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 object of the "deadly whimsical range of his desire," she forces him to lose "the simplicity of vision, and simplicity of emotion" that "had always been essential in his life" and to gain ultimately the ability to make choices. As Karen knows, "His life was an accident … but his death wasn't—he made his death for himself! He was a man!"
Karen starts out with out such simplicity and shows finally no clear evidence of womanhood. In contrast to Shar, who tries to win her and make sense of his life "through violence, a communion of pain," she uses the weapon of "silent, limp passivity." This passivity grows out of the same condition that, despite the more obvious reasons Karen has for wanting Shar's death, is the most powerful source of her refusal to reciprocate his love: so precarious a sense of her own identity, of the reality of her existence, that she cannot give herself to anyone for fear of being lost. When at the end she returns to her family, neither Karen nor the reader is convinced that she will be able to maintain the conviction that now "She understood them, she was with them and at the same time a little apart from them, and had not lost herself in the experience."
Through Karen and Shar Miss Oates raises questions about the effects of stepping out of established roles, about guilt, love and hate, sanity. But in the same way that she sometimes makes Karen's figure overly vague in her attempt to convey the dream-like, foggy state that illustrates Karen's unsureness of who she is, she occasionally, in her attempt to show her characters' search for meaning, burdens actions or states of mind with labels that ring of academic explication. More importantly, she causes the reader to question her judgment in making the character who bears the greatest weight so young and unformed.
Nonetheless, a young, soul-searching heroine at the center of cataclysmic events is part of a tradition that goes back to Richardson's Clarissa
(This entire section contains 683 words.)
Clarissa. And With Shuddering Fall is a traditional novel. Although Shar, at least at first, has all the marks of the modern hero—living by the mystique of speed, measuring events not in terms of external values but by his own physical being, functioning in a completely irrational environment—the general movement in the story is Karen's, from a rejection of society, through a period of suffering, to reconciliation. The virtues of the work are traditional, too. The prose is clear, unmannered, intelligent, with metaphors acting as signposts, and details always illuminating.
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 sees a chance, she escapes.
She escapes via a man. Again, her native wit is good enough for her to find a man who will give her a chance and set her on her way. Lowry is not at all a beneficent figure. He helps Clara for his own complicated personal reasons. But he is an excellent choice for a savior. He takes Clara as far as she can go in her first giant stride toward a life in the world, and helps her to set up on her own and find her way toward independence.
Ironically, it is a very middle-class independence that Clara wants and finds, and which fails her in the end. Miss Oates seems determined to show us that if anything is better than the fragmented, torturing limbo of life in the migrant workers' camps, middle-class materialism and morality are still not good enough. Though Clara continues to fight and connive her way up the social scale, she ends not too differently from her own mother, while her father's purposeless violence reappears in her son.
Here again are Dreiserian echoes. The human being bends to the force of fate, but there is nothing mystic or supernatural about this destiny: we can see it everywhere around us in the ordinary life of mankind. Neither self-knowledge nor will can defeat the grubby gods of the everyday world where weakness, ignorance and failure wait for everyone.
If I have made Miss Oates's book and her thesis sound dreary, I have not done them an injustice. This is, in a way, a dreary book despite its excellences; dreary, powerful, determined, limited and true. How much dreariness one will put up with for the sake of truth depends on the reader. I believe that A Garden of Earthly Delights is a prime example of that banal description, "a book worth reading." It gives much more than it asks. Still, I suspect that Miss Oates's work is more dogged, determined and dreary than it need be; that her aims will stand forth more clearly when she loosens her grip on her characters and situations. For there is a feeling here of too much control.
Heaven knows, a writer needs self-confidence and authority to tackle a Dreiserian theme today. But the reader comes to feel, as Clara's story develops, not merely that Miss Oates knows what she is doing, but that she knows it too well. By excluding alternatives, her knowledge becomes a limiting and confining force. Perhaps Clara is doomed—but should the reader already sense this two-thirds (or less) of the way through the book? To see vital, attractive, energetic Clara cut down by the limits that society places on her could provoke a true feeling of tragedy; but not if one expects it; not if her choices are foreclosed in advance; not (in short) if one feels that the author, rather than life, is denying Clara her full scope.
Fiction and sociology run into each other these days, reaching for the same material. Sociology's facts can be fascinating and highly instructive, nor need they differ from the material of fiction: The American Journal of Sociology, for instance, recently carried a study of "the cocktail lounge," which offers a firm briefing on new courting patterns. What the novelist brings to this common ground is not the ability to collect case histories, but rather a training in how to relate them to an over-all pattern of behavior; in how to process data by a more daring and multilayered technique than social scientists allow themselves. Fictional characters stand for more than themselves, but not because they typify conditions. Rather, they present an aspect of absolute truth.
My quarrel with Miss Oates centers here, for I think she is generalizing too timidly from her enormously valuable social material. Clara bursts out of her background, surprising, willful, strong, earthy and decisive. When the author is describing her as if she were a case history, Clara is granted wildness and freedom: her autonomy. Miss Oates should not let her fictionalizing trap Clara in a preordained fate. That is not its function. Fiction should not pull facts toward truth by chopping off the extremes of possibility and denying them in advance. When it generalizes properly, it does so by accepting all potentialities, all extremes and working toward a meaning from them.
I honor Miss Oates's talent, her courage, her industry and her approach to describing a social world. I want only to beg her to remember how large and astonishing that world can be. It is the reach as well as the solidity of Dreiser's characters (and of Dostoevsky's, for that matter) which reconciles readers to occasional bumpy trips through dreary landscapes. Still, it is a considerable compliment to Miss Oates's talent that one argues for her characters against their author.
By the North Gate (short stories) 1963With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (short stories) 1966Expensive People (novel) 1967A Garden of Earthly Delights (novel) 1967Women in Love and Other Poems (poetry) 1968Anonymous Sins and Other Poems (poetry) 1969them (novel) 1969Love and Its Derangements: Poems (poetry) 1970Ontological Proof of My Existence (drama) 1970The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1970Wonderland (novel) 1971The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (criticism) 1972Marriages and Infidelities (short stories) 1972Angel Fire (poetry) 1973Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973Dreaming America (poetry) 1973The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence (criticism) 1973The Goddess and Other Women (short stories) 1974The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (short stories) 1974Miracle Play (drama) 1974New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (criticism) 1974Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) 1974The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975The Fabulous Beasts (poetry) 1975The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (short stories) 1975The Seduction and Other Stories (short stories) 1975Childwold (novel) 1976Crossing the Border: Fifteen Tales (short stories) 1976 †Triumph of the Spider Monkey: The First Person Confessions of the Maniac Bobby Gotteson as Told to Joyce Carol Oates (novella) 1976Night Side: Eighteen Tales (short stories) 1977Season of Peril (poetry) 1977All the Good People I've Left Behind (short stories) 1978Son of the Morning (novel) 1978The Stepfather (poetry) 1978Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money: Poems (poetry) 1978Cybele (novel) 1979Unholy Loves (novel) 1979Bellefleur (novel) 1980The Lambe of Abyssalia (short stories) 1980Three Plays (drama) 1980Angel of Light (novel) 1981Celestial Timepiece (poetry) 1981Contraries: Essays (essays) 1981A Sentimental Education: Stories (short stories) 1981A Bloodsmoor Romance (novel) 1982Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970–1972 (poetry) 1982The Luxury of Sin (poetry) 1983The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews (essays) 1983Last Days: Stories (short stories) 1984Mysteries of Winterthurn (novel) 1984Solstice (novel) 1985Marya: A Life (novel) 1986Wild Nights (short stories) 1985Raven's Wing: Stories (short stories) 1986Artist in Residence [with Eileen T. Bender] (nonfiction) 1987On Boxing (nonfiction) 1987You Must Remember This (novel) 1987The Assignation: Stories (short stories) 1988Lives of the Twins [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1988(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (essays) 1988American Appetites (novel) 1989Soul/Mate [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1989The Time Traveler (poetry) 1989Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (novel) 1990I Lock the Door upon Myself (novel) 1990Nemesis [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1990In Darkest America: Two Plays (drama) 1991I Stand Before You Naked (drama) 1991The Rise of Life on Earth (novel) 1991Twelve Plays (drama) 1991Black Water (novel) 1992Heat: And Other Stories (short stories) 1992Snake Eyes [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1992Where Is Here?: Stories (short stories) 1992Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (novel) 1993Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (short stories) 1994What I Lived For (novel) 1994The Perfectionist and Other Plays (drama) 1995Will You Always Love Me? (short stories) 1995You Can't Catch Me [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1995Zombie (novel) 1995First Love: A Gothic Tale (novella) 1996We Were the Mulvaneys (novel) 1996
∗Dates of dramas refer to first publication.
†This work also was adapted as a play in 1985.
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 seriously by us. Everything she touches turns to such blistering gold that sometimes I suspect she must have had Rumpelstiltskin in to help her spin it in the night.
Expensive People contains and exploits a little of everything. It is satire, confession, dream, report on suburbia, gothic tale in contemporary dress, with even some touches of the pop novel thrown in to show that the author can find a valid use for the screech of that untuned fiddle, too. But though her technique is eclectic, parodistic, sheer magpie, her bits of everything are fused into a prophetic novel as singular in effect as the night cry of a hurt animal.
The Ancient Mariner who narrates this journey to the end of the suburban night is Richard Everett, carrying 250 pounds of glutton's fat on his bones, eighteen years old, and looking back from the far side of precocity at his pre-pubescent years and at a murder he committed then. Precocity is the theme his confessions elaborate upon, and not the good old tame dementia praecox of the clinicians, either, but the fated precocity of children at the end of an age that has exhausted its possibilities and parceled out its vision in cubes of knowledge that don't even have to be dispensed through schools anymore.
Poor Richard's parents are either disastrously mismatched or perfectly matched for disaster. His mother, Nadya or Natasha or just plain Nancy according to the persona she assumes, is a novelist with the kind of small, esoteric reputation that helps not at all in her suburban manipulations and ambitions. She claims to be of immigrant Russian ancestry, but one of her short stories discovered and read by her prodigious son hints of a more uncanny origin—as if she had been born, really, from her own bad dreams. In spite of her fictional sensibilities, she conducts her social life, parenthood and numerous adulteries with the crude, unillumined remainder of her nature.
Apparently this fey woman married Elwood Everett exactly so he would carry her into the "heaven" of suburban affluence. "I am Natasha Everett and I am out of history…. I'm clean of its stink," she cries to one of her former friends, who has showed up to rebuke her for backsliding from Bohemia. Another literary lover complains that her husband "is not contemporary with me. That man is out of Charles Dickens." ("He is not out of Dickens but out of Proust, you bastard," says Nadya.)
The author sees Elwood Everett as being out of Sinclair Lewis, though the qualities of Babbitt are mostly insulation or camouflage for a core of power and cunning that gives Everett the power to match Nadya's enormities with moral atrocities of his own. At one point he can display a sort of malodorous saintliness, begging his son not to let on to mother that they know about her adulterous connections. Nevertheless, even his attempts at cultural self-improvement or parental kindness are soured by purposeful bad timing. He seems to use bad timing to trip others up, the better to clamber over them.
In spite of such vigorous characterization of the parents, the story remains Richard's. He, after all, must not only endure them and attempt to arbitrate between them. He must love them, too, because the blindness of their greed makes them his children. He must, somehow, atone for them in a godless universe where atonement is almost literally unthinkable. So the primary task they have bequeathed him might be called a theological one, on top of the emotional knots they have bound him with. His exquisitely tormented intellect mistrusts theology. Hence his choice of composing a memoir as a device for justifying himself and his family, making the tiny world of a book to serve as a screen against the horrors of existence. His memoir is not art, but refuge, he suggests.
Perhaps it will seem a tour de force to assign to a child such vocabulary and perception as Miss Oates does. It is her reckless wager that he will seem not less but more a child because of the purity with which he registers those contradictions that adults blur as the price of survival.
Richard Everett is childlike enough when he buys the murder weapon—a rifle with a telescopic sight—and finds the telescope the most interesting thing about it. "It brought them [some working men] to me in a kind of haze, not quite real but not imaginary either, and it pleased me to think of how they existed both for themselves and for me, their spy." The unselfishness of his motives for the killing is also—almost unbearably—childlike. To accommodate the thought of murder, we need to believe in motives formed of unambivalent passion or calculated interest. Miss Oates gives a real turn of the screw in showing how ethereal the killer's choice may be.
In reading the novel you will find that Richard Everett is no mere artifice by which the author cloaks her own voice and observations of the life of our times. I called this a prophetic novel precisely because she shows with such devastating clarity the moral and intellectual burdens this phase of the civilization has discharged on its precocious children. A gluttonous civilization whose only uncanceled hope of salvation is finally sniffed out by the narrator: He will eat himself to death, like an uncle of his mother's who killed himself with gluttony to shame his gluttonous family.
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 vis a vis historic time and from her tone in speaking out of that stance. Poised at the threshold of social change, she chooses to look back at the gloomy interior or sideways at others poised on that threshold. She does not map out visionary vistas of the future or sound a summons to the bold to make that future real. Nor does she speak of the past, with its institutionalized modes of feminine subservience, with loud and obvious denunciation. Instead, even when her works are experimental and strange in their forms and effects, she writes fundamentally as a realist. But it is precisely this scrupulous realism in depicting women's lives that makes Oates's fiction finally a feminist document. By intensifying and magnifying the realism of her female characters' lives to the point where realism breaks into surrealism, she compels the reader to experience and acknowledge the inadequacies and injustices of the past and so to acknowledge the need for change.
Oates's method in her novel Do With Me What You Will (1973) is precisely this explosion of realism into a surrealism that, like the satire of a Swift or a Pope, convinces by appalling. It is the classic reduction ad absurdum. Its object is one of the more traditional stereotypes of femininity, the old notion that women are inherently docile or passive, with its corollary that indeed they ought to be so: the perfectly feminine woman is perfectly passive or acceptant. Making her modest proposal very quietly but unflinchingly, Oates delineates a heroine who embodies this passivity—as well as a yet more brittle stereotype of perfect womanhood, physical beauty—and, by the very clarity and extremity of that depiction, makes her character's feminine perfection into disease and deformity. She shows that in its purest expression passivity is not an ideal quality but an enforced denial of the self tantamount to a fixation upon death.
The central character of the novel, Elena, is so blighted by her extraordinary beauty and by her own interiorizing of others' demands for passive accommodation that she becomes, at times, a virtual nullity. She almost ceases to exist as a separate person, moving, instead, in a fog of dullness and unassertiveness so dense that she scarcely experiences even her own bodily sensations. She merely accepts the imprints of others and echoes their wishes. At times of stress she reaches the perfection of this accommodating passivity by lapsing into catatonia, a state of suspended animation in which, like a very good little girl, she ceases to assert (or even to record) her own being. Catatonia, then, the perfection of passivity, becomes at once the perfection of Elena's femininity and the exposure of that stereotype as a fraud.
Elena's peculiar passivity, and the anxieties she tries to stifle by means of her quiescence, derive most obviously from an early childhood trauma of being kidnapped and grossly neglected by her estranged, mentally-ill father. The father continually urges her to be obedient and quiet and praises her when she makes no disturbance. His assurances of his love imply that it is conditional upon her being submissive: "'And the way you obeyed me!… I'll always love my good little girl, my sweet beautiful daughter….'" He wants her to be a perpetual child and "never grow into a woman," a thought he finds "shocking, ugly." Indeed, he finds it preferable to think of her "perfect in death"—the ultimately passive state. Elena readily accepts the social quiescence her father urges on her. Apparently it is a role naturally congenial to her. She obediently crawls under the schoolyard fence as soon as he approaches her and tells her to come away. She repeats words that he urges her to say and does not "resist" when he insists she must go to the bathroom during a filling station stop in their flight. At times, however—and this will prove very significant—she uses this very passivity as a means of escape or disguised resistance. When her father tries to distract her from the distress of being kidnapped from school by giving her a present, she "did not seem to know what to do with it," and when he wipes her nose after telling her she "mustn't cry" she "didn't resist, but did not seem to notice." Most tellingly, she uses a quiescence like the stasis of death to withdraw from unwanted gestures of affection: "the fingers reached out to touch me, the right side of my face. That side went stiff. He stroked my face and like magic my face went stiff." Indeed, her quiet passivity nearly brings her to death, as she obeys her father so well that she remains unnoticed in their room, grossly neglected, and when found is not only filthy and vermin-ridden but dehydrated and nearly starved.
When Elena is rescued from her father, her aggressive mother, Ardis, reinforces the message of docility, praising her for being "very good" in that she "never resisted" the doctors and nurses. Like her father, Elena's mother forces her into expressions of love which she obediently mouths although "the air at the back of her mouth" was "almost gagging her." Elena is being taught to associate love with fear, and to use expressions of love as means of escaping disapproval. In this, as in other ways, Elena says what she senses that others expect. Her mother and father have both taught her that lesson, but the readiness with which she accedes to their pressure indicates an inherent tendency to submissiveness. Oates is not clear as to whether such a tendency is peculiar to Elena or is a natural trait of women. But she is clear that the trait is reinforced by social conditioning and that this kind of submissiveness must be overcome if a woman is to achieve personhood.
If Elena's experience with her father is more traumatic, leaving anxieties from which she never fully recovers, her life with her mother is finally more baleful. Ardis's role as a model and the fact that she is overwhelmingly domineering make it difficult for Elena to judge and resist her. Ardis actively instills in Elena an urge toward statis, or nonbeing, as a positive value. She extols deathlike sleep, "absolute unconsciousness," as the "most important thing in life" and insists that a state of stony immobility is the highest value, the "center of the world." Later, preparing Elena for an arranged marriage, Ardis urges her, "Think of statues, the famous statues made of stone, Elena, think of how perfect they are, the peace in them." Again, Elena appropriates the lesson without question: "I looked down upon my own body and saw that it had gone into stone, and the folds of my dress had become the creased folds of a gown. Such a body does not even need a head."
Ardis's lessons in immobility begin early. Even in childhood Elena is employed as a fashion model, with her mother functioning as her manager. In modelling, Elena's two most destructive and most stereo-typically feminine qualities, her extraordinary beauty and her extraordinary passivity, coalesce. She is, of course, a very good model—a virtual statue. She can sit under the lights "not seeing anything, not moving her face, not even sniffing, hardly breathing." She is perfectly malleable, perfectly submissive to the male authority figures who "propped her up onto stools, tilted her face, shaped a smile with their fingers." With her mother praising her as a "very good little girl to sit so still" and the photographers echoing her father's insistence on immobility—they tell her "Don't move. Don't blink. Be good."—it is little wonder that Elena is suicidally good at modelling. She so perfects the art of sitting still that she sits open-eyed under the lights until her eyes are burned.
Elena's early passivity and immobility culminate in her first catatonic fit. She has been taunted by girls at school who, knowing she was afraid of the dark, threatened to turn off the lights in the school basement. Worse yet in Elena's mind, "they said the boys were hiding down there." In response, Elena falls into a sort of catatonia. As her principal reports it to Ardis, "she seemed to become paralyzed." In the school nurse's office she lies utterly still, hearing and feeling but giving no sign of sentience. "I couldn't talk," she recalls. "I couldn't move." Typically, Ardis acts protective in the presence of others, but when they are alone accuses Elena of disgraceful and rebellious behavior. She threatens her with being given back to her father or with being sold by means of a newspaper ad "a bad girl is for sale." A number of elements coalesce in the incident: Elena's fear of the unknown, of death and of darkness; her fear of males; her father's role as both a threat and a refuge; her use of immobility, a deathlike state, as an escape from anxieties too potent for her to handle through her usual methods of repression and concealment. Even more significantly, she unconsciously uses immobility as a means of asserting her will.
During adolescence, Elena remains uncannily beautiful and is thus, to her mother, highly marketable in marriage. But Elena is scarcely aware of Ardis's manipulations and in fact remains very frightened of males. When an incident of sexual aggression occurs at school, she evades her anxiety, avoids acknowledging it or tracing its origins, by again lapsing into a catatonic state: "she seemed to go dead, all sensation flowed out of her, her brain went dead, black." Nevertheless, her extreme beauty and radical passiveness—so extreme that she is often scarcely aware of what goes on around her, and thus appears radically innocent as well—attract the attention of Marvin Howe, a more potent, powerful, and wealthy man than Ardis had dared to hope for. The attraction is so unlikely that Ardis accuses her, once more, of subversively manipulating it, of playing her own ambitious game. Ardis is wrong, of course; Elena has not asserted herself at all. She has only sat quiescently by while her mother strove to arrange a marriage to a small-time night club operator, and her very lack of active playing for attention has drawn Howe. But once again her static passivity has functioned, unintentionally, as a means of asserting herself and thwarting her mother. At the end of the book it will function that way intentionally.
The patterns set in Elena's childhood and adolescence determine the quality of her adult life and her marriage to Marvin Howe. To some extent she functions in a normal upper-middle-class wifely way, giving dinner parties and attending functions with her husband, taking evening classes (when he "lets" her). But at the same time, conditioned by her mother's teachings and by her own anxieties to regard immobility as a refuge and a goal, she maintains a passivity resembling numbness. She bows her head "submissively" to receive Howe's gift of a necklace; she feels her self to "belong to" him. Clearly, Elena's passivity is a kind of death, a state almost of suspended animation. A woman who has difficulty focussing on simple events, so unalert that she fails to notice her own mother at a party and so pliant that she shapes her speech according to what is the "right," or expected, answer, appears merely defective. But for Howe, Elena's passivity is the essence of her femininity. Not only does it mean that she never causes friction by opposing his will, but it becomes for him an aspect of her fascinating otherness. Her blank unawareness is a radical innocence in which he can bury the torments of his own sense of guilt and corruption. He wants to "give" her everything, he says, and finds gratification in her mere acceptance of what he gives. Like her extreme beauty—which is also a kind of frozen death, "a substitute for existence"—Elena's passivity is the perfection of a stereotyped femininity. It is the reduction of a person to the status of a statue, a beautiful and immobile object to be possessed and admired.
It is clear, however, that Elena herself feels trapped and dissociated from a sense of self by her perfect playing of the feminine role. She has moments in which the banality of her life strikes her with a peculiar intensity. To stifle the anxieties produced by this sense of emptiness, she develops a fetish of counting—the number of boats on the lake, the number of trees she passes when walking, etc. Indeed, Elena feels her femaleness itself as an enslaving determinant that can never be escaped. When she hears, in casual party conversation, that in cadavers "the womb remains when all the other organs have disappeared," she is panic-stricken but, properly reticent, hides her response—"I was very cold but I didn't shiver." That is, she holds herself still, statue-like. Disguising her feelings reinforces the pattern of immobility.
Once again, as in her childhood and adolescence, Elena's habit of repression or denial culminates in a catatonic trance. Following a particularly empty exercise in social role-playing as she walks toward her husband's office, she stops to look at a statue of the nuclear, family—for her a source of repression and control—and falls into immobility. Statues in general represent for Elena a kind of perfection through absolute withdrawal; the association was made explicit for her when her mother likened her to a beautiful statue and commended that state as the highest aspiration, a state when she would be "at the center, the center where everything is at peace." Now, needing peace, unable to confront her husband with the truth of her half-unrecognized dissatisfaction, she "stands without moving … posture unbreakable; backbone like steel." Projecting herself into the "perfect hardness" of the statue, she is "happy" that "everything has come to rest, in perfection it comes to rest, permanent." She is now "beyond anyone's touch," safe from the treacherous surging of human emotions. But of course her state is not perfection at all but "something wrong with her." As the man who will become her lover, Jack Morrissey, views her at this point (at the end of a long second section of the novel which leads up to the same moment as the first section), she appears "sick" with "dead-white skin," "trapped in a kind of stasis."
