Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 108) - Essay

Principal Works∗

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By the North Gate (short stories) 1963
With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964
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
Anonymous Sins and Other Poems (poetry) 1969
them (novel) 1969
Love and Its Derangements: Poems (poetry) 1970
Ontological Proof of My Existence (drama) 1970
The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
Wonderland (novel) 1971
The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (criticism) 1972
Marriages and Infidelities (short stories) 1972
Angel Fire (poetry) 1973
Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973
Dreaming America (poetry) 1973
The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence (criticism) 1973
The Goddess and Other Women (short stories) 1974
The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (short stories) 1974
Miracle Play (drama) 1974
New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (criticism) 1974
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) 1974
The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975
The Fabulous Beasts (poetry) 1975
The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the...

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Ellen Joseph (review date 25 October 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Growing up Assured," in The Sunday Herald Tribune Book Week, October 25, 1964, pp. 21, 23.

[In the following review, Joseph comments on the plot, themes, and characters of With Shuddering Fall.]

The enthusiasm that greeted Joyce Carol Oates last year upon the publication of her first volume, a collection of short stories called By the North Gate, clearly was not misplaced.

Her new book, a novel titled With Shuddering Fall, is set in the same world as the stories, a world of harsh weather, gratuitous destruction, inarticulate men without the veneer of culture facing the extreme experiences of life.

The central figures are Karen Herz, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of a dominating but indulgent farmer, and the racing car driver Shar, who encounters Karen when he comes to attend the death of his demented father in a junk-filled cabin on the edge of the Herz property. From their meeting follow rape, car-wreck, murderous confrontations, enraged lovemaking, the death of a rival driver, miscarriage, raceriot, suicide and insanity.

This list indicates the external events of the story. What it fails to indicate is that Miss Oates, although her action scenes are vivid and intense, is not at all interested in shock value but in why her characters communicate with violence, how these events drive them to new realizations and growth. The struggle to become a woman, to develop from a "brutal, clever child" into a man, is her theme.

Karen is the catalyst for the change in Shar. Although she came into his life as the chance...

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Elizabeth Janeway (review date 10 September 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clara the Climber," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1967, pp. 5, 63.

[In the review below, Janeway draws thematic parallels between A Garden of Earthly Delights and Theodore Dreiser's fiction.]

This isn't the best book that Joyce Carol Oates is going to write, but if you want to see a big, solid talent getting under way, I suggest you read [A Garden of Earthly Delights.]

Miss Oates's approach to fiction is more like Dreiser's than that of anyone else I can think of. She is as absorbed in the interaction between individual Americans and the society they live in as he was. Her writing is clumsy in places, as his was (though less clumsy in language), inhabited by strong, vivid characters—ordinary, unromantic, but thoroughly alive. There are passages that could be cut and pages, contrariwise, that want fleshing out with action. But when Miss Oates is good she is very, very good; and she is good often enough in the right way and in the right places to prove that she knows what she is doing. I found a distinct advance in her work over her deservedly praised volume of short stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood.

This is the story of Clara Walpole, who was born sometime in the twenties someplace in Arkansas in the back of a truck used for transporting migrant workers from one picking job to another. Clara's mother, Pearl, and her father, Carleton, were among the 30 workers riding the truck. For Carleton's hill farm in Kentucky had contrived to slide away from him under a load of debt. In the rain, on the slick road-surface, the truck collided with a car.

Breughel might have painted the scene with which the book opens—men standing around in the rain, talking, watching, waiting; excited children making a holiday of the accident; the tilted truck and, nosed against it, the car it had struck, with a frightened man trapped inside and, pounding on it with her fists, a screaming woman far gone in rage and pregnancy, so out of control that her anger was felt as sacred. This was Clara's mother. Clara was born half an hour later, under a canvas to keep out the rain, with some of the other travelling women for midwives. This is obviously the kind of scene that could be written to shock, but it isn't. Very much like Dreiser here, Miss Oates's honest grip on reality makes us feel but not flinch. The scene carries immense authority. It is heavy with the weight of human experience.

