Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
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."
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
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
Unholy Loves (novel) 1979
Bellefleur (novel) 1980
Angel of Light (novel) 1981
Contraries: Essays (nonfiction) 1981
A Sentimental Education (short stories) 1981
A Bloodsmoor Romance (novel) 1982
Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970-1972 (poetry) 1982
Mysteries of Winterthurn (novel) 1984
Solstice (novel) 1985
Marya: A Life (novel) 1986
You Must Remember This (novel) 1987
Lives of the Twins [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1988
(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (nonfiction) 1988
American Appetites (novel) 1989
Soul/Mate [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1989
The Time Traveler (poetry) 1989
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (novel) 1990
I Lock the Door upon Myself (novel) 1990
Nemesis [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1990
The Rise of Life on Earth (novel) 1991
I Stand Before You Naked (drama) 1991
Black Water (novel) 1992
Heat: And Other Stories (short stories) 1992
Snake Eyes [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1992
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (novel) 1993
The Perfectionist (drama) 1993
What I Lived For (novel) 1994
Will You Always Love Me? and Other Stories (short stories) 1995
You Can't Catch Me [as 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 [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1997
Man Crazy (novel) 1997
My Heart Laid Bare (novel) 1998
Broke Heart Blues: A Novel (novel) 1999
The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (short stories) 1999
Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1999
Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (essays and nonfiction) 1999
Blonde (novel) 2000
Faithless: Tales of Transgression (short stories) 2001
Middle Age: A Romance (novel) 2001
Beasts (novel) 2002
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (novel) 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
Small Avalanches and Other Stories (short stories) 2003
Tattooed Girl (novel) 2003
Where is Little Reynard? (juvenilia) 2003
I Am No One You Know (short stories) 2004
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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.
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, appalling to the writer: They are willing to pay high sums of money for minor work, juvenilia, letters tossed off in unguarded moments, mere jottings—for, one might argue, these are the truer testaments of the elusive self, because unmediated. If you are a writer of reputation you may argue eloquently, like T. S. Eliot, that art is in fact the "extinction of personality"; nonetheless, any original manuscript of yours, in your own inimitable hand, any embarrassing love letters, diary entries, in Eliot's case anti-Semitic and misogynist pornographic fantasies, will be worth far more than any chastely printed book with your name stamped on the spine. For human beings seem to honor instinctively the individual sui generis, despite philosophical theories arguing the nonexistence of individuals. To escape the prison house of identity, writers have often fled to pseudonyms in the hope that the text will be, simply, a text, with an anonymous-sounding name attached to which no prior assumptions accrue. To begin again!—to be born again!—not as an author, but purely as a text!
Yet it's symptomatic of our profoundly secularized era that, French theory and the "New" Historicism to the contrary, any and all biographical data can be applied to the writer as a "historic" individual; nothing too obscure, too mundane, too trivial, too demeaning is ruled out as an instrument of illumination into the writer's motive. (A well-regarded academic-literary journal recently printed an essay on Sylvia Plath's last poems interpreted in the light of premenstrual tension, for instance.) Massive contemporary biographies, bloated with unedited taped interviews, bury their ostensible subjects beneath a vertiginous mass of data, and the writer's forlorn plea The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him is ignored. Yet, most writers will acknowledge that they do not inhabit their books—the more clinical term is "texts"—once they have completed them; they—we—are expelled from them like any other reader, for the act of composition is time-bound, and time is an hourglass that runs in one direction only. To consider the text as an art work is to acknowledge that there can be nothing outside the text. Authorial intentions have long been dismissed from serious critical consideration, though outside the lecture hall there may be intense, gossipy interest in such old riddles as the nature of Henry James's wound, did an individual named "Shakespeare" write the body of work attributed to "Shakespeare" or is someone else "Shakespeare," is the "I" of the next poem you read the poet or an invented persona? As Michel Foucault reasonably asks, "What difference does it matter who is speaking?"
What difference does it make to know that Marcel Proust was a homosexual? Does this biographical information alter the text of Proust's great novel?—does it expand the text?—detract from the text?—qualify, or enhance, its greatness? Can it be argued that Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by a homosexual, is a more subtle, codified work of fiction than the identical novel would have been had Wilde been heterosexual? No matter the plea embodied in the question "What difference does it make?" it seems, in fact, to make a difference to most readers.
For the feminist critic, it makes a considerable difference to know that the text has been authored by a woman: For a woman's discourse will presumably differ from a man's, even if the texts are identical. If the author is a woman, her text has very likely been generated by "female rage"; her art work may be intimately related to her body. To protest against such narrow corseting of motive is to deny one's gender-identity. Far from erasing identity, this popular strategy of criticism has reenforced identity by means of gender. Does a woman, in fact, possess a special language, distinct from male language? Or is it purely Woman, and no individual, who possesses such a language? And what of the "androgynous" artist? As a writer, and a woman, or a woman, and a writer, I have never found that I was in possession of a special female language springing somehow from the female body, though I can sympathize with the poetic-mystic yearning that might underlie such a theory. To be marginalized through history, to be told repeatedly that we lack souls, that we aren't fully human, that we're "unclean," therefore can't write, can't paint, can't compose music, can't do philosophy, math, science, politics, power in its myriad guises—the least of our compensations should be that we're in possession of some special gift brewed in the womb and in mother's milk. For the practicing woman writer, feminist/gender criticism can be wonderfully nurturing, for obvious reasons: Texts by women are read attentively and sympathetically; "lost" writers are continually rediscovered, and wrongly dismissed writers (Kate Chopin, for instance) are given the respectful scrutiny they deserve. On the most practical level, as the feminist critic Elaine Showalter has said, "The best thing the feminist can do for women's writing is to buy women's books."
Yet this criticism, for all its good intentions, can be restrictive as well, at least for the writer who is primarily a formalist, and for whom gender is not a pressing issue in every work. (As a writer who happens to be a woman, I choose to write about women, and I choose to write from the perspective of women; but I also choose to write about men, and I choose to write from the perspective of men; with the confidence that, dissolving myself into the self of a fictitious other, I have entered a dimension of consciousness that is not my own in either case, and yet legitimate.) Surely it is an error to reduce to a genitally defined essence any individual, whether a woman or a man; for the (woman) writer, it is frustrating to be designated as a "woman writer"—a category in relationship to which there is no corresponding "man writer."
To return to the question "Where is an author?"—we might say, with Henry James, that the artist's life is his work, yet this is not quite the same thing as saying that the artist's work is his life, for of course it can be only part of that life, and possibly, for some artists, even the gifted, not the most valued part of that life. We might argue that there must be an ontological distinction between the writer-as-creator-of-texts and the living person, the medium of the art. The work is thus the artist. The artist is a component of an aesthetic object, a product, printed or processed or in some way made into an artifice—"artificial." The individual is born of nature, but the artist is born of that individual, yearning to transcend the merely "natural" and to make complete that which, existentially, is forever incomplete, unrealized. We might argue that all books, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, have been created by pseudonymous selves in the process of that creation, and if the name on the dust jacket is identical with the historic name, that is not the same thing as saying that the name on the dust jacket is the historic individual.
Where is the author?—in the work, of course.
Which is not to say that the author of the author (i.e., the historic self) doesn't exist too; at least provisionally.
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is our paragon of genius. This letter suggests the genius as oddly passive, a vessel to be filled from the unconscious.
When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.…
When I proceed to write, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is … already finished.…But why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or, in short, makes it Mozart's, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at originality.
(trans. Edward Holmes)
Yet Mozart's most dazzling compositions are readily identified as of his musical era; for even a genius is a child of his time.
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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 who she is, what her concerns as a writer really are, what role her fiction plays in the paradigm of current literature. Throughout a sprawling labyrinth of reviews and personal interviews, Oates has long evinced her belief that the novelist's function is moral and at least partly didactic. The writer observes culture, lamenting its travesties and tragedies. He or she uses technical virtuosity to write effectively about any theme, any character, any concern. Oates has frequently been compared with Faulkner because of her command of craft, her technical daring, her general artistic sophistication—and her admittedly dark vision of human possibility.
That she is a woman writer is probably less significant than that she draws from all kinds of belief and "knowledge." Yet her gender has skewed reviews of her books throughout her career, beginning in 1964 with With Shuddering Fall. She recently wrote that "the impulse to create, like the impulse to destroy is utterly mysterious." It is "one of the primary mysteries of human existence."1 Once those mysteries are accepted, and the power of the sub (or supra) conscious acknowledged, the writer's work becomes chameleon. It is then realistic, fantastic; labored, effusive; predictable, oblique; naturalistic, mythic; utopian, dystopian; generic, avant-garde; exaggerated, understated. Each of these terms has been used at some point in Oates's career to describe her fiction. Panoramic in theme, unpredictable in method, her writing reflects the human condition as she acknowledges it to be in the latter third of this century. For the most part, her assessment of that human condition is critical. Hence her recent novels have charted themes that society as a whole would rather ignore. Among these are sexual abuse, incest, and the enslavement of physical passion and its consequent betrayal.
One of Oates's most controversial stands within her fiction is that culture is male-determined. In her fiction, women do what they do because of the men of power in their lives. Women are wives, fearful of what their husbands will think or do. They are unquestioning in their submission, or they are young women or adolescents waiting to trap the man who fathers their child, learning early the tricks of sexual manipulation. Or, they are children, sensing where family power lies and responding to the (usually male) sources of it. There are few families anywhere in Oates's fictions that are not male-dominated. There are few women or female adolescents who have lives of their own; their ambition rather is to keep their man, whether father or lover, happy. Because of this schema of domination, most of Oates's main characters are male. They are the determinants of the culture; their actions and decisions count in the lives of all Oates's characters. Oates is often criticized for writing about powerless women and for focusing her attention on men, yet the American culture she describes is still male-dominated. It is in this context of describing gender power that Oates's fiction of the 1980s begins to differ from her earlier work.
Oates's Marya, A Life (1986) ostensibly creates a different milieu for the title character. In Marya's "night of patchy dreams, strangers' voices, rain hammering on the tarpaper roof close overhead,"2 the reader realizes that Marya's union organizer father has been killed. Marya comes to understand the meaning of his death—and the depletion of her family's economic and human resources—later. This occurs when her mother takes her into the morgue and she sees a body, but the body "hadn't any face that you could recognize" (p. 11). Abandoned by their mother, Marya and her two young brothers live with her father's people. Sexually abused during the years she is eight, nine, and ten by her cousin Lee, "who liked her" (he is twelve, thirteen, and fourteen), Marya learns to exist by going "into stone." From her early life on, Marya typifies Oates's fragile, damaged characters, who are often so numbed by the pain of their existence that they perform at what appear to be subhuman levels.
