted”), “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” is memorable for its very precise and detailed rewriting of James. In the tradition of postmodern rewrites of earlier classic works, Oates's story stands out as both a creative and a critical response to her source in James. For Oates answers the questions the reader cannot resolve after reading James. She answers them in ways that are not comfortable or pleasant, but she is, I think, honest about the dark and unspoken urges in James's text. I speak, of course, about pedophilia, trauma, and fantasy. And in addition to pedophilia, Oates explores erotic melancholia, the kind of frustrated, infinite erotic suffering, the kind of loss and pain that is so intense that it exists even after death, the kind of insatiable longing that would constitute hell should there be such a place.


It is necessary, however, to begin by focusing our discussion on an examination of the three sightings of the ghosts that occur in James's text, each of which is then carefully recrafted—turned over and over again in her hands—and finally and slyly commented on by Oates. The first sighting in James occurs only a few weeks after the unnamed governess's arrival at Bly to take up her duties to two orphaned siblings, the eight-year-old Flora and the ten-year-old Miles. The Jamesian reader recognizes that the smugness and the self-deception of this young woman will be her undoing, but the reader also participates in the story on more than this first level: that of character critique. The postmodern position that Oates provides us in her story places the governess within a fictitious universe of literary intertextuality that is implicit in James, explicit in Oates. The Victorian narrative convention is turned over once in James, twice in Oates. In its ironic and twisting perversion of a young governess's fantasies, both James and Oates reveal the persistent power of master narratives to turn our heads not simply once, in the initial reading of them, but twice, in our futile attempts to impose their fantasies on our actual lives. Hence, James has the self-satisfied governess describe herself in these terms:

It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour: the children were tucked away and I had come out for my stroll. One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet some one. Some one would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that—I only asked that he should know; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face.

(James 15; original italics)

The reader recognizes the self-referentiality of the governess fantasy operating here—the governess herself is in the grip of the Jane Eyre narrative of the well-meaning, scrupulously diligent, oh-so-good and deserving young woman who wins the Master (and his estate and income) away from the evil and dark woman (read: mother-substitute). The root of the fantasy is oedipal, and the power and persistence of the narrative bespeak its hold over the female imagination. In Brontë's Jane Eyre, this incident actually does occur. On one of her meditative nocturnal rambles, Jane suddenly encounters Rochester, the Master, and the unexpected sight of her—so good, so pure—throws him from his horse. James rewrites Jane Eyre much more darkly, because the male figure who suddenly appears to the governess is not the longed-for master, but the ghost of his servant, Quint, the randy and promiscuous valet who chooses as the locale for his first haunting the towers of the old house. And lest we miss the phallic significance of the man's threat, we are told of his appearance as it occurred to the governess: “We were too far apart to call to each other, but there was a moment at which, at shorter range, some challenge between us, breaking the hush, would have been the right result of our straight mutual stare. He was in one of the angles, the one away from the house, very erect, as it struck me, and with both hands on the ledge” (16).

Oates's postmodern spin on this same scene is revealing for the explanatory context she provides. Here is her much more cynical rendering of the psyche of the first and doomed governess, a woman who allowed her head to be fatally turned by the governess-fantasy. And in succumbing to this fantasy, Miss Jessel became easy pickings for Quint, who was merely a poor substitute for his Master:

Days and weeks passed in an oblivion of happiness. For what is happiness, save oblivion. The young governess from Glyngden with the pale, rather narrow, plain-pretty face and intense dark eyes, who had long forbade herself fantasy as a heathen sort of indulgence, now gave herself up in daydreams of little Flora, and Master, and yes, she herself. (For, at this time, little Miles was away at school.) A new family, the most natural of families, why not? Like every other young governess in England, Miss Jessel had avidly reader her Jane Eyre.

(Oates, “Accused” 260)4

So Jessel was expecting, according to the structure of her well-studied fantasy narrative, the sudden appearance of the Master, his love, marriage, and an instant family of children that she would not have to soil her body to bear. Instead she was easily seduced and impregnated by the Master's valet, Quint, and destroyed, not redeemed by her body. According to Oates, the fantasy of marrying the Master leads not to the happy ending that Brontë provided, but a much more ordinary and typical narrative closure, the suicide of the pregnant and disgraced young woman.

And, in an uncanny bit of repetitive turning, Oates presents the current governess as yet another clone in the grip of the Jane Eyre saga, blatantly comparing her to Jane: “[she was] a skinny broomstick of a girl, in a gray bonnet that does not flatter her, and a badly wrinkled gray traveling cloak; her small, pale, homely face is lit from within by a hope, a prayer, of ‘succeeding’” (266). But Quint is now dead, perhaps murdered, perhaps accidentally drowned in a drunken rip, and so he is forced to turn again to the same scenario, the seduction of a virginal governess, but this time it cannot be in the flesh, but through the spirit. And hoping for a sudden visit from the Master, the new governess instead receives a full frontal of Quint, who stages his haunting as a display of masculine preening. Appearing to her on the battlements of Bly, Quint feels nothing but “bliss” at the governess's shock and terror: “The poor thing takes an involuntary step backward. She presses a tremulous hand to her throat. Quint gives her the full, full impact of his gaze—he holds her fast there below on the path, he wills her to stand as if paralyzed. … You do not know me, my dear girl, but you can guess who I am. You have been forewarned” (269; Oates's italics). Forewarned, that is, by the saga that is operating in lieu of the Jane Eyre narrative: the seduced maiden tradition. In the latter narrative, the woman is victim, not victor. Seduction can never be avoided, and the body is fate or doomed or a stinking tomb from which women can never escape. Oates's version of this scene concludes on a highly literary and allusive note, reminding her readers not simply that she is rewriting James, but that she is a woman author rewriting a male author's turn on a distinctly female literary tradition.


The second appearance of Quint to the governess occurs with the medium of glass between them, as in the biblical sense: we see through a glass darkly now. The specular intensities of both James's and Oates's tales lie not simply in the three ghostly appearances, but in the way these “performances” are also manifestations of the frustrated and diverted erotic impulse of the dead. In James's version of this second haunting, the governess comes upon Quint one late Sunday afternoon, staring at her from the outside of the dining-room window. The description of him again focuses on his body, but this time in an even more displaced manner:

He was the same—he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window. … His face was close to the glass, yet the effect of this better view was, strangely, just to show me how intense the former had been. He remained but a few seconds—long enough to convince me he also saw and recognised; but it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always.


And how, we might ask, could the governess have known the man “always”? The standard critical explanation is that the man in the window is a manifestation of her oedipal fixation on her “whimsical” or “eccentric” (1898 text) curate-father (shades of Brontë père).5 She sees, that is, her frustrated oedipal longings diverted first from her father, then from the substitutive Master, and then fixed murderously on Miles as the ultimate and unlucky love/death object. This interpretation has led many critics to see the hauntings as a form of self-haunting, a descent into insanity.

But the face in the window can also be read as an image of one form that narcissism can take. In her construction of Quint the governess sees herself because she reads in him her own interest in the children. Because she experiences this interest as unnatural, she projects onto Quint her own anxious evasions and her fear of perversion. Despite her best efforts, however, we sense in the unnamed governess a perverse sexual interest in the children, in their activities, in their secrets. As Milton notes, “nocent” is buried in “innocent,” and “nocent,” a nonce latinate pun, literally means “(guilty) knowledge.” The governess, like Eve, wants this “guilty knowledge,” with Quint as the tempter she must invent in order to obtain vicariously and perversely.

In Oates's version, however, we are brought face to face with the dark and hidden acts that bound Jessel and Quint to the children: group sex. And we are confronted with this scene, not directly, but filtered as a particularly delicious memory of Quint. It is the sex, the need to touch and fondle both children's bodies as the two adults engaged in sex themselves, that holds Jessel and Quint to them. While Quint amuses himself with his startling appearances to the new governess, Jessel is revealing herself to Flora across the lake, compelled to make herself known to the little girl, whom she considers “my soul, I will not give her up” (258). In James this incident is muted, with the governess only vaguely aware that there is “a third person” present in her dyadic rambles with Flora (28). Later the governess tells Mrs. Grose that the woman appeared to them as “a figure of quite an unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful—with such an air also, and such a face!” (30).

In Oates's tale Jessel's facial contortions and desperation are explained by her frantic attempts to get at Flora, and equally explicit is Flora's longing to be reunited with her dead governess: “Jessel appears to little Flora in emboldened daylight, daring to ‘materialize’ on the farther shore of the placid Sea of Azouf … is not little Flora in her innocence, as in her need, necessary to the vision?” (275). For Oates, Flora and Jessel feed each other in their excessive and mutual need for each other, just as Miles and Quint do. But where does that leave the governess? She is the third wheel in every configuration, the screen onto which both frustrated pairs project their longings. As the term that signifies excess as well as lack, the governess must be eliminated for the two pairs to reunite, and yet the governess refuses to go quietly. She refuses to erase herself because in James's text—at least, this is her story.

By this time in both tales, however, Quint also recognizes that he is connected with Miles in the same sort of intense manner. In Oates's story, when Quint remembers Miles it is as a “child starved for affection,” a child who hugged and kissed Quint, “seizing him around the hips, burrowing his flushed little face into the elder man as a kitten or puppy might, blindly seeking its mother's teats” (262). And it is her mother that Flora seeks in her infatuation with Jessel: “Flora must have seen, yes, here was her lost young mother restored to her, at last!” (259). The visual dimensions of seeing and being seen form the dominant motif in both tales, but in Oates the visual is blatantly intertwined with the question of sex and power. So there are two levels of ghosts haunting both tales: Jessel and Quint, the substitute love objects, as well as the earlier, dead biological parents, abruptly swept away by disease in India two years before the events in the story began. The originating wound for the children is the death of their parents, but then they are traumatized again by the sudden and violent deaths of their parent substitutes. The unnamed governess steps into this morass of unresolved mourning, of grief so intense that it swerves away from thanatos to eros in a desperate bid to deny its power and existence.


Voyeurism, exhibitionism, as well as oedipal desire and mourning are operating in both tales, but Oates chooses in her story to make these compulsions blatant. That is, what was implied in James is spoken in Oates. And what was whispered in James was the narcissistic basis of all human affections. We love in others what we project onto them, hence the heavy use of glass, mirrors, eyes, lake surfaces, and polished wood in which we see ourselves, not anything else. When Oates's Miss Jessel says that Flora is her “soul,” that she cannot live without possession of the girl, what she is actually saying is that she sees in Flora her younger, pure self. She loves herself as an unspoiled beautiful girl; hence her “love” for Flora is simply a manifestation of her narcissism. And the same can be said of Quint's attraction to Miles, in his eyes ultimately a younger and more innocent version of himself. And so when Jessel and Quint involve the two children in their sexual acts, they are not so much seducing others as making love to split-off manifestations of idealized aspects of themselves. The fact that they had easy access to these orphaned and unprotected children constitutes the horror of their crime, a perversion of the trust that was placed in them by the uninvolved “Master.”

In James's tale we are teased, as it were, with hints and innuendos. When the governess tells Mrs. Grose that she is certain the apparition had come with the purpose of finding Miles, she is then told by Mrs. Grose that yes, the two were “great friends”: “It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him. … Quint was much too free” (25). The governess does not need to hear anymore; she is sufficiently disgusted and determines at that moment to function as a “screen—I was to stand before them. The more I saw the less they would” (27). And so while appearing to position herself as a sacrifice, the one who will take the suffering on herself in lieu of the children, the governess actually positions herself at the keyhole, peeping, peering, blocking the views of others so that she can see it all. A visual mania, a scopophilia possesses this woman, who ultimately represents every reader who has wanted to seen the unseeable, who has wanted to invade the primal scene of textuality/sexuality.

We move now to this scene in Oates's version of the tale, the scene that we have been forming vaguely, fearfully, perversely in our own minds. What we are afraid to put into words even in our heads, Oates presents in stark terms:

It had been Miles's habit, charming, and touching, perhaps a bit pitiful, to seek out the lovers Quint and Miss Jessel in just such trysting places, if he could find them; then, silky hair disheveled and eyes dilated as with an opiate, he would hug, burrow, twist, groan with yearning and delight—who could resist him, who could send him away? And little Flora, too.


What we learn from this description is that the children are active participants with their parent-substitutes in sexual acts. They do not simply fantasize the primal scene: they live it. Eyes enlarged and reflecting their desire, the children “burrow” into the adults, as if in a futile attempt to return to the womb. The description is sad as well as horrible, and yet the reader of Oates who has also read James's cryptic story now has the sensation that yes, the crime has finally been uncovered. There surely could be nothing worse that we could imagine. What the unnamed governess wanted so much to uncover and have confessed is here, these acts of desperate erotic grief.

All of this, of course, leads us to Freud's theories about the interrelation of fantasy and trauma. In his Interpretations of Dreams, Freud claims that a dream is not a phantasmagoria, but a text to be deciphered, and he observes that it is in the very nature of sexuality to have a traumatic effect on the ego; therefore, he justifies the connection between sexuality, trauma, and defense. For Freud, fantasies are the conscious articulations of a lack, a loss of the psychic plentitude we experienced in childhood, while in both fantasies and dreams the Ego dominates and determines all the actions and consequences so that the lack is denied. Most fantasies, therefore, center on scenarios of self-aggrandizement and are structured around a narrative in which the ego regains a protective home, loving parents, and autoerotic objects suitable for affection. James's governess does struggle toward establishing an idealized family of her own, but she spectacularly fails in the attempt—not giving birth to a son, but instead costing him his life.

