Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

One of America's most prolific and versatile contemporary writers, Oates began her literary career in 1963. Since then she has published more than twenty-five novels; hundreds of short stories in both collections and anthologies; nearly a dozen volumes of poetry; several books of nonfiction, literary criticism, and essays; and many dramas and screenplays. Writing in a dense, elliptical style that ranges from realistic to naturalistic to surrealistic, Oates concentrates on the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual malaise of modern American culture in her fiction, exposing the darker aspects of the human condition. Her tragic and violent plots abound with incidents of rape, incest, murder, mutilation, child abuse, and suicide, and her protagonists often suffer as a result of the conditions of their social milieu or their emotional weaknesses. This is especially true of her female characters, who are portrayed as dysfunctional, passive, and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in a male-dominated society. For this reason feminist critics consider Oates a controversial figure, because she has created few strong, independent female role models in her numerous works.


Born in Lockport, New York, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County, a region that is 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 in Detroit, 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. Oates has written poetry and is a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies. She is also a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of her subjects. 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 playwright 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.


With Shuddering Fall (1964), Oates's first novel, foreshadows her preoccupation with violence and darkness, describing a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death by accident. Oates's best known and critically acclaimed early novels form an informal trilogy exploring three distinct segments of American society: A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) chronicles the life of a migrant worker's daughter in rural Eden County; Expensive People (1967) exposes the superficial world of suburbia; and them presents the violent, degrading milieu of an inner-city Detroit family. Oates's novels of the 1970s explore American life and cultural institutions, combining social analysis with vivid psychological portraits of frustrated characters ranging from a brilliant surgeon (1971; Wonderland), a young attorney (1973; Do with Me What You Will), and the widow of a murdered conservative politician (1975; The Assassins) to religious zealots (1978; Son of the Morning) and distinguished visiting poets and feminist scholars (1979; Unholy Loves). Her short stories of this period, most notably in Marriages and Infidelities (1972), and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974), considered by many to be her best work, concern themes of violence and abuse between the sexes. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," for instance, tells of the sexual awakening of a romantic girl by a mysterious man, Alfred Friend; this story is considered a masterpiece of the modern short form and was adapted for film.

Oates's novels of the early 1980s—Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—exploit the conventions of nineteenth-century Gothic literature as they examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, and the influence of family history on shaping destiny; likewise, many of her short stories rely on gothic elements, including those collected in Haunted (1994) and First Love (1996). Most of Oates's fiction of the 1980s features more explicit violence than does her earlier fiction, which tends more toward psychological afflictions, but psychological obsessions nevertheless persist. In Marya (1986), for example, a successful academic searches for her alcoholic mother who had abused her as a child, and in You Must Remember This (1987), a former boxer commits incest with his niece during the McCarthyist 1950s. Oates's works of the 1990s continue to address relations between violence and the cultural realities of American society. Other topics addressed in Oates's works include racism, affluence, alienation, poverty, classism, sexual-political power dynamics, feminism, success, serial killers, and familial conflicts. The series of mysteries published under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith—Lives of the Twins (1988), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), Snake Eyes (1992), and You Can't Catch Me (1995)—concern the psychopathic exploits of aberrational academics.


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 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 fiction. They trace her changing portrayals of gender power in her later work, contending that her more recent novels focus on the power of female bonds and self-discovery. A few critics have maintained that Oates's embittered portrayal of gender relations accurately mirrors a male-determined society. Although some critics have dismissed her gothic fiction as whimsical, others have suggested that it invigorates the gothic literary tradition, particularly feminist critics who often have likened Oates's ghosts to the cultural status of "invisible woman."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

By the North Gate (short stories) 1963

With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964

The Sweet Enemy (drama) 1965

Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (short stories) 1966

Expensive People (novel) 1967

A Garden of Earthly Delights (novel) 1967

Women in Love and Other Poems (poetry) 1968

Love and Its Derangements and Other Poems (poetry) 1970

The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1970

Wonderland (novel) 1971

Marriages and Infidelities (short stories) 1972

Angel Fire (poetry) 1973

Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973

The Goddess and Other Women (short stories) 1974

Miracle Play (drama) 1974

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) 1974

The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975

Childwold (novel) 1976

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

Son of the Morning (novel) 1978

Cybele (novel) 1979


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Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. "Where Is an Author?" In Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going, pp. 3-8. New York: Plume, 1999.

In the following essay, Oates debates the question of how much information a reader should know about the author of a work and finds the label of "woman writer" to be restrictive and frustrating.

The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him.

—Henry James

It all came together between the hand and the page.

—Samuel Beckett (on the composition of Waiting for Godot)

Why do we write? Why do we read? Why is "art" crucial to human beings?