Oates's fiction of the 1980s increasingly focuses on the subhuman, not as a criticism of these characters but as a criticism of the society that forms them. Many are as dehumanized as Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940). But Oates's most brutalized characters are women. Victimized by older male relatives—fathers, uncles, cousins—and unprotected by the obtuse or blandly uncaring women of their families, Marya and Enid, the protagonists of her shattering novel You Must Remember This (1987), barely survive their frequent psychic mutilations. You Must Remember This begins with Enid's suicide attempt: "She swallowed forty-seven aspirin tablets between 1:10 A.M. and 1:35 A.M. locked in the bathroom of her parents' rented house.… She stood five feet three inches tall in her bare feet, she weighed eighty-nine pounds."3 Victimized by her adored young uncle, Enid acts out the horrifying fear that she—though innocent—will be found out, that her uncle will be discovered, that (most realistic of Oates's plot machinations) she will come to enjoy this evil. Wearing her thin silver chain with the Virgin Mary stamped on the medal, she dresses herself all in white like a bride and goes to find death. She seeks the death she has convinced herself she deserves, the death only she can control. Through her chosen death, she will finally come to some kind of power. Oates's poignant cry for women to have control of their bodies and their lives shapes both Marya, A Life and You Must Remember This.
In both books, Oates resolves her tormented narratives through reconciliations of daughters with mothers, through resolutions of the matriarchal bond. The books are unlike A Garden of Earthly Delights or them, two of Oates's earlier novels in which mothers are perpetrators of male coercion. These two more recent books explore the ways women come to know both their "selves" and their potential as women in contemporary culture. Even in these efforts, however, Oates's women are very male-dependent. Marya goes through countless debilitating relationships with men, including a dying priest, as well as teachers and other lovers. Like Enid, she leads her life with a relentless subtext of romance, watching for the man who will make her dreams come true—despite the fact that she never dreams. Marya is too numb to have a normal subconscious life. Oates portrays one of her heroine's early high school romances so that the reader is reminded of the cultural imperative for Marya's behavior: "In the beginning she had pursued him [Emmett Schroeder].… Falling in love—'romance' of one kind or another—behaving like all the other girls.… Her 'feeling' for boys, for men, was largely a matter of daydreaming" (p. 101).
Both Marya and Enid have accepted what Oates, in her preface to You Must Remember This, describes as the "green of romance, of nostalgia, of innocence." Oates's working title for You Must Remember This was "The Green Island," retained here as a subsection title. It provides an image that pulls together the notion of the fresh innocence of adolescence with the highly romanticized fantasy of being shipwrecked on an island with someone. The metaphor of life as some uncontrollable sea and of a woman's safety dependent on her being rescued by a man (any man, regardless of the source of his power) prompts most of Oates's women characters' behavior.
Growing up through a 1950s girlhood that was itself dominated by this myth, Oates knew too well that conventional wisdom Marya and Enid accepted. She has referred to both these novels as her "most personal" books. She also has compared herself as an adolescent to Enid, "The contours of whose soul so resemble my own," not in the experience of sexual abuse but in the painful development of an independent psyche.4 Women in the world Oates depicts in You Must Remember This (carefully dated 1946-56) followed the injunctions of their culture: "You Must Remember This" is not only the title of a maudlin, mindlessly romantic ballad, but it is also a prescription for living the female life. A woman's role was to serve, to listen, to follow orders, and not to originate anything.
He instructed her to hold still. Not to move. Not to move.
And not to look at him either. Or say a word.
(Marya, p. 15)
She remembered his voice, Don't tell anybody will you.
(Remember, p. 4)
"Get in! Close the door!" Felix said.…He was nerved up, angry. "Does your father know you hitch rides?" he asked.… It's cheap and it's asking for trouble—I don't want any niece of mine doing it.… You led me on, acting the way you did fooling around the way you did you knew damn well what you were doing didn't you!—and now I see you out on the street hitching rides!…
He lit another cigarette, he let her cry for a while, then said, "It's stopped raining," though in fact it hadn't quite stopped yet. "You can get out now, Enid. Get out."
(Remember, pp. 130-32)
Even as adults, Oates's women characters continue these patterns; they are frozen in the psychological states abuse has created for them. In Marya's later relationship with Professor Fein, she again takes orders and lets herself be manipulated. She is used and reused, both sexually and professionally. Yet it is the much older and cynical Fein who tells her that she must find her mother. The novel builds to that predictable ending, but the effect of Marya's finding her mother is left ambiguous. She has written to the woman she has not seen since childhood, and her mother has replied. In the novel's last scene Marya prepares to open her mother's letter:
As if a dream secret and prized in her soul had blossomed outward, taking its place, asserting its integrity.… She placed the envelope carefully on a table and sat in front of it staring, smiling, a pulse beating in her forehead. How odd to see her name—Marya Knauer—her name in a handwriting that belonged to her mother, a handwriting she did not recognize.
Marya, this is going to change your life, she thought, half in dread.
Marya, this is going to cut your life in two.
The ending of You Must Remember This is much more ambiguous. Oates's layered structure has Enid leaving for college, the appropriate demise of Felix, the reunion of her parents (which culminates in an almost powerless sexual act), and the poignant letter from Enid's brother, Warren. In following his example (leaving "home"), Enid has saved herself—the reader supposes. But Warren's closing letter to Enid expresses the unpredictable—and ungovernable—power of physical passion:
Strange isn't it—how "love" seems to carry with it no knowledge. The people I have loved most in my lifetime (including you) I haven't known at all. Nor have they known me.
The blood ties are so powerful and deep and mute. Something terrifying there. How we feel about one another—even about the house on East Clinton Street—so strange, helpless, paralyzing and exciting both. It's only away where people don't know me or haven't known me for very long that I am myself.
In You Must Remember This, Warren takes a positive maternal role. Although Enid's mother does find a professional life for herself—in her sewing and designing, her physically leaving the house—the ending of the novel shows her once again locked in the sex act, repeating her husband's hesitant profession of love. But she has provided for Enid the beautiful quilt the latter takes with her to school; it is an emblematic gift of women's understanding and power (albeit worked in the wedding ring pattern). The ending of Oates's 1987 novel seems to countermand the comparatively simple ambivalence of Marya, A Life.
Elaine Showalter, in her essay on Oates and this novel, finds Marya's reaching back "to find the mother who has abandoned her, and to reclaim a matrilineage that is both painful and empowering,"5 to be mostly positive. Showalter states that for Marya to deny "the mother's country … is to be a permanent exile" (p. 152). Yet she also acknowledges—in response to the grim tone of the book—that Marya's gesture of reconciliation is not itself a panacea.
The community of women is not idyllic, but torn by rage, competition, primal jealousies, ambiguous desire, and emotional violence, just like the world in which women seem subordinate to and victimized by men.
In this comment, and in other reviews of You Must Remember This, critics have again taken up their pastime of making Joyce Carol Oates into a feminist writer. One of the reasons Marya, A Life and You Must Remember This were well received is that in these books comparatively strong women characters endured, even succeeded, though undeniably damaged by the gender struggles of their culture. It seemed to Oates's many readers as if she had become more interested in the problems of women and might be moving toward writing about fully achieving women protagonists. (The thirty-five years of Oates's career as novelist have engendered a tapestry of criticism about the absence of feminist themes in her writing.6)
Oates has repeatedly spoken to the conflicts of being both writer and woman—not about any inherent conflict in being a woman who writes, but about critics' reaction to women writers. In her essay "(Woman) Writer: Theory and Practice," she stated: "She is likely to experience herself, from within, as a writer primarily: perhaps even a writer exclusively.… When the writer is alone with language and with the challenging discipline of creating an art by way of language alone, she is not defined to herself as 'she.'"7 Oates then declares—though less militantly than she might have in either the 1960s or the 1970s (as she has no desire to discount her female being and psyche): "Is memory gender-bound? Are impressions filtered through the prism of gender? Is there a distinctly female voice?—or even a conspicuously feminine voice?" (p. 23).
Most of Oates's essays and prefaces that deal with the gender issue have been negations of the Gilbert and Gubar position that now dominates the critical world. This view suggests that women writers suffer under an "anxiety of authorship" different from, and more intense than, the anxieties of male writers. Oates is confident enough of both her vision and her voice to downplay the effects gender has on the writer's natural state of hesitancy. Hence when Oates herself writes about Marya, A Life, she sees the importance of the closing episode: She perceives Marya's attempt to find her mother as less a matriarchal connection (the search for parent become thoroughly gender based) than a humane one. Oates states that Marya's action is positive because she makes the choice "finally"; she chooses "not to accept the terms of their [her] own betrayal."8 She acts against the betrayer, the parent who happens to be mother rather than father.
Some critics believed they were seeing some pattern of more self-assertive women protagonists in Oates's 1980s fiction. For them, her 1989 novel, American Appetites, reversed whatever tendency they might have anticipated. Ian McCullough, highly esteemed research Ph.D., and his wife, Glynnis, author of successful cookbooks, lead a chic upper middle-class social and intellectual life. Disturbed only by the emotional vicissitudes of Bianca, their nineteen-year-old, their life runs to predictable busyness: Ian leads a remote, conventional intellectual life; Glynnis punctuates her suburban days with short-lived affairs—several with Ian's best friends. When Ian becomes fascinated by Sigrid Hunt, one of Glynnis's young protégées who had formerly been a dancer, the outer fabric of their life is shredded by Glynnis's jealousy. After Glynnis's quasi-accidental death, the reader is left to determine motives for Ian, Sigrid, and Bianca—motives for their subsequent behavior, not for their actual or fantasized complicity in Glynnis's death.
Despite the semblance of power each woman in this novel pretends, none is self-actualizing. Glynnis arranges not only her husband's existence but also a great many other people's. (One key anecdote is her memory of having sex with Ian's best friend, Denis, just minutes before the two of them go to lunch with their respective spouses as a foursome.) Bianca's defiance of her mother is a move against that awesome control. Her "present" for her father's fiftieth birthday is the parodic sexual dance, and it provides a useful glimpse into her understanding of the forces that motivate adult culture. Glynnis sits at the center of the web that shapes life in Hazelton-on-Hudson. Hence the shattered glass in the picture window represents Glynnis's webs or lines of power, as well as the actual cracks in the glass as she falls through it to her death.