Freud would later in his career resort to an explanation of fantasy that he called “primal fantasies of phylogenetic endowment,” claiming that all fantasies are not individual, but traces of racial or primeval experiences. For Freud the primal fantasies that recur in all individuals—and by extension, the human race—are all narratives of origin: the primal scene and voyeuristic fantasies, fantasics of seduction and the upsurge of sexuality, and the origin of the difference between the sexes and its manifestation in the fantasy of castration.6 In both versions these primal fantasies are revisited in more or less explicit terms: seduction (Quint and Jessel; the governess and the children), sexual difference (the children's sexual interest in the adults), castration (the suspect deaths of both Quint and Miles), and the attempt to recreate a family of origins (the governess's futile gestures toward “mothering” the children). Both authors' persistent recourse to fantasy formations alerts us to the residual presence of trauma in the text, and as the research on trauma makes clear, there is no final resolution or successful rationalization of trauma. Its effects linger like scars on a body, like markings on a blank page.

We can also, however, examine the governess's conduct in light of Freud's definition of hysteria: the hysteric suffers from a psychic trauma whose origin she does not know or has repressed, yet which has remained as a memory trace in her psyche. Freud labels these memories “parthogenic,” and he notes that hysterical patients suffer from incompletely abreacted psychical traumas. Secondly, the gap in conscious knowledge between the trauma and the partial memory of it causes what Freud calls the “hysterical conversion”: that is, the somatization of conflictual unconscious representations. According to Freud, “hysterical symptoms are nothing other than unconscious fantasies brought into view through ‘conversion.’” All of which is another way of saying that the body is compelled to act out its psychic overload either through excitation (tears, fits, hallucinations) or various forms of inhibitions (melancholy, paralysis, catatonic depressions). The gap, then, between knowledge about the trauma and the ability to process it consciously, constitutes the very origin of hysteria.7 But that same gap between the experience of a trauma and our ability to work through and out of it can also be seen as the very impetus of the need to write. By writing a literary text we transform the trauma, but we never process it to the point that the trauma can or ever will disappear. The residue of trauma as the origin of a literary work persists in repeated imagery patterns that we begin to recognize as excessive, obsessive, delusional, hyperbolic, indeed, hysterical. In both versions, the governess appears to swing between excessive emotional overload and catatonic melancholia. The narrative oscillations in the text can be explained largely through the struggle to both act out the trauma and at the same time to attempt futilely to understand or rationalize the memories of the pain.

Finally, all of this brings us to Freud's late essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Here he speculates on the nature of psychic trauma, connecting it to both hysteria and the persistence of fantasies as survival mechanisms in all human beings. We might conclude, in fact, that trauma is the outgrowth of one particularly virulent fantasy, the persecutory or beating fantasy that stems, for Freud, out of unresolved incestuous feelings toward the father. But Freud did not attempt to explain trauma merely as an outgrowth of castration anxieties. Instead he complicated the issue by introducing a particularly literary example of his theory, Tasso's Jerusalem Liberated. When Freud chose to relate the story of Tancred and Clorinda, derived from Tasso's epic, he did so in order to illustrate the peculiar tendency of some people to wound and be wounded over and over again by the same agents, through a sort of fate that appears to be entirely beyond their own control (Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Freud writes that Tasso's hero Tancred

unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial he makes his way into a strange magic forest which strikes the Crusaders' army with terror. He slashes with his sword at a tall tree; but blood streams from the cut and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he has wounded his beloved once again.

(Freud 18:3)

By using this particular narrative to illustrate his theory of trauma, Freud highlights the paradoxical nature of psychic woundings, that the experience of trauma repeats itself over and over again through the unconsciously motivated acts of the survivor. In other words, if a psychic trauma is experienced too suddenly or unexpectedly, it cannot be fully known or available to the consciousness until it imposes itself yet again, in fact, repeatedly in the night-mares and compulsively repetitive actions of the traumatized and traumatizer. Cathy Caruth summarizes Freud on this point, noting that it is the second wounding that finally allows the trauma to be located on the body of the victim: “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual's past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on” (Caruth 4).

With these theories in mind I would suggest that the original childhood traumas for the governess were the emotional eccentricity of her father (code for sexual abuse?), the complete absence of her mother (never once mentioned during the governess's narrative of her childhood), and the presence of numerous siblings vying with her for scant attention and resources. But the second wounding, the “adult” version of the same trauma—rejection by the Master and the sudden appearance of sexually active “ghosts”—was even more psychologically devastating, a trauma so severe that she was compelled to replay her own childhood, this time with orphaned children surrounded by four dead “parents.” It is no surprise that the tale could only end in disaster and death; one initially wonders, in fact, why only one of the children (the boy) dies. But then one realizes that Miles is the only living male within reach, the unfortunate sacrifice. The wounds that one detects while reading The Turn of the Screw are the scars left by desertion, betrayal, and abandonment. Like scabs lightly covering a deep gash, both tales dissect this particular wound—sexual betrayal and abandonment—over and over again.

We can recall that Freud queried about the very core of surviving a deep psychic wound: is trauma to be understood as the direct and immediate brush with death, or is trauma the experience of surviving that near-fatal disaster and yet to be forced to relive it repeatedly in dreams and painful memories? As Cathy Caruth has noted, “in the oscillation between the crisis of death and the crisis of life” we get “a kind of double-telling,” a narrative that exists “between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival” (7). The theories of Nicolas Abraham are relevant here as well, particularly his notion of the “phantom,” which he labels an “invention of the living” designed to objectify “the gap that the concealment of some part of a loved one's life produced in us. The phantom is, therefore, also a metapsychological fact. Consequently, what haunts is not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” The governess, therefore, would appear to be pursued by the phantoms of the two dead servants, but in actuality she is haunted by the gap in her father's consciousness, his secret sexual dislocations. The case studies of Abraham have identified this syndrome and his description bears an uncanny resemblance to the metapsychological dynamics of the governess's psyche:

Because the phantom is not related to the loss of a loved one, it cannot be considered the effect of unsuccessful mourning, as is the case of melancholics or of all those who carry a tomb within themselves. It is the children's or descendants' lot to objectify these buried tombs through diverse species of ghosts. What comes back to haunt are the tombs of others. The phantoms of folklore merely objectify a metaphor active within the unconscious: the burial of an unspeakable fact within the loved one.

What is the unspeakable fact within the father? The text informs us only that he was “whimsical.” But James revised that description from the earlier one—“eccentric”—suggesting something more sinister about his character. The mother, as noted above, is completely absent from the governess's version of her childhood, a fact in itself that is more than suspicious. Both of these facts allow us to recall another aspect of Abraham's theory of the phantom yet once more. Children are haunted by the unresolved and secret sexual and psychic history of their parents in such a way that the children themselves come to embody the tombs that are enclosed within the psyches of their parents:

The phantom is a formation of the unconscious that has never been conscious—for good reason. It passes—in a way yet to be determined—from the parent's unconscious into the child's. … The phantom which returns to haunt bears witness to the existence of the dead buried within the other. A surprising fact gradually emerges: the work of the phantom coincides in every respect with Freud's description of the death instinct … the phantom is sustained by secreted words, invisible gnomes whose aim is to wreak havoc, from within the unconscious, in the coherence of logical progression. Finally, it gives rise to endless repetition and, more often than not, eludes rationalization.

(Abraham 287; 289; 291)

If anyone is in the grip of the death instinct it would appear to be the governess, who ends up substituting the boy—rather than herself—as her offering to the death-instinct.


As the memories of their shared intimacies increase and actually haunt the dead, Jessel is ever more anxious to claim Flora, who she sees now as not simply her soul, but as “her own little girl, the babe cruelly drowned in her womb, hers and Quint's, in this very pond” (275). As she silently communes with Flora, drawing her closer to her and into the world of death, the new governess, called “St. Ottery” in mockery by Jessel and the Quint, suddenly leaps up and saves Flora, snatching her from the imploring arms of what she sees as a ghoul: “‘My God, what a—horror! Hide your eyes, child! Shield yourself!’. … Don't look at her, Flora! The horrid, obscene thing! You're safe now” (276). Death and insatiable longing have turned Jessel into a ghoul, a cravening thing with “hard-shelled beetles” infesting her pubic hair. Salvation for her can only arrive through her capture of Flora, because in seducing Flora and gaining her love, Jessel redeems herself, returns symbolically to her virginal and pure self, her “flower” of femininity restored to what it was before she was deflowered by Quint.

The love Jessel has for Flora has held her to the catacombs of the dead that encircle the house of Bly. Jessel cannot claim Flora as her own because of the vigilant and obsessive surveillance of St. Ottery, a “terrier” of a woman, as dogged in her pursuit of the ghosts as the ghosts are determined in their pursuit of the children. In such a struggle, one is tempted to label it a life or death struggle, someone has to lose, and, unfortunately, it is the weakest who will crack “when a bubble bursts at last in Flora's brain” (278). Driven by St. Ottery to confess about the ghostly appearances of the woman at the lake, Flora disintegrates and is taken away to London, and, according to Oates, she is accompanied there by Jessel, who no longer has any need to continue to haunt the house of Bly. Jessel's disappearance allows Quint to come to terms with his prey, Miles. And the story of Quint and Miles is not shrouded in any soothing mother-daughter imagery. Nor is it presented as the quest of one soul for another. The tie between the two is purely sexual and physical, making it all the more dangerous for Miles.


The connection between Quint and Miles is the core of both James's and Oates's texts. We have in this relation the association between an older servant and a young, upper-class boy who is desperate for a father, his love and acceptance being crucial for the boy's identity. In James we learn that “for a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together” (34). The climax of James's tale occurs in a series of gothic clichés that we are almost forced to read as jokes. First, the governess reads Fielding's Amelia to try to calm herself as she keeps vigil by Flora's bed. Roused by a vague premonition, she ventures forth down a dark hallway with only a candle for assistance. The candle is immediately extinguished and the defenseless woman—much like her literary predecessor Amelia—finds herself besieged by the spectre of male power:

I knew that there was a figure on the stair. I speak of sequences, but I require no lapse of seconds to stiffen myself for a third encounter with Quint. The apparition had reached the landing halfway up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where, at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden. He knew me as well as I knew him.


Again we have in James this ocular fixing, this attempt at control through visual domination. The dueling continues as the two joust to the death for the possession of Miles.

Hints are dropped in James about the exact relationship between Quint and Miles, but in Oates we are given the full spectacle, the evidence that Quint has engaged with the boy in oral sex and that Miles has bragged about the acts to his closest friends at school—hence his immediate and disgraced expulsion. In Oates, the final scene, the struggle for Miles, is a confrontation that neither side could avoid. St. Ottery has been called “Fate” by Jessel, and such is her role in Oates's version of the disaster. To capture the moral ambiguity of the situation, Oates places us inside Quint's mind, not the governess's:

Quint, with trembling fingers, readies himself for the final confrontation. He perceives himself as a figure in a drama, or it may be an equation, there is Good, there is Evil, there is deception, there must be deception, for otherwise there would be no direction in which to move. Squinting at his sallow reflection in a shard of mirror, plucking at his graying beard to restore, or to suggest, its old virility; recalling with a swoon in the loins, poor Miles hugging him about the knees, mashing his heated face against him. How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love's comforts?


Why, we might ask, is the word “deception” used twice? Because all of the moral categories we construct in order to explain our lives' events are for Oates ultimately built on necessary self- deceptions. No one, in other words, thinks that he or she is evil. All of us are capable of vast amounts of rationalization, of deception, without which we would not be able to function. For Oates, it is not evil to give or receive any of love's comforts. It is only human. In the world of Bly, all of the inhabitants—those living as well as the dead—are accursed by their longings and their persistent need for love's “comforts.” In the catacombs of the dead, where Jessel and Quint rattle around, plucking beetles from their bodies and preening before the shards of broken mirrors, the same emotions play out. They are just as jealous, needy, narcissistic, and perverse as are the living. There is, in other words, no peace in death, only a continuation in a higher key of the same psychology, the same deceptive emotions.

In Oates's tale the climactic scene occurs in the family library, where Miles has curled up one evening to read a particularly appropriate volume, the Directorium Inquisitorium, an inventory in Latin of sins that are unforgivable in the eyes of the Church.8 St. Ottery confronts him, demanding a confession, and Miles denies all. St. Ottery goes so far as to point to Quint, who is pressing his “yearning face” against the glass, but Miles still demurs, claiming that he is unable to see Quint: “‘There, I say—there!’ In a fury, the governess taps against the glass, as if to break it. Quint shrinks away.” As Miles flees the room, St. Ottery and Quint are left to “regard each other through the window, passionless now, spent as lovers who have been tortured to ecstasy in each other's arms” (282). Oates concludes her tale with Miles's suicide in the lake, and the eerie rationalization: “We must have imagined that, if Evil could be made to exist, Good might exist as rightfully” (282). The postmodern morality of Oates positions both the living and the dead as victims. Her ideology goes something like this: in James's moral universe, the unnamed governess needed to believe that those who had died were “Evil” so she created its manifestations in order to convince herself that she inhabited a wholly different world, the world of the living that was by its very nature “Good.” A tremendous anxiety toward death actually motivates James's text, as well as an almost pathological fear of sex in any of its forms. Oates makes plain the forces driving James's text; at the same time she puts forward her own alternative view of morality—there is no sharp demarcation between “good” and “evil.” They exist, if they exist at all, on a continuum where we will all at some time in our lives find ourselves. Oates does not mystify nor does she coddle her readers. She slaps them in the face with the realization that at some point all of us will be prey to obsession, to an erotic mania and nostalgia that is so intense and irrational in its object-choice that will wish ourselves dead.