Before going on to look at Elena's emergence from self-nullification into self-realization, it would be well to summarize what Oates has done with the motif of passivity. At the point at which both the first and the second parts of the novel end, Elena's frozen stasis before the statue, the novel has described an elaborate reductio ad absurdum of traditional assumptions made about women. It has taken the stereotyped idea that passivity is one of the basic traits of the truly feminine character—a plausible enough idea, since women are not only "biologically receptive rather than aggressive" but "schooled in passivity"—and has created a character in whom both passivity and physical beauty, another requisite of the ideal female, reach their apotheosis. But the radical perfection of these traits does not amount to perfection of the individual, after all, but to extreme neurosis and a kind of living death, that is, to the destruction of the individual. When Elena is most passive, she is simply catatonic, lost in unawareness of either the outer world or her own self. The implication is clear: to idealize a stereotyped passive femininity is to idealize defect and self-destruction. Oates shows clearly that the structure of traditional expectations in which 20th-century women find themselves is a smothering constriction denying them the possibility of a self-fulfilling life. In order to reach selfhood, Elena must break out of the constraints of this traditional structure. And Elena, for all her strangeness, is a character emblematic of womankind.
It is largely through her affair with Jack Morrissey that Elena will move towards healing and authentic selfhood. But to understand that change, we need to look again at her marriage to Marvin Howe, specifically at the patterns of their sexual relationship. For Elena, that relationship is a void; it scarcely exists. Just as she deadened herself to her father's caresses long ago, so she now goes "into stone" with Howe, withdrawing herself from the experience of making love with him so that she "felt nothing." She exercises no volition in their lovemaking whatever:
… she waited to accept him, she waited. She would go perfectly still inside his embrace, opening to him, his terrible frantic, helpless energy.
This either did or did not happen.
Tolerating sex with neither aversion nor pleasure, she "obeys and is very still, unresisting," the epitome of the woman-as-receiver. Afterward, when Howe asks if she loves him, she answers yes and wonders if that is "the word he wanted." Her own feelings are irrelevant; or rather, she has none. To Howe, this passive acceptance seems wonderfully feminine, his ardor is as extreme as it is controlling: "Kissing loving worshipping her: lie still."
At first it is much the same with Jack Morrissey. Elena says what she thinks he wants to hear, and she understands that one of the things Jack most loves about her is her fear of his moodiness. Her overall feeling about their fragmentary times together is one of being domineered.
I want you this way and from you I want this andthis and not thatAnd I want it nowAnd I forbid you to …
Sex with Jack is still only an acceptance of his passion; she "felt nothing." But on a particularly agitated day, when he makes love to her urgently and clumsily in the front seat of his car, she experiences orgasm for the first time. It is a joltingly intense experience, as terrible as it is pleasurable.
The sensation in her had now become terrible, spasm upon spasm localized in one part of her body, which she had to fight to control—but she could not control it, it was so brutal and muscular … She clutched at him, trying not to scream, and she felt how wildly, helplessly they struggled, how viciously her body grabbed at him in its agony to keep him with her, to force him again and again into her.
Now, for the first time, she realizes her sexuality as her own deepest self, not merely the passive acceptance of another's passion.
Elena's sexual awakening is not merely a statement of a hapless Sleeping Beauty's summons to awareness by the transcendent male. For one thing, Jack has had many previous opportunities to work a phallic regeneration and has not done so. For another the sexual awakening is not an answer to Elena's problem of coming to active selfhood, but only the beginning of an answer. The sexual episode when she first experiences orgasm has been immediately preceded by Elena's calling into consciousness and into speech certain buried memories of her father, in particular the memory of an incident in which she saw a wild dog or wolf eat a snake on the threshold of her room. She confronts the association of sexuality with horror and cruelty which has troubled her for so long and goes on to assert that, despite the torment her father caused her and despite his manipulative demands that she express a love she didn't feel, she really did, in her own way, love him. Thus she brings to consciousness, so that she can cope with them, some of her most deeply buried neuroses. In the wake of this powerful moment of release and healing, when she and Jack make love, he momentarily behaves with an uncharacteristic "gentleness" that involves deferring to her will: "he asked her if she wanted him to stop." In response, she "pressed herself toward him" and "gripped him"; for the first time she takes the initiative in a sexual experience.
Following her awakening to the autonomy of her sexual self, Elena regresses into self-denial. She awakens the next day thinking "This is the last time I will sleep here," that is, in Howe's bed. But instead of making a decisive step she falls into a period of vacillation between melancholic lassitude and unprecedented self-assertion (she attends an unruly political meeting that she knows neither Howe nor Morrissey would have approved her attending). Unable to force herself to an independent definition of her life, she surrenders all volition by abasing herself before Howe and confessing her affair. But the process has been begun. After a period of withdrawal from Howe—actually a mental collapse, a "self-dissolving nullity" during which her stasis and unawareness are not so total as in her period of catatonia but much more prolonged—she asserts her independence and leaves him.
Elena's decision to shape her own life involves a determination that she "would not be solved," she would not be treated as a passing problem to be disposed of by someone else. That is, she would no longer be passive, no longer be contained by the hands or the mind of another, as she had often felt herself to be. Accordingly, for the first time in her life, she assumes deliberate control of her actions. First she faces the fact of financial necessity and takes up the money Howe has tossed her, which she wanted to decline. Then she has her luxuriant hair cut short, an outward sign of her change in self, and travels back to Detroit to find Jack Morrissey.
The novel ends with a virtual kidnapping, a parallel to the kidnapping with which it opens. Elena goes to Jack's apartment and asks him to see her for only a minute. When he refuses to come out, she goes back to the street and waits there, willing him to come down to her. At this point, in direct contrast to her passive drifting through most of the novel, she has taken control of the situation and is forcing it toward its resolution. Yet the interesting point is that Elena's decisive act is presented largely in terms of the same character traits we have seen all along. She walks away from the door of the Morrisseys' apartment "as if hypnotized." She lets her hair blow "helplessly." She stands "motionless … suspended … waiting, frozen." After all, she is still the same person. She has not severed herself from her past and adopted a new and alien set of characteristics, but has gained impetus and control for that familiar self. She had learned to use her self and her past toward her own ends. In quietly waiting for Jack, who finally appears in his characteristic impatient rush, she is utilizing in a volitional way that very passiveness which before had been an abdication of volition. She is bending her essential femininity toward the "masculine" act of directing and controlling an action.
This kind of totality in the acceptance of the self and the direction of the self-as-given toward a chosen goal is, for Oates, the achievement of selfhood. She does not demand that women sever themselves from their conditioning and triumphantly create whole new modes of being for themselves. The kind of liberation and heroism required for such a freewheeling and active transformation is, she believes, very rare. Instead, Oates affirms the validity of a quieter kind of triumph, the act of integration involved when repressed, deadened women like Elena are able to recognize and redirect the selves that experience in a real and hostile world has created for them.
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 broad, galloping narrative been this much on display."
Gates, David. "American Gothic." The New York Times Book Review 101 (15 September 1996): 11.
Assesses the gothic element of First Love and the "family" theme of the "richly observed and engagingly peopled" novel We Were The Mulvaneys.
Showalter, Elaine. "Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Dead' and Feminist Criticism." Faith of a (Woman) Writer Greenwood Press (1988): 13-19.
Showalter demonstrates how "The Dead" comments on the relation of women's writing to contemporary feminist criticism and the female literary tradition.
Strandberg, Victor, "Six, Violence, and Philosophy in You Must Remember This." Studies in American Fiction 17, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 3-17.
Strandberg outlines the philosophic contraries of Oates's dialectic between violence and control represented in You Must Remember This, focusing on various relationships among the characters.
Tompkins, Cynthia. A review of Zombie, by Joyce Carol Oates. World Literature Today 70, No. 3 (Summer 1996): 693.
Praises Zombie on several points, noting that "Oates's uncanny ability to portray striking personalities may be the secret to her prolific career."
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 male—characters, for example), feminist literature covers as breathtaking a range as feminists, or as women, do themselves. Joyce Carol Oates is writing it. Her discussions of being a "(woman) writer" include recognition of the difficulties specific to a female writer. She is continually "insulted" by "sexist" (her words) questions like "Why is your writing so violent?" A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) is obviously "a feminist romance with a lot of axes to grind" and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) is a thematically sophisticated feminist novel in which Oates explores what it means, as in the title of her recent book of poetry [Invisible Woman], to be literally or figuratively an "invisible woman."
In Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn, Oates combines nineteenth-century forms and a unity of place. In the latest and perhaps most challenging of these three, Mysteries of Winterthurn, Oates uses these methods and her raised consciousness to place a chilling portrayal of family violence—with women and children as a traditional patriarch's most ravaged victims—squarely in the middle of an equally chilling portrayal of the society that creates, condones, and makes invisible such violence. In this novel, Oates also writes a biting parody of the cautionary tale, which she describes in "At Least I Have Made a Women of Her" as a story where "the only admirable female is a lady…. Bodies scarcely exist but clothes are everywhere in evidence…. Here is a world of female delusion in which individuality is dissolved into types, and the eye's reading of the face is never to be corrected." Oates uses the past to reflect upon the present, to write her revenge on the cautionary tales of men like Hawthorne (her Hester's victimization is even more obvious, and while her narrator blames the victim, Oates does not). If many of Oates's former mentors have been male, the influences on this most recent work are female. Mysteries of Winterthurn owes much to both Charlotte and Emily Brontë; her contemporary use of the nineteenth-century detective novel is much like Diane Johnson's The Shadow Knows; her eighteenth-century protagonists are vivid reminders of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's in The Yellow Wallpaper, and Oates's version of hell housed in Winterthurn's Hotel Paradise, complete with Dr. Wilts's fatalistic soliloquy, is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood.
Oates writes about the invisibility of women within the framework of a philosophical novel that has its intellectual roots in the psychology and pragmatism of William James and C. S. Pierce. The novel's progress is contemporaneous with James's career, and the protagonist, Xavier Kilgarvan, follows the pattern of the early twentieth-century intelligentsia in thinking about the "true." Oates makes clear that truth happens to an idea, that circumstances become true (Emerson's "I make my circumstances" is engraved on Kilgarvan's card), that to cling to an absolute idea is foolish. To emphasize this point, she uses all the cards she holds: she writes a ghost story/detective novel, with classical mythic allusions, plots borrowed from standard classic texts, class wars, and racial and religious prejudices, ghosts, magic, angels. Sarcasm and humor hide the fury in the story line, as in much of contemporary women's fiction and poetry. Oates, in borrowing, or rereading, to use Adrienne Rich's better word, these methods, is making the same discoveries other feminist writers are making: "Aristotle and his logician heirs tell you that nothing can be true and untrue at the same time," states Alicia Ostriker in Writing Like a Woman. "Such is the foundation of all rationality. One of the many pleasant results of experiencing a myth for yourself is that it shows you where Aristotle is wrong."
Oates uses two techniques (favorites of Henry James and Edith Wharton and thus appropriate to the novel's period) to clarify her vision of the relationship of pragmatism to the invisibility of women: the unreliable narrator and the ghost story. The supernatural becomes a tool that Oates uses to reveal the victimization of some of her women characters and the tool through which she allows them some form of vindication, although a still invisible form, not public. Oates forces the reader to "see" that in the context of the novel (while the foolish narrator is worried about what is "natural," "true," and "real") what is actually real are the deeds of ghostlike cherubs. By creating a ghost story that her narrator does not want to believe and by forcing the reader to believe it, Oates sets the much-vaunted "reality" of her pompous, presumably masculine, narrator on its head. Her central symbol is a trompe l'oeil mural of the Madonna and Child intended as a prized possession of a patriarchal dynasty. The trick is turned on the patriarchs; ultimately, the ghosts and the women survive.
Mysteries of Winterthurn is feminist fiction in that it "corrects" "the eye's reading of the face" and makes visible—through use of the invisible—the historical, stereotypical absurdities about women still believed as "true" by twentieth-century male novelists and their culture. Oates claims, "the most celebrated of twentieth-century writers have presented Woman through the distorting lens of sexist imagination…. The paradox with which the feminist critic or sympathizer must contend is this: that revolutionary advances in literature often fail to transcend deeply conservative and stereotypical images of women, as if, in a sense, the nineteenth century were eerily superimposed upon even the most defiantly inventive literary 'visions' of the twentieth century." To correct this fearful refusal of the (male) modernists, Oates steps back into the nineteenth century with an ironic (often sarcastic) eye and imposes her own re-vision on the cautionary tale to show the raw, violent misuse of women by men that stereotypes masked. Her pragmatic ghosts outdo the flesh-and-blood sophists defending values concerning sex, class, and race that upper-class, patriarchal, white society sees as "rational" and "true." Her point is that those stereotypes are only "true" within a white, upper-class masculine view which makes invisible any other views. Take away the patriarchal prejudice, and other interpretations become visible and equally true. In reading Mysteries of Winterthurn, the reader who holds racist, sexist, or classist beliefs must come to feel as foolish as the foolish narrator.
As if to make sure that her audience understands her point, Oates breaks her coherent whole, Mysteries of Winterthurn: A Novel, into three stories that develop thematically, telling of three separate investigations by the detective Xavier Kilgarvan into mysteries all occurring in his hometown, involving his kin, and spanning his youth, young adulthood, and early middle age. All three are unsolved in the traditional sense—not given visible, public solution and punishment. Where punishment is accomplished, the reader knows it to be unjust. The stories, "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower; or, the Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor," "Devil's Half-Acre; or, the Mystery of the 'Cruel Suitor,'" and "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown; or, Xavier Kilgarvan's Last Case," show by their vivid titles the unity that Oates maintains. All three, with some variation, involve cruel crimes against women, but each ends with different responses by women directly or indirectly involved. Those primarily affected are the Kilgarvan sisters, Georgina, Perdita, and Thérèse, daughters of Judge Erasmus Kilgarvan, and five working-class women whom the reader comes to know only as victims of brutal sex crimes done by a particularly foppish, demented young ruling-class heir, Valentine Westergaard. Xavier is a cousin of the Kilgarvan sisters and a member of Valentine's social set. Oates's unreliable narrator follows the pattern set by that century's society; for the most part, he blames the victim for the crime. Even though society does look for a scapegoat to punish, people believe that chambermaids seduced their employers, butchered factory girls wantonly accepted the attentions of upper-class gentlemen and deserved their fates, even if that includes rape and dismemberment, "suffragettes" asked for rape and mutilation by foolishly speaking in public places.
Crimes against women are most fully revealed in the first of the three murders, "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower." This story introduces the prototypical patriarch, Erasmus Kilgarvan, whose death shortly before the time period of the novel's action sets off many of the subsequent events. In the important chapter describing the judge's funeral, "The Keening," the narrator tells the history of the man he sees as an upstanding citizen, a man of superior intellect, and a county judge who believed that "he was ordained by God, as well as by the State, in his judicial role." Reading between the lines actually given by the narrator (lines like "why, and how, a man of such superior intelligence and proven canniness … chanced to marry not one, but two women of inferior mettle … [women with] an hereditary malaise, in virulent union with female pathology of an undefined sort," the reader gradually sees that Erasmus is a wife beater of the first magnitude, both of his wives eventually dying of his abuse, the first, Vivian Battenberg, "ending in … virtual disappearance, or 'fading away,'" the second, Hortense Spies, eventually poisoning herself with arsenic paste.
The narrator blames both women and dutifully reports the opinions of Dr. Colney Hatch, the society doctor, about the two women's failings. Oates is particularly revealing (and her use of her narrator is particularly sarcastic) in her vivid description of the insidious conditions women must combat in the society she describes. Dr. Hatch, for example, says as he looks from across the room at the ill Georgina, "Congestion in the head is most likely a consequence of congestion in the bowels,… both being symptoms of an overwrought nature, in the female sex in particular…. Thinking, reading, writing, etc.,—these place an inordinate strain on the system, and bring about any number of disorders." The entire second story of "The Cruel Suitor" shows a society quick to blame the victim for the patriarchy's crimes. Even the narrator admits that during the trial of Valentine Westergaard, "the roles of murderer and victim were, by shrewd degrees, reversed." Westergaard is found innocent of murder of the many women who, he said, "unmanned" him, who were "unclean" and "so determined to provoke manly rage in their thrashings and sobbings and bloody discharges!" After Xavier proves satisfactorily (to the narrator, the reader, and most of the town) that Valentine viciously seduced and sadistically murdered the young women, at the trial Westergaard himself manages to induce a "reasonable doubt" in the minds of the jurors by declaring he was haunted.
If the first two mysteries are particularly feminist in the disclosing of vulnerable positions of women in society, the third mystery further develops Oates's theme. In "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," while there is a woman victim—Perdita, victim of rape—the murder victims are Perdita's husband, mother-in-law, and the woman who appears to be her husband's lover, all vested members of the patriarchy. The dead are virtually hacked apart by axes and the bodies of the two apparent lovers are strewn with hearts. It is in this part of the novel that the subtleties of Oates's plot begin to convince the reader that women are not always passive victims and begin to give a more realistic view of women, if not a Utopian one.
The element of the supernatural enters the plot with the very first mystery and continues throughout the three stories, although with varying implications. What is most significant, perhaps, is where the original—and "real" in terms of believability in the context of the novel—ghosts come from. In the plot of the novel, the chief victim of Erasmus's cruelty is his oldest daughter, Georgina, the outlines of whose life Oates models after Emily Dickinson. That cruelty becomes evident only as the plot of the novel unfolds and as the element of the supernatural becomes explained.
The obvious mystery of the first segment of the novel is the death of an infant and the resulting insanity of its mother, Abigail Whimbrel, Georgina's cousin, after they sleep in the "Honeymoon Room" at Glen Mawr Manor, the ceiling of which is painted with the trompe l'oeil mural. The Madonna and Child of the painting are accompanied by a troop of angels or cherubs. The reader soon realizes, although the narrator is reluctant to admit to the obvious, that the murder of the infant and the molesting of the mother is done by the mural's angels, who come off of their ceiling, viciously nurse at Abigail's breast and eat away at the infant's head and body. Perdita, the youngest Kilgarvan daughter, explains to the young Xavier when he stands in the room after the crime, stares at the painting, and feels a red water drop, a tear drop or a blood drop, fall from one of the painted angel's eyes. She says, "angels may turn demon, with the passage of time,—if starved of the love that is their sustenance."
Perdita's explanation points to the heart of the original crime. Young Xavier soon finds, in the attic above the painted ceiling, the corpses of five infants, semimummified and still with the wire that strangled them around their necks. Two things become obvious to the reader: that the killer angels are perhaps the "representatives" of the strangled infants and that the infants' mother was Georgina. All the clues—Georgina's sometimes mad behavior, her periodic bouts of sickness and of wearing eccentric clothing, her near-hysteria over the proposal of a gentleman suitor—now clearly point to the chief crime of the original mystery: the judge's repeated incestuous "use" of Georgina, her subsequent pregnancies, and the bizarre behavior she resorts to to hide the crimes and their results. Without the actions of the angel-demons, the infants' corpses never would have been found.
So, the supernatural comes into Oates's narrative in part as a way of revealing the crimes of the patriarchy. She uses three kinds of supernatural forces that develop in the course of the novel. In the first mystery, the first type is those agents (and forces) beyond or outside of the tangible, beyond what the patriarchal world sees as "rational," "true," "natural": the avenging angels in Georgina's house. Oates makes the reader believe in this first type by inserting action done by supernatural forces into the narrative right before the reader's very eyes, so to speak. Therefore, the reader is forced to acknowledge the reality of the supernatural, even while the narrator is reluctant to reveal events without rational explanation. This kind of supernatural agent or occurrence includes, of course, the angel-demons from the trompe l'oeil painting, and parts of the other two stories: an experience Xavier has in quicksand, where he is lured by a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't lavender glove and teased by butterflies the reader suspects may be angel-demons, and, in the third story, a ghost Letitia Bunting sees. Whether or not the narrator is willing, these supernatural elements are real phenomena seen by real characters in the novel. Oates presents two other kinds of supernatural agents. The second are historical tales of the supernatural, told mainly in the second story, such as that of "Bishop" Elias Fenwick, a mad religious fanatic who is supposed to haunt the Devil's Half-Acre. Oates gives no evidence to support or deny this sort of ghost story, although it makes sense in the context of the narrative to see the person who "became" this ghost as the victim of class struggle. The third kind of ghost, which Oates begins to use in the second story and develops with more complexity in the third, is either an ironic excuse for sadistic acts, in the case of Valentine Westergaard, or a complex metaphor/excuse for psychologically determined acts that the late twentieth century would define as insane.
Part of what makes the supernatural in Oates's story a vehicle for her feminist message is that the existence of these agents is denied by the "rational" members of the ruling patriarchy, but is freely admitted by some women, some children, and by some members of the working class in Winterthurn, who, the Editor's Notes admit, were "perhaps far more sensitive,—nay, altogether more astute, in comprehending Evil." Lucas Kilgarvan, the disinherited toymaker brother of Judge Erasmus Kilgarvan and the father of Xavier, who is presented by Oates as a highly sympathetic character, one of several representative "good" men, defends the likelihood of this sort of ghost to Xavier," for where rank injustice has been perpetrated, and the Law is of no avail, shall not a man's spirit seek some manner of balance, or restitution?—or the meager solace of revenge, in committing mischief?"
In the case of the "actual" supernatural, rather than the historical or the psychological, in "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower" these forces act out the "meager solace of revenge" for themselves and the victim. In "The Cruel Suitor," the "actual" supernatural becomes an educational agent for Xavier, convincing him of his own fallibility. In this second story the supernatural is also twisted into a psychological excuse for evil done to the victims. By the conclusion of the novel, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," when the victim metamorphoses into the agent of her own wrath, she no longer needs an avenging angel. By then, the reader must decide whether or not the supernatural is merely a twisted excuse for uncondonable evil, is a justified psychological rationale for uncontrollable behavior, or is yet some third more haunting and unexplainable force.
However the supernatural is interpreted throughout the three stories, Oates uses it to reveal the true plight of her women characters, to allow her women to be (more or less) survivors and, in a sense, vindicated victors, although they seem—in their visible actions—to be only victims in their "real" world. In Mysteries of Winterthurn, her spinsters and fallen women might have been written to illustrate feminist theories about reality versus myth. Oates's angels in the house do not quietly knit; they are powerful, viciously angry, supernatural forces who avenge themselves and their mother. In fact, the angel in the house myth becomes one of the key ironies of the novel, since the angels or cherubs are, throughout, the actual supernatural forces and, simultaneously, the interchangeable symbol for the "demonic" and powerful side of angry, victimized women. Oates's closely textured writing links the "angels" and "angel-demons" of the painting with the judge's view, symbolic of the patriarchy's view: "Give Woman wings & she is either angel or beast."
In the world of Winterthurn, the visible is "male." The "female" is invisible. In fact, Xavier's progress toward an acknowledgment of chaos, of the imagination, of the supernatural, makes him both stereotypically feminine and invisible; he becomes a "phantom," "silent as a ghost," and "possessed of nearly as much power as if he were invisible." So, Oates presents the supernatural as representative of the immediate powerlessness of the invisible person in society. The supernatural, here, is the place where the invisible female or child becomes relatively visible—even if not literally visible to all eyes—and powerful. And, in fact, the representatives of the patriarchy seem to at least unconsciously admit this power of the former victim. Valentine Westergaard for a time worries that "little Trixie, or Molly, or Emmie, or all three, or indeed, all, have quite bested me, in exacting their revenge from beyond the grave in this odious wise!" Combining the detective novel and the ghost story gives Oates two vehicles for showing how women are invisible in this society. In fact, she makes a point reminiscent of Susan Glaspell's in "Trifles." Women, both directly involved and not, repeatedly tell authorities about the angel-demons and about the identity of the Cruel Suitor, but their knowledge is dismissed as trifling. So, since patriarchal authorities will not give validity to women's testimony, in Joyce Carol Oates's city of Winterthurn, women have supernatural forces to listen to them and act for them. The angel-demons symbolize women's sometimes invisible, sometimes evil strength, demonstrating how the victim vindicates herself, in admirable and not-so-admirable ways. Georgina and Perdita are examples of this power. Each of them has, first, a supernatural way to some type of survival, and, second, a "real" way.