Rather than equating Glynnis's control with strength, however, Oates shows how frightened Glynnis is once she suspects that Ian might have a lover. His asexuality, which had shown itself in occasions of impotence throughout their twenty-six-year marriage, now becomes more threatening than any overt hostility. In her drunken, violent response to him, Glynnis shows the hidden passions, the hungers, that had prompted so many of her actions in the past. By making Glynnis the proprietor of foods, cooking, and homes, Oates aligns the natural hungers for food and sex with the matriarchy.
Lest the reader miss the horror of Glynnis's complicated life because of the coolly understated prose, Oates underscores the vapidity of suburban women's lives. She does so by creating a macabre affair between Ian and Meika (whose older husband, Vaughn, had been one of Glynnis's lovers) soon after Ian is accused of Glynnis's murder. Meika, like Glynnis, is every bit the predator. By the close of American Appetites, Ian is living with Sigrid and planning a marriage, and Meika and Ian's attorney, Ottinger, are living together. Sexual liaisons are reasonless, impermanent, destructive, Oates's novel warns, but they are an expected part of all hearty and elite "American appetites." Her listeners understand full well the pathetic confession Sigrid makes on the witness stand: "I was caught up in this love affair which seemed to be sucking all the life from me. It was just a state I had drifted into … a pathological state of the soul."9
The closing coda has two of Ian's best friends (one is Denis, the lover Glynnis has taunted him about) come for a lunch that Sigrid has prepared. She has unwittingly contributed to a closed male camaraderie that shuts her out and makes her only a sexual object. The incident shows the mystery and the impenetrability of every human relationship. Supposedly Ian's best friend, Denis, has lied to him about his affair with Glynnis. Both lunch guests, Denis and Malcolm Oliver, have been Meika's lovers. Ian has no idea why he plans to marry Sigrid. He says in a later part of the scene, "I will blow my brains out when the season turns" (p. 337). The rapacity—conscious or unconscious—of these upstanding male professionals lies just under their veneer of accomplishment and wit.
Oates foreshadows our bleak knowledge that Sigrid will be left to bear the loss—and probably the guilt—of Ian's death by having her speak only once during the male-dominated luncheon. In that scene she tells the story of her dancing the role of the doomed Princess Creon in Medea, an oblique parallel to her triangle with Ian and Glynnis. Just as Medea in her bitter jealousy sends the princess the beautiful poisoned gifts that melt her flesh from her bones, so Glynnis has given Sigrid the anguishing work of caring for Ian. She is covered by his body in the sex act just as Princess Creon was by the poisoned robes. Sigrid states that "the Princess is so innocently vain, or … vainly innocent, she accepts the gifts immediately, and puts them on, and preens in front of a mirror, and dies an agonizing death" (p. 327).
Becoming lovers the night of Ian's acquittal, Sigrid and he as couple are the immediate result of Ian's fear of death (his own) and his fear from the death (of Glynnis). His fear gives him a sexual power that he had earlier lost. The Medea narrative also suggests incest—in that it includes the Princess's father, the Creon who—in trying to remove her flaming garments—also dies. Oates uses many references to Ian's and Sigrid's ages, to Sigrid's estrangement from her father, to Bianca's estrangement from Ian, and to Sigrid's appearance at the luncheon "like a tall somber child in a nightgown"; the allusions suggest that the sexual bond between Ian and Sigrid, as their names suggest, is incestuous. Sigrid has already had one abortion; the next fruit of her passionate involvements will be Ian's death. The reader is reminded of Ian's irrational binary statement to Nick Ottinger as they wait for the jury to bring in its verdict: "I will blow my brains out … or I will get married again and begin my life over." "I will blow my brains out or I will marry" (pp. 328, 330).
As if to illustrate her statements about gender-determined imaginations, Oates creates in American Appetites a novel in which gender is less important than morality. Men and women alike break codes of marriage and friendship and professional loyalty. Only the "innocently vain, or vainly innocent"—Ian, Bianca, and to a lesser degree Sigrid—can be hurt by disillusion: What does marriage "mean"? What does family "mean"? American Appetites, one of the most graphically bitter of Oates's novels, implies that language—like the social and moral codes it represents—"means" nothing. The most chilling scene in the novel is Denis's lying to Ian about his former relationship to the now-dead Glynnis.
As Sigrid's single narrative suggests, the misleading and oversimplified romance script is to blame for much of the novel's and the culture's sorrow. Dissatisfied with professions and roles, women look for fulfillment in sexual relationships. Sigrid's life was such a paradigm, and one can assume Glynnis's was, too. As Sigrid says, "at the time I became involved in this love affair, I was feeling ill-used and embittered about losing my job at Vassar" (p. 313). The appetites of Oates's characters are explicable, however, not only in terms of the late twentieth-century culture but also as ramifications of primordial gender patterns. In Oates's 1979 novel Cybele, she established the same patterns, creating in the unaware Edwin Locke a precursor of the equally unaware Ian McCullough.
Her Cybele is the story of a middle-aged man whose quick and destructive love affairs with a half-dozen women lead to the actual death with which the novel opens. At forty-four, Edwin Locke was a prosperous businessman, stable in his love for his wife, Cynthia, and his two sons. The family is part of an established suburban social group. At forty-six, he is depleted from sexual and drug experimentation, living on the fringe of society, ready to become a child molester. The explanation for Locke's perversion is given by the mysterious narrator of the novel, the I of Chapter One ("In Memoriam. Edwin Locke") and of subsequent brief references, Cybele. With characteristic whimsy, Oates gives the reader no way of identifying the narrator except through the title.
Cybele is the great earth mother, nature goddess, mother of the gods, and wife of Cronus. She is known also as Demeter, Rhea, Op, protectress of the wild things of the earth. But she is probably best known in mythology for her relationship with Attis. Jealous of his turn to other women, Cybele drives him mad so that he castrates himself. He dies under a pine tree, where violets eventually grow. In other versions of the myth, Attis, like Adonis, is killed by a boar. Spring was the season for Attis to be celebrated because he was the god of vegetation. Other objects or images connected with the Cybele-Attis myth are the lions that either accompanied Cybele or drew her chariot, the drum or cymbals she carried, and the dancing and wild music used to celebrate her being. (Without extensive elaboration, it is clear that American Appetites makes use of a great many of these characteristics.)
Oates's narrator/author points out in chapter 1 that the story will accelerate greatly as it continues. It assumes the form of dance itself, so that by the end of the narrative "no one will see him [Locke] at all and he certainly will have lost even his incomplete vision of himself."10 The novel fulfills that promise, so that the last chapters become more and more fragmented and less connected to previous segments. As Locke changes lovers rapidly, we know less and less about them and about his state of mind. Oates's narrative method changes to show the precipitous changes in the man and in his social behavior.
The character of Edwin Locke can be read as an ironic recreation of seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke, creator of the idea of the pleasure principle. The travesty which the search for pleasure becomes in Cybele is far removed from the ideal balance that Locke wrote about in 1690 in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oates's Locke exemplifies the horrors of ignorance, of the equation of sexual pleasure with "love," and of a male's complete ego absorption in the sexual act, without thought for his partner. "He knows only that the October night is beautiful, that the future lies all before him, rich with the surprise, the continual shock, of sensual pleasure; it lies in wait for him. The past does not exist. The past is falling away, moment by moment, helpless to impede him.… this is why we are born, Edwin Locke thinks" (p. 98). No other human being is important to this man; his ego has become the center; what matters is his experience, his sensual pleasure. The rest of Cybele chronicles a succession of meaningless relationships—with a hint of homosexual, group, and child partners. These illustrate the indiscriminate search that obsesses Locke.
That search finally becomes faceless. A body is any body, and all sex partners become
An immense hill into which he wants to burrow. Head-first. Trembling with desire. Sobbing with desire. And the hill becomes flesh, and the flesh seems to flinch from his violence, his need, whimpering as if it were alive; but still he forces himself into it. Like this! Like this! Like this! And as he forces himself into it it does give way, it succumbs, he pounds at it with his head, plunging, burrowing, half-choking with the rage of his desire, until he has penetrated my very core.
Cybele's speech gives her identity away to the reader: "my" very core is the feminine principle, the earth mother, who first entices and then traps irretrievably. The passage above continues,
And then the flesh, which has parted for him, in fear of him, begins to contract.
And horribly, he is caught in me. Trapped.
He screams for help, for release. But of course no one hears. His screams are not audible, nor is there anyone to hear. For I have him now, I have him fast, and tight, in the hot tight blood-thrumming depths of me, and he will never withdraw, no matter how frantically he struggles to get free, no matter how valiantly his poor strained heart beats: I have him, I have him forever.
Oates continues, "it's the oldest story in the world, isn't it?" She reinforces the image of Cybele, waiting till Locke plays himself out, winding to the inevitable end of the saga—his own death.
Death comes to Locke not by castration, which has been gradual throughout the novel in various episodes of impotence, but by scissor stabs to the heart. The real seat of passion, this change from the Attis legend implies, is the heart and not the genitals. Locke dies from the scissor injuries, but he is immolated as well, burned after his murderer "dribbles" gas over his body "with a certain ceremonial grace." Locke's death occurs, Cybele makes clear, because he hadn't "the insight. He never understood." His burned body, found by the very children he would have liked to use as sex partners, is finally mistaken for that of a dog. It is not only bereft of gender distinctions, but also of humanity.
In Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984),11 Oates creates another of these men for whom sexual passion is all-important. Xavier Kilgarvan, the detective-hero of Mysteries, is as passionately foolhardy as Edwin Locke or Ian McCullough. Xavier, at sixteen, falls irresistibly in love with his distant cousin Perdita. Because of horrible crimes occurring in his cousin's home, Xavier (with the idealism suggested by his named saint, Francis Xavier) becomes a detective. Oates gives the reader scene after scene in which conventional religious accouterments carry sinister meaning. For example, the cherubs surrounding the Virgin Mary in a ceiling painting attempt to seduce Xavier as he keeps watch in the murder bower, just as Perdita has earlier enticed him to the attic of her home where Xavier eventually finds wire-choked infant bodies swaddled and laid in bureau drawers. The sensual and depraved grow from, or into, the religious, as Oates follows the familiar Gothic interpretation of humanity's quest for emotional gratification.
Although the novel falls into three seemingly separate tales—horrific accounts of strange and never-solved crimes—Mysteries is the story of Xavier and his obsessive passion for Perdita. Ironically—or with the mockery of narrative conventions so obvious throughout Oates's work—the novel has a "happy ending" as Perdita and Xavier finally marry. When Xavier gives up his occupation as detective, however, the reader assumes that he becomes a lost man. But this irony is never apparent, and the reader—lulled by the conventions of the genre—gives a sigh of relief when the marriage occurs. The reader is convinced that Xavier's efforts have finally paid off in this long-anticipated but unexpected reward.