James's tale has famously persisted to enthrall and puzzle readers who are drawn to its glossy surface and its unspoken depths. Oates, on the other hand, begins her story in those depths. She forces her readers to confront the polymorphous perversity that is implicit in human relationships, and she portrays a world that has no neat boundaries, either in morality or mortality. In an essay in which she attempted to define “The Short Story,” Oates observes that years earlier she believed that “art was rational, at bottom, that it could be seen to ‘make sense,’ that it had a definite relationship with philosophical inquiry, though its aim was not necessarily to resolve philosophical doubt.” Now, however, she thinks such is not the case: “the short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience; the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery” (Oates, “Short Story” 214). “Postgothic” fiction brings us precisely to this point, the place where the reader is forced to realize—like Oates—that there is no reality outside the fictional, no truth beyond the constructions, no death, and finally no life apart from the pain. Postmodern gothicists like Poppy Z. Brite take us just to the edge of life. Oates takes us over the edge so that the dead speak and feel and yearn and we postgothic readers, in turn, know that there will be no final escape for any of us—only more texts.


  1. Readers who have struggled with the vexed and vexing narrative and thematic issues in James's tale are legion. Shoshana Felman has summed up the “trap” that the reader of James's text falls into quite succinctly: “The reader can choose either to believe the governess, and thus to behave like Mrs. Grose, or not to believe the governess, and thus to behave precisely like the governess. Since it is the governess, who, within the text, plays the role of the suspicious reader, occupies the place of the interpreter, to suspect that place and that position is, thereby, to take it” (190; original italics).

  2. The governess's insanity or psychic problems have been discussed by numerous critics, including Paula Marantz Cohen and Stanley Renner. Lacanian readings of the causes of the governess's neuroses have included those by Christine Brooke-Rose and Beth Newman.

  3. Critical controversy has raged around James's text, and the most famous (or infamous) critical statements are readily available in a number of sources: see Gerald Willen, Terry Heller, Peter Beidler, and Deborah Esch and Jonathan Warren.

  4. All quotations are from the 1995 version published in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (New York: Plume, 1994), pp. 254-83, and will be cited in parentheses in the text. Alice Hall Petry has explored all of the allusions to the presence of Jane Eyre in James's tale and argued that they reveal that James's intention was to write “a remarkably clever parody” of the Brontë classic (75).

  5. William Veeder discusses the revision of “whimsical” for “eccentric” and also analyzes the governess's case as one of arrested emotional development caused by the absence of her mother and the “whimsical” presence of her oedipally-desired father.

  6. My discussion of Freud's theories of fantasy is drawn from the analysis by Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis.

  7. My discussion of Freud's theories of hysteria is indebted to Elizabeth Bronfen.

  8. Oates's childhood Catholicism rears its head more than occasionally in her works. Although there is no analysis of “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly,” there are some useful discussions of Oates's persistent interest in Henry James and her attraction to male fictional masters like Kafka, Joyce, and Chekhov. See Greg Johnson (Invisible Writer) for a discussion of her Catholic background, and Johnson's Joyce Carol Oates for analysis of Oates's first attempt to rewrite James (75-77).

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas. “Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology.” Trans. Nicholas Rand, Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 287-92.

Beidler, Peter G., ed. The Turn of the Screw. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston: Bedford, 1995.

Bronfen, Elizabeth. “Hysteria, Phantasy and the Family Romance.” Women's Writing 1 (1994): 171-79

Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. London: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cohen, Paula Marantz. “Freud's Dora and James's The Turn of the Screw: Two Treatments of the Female Case.” Criticism 1 (1986): 73-87.

Esch, Deborah, and Jonathan Warren, eds. The Turn of the Screw: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. 2nd ed. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1999.

Felman, Shoshana. Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. 94-207.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74. 24 vols.

Heller, Terry. “The Turn of the Screw”: Bewildered Vision. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

James, Henry. “The Turn of the Screw.” Esch and Warren 1-85

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998.

———. Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994

Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin et al. London: Methuen, 1986. 5-34.

Newman, Beth. “Getting Fixed: Feminine Identity and Scopic Crisis in The Turn of the Screw.Novel 26 (1992): 43-63

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Accused Inhabitants of the House of Bly.” Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. New York: Plume, 1994. 254-83.

———. “The Short Story.” Southern Humanities Review 5 (1971): 213-14.

Petry Alice Hall. “Jamesian Parody, Jane Eyre, and ‘The Turn of the Screw.” Modern Language Studies 13 (1983): 61-76.

Renner, Stanley. “‘Red Hair, Very Red, Close-Curling’: Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the ‘Ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw.” Beidler 223-41.

Veeder, William. “The Nurturance of the Gothic: The Turn of the Screw.Gothic Studies 1 (1999): 47-85.

Willen, Gerald. A Casebook on “The Turn of the Screw.” New York: Crowell, 1960.

Marilyn C. Wesley (essay date winter 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2556

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 first story in Oates's first collection, and whose continuing truculent influence is felt in the Kalistruck heroines of The Goddess and Other Women, in the powerful women of Bellefleur, and in the wilful artist of Solstice, and who is most fully present as the protagonist of the 1972 short story “Stalking.”

A previous stage in the evolution of the transgressive heroine is the figure of the anti-hero—the protagonist who is “not simply a failed hero but a social misfit, graceless, weak, and often comic, the embodiment of ineptitude and bad luck in a world apparently made for others”2—a commonplace in our contemporary literature. “The Hero, who once figured as Initiate, ends as Rebel or Victim,” Ihab Hassan explains.3 The presentation of this anti-hero places him in counter-relation to the social structure which produces him. Oates's transgressive works, however, recognize the impossibility of the superimposition of an imaginary counter-structure. While the anti-hero, like Ralph Ellison's “invisible man,” stages his protest by defining a metaphoric space of freedom and moving outside the system, the transgressive protagonist, unable to dream of lighting out for any territory, however surreal, repeatedly inscribes her discomfort from within. The victimization and ineffective rebelliousness of Oates's transgressive heroines serve to illuminate and interrogate the system which creates them.

Transgression, Michel Foucault argues, implies an operation more complex than the antithesis of two terms: its purpose, like the repeated violations perpetrated by Oates’ transgressive protagonists, is to reveal the dysfunctional interaction between the terms:

Transgression, then, is not related to the limit as black to white, the prohibited to the lawful, the outside to the inside, or as the open area of a building to its exposed spaces. Rather, their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust.4

Exhibiting such transgression articulates the terms and questions the limits they impose.

In “Stalking,” Gretchen, the protagonist, is female—a fact which forces us from the outset to recast the convention of the anti-hero as a problem of gender. Our first glimpse of her indicated her problematic situation:

She is dressed for the hunt, her solid legs crammed into the old blue jeans, her big, square, strong feet jammed into white leather boots that cost her mother forty dollars not long ago, but are now scuffed and filthy with mud. Hopeless to get them clean again, Gretchen doesn’t give a damn.5

Gretchen is uncomfortably suspended between contradictory ascriptions of gender. Unlike the male anti-hero whose failure is marked by weakness, the transgressive heroine suffers from inappropriate strength. Like the ugly step-sister at the royal ball, she cannot contract her foot to any comfortable relation to the feminine apparel whose value is defined by the social system and promoted by her mother, and hence cannot claim her feminine reward. Her size, her shape, and her manner violate clear demarcation between conventional masculine and feminine identification, an interpretation reinforced by this detailed description of Gretchen’s face:

She has untidy, curly hair that looks like a wig set loosely on her head. Light brown curls spill out everywhere, bouncy, a little frizzy, a cascade, a tumbling of curls. Her eyes are deep set, her eyebrows heavy and dark. She has a stern, staring look, like an adult man. Her nose is perfectly formed, neat and noble. Her upper lip is long, as if it were stretched to close with difficulty over the front teeth. She wears no make-up, her lips are perfectly colorless, pale, a little chapped, and they are usually held tight, pursed tightly shut. She has a firm, rounded chin. Her facial structure is strong, pensive, its features stern and symmetrical as a statue’s, blank, neutral, withdrawn. Her face is attractive. But there is a blunt, neutral, sexless stillness to it, as if she were detached from it and somewhere else, uninterested.


The face is, of course, no less coded than the foot.6 We are used to intimately observed catalogues of features in literature. What is remarkable about the use of tradition in this story is that Oates rarely employs her gaze in this exhaustive fashion. She sketches her characters by a brief mention of their hair color and then, typically, looks through their eyes at the closely observed world around them rather than into their eyes like a rapt admirer. The function of this sustained description is keyed to the problematics of gender. “The hair suggests the familiar associations of female sexuality; but although as a turbulent “cascade,” it evoked abundant “nature,” which usually signifies feminine sensuality, the suggestion of wig-like appearance quickly undercuts this automatic ascription. Perhaps Gretchen is neither natural nor sensual. In effect, this description invokes the literary code of femininity only to revoke it—a strategy immediately employed again in the next two sentences, where the eyebrows are emphasized as dark and thick, a feature conventionally expressive of masculinity. And, in fact, the eyes, those symbolic windows to essence, return not the modest glance of a woman expected in this context but the provocative stare of “an adult man.” Further, this contradiction of femininity is at least a partly willful undertaking of Gretchen herself. Such is the message of the mouth, which has deliberately refused the application of the cosmetic allure of color and is “pursued” in tight rejection. The cumulative effect of this manner of presentation is summarized in the climatic series of adjectives, “blunt, neutral, sexless.” Gretchen’s statue-like physiognomy, as Oates orchestrates its “meaning,” is a complex field of reference upon which is played out the repudiation of conventional femininity.

For Gretchen’s is, without doubt, an “anti-heroine,” At thirteen years of age, her size-fourteen body is evidently “graceless.” She is a clear “misfit” in a “world apparently made for others.” a world whose gender requirements are garishly evident in the people, objects, and décor of the shopping mall Gretchen visits:

Dodi’s Boutique is decorated in silver and black. Metallic strips hang down from a dark ceiling, quivering. Sales girls dressed in pants suits stand around with nothing to do except giggle with one another and nod their heads in time to the music amplified throughout the storem “WCKK. Radio Wonderful. …”Dodi’s Boutique is decorated in silver and black. Metallic strips hang down from a dark ceiling, quivering. Sales girls dressed in pants suits stand around with nothing to do except giggle with one another and nod their heads in time to the music amplified throughout the storem “WCKK. Radio Wonderful. …”

“Need any help?” the girl asks. She has long swinging hair and a high-shouldered, indifferent, bright manner.


Gretchen's actions in the story rebel against the alienating strictures of a system that would define her in terms—artificial, commercially attractive, thoughtlessly benign—that are appropriate to the stylized world of the salesgirl. In one store, Gretchen shoplifts a tube of pale pink lipstick, “Spring Blossom,” which she takes into the “Ladies Room” (150) to examine, destroy, and discard. As if to underscore her rejection, she also breaks the toilet into which she tosses the pilfered lipstick. And in Dodi's Boutique, Gretchen takes several dresses into the changing cubicle. She muddies one with her boots; she deliberately tears out the zipper of another.

What changes the focus of this story from Gretchen as a rebel-victim to Gretchen as a transgressive protagonist is the intriguing contest central to the action. Gretchen is not merely out shopping on a November Saturday afternoon; she is engaged in hunting down an imaginary antagonist who leads her from an open field into the mall, through several stores, and home again. “The Invisible Adversary” (147), a male figure, is the conscious target of Gretchen's hostility throughout the story: “You'll be sorry for that, you bastard”(149). “You'll regret this” (151). “You'll get yours” (152). Gretchen's “stalking” maneuvers finally force the Adversary out onto the highway, where he is struck by a car. He is “limping like an old man” (153) as they both return to Gretchen's home. The story ends with Gretchen watching television: “If the Adversary comes crawling behind her, groaning in pain, weeping, she won't even bother to glance at him” (154).

The sequence of events and attitudes demands that the reader determine who or what the Adversary represents and what his function is in the story. The thematic contest that engages Gretchen, we have already discovered, is the struggle for and against gender identity. Certainly this projection acts out a role in that struggle. In a review of a biography of Carl Jung, Oates indicates her extensive knowledge and admiration of Jungian theory,7 so we may identify the Adversary as an animus figure, that personification of the masculine component of a woman's unconscious typically projected in dreams and fantasies. The Jungian objective is the integration of all the unconscious elements of the personality,8 but what is most striking in Gretchen's story is the violence with which she strives to destroy and reject what Jung understood as her masculine nature.