Georgina is the most invisible of the sisters, partly because she is the most victimized by her father, and perhaps partly because she is a poet, since during her lifetime her poetry is read by few people and is inaccessible even to those few. The real Georgina is almost completely invisible and ghost-like. The townspeople call her "the Blue Nun" (Oates's use of a nun being both sadly ironic considering Georgina's nonvirginal state and a stock convention of ghost stories in general). Characters describe her resemblance to a "'life statue' from the nearby cemetery [which] had roused itself," to a nun and a witch. They call her "haunting." She is quite literally veiled throughout her section of the novel (a choice of clothing considered by the narrator and the townspeople as discreet and appropriate). Her least action, such as coming to a store very early in the morning, is seen as "exposing herself to all manner of gossip and speculation" (emphasis supplied). What she does not expose, and what Winterthurn chooses to ignore, are her father's terrible crimes. Her "illnesses" are regarded as eccentricities and she is faulted for her camouflage: "There were periods when she seemed to affect a deliberate carelessness in her toilet, and in her apparel, wearing dresses that hung on her like sacks, as if to disguise her inordinate thinness; and to refute the very notion of feminine responsibility."
Georgina accepts, with almost astonishingly little protest, her society's view of her and her father's treatment of her, like the Iphigenia who is her model. She even accepts her father's dictum that she should stop publishing her poetry (although she does not stop writing it), since the poetry offends her society, which defines it as "strident," with "rude jarring images, and dashed-off lines; a penchant for the sickly, the morbid, the willfully unfeminine."
In Oates's feminist plot, Georgina's vindication, both supernatural and "real," is appropriate to her trials. The supernatural element of her vindication is illuminated by consideration of Oates's use of Iphigenia as Georgina's chosen pen name. That name is not only particularly suited to Georgina's personal history, but it also implies that in choosing it, Georgina shows an understanding of patriarchal society and of the lack of matriarchal authority in that society. The myth of Iphigenia and her parents Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, a myth Oates has used before as the basic plot of Angel of Light, points to a possible interpretation of the demon-angels' actions and Georgina's supernatural vindication. Oates may mean the demon-angels to be acting as the avenging Furies, creatures on wing defending matriarchal power and—in Georgina's case—avenging their mother. That Georgina was in some way aware of the angels and their actions, and that she related them to the judge's crimes, is apparent in one of her poems:
Know, Sweet Babe— Thy Father's hand— Rudders—all thou fearest— 'Tis of Him—of HIM— (& not of ME—) These Seraphim sing— Thou hearest—!
Poetry is Georgina's "real world" vindication. If the angel-demons or Furies try to take care of her enemies, Georgina takes care of herself through her art. With it she makes herself visible and defines herself, in creating at least a spiritual link with other people that circumstances make impossible for her physically to accomplish. Georgina's own theory of poetry, that "all poetry was, in a sense, translation, or artful rendering, of the Unknown depths of passion, into the Known strictures of language," allows the supposition that Georgina put a considerable amount of her own emotion (emotion that certainly wasn't or couldn't be displayed) into her poetry. That she created for herself such an outlet despite her circumstances is a victory. Of course, the critical popularity of her poems, edited and published after her death by Clarice, and the financial security they afforded her half-sisters, gives to Georgina another, though posthumous, form of vindication. Perdita is "invisible" in less dramatically significant ways than Georgina. Since she is alive throughout the novel's three parts, being a slightly younger contemporary of Xavier, we see her as a battered child, as a young woman very susceptible to the dictates of her society yet with the ability to see through them, and then as a young, childless wife who is confined by the expectations of her priggish husband and mother-in-law. Perdita is one of the many women in the novel who have basic intelligence and good sense (although not Georgina's creativity) but whose capabilities are totally ignored and are therefore invisible. Early in the story, Xavier realizes Perdita is "no faery child, but a very real young girl" and during the course of the novel, Oates demonstrates to the reader just how a "very real young girl" would view the society in which she is trapped. Perdita has the good sense to realize, for example, that if she had a "stake" she would rather bet on horses to make her fortune than to marry. The narrator says that the "impetuous young woman" was heard to remark, "If gambling be a sin against God … is it not a far more grievous sin to gamble one's very self, than merely with money?" Perdita, in fact, at least in part through her instruction by her sister Thérèse ("my Angel Thérèse") knows of the "dread Abyss" that separates men and women in the custom of their society, which considers "Woman is all that man is not: Woman is not all that Man is."
This separation across the abyss seems to symbolize, in Perdita's mind, the impossibility of acting on her intensely sexual nature. Perdita and Xavier are passionately attracted to each other, but until Perdita finally makes her ultimate rebellion from her society, she is not free at all to act on that passion, although she honestly admits her feelings to Xavier, shocking Xavier and almost shocking the reader, given the context of the narrator who continuously implies that she should be keeping those passions invisible.
The confinements that finally drive Perdita to her rebellion Oates buries in the narrator's prose, graphically demonstrating how Perdita's needs are invisible to society and how her actions are "exposed" only insofar as they are scandalous. In a lengthy parenthetical phrase, for example, the narrator details Perdita's unsuccessful attempt to adopt an infant, her desire to personally manage her Iphigenia royalties (a desire thwarted by her husband), and her joining "a ladies' cycling club, with the brazen intention of bicycling in Juniper Park, in a veritable army of bright-colored stockings, tamo'-shanters, and bloomers!—this caprice being cut short, as one might imagine, when Reverend Bunting was informed by a parishioner." Perdita's attempt to keep the infant is made especially poignant by Xavier's discovery that Perdita baptized the child "Iphigenia" and that, despite the "tearful protestations, and threats the unhappy woman made against her own life," Reverend Bunting and Dr. Hatch "had concurred in their judgment that to provide costly medical treatment for the piteous thing, and, as it were, 'nurse' it along, would be contrary to God's will … [and therefore] the foundling was allowed most mercifully to expire."
In this novel Oates uses chapter titles to great effect, and also causes her narrator—through the device of Xavier's "detecting"—to reveal chronological events in highly significant ways. Therefore, it is easy to make a case for the fact that the child Iphigenia's death or murder (part of the terrible strand of children's deaths and murders that runs through this novel) is the final horror that caused Perdita's rebellion. Oates tells the story of the infant's death in the chapter titled "The Betrothal," where Xavier discovers evidence of Perdita's love for him and visits Perdita to find her wearing, instead of her wedding ring, an antique ruby ring she took from Xavier when they were children. At this point in the narrative, the reader, although not the narrator or Xavier, finds the title of this story, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," and many other clues beginning to add up to the possible (although never completely clear) solution of the murders: that Perdita and Xavier planned the murder of Harmon Bunting, Letitia Bunting, and Amanda Poindexter, and that Xavier, disguised as "the Red-Haired Specter" carried out the gruesome ax murders. Perdita's being found in her bridal gown raving about rape makes sense in the context of her finally acting on (even if in an extreme way) her passion for Xavier.
Oates's supernatural and "real" methods in Perdita's rebellion and vindication merge more in her twentieth-century story than in Georgina's nineteenth-century one. In Perdita's story the ghostly element is tied to the psychological. If "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower" is a ghost story told in the manner of Henry James or Edith Wharton with at least the possibility of "real" ghosts, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown" is more a ghost story told in the manner of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House—there are ghostly occurrences, but the agents are ultimately flesh-and-blood people acting under peculiar psychological motives.
The ghostly agent in Perdita's story is Xavier, who acts in alcohol-induced trances from which he awakens with total amnesia. For a period of time before the murders, Xavier "visits" (much like the ghostly Catherine in Wuthering Heights) Perdita's window as a "demon," a "most diabolical agent, in that his countenance seemed angelic!" By the end of the story, Xavier and the careful reader realize that he has committed the murders so that he and Perdita can be together; he even confesses to a friend (but not to the authorities) that he worked "in order to consummate a secret design" (emphasis supplied). The "real" part of Perdita's rebellion and vindication is in her method of escape. By her participation in the "secret design" (which, incidentally, is never "proven" in the narrative, but which makes sense given the clues Oates provides and given Xavier's chivalrous reluctance to discuss the plan), Perdita achieves both her freedom and the object of her passion. After a suitable period of what the narrator describes as an almost comatose convalescence from her rape by the red-haired specter, Perdita reappears in Winterthurn on her bicycle, wearing bloomers, kissing Xavier in public. Eventually she marries him and has a child.
Assuming that she did assist Xavier in the crime, there is a certain poetic justice in her posing as the upper-class victim of the murderer's rape. Perhaps Oates intends the reader to see Perdita as deliberately playing the role of woman as hapless victim—a part so believable to patriarchal authorities that it would remove her from investigation as the possible murderer. Whether or not Perdita is completely posing as a victim or whether she is truly driven nearly mad by the murders and Xavier's rape is left appropriately open to question. Throughout the novel it is clear that women like Georgina and Perdita do well even to be half-rebels; that their society has so indoctrinated them to accept blame and guilt for acts they did not do, any escape at all is heroic.
It might be argued that Oates's picture of the vindicated or the victorious, of the nonvictim, is not very encouraging if the best she can do is show us an Emily Dickinson recluse or an accomplice to an ax murderer. And that may be an argument worth making. But given the psychological history of both Georgina and Perdita, a case can be made for Oates's doing well with the task she set herself. Both women are corrupted by the patriarchy, but they are far from being total, passive victims. They cannot (and cannot be expected to) escape from patriarchal corruption, but what they accomplish—from poetry to hauntings to actual refusal to accept corruption—is by no means meager. And, Oates gives the reader the third sister, Thérèse, who understands very well how the patriarchy protects itself; she tells Xavier of his naïve mistakes. Thérèse, too, may be guilty. There are clues in the novel that point to the possibility of her acting out perverse behavior or participating in the planning of crimes. But Thérèse is at least a more moderate victor than the violent Perdita or the recluse Georgina. With the financial security provided by her own work and by Iphigenia's poems, and freed of the judge, Thérèse is a successful version of the woman Georgina tried to be: a respected teacher at that same girls' school Georgina had to resign from, a well-dressed woman who even surprises people with experimentation like the "permanent wave," and (appropriate to the heterosexual world of the novel) the companion and eventually wife of the kind, gentle headmaster of the boys' school, a man much like the suitor Georgina was forced to refuse. In fact, Thérèse thinks while comparing the headmaster to Xavier, he "seemed in some obscure wise less manly, as he was the more human!"
Nevertheless, Oates is very much the realist—or the naturalist—even when entering into the world of the ghost story and the detective novel. Mysteries of Winterthurn climaxes, in fact, with a vision of hell called "the Hotel Paradise," with yet another "angel-child, a cherub, amazingly blighted by the hand of his Maker, as if in wrath, or in violent whimsy" and with the death of a renegade rebel from the patriarchal class in despair over his inability to protect the woman he loves, who is black, and their child, this angel. Obviously, the society Oates depicts is corrupt. While she steps forward to identify female victims within a society that victimizes nearly all of its members, she does not pretend to offer redemption. Her hero can become enlightened during his discovery of the patriarchy's crimes. He cannot find solutions. In fact, innocence lost means only that he, too, is corrupt. Xavier's journey haunts him with the knowledge that "there is, after all, no innocence in Mankind; but only degrees and refinements of guilt."
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 sharing it.
This affirmation of the nature and power of art, made by Joyce Carol Oates in an interview in 1972, just before the publication of her collection of short stories, Marriages and Infidelities, provides a hint to the meaning of the opening story in that collection, "The Sacred Marriage," a story that one critic called "bewilderingly evocative," but that can be understood in terms of Oates's theory of the power of art. A testimony to the transforming power of art and the artist, the story is in keeping with Oates's practice of reworking—or "re-imagining" as Oates herself calls it—the stories of earlier artists. In this volume alone she has several stories whose titles give the clue to their predecessors: "The Metamorphosis" (Kafka), "The Lady with the Pet Dog" (Chekhov), "The Turn of the Screw" (Henry James), and "The Dead" (James Joyce). Eileen Bender connects "The Sacred Marriage" with James's "The Aspern Papers," but the protagonists in the two stories, as Bender seems to recognize, are significantly different. The re-imagining in "The Sacred Marriage" is not, in fact, of any fairly recent story, but of an ancient myth, and, as with the other stories mentioned above, the title of the story makes the connection explicit.
Features of this myth, which involves a young woman's marriage to a god and the attendant practice of sacred prostitution, are recorded in several places in James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, but especially in a section titled "The Sacred Marriage." There Frazer describes a series of rituals involving the marriage of humans with divinities: "the custom of marrying gods either to images or to human beings was widespread among the nations of antiquity." In some versions of this myth, a young woman married to a god is destined to remain, physiologically, a virgin for the rest of her life. In other versions, the young woman has been married to a mortal, often for some time, has known no man but her husband, and is married to the god only ceremonially and temporarily, as in the Dionysiac festivals in Athens. In still other versions, the young woman married to the god preserves her virginity only in a figurative sense, for she prostitutes herself to the god's worshippers. "In Africa, and sometimes if not regularly in India, the sacred prostitutes attached to temples are regarded as the wives of the god, and their excesses are excused on the ground that the women are not themselves, but that they act under the influence of divine inspiration." All these rituals had some connection with fruitfulness of vine or field and ultimately with continued life, often by seeing the people and crops as participating in the immortal life of the god through the sacred marriage or divine prostitution. "In their licentious intercourse at the temples the women, whether maidens or matrons or professional harlots, imitated the licentious conduct of a great goddess of fertility for the purpose of ensuring the fruitfulness of fields and trees, of man and beast; and in discharging this sacred and important function the women were probably supposed … to be actually possessed by the goddess." The vision was homeopathic, involving a union, an identification of deity, man, and the natural world.
In Oates's "The Sacred Marriage," the wife of the artist-deity, a poet named Connell Pearce, recently dead, invites his worshippers to their bed, the bed she had shared with her husband, a bed in a room still filled with his photographs. Pearce's autobiographical note, part of a collection of "religious parables and riddles," is discovered late in the story by the one man the reader actually sees sharing the bed. It makes the plot clear, both to the reader and to this man: "Let us imagine X, the famous Spanish novelist…. X is about to die and wants to write the novel of his own life, extended beyond his life. In Madrid he selects a certain woman. He is a noble, dying old man, she is a very beautiful young woman. She is worthy of being his wife. And therefore he marries her, and she nurses him through his last illness, buries him, and blesses all the admirers of his art who come to her, for she alone retains X's divinity. Her body. Her consecration. A multitude of lovers come to her, lovers of X, and she blesses them without exception, in her constant virginity."
The correspondences to The Golden Bough in title and plot line are accompanied by other similarities as well. The name of Connell Pearce's wife is Emilia; she lives in the house she and Pearce bought on Lydia Street. Frazer mentions one "Aurelia Aemilia," who was involved in devotional prostitution, as testified by "a Greek inscription found at Tralles in Lydia, which proves that the practice of religious prostitution survived in that country as late as the second century of our era." And it may be a coincidence, or it may be Oates's playfulness that one of the worshipful scholars who comes to Lydia Street is named "Felix Frazer." (Perhaps Oates too has contrived a mystique of names like Connell Pearce's "mystique of places—even the names of places.")
The story is told from the perspective of another worshipful scholar, Howard Dean, whose reflections and whose letter to the widow make it clear that only lovers of Pearce, only those whom Pearce had inspired, may come to his shrine. Howard is surprised that a "coldly opportunistic" acquaintance from Harvard who had wanted to obtain Pearce's papers had never had his several letters answered, while Howard Dean's own shamelessly worshipful letter received an instant reply; he wonders: "How had his single letter, written feverishly, with an almost adolescent yearning, managed to get through to Pearce's widow?" The parts of his letter that he recalls in his reverie answer that question: your husband's first book "changed my life"; "your husband has partly created me"; Connell Pearce "has managed to create a sense of destiny, personal destiny, out of this chaos, and he has made us see that it is not sentimental to believe in something, that it is not simply the pious who have hope of being saved…."
That such a high purpose for art—to create a sense of destiny, to create order and unity out of chaos—is Oates's belief is clear in interviews and articles, given or written close to the time "The Sacred Marriage" was first published, in Southern Review in summer 1972. Challenging the myth of the isolated artist, Oates argued that "Creative work, like scientific work, should be greeted as a communal effort—an attempt by an individual to give voice to many voices" ("The Myth"). In an interview published in late 1972, she affirmed that "Art should be for the entire species, ultimately, aimed toward an elevation of other people through an extension of their latent sympathies." And in an another interview, published just before the appearance of "The Sacred Marriage," she described art as a way of "transcribing dreams" but in such a way that the "private" dream is made public. This is in fact what poet Connell Pearce's art had said to Howard Dean, as he explains in his letter to Emilia:
There is a prose-poem of your husband's that contains the lines, We woke out of adolescence to discover that there is nothing private in the senses. Why not die, then? We are on exhibit. But, why not live? We are not doomed to private fates. When I first read these lines I felt a tremendous shock. I can't explain my feeling. I don't know if I brought this feeling to the poem, which exposed it, or if the poem—I mean, your husband—entirely created it as I read.
It is, in Oates's theory, the power of Art that produces this inexplicable "feeling" of fusion, wherein the artist, the reader, and the work itself cannot be separated, where all are creative forces. Her views are not simply parallel or anticipatory developments in accord with "reader-response" or "aesthetics of reception" criticism such as Wolfgang Iser, Hans Robert Jauss, and others were producing at the same time and since. They are, of course, similar, but Oates's view of the artist's role gives the artist a primary function in what she sees as, potentially, a whole new world-view.
In her essay, "New Heaven and Earth," published in November 1972, Oates calls for an end to the "Cartesian dualism—I/It." She sees the need "to recognize that our minds belong, quite naturally, to a collective 'mind,' a mind in which we share everything that is mental, most obviously language itself, and that the old boundary of the skin is no boundary at all but a membrane connecting the inner and outer experiences of existence." This, she affirms, "has always been a mystical vision." Here, as elsewhere, she connects the writer and the mystic, two who express this vision, who move toward and who help others move toward self-transcendence.
Insofar as Howard Dean feels this bond between himself and Connell Pearce, he has achieved some measure of self-transcendence, though his achievement is incomplete. The possibility that Howard could achieve transcendence led him to be chosen by Emilia as one of the few scholars allowed to visit the "sacred place" that is Connell Pearce's home and to have Pearce's mysterious origins explained by the priestess-queen in charge, who talks about Pearce with "an artless regality, as if she were in charge of a historical site, in charge of the careful recitation of events now past" (20). Such "careful recitation" is suggestive of the importance attached to language in ancient and modern religious ritual. From Howard's point of view, he "had not deserved this place, but he had come here innocently, without selfishness or design." However, until the end of the story, Howard does not fully realize the nature of his bond with Pearce, not the role of Emilia in that bond. At first he had thought of Emilia as one "like the other women Pearce had loved and brought into his life. But she had no reality for Howard, who had hardly thought of her until today: she was simply a presence, a medium between himself and the dead poet." His dismissive "simply" would deny the special mediating role of the woman in fertility cults like that of Dionysus: "Dionysus is a woman's god in the fullest sense of the word, the source of all woman's sensual and transcendent hopes, the center of her whole existence. It was to women that he was first revealed in his glory, and it was women who propagated his cult and brought about its triumph." It was through women that men were enabled to approach the god [Kerenyi, Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976].
Judith Ochshorn in The Female Experience and the Nature of the Divine observes that in the Sacred Marriage recorded of the ruler Dumuzi in Mesopotamia "as in all other instances, it was the goddess Inanna who selected him for 'the godship of the land.'" In Oates, the initiates are selected by Emilia, but she herself was chosen, for her beauty, by Connell Pearce. Here perhaps the story is closer to the Dionysian rites and beliefs of Greece and Asia Minor; the god "compels" the women followers to join him, he is an irresistible force. Likewise, as Emilia says of Pearce, "any woman would have loved him"; when Pearce selected her, she "had no choice. I had to go with Connell," just as the women of Dionysian rite, inspired, frenzied, have no choice but to worship—like Emilia, often against the "rational" opposition of their families, as Euripedes' Bacchae illustrates.
Like most, perhaps all, religious cults involving sacred prostitution, the Dionysian cult is a fertility cult, in which "In the form of an animal the god suffered the extreme reduction, a cruel death, but he, indestructible zoë … escaped—to Thetis, to the Muses, or however this was expressed mythologically" (Kerenyi). Paradoxical elements are combined: death and rebirth, eros and thanatos. The followers of Connell Pearce mate with the priestess-widow in the room in which Pearce loved and died; in Pearce's death. Howard felt "as if part of himself had died" and yet Pearce too had "helped [Howard] mature. By dying, Pearce had shown him the way to die—otherwise death might have seemed to Howard unimaginable." By making death "imaginable"—by creating an image of death, and of rebirth—Connell Pearce, the embodiment of Art, enables others to live; this, however, Howard at first does not comprehend.
As a new initiate, Howard does not yet understand that Pearce represents the indestructible force of Art, which will enable him and other chosen ("not many") worshippers to live. Before he read of Pearce's death "Howard had been aware of Connell Pearce at a distance, living out a parallel life, a presence, not ghostly but very solid, substantial, the kind of transparent substance Howard had once attributed to God. So long as Pearce lived, there had been a kind of promise…. But Pearce had died." The knowledge to which Howard comes in the painful course of events on Lydia Street is the knowledge that "Pearce was not dead but still alive, more powerful than Howard." After this realization, Howard finds the parable of "X" in which the endurance of the artist is explained in terms of the Sacred Marriage. The connection between the artist's life and the life of the race—its survival and growth—is the central argument of an article Oates published in January 1973: "If art has any general evolutionary function, it must be to enhance the race, to work somehow toward an essential unity and harmony—survival and growth—and perhaps an integration of the human world with the natural world" ("The Unique/Universal"). Fertility myths, with their center in death and rebirth, provide an emblem, in "The Sacred Marriage," for this unity and harmony, both within the human world and between the human and the natural.
The story begins with an emphasis on fertility images and the power of nature. As Howard drives toward the Pearce home, he looks out across fields that "were the same, uniform, dull, sweet green. A kind of paradise. Another world." The fields are green, but it is autumn, the harvest time when the ancient Sacred Marriage was usually enacted. His state replicates that of the new worshipper of Dionysus, who must leave the city and the mundane: "Rarely out of the city, rarely out of his routine of work, he felt a little giddy with the excitement of the trip, like a child. He wanted to see everything." In this new world, at the top of the ridge, he feels a strange sense of power ("he believed he could gaze right across the valley to the top of the mountain range, eyeing it levelly, in a sense as an equal"), as well as a sense of "constant, whimsical danger." He begins to abandon his usual self; his consciousness is altered: the landscape is "hypnotic"; as he sees the "fierce little plunging streams of water" he "felt he was being hypnotized and this thought somehow pleased him"; the garden of Pearce's home is "dusty, dreamy, hypnotic as the valley." Nature and humanity mingle. When he first sees Emilia, she is emerging from the house and going into the garden. Meeting her later, he notices her hair, which "curved in curls and tendrils," and her "leaf-colored green" dress.
In the context of such images, the look of Pearce's eyes in his portrait, "all iris, as if blinded by a tremendous light or a deluge of sights," can be seen as an allusion to the blinding flash of Zeus, which destroyed Dionysus' mother Semele and gave him a first birth. And as the worshippers of Dionysus often sense the presence of the god, so Emilia seems to be both listening to Howard and "to something else—a voice in her head, perhaps." In the barn (the Pearce home is on a farm), which "seemed unhuman, holy," Howard senses a presence, "glancing up at the shadowy hayloft, and behind him at the opened door, as if he expected someone to be watching."