Clara grows up "travelling in the season." She is her father's favorite. As her mother sinks into withdrawn apathy, she is the only member of the family with enough grasp on life to be able to reverse the process of degradation and move out of the migratory ghetto. Clara is tough, as she must be to escape from a society that not only denies its children any ties (like schooling) with the world outside, but also rips apart that fundamental human unit, the family. Clara, however, somehow knows that the outer world can be reached, and she possesses the drive, will and native intelligence to get out into it. Her mother fades into passive madness, and dies in childbirth. Her stepmother deteriorates from a pretty girl into a malicious slattern. Her father is pushed toward bouts of uncontrolled violence. But Clara is a survivor, and when she...

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R. V. Cassill (review date 3 November 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Suburban Night," in Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1968, p. 5.

[Below, Cassill calls Expensive People "a prophetic novel," alluding to several literary precedents.]

The question is no longer whether Miss Oates is a very good writer—she is, indeed—but just how far and high she can thrust the trajectory of brilliant accomplishment she has begun. It appears to me that her gifts are at least equal to those of the late Flannery O'Connor. If she is not absolutely more serious than Nabokov—whose Lolita this present novel resembles in its virtuosity—she is more obviously "ours" and therefore to be taken more...

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Janis P. Stout (essay date May/June 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Catatonia and Femininity in Oates's Do with Me What You Will," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, May/June, 1983, pp. 208-15.

[In the following essay, Stout discusses the motif of passivity in Do with Me What You Will as a key element of stereotypical femininity.]

Despite her involvement with women characters and the unsparing accuracy with which she has depicted their lives, Joyce Carol Oates is not generally regarded as a feminist writer. One of her more thoroughgoing critics has observed that Oates actually "appears impervious to feminist and liberationist ideas." That appearance derives, in part, from Oates's stance...

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Cara Chell (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Un-Tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1985, pp. 5-23.

[In the essay below, Chell examines Mysteries of Winterthurn for the diverse ways that Oates uses conventions of the ghost story to indicate feminist concerns.]

Joyce Carol Oates has matured into writing feminist fiction. She says (or has said) she isn't doing that: "I am very sympathetic with most of the aims of feminism, but cannot write feminist literature because it is too narrow, too limited." However, while some critics may have defined feminist literature narrowly (insisting on only sympathetic female—not sympathetic...

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Carol A. Martin (essay date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Art and Myth in Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Sacred Marriage,'" in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1987, pp. 540-52.

[Below, Martin analyzes "The Sacred Marriage" as a parable of the transformative power of art, highlighting the influence of ancient myths about art on the narrative's development.]

Art is magnificent, divine, because it records the struggles of exceptional men to order their fantasies, their doubts, even their certainties, into an external structure that celebrates the life force itself, the energy of life, as well as the simple fact that someone created it—and especially the fact that you, the audience, are...

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G. J. Weinberger (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Who Is Arnold Friend? The Other Self in Joyce Carol Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,'" in American Imago, Vol. 45, No. 1, Summer, 1988, pp. 205-15.

[In the following essay, Weinberger analyzes the doppelgänger motif in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," highlighting its implications about violence and sexuality.]

When Connie faces Arnold Friend, she faces her other self, in Oates's treatment of the Doppelgänger motif, which informs such well-known works as Poe's "William Wilson," Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Crane's "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," among many others. The...

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Gerald Early (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Grace of Slaughter: A Review-Essay of Joyce Carol Oates's On Boxing," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 173-86.

[In the essay below, Early meditates on the themes of On Boxing in literary and critical contexts, contrasting the spectacle of boxing with wrestling.]

Boxing ain't the noblest of the arts….

—middleweight champion Harry Greb, whose loss to Tiger Flowers in 1926 permitted the first black ever to hold the middleweight title

God didn't make the chin to be punched.

—Ray Arcel, boxing trainer who numbered...

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Margaret Rozga (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Threatening Places, Hiding Places: The Midwest in Selected Stories by Joyce Carol Oates," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 34-44.

[Below, Rozga discusses the significance of Midwestern setting in Oates's short fiction, focusing on her representations of Madison, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan.]

Joyce Carol Oates has employed numerous settings for her short fiction over the course of her twenty-five years as a publishing writer. Frequently she has chosen to set her stories in the location where she herself resided at the time of the story's composition. Thus having grown up in rural New York state, Oates often used rural settings for her...

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Joyce Carol Oates with students at Bellarmine College (interview date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates," compiled by David Y. Todd, in Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 291-99.