The text suggests only two coded means to gender production, which do not appear to intersect. The woman may participate in the endless replication of the feminine body and her domestic accouterments through purchase encoded in the capitalistic system and epitomized in the reiterated “family rooms” Gretchen sees displayed at the furniture store:

She wanders through Sampson Furniture. … a ritual with her. Again she notices the sofa that is like the sofa in their family room at home. … All over the store there are sofas, chairs, tables, beds. … People stroll around them, in and out of little displays, displays meant to be living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, family rooms. … It makes Gretchen's eyes squint to see so many displays: like seeing the inside of a hundred houses.


Gretchen herself participates directly in the practice of a masculine code of aggression:

Some boys are fooling around in front of the record store. One of them bumps into Gretchen and they all laugh as she is pushed against a trash can. “Watch it, babe!” the boy sings out. Her leg hurts. Gretchen doesn't look at them but, with a cold, swift anger, her face averted, she knocks the trash can over onto the sidewalk. Junk falls out. The can rolls. Some women shoppers scurry to get out of the way and the boys laugh.


That the seemingly desultory destructiveness is really constitutive is evident in the emphatic differentiation in this encounter between the powerful males and the victimized female “babe,” between the forceful Gretchen imitating the masculine mode and the flustered powerless women. Further, Gretchen's general anger and resultant vandalism are codified in the story as components of the ritualized stalking, hunting, and killing-activities of the primitive male hero. But Gretchen is not a hero, although it is her masculine capacity for anger and physical strength that compromises her participation in the feminine world “apparently made for others.”

In the same way that she has tried to feminize her large feet by stuffing them into the feminine white boots purchased by her mother, only to finally react by desecrating them when the transformation proved inadequate and incompatible, Gretchen responds with distressed ambivalence to the gender definitions of her shopping-center world. Rather than embracing her masculine capabilities to define herself as a rebel contradicting, negating, restrictive feminine identification, Gretchen becomes a transgressor. Instead of claiming, like the “invisible man,” some free but lunatic space outside the arena of constricting definition—the open field of the “Invisible Adversary” at the beginning of this story, for example—Gretchen compulsively enters and re-enters the mall, where she is repeatedly attracted to its signifying objects. She reaches for the lipstick and the dresses again and again, only to destroy them out of frustration at their lack of congruence with her own requirements. By fantasizing the destruction of her masculine capabilities, Gretchen reveals a maladaptive complicity with a code of feminine definition which will confine her to the characteristic but ineffective rage that her story presents.

“Stalking” illustrates the transgressive “spiral” which by repeatedly desecrating limitation exposes it to examination and interrogation. Underlying the concept of the transgressive heroine is the assumption that a rule which is “transgressed” is not destroyed but merely violated. Such violation calls attention to conditions that provoke defiance—a gender ideology which supports economic rather than human development in this case—at the same time that it underscores their continuing existence. The repetition of this maneuver produces not reform, but the possibility of reform. “Transgression,” according to Foucault, “carries the limit right to the limit …; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance …” (34). The transgressive heroine of Oates's fiction, a female protagonist who repeatedly violates the forms of gender stricture without personally solving the social problem of gender restriction, promotes feminist reform, understood as literary challenge to patriarchal ideology.


  1. Joanne V. Creighton's influential 1978 article (reprinted in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Linda W. Wagner [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979], pp. 148-156) entitled “Unliberated Women in Joyce Carol Oates's Fiction” condemns “the unnatural adjustments most of Oates's women make to their unliberated selves” (p. 148). In The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1978), Mary Kathryn Grant states that Oates's fiction “tends to focus on weak women, women whose lives have failed, often because of extreme dependence on male strength” (p. 28). Cynthia Charlotte Stevens—whose 1974 dissertation for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “The Imprisoned Imagination: The Family in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, 1960-1970,” includes a lengthy list of critics who classify Oates as a nonfeminist—imputes a cosmic passivity to Oates's “vision … pessimistic because it suggests people are controlled by forces they cannot change” (p. 199). Until recently the tenor of these remarks has been the mainstream opinion in Oates scholarship.

  2. “Anti-Hero,” in Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins, The Harper Handbook to Literature (New York: Harper, 1985), p. 39.

  3. Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), p. 9.

  4. Michael Foucault, “Preface to Transgression,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), p. 35; further reference is cited in the text.

  5. Joyce Carol Oates, “Stalking,” in Marriages and Infidelities (New York: Fawcett, 1972), p. 147; further references are cited in the text.

  6. In her introduction to The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), Susan Rubin Suleiman reminds us: “The cultural significance of the female body is … that of a symbolic construct. Everything we know about the body … exists for us in some from of discourse …” (p. 2).

  7. Joyce Carol Oates, “Legendary Jung,” in The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews (New York: Persea Books, 1983), pp. 159-164.

  8. A good brief overview of Jungian theory may be found in Calvin S. Hall and Vernon J. Nordby, A Primer of Jungian Psychology (New York: Mentor, 1973).

Stephen Slimp (essay date spring 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

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 palpable intensity. One can visualize the squalid hamburger joint, hear the blaring of Ellie's radio and the touch of Arnold's finger on the screen door. Most amazing, the reader experiences, even with multiple readings, a tightening of the stomach and quickening of the pulse as it slowly becomes clear exactly what Arnold is up to. Just as the sheer physicality of the narrative helps the reader confront the cultural wasteland that Oates believes our society has become, what Connie experiences physically leads her to an increasing awareness of the horrors of human existence and a resulting growth of her spiritual nature.

This interrelation of the physical and spiritual—in a story that Oates herself has described as “realistic allegory,” “a mode of fiction to which I am […] partial”1—is illustrated in the author's handling of an old trope common to many languages and many views of reality: the equation of physical breath with spirit. In Greek, for example, one word for spirit is πνευμα, which happens also to be the word for physical breath and, at times, for wind. So also in Latin, where spiritus means both breath and spirit.2 Throughout this story, Oates uses the traditional association of breath and spirit, in a manner appropriate to a story “rich with the imagery of life's deceptions and perils,”3 to help delineate Connie's progress in her understanding of the evils of the world and the consequent growth of her soul.

As the story opens, Connie is shallow and vapid, believing among other things that the height of human suffering is the annoyance she feels at her mother's chiding. So shallow are her emotions that she responds to her mother's corrections by saying that she would like to die, that is, literally to lose her breath. As the second sentence of the story puts it, “She […] had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck […].” As a shallow laugh, a giggle is a gesture emphatically not drawn from the depths of the soul. A little later, Oates makes the same point more explicitly when she writes of Connie's “high, breathless, amused voice” (732). And on the fateful day at the drive-in restaurant, Oates says of Connie and her friend that “they ran across [the busy road], breathless with daring” (733). At the beginning of the story, Connie's lack of breath symbolizes the lack of spiritual development of one absorbed by trivia.

As the story progresses, however, and as she begins to experience true evil and to grow spiritually as a result, Connie registers a growing capacity for breath. The first intimation of her increased ability to breathe comes, appropriately enough, at the moment she first encounters Arnold Friend:

Connie couldn't help but let her eyes wander over the windshields and faces all around her, her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music. She drew her shoulders up and sucked in her breath with the pure pleasure of being alive, and just at that moment she happened to glance at a face a few feet from hers.


The Sunday when Arnold comes to call, Connie is once again described as lacking in breath and air: “And Connie paid close attention [to the music], bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest” (735). Oates here emphasizes a room without air, without spirit; what breathing Connie manages is manifestly shallow. But then the pace of the story increases, and Connie gradually gains perspective, understanding, spirit, and breath. When she first recognizes a moment from her past as significant, the moment she first saw Arnold, “she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she sucked in her breath at just the moment she passed him” (736). After she begins to recognize the importance of the passage of time, an awareness that comes with her sudden recognition that Arnold Friend and Ellie Oscar are much older than they appear, she begins to feel “a little light-headed. Her breath was coming quickly” (739). At this point Connie has come to experience evil as an unsettling phenomenon; it remains for her to experience the full horror of her encounter with human malice.

Eventually Arnold threatens to enter the house if she attempts to call the police then predicts that Connie will sooner or later come out to him. Connie's panic mounts; “She was panting” (740). The climax of the story comes in a blast of breath, which announces to the reader that Connie has at last developed a soul, has achieved a depth of spirit in the way that most human beings do—through the experience of suffering that brings enlightenment and a proper ordering of one's relationship to the world. When she attempts to use the telephone, Connie finally shows a depth of soul that allows her to cry out from deep within: “She began to scream into the phone […]. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with […]” (742). A few lines further, Oates says that “[Connie] was hollow with what had been fear, but what was now just an emptiness. All that screaming had blasted it out of her” (742). Her screaming, born of her encounter with evil, results in her trying to establish a proper relationship with another human being—in this case, her mother. That her attempt has succeeded is shown when she sacrifices herself by going out, at the end of the story, to meet her fate, thereby sparing her family a violent and deadly encounter. She has shown herself to be a fully breathing human being, one who has, in a moment, developed the spiritual life lacking in her former existence.


  1. Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (New York: Dutton, 1989) 317.

  2. That the close connection of the two ideas is no mere coincidence is evidenced by the same relationship in Semitic languages: Hebrew lexica define ruach as both spirit and breath. Similarly, the Japanese word kaze serves the same dual function.

  3. Walter Sullivan, “The Artificial Demon: Joyce Carol Oates and the Dimensions of the Real,” Joyce Carol Oates: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1987) 8.

Works Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Short Fiction, Classic and Contemporary. Ed. Charles H. Bohner. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1994. 732-43. All quotations from the short story are from this edition.

Stan Kozikowski (essay date autumn 1999)

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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 story has recently become the subject of a well-resourced casebook edited by Elaine Showalter; and it remains a fixture, even featured, in such first-line texts as Abcarian and Klotz's Literature; Barnet, Berman, Burto, and Cain's re-edition of Literature; Hans P. Guth and Gabriele L. Rico's Discovering Literature; Lee Jacobus's Literature; Kirzner and Mandell's Literature, where it is featured in a “Fiction Casebook”; and Ann Charters' The Story and Its Writer as well as her (and Samuel Charters') Literature and Its Writers. In the last regard it is also a staple in short fiction anthologies such as Bohner and Dougherty's Short Fiction and Pickering's Fiction 1002. Although highly regarded as a poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, and short fiction writer, Oates is best known to the general public as the author of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Consequently, although its first-time readers, typically college freshmen students, have been guided through the story's seemingly inexhaustible trove of suggestive meanings, its idiosyncratic styling weaves, within its varied richness, a pattern worth studying that brings together distinctive elements of theme, characterization, structure, imagery, and perspective in a format well ingrained in the American popular imagination. This pattern, although I have taught several different approaches to the story over the years, invokes something like a community of assent in young readers, who dispute far more among other interpretations.3

I would suggest that this popular young-reader-response comes from an American teen's ‘grasp’ of a powerfully fixed cultural ‘handle’ available to us all, but especially to young people nowadays, particularly young students' sense of a story. And I think that this pattern as crafted into the story by Joyce Carol Oates evokes that ever-unrealized zone between consciousness and unconsciousness shaped from childhood—hers, ours, that of our students—recalling that ancient story modernized by Charles Perrault, popularized by the brothers Grimm, and implanted in the collective American semi-consciousness by Walt Disney—the tale of “Cinderella”. Accordingly, Oates, in 1963 and then in her twenties herself,4 transformed most of the story's principle features, carrying them forth from Connie's psyche, especially through the content and tone of Connie's “trashy” dreamy state, to reveal something deep and permanent within the mythic strata of troubled twentieth century ‘Cinderellan’ American life—something that the young reader especially acknowledges in the process of growing, learning, and valuing experience.

Connie's dreamy escape, like Cinderella's, although it promises pleasurable resolution, unfortunately brings unresolved tensions upon her, as they are upon many young women, and sometimes men, by a mass culture (the story's audience—the “You” of the title) that, despite aspirations otherwise, unwarily depersonalizes, debases, and devours the feminine ideal, branding those young among us, especially girls attaining to womanhood, as nameless, faceless, even heedless victims of culturally prompted masculate sexual appetite, consumption, and disposal. In fact, the standard merchandising of human sexuality, before men and women young and old, in the American marketplace, although oriented greatly towards foods, attaches itself to all manner of commodities, becoming evident most where expected least, in appealing to children's dreams—those wondrous yet terrifying acts of human imagination, poised to aspire, and to ascend—yet dreams blandly controlled by the huckster's world illustrated in Barbie-Doll iconography, mindless pop music, arcane Miss Americana, heavily capitalized pornographia, all of which inform Oates's reading of “Cinderella”. A girl justly desires in the purity of her heart to be pretty, to feel good, to gain attention, and to be cherished—a dream in formation since early childhood. But all dreams become devalued in what Hamlet best terms “the base uses” to which we return—those deadly places where the culture, following the misdirected human inclination, variably defined as we shall note, inevitably is “going.” Oates finds in the Cinderellan motif the pretensions and tensions of a serious, even tragic, contemporary conception of feminization targeted in the American predilection for merchandising flashy, readily consumable, and easily disposable commodities within a culture joyfully yet madly devouring its own resources of body, mind, and spirit, as well as its capacity even to imagine such losses.