Paradoxically, Howard's strongest moment of connection with Pearce and "the woman who had been married to him"—at the grave, where Howard feels "with an almost violent certitude that he had come to the right place"—is followed shortly by his losing sight of Pearce; he begins to see Emilia, "only her, her self," and interprets his attraction in conventional terms of "falling in love." Forgetting Pearce, he does not hear or understand Emilia's message, which is central in this parable of Art: "If Connell touched someone with his fingertips he would know that person … he could absorb that person…. You felt a jolt, like a small electric shock, go through you and into him, passing out of you and into him, permanently…. That way he brought many different people into him, into his life. He told me that he had lived through many different people." This to Howard is inexplicable, and Emilia's touch leads to his selfish desire for exclusive possession. He becomes selfish and designing, desiring Emilia not as the specially chosen priestess of Art, but as a potential faculty wife in Madison, Wisconsin. Hence his shock when another initiate appears, and his apostasy: "A living woman was worth more than a dead man's novel, any dead man's novel or his poetry or any poetry. That was a fact."
Like Pentheus in his devotion to "fact" Howard is nearly destroyed, because, in seeking to remove Emilia from the sacred surroundings, he would violate the vision of unity in Pearce's poems by an assertion of his individual ego, of possessiveness, of personal power. In various essays, Oates condemns this possessiveness, this competitive selfishness: the "myth of the isolated artist," for instance, gives rise to "a society obsessed with adolescent ideas of being superior, of conquering, of destroying" ("The Myth"). One recalls Pearce's phrase about "working out of adolescence to discover there is nothing private in the senses."
This rise of the competitive self in Howard, a self that wishes Emilia to belong to him and to turn away all other worshippers of Pearce, is akin to the attitude of the "coldly opportunistic" professor from Harvard. That Howard should have such a feeling is incomprehensible to Emilia, who naively asks, of Howard and the new arrival, Felix, "the two of you can work in the same room, can't you? Is that too difficult, for scholars?"
If "The Sacred Marriage" is a parable of the power of art, "working together in the same room" is clearly a metaphor for the unity that, in Oates's vision, great art provides. It is a unity in which the art itself never dies, in which the individual ego is transcended by the sense of community. The poet Connell Pearce has become a kind of savior, demonstrating even how to transcend death. In dying, it seemed, to Emilia, "as if he were making up his own death, like a poem." This "poem" enables his followers to experience death without dying, as the followers of the god in the Sacred Marriage experienced godhead. In the twentieth century, art replaces religion to provide this "identifying" experience. Citing a statement by Picasso that "is so true that no one can really add to it," Oates says: "Painting isn't an aesthetic operation, it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between the strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires" ("Transformations").
Howard's departure in the darkness of midnight is a departure in despair, but it carries with it the seeds of rebirth. Though he considers the possibility that he could drive off the steep roads and die, he does not want to die. Becoming an "ordinary man" again means here giving up the opportunism and possessiveness that had led to his despair. In a final epiphany, as the sun rises, he is infused with a sense of renewal: "the same marvelous energy he had felt upon first seeing those piles of Pearce's" manuscripts infuses him, and he drives "all day with a passion he could barely contain." With the dawn, Howard comes to accept his "mission," his "sacred obligation," to bring Pearce, the embodiment of Art in this religious parable and riddle, to the world's attention. By the end of the story, Howard has come to realize the sacred nature of art, and its transcendence of self, and the reader has come to understand what perhaps Oates meant in speaking of this collection of stories: "Some are conventional marriages of men and women, others are marriages in another sense—with a phase of art, with something that transcends the limitations of the ego…."
"The Sacred Marriage," then, is an appropriate opening story in a volume that includes so many of Oates's "reimaginings," for it is a celebration of the "magic" of art, of its transforming power. Using an ancient and widespread myth, Oates affirms the artist in the role of the divine bringer of new life to the human and natural worlds.
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 principal outward difference between these and Oates's version, Connie's alter ego being of the opposite sex and extremely threatening, results from Arnold Friend's representing not only a protagonist's mythic, irrational side (one of several characteristics he shares with his literary forerunners), but also a cluster of insights into the violence and sexuality of adulthood. His indeterminate age, somewhere between eighteen and thirty, emphasizes the transition which Connie must undergo, one reflected in the future-past duality inherent in the title of the story.
We first see Connie at home, an ordinary middle-class setting, complete with a mother who runs the household and nags, an older "maiden" sister, and an uninvolved father who appears only to work, eat, read the newspaper, and sleep. Together, these people drive away, out of the story, to a conventional Sunday barbecue. Connie's father, like her friend's father who chauffeurs the girls to the shopping plaza, "never bothered to ask what they had done." The father's lack of involvement allows Connie a relative degree of freedom. No one ever asks, "Where are you going, Where have you been?"
The house and the domestic environment represent the known, the rationally apprehensible, much like the law in "Bartleby." Within this environment, Connie is a conventional adolescent girl. She is vain and messy, and bears herself differently at home and abroad. She and her mother share the occasional good moment as a reprieve from the usual arguments, which also serve to set limits for Connie. She may tell a fib here and there but she gets home shortly after 11 P.M. Connie is additionally controlled by her mother's constantly comparing her to her sister June and by June's working at her high school. But while she may have little power at home, Connie certainly does have some—over boys. This too is conventional, especially in view of the relative maturation of the sexes, and represents her first tentative experiments with adulthood. Connie is on the threshold: her hair and her walk both attract attention and she is willing to assume risks, "ducking fast across the busy road" to the hamburger drive-in "where the older kids hung out." On the night Connie meets Eddie, she and her friend run across the highway "breathless with daring," to a world of bright lights and music.
There is popular music everywhere in this story. Music is the medium through which adolescents attempt to derive the meaning of life and it is in a music-induced trance-like state that Connie later sees Arnold Friend. Music takes on an almost religious significance—"the music that made everything so good: the music was always in the background, like music at a church service; it was something to depend upon"—and Wegs [in Journal of Narrative Technique 5 (1975)] sees a grotesque religious parody in the entire drive-in episode. But Bob Dylan, to whom the story is dedicated, and whom Urbanski [in Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978)] acknowledges as one "who contributed to making music almost religious in dimension among the youth," does not write typically adolescent music. His work often deals with types of evil ("Blowin' in the Wind," "The Masters of War"), sexuality ("Lay Lady Lay"), or change ("The Times They Are a' Changing"). Thematically, then, the music points at the serious world beyond adolescence, even if the drive-in crowd listens merely to amplified sound. In its loudness, accompanied by bright lights, it has elements of orgiastic abandon. After the drive-in episode, when she is back at the plaza, amid shops (symbols of commerce, of order), Connie is too far away to hear the music.
The function of the drive-in episode is not limited to introducing the music and bright lights and the almost cinematic effect of unreality which results. More important is Connie's seeing the shaggy-haired boy who later reappears as Arnold Friend, just as the vacuous smile of the hamburger boy atop the bottle-shaped drive-in building reappears as Arnold Friend's dangerous smile. The black-haired boy is merely a boy uttering an adolescent, would-be macho remark, but he provides the impetus to the rest of the story, involving Connie's trance, wherein she has her vision of the evil and often irrational world of adulthood to which she crosses over. To put it in R. D. Laing's terms, her "earliest phantasies are experienced in sensations: later, they take the form of plastic images and dramatic representations."
Significantly, when the boy in the golden car tells Connie, "Gonna get you, baby," Eddie, Connie's companion, does not notice. Eddie's being presented as an individual promising no particularly perceptive gifts—"He sat backwards on his stool, turning himself jerkily around in semi-circles and then stopping and turning again, and after a while he asked Connie if she would like something to eat"—is important because it leaves Connie as the only person who notices the boy and hears his remark; this accords with the element of private vision shared by many protagonists in Doppelgänger stories. Thus, for instance, William Wilson is surprised that the officials at his school remain unaware of his double's designs; the lawyer in "Bartleby" must consult his assistants to validate his perceptions of his recalcitrant copyist; and Conrad's captain wonders if Leggatt is visible only to him.
Arnold Friend does not exist—which makes him no less "real," since "phantasy is a mode of experience" (Laing). "He" is simply Connie's projected other self, depicted in Oates's way, with a heavy emphasis on evil, violence, and the threat of rape (if not death) which Connie must acknowledge. As Arnold Friend tells her, "This is your day set aside for a ride with me and you know it." The cost of refusal is failure to attain adulthood, as illustrated by the twenty-four-year-old June who works as a school secretary, still lives at home, and who obediently, and inappropriately dressed, goes to the family barbecue. To warn Connie against such a refusal is the function of Ellie Oscar. With his radio and sunglasses, and his readiness to employ violence, Ellie is an extension of Arnold Friend, but he also represents the alternative to him. His clothes, for example, and his general vapidity attest to a forty-year-old perpetual adolescence which is underscored by the sexlessness of his neuter name. His status is illustrated by Arnold Friend's telling Connie that Ellie will sit in the back seat during their ride, in the role of child vis-à-vis the two "adults." Ellie apparently understands only when spoken to in adolescent clichés. In the extraordinary paragraph near the end of the story, when Arnold tells him off with an extensive series of clichés, there appears a further purpose: a kind of exorcism of these phrases for the benefit of Connie, who is leaving behind the world where they are commonly heard.
Connie's refusal to participate in the family barbecue shows her growing sense of power and independence and, more important, leaves her at home alone, a situation emphasized by her mother's "Stay home alone then." Of course, it also leaves her more vulnerable: "… at adolescence we observe relative ego weakness due to the intensification of the drives, as well as absolute ego weakness due to the adolescent rejection of parental ego support" (Blos, The Adolescent Passage ). The daydreams, the music, and all the rest follow—
Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love, and her mind slipped over onto thoughts of the boy she had been with the night before and how nice he had been, how sweet it always was, not the way someone like June would suppose but sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs; and when she opened her eyes she hardly knew where she was, the back yard ran off into the weeds and a fence-like line of trees and behind it the sky was perfectly blue and still. The asbestos "ranch house" that was now three years old startled her—it looked small. She shook her head as if to get awake.
Then, after turning on the radio, "to drown out the quiet," and paying close attention to the music, as instructed by the disc jockey, she
bathed in a glow of slow-pulsed joy that seemed to rise mysteriously out of the music itself and lay languidly about the airless little room, breathed in and breathed out with each gentle rise and fall of her chest.
Her entry into her trance—or her dream—is followed immediately by the car coming up the driveway.
The ambiguity of the passage where Connie enters her trance, which leaves room for other interpretations of this story (such as Wegs's and Urbanski's), is strongly reminiscent of the questions Hawthorne leaves us with regarding the consciousness of Young Goodman Brown in the forest. More important, however, is that Connie is alone, a prerequisite for facing one's other self. Thus, William Wilson and his double speak to each other only when they are alone together; the lawyer ensconces Bartleby on his side of the folding doors in his office; the captain takes the unusual step of going on watch and is therefore alone to receive Leggatt; and Crane's Potter, who in the company of his new bride comes upon the rampaging Scratchy Wilson, "exhibited an instinct to at once loosen his arm from the woman's grip."
The creation of Arnold Friend in Connie's mind is made possible by her reaching the appropriate time in her life. In this regard, Arnold Friend's name—"a friend"—as a common slang expression for the menstrual period, supports the theme of impending adulthood. Arnold's form, as noted earlier, is borrowed from the shaggy-haired boy in the drive-in; however, unlike the boys she knows, Arnold Friend, who is not a boy, is beyond Connie's control, although, because of his "source," he looks conventional enough.
She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn't want to put into words.
The adolescent boy's conventionally displayed sexuality here is serious beyond anything in Connie's prior experience. She recognizes no pattern: "… all these things did not come together." Arnold Friend does not stop at slippery smiles. He is all too willing to put the matter into words: and, unlike Bartleby, Scratchy Wilson, or Leggatt, he is not affected by the world of order. As Connie soon learns, he is beyond the control of police or parents.
Arnold is unable to enter the house which represents Connie's old environment as well as order, like the shops at the plaza, but only for as long as Connie does not attempt to use the telephone. Besides, he does not have to enter: "I ain't made plans for coming in that house where I don't belong but just for you to come out to me, the way you should." In other words, Connie is expected to step into adulthood voluntarily. Certainly, her merely material home (she has lived in it only during her adolescence, between the ages of twelve and fifteen) is no match for the forces of adulthood: "I mean, anybody can break through a screen door and glass and wood and iron or anything else if he needs to, anybody at all, and specially Arnold Friend."
The kinship between this "friend" and Connie—her name signifies constancy to the process of growth to adulthood—is actually established early in the story. The curious phrasing of Connie's mother's chiding her daughter, "Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you?", is directly related to Connie's first words to Arnold: "Who the hell do you think you are?"; both depict attempts to discover an emerging or new identity, in acknowledgment that adolescence "is essentially a time of personal discovery." Likewise, Connie's wishing her mother dead and her telling friends that her mother sometimes makes her want to throw up, represents not only conventional adolescent jargon and escapism, but also her preparing to leave her childhood (and her dependence on her mother) behind. Arnold Friend's threat later in the story that her family may be harmed reflects her adolescent hostility and symbolizes her unconscious knowledge that in her passage to adulthood the old ties must become as dead for her. This is underlined shortly thereafter in Connie's realization, "I'm not going to see my mother again…. I'm not going to sleep in my bed again."
Connie's appearance early on also foreshadows her transition from adolescence to adulthood: "She wore a pull-over jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home. Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for everywhere that was not home…." Moreover, her "trashy day-dreams" which her mother complains about hail from a realm of feeling and darkness with which Connie is as yet unacquainted:
But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July. Connie's mother kept dragging her back to the daylight by finding things for her to do….
In a similar passage, when Connie agrees to spend the evening with Eddie, she goes with him, "her face gleaming with a joy that had nothing to do with Eddie or even this place; it might have been the music."
The "tiny metallic world" of Arnold Friend's sunglasses which mirror everything in miniature, and in which Connie sees her blouse reflected, is related to the mirror at the end of "William Wilson" and to the place in "The Secret Sharer" where the captain and Leggatt rest on opposite ends of the skylight, creating a mirror image of each other. At first inscrutable, Arnold Friend without his sunglasses is spectral, qualities designed to heighten the sense of unreality—"he came from nowhere and belonged nowhere" (like Bartleby)—which in turn is supported by references to the possibility of his wearing a wig and by our being told unequivocally that "His whole face was a mask."
Because Connie is not an initiate into the secrets of the world which Arnold Friend represents, she appears briefly unable to read what is clearly written on his car: his name, the numerological "secret code," and, around a dent on the left rear fender, "DONE BY A CRAZY WOMAN DRIVER." This last inscription is important because it hints at the essentially anti-woman attitude of the adult world. Women are not, and are not allowed to be, in control. They are its quintessential victims, even if the violence is occasionally masked. As Arnold Friend tells Connie, "I am always nice at first, the first time"; but later, when she is unable to call her mother, Connie "felt her breath jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend were stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness." When she looks at the car again, she notices on the front fender the inscription "MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS," an obsolete adolescent expression, clearly pointing to Connie's leaving the world she has known. Significantly, she looks at the inscription "for a while as if the words meant something to her that she did not yet know."
Connie's formal initiation begins when Arnold Friend draws his X-sign in her direction, at which moment the music from inside the house and from the car blend together. As the encounter proceeds, it becomes more and more apparent that Arnold exists only in Connie's imagination. She never turns down his invitation to go for a ride: she gives no answer the first time and says "I don't know" the second. At first, Arnold appears to be an inch or two taller than Connie, but it becomes evident that later that they are of equal height. He knows everything about Connie—her name, her friends' names, who she was with the night before, where her family is, what they are wearing, what they are doing—because he is she. Thus, while it is tempting to think of Arnold Friend as Satan, unable to cross the threshold uninvited, Connie is actually face to face with a part of herself. Potential adulthood has always been part of Connie's make-up, as it is of every adolescent: Arnold Friend tells her, "Sure you saw me before…. You just don't remember," and, "I know everybody." After the blending of the music, and after his voice, orchestrated by Connie, has, in fact, become the voice of the disc jockey, she becomes dizzy, sees him in a blur, and "had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real."
Arnold Friend's voice, at various times monotone, lilting, or chanting, is related to music; and like music, it serves to link adolescent pop culture in general with the threatening adult world. Thus, when he asks here, "Don't you know who I am?" she hears him sound like "a hero in a movie" speaking too loudly. Soon after, when Connie has begun to accept the inevitability of her change of world, he uses "a gentle-loud voice that was like a stage voice" to tell her, "This place you are now—inside your daddy's house—is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and always did know it."
This decisive insight on Connie's part—since she is Arnold Friend—follows closely Arnold's telling her "It's all over for you here," her necessarily fruitless attempt to cry out for and phone her mother—what could she possibly say to her?—and her dawning awareness: "… deep inside her brain was something like a pinpoint of light that kept going and would not let her relax." The change is immediate—when Arnold Friend runs his fingernail down the screen the noise does not make Connie shiver, "as it would have the day before"—and leads to Arnold's penultimate voice:
His words were not angry but only part of an incantation. The incantation was kindly. "Now, come out through the kitchen to me, honey, and let's see a smile, try it, you're a brave, sweet little girl and now they're eating corn and hot dogs cooked to bursting over an outdoor fire, and they don't know one thing about you and never did and honey, you're better than them because not a one of them would have done this for you."
Realizing then, if only in a hazy way, that each person must undergo the rites of passage alone, with only one's other self to help, Connie, brushing the hair out of her eyes in order to see more clearly, crosses the threshold and goes out into the sunlight, into the vast, threatening adult world. The last paragraph in the story reiterates the uncaring nature of the world. As soon as it becomes apparent that Connie is leaving the house, Arnold Friend falls back on a cliché, "My sweet little blue-eyed girl," mouthing it with "a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes."
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 among his students the legendary Roberto Duran
At that time [Georges] Carpentier was only 14 1/2 years old and I, 21 years old. So his first fight was with Georges Salmon at the Cafe de Paris, Maison Laffitte, and he was making good until the 11th round then he blew up. That was really because he was inexperienced on the square circle … but again he was knocked down several times after the 10th round so I said to Deschamps [Carpentier's manager] to stop it. He said No. So I jumped into the ring and stopped it, picking little Georges up in my arms and took him to his corner amidst the cheers of the crowd. He was always game to the toes.
—Black American fighter Bob Scanlon recounting the beginning of his friendship with French champion Georges Carpentier
Part One: "THE PANTING PURSUIT OF DANGER …"
Joyce Carol Oates's On Boxing seems a sort of culmination or at least a reexamination of several ideas she expressed in her early novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964). That book dealt with a character named Shar Rule (the name itself speaks volumes), who is a professional racing car driver. The similarity between a jockey, a boxer, a racing car driver, and a bull fighter regarding the nature of their individuality, the brinkmanship of their sadistic/masochistic occupations, the charged, exaggerated mythic version of their masculinity and the troubling and troubled voyeurism they incite is surely clear enough and is precisely what attracts Oates to athletics: wrath, the ambivalent, oxymoronic iconography of masculine toughness as male suffering, and the pure anxiety inherent in the ritual of male slaughter. When she wrote passages like these:
Max could feel the beauty of Shar's experience in his imagination, while Shar felt it in his very body. At a certain point the speed became his body: he was one with it.
From time to time, he had toyed with the idea that spectators did not really come to see drivers be killed, as most people thought, nor did they come—as Max told him—because they wanted to share in the skill and triumph, they came to share the speed, the danger, the occasional deaths—with exultation, maybe, but with something more than that—to force themselves into the men who represented them down on the track … they gave up their identities to risk violence, but they were always cheated because the violence, when it came, could not touch them. (ellipsis mine)
One can see it is not a very far distance for her to travel to this closure:
One of the paradoxes of boxing is that the viewer inhabits a consciousness so very different from that of the boxer as to suggest a counter-world. "Free" will, "sanity," "rationality"—our characteristic modes of consciousness—are irrelevant, if not detrimental, to boxing in its most extraordinary moments. Even as he disrobes himself ceremonially in the ring the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct's caution as he prepares to fight.
Boxing and auto-racing are not simply unintelligible; they are anti-intelligible, activities akin to vision quests on the part of the men who participate in them. ("… [boxing is] obliquely akin to those severe religions in which the individual is both 'free' and 'determined' …" Oates writes.) They wish to find their spiritual selves by being in an activity that is relentlessly, ruthlessly physical but they wish to prove their goodness (i.e. their worth) in an activity that is so self-centered yet so self-annihilating that it can only be considered evil. George S. Bernard, a Catholic priest, argues that very point—the iniquity of being a boxer—in his The Morality of Boxing, and it seems a reasonable assertion because boxing poses, on a metaphysical level, such an uncomplex ethical proposition: beat your opponent until you have weakened him and then, when he is weak and helpless, beat him all the more fiercely in a contrived contest of fictive grievances that prides itself on being without mercy. The spectators are not simply a world apart, they are a morality apart; for the sports of boxing and auto-racing turn morality on its head by permitting acts to take place that are so dangerous (high-speed racing and hitting another without malice and not in self-defense) that they are banned outside of certain sacred spaces. It is not simply the thrill of "taboo breaking," as Oates states in On Boxing, that makes boxing attractive; it is the fact that the audience recognizes boxing as an attack, a frontal assault upon the very nature of taboo. The death of one of the participants is often wished so that the harsh justice of the taboo itself is made not intelligible but less a cause of distress, more rich as a result of having been empowered by human sacrifice. So death hovers near a certain masculine drama that for the audience may make death frightening but will also make it alluring, electric because it hovers so close to a pointless, intelligible, nearly existential, and very simple, even vulgar excellence. As another character in With Shuddering Fall expresses himself:
Why should anything be safe?… Look at them all, Shar and the other drivers—their hands all blisters and eyes burnt, cars about ready to explode or fall apart—wheels, axles, anything—but they love it all the way! A man puts in years out on the track—in ten minutes he gets that much living out of it. (ellipsis mine)
And in the later book:
If boxing is a sport it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any other human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays—its drama is this very consumption … the punishment—to the body, the brain, the spirit—a man must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable to most of us whose idea of personal risk is largely ego-related or emotional. (ellipsis mine)
Shar, like a tragic young boxer, dies young, in a literal flame of glory (his car crashes in his attempt to go too fast), consumed by the very instrument that made him great. What is it in sport generally that appeals but that universal morbidity of the instant tragedy of youth used up? (Even in less dangerous sports such as baseball one feels a great loss when a pitcher like Tom Seaver retires, the golden arm that once brought him fame now all used up by the very act, the very motion that the arm used to achieve its fame in the first place, "the unnatural act," as former Oakland A's pitcher Mike Norris called it. One wonders if it is only in sex and athletics that we demand the "unnatural act" as a display of skill and a presentation of excitation.) "All athletes age rapidly but none so rapidly and so visibly as the boxer," writes Oates. Yet their rapid aging is very much akin to those illicit and disreputable members of society to whom they are constantly compared: prostitutes. And while all athletes are viewed with a certain distinct distrust and disdain which, I think, arises from the immense and intense adulation they generate, no athlete is held quite as lowly as the boxer. British novelist and former fighter Johnny Morgan, in The Square Jungle, constantly makes the analogy between boxers and whores. And in Roman times, as historian Michael Grant points out, gladiators were placed in the same class as women for hire. To sell one's body in performance in order to give pleasure to others ultimately saps the body, perhaps because the body's integrity has been denied. Perhaps the body is simply stupefied by its inability to be thrilled by the thrilling anymore.
At one point in the early novel, after a race Shar wins by performing a maneuver which kills another driver, two characters shout at each other: "Shar is filled with life!" "Shar is filled with death!" and perhaps it is this essential ambiguity which surrounds the prizefighter as much as it does the racing car driver that Oates finds so absorbing: Is he filled with life, or is he an angel of death, he who by his life says that life is impossible, that only the pursuit of death is real?
There is no sport that, like [boxing], promotes the spirit of aggression in the same measure, demands determination quick as lightning, educates the body for steel-like versatility. If two young people fight out a difference of opinion with their fists, it is no more brutal than if they do so with a piece of ground iron…. But above all, the young and healthy boy has to learn to be beaten.