If anything, Mysteries is a comic novel—although the relationship of Erasmus Kilgarvan to his oldest daughter, Georgina (the self-styled poet Iphigenia), is difficult to read as comedy. Incest is one way of murdering the child, just as Agamemnon tried to sacrifice his daughter to the gods. In her description of Georgina as Emily Dickinson, Oates carefully underplays the macabre. Instead, she makes an important comment about family power structures, the coercion by the religious community, and the impossibility of women using their talents and finding freedom—unless that freedom is sanctioned by patriarchal power.
Her Mysteries of Winterthurn, like its triad genre novels Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance, shows Oates's easy versatility. Such a deviation from her usual intense naturalism or fantasy as to be found in this trio proves again that Oates's writing, collectively, merits the same kind of explicative and diverse critical methodology that is generally applied to Thomas Pynchon's fiction. The chief difference between the two writers is that Oates's sense of humor is even more madcap. She directs her humor at the most sacred cultural and literary conventions while offering so few clues that her fiction becomes a great, wry mystery. In Mysteries of Winterthurn she gives the reader the most rational of frameworks: "Editor's Notes," "Postscripts," "Epilogues," and the detective-novel tradition itself. It proves an organization that suggests ends and reliable conclusions (the three-part, separate mystery structure) and a sane narrative voice that describes a seemingly sane detective figure. What we are left with, however, is a completely inexplicable novel; it is not one of the mysteries explained in any way. We also are left with an ever-widening rift between the rational and the irrational: in the case of Xavier, it is between the psychic health we associate with sanity and his own brand of passionate madness. Oates's Mysteries then is a conundrum of literary conventions, even to the concrete poems created by the entries in her table of contents.
To see these two earlier novels—Cybele and Mysteries of Winterthurn—in the light of Oates's three later fictions—Marya, A Life, You Must Remember This, and American Appetites—is to see how differently she has come to approach the same themes. These include sexual passion and enthrallment, the cultural adoption of the panacea of sex, and the underlying destruction of women's freedom as a result of these attitudes about sexuality during the later 1980s. What might have once become a text that could evoke some humor has become fiction of the highest possible seriousness. Oates is convinced that her writing mirrors life and that life exists in some part to teach and to admonish. This conviction has given her many readers these embittered and embittering novels about women's lives, lived in the strangleholds of the men their culture has empowered. It is not a satisfying vision, but it is a true one. And Oates is once again fulfilling her own role as Cassandra in the panorama of contemporary American fiction.
- Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer, Occasions and Opportunities (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988), p. 3.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Marya, A Life (New York: Berkeley, 1988), p. 1.
- Joyce Carol Oates, You Must Remember This (New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1988), p. 3.
- Oates, (Woman) Writer, pp. 379-80.
- Elaine Showalter, "Joyce Carol Oates: A Portrait," Ms (March 1986), reprinted in Modern Critical Views, Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), pp. 137-45. See esp. p. 137.
- See my collection, Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), especially the Introduction and essays by Charles Lam Markmann, Sanford Pinsker, Eileen Bender, and Joanne V. Creighton. See also Victor Strandberg, "Sex, Violence, and Philosophy in You Must Remember This," Studies in American Fiction 17 (Spring 1989): 3-17.
- Oates, (Woman) Writer, pp. 22-23.
- Ibid., p. 378.
- Joyce Carol Oates, American Appetites (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989), p. 314.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Cybele (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1979), pp. 11-12.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Mysteries of Winterthurn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984).
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JOSEPH PETITE (ESSAY DATE AUGUST 1986)
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 subject is the raising of a young woman's consciousness and her liberation. Elena … breaks through to a higher level of awareness, and, integrated, affirms not only what she wants but also how she will get it."1 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt also sees Elena as liberated, suggesting that since she and her mother, Ardis, are anything but passive, the title is ironic. He finds Elena's decision to leave her husband for Morrissey "an uncompromising assertion of her newly discovered self."2 A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly concurs; this is the story of Elena's liberation. Choosing Morrissey, he says, is the "love through which she begins at last to be her own person."3
Critics, however, have failed to notice the direct contradiction between the liberationist rhetoric supplied to Elena and Ardis and the facts of the novel. Elena merely improves on her mother's techniques for exploiting men. The fact is that her "victory," her domination of Jack, has won her nothing. Not only isn't she the new woman Denne describes, she isn't even new in Oates' fiction. Like Clara in A Garden of Earthly Delights, she thinks of male/female relations as an adversary process. Like Maureen in them Elena is alienated from men and frigid. Like many of Oates' women, Elena has traded for security, only to find herself lonely.4 Even in her affair with Jack her object is security not liberation. Ardis tutors Elena in alienation from men; men are "machines."
'If it's one thing I can't understand,' she said, 'it's men mauling me. It's very annoying, it's boring. You won't like it either. You try to think of something else but you can't. Men are like machines, they're like automatic washers that must go through certain cycles, one after the other, it's all predictable and boring … for women who have no imagination, who can't think of anything better to do with their lives, maybe it's all right for them, but not for someone like me.'5
Machines is precisely how the frigid Maureen in them sees men. In response to a man's sexual advances, Maureen reflects that, "a man was like a machine: one of those machines at the laundromat where she dragged the laundry. There were certain cycles to go through."6 In talking of male/female relationships in her fiction, Oates repeats her own words a great deal.
Rather than being liberated, Elena is trained to see men as providers, though Ardis camouflages this manipulation by convincing herself of her own philosophical depth: "'We're our own ideas, we make ourselves up; some women let men make them up, invent them, fall in love with them they're helpless to invent themselves … but not me, I'm nobody's idea but my own'" (p. 72). Obviously Ardis considers herself a woman of "imagination." The facts, however, indicate she is not at all liberated. When we first meet mother and daughter they are scheming to get financial security from Mr. Karman by convincing him that it is his idea that they should be "protected" by him (p. 72). Knowing his need to be their benefactor, Ardis cynically uses the word "belong," (employed by so many of Oates' women) only here it is obvious that she has no intention of being a helpless dependent: "'I want Elena and myself to have your name, yes. And then some day I want to be your wife, I want to belong to you'" (p. 62). The critics have too easily taken these words at face value, and have failed to explore the larger picture of male/female interaction in Oates' work.
Rather than being liberated, Ardis is guilty, just as men are, of exploiting the opposite sex. However, in spite of the success of the plan with Marvin, Elena is lonely. Her emotions are so twisted by Ardis' teaching that she is frigid, and ironically views her own absence of response as a sign that she is in control of both her husband and her lover. Certainly exploitation is not a sign of personality growth, nor is the inability to respond.
Elena is aware that her marriage is arranged by Ardis, that "her life is being prepared" (p. 97). Ardis, frank about the exploitation, tells her plainly, "'You're set for life'" (p. 10). Marvin, the typical Oates husband, is at work "all the time, maybe sixteen hours a day" (p. 115). Elena's contribution to the marriage is to let Marvin go through his cycles: "When he made love to her in the months afterward, she felt no pain, no alarm; she felt nothing, but drifted like this, absolutely still, gentle, opened to him and empty" (p. 119). When he asks if she loves him, she knows the game has to be played if the male is to continue to protect her: "She realized that she was expected to answer him. And so she whispered, 'Yes,' and wondered if it was the right word, the magical word he wanted" (p. 119). This could just as easily be the scene between Clara and Revere in A Garden of Earthly Delights where Clara "lets" Revere love her in order to remain under his protection. In return for Revere's "strength" to count on, "She … (gives) herself over to him"7 "telling him what he wanted to hear and letting him love her" (p. 260).
Elena's description of the emotional arrangement in her marriage leaves no room for doubt about its emptiness: "'It isn't any of my business, his life. It belongs to him. It's private. I've lived with him for only a small part of his life, I'm just a fraction of it … I belong to him but he doesn't belong to me'" (p. 375).
Elena's alienation from men carries over into her affair with Morrissey. She holds herself back. "So he made love to her: she felt the love being made, forced, generated out of his misery as a physical creature, grinding itself into her" (p. 344). Not responding to a man, she believes, gives her power over him. In her marriage she also reaches a point where she uses sex to defeat her husband: "She has eluded him, she had established a kind of triumph over him" (p. 414). It is after this "victory" that she leaves Marvin.
Elena feels "a feverish certainty" about her liberation; "she did not need anyone, she did not love anyone, she was free" (p. 536). Interestingly, of all of Oates' women Elena most resembles Clara and Maureen, two women whose emotional lives are stunted precisely because they are alientated from men. They are unable to love, if love means sharing, and Elena describes herself as free beause she does not love. Elena's move is not into "adult-hood," but into herself, and is therefore destructive.
At the end of the novel Elena believes she has broken her bonds. If she loves, she believes it will not be because she is slavishly dependent on a man, but because she chooses to love. Initiating a relationship, she feels is the equivalent of being adult and male, and it is in this sense that she admires maleness. Yet we see that her real interest is not simply in initiating a relationship; it is in dominating, and the object is still security. Though she believes she "loathes" this role, she finds it an expression of "freedom." Making Morrissey fall in love with her is a victory, proof of her power and control:
She did not need love. But if she wanted love she must have Morrissey.… Never in her life had she conquered any territory, achieved any victories. Never. Never had she been selfish, never evil or adult. And now if she wanted Morrissey she would cross over into adulthood to get him, into the excitement of evil. Extending her freedom as men do, making a claim … claiming a man … almost against his will, forcing him. It saddened her, it was degrading. Spiritually she loathed it. As a woman she loathed it. Yet there was an excitement in the risk she would run.
Her freedom, it seems, is definable only in terms of her ability to take freedom away from a man. Elena wants not freedom to be herself, to love and be loved as a whole person; she wants control. While at the end she is free of male influence, she is still obsessed with her original need to protect herself. She has not reached a new level of awareness. She has simply adopted male habits of domination. Her liberation is only rhetorical. A predator is no less a predator because she is female and spouts liberationist dogma.
- Constance Denne: "Joyce Carol Oates' Women," Nation, 219 (December 7, 1974), pp. 597-599. All future references will be in parentheses.
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt: "Stalking the Eternal Feminine," New York Times (15 October 1973), p. 35.
- Anon. Review of Do With Me What You Will, Publisher's Weekly, 204 (20 August 1973), p. 84.
- See my article, "The Marriage Cycle of Joyce Carol Oates," The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. Vols. V and VI.
- Joyce Carol Oates: Do With Me What You Will (New York: 1973), p. 70. All future references will be in parentheses.
- Joyce Carol Oates: them (New York: 1969), p. 209.