Much in the story's fascinating complexity is rooted in its comprehensive stylistic involvement with the more recent versions, from Perrault to Disney, of the Cinderella tradition. A few aspects of the Cinderella analogy have been noted in an account of how the “story is full of fairy tales.”5 But as diligently as this reading places the story in a tradition of several popular tales such as “Snow White,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “The Genie in the Bottle,” it understates the psychological acumen with which Oates's story imaginatively reformulates the Cinderella mythos, placing it effectively within its cultural context. For, as Bruno Bettelheim, among others, has observed, the Cinderella story enacts the compensatory vision, dear to all children coming of age, that counteracts that universally seated conviction “deep within” the child “that Cinderella deserves her dejected state”:

The oedipal disappointments which come at the end of this developmental stage cast deep shadows of doubt on the child's sense of his worthiness. He feels that if he were really as deserving of love as he had thought, then his parents would never be critical of him or disappoint him. The only explanation for parental criticism the child can think of is that there must be some serious flaw in him which accounts for what he experiences as rejection.6

The childhood-induced Oedipal flaw, as Bettelheim fails to observe, is not only universally compounded by the culture, but it is principally represented in the culture as characteristic of feminine reality. Therefore, Connie, by ‘acting out’ her Oedipal resentment—in wishing her mother dead (the very condition of Cinderella's mother in the tale)—further problematizes her fate, adding, Bettelheim might say, “another reason to feel guilty.” Therefore, such multiplied guilt “about desires to be dirty and disorderly” ultimately in the most honorific sense “makes every child identify with Cinderella, who is relegated to sit among the cinders”:

Since the child has such “dirty” wishes, that is where he also belongs, and where he would end up if his parents knew of his desires. This is why every child needs to believe that even if he were thus degraded, eventually he would be rescued from such degradation and experience the most wonderful exaltation—as Cinderella does.7

Bettelheim, referring to “every” child, remains curiously blind to the distinctively victimized status of the girl as featured in the tale (along, for that matter, in other tales from childhood such as “Snow White,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Little Miss Muffet”). But prior to satisfying her need to be released from such ‘dirty’ ‘shame,’ the feminine child, far more than the masculine child, must obediently endure her earth-bound affliction. In Perrault's fairy tale, from his Contes de ma mère l'Oye, the less transfigured young maid—gentile, refined, and gracious—is called “Cinderbottom” (“Cendrillon”) as in the brothers Grimm version she is known as “Ashputtle” because, as the authors have it, “she always looked dusty and dirty.”8 The Disney version, playing lightly off the name by invoking “Cinderella,”9 covers up but cannot remove the stains of grimy guilt from this chariest maiden: Cinderella, as if deserving, is punished in having to do the ‘dirty’ work, and she fully accepts her ‘soiled’ role as her lot in life. Connie likewise is immediately associated with and helplessly mired in uncleanliness from the outset of the story. Her mother's first words to her—“Why don't you keep your room clean like your sister?”10—convey by an inexact analogy an exact contrast: The youthful Connie is ‘dirty’ and suspect, while the matured June is ‘clean’ and therefore the more favored.11 Connie's hair, which is “dark blonde”—she is told, and as we suggestively learn, “stinks,” but that of her sister, free from such unacceptable filth, doesn't. June wins praise for her domestic virtue, for “she helped clean the house and cooked,” while “Connie couldn't do a thing, her mind was filled with trashy daydreams.” Yearning release from this condition so as to embrace, as Bettelheim remarks, fantasies of “exhilaration,” the anticipation of imminent “rescue” becomes for Connie, as for Cinderella and all girls, the basis of the wish behind her most desired dream. This subconscious Cinderellan need to feel ‘dirty’ yet to be released from this state extends into, and is expressive of, the American market-culture, which calculates dissatisfactions that are typically only provisionally appeased. Consequently, in Oates's vision, the terms of the compensatory, restorative dream are all too readily available as a convenient fancy to everyone, young and old, in our happiness-crazed American culture. In our public cultural formations of joy—our childhood recreations, for example, with ‘hot’ toys, ‘sweet’ songs, and ‘instant’ model heroes—we too readily appropriate fantasies to salve momentarily the shame that has abided for centuries, whether transvalued from Hellenic defilement, Judeo-Christian sin, or Modern Oedipal guilt. Such analgesic ‘salvation,’ the stuff of sleep, though an act as simple as feeding oneself, does, however, by virtue of its self-evident falseness, only exacerbate the inadequacy felt by the young even as it produces the collateral need to punish ourselves even more while we cheerfully hold out for those yearnings expressed by Cinderellan dreams.

Connie, therefore, like Cinderella, is reduced in name (from Constance) and thereby in moral status (from steadfastness and faithfulness), to a name that, among its meanings, suggests the illicit or fraudulent conduct of which Connie will accuse herself. Overlooked, and critically important, is the fact that her name evokes “concubine”, the principle feminine figure in the Jewish biblical source of the title (“The Book of Judges”, which invokes a story akin to that of Cinderella12). Connie in Oates's tale is bereft of family identity having, like Cinderella, no surname. In both instances the single name conveys the character's hapless, devalued condition as an individual, as a member of a family, and as the diminished component of a socio-economic unit indifferent to even itself. Connie's familial, social, and economic disconnections, like Cinderella's, all the more heighten the contrast between her shamed solitude and the social modes by which she becomes solicited, valued, and appropriated. The defining element binding old tale and contemporary story is, of course, the dream of yearning, a key motif in itself.13 Connie, like Disney's Cinderella, who sings, “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” eagerly drifts off into fantasy, half-consciously yielding to her dream experience as she ardently wishes for a special place where she can feel good and be noticed; where she can enjoy rapturous music; and where she can meet her sweet, charming lover—her own ‘prince charming’—whom she abstracts as the amorphous composite of all those boys who have dwelled in the pleasure zone of her affection. By these three means—the enjoyments of palace, pleasurable music, and prince charming—both young women plan their escapes from a household filled with sad antagonisms—a father's physical or moral absence, the sexual jealousy and hostility of a mother figure, the irritating probing of an older sister, and subjection to continual mistreatment. What is vital—namely, wishing where to go, what to feel, and whom to meet—are in both accounts played off against what has debased and deadened both girls at home: the disappointments of where they have been, what they have felt, and with whom they have had to share company. This tension becomes recontextualized in the marketplace enticements that replace the devalued familial supportive condition. This second, even more extreme, disjunctive effect, properly understood and directed by the story's interrogative title, conveys a spiritually depleted, secular psychomachia-an unresolved opposition between one set of misguided social attractions and another equally unacceptable set of prompts—for the ‘salvation’ (here, the physical well being) of one's flesh and blood.

On another frequency, of course, the split lies between Connie's brain and her mind, a split dictated, as Kay Redfield Jamison so poignantly observes, by the manic forces engendered by a culture that simultaneously attracts acutely with pleasure while rejecting harshly with painful trauma many people, most impressionably the young, who strive to live somehow integrally within it.14 Such mixed messages, directed to body, mind, and spirit, Oates incorporates as acquiescence yielding to misguided reverence. Appropriately, then, the critical gathering places in Connie's life, described as places of communion, are the dining table or barbeque at home, where food helps ritualize the vacuity that family space has become, or away from home, particularly the “drive-in restaurant,” where again, the claims of appetite bring young people together in unconscious religious charade. In the latter case, we see Connie brought to a place of romance envisioned, fitfully, as the sexually satisfying locus of masculine carnal appetite—the “drive in.” Unacknowledged moral negligence not only underlies this sexual tension (inviting yet threatening) but also “the pretence of exasperation” facing Connie (Oates, 30) that lies at the heart of the insincerely concerted fighting between mother and daughter. Connie's mother chastises her for having the healthy vitalism that she herself has lost, thereby shaming her into the false sense of herself to which she is already prone. Bereft and adrift, helpless in a morally depleted trashland of her own, Connie finds her only remedia—precisely Cinderella's—in her desire to transform her ambivalent pining to be with her ‘prince’ into her desperate escape from the emotional and moral wasteland of her home. Along with her daydreaming of escaping to the arms of her lover in what she fantasizes as “a kind of love, the caresses of love,” (Oates, 30) Connie experiences ‘shame’ in having repeatedly deceived her mother about the undisclosed sexual experience to which she flees: “Her mother was so simple, Connie thought, that it was maybe cruel to fool her so much.” (Oates, 29). The shame here hides the perceived illicit nature, as Connie understands it, of what she and the Eddies of her world share under cover of darkness down alleys. Connie's ritual ‘loss’ evokes Cinderella's ‘loss’ in the night symbolized by a glass slipper that conveys not an actual serious moral failing, but something perceived as such. Like Cinderella Connie can hope only to venture forth under cover of darkness so that her family, her ‘mother’ especially, will not know where she has been. The drive-in, as with the prince's palace, is where both young women hope they are going. Both young woman, then, are granted their wishes. Connie brings to her dream certain activating points of consciousness which become metamorphosed and elaborated, as any dreamer well knows, into the mixed stuff of her sleep—these include recollections of her sneaking off to the place of her desire, her experiencing good feelings generated from music at the teen hangout, her being noticed by boys, teens given over to Bobby King's music show, and the specter of Arnold Friend and his golden convertible. These key elements on their surface are also, it so happens, the exact formulae of Cinderella's wishful dreaming—the surreptitious venture, the pleasure palace beckoning all lovely young women to the enchanting music of the ball, the ‘King's’ sponsorship of that ball, and the resplendent cream and gold coach and six. Thus, the unresolvable actualities of Connie's life and the emanations of one more of her “trashy daydreams” are fused together in a modern-day American “Cinderella” tale … but with some new twists.

Connie, “pretty,” blonde-haired, good-natured but very uncomfortable, beleaguered, and neglected, lives at home, exactly as Cinderella, with a complaining, mean-spirited mother and an indifferent, ineffectual father. Connie's father, likewise, has been “lost”, not at sea like Cinderella's, but even while at home. Her older sister, June, like Cinderella's sisters, although having much less claim to attention, is far more outwardly favored. Far less attractive, yet far more secure in her mother's affection, like Cinderella's sisters, June is obviously outwardly preferred by a mother embittered in her sexual jealousy. Connie and Cinderella also share a type of bimodal appearance: each is quite ordinary-looking about the house; but whether venturing to a cherished teen hangout or to a palace ball, each becomes transformed through her clothing into a radiant, youthful beauty. Each, attracting much attention, achieves her desired happiness; and each wins over her prince charming. Both young women long for the opportunity to fulfill this cherished ‘dream,’ but such dreams of life all too often become nightmares of death.

Connie's Cinderella-life, however, takes on such dimension as she ventures forth once more, as Cinderella herself does, into her dream … essentially, a subset of the youthcultish ‘American dream.’ Connie, as her family drives off to the family barbecue, turns inwardly, away from her mother's angry stare, to a Hollywood wonderland of cherished comforts:

Connie sat out back in a lawn chair … Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love … the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was. … She shook her head as if to get awake.

(Oates, 30-31)

As she “breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest,” Connie in rhythmic sleep-like reverie brings to her filmland-dreamland other elements that will figure into her dream. One is that prevailing sense of human worthlessness that she has so readily accepted as her lot in life: “Connie's mother kept picking at her until Connie wished (my emphasis) her mother dead and she herself was dead and it was all over.” (26) Connie's edginess hints at severe self-judgment: her implicit acknowledgment of her cindered self, her realization that she is indeed ‘the kind of girl’ she uncomfortably assures her mother she is not, that she, like Cinderella, must be a dirtied young lady, one who has indeed ‘lost’ something precious, fragile, irrevocable. In fact, Connie's assumed loss of innocence, like Cinderella's lost slipper, she must learn, can only be ‘regained’ by a prince charming's outlandish claim upon her. Connie's dream will carry out her own conflicted moral judgment upon herself for the shame that in the absence of evidence is only thought to be underlying what she has done. Connie's diametric feelings of wishing herself dead yet being granted love “promised in songs” therefore, because they are so essentially unrelated yet now for her so intimately related, are together enacted in dream. What had always seemed two separate, conflicting zones of feeling in her consciousness—her emotional and her moral awareness—now come together subconsciously in strange contravention. Her darkened selfhood and her fondest wish for light uneasily come together. Meanwhile this self-contesting quality in Connie's life is outwardly defined in, and indeed stimulated by, the now-popular iconography of veneration—what one critic has called our “counter-ideology”15 symbolized, as another critic has carefully noted, by the church-like “drive-in” with its bottled roof and “grinning boy” revolving atop it.16 Now venerated, Oates suggests, is our culture's reduced spirituality so evident in its enshrinement of childish sexuality mixing levity with appetite but haunted, profoundly, by something amiss, something separated, strangely attractive, and yet threatening. Neither Prince of Peace nor Prince of Charm, forever ensconced atop the building's spire is the ludicrously reductive figure of a rotating “grinning boy” holding up a hamburger. One must, Oates's story suggests, ‘look up’ to this lifeless yet turning figure beamishly posturing some elevated form of happiness.