Hitler liked boxing because it resisted rationality, because its participants were forced to resist rationality. Perhaps that is why many writers have been attracted to it as well (although this difference must be understood: that Hitler worshipped boxing for its psychotic potential in much the same way a murderer worships the purity of his mayhem; Hitler's love of boxing was simply the display of a very depraved infantile taste but it should serve as a sufficient warning to all who find boxing a seduction). Unlike football, basketball, and especially baseball, boxing cannot be understood through numbers. Its statistics mean nothing; a boxer's record tells no story of the achievements of a career. As Robert Coover showed in his brilliant baseball novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., baseball's story can be unfolded through the maze of the purity of its mathematics. Boxing's change of rules in the late nineteenth century, which changed it from being a bareknuckle sport of indeterminate length to a gloved sport of timed rounds and rest periods and eventually of bouts of a finite length, was the only concession that boxing made to rationality, to the science and technology of the day. Those changes made boxing more palatable to modern audiences by making it more systematic and schematic but only better to exemplify and symbolize the irrationality of the Spenserian struggle of existence. Boxing can only be understood through story: the oral tradition of eyewitnesses or the journalistic narratives of reporters. It is a misnomer to call boxing a "science." Boxing does not seek knowing, a truth in its action. It does not seek to explain nature in the way baseball and football can and do. It is, in fact, an action that is meant to be nature itself. Boxing is always seeking its text (like Ishmael Reed's "jes grew") and the ambiguity of the magnitude of its tales. Boxing is anti-science. It is our ancient epic sung to honor a misty past of slaves and warrior-kings and the personification of brute force.
There is an obvious similarity between Oates's On Boxing and Roland Barthes's famous essay, "The World of Wrestling," indeed, a series of similarities of such a strong nature that one might say that Barthes's essay begat Oates's book, not simply inspired it, but actually provided the method and language to make it possible. To say this is to pay tribute to Oates's work, to its savvy and cunning, by acknowledging that it can be placed side-by-side with Barthes's paradigmatic essay. Oates's book is the first on the sport of boxing (and there have been many written of various quality) which has, consciously I believe, emulated Barthes or a Barthes-like approach: the photos, which comment on and supplement the text without pulling the reader into the worlds of biography or history, into individual personalities or social movements, are certainly something that Barthes would have done had he written a book on boxing. The photos suggest a pure world of boxing inhabited only by boxers. "… boxing is not a metaphor for life but a unique, closed, self-referential world …" writes Oates. Naturally, in one sense, this is a fiction: for the boxer's world is something quite else than a world of himself and others like him or simply the world of his exploits (and to talk of a boxer occupying a "world" brings to mind the question Amiri Baraka asked many years ago about the title of a jazz musician's album; does the boxer really have a world or does he simply occupy a very traditional and related room in a masculine complex? Is he next door to the gloried discipline of the marine or perhaps the psychosis of the street corner gang leader?) Oates so powerfully evokes this world, this fiction, that the work does not explicate or justify boxing in the end but actually summons it forth. Oates wishes to do for boxing and the boxer what [Roland] Barthes says the wrestler himself does for wrestling and for himself (which may explain why there have been fewer books written on professional wrestling than on professional boxing): make boxing an intelligible spectacle. In this regard, Oates is the true deconstructionist; Barthes is simply a reporter describing a sport that deconstructs itself. Of course, boxing can be deconstructed like wrestling, like any combat sport (when will someone tackle Bruce Lee and Mas Oyama's This is Karate?); indeed, boxing is a sport that makes its need and its enticement to be deconstructed, to be decoded in some wizardly fashion, so obvious as to be nearly one of its conceits. "That no other sport can elicit such theoretical anxiety," writes Oates, "lies at the heart of boxing's fascination for the writer" (emphasis hers).
Barthes writes (in one of the few instances in his essay that he mentions boxing) that "a boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator." Oates writes: "Each boxing match is a story—a unique and highly condensed drama without words." Barthes argues that "wrestling is the spectacle of excess," that is, in fact, its virtue. Oates says that boxing is excess because it violates the taboo against violence, that as a public spectacle "it is akin to pornography" (pornographic films and stage acts I assume she means), which, I might add, means that it is, for Oates, one of the theaters in a complex of entertainments of excess. But it is the naturalism of pornography and boxing that in some sense makes them inferior to professional wrestling as excess. As Barthes writes: "[In wrestling] it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself." It is the literalness of boxing and pornography that makes them imperfect because it is that literalness, which is so much, in one sense, the expression of the innocence of the child's literalness turned to the willful immorality of the adult's reductionism, that ultimately deadens the senses. Real blood generously displayed reduces the ability to be awed by the sight of blood just as real sex copiously produced reduces the ability to appreciate the act of sex. It is this naturalism that tends to reduce every fight to being exactly every other fight that boxing as a social phenomenon tries to overcome by insisting that the fighter become a personality. (Naturalism is the horror of anonymity in modern society.) Boxing is, like wrestling, about showmanship. And the greatest showman and boxer in the history of the sport was Muhammad Ali, who made fights something other than what they were; he made them, for both the blacks and whites who watched them, the metaphors they wished the fights to be, principally the battle of good against evil. It is not an accident that boxing's greatest showman was heavily influenced by a professional wrestler, Gorgeous George. Ali made boxing deal with the one moral issue that fascinates Americans: is a black man good or evil, which is the same as asking if he is real or not? Oates's and Barthes's discussions reach a certain critical juncture when they discuss almost in complementary fashion the very essence of sport and naturalistic expression. First, Barthes:
Wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography.
And Oates responds:
Unlike pornography (and professional wrestling) boxing is altogether real: the blood shed, the damage suffered, the pain (usually suppressed or sublimated) are unfeigned. Not for hemophobics, boxing is a sport in which blood becomes quickly irrelevant. The experienced viewer understands that a boxer's bleeding face is probably the least of his worries.
Ali, like the good wrestler, made the audience care about his injuries: first, the issue of whether he could stand pain when he was unpopular and then, later, the issue of whether he was absorbing too much pain when he was popular. Ali made the moral relevance of injuries an issue, perhaps the only fighter in the history of the sport to do so without having to die in the ring. One remembers his fight with Bob Foster because it was the first time he was ever cut across the brow in the ring. The first Norton bout stands out because he suffered a broken jaw, the first Frazier fight because he was knocked down. It is the very fact that professional wrestling does not demand the realism of boxing that makes it a protest against violence. Showing violence as fakery, as parody, as comedy reveals wrestling's inner wish to say that violence is utterly impossible as a real act, utterly unbearable. Of course, wrestling is only this protest theoretically and in actual fact a good many wrestlers are injured every year. Even faked violence can be dangerous which makes the contemplation of real violence all the more frightening. Finally, Barthes argues that "in wrestling … Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation." And Oates makes nearly an identical observation about boxing: "Boxing is about being hit rather than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning." What is interesting here is that both assert that boxing and wrestling, symbolic violence and naturalistic violence, are not really competitive ventures in the sense that we normally think professional sport is: they are both elaborate statements about withstanding, not necessarily to overcome, but simply for the reality of enduring. Boxing and wrestling, we learn from Oates and Barthes, are the only activities in modern American and European societies that give us the enactment, the drama of shame without guilt.
Despite being a text that I think in many challenging ways carries on a dialogue with Barthes's essay, On Boxing occupies its own space. It is, to be sure, not the first non-fiction book on the sport to be written by a prominent literary person (although it is the first, to my knowledge, to have been written by a woman). But it is clearly not intended to present the author as George Plimpton (Shadow-Box): the bumbling, well-meaning journalist who cannot get out of the way of the stage; nor is it in the guise of Norman Mailer (The Fight and other works), the hot male predator, haunted by Hemingway, trying desperately to make the act of writing a book a blood sport. The book is neither bumbling innocence, sham egoism, nor hot competitive drive. The book is, at last, not Liebling (The Sweet Science), the worldly-wise intellectual in the low-life jungle. It does not slum or try to show boxing as being picturesque. It celebrates neither inadvertence nor its own prowess. On Boxing is a cool book. It is a book about the audience, about the voyeur and what he or she sees at a boxing match and how he or she is, in effect, what he or she sees.
During the past two or three years, quite a few books on boxing have been published, including the autobiographies of Angelo Dundee (his first) and Jake LaMotta (his second), biographies of Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, and Sugar Ray Leonard, a history of bareknuckle prizefighting in America, and an inside look at boxing as a business. It is not my contention that Oates's book is the best of the lot. Which book is the best has a great deal to do with what the reader wishes to know about boxing and the format he or she finds most stimulating. I do believe that On Boxing is a quite sophisticated book, possibly one of the most sophisticated books to have been published on the sport. It is the most critically alert.
Part Two: "… IS THE PURSUIT OF LIFE ITSELF."
To be a man, the male must be able to face the threat of masculinity within himself by facing it in others like himself.
You no longer have to come from the ghetto to know how to fight. People with a good upbringing are now learning to box. They're looking at it as an art, rather than as a kill-or-be-killed type of thing.
—Michael Olajide, middleweight contender
Any man with a good trade isn't about to get knocked on his butt to make a dollar.
—boxing promoter Chris Dundee
"The referee makes boxing possible." This statement alone may be worth the price of admission, the price of the book. There are, in essence, two types of statements in On Boxing: those like the above that are brilliant and unquestionable and those like the following: "[Boxing] is the only human activity in which rage can be transposed without equivocation into art," which are brilliant but debatable. Oates's accomplished analysis of the role of the referee explains not only why a fight is bearable but why a fight is actually taking place. The fight is an act of hope, a plea that warring sides, through the active presence of a disinterested but compassionate non-combatant, can be reconciled not only to each other but to the restless, self-destructive nature within ourselves. Prizefighting is about man's preoccupation with trying to live in an adversative Eden, a world that loves and hates him, made by a God that both comforts and ignores. As Oates writes: "… love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate." With the presence of the referee, modern prizefighting is the irrationality of pure force confronting the humane conscience of the modern world.
The second quotation is a bit problematic; the rage in boxing, after all, is not genuine but rather fictive, and the viewer hardly knows its source or its objective. The boxer himself may not know either. It is the fact that rage in boxing is completely fake in the enactment of the contest itself that makes this statement troublesome. Boxing seems to say that the articulation of real rage in our society is utterly impossible unless, of course, it is utterly pointless which is what the contrivance of the boxing match means. The true art form of rage is the duel of which boxing is the modern rationalization: why fight to the death for honor when one can fight to the maiming for money? And suddenly the burden of masculine expendability as sport and performance fell upon the lower classes. The possible art forms of rage (with equivocation) are revolution or rebellion which are about the only worthwhile vessels for the obsessions of the poor. Of course, boxing has always been popular—television ratings tell us that—but cover articles such as the one in the British fashion magazine, The Face, and Oates's own piece on Bellows's boxing pictures in Art and Antiques lead us to believe that it is fashionable (in other words, hip) in the way that Michael Olajide says it is, although few middle-class persons in their right minds are going to perform such a sport for a living. And if it is fashionable, can the rage (pun intended) possibly be real? On the whole, On Boxing is a series of tableaus that offers perhaps some of the most stunning surfaces imaginable about boxing. There are penetrating discussions on machismo, on boxing as the sport that is not a sport, on time and the prize ring.
But while I find Oates's book impressive, it does have its weaknesses. The section on writers and prizefighting, for instance, does not mention one black writer. And it must be remembered that blacks have had an enormous influence on American popular culture through the sport of prizefighting. To be sure, no major black writer has written a full-length treatise, fiction or non-fiction, on boxing, but there have been several important essays produced by the likes of Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, Richard Wright, Jervis Anderson, Larry Neal, and others. Also, two of the most important scenes in all of American literature which involve fights were written by blacks: Frederick Douglass's fight with Covey, the slavebreaker, in the 1845 edition of Douglass's Narrative, and the battle royal scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. It would have been of some interest to hear what Oates had to say about them. Such a discussion would have given statements like "the history of boxing—of fighting—in America is very much one with the history of the black man in America," a bit more validity.
Generally, the writing about race is the least persuasive in the book and might have been jettisoned without hurting the work as a whole. Ethnicity and boxing, ethnicity and American sports is simply too complex a topic to be handled well in the short space that Oates gives herself. I think her refusal to see boxing as a metaphor hurts her discussion here as well. At some point in American social and political history Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali (the three most important blacks of the twentieth century) ceased to be men in the American mind (both black and white), they even ceased to be fighters in the ordinary sense and became something quite legendary but also something specifically inhuman. Once blacks became a force in boxing, the sport automatically became a metaphor. Indeed, what is race in America but the Melvillian doubloon hammered in our consciousness that bedevils us endlessly and turns anything it shines upon into a metaphor as well.
Some minor quarrels: 1) Her statement that "the bare knuckle era … was far less dangerous for fighters" is simply not true. Fewer punches were thrown under London Prize Ring Rules but the wrestling, cross buttocks, gouging, spiking, scratching, biting, pulling, and poking left the old bruisers more disfigured than modern fighters usually are. Besides, it must be remembered that audiences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a good deal more bloodthirsty than audiences today (after all, for a good part of their history, bareknucklers had to compete against public executions as a form of popular entertainment), the fights were a great deal longer, and medical care for injured fighters was quite primitive, to say the least. 2) Her assertion that "boxing is contrary to nature" does not take into account the fact that virtually all sports are contrary to nature. Boxing is not special in this regard: running a 26-mile marathon, balancing oneself on an elevated balance beam, or not flinching while trying to hit a 95-mph fastball are all acts that are contrary to nature. 3) "Baseball, football, basketball—these quintessentially American pastimes are recognizably sports because they involve play; they are games. One plays football, one doesn't play boxing," writes Oates (emphasis hers). There are two responses to this: on the one hand, certain sports, like football, have a certain limited playing sphere. Professional football player Curtis Greer put it this way in explaining why he chooses to continue to play despite a bad knee: "It's not like baseball, basketball, golf, or tennis, a sport that you can continue as a recreation once you retire. When you leave football, you just can't go up to the rec center and get into a game." So the play element in all sports cannot be characterized in the same way. Moreover, there are several different types of boxing: sparring, exhibition matches, as well as competitive fighting for titles and the like. Some non-serious boxing does involve an element of play. Sometimes sparring is serious and sometimes there are other things going on. Exhibition matches are almost never serious. So to say that one cannot play boxing is not quite true; it depends on how competitive the participants wish the bout to be and precisely what is at stake. I remember as a child a game played among black boys called "slap-to-the-head" in which both participants, laughing most of the time, would, with open hands, cuff each other lightly on the head to see who had the fastest hands. It seemed a more physical demonstration of "the dozens," for it was considered in quite bad form ("You're nothing but a chump!") if one got angry at being shown up at this. Yet it was a purposeful display of one's boxing abilities.
Her criticism of the arguments for the abolition of boxing are sometimes telling but ultimately not as compelling as other parts of the book. Doubtless, no sport compromises the humanity of its participants as much as boxing and it is hard, in the end, to overcome the frightening and bitter impact of that truth. Oates's position, if I might be so bold as to attempt a summary, is that of distressed ambivalence about boxing as a sort of tragic romantic rite of male expendability, a position that I have a great deal of sympathy for as I once occupied it myself. But, finally, I believe it a bit too disingenuous, too self-consciously self-defensive, a strategically convenient stalking ground. There is a tendency, when one occupies this position, to assume that the whole business of boxing, to borrow Richard D. Altick's words, will cause "a delicious frisson rather than a shudder." She likens the arguments concerning the existence of boxing to those over the morality of abortion, an apt analogy but an incomplete one, for the arguments about boxing can, with profit, be likened to other important historical debates as well: to debates over slavery before the Civil War, over prostitution during the white slavery/reformist era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, over Prohibition during both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, debates which greatly shaped our national character.
On Boxing is a book with an incredible amount of intense energy, compassionate yet relentlessly scrutinizing. One is often moved by passages because the author herself is moved. Boxing is, at last, not only our national sport of utter heartbreak but of how sometimes heartbreak is heroically endured by the boxer and even by the audience. Oates tells her part of the story of grace through slaughter (is boxing Puritan, as Oates suggests?) with astonishing compulsion and an extraordinary sense of humane concern. To be sure, Oates's book does not have the investigative detail and narrative exactitude of Barney Nagler's James Norris and the Decline of Boxing or Thomas Hauser's The Black Lights, the chatty coziness and insider's view of A. J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, Trevor Wignall's earlier book with the same title, or Fred Dartnell's Seconds Outs; and it lacks the historical guile and wit of the volumes by Pierce Egan on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century boxing and the books by Nat Fleischer on the history of black boxing. Nevertheless, it possesses a certain critical audacity that none of these books comes close to having. It makes up in critical height what it lacks in the kind of width we have become accustomed to boxing books having. Jose Torres's biography of Mohammad Ali and Floyd Patterson's pieces in Sports Illustrated and Esquire are still necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand this sport, but so is Oates's work as well. She has established the possibility and the necessity of our best writers writing about sport in a way that is finally free of sentiment, romance, and a deadening and juvenile yearning for the purer (whiter?) past. She has freed us from reading the intellectual's entrapment of writing about boxing as if it were the fulfillment of a masculine golden dream of wonder or as if it can only produce a text that is nothing more than a j'accuse writ with orgiastic eloquence. Along with Hauser's The Black Lights, Oates's work is one of the more absorbing texts that I have come across on this topic in quite some time.
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 earliest stories. But these rural settings are generic rather than specific; no actual places are named. Several early reviewers compared her settings and her characters to those of William Faulkner. Oates did, in fact, at first begin to establish her own fictional territory, Eden County.
Oates moved on, however, to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and later to teach at the University of Detroit. When she chose to write stories set in these locales, she did not fictionalize in the same way. Instead in this later group of stories, she names the actual cities, and, moreover, she names specific streets and sites in those cities. Despite this move toward the more realistic, place continues to play a symbolic function in her fiction. The economic and racial tensions that characterized the historic Detroit in the 1960's become important in Oates' fiction as reflections of widespread disintegration, personal as well as social. What Detroit means and what Oates has made of that meaning are perhaps fairly widely known through the reputation of her award winning novel them and through one of her most frequently anthologized stories, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again." In this last named work, the city itself functions as the chief antagonist, a degree of intense emphasis on place not equalled in many of the other stories. Nevertheless, something remains of that sense of place as working against the character's search for personal meaning and purpose.
With Madison, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan, in particular, Oates suggests that the academic atmosphere in the one case and the social upheaval in the other inhibit the individual. In the academic atmosphere of Madison, Oates' protagonists take refuge in the intellectual and stunt their emotional growth. On the other hand, characters cast adrift in the social disintegration of Detroit experience such tumultuous and twisted emotion that their power of understanding on an intellectual level is overwhelmed. Only those are "saved" who find the equivalent of Madison in Detroit's universities or, what is more usual, find refuge in Detroit's suburbs.
Four stories illustrate with particular clarity how these Midwestern cities can be places of refuge or places of terror: "Expense of Spirit," "Sacred Marriage," "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction," and "The Dead." Reference to a fifth story, "The Lady With the Pet Dog," may help in maintaining a balanced view. Though Oates looks critically at the cities in her Midwestern experience and fiction, she does not resort to stereotypes. The Midwest is not ridiculed as the ignorant, uncultured provinces. Unlike the famous Chekhov story to which hers is a counterpart, Oates's story has no wretched violins, no ugly grey fences. Ohio, the home of Oates's Anna, is not the S—- of Chekhov's heroine. The twentieth century American Midwest poses different challenges.
The challenge of Madison, Wisconsin, is to maintain a sense of wholeness in an atmosphere that may encourage intellectual development but does so in a way detrimental to the person. "The Expense of Spirit," from Oates's first collection of short stories, By the North Gate, is set at a graduate student party in Madison. It shows how grotesque human behavior can become when characters are isolated from ordinary human responsibilities and pursue intellectual goals to the neglect of other aspects of development. Leo Scott, surveying the apartment where the party is being held, wonders, "What would become of them all? Would leaving college jolt them overnight into becoming American citizens, thinking of house payments and cars and church—for the children, of course—and supermarket stamps to paste in books?"
At the present time of the story, the characters face no such worries. Leo, in particular, has taken refuge in his role as scholar. The role, however, is not enough to protect him from the very real pain of his wife's leaving him. He goes to the party, desperate to find her, but instead is brought face to face with himself. The noise at the party escalates from the playing of "soft, thin, effeminate pieces" by Ravel on the piano to the drunken rebuff Gordie hurls at Leo, "What the hell are you looking at? I hate your goddam face!" As more people arrive and more quarrels erupt, it is clear that behind the intellectual pretensions, chaos reigns.
In the midst of this din, Leo loses his hold on the personal image with which he had come to the party, "Watching himself in the mirror as he shaved, he had prepared his expression for his friends: he would appear to them as fresh, happy, perhaps even innocent." In the midst of the confusion of attempted comfort and actual hostility at the party, Leo cannot long maintain that pose. Later he will turn to an external embodiment of the image of innocence in his student, Miss Edwards.
In the meantime, Leo locates another image for himself. He sees "exotic masks on one wall—three in a row. One of them reminded Leo of himself: a thin, drawn, dissipated face, with a sardonic grin implying a constantly present sense of irony that had choked off all other emotions, even self-pity." As with the pose of innocence, however, Leo's attempt at the ironic or sophisticated cracks as soon as it is challenged. Leo attempts to banter with Claude, but Claude cuts Leo off, "If I were you I would not make qualitative judgments on anyone else. You are not the man for it." There is no irony in Leo's reply: "What does that mean?" Leo is angry enough to pour his beer over Claude's head, but he cannot bring himself to act at all. He cannot fulfill either of the images he picks out for himself. He is neither the innocent, nor is he the sophisticated ironist.
At this point, again with an escalation of noise and "commotion," the two people arrive who fulfill these images. Miss Edwards, Leo's student, is only seventeen, and she exclaims in her excitement at being included in "faculty" circles. The graduate students all laugh at her naivete about their status. Jason, the Black graduate student who has brought her to the party, is from the start the ironist Leo would like to be. He explains to the girl the reason for the laughter in such a way so as to establish his own control over the situation: "'Oh, ain't she a princess!' he cried. 'Thinkin' they let the faculty teach ones young as her. Honey, it's dirt cheap labor that teaches you—ain't they 'splained that in the catalogue?'" Leo attaches himself to the couple who represent the combination of innocence and irony he believes could save him from painful realities, even from himself. He finds some respite, at least temporarily, in Miss Edwards' chatter and in Jason's vodka.
The whole party, in fact, then centers itself about Jason and Miss Edwards and, for a time, tones down. Miss Edwards is allowed a long monologue on topics ranging from her excitement at being at the university to her belief in equality. When she finishes, the cynicism of the group, and the noise, begin to reassert themselves. Someone claps; Marty sticks out his tongue and says, "Christ." Leo thinks again of his wife, of her in their bedroom mirror, but he cannot even imagine his reflection in that mirror, a sign of his growing realization that their marriage is over. Someone then brings home to Leo a cruel but accurate reflection. In a game of charades, the imitator wails, "But where's my wife?" Leo is again paralyzed. Only Miss Edwards can respond; without any hesitation, she slaps the person playing charades and flees from the party. In her innocence, she knows her only possible response to such cruelty is to flee before she gets caught up in the larger charade of the party itself.
Jason and Leo follow after her, but as much a part of the Madison academic scene as they are, they bring chaos with them. The three struggle together, break free and struggle again. In a description that shows how he has internalized the noisy atmosphere of the party, Leo feels his "mind had emptied and was buzzing hollowly." Leo's final position is desperate. He falls "to his knees in the cold street and embracing their legs, their bodies, as if he were terrified they might leave him." Leo holds on to Jason and Miss Edwards as images of the self he thinks he needs to be to survive. The innocent can reject and flee from the ugly; the sophisticate can laugh it off. Leo can really do neither. The party at Madison presents a challenge to his sense of identity that he cannot meet. Whatever success he may have as a student and as a teacher does not translate into an ability to relate effectively with others.