- Joyce Carol Oates: A Garden of Earthly Delights (New York: 1966), p. 223. All future references will be in parentheses.
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BRENDA DALY (ESSAY DATE 1996)
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 Maddy, a member of FOXFIRE (always spelled in caps) from age thirteen to age seventeen, uses her notes and memories—as well as some flights of imagination—to chronicle the gang's adventures from 1952 to 1956. "It was a time of violence against girls and women," Maddy explains, "but we didn't have the language to talk about it then" (100). In retrospect, Maddy—who has completed college and now works as an astronomer's assistant—understands that the girls in FOXFIRE had no language for the violence perpetrated against them; however, as narrator, Maddy has a different problem: how can she tell the gang's story—that is, how can an "I" speak for a "we"—without doing violence to, without denying the voices of, the women she once loved? This question is of critical importance because the gang was formed so that collectively its members would have the power to resist the violence perpetrated against them. Under the leadership of Margaret "Legs" Sadovsksy, the FOXFIRE gang devised a range of creative strategies, many of them verbal, to defend themselves against sexual harassment and violence. As Legs tells Maddy, "It's a state of undeclared war, them hating us, men hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are but nobody wants to admit it, not even us." (101).
To defend themselves against male violence, the girls in FOXFIRE must first admit what adults, especially males in positions of authority, refuse to acknowledge: institutionally sanctioned violence toward women, violence perpetuated by the silences in public discourses. As Teresa de Lauretis argues, the silence of male-dominated discourses—the way language "names certain behaviors and events as violent, but not others" (240)—is one way that "violence is en-gendered in representation" (240). To illustrate her point, de Lauretis cites the work of feminist social scientists Wini Breines and Linda Gordon, who explain that as long as no word existed for "family violence," medical professionals usually ignored the causes of a patient's injuries, returning wives and children to their abusers, thereby perpetuating domestic violence. Again citing Breines and Gordon, De Lauretis argues that the use of gender-neutral language in most studies of incest perpetuates sexual violence by obscuring the fact that "in cases of incest as well as cases of child sexual abuse, 92 per cent of the victims are female and 97 per cent of the assailants are male" (242). What is at stake, de Lauretis emphasizes, is whether the social order—in this case the family—is to be "maintained or to be dismantled" (242). The violence engendered by such presumably "neutral" institutional discourse has a direct bearing upon the lives of poor teenage girls, such as those depicted in Foxfire, many of whom, while running away from violent or neglectful families, become vulnerable to sexual violence on the street.
The traditional canon of literature also constitutes a form of violence, as Judith Fetterley asserts, because "through what is taught and how it is taught, our educational system ratifies boys' sense of agency and primacy, their sense of themselves as subjects, particularly as defined against their sense of girls as objects" ("'Not in the Least American'" 880). By contrast, Maddy is striving to define her subjectivity, not by making the girls in FOXFIRE into mute objects, but by establishing their claims to language and agency, along with her own. Strictly speaking, Maddy's voice occupies an "intermediate" zone between personal and communal narration. Maddy is, in fact, not the protagonist—that role belongs to Legs—but she is telling her own story and, at the same time, the gang's. As Susan Lanser points out, narrative individualism has prevented analysis of this "intermediate" type of narrator: one who is "reconstructing the life of another woman but is in some sense the protagonist herself, not simply an eye witness or an autobiographer" (21). At the same time, Maddy's narrative authority comes from her membership in a community that, contradictorily, has authorized her to write the gang's history, but not to tell it. In my view, Maddy's style of communal narration, her attempt to create an "I" that can speak nonviolently for a "we," is born out of her recognition that violence, whether linguistic or physical, arises from a desire for stability, certainty, and control.
"For the violator," as Laura Tanner says in Intimate Violence, "violence may come to serve as a temporary affirmation of an unstable self, a material manifestation of a disembodied ideology, an expansion of one's own insubstantial form out into an alien world" (4). Even though Maddy's authority is already unstable because of her gender and class, she reveals her uncertainties as a narrator: she is striving to avoid representational violence by acknowledging that, even as she attempts to tell the "Truth," she doubts that it is possible to do so. She admits that, at times, she is not simply reporting an event, but inventing it, while at other times she admits to losing control over the narrative. As narrator, Maddy's voice is structurally superior to others in the gang, but she refuses to claim linguistic agency by denying other points of view. Sometimes, for example, Maddy makes it obvious that Legs has a different point of view. Furthermore, Maddy's authority is clearly contingent upon her position in the community; Legs is always first in command of the FOXFIRE gang.
As Maddy relates, the girls of FOXFIRE refuse to become the blank screens of male desire or violence. Working together, under the capable guidance of Legs, they devise a game called "hook and bait" to trap the men who would buy them for sex. Invented primarily to meet a desperate need—to raise capital to pay the gang's living expenses—the game also provides the pleasures of revenge. Their strategy is simple but effective: while one girl acts as the attractive "bait" with which to "hook" the male gaze—as if she were merely a blank screen for male desire—the rest of the gang watches, waiting for the right moment to attack. The object of the game is not to kill or injure, but to demand money from men willing to treat them as commodities. The tricky part of the game is, of course, timing the attack to catch the man with his pants down, just before the girl who is playing "bait" can be forced to turn a trick. It is Margaret "Legs" Sadovsky, the gang's remarkable leader, who invents the game following a job interview that turns into an attempted seduction. Because Legs was "fed up with the kinds of jobs available in Hammond for young women with her qualifications" (225), she had dressed as a man2 to interview for a position as an encyclopedia salesman. When the interviewer, mistaking Legs for a young ("feminine") man, tries to seduce "him," she draws her knife. To save himself, the injured Mr. Rucke bribes Legs by giving her all he has.
"Just something that got snagged on my hook" (232), Legs explains upon returning to FOXFIRE with Rucke's money, watch, ring, camera, even some marijuana. Though she didn't get the job, the interview inspires the invention of the money-making game, "hook and bait." In a chapter called, "FOXFIRE HOOKING: A Miscellany, Winter 1955-56," Maddy describes the disguises worn by gang members who play "bait"—it may be "an alone-looking girl of about seventeen years of age, pretty freckled face and curly red hair" (233) or "the one with dead-white skin and luscious lips, big sloe eyes, sleek black hair" (234) or "a shapely girl with eye-catching platinum blond hair waved and curled like Marilyn Monroe's" (236). The gang stages the game in different settings—at a train depot, a hotel, and an inn—and they hook a variety of "fatherly" men: a man with "a fatherly, an avuncular look to him" (233), a man who takes "the hook in his smug little purse of a mouth" (234) with the comment, "I have a daughter myself" (235), and another man who is "a good Catholic husband and father" (236). When Maddy plays the bait, "sitting in the Trailways station glancing through a newspaper" (239), a man "with a fatherly-bullying smile" almost wins the game by leading Maddy, in a manner "snug and fatherly" (244) into an isolated alley. By the time FOXFIRE arrives to defend her, she is already swallowing blood.
Despite its dangers, the gang plays this tricky game quite successfully, hooking "fatherly" men who read them as blank screens, as bodies without voices, as "bad daughters" who function as currency to be circulated by the fathers. According to the homosocial rules of "hooking," the prostitute circulates as daughter/currency among men; however, FOXFIRE turns the tables, rewriting the rules of the game. As Elaine Scarry observes, voice and body historically have been understood as "paired opposites," a structural relationship "between the disembodied torturer (at times no more than a voice) and the (speechless) victim who is all body," a relationship that is "played out again in biblical history with a God who is all voice and in Marxist economic theory with its remote commands issued by a disembodied capitalist class" (quoted in Morris 251). Since these paired opposites—voice and body—are gendered, a (woman) writer finds herself in a different relationship to language; as de Lauretis points out, Nietzsche can speak from the position of woman, because that place is "vacant" (239). The novel makes this point most powerfully when Legs decides to kidnap a wealthy businessman and hold him for ransom. At this moment, when FOX-FIRE attempts to turn a male body into a commodity—a body that the gang hopes to circulate like currency—the novel raises questions about the ethics of violence.
I will return to this ethical issue after first illustrating how the gang plays the language game—that is, how they fight sexual violence with words. I begin my analysis of the novel's word games with the gang's rewriting of the body in its ritual of membership. As Maddy reports, FOXFIRE is a linguistic creation, born during a formal swearing-in ceremony. The ceremony takes place on New Year's Day, 1953, when four girls arrive at the home of Legs (also "Sheena") Sadovsky: Goldie (also "Boom-Boom") Betty Siefried; Lana Loretta Maguire; Rita (also "Red or Fireball") Elizabeth O'Hagan; and Madeleine (also "Maddy," "Monkey" or "Killer") Faith Wirtz. All wear black, and all wear crosses around their necks, as instructed by Legs. Once all have entered her bedroom, which is darkened except for five burning candles, Legs distributes five shot glasses filled with whiskey, "with priestly decorum" (39). Next, in an "incantatory" voice, and in language she probably borrowed from conversations with a "retired" priest, she leads them in this secret oath: "Do you solemnly swear to consecrate yourself to your sisters in FOXFIRE yes I swear to consecrate yourself to the vision of FOXFIRE I do, I swear to think always of your sisters as you would they would think of you Ido in the Revolution of the Proletariat that is imminent in the Apocalypse that is imminent in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and under torture physical or spiritual Ido" (39-40). The girls must also swear, "never to betray your FOXFIRE sisters in thought word or deed never to reveal FOXFIRE secrets" (39-40), a promise Maddy clearly breaks by writing the FOXFIRE confessions.
Following this swearing-in ceremony—a playfully serious parody of religious, civic, and legal ceremonies that traditionally confer power on men—Legs produces an "elegant silver ice pick" (40) with which she writes the gang's emblem upon her own body. Maddy, who is last in the ceremony, asks Legs to tattoo her left shoulder: "At first it was a tattoo of blood, oozing blood-droplets, points of pain on the pale tender flesh of Maddy's left shoulder," but after the bleeding stopped, they rubbed alcohol into their wounds and used red dye to form the flame-tattoo; then, "while the bleeding was fresh, they pressed together eagerly to mingle their blood their separate bloods" (41). In this ceremony they become "blood sisters," as Legs says, in a serious parody of homosocial rituals in which men celebrate their collective power. And in the Dionysian frenzy that follows—when Goldie is pulling down Legs's bra and giving Lana "a jungle-cat bite of a kiss," when Rita is "pressing her grapefruit-sized bare breasts against Goldie's smaller taut breasts and someone dribbled whiskey on Rita's breasts and licked it off" (42). This parody of ceremonies—those rituals in which language is an action conferring power—is not a pale imitation, but an aggressive recontextualization, a carnivalization of language by which the FOXFIRE gang appropriates linguistic power for itself.