The place where Connie wishes to go resembles the place where Cinderella dreams of going. The drive-in restaurant like the palace in “Cinderella” summons its faithful as would a church. The spells of music replace the peals of bells calling forth all fair young maidens to the place where the son of a ‘King’ can be found and where the ‘sinner’—here, the afflicted maiden—can be called forth and ‘saved’ from the suffering she has borne. Certain moments in the Catholic Mass seem subtly reduced in Oates's story: the Communion call to the rail (Oates's story is set in the early sixties, when the Latinate liturgy prevailed) becomes the promise of food at the restaurant's counter; the ‘host’ itself held high in the consecrated hamburger raised aloft by the revolving figure. Eddie's own ‘grin’ and ‘turn’ on the stool emulates this grinning, turning figure; and the girls crossing their ankles are all that remains of the Sign of the Cross. Oates thereby captures the sense of religious culture lost in the pleasurable rituals of childhood fantasy, trapped in self-denigration and made hapless in the “going” of life. Oates sees Connie as Cinderella, having been and going nowhere. Eddie, Connie's boyfriend, ceremonially acts out in postpubsecent imitatio the icon's motions as he turns friskily upon his seat offering Connie a hamburger and a soda for another kind of happy turn down an alley. Before she and Eddie leave, Connie finds herself taking notice of another pilgrim to this shrine of toyish joy—“a boy” whose “lips widened into a grin” who then playfully yet ominously intones to her, “Gonna get you, baby.” (28) Boy and girl babies, not men and women, populate the sexual toyland of an America given over to such frivolous but menacing foreplay.

The following weekend Connie thus brings to her Sunday summer afternoon dream the sexually playful elements of her rapturous yet disturbing experience at the drive-in restaurant. As things turn out, immediately as her dream has begun, this much more impressive “grinning boy” enters Connie's life in the figure of Arnold Friend: “There were two boys in the car … and one was grinning at her.” (31-2) This child of man imperially shows off his credentials as the vassal of a true ‘king’—Bobby King. In effect a dutiful son to King, he proclaims “I listen to him all the time.” (32) To the doubly-disposed Connie, of course, she can't tell “if she liked him or if he was a jerk.” (33) Then, having trumpeted his car horn, he heralds himself:

“This here is my name, to begin with,” he said. ARNOLD FRIEND was written in tarlike black letters on the side, with a drawing of a round, grinning face that reminded Connie of a pumpkin, except it wore sunglasses.


The contemporary equivalent of Cinderella's pumpkin-turned-coach complete with grinning Prince emerges before Connie's Cinderellan psyche. Arnold, like the cartoon on his golden “convertible,” presents to her his own silly, bizarre pumpkin face; and Connie, fascinated yet fearful, hesitates to encourage him. Arnold, for his part, comes to Connie with that same determination that drives the Prince to Cinderella. He will have his lady fair because, as he says, she's “the one.” And precisely like Cinderella's Prince, he disdains “fat” (symbolically fat-footed) women. “I don't like them fat,” he will announce, as if savoring fast food. (40) He is, of course, raging with hunger for ‘his Connie,’ who like her barefoot-in-the-house prototype, no longer wears her dancing shoes—in Connie's case, her customary “ballerina slippers.” And true to the form of Cinderella's Prince, Arnold says, “I took a special interest in you, such a pretty girl, and found out all about you …” (35) Arnold confidently struts with the erogenous authority and power of Cinderella's Prince … the libidinous law of the land, which puts him in the company of our culture's Cinderellan acknowledgment that a woman, chosen merely for her arousing looks, her body's movement to music, her being “the one,” must, like food on a fork, yield herself up. One social critic, citing what she calls “the Cinderella complex,” voices concern that far too many American women remain trapped in helpless, even endangering dependency upon men.17 Another commentator, a psychologist, reads the Cinderella figure as the object of pervasive envy—the plight of many women who find themselves nullified, made helpless, and ultimately attacked.18 Oates defines the social contract as pretty much a one-sided proposition assuring men the rewards of sexual gratification for the mere grabbing. Most have one characteristic in common: physical intimidation coupled with sexual immaturity posing as a morally responsible agency, cloaked in the authority of uniform or high office, or some sartorial emblem of power over youth (one recalls the military or royal dress, for example, of Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, other ‘uniformed’ public figures, often targeting young, easily-summoned and readily subduable young women).

Connie, of course, though barely beyond childhood, detects some kind of fakery and suspects that Arnold is neither princely nor youthful. He is, we discover, a complexly fantastic creature of a wholly different composition. Part of him contains a vulgar parody of the impudent, offensive sexuality of the militantly homoerotic culture awkwardly parading itself in the lineaments of American youthcult. But the parody falls back upon itself. Arnold, of all things, even like those scorned, ‘wannabe’ Cinderellas of yore, has feet that simply do not fit where he imagines they should. Whether or not earth-boundin satanic affliction, he is a wobbling imposter in the parodic terms by which one's ultimate worth is valued in Cinderella's and America's world—by one's size—shoe or otherwise—and, of relatedly, by one's looking “pretty,” one's inclining oneself to the deadening music of Bobby King's eschatalogical “XYZ Jamboree,” and by one's being singled out for admiration in the process. This youthcultural requisite signals a special thematic effect in the story. In fact, the morally suspect Arnold cannot maintain the parody of childish human sexuality that he has tarted up. As a thirty-year-old man unsuccessfully passing himself off as a sexually attractive youth of eighteen, he ends up coming across in boorish mockery of that commercially feminized (not feminine) ideal of being “pretty” that the culture he symbolizes vulgarly upholds and pursues:

He grinned to reassure her and lines appeared at the corners of his mouth. His teeth were big and white. He grinned so broadly his eyes became slits and she saw how thick his lashes were, thick and big as if painted with a black tarlike material.


Reflecting forth his visceral obsessions, Arnold's sunglasses mirrored back to Connie the image of her blouse. Flaunting his face, Arnold Friend—whose name sans letter r's becomes “An Old Fiend”—can exhibit only a diabolic ferocity of appetite. But in his grotesque parody Arnold flashes his own version of the ‘winning’ Miss America smile under a heavy curtain of eye shadow in a face that is mascara muddied and ‘masked’ in “plastered” makeup, while he teeters about ridiculously in his high-heels, a shaky wig on his head, tight in his pullover and jeans, fretting and strutting—wobbling, actually—his hour upon the walkway. Arnold's wobbling about, as the stuff of Connie's dream, evokes another vestige of the grinning hamburger boy who turns about the drive-in's steepled roof. He's virtually everything that one could ever fantasize of an impostor—a phony Prince and a fake Cinderella to boot. Even the music he ‘sings’ in his pitch to Connie is spurious—the rowdy trash of poprock accorded the solemnity of religious hymn. And in his teetering-tottering eminence, male or female, he embodies the overcontrived appeal of virtually every pop icon that the merchandising media have created for public consumption or emulation, from Presley to Prince, Monroe to Madonna, James Bond to Ken and Barbie, a pin-up culture to a universe of childishly sexual ‘playmates’ and ‘pets.’ Making himself a clumsy joke of how anyone can become a ‘dashing’ prince or ‘beautiful’ princess if one sets one's life to it, the banal Arnold Friend affirms the unfortunate truth that for too many, young women especially, such a ‘dream’ of recreating oneself, whatever its frightening impact, has indeed taken firm hold of the collective psyche. After all, like all that he stalks, he is his culture's creation … both its dream and nightmare.

Arnold, overblown as he is, still plays the Prince, exercising his royal claim, having discovered his “barefoot” lady fair: “‘Seen you that night and thought, that's the one, yes sir. I never needed to look anymore.’” (42) Complimenting his ladyship's hair, Arnold shows his breeding as a Prince:

“… I thank you sweetheart,” he said with a mock bow, but again he almost lost his balance. He had to bend and adjust his boots. Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he might seem taller.


To coax her out, this sinister Prince threateningly assures her that, now that her hour has come, there is no father for her, nor for that matter any fairy godmother with her miracle fowl and other charmed objects: “‘Hey, you know that old woman down the road, the one with the chickens and stuff—you know her?’” (44) Connie's eventual answer rings true: “‘She's dead—she's—she isn't here any more—’” (45) The suggestion, of course, is that we have—as we always have had—no fairy-tale ending here. No coach and six will await Connie, only a “convertible jalopy” with its mocking cartoon of this pumpkin-faced, grinning Prince of Darkness intent upon taking Connie on another journey, where indeed she may join the dead “old woman down the road.” Arnold's sing-song voice, given hymnal validation by the popculture, accompanies his ever-childish, now-menacing insincerity. He, like Cinderella's youthful Prince, has come to take Connie away from everyplace where she has been. Connie's wish upon a star and her death wish have become one.

Joyce Carol Oates, in having drawn much of the idiosyncratic detail of Arnold Friend's parodic quality directly from the March 1966 Life magazine descriptive account of serial-killer Charles Schmidt, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,”19 who in fact fashioned himself after his idol, Elvis Presley, illustrates how fact and fancy in art take on the same confusion as life and art in reality. Most of the details in the descriptive catalogue of Arnold Friend are drawn from the Life account. The ‘author’ here, then, proves to have been as much a deranged murderer and an ambitious magazine writer as an innocent young lady in dream … as well as a distinguished and immensely clever writer skillfully bridging these realms. This confusion as to what is real or not and where it comes from, long a fascination with Joyce Carol Oates, along with the title of her famous story, informs the brilliantly ambiguous portrait of Corky in the Epilogue of her recent novel What I Lived For, and the astonishingly calm duplicity of Quentin P depicted in her recent novella, Zombie. In this fashion, she suggests, the iniquitous farce of our nowadays plays itself out in the horrid truth of its self-parody found within a child's honestly contradictory vision of life, America's escapable dream and inescapable nightmare,20 from which we create what devours us, and blaspheme what we revere. In the seemingly vain, nervous and unsteady emotionalism of a teen-age girl, Oates, from the integrity of her art, locates the issues defining the breakdown of fundamental moral consciousness of our Age of Appetite in the fantasy of a child-victim whose eventual sacrifices mock our culture's mindless self-consumptions.


  1. I acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the students of my courses in Introduction to Literary Studies and The Short Story at Bryant College who have discussed Oates's story with me and who have researched and written on aspects of the Cinderella/Connie analogy.

  2. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz, Literature: Reading and Writing the Human Experience, 7th Edition. (Boston: Bedford, 2000); Charles Bohner and Dean Dougherty, Short Fiction Classic and Contemporary 4th Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999); Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, Literature and Its Writers (Boston,: Bedford, 1997); Ann Charters, The Story and Its Writer, 5th Edition (Boston: Bedford, 1999); Hans P. Guth and Gabriele L. Rico, Discovering Literature (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000); Lee A. Jacobus, Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996); Laurie G. Kirzner and Stephen R. Mandell, Literature: Reading Reacting Writing 4th Edition (Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2000); James H. Pickering, Fiction 100, 8th Edition (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998)

  3. Students focus, of course, on the matter of whether Arnold Friend steals off with and murders Connie before they find interesting the issue of whether the crux of the story consists of a dream or an actuality that Connie experiences. Typically, then, the issue of what Arnold Friend represents comes into the forefront of discussions.

  4. See the Introduction to the Casebook Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? edited by Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

  5. Gretchen Schultz and R. J. R. Rockwood, “In Fairyland, Without a Map: Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in Literature and Psychology 30 (1980), 1545-67.

  6. Bruno Bettelheim, “‘Cinderella’: A Story of Sibling Rivalry and Oedipal Conflicts,” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 524.

  7. Bettelheim, p. 531.

  8. Jane Yolen, “America's ‘Cinderella,’” from Children's Literature in Education, 8 (Curtis Brown, 1977), pp. 21-29. See “Ashputtle” with collateral commentaries, some invoked here, in Laurance Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen's Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, 4th Ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp. 312-18.

  9. “Walt Disney's ‘Cinderella’” adapted by Campbell Grant in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, pp. 326-28.

  10. All references to the text of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” are taken from the casebook Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Ed. Elaine Showalter (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press) hereafter cited as “Oates.”

  11. In Disney's, Grimm's, and Perrault's versions because Cinderella works she is ‘dirty’ whereas in Oates by its very presence Connie's smell, associated with her perceived laziness, is repulsive to her mother.

  12. The theory that the source of the story's title is “Judges 19:17”, reached by counting thirty-three books from the end of the Jewish Bible (properly, of course, the way to “read” the so-called Old Testament), the 33-19-17 “secret code” written on the side of Friend's car, is indeed an attractive one. The King James verse line reads “And when he lifted his eyes he saw a wayfaring man in the street of the city; and the old man said, Whither goest thou? And whence comest thou?” This account of a man—the man addressed—and his concubine, who is sacrificed to “the men of the city” who have come to their guest house demanding their pleasure, is strikingly similar to Oates's basic plot.

  13. Larry Rubin, “Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” The Explicator 42 (1984), 57-59.

  14. Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind (New York: Alfred R. Knopf, 1955).

  15. Marilyn C. Wesley, “The Transgressive Other of Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction,” Critique 33 (Summer, 1992), p. 255.

  16. Joyce M. Wegs, “‘Don't You Know Who I Am?’: The Grotesque in Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” The Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975), p. 67. Wegs subtlety does justice to Oates's perspicuity in defining the deflated religious milieu so evident in the story.

  17. Colette Dowling, The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence. (New York: Summit, 1981), pp. 29-30.

  18. Ann Ulanov and Barry Ulanov, Cinderella & Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), pp. 17-20.

  19. Don Moser, “The Pied piper of Tuscon: He Cruised in a Golden Car Looking for the Action” in Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been? p. 51.

  20. D. F. Hurley, “Impure Realism: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Summer, 1991), p. 374. Hurley's insightful piece on the play of fact and fiction in Oates's story carries forth commentary from two previous essays in Studies in Short Fiction: and A. R. Coulthard's provocative “Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (Fall, 1989), 505-510.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

Dowling, Colette. The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence. New York: Summit, 1981.