Howard Dean in "Sacred Marriage" [in Marriages and Infidelities] has advanced somewhat further in his academic career, but he has not advanced at all in an ability to come to terms with himself, and he is perhaps even further behind Leo in understanding others. When he fails in the end, defeated by a dead man, in both academic and human terms, he invents a self-protective purpose with which to shield himself from the failure, and he hurries back to Madison where his illusion may survive.
The illusion with which he concludes is the illusion with which he begins. Dean invests the dead poet Connell Pearce with power over him. In his initial letter to Pearce's widow Emilia, Dean had written, "Your husband has partly created me. Without his work I would not be the person I am." But what sort of person is Dean, the scholar, the academic? Gradually, enough of his past is revealed that we have an impression. Dean admits to being frightened sometimes by his fiancee "who had not exactly promised she would marry him," and frightened even of "her little girl, whose stepfather he might well become." He feels that love is a "mysterious process. He had always felt himself apart from it, baffled and unable to control it."
On the other hand, the poet whom he studies and whom he claims has shaped his life is the epitome of control. Pearce had even planned a very effective means to protect himself from scholars like Dean and Felix Fraser who arrives shortly after Dean himself. The main purpose of Pearce's marriage to Emilia seems to have been to leave behind a guardian of his unfinished work. So Dean concludes when he discovers Pearce's notes for a religious parable: "He is a noble, dying old man, she is a very beautiful young woman. She is worthy of being his wife. And therefore he marries her and she nurses him through his last illness, buries him, and blesses all the admirers of his art who come to her, for she alone retains X's divinity."
The critic is aghast to find out the poet has been one step ahead of him and that he is just living out the story that the writer created. He is even more disturbed to find out that Emilia will live out the part created for her, though she seems to be unaware of how she is playing a part. She has no intention of marrying Dean despite their affair. Dean, in his depression, thinks that his is a "joke of a life." The self-examination, however, is all too short-lived. As he returns to the Midwest, he discards any disturbing thoughts and puts himself back in line with the life and goals he held before his experience in the exotic-sounding Mouth-of-Lowmoor, West Virginia:
The sun rose. The fog burned away. Howard's depression burned away, gradually, and by the time he came to the Ohio state line at Marietta it was nearly gone. He felt instead the same marvelous energy he had felt upon first seeing those piles of Pearce's unpublished, unguessed-at-works. That was real. Yes, that was real, and whatever had happened to Howard was not very real…."
Thus Howard Dean seems to be concluding with a retreat into his academic role and a retreat from confrontation with himself and all his fears.
Torborg Norman [in Isolation and Contact, 1984] advances the argument that Howard Dean leaves Pearce's home with enough insight to enter into a meaningful marriage with his previously feared fiancee back in Madison. Norman writes that "the real art in the Oatesian sense would lie in the transformation of the nervous fiancee to dream lover." However desirable such a transformation might be, Howard Dean's concluding thoughts seem to preclude that happening. He resolves instead "to bring Connell Pearce to the world's attention: that was his mission, the shape of his life." The fiancee has no explicit place in his concluding thoughts. He is going back to Madison as a place of narrow refuge.
Detroit presents quite a different kind of challenge to one's sense of identity and search for a full life. The narrator/protagonist in "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters" [in The Wheel of Love] is perhaps the first to define the problem posed by Detroit: "In Detroit the multiplication of things is brutal. I think it broke me down. Weak, thin, selfish, a wreck, I have become oblivious to the deaths of other people." Another fragmented narrative, also in The Wheel of Love, Oates' third collection of short stories, further develops this definition of Detroit. Detroit is the place of impending storms, threatening apocalypse because it presents more disorder than anyone can comprehend or deal with. Most people respond by shutting out whatever would disturb their superficial peace. The young narrator/protagonist, however, is driven by the atmosphere of the city to search for something she cannot quite name. She catalogues the weather in such a way so as to suggest some of the forces at work: "small warnings of frost, soot warnings, traffic warnings, hazardous lake conditions for small craft and swimmers, restless Negro gangs, restless cloud formations, restless temperature aching to fall out the very bottom of the thermometer or shoot up over the top and boil everything over in red mercury." The social climate, as well as the actual weather, is the disturbing quality about Detroit; social cohesion is tragically lacking. The undercurrent in Detroit's weather is the discontent of those who do not partake in the city's wealth. The narrator, a suburbanite herself, is made to feel the wrath of the dispossessed when she is beaten by Princess and Dolly in the lavatory of the Detroit House of Correction. Princess and Dolly typify the city which is dirty and dangerous and poor, except for Hudson's Department Store and Cobo Hall, "that expensive tomb."
In the suburbs, on the other hand, is the boredom and vacuity of those with abundant possessions. Separated from the dirt and disorder of the city, suburbanites feel safe. Some of the narrator's thoughts capture and exaggerate this attitude. As she listens to the maid vacuum the carpet in her parents' room, for example, she thinks, "a vacuum cleaner's roar is a sign of all good things." Beneath the clean surface, however, all is not perfectly in order. Some of the suburban young people shoplift, do poorly in school, or drift into the city, like the narrator, vaguely searching for more substantive reality. But they are inarticulate about what they seek. The narrator cannot answer the question posed by Clarita, the nondescript, city-conditioned woman who presents herself to the narrator, saying, "I never can figure out why girls like you bum around down here. What are you looking for anyway?"
Whatever she seeks, what the narrator finds is abuse, violence and the rage of those kept from the good of suburban cleanliness. Princess and Dolly who beat her, help her understand the meaning of her experience. The moment of insight comes through with her switch from third to first person: "Why is she beaten up? Why do they pound her, why such hatred? Princess vents all the hatred of a thousand silent Detroit winters on her body, the girl whose body belongs to me, fiercely she rides across the Midwestern plains on this girl's tender bruised body … revenge on the oppressed minorities of America! revenge on the slaughtered Indians! revenge on the female sex, on the male sex, revenge on Bloomfield Hills, revenge, revenge…."
Though she has this moment of insight, the young narrator is unable to carry the weight she feels thrown at her. She cannot resolve the contradictions and discrepancies in the society represented by Detroit and its suburbs. She can only follow her parents back to Bloomfield Hills and to her pink bedroom where she weeps, haunted by the memory of what she experienced in the city. She is at the end similar to Leo Scott in "Expense of Spirit," clinging desperately to fragments, the illusion of a place of refuge having been destroyed. The image of her Detroit lover now superimposes itself on the presence of her father. Though she abandons the third person stance she has used for much of the story, her use of the first person does not carry with it any assurance of her personal stability or triumph. She weeps because the "God in gold and beige carpeting" has no power to rescue or pull her world together into a coherent whole.
The brutal climate of Detroit reaches a deathly point in Oates' "The Dead" [in Marriages and Infidelities]. In this story Oates makes Detroit a place of literal death—the place where the student Emmett Norlan was beaten by the police during an anti-war demonstration and dies later in the hospital of liver failure; "he just disintegrated…." It is the place where Ilena Williams' marriage dies, unable to survive the strain of her infidelity and her husband's bullying. It is the place where values die. Father Hoffman, head of the English Department at the small Catholic university in Detroit where Ilena taught is "a little corrupt in his academic standards: the Harvard years had been eclipsed long ago by the stern daily realities of Detroit." His corruption costs Ilena her job. She is fired for refusing to agree to grant a degree to a master's candidate who cannot name a poem. She has enough sense of value left to be "astonished" that "anyone would allow him to teach English anywhere." But the institutional and personal corruption around her takes its toll.
Ilena finds herself consuming whatever drugs she can get hold of. Her personal problems are intertwined with the larger social problems of Detroit. Ilena perceives the connection in these terms: "The marriage had been dwindling all during the Detroit years—1965–1967—and they both left the city shortly before the riot, which seemed to Ilena, in her usual poetic, hyperbolic, pill-sweetened state, a cataclysmic flowering of their own hatred." She seems aware of her exaggeration, and, at least as it applies to her marriage, other evidence in the story provides a more sober view. When, for example, her husband reacts scornfully to the idea of having children because, "You don't bring children into the world to fix up a rotten marriage," Ilena thinks that she had not known it was rotten, "exactly." It may also be that the cause and effect work as well in the opposite direction, the negative despairing attitude prevalent in the city twisting the emotions of the characters and thus blighting their marriage.
At any rate, Ilena is able to survive the Detroit experience. Her artistic sense, and some distance from the city, allow her to survive both the personal and the social disorder. Drawing on the experience, she writes a novel, Death Dance. Though she considers it her weakest novel, it becomes a best seller and frees her from financial worries. More important, the act of writing keeps her suicidal thoughts at bay. She survives well enough to return to Detroit and re-encounters the faculty at her former university. Finally in the arms once again of her former lover, she is brought to a vision of a clean slate, if not a new start. Echoing the ending of James Joyce's story "The Dead," Oates concludes with Ilena hearing "beyond the man's hoarse, strained breathing the gentle breathing of the snow, falling shapelessly upon them all."
If Detroit and Madison represent a Midwestern threat and a Midwestern avoidance of reality in particularly extreme and grotesque form, Ohio represents the Midwest in a more moderate way. Oates chooses Ohio as the twentieth century American counterpart to Anton Chekhov's provincial Russian town S—-, each place depicted in the respective author's version of "The Lady With the Pet Dog." Oates does not make Ohio the obvious object of ridicule as Chekhov does with S—-. Chekhov shows the stiffness and rigidity of nineteenth century Russia ensconced in S—-. The orchestra playing at the theatre where Gurov meets Anna again is wretched; obvious badges indicate rank of patrons at the theatre; Anna's house is protected by an ugly grey fence studded with nails. But in Oates, the lovers meet again at a concert and no comment is made on the quality of the music performed. The middle-class status of Oates's Anna can be inferred from her large house, her leisure time and her husband's preoccupation with his work, but aside from knowing he has "business friends" and "a future" we do not get any specific indications of rank. Her house is large and rambling, and, if it symbolizes anything, it is a quality opposite to that of the house of Chekhov's Anna. It symbolizes a society, a way of life in which lack of structure becomes an obstacle to finding oneself. At least this is Anna's perception: "her spirit detached itself from her and drifted about the rooms of the large house she lived in with her husband, a shadow-woman delicate and imprecise. There was no boundary to her, no edge."
The Ohio setting of this story, then, shows the Midwest as more amorphous, without the specific threat of one-dimensional, academic distortion or the emerging hostility of deprived classes. This story, like "The Dead," offers some contrast between the Midwest and the Northeast. Oates's Anna meets her lover on Cape Cod, where she stays in another rambling house, that of her family which supplies her with no better sense of identity than the house of her husband. But amid the noise of the beach, she is defined by the man who will be her lover in the sketch he does of Anna as the lady with the pet dog. Anna carries the sketch and the newly awakened sense of self back to Ohio where she furtively and anxiously re-examines it, trying to make sense of the two halves of her life. She does not find it easy to come to terms with herself, and before she does she flirts with suicide. Finally she sees in her lover the possibility of maintaining a sense of individuality while being in love. Though she seems to find the most successful resolution of these characters, she does not face the test of jeering pseudo-friends, as did Leo Scott in "Expense of Spirit," or the disintegrating social fabric of Detroit in "The Dead." For Oates, Ohio is neither the threat nor the place of escape that Detroit or Madison seem to be.
The facts Oates presents about Detroit and Madison—Woodward and Livernois Avenues, State Street, the anti-war demonstrations and the 1967 riot—are specifically and literally true in a way her portrayal of earlier fictional settings is not. But Oates draws out the symbolic dimension of the facts to create in these Midwestern stories a picture of a society with fatal divisions between the intellectual and the emotional, the rich and the poor, the young and questioning and the older and more established. Her protagonists are sharply and sometimes painfully aware of the divisions. A few, like Anna in "The Lady With the Pet Dog," may find a measure of personal happiness, but the search for personal identity and a meaningful life is difficult for all of them. When such complications as a distorted, one-dimensional academic milieu or a disorienting social upheaval are added, the struggle defies success and Oates's characters do well to cling to their choices or imagine a new beginning as best they can.
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 Ontario Review Press. Oates has published more than forty books of fiction, poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, and her novel them won the National Book Award in 1970. Recent works include a long essay, On Boxing (1988), the novels You Must Remember This (1987), American Appetites (1989), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), and Black Water (1992), and short fiction collections The Assignation (1988) and Heat and Other Stories (1991). In a review of her novel Bellefleur (1980), John Gardner wrote: "Oates's vision is huge, well-informed and sound…. By one two-page thunderstorm she makes the rest of us novelists wonder why we left the farm." In the fall of 1990, Oates visited Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, where she read from her poetry, answered questions from the audience, and later met with a small group of students and teachers at the college library. This interview was compiled from those question-and-answer sessions and from a later conversation near the end of Oates's visit to Louisville.
[Interviewer:] You began publishing fiction in college, before you went to graduate school. In those early years, were there certain authors you admired or thought of as teachers?
[Oates:] Thomas Mann was one. I studied him in my early twenties. He seems not much read today, but I've gone back and reread Doctor Faustus and certain of the shorter works, which I like very much.
What about Chekhov, Faulkner?
Certainly I read them, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dostoevski, the Brontës, and many others in high school. I've always tried to read widely.
Any recurring favorites?
I often mention Thoreau. I frequently teach him, and recently I did the introduction to the Princeton University Press edition of Walden.
Do you ever go back and reread you own novels or stories?
Your novel Wonderland, first published in 1971, was republished in 1973, with a different ending. Why? Do you often want to change something after it has been published?
No. It must have been the case that I hadn't exorcised certain unconscious issues in the first version of Wonderland. The writing of any intensely felt work, especially one so lengthy as a novel, is very much a matter of emotions only dimly comprehended, let alone controlled. I felt a strong need to rewrite the ending, which I did, about a year after the original writing; after that, it was laid to rest. But the question is a provocative one: should one rewrite, after publication? Should one revise one's earlier self? We know that writers as varied as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Auden, Yeats revised earlier work, but not always fruitfully.
My characters have a way of living on in my own mind, though of course I should be realistic and acknowledge that they are fictional constructs, imaginary. Still, I sometimes get a second chance to inhabit them, for instance in writing a screenplay for a novel. (I've recently done the screenplay for Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, which is scheduled to be directed by Lawrence Schiller.)
What did you think of the movie that was made from your story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"
Smooth Talk was based on the story but it also was expanded. I was invited to write the screenplay, but I was doing a novel, and so a very gifted screenwriter named Tom Cole did the script. It contains the same story but is basically different. Much of the emotion of the movie had to do with the mother's relationship with her daughter, and my story has virtually nothing of that. I thought the film was extremely well done, under Joyce Chopra's direction. Laura Dern was brilliant. Movies and books are autonomous; the movie is its own artwork, and the book or short story is its own. I don't think a book can, or should, be faithfully treated in a movie; I don't think you should criticize a film for not being a book.
The very short stories in The Assignation are intriguing: some of them seem to end so abruptly. How did you conceive that collection?
I've written many conventional short stories and wanted to experiment with structure. I call these miniature narratives—quicksilver movements of plot without psychological development. Character development interests me, of course, elsewhere.
There is a broad range of voices in the collection. For example, in"Fin de Siecle"you have a drug dealer telling how he and his cronies go to the home of an old rich doctor and murder him.
I'm not sure where that came from! I was in Los Angeles when I wrote that story. I seemed to pick up a throb and beat in the air, a sort of L.A. voice…. It's playful, and lethal.
When you start to write a scene, do you know whether it is going to end up as a story or a novel?
I start with intense emotion. I evoke form to contain it. The memory or emotion is like a little seed. If the work is a novel, I put maps or charts on the wall to aid me in writing it. I need to get the emotion out of myself into another form. I rewrite constantly; I have to keep working with the emotion until it becomes formally disciplined, in a way "history." And I can't write a novel unless I know the precise ending: where the people are, what they are saying, the literal words. I aim for that, always have it in mind. So the sentences of a work are meditations upon this ending.
Which is not to say that this is the only way to write; there are at least two basic ways. James Joyce was very schematic, intellectual, always knew exactly what he was doing, where he was going. D. H. Lawrence, a writer of equal genius, wrote spontaneously. In a letter to a friend he once said, "I'm on page 250 of a novel [Women in Love] and I don't know what it's about." When he finished a novel, he would sometimes start again and rewrite the whole thing.
But I always have a sense of what I am going to do. I never start writing until I've thought it through completely. It is as though there is this great, imaginative pool in which we all are living, as if all of us are part of this pool of consciousness we share because we're human beings. Some people dip into it and write a poem or play, or paint canvases. It's something we share. To me it is all the same consciousness or imagination, and the forms vary.
Do you go through stages when you write only poetry or only fiction, or do you shift around? And when you do finish a longer piece—say a play or a novel—how do you deal with that sense of loss, walking away from those characters?
I can only do one thing at a time. When I work on a novel, all my effort goes to that. It is as though my heart were beating its blood into it.
I have especially enjoyed the series of long novels you started with Bellefleur, particularly A Bloodsmoor Romance, and each time you publish a new novel, I wonder if it is going to be the next one in that group. Do you plan to write any more of those?
I tend to oscillate between periods of realism and periods of surrealism. I had become interested in history going back to the 1950s and moving up, and did a good deal of research for You Must Remember This. I became deeply involved in the McCarthy era and its power in the popular culture. At the time, I had been too young to know what was going on, but I came to see parallels between the 1950s and the 1980s, having to do with race relations and other issues. Bellefleur goes back before the "United States" existed, the French colonial period. Then with Mysteries of Winterthurn, I got as far as the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The next novel ends with the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
Where do you find this wealth of people to write about?
I suppose most writers are simply very attentive to the world. Certainly I find people mysterious; the phenomenon of human personality.
It seems that violence occurs frequently in your fiction. Do you think it is so common a part of human existence?
Obviously! However, I tend to write about the consequences of violence. Often I focus on victims of it, women and children. It's not that I am writing about violence in itself. I write about the effects of violent events on real human beings and families. Naturally, since I am an American writer, I write about things that happen in America.
Well, at the end of the title story of The Assignation, for example, your third-person narrator suddenly uses the pronoun "I" to indicate, perhaps, that he is someone outside watching a woman go through her solitary actions. It is terrifying: we don't know what's going to happen to her.
In retrospect, perhaps one concludes that this man has invented the story. He might be imagining her going through these things, but while you read it you think she is in control, in her room, changing clothes, doing the little things we all do when we think we are unobserved. Then at the end you realize somebody is watching. Perhaps something will happen to her. As, perhaps, someday, to us.
Did you know, the whole time you were writing the story, that you were writing it from that man's perspective?
Certainly. Also, I am always rewriting.
Is that a hard process for you?
Like crawling over broken glass. It is tormenting, but worth it, as training is for an athlete. I spend a lot of time revising, a process that mesmerizes me.
You had two short plays, Tone Clusters and The Eclipse, under the title In Darkest America, premiere together at Actor's Theatre of Louisville in 1990. You spoke rather joyously then of the process of having the editor there hack away at your work, spoke gratefully of his contribution. Are you similarly disposed toward the editors publishing your fiction?
The two are completely different. A novel is sheerly language. I have been writing fiction for so long that I think I know how to edit it. But theater is another sphere, visual and three-dimensional, with a director, actors, set design. For me it is a collaborative enterprise. I've worked with Martin Scorsese, and, with plays, people ask me, "Aren't you upset to give up control over your writing?" A naive question—if I wanted to keep control, I wouldn't have anything to do with films or theater. The idea is to give up one's autonomy and work with others.
And it is exciting. When I worked with Actor's Theatre, I started with a script perhaps forty-five pages long. The assistant artistic director Michael Dixon is totally professional; has done this many times: it was his task to tighten my play, to make it as dramatic as possible. (This was my strategy, too, for The Assignation—write stories as tightly as possible without surrendering vital information.) When I was working with him, Michael would call me up, and we would frequently have conferences of maybe an hour. He might say, "Now, on page fourteen, we can cut that speech because it's repeated, in a sense, on page eighteen."
When you write something like a long description of a room, do you ever worry that it might not be necessary to the plot, or to the theme or characters?
If you took the descriptions that are so lyrical and beautifully written out of Dickens, or out of Moby Dick, or out of Dostoevski, you might tighten the prose, but you would lose so much. I admire the descriptive voice, and I read many writers—Henry James, John Updike, and others—for what we call "voice." Updike's novel Rabbit at Rest, for instance, has many "digressive" passages that do not move the plot forward; they represent John Updike looking at and describing the world. Some people have complained they are slow, but in many ways I like those the best, more than the plot, which somebody else might say is more important.
Do you still feel, as you have written elsewhere, that the novelist's obligation is to attempt "the sanctification of the world?"
Probably I was speaking idealistically. That is a high motive. I think you find it in some of the very best writers, certainly in the best poetry. Walt Whitman was sanctifying the world. And I think of Mark Twain's line: "persons attempting to find a moral in [this narrative] will be banished." But there is a moral in Huckleberry Finn. He was a very moral writer, but there is a kind of modesty in people like Twain. They don't want to sound like the Moral Majority or fundamentalist Christians or something. But I just love to describe things. Really, I love to look at nature and urban scenes and describe them. If they are "ugly" things, that so-called ugliness can be interesting.
I am sure your husband supports your work, but does he also serve as a first critic? Do you involve him in your writing?
No. I learned not long ago from Elmore Leonard, an old friend of mine, that his wife reads everything he writes as he writes it. If he has ten pages, she reads them. She is the first and, to him, the most important critic. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who have been married a long time, read each other's work. But I have never had that relationship with anybody. I don't have that temperament. I feel I must do it myself. I get impatient if people tell me something is good, when I know I can make it better. You have to be careful taking advice from people who like you: they want you to be happy. They also want you to like them, and that is dangerous because they probably won't tell the truth. More importantly, they probably don't know enough. I have the sense that I am alone as a writer. I have to be accountable to my own work and its integrity.
Does your teaching at Princeton affect how you write?
My work as a teacher does not have any influence on my writing. The two activities are completely different. And I am not influenced by my students, though I have been influenced in subject matter by things that have happened at Princeton. Generally, the imaginative fuel, the power or adrenaline that you need to write, comes from some other, deeper source. It isn't usually social or professional. It is hard for me to be influenced by the stories I hear. People will tell me an anecdote and say, "There's a novel for you." That is like showing you a picture of someone and saying, "Fall in love." You can't fall in love looking at a picture! It has to be something so deep and powerful, inchoate, intangible. So those two parts of my life are unrelated but compensatory. My writing is lonely, intensive, and frustrating: I live constantly with failure; I feel I am failing, that there is an abyss between the inner vision and the actual work I am doing every day. When I am done with a novel, I feel I have raised it up to a level of integrity. But when I am working through the days and hours, it is mainly in terms of failure. Nothing is ever good enough, so I have to do it over. And over.
But when I leave that behind, leave my house and drive to the university, things become normal and positive. I love teaching, and I like my colleagues at Princeton. I think I would be very lonely and unhappy if I had my writing exclusively—it is like drawing a rake through your brain!
Some writers say they work at a set time every day. Do you regiment yourself in that way?
Not really. Mornings, and nights. As late as possible, when it's quiet.
What sort of effect does your reading have on your writing? Do you ever worry about other voices coming in?
No, it's hard to be influenced. I assign my students exercises occasionally—write a paragraph in the style of Faulkner or Hemingway. They learn it is really not so easy. You can write parody, but to do it so you have really absorbed the rhythms is hard. Certain writers are inimitable—Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Melville. Any poet who gets drawn into Thomas's orbit never returns. Sylvia Plath was influenced by Dickinson to some extent, but she was strong enough to avoid disaster. Faulkner has had an invidious effect on many writers. What you learn from reading is a magnanimity of spirit and some sense of the disparity of voices. Women who read books by other women learn there are subjects they can write about well, which some generations ago they may have felt belonged only to men. It is more the sense that they can do it, rather than anything on a verbal level.