I deliberately choose Mikhail Bakhtin's term carnivalization because, as Patricia Yaeger points out in Honey-Mad Women, we must turn to Bakhtin, rather than Foucault, if we are to find a theory of transgressive practices that liberates not only words but speakers, speakers such as the young women in Foxfire. In Yaeger's view, as in mine, "There is little room in Foucault's system for the linguistic play affirmed, say, in Bakhtin's descriptions of insult and parody. According to Bakhtin, such transgressive practices allow not only words, but speakers themselves to be released 'from the shackles of sense,' to define moments within discourse when we are able 'to enjoy a period of play and complete freedom and to establish unusual relationships'" (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World 423; qtd. in Yaeger 89). Although the gang enjoys only a short period of such playful freedom, they celebrate by writing on a variety of surfaces—on paper or placards, on cars, buildings, or cakes, as well as on their own flesh—and with a variety of materials—with crayons and ink, blood and frosting, paint and nail polish, ice picks and an old Underwood typewriter. They also use different genres—tattoos, graffiti, letters, and a ransom note. During these carnival moments, the gang radically reverses the position of women: FOXFIRE claims collective agency through acts of violent inscription, thereby rejecting the role of mute body, often violently inscribed by men. The novel depicts a number of these reversals.
One such reversal—also depicted as a scene of recognition between women—takes place in a chapter called "Black Eye" when Maddy's mother opens the bathroom door, which has a broken lock, to see her daughter standing before the mirror. Because it is early in the morning and both mother and daughter are half-naked, they can read what is written on the other's body: Maddy is inscribed with the "beautiful FOXFIRE tattoo … my tattoo so lurid and flamey red exposed for Momma to see," while her mother is inscribed with a "big purplish-orangish black eye as if a giant's fist has walloped her good on the right side of her face" (58). Although both mother and daughter have been written upon, the flame on Maddy's shoulder is a reversal, a mirror image, of the black eye inscribed by the male "giant." Men possess the power of a giant, not only because of greater physical strength, but because of economic dominance. For example, Maddy's mother has been widowed by war, but she cannot earn enough to support herself and her daughter. Yet her husband's family offers her no financial help. In fact, when Maddy asks her uncle for a favor—she wants an old Underwood he has put out with the trash—he tries to force her into providing sexual favors in exchange for the typewriter.
A second scene occurs when Legs, newly released from a girls' detention center and employed by the Park Service, accidentally comes upon a "dwarf" woman named Yetta. Legs is helping to clear underbrush at the edge of Cassadaga Park when she grows thirsty. At that moment she spots a house attached to a tavern, that happens to be closed. When no one answers her knock on the door of the house, she goes to the back yard looking for an outside faucet. There she sees a strange woman "child-size but not child-proportioned with a long torso and a misshapen back, and her face, not ugly exactly, but strange, sort of twisted like her spine" (198). What is most shocking to Legs is that "this woman is wearing a dog collar around her neck and the collar is attached to a lightweight chain which is attached to a clothesline" (198). Although Legs is a "giant" in the eyes of her gang—a mythical figure with powers usually attributed only to heroic males—Yetta is actually a mirror image of the many "dwarfing" experiences of abuse that Legs has experienced at home, at school, at work, and in a girls' detention center. Drawn to those who cannot defend themselves, imagining herself as a protector of women, Legs returns with Goldie to observe what happens to Yetta at night. Hiding in the bushes, the girls are horrified by what they see: Yetta lying "naked, spread-eagle, a terrible sight to see her with her wrists and ankles tied to the bed's four posters so her deformed body is completely exposed and completely open … and one by one men come into the room" (200 Oates's ellipsis).
The attachment of the tavern to a house underscores the close relationship between commercial and family violence—the latter a form of violence that, as stated above, didn't even exist until feminists named it.3 Legs and Goldie try to prevent family violence when they return to the house where they confront a "bear-size" man who identifies himself as Yetta's brother. Boldly, since the two girls are alone, Legs argues that "there are laws prohibiting such things, abuse, forced prostitution" (200), but Yetta's brother retorts angrily that "it's none of her fucking business what people do in the privacy of their own home" (200). Unfortunately, because Legs has been abused by many figures of authority—father, principal, judge, prison guards—she does not trust them enough to ask for their help. Nonetheless, she returns, alone, to the scene of the crime. Again she watches men enter Yetta's room where "one by one bare-assed their genitals swollen, penises stiffened into rods, mounting the dwarf-woman, the woman-that's-a-body, one by one pumping their life into her, evoking those cries" (202), and her rage flares. Recalling the words of Father Theriault, a defrocked and alcoholic priest who speaks "of capitalism of the curse of human beings apprehending one another as commodities the tragedy is that men and women not only use one another as things but use themselves, present themselves, sell themselves … as things" (202-3 Oates's ellipsis), Legs sets fire to the house and tavern. The fox's fire burns. In this instance, words of protest have proven to be useless. In the next chapter, called "FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD," Legs manages to finance a mortgage on an old farmhouse that, in sharp contrast to Yetta's, protects the FOXFIRE "family"—as they define themselves—from abusive men.
Almost all of the early FOXFIRE triumphs recorded by Maddy are to some degree verbal victories. For example, in their first adventure the girls cover with graffiti the car of a middle-aged math teacher who has been sexually harassing Rita "Red" O'Hagan. By age eleven, Rita had "the contours and proportions of a woman" (23), as well as a certain "conspicuous female helplessness" (25) and as a result had already begun attracting unwanted male attention. At age twelve, for example, her own brothers, along with older boys from the Viscounts gang, had made her "the object of certain acts performed upon her, or to her, or with her, for most of a long August afternoon" (25). However, when Mr. Buttinger, her ninth-grade teacher, not only made fun of Rita's mistakes but was observed "sometimes drawing his thick beefy hands against her breasts quickly and seemingly accidentally" (29), the gang decided to act. The next time Buttinger forced Rita to stay after school, they were ready: they painted "tall lurid red letters" on the back and passenger side of his 1949 Ford. During his drive home, Buttinger feels himself "running the gauntlet of witnesses, some of them students" (31), but, out of dread, waits until he arrives home to read the words that have made a "spectacle" of him: "I AM NIGGER LIPS BUTTINGER IM A DIRTY OLD MAN MMMMMM GIRLS!!! I TEACH MATH & TICKLE TITS IM BUTTINGER I EAT PUSSY" and mysteriously, on the bumper, "FOXFIRE REVENGE!" (31). Shortly afterward, Buttinger retires from teaching.
FOXFIRE's next triumph is also, in part, a matter of possessing the word—in this case, owning a typewriter. When Maddy Wirtz tries to buy her uncle's used Underwood, with which she plans to chronicle the gang's adventures, the gang saves her from his attempt at sexual blackmail. Uncle "Wimpy," as they call him, demands five dollars for the machine even though it had been put out on the curb with the garbage; "I'm a businessman, sweetie," he says, "I'm not the goddamed Salvation Army" (61). Maddy returns with borrowed money, but once again he raises the price—this time to eight dollars. Then, after teasing his niece for an hour, "He brought her hand against the front of his trousers: against his bulging crotch" (67). She manages to get away, and, after consulting with her gang, returns. Uncle Wirtz mistakenly interprets her return as signaling a willingness to submit to his sexual demands. This time, however, she has brought along the gang who wait, hidden, ready to attack when signaled. Just as Wimpy unzips his pants exposing "a red boiled sausage," Maddy "scrambles to her feet, tugs at the blind to release it so it flies up to the ceiling," calling for the attack: "they have a board they're using as a battering ram, within seconds the window is broken, shards of glass go flying, it's an explosion, it's festive, the girls of FOXFIRE piling through the window like young dogs eager for the kill, there's Legs, there's Goldie, there's Lana, there's fierce little hot-eyed Fireball, and Maddy's one of them, five girls springing on Wimpy Wirtz caught frozen in astonishment and disbelief, gaping, pants open and penis exposed, big as a club but already it's beginning to wilt, and retreat. And they're on him" (76).
Inflamed by their success, the gang finds great pleasure in writing FOXFIRE's "secret flame-tattoo in red crayon or ink or nail polish just a few inches high on a locker or a desk or a window at school" (80), or drawing "a giant flame five feet in height in bright red-blood paint on these surfaces: the eastern side of the railroad viaduct above Mohawk Street; the southern side of the Sixth Street bridge; the wall facing Fairfax Avenue of the boarded-up Tuller Bros. warehouse; the brick wall facing Ninth Street of the high school; the tattered billboard high on stilts overlooking the Northern Pacific railroad yard!" (80). Their next adventure, a protest against a pet shop's mistreatment of animals, is also a triumph of words. They drive customers away by carrying picket signs bearing the words, "TYNE PETS IS CRUEL TO ANIMALS," "IF YOU LOVE ANIMALS DON'T SHOP HERE," "SHAME SHAME SHAME," "HAVE MERCY ON ME," and "HELP ME PLEASE" (92). It is a tactic they have learned from local unions, but they add an unusual twist, disguising their identities by wearing Halloween masks: "Legs has a crafty fox mask, Goldie has a snarling wolf mask, Lana has a snooty cat mask, Rita has a panda mask, and Maddy, naturally, has a puckish monkey mask" (92). This carnivalesque moment, in which the costumed young women assert the transformational power of the word, illustrates what Yaeger calls "the animality of the letter" even as the gang calls attention to the violence of representation: the fact that, historically, man's flight from the body has been predicated upon his identification of woman as body, animal, nature.