Hurley, D. F. “Impure Realism: Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Summer, 1991), 371-5.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. An Unquiet Mind. New York: Alfred R. Knopf, 1995.

Moser, Don. “The Pied Piper of Tucson: He Cruised in a Golden Car Looking for the Action.” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995, 51-66.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” 25-48. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Quirk, Tom. “A Source for ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Studies in Short Fiction 18 (1981), 413-20.

Rubin, Larry. “Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” The Explicator 42 (1984), 57-59.

Schultz, Gretchen and Rockwood, R. J. R. “In Fairyland, Without a Map”: Connie's Exploration Inward in Joyce Carol Oates's “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Literature and Psychology 30 (1980), 155-67.”

Ulanov, Ann and Ulanov, Barry. Cinderella & Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983.

Wegs, Joyce M. “Don't You Know Who I Am?” The Grotesque in Oates's “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975), 66-72.

Weinberger, G. J. “Who Is Arnold Friend? The Other Self in Joyce Carol Oates's ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” American Imago 45 (Summer, 1988), 205-15.

Wesley, Marilyn C. “The Transgressive Other of Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction.” Critique 33 (Summer, 1992), 255-61.

Monica Loeb (essay date autumn 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5203

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.”

William Shakespeare

“The Spiral,” a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, was first published in the 1969 winter issue of Shenandoah. With its focus on a man in crisis, it easily fits in with her series of reimagined stories where men and women find themselves facing various life crises that result in breakdowns.

Initially we may be lured into believing that this is a love story. Wendell, the protagonist, is anxiously awaiting a phone call in the park, as the story opens, a call that might change his life. He is 35, a medical doctor who is in love for the first time in his life. Joanne, his mistress, is married to another man, “a very disturbed man.”1 Their affair has been going on for a long time, giving Wendell insight into the “various secrets of a disintegrating marriage” (348). In this phone call Joanne will let him know whether she will leave her husband.

It all turns out in his favor. After their marriage, “everything has become perfect” (352). Before long they decide to have children. During the pregnancy Wendell suffers from “moods of depression;” he has headaches and feels nauseated. After the baby, a boy, is born, Joanne hopes that the child will be able to “make everything perfect” again (357).

However, Wendell's condition deteriorates gradually. In a final scene at a movie theater, with his wife and a male friend, he feels totally lost, paralyzed. He no longer knows his friend's or his wife's name. And who is Stephen (their son)? He experiences a feeling of “nothingness,” as he is drifting off into sleep upon returning home.

The reader has been prepared for Wendell's breakdown all along, although due to the fact that he is a successful professional and has a happy family life, there is a certain resistance to seeing the signs planted along the way. Wendell's father, for instance, the happy retiree, who is his opposite in that he is always on the go, constantly seeking new challenges in spite of his age, constitutes a parallel contrast to his son. Also, there are sections of the story where Wendell is recollecting the past, scenes from his childhood or student days, or when he enters a dream state, and, at times, he mixes the two. Oates has devised a concrete way of reflecting these different stages, as will be shown later on.

Oates's other reimagined short stories have all been based on famous classics written by the great masters of Western literature, such as Kafka, Joyce and Chekhov. “The Spiral,” however, is based on Flaubert's little known sketchy outline for a novel, never written or published. Louis Bertrand's popularized book from 1921 written in the form of a dialogue with Flaubert who animatedly talks about his work does include La Spirale.2

In the words of Flaubert himself it is there called “a philosophical and transcendental novel!”3 After an extensive search, I found the text itself printed as an introduction to an article from 1958 entitled “Une trouvaille” by E. W. Fischer.4 It turns out that Flaubert's very rough plan simply consists of three handwritten pages, some in ink, some in pencil.5


Flaubert begins his outline with a clearly stated intention: “Make a book exciting—and moral—as conclusion prove that happiness is in the imagination.”6 The apparent moral is that felicity resides in illusion, that dreams can save you from a basically mean life which only exposes the individual to suffering.

Flaubert's hero is a man, a painter, who has given up his art after traveling in the Orient. His mind is filled with impressions and images from that part of the world where he also acquired the habit of using marijuana. When reducing the dose he first becomes accustomed to merely smelling the bottle in order to reach a hallucinatory state. Then he no longer requires any stimulant; he can reach his visions by sheer will. That is when he reaches what Flaubert calls “l'état fantastique,” a state of fantasy, dream and hallucination. The process of reaching this stage should be slow and progressive. Each visit to this higher level of being should be seen as a reward, an escape from reality. Eventually, the hero will reach a stage of “permanent somnabulism.” This will grant him immunity to pain.

In real life the protagonist's miseries pile up one on top of another. “He is impoverished, betrayed, the object of slander …,” a true failure.7 Even his love life is a source of pain: the woman he loves is married to another man, “an idiot.” Although she rejects him, he continues to assist both her and her husband, and he is the one who brings up their child! The idea of doing good is apparently an important part of Flaubert's morality. Whenever his hero performs a bad or evil act, dreams will not come to him. In other words, dreams are a reward for virtuous acts, a kind of “bleeding, a purgation.” “Thus,” Flaubert states, “the dream has an active moralizing influence on his life.”8

The road to final bliss, i.e., loss of pain, when all time, all cultures, “the Truth” so called, come together, is difficult and long. For Flaubert's protagonist it means that he will end up in a mental institution with other fools. He will speak the language of animals and will converse with “the Gods.” In the eyes of the world he will appear insane, while for himself he has reached a stage voluntarily sought: “le bonheur consiste à être Fou. …”9

This mixture of all times and cultures will expose him to some incredible people and scenes, which are simply listed by Flaubert. These include a stupid mayor, a conceited governor transformed into a cruel sultan, a woman metamorphosed into an odalisque, a marching army in the mountains, fisheries and palaces, a snake with a woman's face, a prince fencing with a monkey, a caravan in the desert, the Crusades, a revolution, a flogging, a woman Pythagorean etc. The intention is that he should sample, and endure, every kind of passion in order to triumph, in the end, over both others and himself.

The movement of the spiral implies both the gradual characteristics of the circular movement, and the movement away into infinity. Via the spiral form Flaubert aspired to leave the imperfections of human life to reach the higher spheres of Truth and Beauty. This was not a project void of risks. According to the very last notes of his outline, it is recommended that the story should open with a final letter from the hero, “summarizing his views on everything” and announcing at the same time his impending suicide. In fact, while holding a strong attraction for Flaubert, this desired state also frightened him tremendously.10 Perhaps this was one of the reasons why the project was never realized.


There is no doubt that this sketchy plan for La Spirale contains many references to Flaubert's own life. Periodically he had experienced a great need to retreat from society or to escape from reality. He would close his window shutters, smoke his pipe, light candles and a fire, then drink coffee with punch, thus creating a kind of light drunkenness.

He was a dreamer often envisioning far-away places. In a letter to Louise Colet in 1842, his mistress, he is dreaming excitedly of anything from snowy roads to a sunny Mediterranean, or the sands of Syria where the stars are four times the size of our stars.11 Bovarysme, or what Victor Brombert calls a “thirst for the impossible, this confrontation of dream and reality,” was a guiding principle for Flaubert who preferred the idea of being out on the high seas to staying in a safe port.12 In a letter from 1840, for instance, he identifies with “the melancholy of the barbarian races.”13 He was often bored with life: “je n'ai rien que des désirs immenses et insatiables, un ennui atroce et des baîllements continus.”14

In 1843 Flaubert suffered a health crisis. From his youth he had experienced hallucinations. To this condition was also added epileptic seizures and syphilis; he was to be “sickly” for the rest of his life suffering from various nervous afflictions. Ten years later in a letter, Flaubert states that he had no regrets when looking back on these years of sickness, in spite of suicidal thoughts and melancholy. Rather he saw them as a good experience that provided him with insight into psychological states “to be used one day in a book (the metaphysical novel that I have told you about).”15 In fact, Flaubert sought “refuge in isolation and misanthropy”; illness became a kind of “precious alibi” for him, according to Brombert.16

Oates certainly agrees with Flaubert, stressing the necessity of withdrawal and isolation on the part of the artist in order to be productive. In an article she even uses a quote from Flaubert to illustrate her point: “Thrown in the world, as Flaubert says, we are too confused to make sense of it; we must withdraw from the world in order to truly experience it.” However, in this article on the short story, she also strongly expresses the belief that experience must precede literary production, i e, “‘live first then tell.’”17

In addition to his own experiences of semi-hallucinations and unusual states of mind, Flaubert was greatly influenced by Baudelaire's prose poems, in particular the collection entitled Les paradis artificiels. These poems appeared in 1860 and speak very concretely of using drugs to attain the higher states that Flaubert desired. In the prose poem of the same title as the collection, Baudelaire frankly states that “true reality is but in dreams.”18 Since man is in constant search of moments of bliss, however short and few, hashish is a means of attaining it.

Obviously these glorious descriptions of the effects of using drugs held a strong attraction for Flaubert. Although he was too scared to experiment with drugs himself (he had in his possession a prescription, never used, from a doctor), Baudelaire's descriptions furnished him with objective details that he could fuse with his own impressions and consequently transfer onto his projected protagonist in La Spirale.

The choice of title, according to E. W. Fischer, must be seen as symbolic, even metaphysical. Apparently Flaubert was enchanted by the images of circles rising and vanishing into space; the spiral was “une idée fixe” with him that he often referred to, as in the following quote from Mémoires d'un fou: “Oh! I'infini! I'infini! gouffre immense, spirale qui monte des abîmes aux plus hautes régions de l'inconnu.”19 Fischer interprets this as an aspiration in Flaubert to surpass the limits of earthly existence, a symbol of what he calls “la délivrance du moi, … une ascension intellectuelle. …”20

To date Flaubert's sketchy manuscript we must rely on hypotheses since the text itself indicates no date at all. Fischer assumes that the novel mentioned in a letter to Louise Colet in early May of 1852 is La Spirale, since Flaubert speaks of a “metaphysical novel” that has preoccupied his thoughts for the last two weeks.21

Paul Dimoff is of the opinion that a later date, the end of 1860 or the beginning of 1861, would be more correct, since he feels that the influence from Baudelaire's Les paradis artificiels, published in 1860, was of decisive importance.22 However that may be, it is more interesting to speculate on the reasons why this particular project was never realized. On this point Dimoff agrees with Wilhelm Fischer who suggests three reasons why Flaubert never carried out his plans.

First of all, it was too personal, using his own health and experiences for the plot. Second and related, his writing had previously aimed for the esthetically impersonal; all great art should aim for the objective, leaving out the self of the artist. A third reason would be the strong similarity in subject and inspiration with La tentation de Saint Antoine. They are both about a sole individual, a male, whose inner life, his visions, gradually lead him into one long perpetual dream.23


What intrigued Oates into writing her own version of Flaubert's sketchily outlined but never written or published novel La Spirale? She has often referred to a certain kinship with Flaubert and her debt to him. Oates has many times invoked the following quote from Flaubert that has been of great importance to her: “We must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God.”24 Once again she emphasizes the magic, nearly religious, quality of artistic activity, as well as the very basis of her series of reimagined works, i.e., the communal aspects of art, explaining that “[b]y knowing one another's creation we honor something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us.”25

What enticed Joyce Carol Oates in particular about Flaubert's outline for a novel was exactly its sketchy nature, “‘[t]he Spiral’ as a novel-in-embryo. What a fascinating idea …,” as she puts it.26 Compared to her other “reimaginings,” which have all been derived from completed works, this one provided her with quite a different challenge. In other words she could freely latch onto whatever ideas appealed to her and then proceed to create a story of her own. In the following analysis I will investigate what she has chosen to retain as intertextual elements, or to expand upon. Characters, major themes, the title, and the technique of juxtaposition will be examined below.


Both authors have focused on men, intellectuals and professionals, one an artist, the other a medical doctor. While Flaubert's nineteenth-century man gives up his profession, Oates's man continues to be successful in his work. He has an idealistic deep desire to “go out into the world and heal people”(350). Although he is unwell, his patients are ironically doing well indeed.

But gradually the inner life of both these men takes over and exerts control over their respective lives. The suicidal ideas or the incarceration in a mental institution in Flaubert have not been adopted by Oates. Yet, there is room for such developments due to her story's open closure. Her protagonist is sinking into sleep at the end, perhaps indicative of suicidal thoughts or the sleep that Shakespeare speaks of as rounding off “our little life” in The Tempest. Wendell at this point only wishes for “the weightlessness of a perpetual sleep”(361).