The engine that gives its mysterious inner life to a work of art must be the subterranean expression of a wish, working its way to the surface of narrative. In fairy tales and legends, the "wish" is often explicit: for a rendering of justice rare in life, for romance in the face of improbability, for a happy ending. In a more sophisticated art, the "wish" may be so buried as to be unacknowledged by the artist, or even repudiated. "Never trust the artist," D. H. Lawrence warned in his iconoclastic Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). "Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it." Often, writers don't know what they're writing until they've completed it. For some of us, the composition of any sustained, structured work would not be possible if there wasn't a secret code or connection between the story (or what we call for lack of a more precise term "story") and an interior, hidden pattern. A sense, in a way visual, of the story's trajectory: where it begins, where it ends, its dominant images and tone. Though the act of writing can be emotionally volcanic, a white-hot frenzy in the initial process of creation, in its later stages, those of revision, recasting and restructuring, it is the most icy-cold of activities. "So cold, so icy, that one burns one's fingers on him! Every hand that touches him receives a shock. That is why some think he is burning hot." This aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche's suggests the formalist's self-conception: the self as viewed from within. To present emotionally dynamic material is to confess that one has felt, and perhaps extremely, but is not now feeling, emotion.

Is the artist, by temperament, a perpetual antagonist to the crowd? the state? the prevailing ethos? This collision of the ethical/tribal/familial world and the world of the individual; the world of the individual soul and the universe of sheer numbers—"laws" of nature: This is the drama that arrests me, and haunts me, in life as in writing; in reverie, most keenly during insomniac fugues when "I" seems to dissolve, and an impersonal kernel of being, primarily one of inquiry, emerges. (For me, these fugues began in early adolescence.) In asking, like Lewis Carroll's child-heroine Alice, WhoamI? am I really asking Who, or what, is this "I" that asks this question, asked repeatedly, with such hope, yet perhaps futilely, through human history? Is this "I" unique—or is it in essence identical with the multitude of other "I"s?—as we are presumably composed of identical matter, turn and turn about, mineral deposits from the stars of how many trillions of years ago, in varying compositions, except never varying in our temporality: "Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood, / And consummated dull!" (Emily Dickinson, 1130, c. 1868)

Or is this, too, a fiction?—an artfully constructed and sculpted wish? In the collision of the personal and the impersonal, in the arena where language and silence touch, the possibility of art arises like flame.

In 1969, the influential if much-misunder-stood Michel Foucault published a speculative essay, "What Is an Author?" A kind of thought-experiment, generated perhaps more by political bias than disinterested aesthetic inquiry, this famous essay considered the ontological status of the writer; one might say, undermined it. (Yet only in theory, for since Foucault's time no writers, including theorists of the Foucault school, have surrendered their names on the spines of their books, nor their advances and royalties. As in hothouse plantings, bibliographies of even obscure writers flourish; but the plantings are discreetly fenced off from one another, and named.) Still the debate over what is called "authorial presence" continues, and has not been resolved, for, in such debates, it is language, or a critical vocabulary, that is at stake, and not a quantifiable reality. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have argued, though not this succinctly, for the "death of the author"—the theoretical claim that "there is nothing outside the text"—"there is no center or integrated core from which we can say a piece of literature issues." (There is no Mozart from whom the music issues; there is the Mozartian text, which shares with other Mozartian texts certain characteristics, like voiceprints, or fingerprints, but no essential identity.)1

One might stand the theory on its head, as in a phantasmagoric scenario in which any and all things written by a "historic individual" (with name, fingerprints, DNA, etc.) are part of the oeuvre of the writer; not merely the revised, polished hardcover books he/she has nurtured into being with such determination. Certainly, collectors of manuscripts act upon this assumption,...

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General Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Panoramic, Unpredictable, and Human: Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Novels." In Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, pp. 196-209. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

In the following essay, Wagner-Martin traces Oates's changing portrayal of women and gender power in her novels.

Although Joyce Carol Oates must be named among America's most successful contemporary novelists, she remains strangely marginalized. The value of her fiction keeps getting displaced, subsumed under arguments about...

(The entire section is 5701 words.)

Do With Me What You Will

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Petite, Joseph. "A Predator in Liberationist Clothing." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 7, nos. 3-4 (August 1986): 245-48.

In the following essay, Petite investigates the repressed nature of the female characters in Do with Me What You Will.

In Do With Me What You Will Joyce Carol Oates, it has been argued, creates the truly independent woman. Noting that the novel is dedicated to a member of the national board of the National Organization of Women, Patricia Hill Burnett, Constance Denne says of the book: "Its...

(The entire section is 1611 words.)

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Daly, Brenda. "How Does 'I' Speak for 'We'?: Violence and Representation in Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang." In Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, pp. 205-22. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

In the following essay, Daly views Foxfire to be a novel about girls who utilize language to defend themselves against male-perpetrated violence.

Through its narrator, Madeleine "Maddy" Wirtz, Foxfire, Confessions of a Girl Gang1 explores the complex relationship between language and violence. Fifty-year-old...

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Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Lercangée, Francine. Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986, 272 p.

Complete, well-annotated bibliography of works by and about Oates, through 1986.


Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998, 492 p.

Biography of Oates which describes how Oates's upbringing, her career stopovers in Detroit and Princeton are mythologized in her fiction. An admirer of Oates, Johnson also portrays the occasionally unflattering...

(The entire section is 623 words.)