Of course, FOXFIRE does not define its protest in such academic rhetoric, yet Legs's sympathetic identification with Yetta, as well as the gang's with the animals at the Tyne Pet Shop, indicates a desire to transform that violent binary hierarchy: voice/body, writing/text, culture/nature, man/woman. Of course, the gang's desire for transformation includes economic hierarchies as well. As Legs understands, the power of words is not enough. FOXFIRE must have a home of its own and an adequate income. Indeed, the demise of FOXFIRE is brought about primarily (though not exclusively) by the gang's lack of a strong economic base. However, in its heady early days the gang usually managed to find ways, as well as words, to triumph over their oppressors. Halloween is such a triumphant occasion. "ITEM. Hallowe'en: the sisters of FOXFIRE in disguise as gypsies in long black skirts, exotic scarves and jewelry, wearing black domino masks travel miles away to uptown Hammond to go trick-or-treating in the affluent residential neighborhoods" (93). While trick-or-treating they acquire quite a bit of loot, "but their real mission as Legs envisions it is to familiarize themselves with alien territory—the world of the 'propertied bourgeoisie'" (95). They write their Halloween graffiti on the plate glass windows of business establishments: Lana writes, "SATAN LIVES," Maddy prints, "BEWARE THE CAT," and Legs scrawls, "NO ESCAPE NO MERCY $$$$ IS SHIT ABOMINATION DEATH" (94). In this and other episodes, the novel emphasizes the point that the gang performs its subversive acts not simply as women, but as poor women.4
Indeed, it is largely because she is poor and untrained in good-girl submissiveness that Legs is "detained" in Red Bank State Correctional Facility for Girls. Yes, she had pulled a knife to defend a new gang member from harassment by members of the Viscount gang, and, yes, she had stolen a car to make her getaway, but most of FOXFIRE had gone along for the ride. However, Legs is clearly their leader, and the judge must punish someone: "Legs drew what is called an indeterminate sentence, five months minimum, no stated maximum" (130) which she had the audacity to declare "unconstitutional" (131). In the eyes of her gang, the fact that Legs is incarcerated only raises her stature. As Oates comments, "She begins as a young girl and ascends to a kind of mythic state, at least in the minds of her Foxfire sisters" (Karpen 6). Despite her mythic attributes, Legs finally collides with the patriarchal power that cages young women—institutional power personified by principal Morton Wall, Judge Oldacker, and her father Ab Sadovsky. Though known for his public drinking and fighting, Ab Sadovsky appears in court not to support his daughter but to testify against her. Like Yetta, Legs is caged and—because she imagines herself always in flight, running like a horse,5 climbing like a cat, even flying like a hawk—such confinement drives her almost mad.
As John Crowley says, "Legs Sadovsky is a brilliant creation—wholly heroic, wholly convincing, racing for her tragic consummation impelled by a finer sensibility and a more thoughtful daring than is usually granted to the tragic male outlaws we love and need" (6). In one legendary exploit, Legs climbs a sixty-foot water tower, defeating all male contenders for the prize money: seventy-five dollars. In another climbing exploit, Legs tries to escape from Red Bank: "skinny and snakey-agile she pushes herself through a crack between buildings" until she reaches "the wall—she doesn't hesitate, leaps up grasping at raw blunt featureless cinderblock, leaps up like a doe shot in the heart, leaps up, up, grabbing and grasping and falling back" (151). Once apprehended, her resistance only increases her prison time. However, Legs finally becomes "tractable; reasonable; obedient; good" (174) following a visit from her father, during which the sadistic man told Legs that her mother had tried to abort her. Meanwhile, the other Legs—though isolated, injured, and caged—watches "the sparrow hawks riding the air in the blue of morning," and "suddenly she was among them her arms that ached from being twisted up behind her back were wings dark-feathered powerfully muscled wings and she ascended the air, the cinderblock wall fell away" (170-71).
Legs vows, "No one and nothing will touch me, ever again. If anybody is to kill it will be me" (174). Although she loves Legs, Maddy cannot make such a vow. The division between Legs and Maddy over the attempt to kidnap a wealthy businessman is the result, to a large degree, of their different experiences: because Maddy's father is dead, she has not experienced paternal violence as Legs has, nor has Maddy been subjected to the violence of prison as Legs has. But their conflict can also be attributed to differences in their personalities. Both yearn for escape, but Maddy's flights tend to be primarily verbal while Legs's are primarily physical. Oates says, "The book is supposed to be a kind of dialectic between romance and realism.… I had originally imagined Legs Sadovsky with a great deal of motion, flying across rooftops, able to jump long distances. Probably, in a larger sense, I was writing a romance, and Legs is one of those figures out of myth" (Karpen 6). Legs is the romantic figure, but the dialectic between romance and realism, between heavenly transcendence and earthly bonds, between the freedom of flight and the pull of gravity, is intensified by Maddy's narrative strategies. As an adolescent, Maddy, the voice of "realism," was no match for Legs. Maddy tells us, "Legs talked, I listened, always I was mesmerized listening to her, always and forever" (15); "I wasn't hoping to analyze Legs' account of what had befallen her, I never tried, those early years," she says. "I wouldn't have granted Maddy Wirtz such authority!" (16).
Maddy gradually acquires a sense of her own authority, not the authority of mastery but of the imagination. As a girl, she had "loved to study maps, maps of the solar system, and the Earth, but maps too of local regions" (8); she loved writing lunar names; and she had been excited by "numbers invisible and inviolate never to be contaminated nor even touched by their human practitioners" (28). Like Legs, Maddy loves freedom, but while Legs chooses the power of moving physically through space, Maddy prefers the power of moving mentally through time and space. Maddy does, in fact, become a scientist whose work is "the contemplation and quantification of rock-debris" (322), but she returns to earth—and to the body—through the act of writing her memoir. "Writing a memoir is like pulling your own guts out inch by slow inch" (99), she says. Sadly, since the gang had pledged itself to secrecy: "Never never tell" (3, 7, 319) the act of writing is itself a betrayal of Legs and of FOXFIRE. In fact, from the start, Legs had regarded Maddy's flights of imagination as a betrayal of their friendship. Once, observing a family buying a Christmas tree, Maddy had said innocently to Legs, "There's something about other people isn't there—you'd like to know who they are?—you'd like to know who they are—you'd like to be them, maybe?" (21). Legs had answered, "You'd betray your friends, huh, not giving a shit about anybody who knows you and your true friend not some fucking stranger, huh?" (21).
Conflict emerges once again when Legs is released from Red Banks. Maddy senses, not without jealousy, that Legs "knows things I don't know, now" (187). For example, Legs has been brutally beaten by a female guard, and she knows now, as she tells Maddy, "that we do have enemies, yeah men are the enemy but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too sometimes" (180). However, the final break between Legs and Maddy occurs when Maddy refuses to participate in the plot to kidnap a wealthy capitalist. Since Maddy's rescue during the game of "hook and bait," she recognizes that the gang's use of violence has escalated—" Since that terrible night. I was afraid of you I guess. You saved my life but I was afraid of you having seen you hit him the way you did" (253)—and she rejects, finally, the very American—and very male—role of romantic outlaw. Here, I believe, Maddy speaks for her author. Although Maddy is not an autobiographical character, Oates acknowledges, "I'm very much like Maddy" (Karpen 6). It is through the narrator's voice, as well as Maddy's refusal to commit a violent (or potentially violent) criminal act, that the novel makes its ethical point: when women take power, they must not simply identify with it but redefine it. Maddy's refusal to write the ransom note constitutes a betrayal of FOXFIRE, but it also marks her rejection of violence as a tactic. Her decision is primarily ethical; however, it also turns out to be practical for, in this way, Maddy avoids becoming an accessory to kidnapping.
From the start, the crime seems doomed to fail. A major problem is that the gang's carefully chosen male victim—Whitney Kellogg, Jr.—refuses to cooperate: he refuses, for example, to speak to his wife on the phone, using words dictated by his captors. A strong-willed man, he simply refuses to speak to anyone and, in this instance, silence is, ironically, more powerful than words. Another problem is that, though Legs has promised not to use violence, a new member of the gang, V. V. the Enforcer, disobeys orders and shoots their stubborn captive, seriously injuring him. At this point Legs draws the line: she calls an ambulance, ending the game. Idealistic and protective to the end, she orders all those not directly involved to run away before she drives off with V. V., Lana, and Goldie in the gang's car, LIGHTNING BOLT. It is a conclusion reminiscent of and even more ambiguous than the movie Thelma and Louise. For, since LIGHTNING BOLT might actually have made it across the Cassadaga bridge—in fact, "is never sighted again, so far as law enforcement authorities can determine" (316)—Legs may still live. This mystery is heightened in the novel's "Epilogue," in which Maddy returns to Hammond some years later. At this time, a now-married Rita shows Maddy a newspaper photograph taken on April 22, 1961, in which a woman—"a figure distinctly American, tall, slender, blond, male? female?"—appears to be listening intently to "a stiff bearded military figure, Fidel Castro" (324). But they can't be certain. And since much of the action in Foxfire occurs in Maddy's narration, the ambiguities persist.
As Maddy records the adventures of FOXFIRE, it becomes evident that the gang has nurtured her gift for words. "Rightly or wrongly," as Maddy says, she was perceived as "having the power of words" because she got good grades in writing and because she could "talk fast" (5). The close relationship between a woman's ability to fight back and her ability to talk back is established not only in many of the gang's adventures but also through Maddy's narrative technique. For example, words play an important part in the gang's final adventure (or misadventure): Maddy's refusal to write the ransom note illustrates a refusal to turn a male body into a commodity. Because Maddy begins many chapters by commenting directly upon the act of writing, her narration not only heightens the dialectic between realism and romance, it also problematizes notions of authority and truth. For example, Maddy acknowledges that she may not achieve unity or consistency in her authorial role. She says, for example, "Whoever's reading this, if anyone is reading it: does it matter that our old selves are lost to us as surely as the past is lost, or is it enough to know yes we lived then, and we're living now, and the connection must be there?" (179). She also acknowledges that she does not have complete control of the writing process. For example, in the novel's final part, five chapters are given the same title: "The Plot (I)," "The Plot (II)," "The Plot (III)," "The Plot (IV)," and "The Plot (V)"—as if a single plot cannot tell the truth, the whole truth. And she begins one chapter: "I was certain this morning I'd be writing about our FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD" (195). In this chapter, called "The Paradox of Chronology/Dwarf-Woman," Maddy supposedly "records" the encounter between Yetta and Legs; however, Maddy admits that she did not witness the actual event. How reliable, then, is her "chronicle," as she sometimes calls it?
And what, exactly, is a "fact"? She speculates openly, "If it were not for language, could we lie?" (196). As a scientist—though she admits that she is not an astronomer, but only an astronomer's assistant—Maddy raises complex questions about the relationship between language, memory, imagination, and truth. For example, she says: "There's the paradox of chronology which arises when you try to record events of historical veracity; the problem of transcribing a document like this notebook is that it's a memoir or a confession where you have not the power to invent episodes, people, places, 'plot,' etc. but must set everything down as it occurred. Not imagination but memory is the agent but language is the instrument in all cases and can language be trusted?" (195-96). Admitting that the episode of the dwarf-woman was "never actually glimpsed by Maddy Wirtz," she hints at the desire prompting her to invent the dwarf-woman episode and to position it just before the chapter, "FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD." She says, "The paradox of chronology is hateful because you are always obliged to seek out earlier causes than what's at hand" (196). As Maddy knows, establishing causality is primarily a matter of careful sequencing: what happens first, it is assumed, causes what happens next. In this instance, Maddy's sequencing of events establishes the victimization of Yetta as a cause of the gang's desire for revenge against violent men. Here, by implying that revenge is the motive, Maddy contradicts an earlier statement that she is writing the gang's history to refute certain "distortions and misunderstandings," such as, "Like we did evil for evil's sake, and for revenge" (3).