Dreams are essential for both men to reach their inner selves. While Flaubert's man uses drugs to do so at the outset, Oates's Wendell does not repeat this pattern. For Wendell transformation is a mental stage. He appears to be a loner who keeps to himself, easily daydreaming in and out of time. Wendell does not fall in love, for instance, until the age of 33. At that point he believes that “[a] man must love and must be loved or he himself cannot be healed, cannot heal others”(350). The object of his feelings is a married woman, which is also the case in Flaubert's fragment of a story. In both cases the husbands are characterized similarly: an “idiot” in Flaubert and a “very disturbed man” in Oates (347). Wendell is lucky; he wins his woman, and he feels genuinely loved, but love does not solve his problems, as it turns out. Projecting his own feelings of inadequacy onto his wife, he claims that he can sense her desire “to escape, to get out-better leave this sick man while she is still healthy!”(356). Flaubert's nameless character fares less well; he never wins the woman's love, but lingers on helping her and her family. He is also a miserable failure in everything he undertakes from love to duels and business; he is simply “successful at nothing.”27

A secondary character, a girl, has been added by Oates to her story to function as a parallel, or a mirror, held up as a frightening, yet attractive, example for Wendell. “What is the girl doing?” is the very first inquisitive sentence of the short story. Wendell observes her in the park, as he is waiting there for Joanne's magic telephone call that might change his life. This is a girl in her twenties, very thin, either mentally disturbed or drugged, oddly dressed in a colorful poncho. Barefoot, she ambles around like a somnambulator singing, unaware of others. Her face is described as “odd,” caving inward, with tiny eyes, tiny nose and a chin that “seemed to melt away” (345). Everything about her is “blank:” her voice, her eyes. This adjective is repeated whenever the girl reappears. The very word is also used as a link to Wendell, as he feels a “puddle of blankness” beginning to form “[a]t the back of his skull … as if it were the shape of his existence … a premonition” (246). He is putting all his faith into a relationship with Joanne; life without her would be meaningless. In other words he can identify with the girl, who certainly seems to exist in her own world, but he expects Joanne, or love, to save him from an equally “blank,” or meaningless life. As it turns out, neither one will do so.

At the end of the story, as if completing the circle, the girl reappears in his dreams, when he has been put to bed after the incident at the movie house. He can hear someone say: “Don't stop breathing!” This is yet another link between the two, an echo of what he himself told the girl as she fell to the ground that very first time he saw her in the park (361 and 351). Being a doctor he performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her. Angrily he murmurs “You are not going to die!” twice, and does manage to bring her back to life (351). Is this a dream, his constant wish to do good, or a projection of his own fear of death?

Wendell's final encounter with the girl must certainly be a dream, as he is sleeping in his bed at home. He still feels as paralyzed as he had been at the theater. Yet, when the girl makes “an intimate gesture” with her hand, he begins to undress in the park. He sees the girl as “his true bride” (repeated three times), he falls to his knees, grasping her ankles, kissing her feet while weeping (347). He might be mixing her up with Joanne or see her as an elusive extension of things he cannot reach, but more likely his attraction to the girl's otherworldliness signifies a “marriage” of like minds.


As seen above, both protagonists share a basic wish to be good, to do good deeds. For Flaubert's man, acts of goodness will be rewarded by dreams that enable him to escape. Immediately following the initial suicide note, “an opportunity to do good presents itself,” and that will start off the entire action of the novel.28 Wendell also has a strong need to be a good person in his profession. Like Christ he would like to raise people from the dead, but realizes his powers are limited to at least “snatch[ing] the living away from death at the very last second, stirring their limbs, breathing his own life into them”(350). That is literally what he does, or dreams of doing, to the girl in the park. The tragedy of it is that he can heal others, but not himself. His belief is that everyone shares this desire to be good, that it is “a way of managing life” (347).

Connected to the theme of doing good is the sense of doubleness experienced by both characters. They are torn between reality and dream. Flaubert states that for his, “real life situations must be found that are as intense as possible—filled with drama and sentiment.” Real life is where the character fails miserably, while his greatest successes will come in his fantasy life. “The unhappier he is in fact, the happier he is in the dream.”29

The same goes for Wendell who appears to be a loner who retreats into a dream world where he performs wonders. While Flaubert's man quickly moves from one exotic scene to another, from one problem to another, Wendell also moves between different levels, from reality to fantasy, into the past as well. That is also recommended by Flaubert who suggests a gradual return from the Orient to feudalism, revolution, even the crusades: “Commence by any action, (a trial?) that brings him back to his grandfather's time.” Dreams should be prepared; “they are interrupted by sudden awakenings when they are at their best,” Flaubert exhorts.30

Change is another theme shared by the two texts. Both major characters are looking for change. Wendell believes that marriage will turn his life around at the outset of the short story. At the end we realize that this was not so. Flaubert's man seeks to move from the real into the fantastic state. However, Flaubert emphasizes several times that this change must be “progressive” or “gradual.” The aim for Flaubert is “a state of permanent somnabulism” and immunity to pain. In reality that means life in a mental hospital where the world will regard him as crazy. This is indeed an example of the myth of the “happy fool.” “Happiness resides in being an Idiot,” according to Flaubert.31

Wendell has similar thoughts. Once when eating a hot dog he reflects upon “his spirit, whimsically, lifting itself from his body.” This is a sensation he compares to a mist lifting from a bog. He asks himself whether this change signifies “[f]reedom or dissolution?” thus signalling uncertainty (347). At the end, in the movie theater, Wendell feels that he has “succumbed to nothingness, now that he is no longer a man”(358). Even as a young man Wendell has the premonition that “[l]ife will leak out of him” due to life's many “scratches” that he can foresee (350).


Typographically Oates has devised a means of juxtaposition that indicates a shift from one temporal or spatial level to another, from reality to dream. These are labeled MATTER and ANTIMATTER. The first one is always placed on the left-hand side of the page, while the second is found on the right-hand side. Both are capitalized and used as headlines. Oates has physically realized on the page the fluctuations between the two stages, “la vie réelle” and “l'état fantastique,” that Flaubert describes in his sketchy outline. His Tentation de Saint Antoine in fact ends in an extatic “descent into the very heart of matter—being matter!”32

These time shifts not only reflect the mental condition of the character in question. They also tie in with the central themes of change, doubleness and the gradual progression toward either a breakdown, as in Oates, or total folly, as in Flaubert. Ultimately, all these elements coalesce in the spiralling movement in the direction of infinity implied by the title itself.

Yet another means of projecting Wendell's breakdown is the intertextual link provided by the film that he goes to see with his wife and a Pakistani intern friend. They see François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1961). Not only does this particular film provide us with a French cultural connection, but its central plot is an echo of the triangular dramas in both Flaubert and Oates.

Truffaut in turn based his film on a novel by Henri Pierre Roché.33 Set in Paris before the First World War, Truffaut's now classic film focuses on a ménage-à-trois between one woman and two men. We get to follow them through the years to see how their relations change. It is the final scene where the husband, the sole survivor, is lamenting the passing of the two others that leaves a lasting impression upon Wendell. As a medical man, he is fascinated by the “bones” at the end. In a cremation scene bones from the two dead bodies are ground down and placed in two different boxes, although Jules had wanted them to remain mixed and together even in death. Wendell wonders whether you could actually “tell the bones apart?” or why there is no reaction on the man's face (358). At this point he identifies with the bones of the dead, believing that his two companions will “stare at him as if staring at bones, mere bones, seeing no value in him. …” He feels reduced to nothing. His Pakistani friend shakes his head and laughs at the film. From his cultural perspective it is a foolish and strange film. Joanne reacts emotionally. She is moved: “What a strange ending, after all that … all that passion” (359). She might be speaking about her own (second) marriage, without knowing it.


This short title is in spite of its brevity filled to the brim with meaning. As Fischer has pointed out, it serves both a symbolic and metaphysical function. Briefly, it symbolizes the protagonists' slow detachment from reality into spatial spheres toward infinity. It also reflects the major themes of change and gradual movement in the form of ever-widening spirals. Since this was an idée fixe with Flaubert, this aspiration toward the unknown, the metaphysical implication is an intellectual ascension.

Further elucidation may be sought in one of Baudelaire's Petits poèmes en prose, a prose poem dedicated to Franz Liszt whom he greatly admired and whose immortality he wanted to celebrate. Entitled “Le Thyrse,” this poem may shed some further light on the subject of spirals. Since its title was difficult to understand, Baudelaire carefully explained what a “thyrse” was, i e, a staff in the hands of priests or priestesses for ritual ceremonies. It is simply a hard and straight wooden stick, surrounded by garlands of flowers, thus incorporating both the male and the female principle as well as the spiralling movement. “The baton is your volition, straight, firm and unwavering; the flowers- they are the promenade of your fantasy around your volition.”34

Flaubert had most likely read and been inspired by “Le Thyrse” when it appeared in La Revue Nationale, in 1863. Reality is more of a straight, wooden and bare stick to him, while the meandering, even dancing, garlands of flowers then would represent the beauty of dreams and fantasy. For Oates, on the other hand, Flaubert's skeletal outline may appear as the bare staff, or bone, onto which she can graft her decorations, to fill out and round off, for a completed story called “The Spiral.” In a personal communication to me Oates explains the intra-authorial relationship as follows: “The symbolism of Marriages and Infidelities is the ‘marriage’ of the writer of male consciousness with the writer of female consciousness.” As a consequence, Oates has started with the bare facts from Flaubert's embryo of escape from the constraints of the real, time-bound world and shown us one contemporary man's way of reaching a transcendental realm outside of time and reality.


  1. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Spiral” in Marriages and Infidelities (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972) 347. All future references to this work will be placed within parentheses in the text.

  2. Louis Bertrand, Flaubert à Paris ou Le Mort Vivant (Paris: Grasset, Les Cahiers Verts, 1921) 69-74.

  3. Bertrand, 69. My translation of the original: “roman philosophique et transcendental!”

  4. E. W. Fischer, “Une trouvaille,” in La Table Ronde 124, April 1958: 99-124.

  5. Since I have been unable to find any English translation of this text I have of necessity completed my own translation, which I will refer to throughout this article.

  6. Original: “Faire un livre exaltant - et moral - comme conclusion prouver que le bonheur est dans l'imagination.”

  7. Original: “Il est dépouillé, trahi, calomnié. …”

  8. Original: “une saignée une purgation.” “Ainsi le rêve a une infuence active, moralisante, sur sa vie.”

  9. Translation: “happiness is being a fool.”

  10. Enid Starkie, Flaubert: The Making of the Master (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967) 195.

  11. Paul Dimoff, “Autour d'un projet de roman de Flaubert: “La Spirale,” in Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France 48, 1949: 324.

  12. Victor Brombert, “Flaubert and the Impossible Artist Hero,” in The Southern Review 5:4, 1969, 986.

  13. Dimoff, 323. My translation of the original: “Je porte en moi la mélancolie des races barbares. …”

  14. Letter from 1840 quoted in Dimoff, 324. My translation: “I experience nothing but immense and unsatiable desires, a frightful boredom and incessant yawnings.”

  15. Letter to Louise Colet quoted in Dimoff, 329-330. My translation of the original: “… quelque jour, en l'utilisant dans un livre (ce roman métaphysique … dont je t'ai parlé).”

  16. Brombert 1969: 981.

  17. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Short Story” in Southern Humanities Review 5:3, 1971: 213.

  18. Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres complètes de Charles Baudelaire (Paris: Ancienne Maison Michel Levy Frères, 1885) 155. My translation of the original: “La vraie réalité n'est que dans les rêves.”

    I am very grateful to the Ellen Key Foundation for a stipend to spend time in Ellen Key's house where I was very fortunate to find Baudelaire's book in her private library.

  19. E. W. Fischer 101. My translation: “Oh! infinity! infinity! immense abyss, spiral that mounts from depths to the highest regions of the unknown.”

  20. ibid. My translation: “the deliverance of the self, … an intellectual ascension.”

  21. ibid., 100.

  22. Dimoff 333-334.

  23. Wilhelm Fischer, Etudes sur Flaubert Inédits. Transl. Count François d'Aiguy (Leipzig: J Zeitler, 1908) 129-131.

  24. Leif Sjöberg, “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates,” Contemporary Literature, Summer 1982. Rpt. in Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Lee Milazzo (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989) 105.

  25. Robert Phillips, “Joyce Carol Oates: The Art of Fiction.” From The Paris Review 74, Fall 1978. Rpt. in Milazzo, 81.

  26. Correspondence to me, October 24, 1998.

  27. Original: “pour vivre, il change de métiers et aucun ne lui réussit.”

  28. Original: “une occasion se présente de faire le bien -”

  29. Original: “Plus il sera malheureux dans le fait, plus(il) sera heureux dans le rêve.”

  30. Original: “Commencer par une action quelconque, (un procès?) qui le reporte au temps de son grand-père.” “-ils sont coupés par des réveils brusques, au plus beau moment.”

  31. Original: “… un état de somnabulisme permanent …” “… le bonheur consiste à être Fou …”

  32. La tentation de Saint Antoine (Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1954) 276. Original: “descendre jusqu'au fond de la matière,—être la matière!”

  33. In a recent Dagens Nyheter article (1999), Jens Christian Brandt informs us of the real background for Roché's book. Roché had met Franz Hessel, a German author, and Helen Grund, also a German, when they were all young in Paris. The two Germans married, divorced and remarried; Roché was the third partner. The movie's key scene when the woman throws herself into the Seine is directly taken from their lives. All three later wrote about their threesome set-up. As an old woman Helen Grund saw Truffaut's film innumerable times. Reportedly she loved Jeanne Moreau as a copy of herself.

  34. Baudelaire 104-105. My translation of the original: “Le baton, c'est votre volonté, droite, ferme et inébranlable; les fleurs, c'est la promenade de votre fantaisie autour de votre volonté.”


Joyce Carol Oates Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Oates, Joyce Carol (Feminism in Literature)