[In the following interview, compiled from various question-and-answer sessions during the fall of 1990 while Oates visited at Bellarmine College, Oates addresses influences, her writing habits, the recurrence of violence in her work, and her personal literary philosophy.]

Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, in 1938. She earned a B.A. from Syracuse University and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin. Since 1978 she has taught at Princeton University and, with her husband, Raymond Smith, she runs the...

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Sally Robinson (review date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heat and Cold: Recent Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 400-14.

[In the following review, Robinson surveys the themes and storytelling techniques of The Rise of Life on Earth, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, and Heat and Other Stories, focusing on representations of 'otherness' in her fiction.]

To read Joyce Carol Oates is to be placed in the uncomfortably fascinating position of voyeur. From the early novels them and Wonderland to her most recent fiction, Oates has specialized in a narrative technique that intrudes upon the private pains and pleasures—but mostly...

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Marilyn C. Wesley (essay date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Transgressive Other in Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 255-62.

[In the following essay, Wesley surveys Oates's later fiction to describe the function of "the transgressive other" in her narrative technique.]

According to Tony Tanner [in Adultery in the Novel, 1979], "Very often the novel writes of contracts but dreams of transgressions," a paradoxical statement well illustrated in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Although Oates has been thought of primarily as a realist, even a moralist, her work may often be understood with respect to its dialectic with...

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Eva Manske (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Nightmare of Reality: Gothic Fantasies and Psychological Realism in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates," in Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Kristiaan Versluys, Rodopi, 1992, pp. 131-43.

[Below, Manske details conventions of Gothicism and realism in Oates's fiction, emphasizing the breadth and violence of her representation of American life.]

"All art is autobiographical. It is the record of an artist's psychic experience, his attempt to explain something to himself: and in the process of explaining it to himself, he explains it to others." This statement by Joyce Carol Oates comes from her introduction to a collection of contemporary...

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Eleanor J. Bader (review date Winter 1993–94)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Working-Class Sorority," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, p. 15.

[In the review below, Bader elucidates the feminist themes of Foxfire, noting the questions raised by the text.]

The place is Hammond, New York, far upstate, near Canada. For five girls—Legs Sadovsky, Goldie Siefried, Lana Maguire, Rita O'Hagan, and Maddy Wirtz—working class kids from the shabby, hopeless section of town, the truth is indisputable: "We didn't belong and never would."

Foxfire, the girl gang they create in 1953, is their antidote, their way of thumbing their noses at the teachers, bosses, upper-class...

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James Carroll (review date 16 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "He Could Not Tell a Lie," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Carroll assesses What I Lived For, finding that "the structure of this straightforward mystery is transformed into art of another order entirely, an exemplary work of moral investigation."]

John Gardner once said that a novel is a vivid and continuous dream. In What I Lived For, Joyce Carol Oates has written a vivid and continuous nightmare: a savage dissection of our national myths of manhood and success, a bitter portrait of our futile effort to flee the weight of the past, a coldeyed look at our loss of community and family, a shriek...

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Steven Marcus (review date 8 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Psycho," in The New York Times Book Review, October 8, 1995, p. 13.

[Below, Marcus links the main character of Zombie with the recurrent theme of violence in Oates's fiction, faulting the novel's premise.]

Divided into 57 mini-chapters, composed with typographical tics and oddities (many capitalized words, phrases and sentences; italics, ampersands and so forth), featuring crude and often pointless line drawings, Zombie is Joyce Carol Oates's effort to dramatize, in diarylike form, the psychotic, monstrous consciousness of a serial murderer. This creature is simultaneously intensely self-absorbed and extremely depersonalized and...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Daly, Brenda. "Marriage as Emancipatory Metaphor: A Woman Wedded to Teaching and Writing in Oates's Unholy Lives." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXVII, No. 4 (Summer 1996): 270-88.

Examines the significance of community—both feminist and ideal—in Oates's fiction, particularly the academic novel Unholy Lives, likening teaching and writing to marriage.

Garner, Dwight. "When Bad Things Happen." Washington Post Book World (22 September 1996): 4.

Favorable review of We Were the Mulvaneys, observing that "rarely has [Oates's] gift for...

(The entire section is 326 words.)