Of course, it is Maddy the fifty-year-old scientist-writer, not the thirteen-year-old gang member, who understands that language structures our notions of authority, truth, and social relationships. Looking at her record of the gang's adventures—defined by adolescent Maddy as a "historical document in which Truth would reside forever" (3)—the adult woman observes: "Never does Maddy record in her notebook her own doubts of herself, or of FOXFIRE" (239). Her youthful idealism—her still developing ethical sense and intense loyalty to FOXFIRE—would have made any confession of doubt difficult. While the adolescent Maddy grows intensely anxious during Legs's absence—and admits that without "certain interests of mine like reading about the stars, and Time, yes I guess and typing on the old Underwood typewriter I loved, I would not have known who I was at all. Even maybe, whether I was" (167)—the adult writer acknowledges, "For every fact transcribed in these CONFESSIONS there are a dozen facts, a hundred facts, my God maybe a thousand left out.…Canyou tell the truth if it isn't the entire truth" (99). Even chronology, Maddy realizes, is a fiction, a language effect. She says, "Because one thing rises out of something that came before it, or many things that came before it, so it's like a big spiderweb in Time going back forever and ever, no true beginning or any promise of an end in the way in those years it was believed the Universe was" (99). While the adolescent Maddy desired certainty from math and science—"the world of Numbers that doesn't change, immutable facts, celestial bodies" (100)—the adult acknowledges: "For all material things, we have learned in the twentieth century, are but the processes of invisible force-fields" (221).
As an author, as a writer who is presumably confessing the Truth, Maddy's reflections upon the composing process point to the instability of self, truth, and authority. Even the heavens, which once promised Maddy a stable place to drift—the very names, "OCEAN OF STORMS SEA OF TRANQUILITY LAKE OF DREAMS LAKE OF DEATH" (163) providing a sanctuary from her "scary loose slipping-down life" (166)—turn out to be constantly in flux. For the adult Maddy, the lunar names function instead as a code for the loneliness that Maddy felt in the absence of Legs but that she could not openly express. Another chapter, "A Short History of the Heavens," serves a similar metaphorical purpose. As an adolescent, Maddy had memorized certain facts—so desperate to learn to memorize things she believed to be permanent" (137)—which she now lists: reports of "fiery stones" falling from the sky in Rouen, France, in 1594; of "raining-burning rocks" falling in Salem Falls, Connecticut, in 1923; or of an object shaped like a "pineapple with wings" observed in Puce, Ontario, in 1951 (135-36). Now, such "facts" have become a code for Maddy to confess the powerful passions of her youth: her feeling, for example, that when Legs fell to the earth, it was as if the sky itself had fallen. "What is a meteorite?—it's the metallic substance of a meteoroid that has survived its swift, violent passage to earth through the earth's atmosphere. A meteoroid?—small planets or chunks of planets that, passing into the earth's atmosphere, become incandescent; sometimes trail flame" (136). To Maddy, Legs is a burning star, a meteorite or a meteoroid, an asteroid who fell to the earth.
Although science no longer provides certainty for Maddy, her use of scientific discourse allows Oates to create an evolutionary context in which to situate her analysis of human violence. As Oates says, the novel is a dialectic between romance and realism, a dialectic between the language of romance, in which giant-sized humans possess godlike powers, and the evolutionary language of science. While an individual life may appear gigantic in romantic contexts, the novel re-imagines an individual human life in an evolutionary context, as part of "a big spiderweb in Time." In a chapter called "Homo Sapiens," Oates situates the problem of human violence in just such an evolutionary context. Viewing "THE TREE OF LIFE: EVOLUTION" (102), Legs expresses indignation at such a vision of humanity—"Christ you'd think our hot-shit species would count for more than that" (102-3)! Maddy responds somewhat differently. At first "fascinated by how complex the tree is, how multiple its branches" (102), Maddy's faith in God is shaken by evidence that not just a single human being but an entire species can die out. The thought occurs to Maddy: "Homo sapiens is no big deal! and it doesn't look as if there's any logic to it, the TREE OF LIFE, man's position on the tree, Homo sapiens: thinking man: created by what humanoid God in His own image?" (102). What, exactly, does it mean for women to take on power within such an evolutionary context?
Through the novel's representation of violence—particularly as played out in the figures of Legs and Maddy—Foxfire considers a range of narrative possibilities. During their visit to the museum, for example, Legs and Maddy talk about the terrible things happening to females, things most girls didn't dare to think or talk about: the rape and strangling of a nineteen-year-old nursing student; a pregnant woman stabbed to death in her house; a serial killer charged with the death of eight girls; a little girl "slashed by some madman with a razor" (100). And Legs dares to say, "They hate us, y'know?—the sons of bitches! This is proof they hate us, they don't even know it probably, most of them, but they hate us" (101). Within an evolutionary context, the only sane option is for homo sapiens to give up romantic illusions—illusions of omnipotence, autonomy, and control. Maddy's communal narrative strategies, in concert with a plot that ends with the probable demise of FOXFIRE, emphasize the limits of human power, mental or physical. The plot also dramatizes how Legs's desire for revenge—the kidnapping plot is motivated by revenge, not just economic need—leads to destruction, to violence and death, while Maddy's communal narration encourages readers to reflect upon the possibility that fear, not strength, motivates Legs's desire for conquest of a "man." According to Jessica Benjamin, the desire for omnipotence—a desire evident in the self presented in psychology and philosophy—is rooted in the fear of dependency upon others.
The fear of dependency can also be discerned in the linguistic habit of splitting the self into a privileged disembodied (male) voice and a repressed (m)other. It is through this type of psychic splitting, as de Lauretis points, that "violence is en-gendered in representation" (240). One consequence of such representational violence, as Carolyn Heilbrun says, is that "women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives" (17). As Heilbrun says, "Women's exercise of power and control, and admission and expression of anger necessary to that exercise, has until recently been declared unacceptable" (17). Foxfire, Confessions of a Girl Gang portrays women as capable of exercising power and control, capable of expressing the unacceptable. Just as Virginia Woolf recognized that, if she wished to write, she must "kill" the Victorian Angel in the House, Oates understands that to open a creative space for women's voices, she must transform those representations of "woman" as a speechless, tortured victim into representations of women who, together, claim their voices and their agency. Ironically, given Foxfire's critique of the romantic outlaw, the novel's dialectical motion also advances the argument that in order to take power over her own life, a woman must become an outlaw; she must, in community with other women, transgress sociolinguistic codes that position her outside language. The dialectic between romance and realism in Foxfire, as represented in the figures of Legs and Maddy, illustrates the paradox, quoted in Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life, that "all women must destroy in order to create."6
- According to Oates, a movie based on Foxfire will be out in 1996. The name "Foxfire" may be an allusion to the original Foxfire Books, edited by Eliot Wigginton. Written by Eliot's students, the stories and articles in the Foxfire Books are about their own working-class mountain community. Tragically, although Wigginton mentored his young writers and found a publisher for them, he was later imprisoned for sexually molesting some of them. On the topic of Wigginton's sexual abuse of children, see Guy Osborne's "Eliot Wigginton: A Meditation."
- This cross-dressing is reminiscent of Constance Philippa Zinn's transformation into a man called Philippe Fox in Oates's A Bloodsmoor Romance.
- See Breines and Gordon's "The New Scholarship on Family Violence." They open by saying, "Only a few decades ago, the term 'family violence' would have had no meaning: child abuse, wife beating, and incest would have been understood but not recognized as serious social problems" (490).
- The fact that they are white women does not become a divisive issue until later, following Legs's release from a girls detention center, when the members of FOX-FIRE do not welcome her new African-American friends, Marigold and Tama. In the detention center itself, as Legs observes, some women are white, some black, but all are poor.
- Legs is described as "running now, leaping and flying across the rooftops of the brownstone row houses descending the street toward the invisible river, she's a horse, a powerful stallion all hooves, flying mane, tail, snorting and steamy-breathed" (12). For an earlier version of Legs, see the story "The Witness," which opens Oates's collection Last Days. Significantly, an even earlier occurrence of this image of the horse can be found in A Garden of Earthly Delights, but in association with a male, Carleton Walpole.
- Heilbrun is quoting Myra Jehlen's "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism" (583).
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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 dimension of his subject.
Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987, 207 p.
Examines the works of Oates.
Bloom, Harold. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, 164 p.
Offers a critical interpretation of Oates
Chell, Cara. "Un-Tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story." Arizona Quarterly 41, no. 1 (spring 1985): 5-23.
Provides a feminist interpretation of Bellefleur, A Blood-smoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn.
Creighton, Joanne V. "Unliberated Women in Joyce Carol Oates's Fiction." World Literature Written in English 17, no. 1 (April 1978): 165-75.
Surveys the range of female characters who fail in their quest for personal liberation in Oates's novels and short fiction.
Daly, Brenda. "'How Do We [Not] Become These People Who Victimize Us?': Anxious Authorship in the Early Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates." In Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 235-52. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Contends that Oates's early fiction exhibits a "pattern of authorial self-division that conforms to gender conventions."
——. "Sexual Politics in Two Collections of Joyce Carol Oates's Short Fiction." Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 1 (winter 1995): 83-93.
Maintains that the short story collections The Wheel of Love and Last Days illustrate that Oates's feminist writings have the potential to transform gender roles.
——. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 278 p.
Thematic analysis of Oates's novels through the 1980s.
Goodman, Charlotte. "Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates." Women & Literature 5, no. 2 (fall 1977): 17-28.
Surveys the psychologically disturbed female characters in Oates's fiction.
Petite, Joseph. "A Predator in Liberationist Clothing." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 7, nos. 3-4 (August 1986): 245-48.
Petite investigates the repressed nature of the female characters in Do with Me What You Will.
Wesley, Marilyn C. "Father-Daughter Incest as Social Transgression: A Feminist Reading of Joyce Carol Oates." Women's Studies 21, no. 3 (1992): 251-64.
Considers the recurring theme of father-daughter incest in Oates's fiction.
——. "Reverence, Rape, Resistance: Joyce Carol Oates and Feminist Film Theory." Mosaic 32, no. 3 (September 1999): 75-85.
Applies feminist film theory to Oates's short story "The Girl."
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
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 Writers; 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; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.