I read fairly constantly. I am doing a project for Oxford University Press, the Oxford Book of American Short Stories, which begins with Washington Irving. So I am doing a lot of rereading and new reading in classic American short stories. I started with "Rip Van Winkle," and recently I have been discovering a writer named William Austin. He was just as famous as Irving in his time, but I had never heard of him.
Do you ever think about the Nobel Prize? Time magazine has referred to you as the perennial American candidate. What do you think when you hear that?
One night about eight years ago, the telephone rang at eleven o'clock. It was a woman from the Philadelphia Inquirer and she said, "Joyce Carol Oates, you're going to win the Nobel Prize! It just came in on the wire." I said, skeptically, "Oh, really." She said, "It's you, or Doris Lessing has been mentioned too, but it's going to be a woman." She wanted an interview, as if this was a real scoop. I said, "Why don't we wait?" The next day, Milosz won, and I was supposedly a runner-up. How hard to take such rumors seriously!
Looking at another side of recognition or awards, do you have any hopes for the effect your work might have? For example, them won the National Book Award. Are you ever consciously trying to drive some social issue more into popular consciousness?
Yes, I think so. I really wrote them to understand what had happened in Detroit, the Detroit riots. I was teaching there and had been looking at some of the root causes of this malaise, and at violence. I wanted to look around and talk to people. It's partly that the writer wants to learn, and partly that the writer hopes to illuminate some individual hearts. I don't have a great hope as, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe did, that she could change millions of lives. I think most writers just want to touch individual people.
Do you have a system for picking your titles? Hemingway said he listed possible titles for A Farewell to Arms and then eliminated them.
I have never done anything that methodical. My method is more intuitive, or a sudden illumination. I cannot let the work go until I get the right title, though. Sometimes the title has come long before I started the work. Sometimes it comes when I am in the middle. Sometimes after. I suppose I do have literary allusions. I had wanted to use Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart because it is a line from a Stephen Crane poem that I was very struck by as an undergraduate. That was decades ago, and I always thought I would use it in some way, but I never had the novel before that would be quite appropriate for it.
Do the critics ever help you in your writing?
By the time criticism appears, the book has already been done for a couple of years, usually, so it cannot help with that book. I was very moved, to the point of tears, by some of the response of blacks to Because It Is Bitter, which has many black characters in it. I had thought they might feel I was trespassing on their territory because I wrote about black families from within. But the response was very warm. I felt that was very generous, beyond criticism. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a long essay review on the novel for The Nation.
Graham Greene once talked about a "ruling passion, that gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system." Do you feel there is a recurrent theme in your work?
Probably my general theme is the subject of power in society, how power is an issue in politics, let's say. It seems that is what I'm writing about a good deal of the time, though I am not that conscious of it, because I am mainly writing about men and women and young people as I get caught up in the stories of families. But when I stand back, I realize I am probably writing about the struggle of various groups for political power and for defining themselves. I do have a lot of stories and novels that end with young people dissociating themselves from the past and achieving some kind of liberation: for instance, going away to college, leaving home. If the past has been somewhat negative, then they define a new future for themselves. That is a theme I have noticed in my work, because I did that myself. I left my hometown, a very small place where the opportunities were narrow, especially for women. When I left for college and went to graduate school and so forth, it seemed like an archetypal trajectory that men and women were going through in my generation. Men had always been doing it, then women were starting to.
Some critics have commented on a darkness in your fiction. But I do not think you paint a grim picture of the world.
No, I don't think so. As I say, I have novels that end with the liberation of a young person. You Must Remember This concludes with a young girl going away to college. Bellefleur ends with young people leaving their homes, which were very confining. I do not think my work is grim. It is more of a real picture, grim for some people, triumphant for others. The drama of our lives.
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 pains—of Others. Her narratives often explore the dynamics of a voyeurism in which subject and object confront one another across a gulf of social difference. In some cases, the confrontation takes place between characters in the story; in others, Oates stages a confrontation between the reader and the object of that reader's gaze. In her preface to them (1969), Oates thematizes her relation to the underprivileged lives she narrates. Confessing that she has appropriated the story of a former student and, in the process, has become fascinated with the "various sordid and shocking events of slum life," she describes how the intrusion cuts both ways: "Their lives pressed upon mine eerily, so that I began to dream about them instead of about myself, dreaming and redreaming their lives. Because their world was so remote from me it entered me with tremendous power … "In the process of envisioning the "remote" Other, the writer is pressed to confront the security of her own position. While every writer is, in some sense, a voyeur, Oates's fiction foregrounds the political valences of a voyeurism in which a prying observer seeks the "sordid."
Oates's politically charged negotiation of the writer's position vis-à-vis the Others on whom she trains her gaze situates her within the context of postmodernism. While her fondness for realist modes of representation might place her outside the parameters of postmodern fiction as it has generally been theorized, her sustained exploration of the politics of representing Otherness has much in common with a certain contemporary problematic. Oates's work participates in what Linda Hutcheon, in The Politics of Postmodernism, notes as "a general cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a particular society." Like the postmodern anthropologist who questions the position from which she represents the Others of Western culture, Oates's fiction raises questions about the politics of representations. Such questioning can produce a sharp critique of our assumptions about social positions as guarantors of knowledge, security, and power. But a voyeuristic narrative technique has risks, for it can place the writer (and the reader) in a comfortable position above those whose sad lives seem to compel Oates's attention. Some of those risks become apparent in the short novel The Rise of Life on Earth in which Oates revisits Detroit and the world of them. In sharp contrast, I Lock My Door Upon Myself successfully engages the problems of granting meaning and value to an "alien" life. In Heat and Other Stories, Oates employs a wide range of voices in what I see as a sustained exploration of the connections between narrative perspective and social position.
The Rise of Life on Earth is the story of a young woman named Kathleen whose life is marked by abuse: beat to a pulp by her drunken father, shuffled from one foster home to another, Kathleen dreams of being a nurse. When she tones down her aspirations to become a nurse's aide, Kathleen meets a young intern, Orson Abbot, who uses her body as a passive and inert receptacle—for his semen, his drug-induced fantasies and recollections, his verbal and physical battering. But this is only part of Kathleen's story of abuse, for she is not an "innocent" victim. We learn that she, not her father, has killed her younger sister, that she has set a fatal fire at her foster home, and that she indulges in a series of random murders at the various hospitals and clinics where she works. As if this unrelentingly bleak life pattern is not enough, Oates has Kathleen give herself an abortion—with a surgical knife.
The plot of this story is troubling, but what strikes me as even more troubling is that the narrative voice participates in a de-humanization of Kathleen; placing her beyond the realm of human motive, intention, and even consciousness, the narrator seems as disgusted with Kathleen's "cow-like" physicality as Orson Abbot is. Descriptions of her, from the first page on, paint a subhuman creature:
Kathleen Hennessy with her pie-shaped face, pie-shaped maturing breasts, her pale, plump, soft, seemingly textureless flesh like that of a mollusk pried from its shell … and her recessed eyes that were darkly bright and alert, though betraying no expression; her delicate complexion riddled with tiny pimples like buckshot. There was something unsettlingly adult in her stoic resistance to pain and such extremes of discomfort and physical humiliation she was obliged to bear at the hands of the hospital staff, and something precocious about her small, pert, moist, pink rosebud of a mouth, a miniature mouth, that reminded observers of a part of the female anatomy that is private and should not be exposed to casual eyes.
The image of the mollusk is perfectly appropriate for Kathleen, as is the final comment about the private being exposed to casual eyes, which predicts Orson's reduction of Kathleen to a "cunt." Kathleen is exposed again and again in this story, and nothing much causes her to "betray expression." She has no memory and no volition; even her acts of violence are beyond her conscious control and calculation. She seems the human form sprung out of the non-human muck at the birth of the world, as described in the science textbook from which the story takes its title. As the narrator tells us at the end of the story, Kathleen is to continue life through a "succession of robot-selves."
The narrator's objectification, and de-humanization, of Kathleen is an example of the voyeurism that places the reader above the "sordid" details Oates narrates. This is a painful story, and as I began the last chapter knowing that Kathleen would methodically perform the abortion on herself, I did not want to read on. The novel is not a tract on the importance of safe and legal abortion, for Oates does not moralize here—nor does she give any motivation for Kathleen's action. When, at the end, the narrator tells us that Kathleen does not contest the "price of her freedom," I am left baffled, for "freedom" does not seem to enter into the picture at all. Indeed, Kathleen has treasured the thought of her pregnancy, the only event in her life that prompts any response in Kathleen's consciousness—except for her almost religious devotion to her nursing duties.
My problems with this novel are political rather than aesthetic: Oates's representation of Kathleen so totally objectifies her that it confirms, rather than questions, middle-class attitudes toward the urban poor. The reader of this story becomes fully complicit in this objectification of Kathleen and I see nothing in the story that would prompt a questioning of the narrator's (or reader's) position in relation to her. Aesthetically, this story is admirable for the rich texture of Oates's prose. She deftly captures the kind of trance-like quality of Kathleen's engagement with the world, crafting sentences that unfold and circle, sometimes for pages. The description of Kathleen's response to the hospital's instructions for handwashing procedures conveys a rapture:
Just as years before in an interlude in her life now virtually forgotten Kathleen Hennessy as a child of eleven had come to unexpected bloom in a ward at Children's Hospital so now as a young woman of nineteen did she come to a yet more radiant bloom as a nurse's aide at Detroit Metropolitan Hospital where she was trained in such matters as handwashing procedures which came to fascinate her to the point very nearly of trance as if she believed that such procedures as instructed by her superiors were clues to a fundamental principle of the universe both the human world so difficult to comprehend let alone negotiate and the world beyond the human hitherto wholly incomprehensible, unfathomable thus in a sort of waking trance a small pinched smile on her face eyes lowered as if in tremulous reverence she obeyed every commandment of such matters as handwashing procedures—
While a sentence like this might not appeal to all readers, I find it hypnotically rhythmic. But as much as I am carried away by Oates's language here, this virtuoso performance does not shake my uncomfortable feeling that Oates's New Directions audience is being invited to fetishize this entirely alien and utterly frightening life. To fetishize an Other means to see that Other only as a negative reflection of the Self, making difference a confirmation of identity.
I Lock My Door Upon Myself shares with the other novel a hypnotic prose style, but here the story is told through the mediating consciousness of the protagonist's granddaughter, who experiences a complicated identification with her grandmother Calla: "She was my mother's mother but not my grandmother in any terms I can comprehend and if her mad blood courses through me now I have no knowledge of it and am innocent of it." In the process of telling Calla's story, the narrator questions her own role in imagining that story and asks: "how can I speak of that woman let alone speak for her who scarcely knew her?" The narrator's account of Calla's life is punctuated by unanswered questions that all point to the narrator's concern that she is appropriating Calla's story for her own purposes. These questions, in other words, signal the story's exploration of the politics of representation: Who speaks? From what position? In whose interests?
The narrator worries that in speaking for Calla, she is not allowing Calla to speak for herself. As the title of the novel makes clear, Calla is protective of her secret lives and desires, and the narrator is self-conscious about violating those secrets. This novel can be called metafictional in the sense that it explicitly thematizes the problems I have noted in the narrative stance of The Rise of Life on Earth. Published by the Ecco Press in a series of "fictions in imaginative collaboration with works of art," the story's inspiration comes from a painting by the nineteenth-century German artist Fernand Khnopff. It is easy to see why the painting, and especially the title, intrigued Oates. The story she weaves around this painting of a dreamy woman subtly and powerfully explores the gulf between public and private selves—or, more precisely, between a woman's self-representation and the world's representation of her.
This is the story of a woman whose "wildness" is always the object of public scrutiny. Orphaned when young, Calla dreams her way through life until she is asked to marry George Freilicht. She neither consents nor refuses, but seems, instead, to allow herself to be passively carried along on the waves of others' desires. But Calla keeps herself distant from the marriage, her husband, and later her children, continuing to live a private life separate from the public one. Her "nocturnal selves" are more real than her daytime self. To stress this division, Oates gives her protagonist both a public and a private name; she refers to herself as "Calla," while everyone else except the narrator uses her legal name, "Edith." She meets and falls in love with Tyrell Thompson, an itinerant black water diviner, and proceeds to scandalize her family and the community. Significantly, it is only to Tyrell that Calla tells her "real" name. The love affair ends in typical Oates fashion, in violence: the two lovers go over a waterfall in a rowboat. Tyrell is killed and Calla locks herself into her room, leaving the house only for funerals, and living out the remainder of her life, fifty-five years, in almost complete solitude.
This story is rich in the tradition of Faulkner: complex psychological dynamics and mysteries become the subject of an awed scrutiny on the part of the narrating consciousness. The narrator merges with Calla, as indicated by the frequent italicized passages that signal a confusion between the two. The most striking of these is repeated several times, and hints at the story's exploration of regions of experience beyond conventional language: "If this is a dream it is not my dream for how should I know the language in which to dream it." Calla's dream and the narrator's dream are one because, as the granddaughter explains, "we are linked by blood and blood is memory without language." The narrator stumbles over describing Calla in conventional terms, noting that such phrases as "unnatural mother" and "white trash" do not get at the heart of what Calla is. In the process of telling the story of Calla's unconventional life, the narrator experiences outrage at others' failure to understand her grandmother: "And that's the insult of it, how always it comes back to a woman being a 'good' mother in the world's eyes or a 'bad' mother, how everything in a woman's life is funneled through her body between her legs."
In the "world's eyes" Calla's complex reality is reduced to her failure to confirm that world's assumptions about what a woman is or should be; her desires, her specificity, and her point of view are denied by an objectifying gaze. It is the difference between the "world's eyes" and the narrator's eyes which suggests that Oates is critiquing the type of narrative perspective she employs in The Rise of Life on Earth. I am not claiming that Oates engages in self-criticism here, nor am I suggesting that I Lock My Door Upon Myself is a better book in the "disinterested" terms of aesthetic evaluation, for I have little faith in the validity of such terms. What I am arguing is that I Lock My Door Upon Myself effectively comments on what I see as the politically problematic representation in The Rise of Life on Earth of the "unknown" underclasses as subhuman. Whereas Kathleen is positioned as the disempowered object of a knowing and superior gaze, Calla and the narrator merge into a complex double subject of the narrative. I am reminded here of Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T, another novel in which a female narrator considers the complex personal and political implications of telling another woman's story.
Voyeurism depends on distance and difference and, thus, can be seen as opposing identification, which works through closeness and the bridging of difference. In The Rise of Life on Earth, the narrative voice probes Kathleen's consciousness from a distance, constructing her as the Other, the "notme." In I Lock My Door Upon Myself, Oates's use of a questioning, fully participating narrator facilitates an identification that bridges the gap between Self and Other. Despite Calla's mystery, then, she is not positioned as alien or Other. In Heat and Other Stories, Oates experiments with a variety of narrative forms and modes of address and, as we've come to expect from Oates, the stories construct many different worlds. The collection is divided into three sections. In the first, Oates trains her lens on the lives of privileged people who confront an otherness imposed on their lives. In the vein of her recent novel American Appetites, these first eight stories sketch a violent underside to lives whose glittering surfaces are fragile. The characters who inhabit these slick worlds hover on the verge of revelation, but never quite get there. While these stories thematize confrontations between self and other, subject and object, security and violence, the narrative tone seems deliberately cold and even indifferent. Whereas the narrative voice in The Rise of Life on Earth is clinical, these narrators appear indifferent toward the lives under scrutiny. While the protagonist of the novel is objectified by the narrator, these characters do not seem to compel Oates's interest enough to be held up as alien or exotic objects. In the second section, where Oates focuses on the lives of America's urban and rural underclasses, the stories have a strikingly different tone. Part of the difference can be accounted for by her use of first-person narration in many of the stories, but I think there is something else going on here. What I see in the contrast between the two sets of stories is a difference in perspective based on social class and position. Working under the reasonable but unprovable assumption that Oates's imagined audience is comprised mainly of middle-class readers, we can come to the tentative conclusion that the characters in the first set of stories are not constructed as Others because they lack "difference." I suspect that, for Oates, these characters are too much like "us" to be the proper objects of a voyeuristic gaze, even if the narrative perspective is distanced from the lives it narrates. Foreclosing on both voyeuristic engagement and identification, these stories thematize, rather than enact, the problematics of storytelling that I am arguing place Oates in a postmodern context. In the third section, Oates moves into more eerie, less "naturalistic" terrain, where the confrontation with Otherness is displaced onto another plane entirely.
In the first story, "House Hunting," Oates offers a metaphor for the dynamics of reading. Joel, the central character, expresses an uncomfortable excitement about entering the lives and homes of others, guided by a woman who has the "key" to them all:
She had the key to every lock; only let her fit it into the door and the door opened and she led her client inside: Mr. Collier, who was made to feel uncharacteristically passive, helpless. He didn't like the feeling. Then again, he did like it; there was something intimate and brazen, heady, as if with the air of the forbidden, about being led by a woman he didn't know into the houses of people he didn't know, escorted through rooms in which strangers lived their secret lives. The first several minutes were the most acute; he felt shy, absurdly ill at ease, excited. As if he was being brought to a test of some kind, a challenge or a riddle, and would not be equal to it.
This is the "challenge" that Oates mounts for her readers in these stories, which all have something of an "air of the forbidden." But Joel, like other characters in the first group of stories, fails to take up the challenge. He searches for meaning in empty houses, seeking to work through his grief over his wife's unsuccessful pregnancy. Imagining that the attic of one particularly decrepit house might be the "place of revelation," he finds, instead, "nothing in this room but the space itself," and the narrator asks: "But what otherwise might there have been? What had he hoped to see?"
Joel's life is without "purpose," and the story ends with his having acquired only the vaguest sense of renewed power and energy through his exploration. "House Hunting" is one of the few stories in Heat which does not culminate in an act of physical violence. "Shopping," one of the best stories, is another. A ritual trip to a high-class suburban mall becomes the occasion for a woman's freeing herself from her tyrannical daughter. Mrs. Dietrich, divorced from her husband and living the life of the wealthy suburban matron, lives through her teenaged daughter Nola, whose birth is the signal event of Mrs. Dietrich's life: "She told no one, but she knew the baby would be a girl. It would be herself again, reborn and this time perfect." Clichéd as this may sound, the story goes far beyond the ordinary in painting Mrs. Dietrich as the conventional woman whose experience becomes, in Oates's subtle tones, unconventional, miraculous, and violent.
The rarified atmosphere of the mall—"the air is fresh and tonic"—reassures Mrs. Dietrich who attempts to keep the immanent violence of her relationship with Nola at bay. The product of her body has betrayed her, and violence erupts. Mrs. Dietrich is forced to confront her separateness from Nola and, in the process, the daughter becomes an alien being:
Seeing Nola now, Mrs. Dietrich is charged with hurt, rage; the injustice of it, she thinks, the cruelty of it, and why, and why? And as Nola glances up, startled, not prepared to see her mother in front of her, their eyes lock for an instant and Mrs. Dietrich stares at her with hatred. Cold calm clear unmistakable hatred. She is thinking, Who are you? What have I to do with you? I don't know you, I don't love you, why should I?
Mrs. Dietrich's sense of "injustice" is purely personal, and does not extend to the bag lady she and Nola see in the mall. Refusing to let this woman's presence detract from the pleasure of "serious shopping," Mrs. Dietrich has no qualms about flaunting her privilege and spending her money. While Mrs. Dietrich fails to analyze the huge gulf between herself and this woman—and Nola spouts some obligatory outrage over the woman while spending over $200 on a designer jacket—the reader is left to contemplate the jarring effect of a contemporary world where Lord & Taylor coexists side-by-side with the disenfranchised. Mrs. Dietrich will return to her suburban home, and Nola to her prep school in Maine, neither of them having been much affected by the experience.
Mrs. Dietrich's desire to hide the messy emotional outbursts which end the story links "Shopping" with "Passion." In this story, the main character suffers from lack of passion, a lack brought home to him by his ex-wife's suicide. Dennis might well stand in for the narrative voice in many of these first eight stories, as well as for the characters who fail at naming and understanding their experiences. The lack of language with which to articulate sudden emotional turbulence seems to afflict the privileged characters in all of these stories. Remembering his ex-wife's accusation that he lacks "passion," Dennis associates this lack with a failure of language: "In his professional life he was a man of infinite tact, intelligence, presence; in his private life, he had always seemed to himself mysteriously undefined." A recurring dream strikes Dennis "as an image of his predicament, yet to have defined that predicament, to have given it a precise vocabulary: this was a task seemingly beyond him." Ironically, it is in investigating Rona's suicide that Dennis begins to experience "passion." But this, too, remains "undefined," and the story ends with Dennis tottering on the edge of a revelation, not knowing what to do with that passion: "It frightened him, the emotion he felt—its crudeness, violence. He wondered was it passion. He wondered was it anything to which he might give a name."
In "Knife" and "The Boyfriend," acts of physical violence seem to force the victim to some kind of revelation; but that revelation is so vaguely drawn as to leave the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction. I say this in an analytic rather than judgmental spirit, for Oates seems to purposefully structure these narratives around an anti-climax. In "Knife," Harriet and her daughter Bonnie are home alone, when two men break into the house. Disappointed with the lack of material possessions, one of them rapes Harriet. The two intruders mock Harriet's privilege, the rapist threatening her verbally as well as physically: "'You think you're hot shit, don't you? People like you'." During the attack, Harriet wonders, "Is this rape? This?—as the man pried her legs apart, poked himself against her." Her primary response is shame, humiliation, and worry that the police and her husband will blame her. Finally she decides to tell her husband about the rape—but only because she fears that keeping it inside will turn her "into a religious lunatic." The story ends: "And what would happen, as a consequence, would happen." The narrative voice here seems apathetic, as if Harriet's experience does not qualify as significant. Is it because an experience as violent as rape fails to shake Harriet enough? Is Oates suggesting that Harriet "deserves" the rape, as a punishment for her uninteresting and complacent life? Is violence, for Oates, the only way to find meaning, and then only if one acts violently in return?
Some of these questions find tentative answers in "Naked," one of the most compelling stories of the collection. The story is the proverbial nightmare of naked exposure made real: the unnamed protagonist finds herself completely naked, entirely vulnerable, and miles from her home. Enjoying an afternoon in a "suburban wildlife preserve [!]", the woman is attacked by a vicious group of black children, who take her clothes in what the woman feels is an outrageously unprovoked act of cruelty. Her outrage is accompanied by her shame; she obsessively focuses on avoiding having to make a police report, for she fears appearing as a racist.
The oft-repeated litany, "I am not a racist," punctuates this profound exploration of the woman's subjective and social position. She alternates between thinking of her attackers as "savages" who threaten to "devour her alive: set upon her like ravenous animals, tear the flesh from her bones with their teeth and eat," and thinking that she "deserves" the attack because of "the unwanted but undeniable privilege of her white skin." Oates subtly challenges this woman's secure conviction that she harbors no racist sentiments and, simultaneously, challenges her readers to place themselves in the woman's position.
[S]he was a woman in no way racially prejudiced who had grown up with blacks, gone to school with blacks, Chinese, Hispanics, and other minorities, as they were familiarly called, and she was determined to instill in her children the identical unjudging uncensorious liberalism her parents had quite consciously instilled in her. So it did not strike her, as perhaps it should have, upon occasion at least, that these minorities might look upon her as conspicuously different from themselves and that, against the grain of all that was reasonable, charitable, and just, they might wish to do so and take satisfaction in it.
Underneath this lovely liberalism we glimpse an absolute failure to see beyond a certain point of view—and, perhaps worse, a willed ignorance about the possibility that the "Other" might have a point of view that could be trained on the self. Here, Oates delivers a ringing indictment of a certain self-congratulatory liberalism, but, at the same time, manages to elicit sympathy for the woman who is, after all, the victim of a violent attack. Making her way home through the treacherous terrain hidden behind the clean surfaces of suburbia, the woman "was excited and yet dreamy too: standing for a long purposeless moment staring at the debris of strangers, wondering at lives parallel to her own yet unknown to her." Stripped of the trappings of her "civilized" existence, and forced to face the "wildlife" that infiltrates suburbia, she ponders her own vulnerability. The story transforms this woman from subject into object of a voyeuristic gaze, and Oates stresses the woman's fear that she might function as the raw material for someone else's story: "She would become a story, a fiction."
The second section of Heat challenges the subjective positions articulated in the first: here, the reader enters the idiosyncratically-drawn private worlds of underprivileged folks. In "Heat," two uncannily alike twins are brutally murdered by a man who might or might not be "simpleminded." The narrator is a former classmate of the twins, Rhea and Rhoda, who works to fill in the gaps of the story, to invent the murder because "I wasn't there, but some things you know." This story differs from others in this section, in that the violence remains untold, "the door was shut, the shade on the window was drawn," and the reader joins in the narrator's morbid fascination with inventing the details of the murder. Closed doors and drawn shades are appropriate metaphors for a voyeuristic narrative—not unlike the cinematic technique of that master of voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock. The grisly details of the murder remain unspoken, but the narrator hints that the crime has a lurid sexual component. This becomes particularly clear when the narrator, years later, thinks back to Rhea and Rhoda while having sex in close proximity to the scene of the murder. Her (and our) voyeuristic fascination with this crime is in sharp contrast to the indifference that marks Oates's representation of Harriet's rape.
A number of the stories in this part of Heat explore the difficulties of the story-teller's position, her precarious relationship to her material. In "The Buck," the narrator confesses to an obsession with the story of an elderly woman who, in trying to save the life of a buck shot by a hunter, dies, her body literally merging with the buck's in a frozen tableau. In intimate relation to her readers, the narrator says: "Each time I tell this story … I think that maybe this telling will make a difference. This time a secret meaning will be revealed, as if without my volition, and I will be released." The meaning the narrator finds is the meaning she creates, in weaving for Melanie Snyder a life marked by sexual and familial repression. Because of the way the story is framed it is clear that Oates is commenting here on the dynamics of storytelling, implicating herself and the reader, as well as her narrator, in a kind of voyeuristic exercise in which Melanie is explicitly framed as the object of a probing gaze.
While the narrator in "The Buck" might be seen as the author's surrogate, Oates plays the part of ventriloquist in "White Trash," a story guaranteed to raise the hackles of a politically sensitive white, middleclass reader—a reader not unlike the woman in "Naked." Here, we have a first-person narrator, who, despite her direct address of the reader, nevertheless reveals herself to be painfully vulnerable to that reader's gaze. One of four stories in Heat which equivocates over the question of rape versus consensual sex, "White Trash" is the story of another Melanie, a self-styled "white trash" woman who fetishizes a black jazz pianist, Mayweather Smith. The story virtually drips with the erotic energy of Melanie whose sexuality can only be characterized as masochistic. Referring to herself as both "I" and "Melanie," the narrator is split between subject and object, a split that seems entirely appropriate to her experiences. Watching and listening to Mayweather, Melanie plots his seduction, "thinking, Mmmmm, Melanie, you're the luckiest woman alive." As a backdrop to the present action, which includes a sexual encounter through which Mayweather appears to take out his resentment of white supremacy on the pathetic target of Melanie's skinny body, Melanie relates a tale of abuse at the hands of various (white) lovers and an uncaring medical establishment. The two trade stories about injustices in the world, Melanie's about the loss of a baby and Mayweather's about his baby brother killed by white police on the streets of Cleveland. No sentimentalist, however, Oates does not allow these characters to find an artificial solace in each other's arms. The sexual encounter is violent and unsettling in its depiction of racial and sexual dynamics—unsettling, precisely, to the reader whose voyeuristic gaze witnesses the event and is denied an easy answer to the questions the story raises.
The stories in Heat are unrelentingly violent. In "Sundays in Summer," a young boy jumps off a bridge and is gored by a cable in the water. "Leila Lee" ends with a son frenetically killing his father with an axe. "The Swimmers" contains a shooting, and "Getting to Know All About You" a brutal beating. In "Hostage," a young girl is saved from being molested by an itinerant, who is then repeatedly stabbed by her rescuer. "Yarrow" ends with one cousin mowing down another in his car on an icy road. In "Craps" and "Death Valley," the second appearing to be a retelling of the first, young women are subject to violent sexual attacks by men, and in the second, the man fantasizes about the woman killing him with a razor. Why is Oates so fascinated by violence, so drawn to scenes of blood and carnage? What pleasure does she expect her readers to get from this violence, from a complicity in morbid fascination? I confess that I do not have answers to these questions, except to say that Oates's voyeuristic imagination, like Hitchcock's perhaps, inevitably seeks out the shocking and sordid.
"Getting to Know All About You" provides a breath of fresh air, for here, Oates gives us a welcome touch of humor, despite the story's depiction of a family inches away from disaster. In love with her mother Trix, the narrator lovingly renders that mother's idiosyncratic speech. Judith is an intelligent, alienated adolescent girl, whose narration of her family's deterioration is haunted by her sense of guilt over "spying" on her colorful parents. Her brother Wesley speaks of the "politics of this family," epitomized by the disproportion of "before" and "after" photographs in the family album—before the children's births and after. (Trix refuses to be called "Mother," claiming that it's an "absurd definition.") Oates gives her readers a voyeuristic look into this "dysfunctional" family, the story's humor punctuated with the pathos of an impossible dream. The seemingly invincible Trix—who refers to turning thirty as "peeking over the edge into the abyss," and insists that drinking alone is "like, you know, making love alone. It lacks class"—regales the reader with her rich language and her indomitable spirit. But, lest the reader forget that this is an Oates story, Trix ends up in the state mental hospital and Darrell on the lam from the police. If Judith and Wesley fear that they have violated the norms of privacy, and even decency, in "spying" on their parents—they blame themselves for what happens to Trix and Darrell—then the reader shares in that fear. This story explicitly comments on the dynamics of voyeurism, suggesting that looking into others' windows, uninvited, might have dire consequences for the object of the gaze.
The stories in the brief last section of Heat signal new territory for Oates, where the ordinary becomes alien and terrifying. These stories, in their exploration of a dark subterranean beneath the veneer of family life, cover the kind of ground that David Lynch investigates in his films. In "Twins" and "Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time" Oates again employs the perspective of daughters who inquire into, but do not solve, the riddles of family legend. In the first, the girl's father, Lee, is haunted by his vanished twin brother, Les. Obsessed with finding Les, Lee struggles to maintain an identity separate from his twin, but ends up being eclipsed and destroyed. The daughter-narrator, in her turn, is haunted by her dead father, and ends by wondering: "Is this common? Will it get worse? Is it something you can die of?" "Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time," an intriguing and engaging story, begins where "Twins" leaves off, with the narrator seeing her dead grandmother in her mirror. The story represents the grown woman's attempt to differentiate herself from her grandmother. In the process she comes to understand that her grandmother, whom she adores, has a perspective (and life) of her own. This story contains a nightmare-like sequence, in which Claire imagines her grandmother spiking her oatmeal with glass. Claire fears sleep and identifies with her grandmother's insomnia—"but no one made the connection between her and me. Our family was that way: worrying that one weakness might find justification in another and things would slip out of containment and control," not unlike the family in "Getting to Know All About You."
In "Family," a strange tale of a world and a family that has survived some kind of industrial or nuclear disaster, Oates forays into science fiction territory. The story is partially a cautionary tale about the hazards of a world drunk on its own technological progress. It is also a story about the violence of families, transported to an appropriately horrific setting. Babies eat mothers, mothers kill babies, fathers mysteriously disappear—but the family stubbornly holds its ground, despite the death of the world around it. Here Oates explores a postmodern terrain where an alien reality has an uncanny similarity to the lived reality of American society. Like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and some of Angela Carter's fantastic novels, this story chills because, despite its science fiction tenor, it seems all too familiar.
The story is told from the point of view of a family member who describes, but does not analyze, the gradual deterioration of life in "the valley." The story begins with a shocking description of industrial pollution and contamination as sublime:
The days were brief and attenuated and the season appeared to be fixed—neither summer nor winter, spring nor fall. A thermal haze of inexpressible sweetness (though bearing tiny bits of grit or mica) had eased into the valley from the industrial regions to the north…. Above the patchwork of excavated land bordering our property—all of which had formerly been our property in Grandfather's time: thousands of acres of fertile soil and open grazing land—a curious fibrillating rainbow sometimes appeared, its colors shifting even as you stared, shades of blue, turquoise, iridescent green, russet red, a lovely translucent gold that dissolved to moisture as the thermal breeze stirred, warm and stale as an exhaled breath.
The family seems hypnotized by this "inexpressible sweetness" and they display a frightening ability to adapt to an increasingly poisonous environment. Part of that adaptation includes forgetting life as it used to be; memories vanish, words evaporate, vocabulary changes, and the "new" world replaces the old. At the end of the story, a post-apocalypse spring is born, and the family debates "abolishing the calendar entirely and declaring this the First Day of Year One, and beginning Time anew." This frightening tale warns against complacency and accommodation. It works.
"Ladies and Gentleman:" is also a nightmare tale that critiques the progress-oriented pulse of a society that finds it easier to forget the past than to deal with it. This is satire on the model of "A Modest Proposal" and, along with the science fiction feel of "Family," suggests that Oates is once again experimenting with new modes. The story takes the form of a speech by the captain of a boat to a group of aging men and women who are being put out to pasture by their greedy children and grandchildren. The reader is made to feel trapped along with the passengers en route to The Island of Tranquility where they will be left to die. The captain suggests that "we" are being punished for failing to grant "our" children identities of their own: "Ladies and gentlemen, you rarely stopped to consider your children as other than your children, as men and women growing into maturity distinct from you."
These last two stories mark a departure from what I have been arguing is Oates's place within the postmodern questioning of the politics of representation. Interestingly, in terms of their anti-realist mode, these two stories seem to point toward the possibility of Oates moving more fully and explicitly into the postmodern. Indeed, Oates has entered this terrain before, with her revisions of romance form in Mysteries of Winterthurn and A Bloodsmoor Romance and with the meta-fictional and meta-historical Bellefleur. Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is not a writer who bows to critical or generic orthodoxy, and it is difficult to place her within any one strain of contemporary fiction. A writer of stunning range and imaginative reach, Oates, in my view, is most interesting when she leaves safe ground to explore the complex psychological and political dynamics of storytelling. This exploration is what makes I Lock My Door Upon Myself not only the best of the three books, but a very good book indeed. Heat and Other Stories, as a collection, raises a number of interesting questions about Oates's position in relation to the lives and worlds she constructs. That the stories about privileged characters utilize a different narrative voice and stance than the stories of the underprivileged suggests that Oates is fully aware of the complicated ways in which fiction engages questions of social position. If, in scrutinizing the Others of American society, she forces her readers to confront their own comfortable subjective positions, then she has accomplished a great deal. The white, middle-class characters in Heat are subtly displaced from their empowered positions, both by the intrusion of Otherness and uncertainty into their worlds, and by Oates's disinterested narrators who frame these characters as unworthy of reader empathy or identification. My discomfort with The Rise of Life on Earth stems from my sense that Oates is appropriating a "sordid and shocking" life from a voyeuristic distance that leaves her readers safe and secure in their position above that life. Perhaps other readers will see what I have missed in this novel, for Oates does not strike me as a writer who unthinkingly represents any life. In her famous Balzacian desire to "put the whole world into a book," Oates just might revisit Kathleen's story and tell it from Kathleen's perspective. Whatever she does next, even readers who are ambivalent about Joyce Carol Oates can at least be sure that she will continue to shock—and to surprise.
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 the text, its superimposition of a narrative leveled against the text itself to decenter the social codes through which it is organized. This radical contradiction is regularly mounted by the intriguing and anti-social character that I designate as the transgressive other, who is defined by a narrative position in contrapuntal relation to domestic norms and standards of communicability within which the text is located. The most famous example of this "transgressive other" is Arnold Friend in Oates's frequently anthologized short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but other such figures are a recurrent device throughout her career and a dominant feature in her most recent novels.
In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" [in The Wheel of Love] fifteen-year-old Connie is engaged in the tentative process of defining herself through a counter-ideology—made up of popular music, shopping center trinkets, and youthful sexuality—that opposes the belief system of her parents and her "plain" and "steady" twenty-four-year-old sister until mock-heroic Arnold Friend introduces her to the unapprehended corollary to heady independence: that in abandoning family norms she also loses family protection. To read the moral of this story as a disparagement of tasteless teenage defiance is entirely possible. In fact, critics generally interpret "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as Connie's initiation into evil, and in the ending of the story they discover Connie's capitulation to the shallow values of a debased culture. Her own commentary on the story in a review of the film based on it shows that Oates is also particularly concerned with the ending, specifically with the reversal in the movie version of the text's "unfilmable" last paragraph. In Joyce Chopra's adaptation, Connie is saved from the murder that is her probable fate after the conclusion of the story; at the end of the film she returns to her family, "rejecting the 'trashy dreams' of her pop-teen culture." In Oates's version, however, Connie does not return to her family nor abandon her adolescent impetus toward freedom; although she will probably be raped and killed, the diction of light and open space of the final words of the story implies positive value in "the vast sunlit reaches of the land … Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it."
That Arnold, the probable rapist and killer, is a diabolic figure and a depraved lunatic is indisputable. As Oates reports, she based him on a "tabloid psychopath" whose "specialty was the seduction and occasional murder of teenage girls," but that he is also somehow useful, even appealing, is the clear implication of the surprising tone of the ending of the story. Arnold's positive function is, I believe, that he openly confronts the codes of the family. Although he himself has no genuine identity (he borrows his artificial form from a humorous pastiche of teenage styles and slogans), he forces Connie into a recognition of the necessary displacement of the unexamined forms of "family" that both define and confine her:
"The place where you come from ain't there any more, and where you had in mind is cancelled out. This place you are now—inside your daddy's house—is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and you always did know it. You hear me?"
That Arnold has a positive function as the transgressive other to the text of the American family is demonstrated by the fact that similar figures of limit and challenge are a constant feature throughout Oates's oeuvre. Max, the manipulative esthete of With Shuddering Fall (1964); Richard Everett, the matricidal memoirist of Expensive People (1968); Trick Monk, the trickster foil of the protagonist in Wonderland (1971); Hugh Petrie, the nihilistic cartoonist of The Assassins (1975); Bobbie Gotteson, the "Maniac" of The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976); Fitz John Kasch, the post-romantic central consciousness of Childwold (1976); Alexis Kessler, the narcissistic composer of Unholy Loves (1979); Sheilah Trask, the "dark" opposite of Monica Jensen of Solstice (1985); and Maxmilian Fein, the demonic father-lover of Marya (1985) are key examples. What these characters have in common is their opposition to the norms of community and comprehensibility that the texts seem to endorse.
This use of a "transgressive other" to the text as a projection of deviation—a struggle within the text against its own limits of consciousness—is a prominent feature of Oates's most recent fiction, in which the story and status of such an opposing figure is foregrounded. Three important works published in 1989 and 1990—American Appetites, Soul/Mate, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart—mark the emergence of this narrative pattern and its related themes as Oates's central preoccupation at this time.
Soul/Mate is a revealing example of this tendency. Not only does the plot concern the actions and motivations of an extreme "other," a "psychopath" in the tradition of Arnold Friend, but the genre of the work and even the designation of the author emphasize the thematics of "otherness." Soul/Mate, a "psychothriller" according to the book jacket, a genre Oates reserves for the consideration of the otherness themes of "identity, twins and doubling," is the second of her novels to be published under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. "I wanted a fresh reading; I wanted to escape from my own identity," Oates explained, and in a discussion of Romain Gary's nom de plume, she posited the writer's need for "an erasure of the primary self" so that "another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released." This employment of an alternative authorial "other" strongly suggests the desire to test the ideological limits of "Joyce Carol Oates," a writer by now established in a particular tradition.
The structure and meaning of the novel also underscore this concern for the evasion of bounds. The two main characters of the work are Dorothea Deverell, a decorous and passive art historian approaching middle age and Colin Asch, a waif-like and appealing serial killer. Written from the third-person limited-omniscient point of view, the chapters of Soul/Mate alternate between the perspectives of Dorothea and Colin to produce the effect that these characters do indeed mirror one another despite their differences in style. "[O]ur lives are … parallel," he. "[T]heir predicaments were identical," she observes at a crucial point; "they were united in their desperation to escape." And, in fact, Colin does serve as the agent of Dorothea's unacknowledged wishes. Standing between her and future fulfillment as the director of the prestigious Brannon Institute and the wife of her lover Charles Carpenter are two impediments—Dorothea's slanderous enemy Roger Krauss, who favors another candidate for the appointment that she has been promised, and Mrs. Agnes Carpenter, Charles's alcoholic wife. By garroting Krauss and drowning Agnes, Colin clears the way for the happiness that is Dorothea's implicit fate at the conclusion of the novel.
That Colin is Dorothea's psychological other is obvious. Where she is methodical, he is manic. Where she is self-doubting, he is narcissistic. Where she is self-abnegating, he is wildly paranoid. Where she resolutely denies, he perversely accepts. Where her personal relationships are mired in "stasis," his intimate connections are resolved through deadly action. But the otherness Colin represents has a social dimension as well. While Dorothea is preternaturally sensitive to the nuances and codes of her group, Colin's self-absorption radically distorts his ability to decipher even rudimentary gestures. This is dramatically demonstrated in the first of the murders the book details:
[D]riving out of Fort Lauderdale in the red '87 Mustang with the sliding sun roof the woman had given him, which she surely wouldn't call the police to get returned … he happened to see, one lane over to the right, one car length ahead, a car he thought at first to be identical with his, lipstick-red, two-door coupe … but it turned out to be a Toyota of about that year, and what drew his attention to it like a magnet was it had a sliding sun roof too and the roof was partway open and there was a hand stuck through it wriggling the fingers to taunt him.
Or was it a signal?
Cornering the driver in a rest stop men's room, Colin demands to know the meaning of the taunting wave. Explaining that he was stretching to try to keep awake, the man insists that Colin has "misread" him. Colin, however, stubbornly adhering to his own deadly misinterpretation, accuses the unfortunate motorist of having tendered a "false signal" and kills him for the crime of deceptive discourse.
A novel, of course, is made meaningful insofar as it may be read with regard to the codes and systems it invokes. But recognizable patterns of language and culture are consistently obliterated in Colin's perversions of communication and understanding. It is pertinent that Colin is presented as the anti-author of a kind of parody of the novel. In the "Blue Ledger" Colin sets down aphoristic interpretations of his own experiences—the initials of his victims, the money he has received from them, and the coded notation of their deaths. Significantly, the codes employed involve reversal. The moment of Agnes Carpenter's murder, for example, is recorded with her initials inverted as C.A.88104am. In the denouement of Soul/Mate another meaningful reversal occurs to contradict symbolically the communicative function of the text: instead of preserving his journal, before his suicide, Colin carefully feeds it page by page into the fire.
This transgressive other represents, then, a dislocation of basic patterns of meaning. In his "Blue Ledger" Colin carefully records Blakean comments that outline the collapse of organizational categories:
Thus "praise" and "blame" are equally unmerited.
Thus "he" (agent) and "it" (action) are falsely separated.
Thus even the most general time demarcations—"past," "present," "future"—are invalid.
For in the Blue Room (which at certain times Colin Asch was privileged to enter [through the act of murder]) all things become one. The fierce blue light erases all shadow. There is no gravity, no weight. Not even "up" and "down."
The dissolution of contradictories characteristic of Colin's "Blue Room" posits an alternative to the opposed terms—for example, good/bad, male/female—upon which communities and texts are structured, an alternative, in his case, both attractive and deadly. At once "angel boy" and "devil twin," Colin is the intermediary between two universes of meaning—that of social repression but semantic order and that of freedom but incoherence. Soul/Mate suggests, therefore, that the very oppositions that make meaning possible—the arrangements from which civilization emerges—also make it destructive or impossible in the social or family experience of many of Oates's characters. Again, Colin's story provides the example.
The motivation for Colin's deviance is the extreme freedom realized in the dramatic loss of his parents in an automobile accident in which they were both drowned:
The boy managed to get out and swim to the surface, but his father and mother were trapped inside the car, in only about eight feet of water, so the boy tried to save them diving back down trying to get the doors of the car open, trying to pull his mother free and then his father…. [A]nd it was said that Colin had gone mad in those minutes, that his mind had simply shattered.
Colin's subsequent actions are attempts to resolve his complex reactions to this experience. His rage at his mother's abandonment finds expression in his brutal treatment of women. Significantly, he fantasizes drowning Hartley, one of his lovers, in shallow water, and he does dispatch Agnes in this fashion. His equally powerful love for his lost mother is expressed through his adoring fixation on Dorothea, who, as Hartley reminds him, "looks old enough almost to be your mother." Colin chooses to murder Agnes Carpenter rather than Charles Carpenter, his rival for Dorothea's affections, because he imagines Dorothea and Charles can replace his lost parents: "It would be the most natural thing in the world; older childless couples often take up younger unattached men. A kind of spiritual adoption. 'You will never be lonely again.'" And when Colin finally kidnaps her, even obtuse Dorothea is aware that together they seem to be enacting "a grotesque parody of domesticity." The conclusion of the novel finds Dorothea and Charles together about to embark on their marriage in a new house. Oates's most uncharacteristically unambiguous ending sets this recovery of familial arrangement against the disorder Colin has introduced.
Similar domestic resolutions counter the appeal of disorder in both American Appetites and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. In the first novel, a staid middle-aged man accidentally, but with much provocation and passion, kills his wife during a vituperative drunken argument. The book is structured around the complicated issue of his guilt; and during the course of his attenuated trial, the defendant himself experiences the emotional state of otherness. "It seems so easy, somehow," Ian McCullough musingly remarks to his lawyer. "Crossing over…. To what's on the other side." When the scandal first hits the newspapers, the lawyer suggests that Ian move into the Sheraton Inn under a false identity to avoid publicity. During this interval, Ian experiences an alternative self, the "Jonathan Hamilton" who signed the guest register. He wears a "pair of plastic clip-on lenses, dark green" to "give substance to his incognito." He makes minor adjustments to his appearance and discovers in his assumed alter ego interests and attitudes he had not previously acknowledged in himself. But this dark liberation, which is the substance of the plot, is countered by the ironic frame of the novel. American Appetites commences, as does Soul/Mate with the domestic ceremony of an elaborate dinner party. It concludes with another dinner party. So despite the introduction of the theme of transgressive otherness, the frame of the book attempts to rectify the deviation that has been the central preoccupation of the novel. Despite McCullough's cataclysmic experience, the only substantial change in the structure of his world is the woman who officiates at the consistent dinner, an undeviating ceremony of communal regularity at either end of an attenuated exploration of violent alternative.
In Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, young Iris Courtney moves from the failed family of her working-class background into an upper-class family of inherited wealth and academic stature at the conclusion. This novel also endeavors to contain in domestic resolution the deviation from social order that consumes Iris throughout the novel. For the plot of Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart concerns her experience and pursuit of otherness. In an uncharacteristic gesture of chivalric bravado, a young black boy accidentally murders the retarded and repulsive Red Garlock who has been sexually menacing Iris. His differing race and his antisocial crime situate Jinx Fairchild as a fascinating "transgressive other," a "soul-mate" with whom Iris is obsessed throughout her life.
Different in plots and even in the class levels of social experience addressed, these three recent works are similar in their presentation of equivocally appealing otherness that violently controverts social/textual standards and in their attempts to contain that appeal within a recuperated domesticity asserted in the endings of the novels. These works of the transgressive other oscillate between the complicated advantages and disadvantages of dual alternatives: painful and radical freedom and stifling necessary order. But the transparent gestures of containment that frame or conclude these narratives do not stabilize the radical contradictions set in motion by the texts.
Soul/Mate, American Appetites, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart exaggerate a philosophic basis in productive contradiction—a constant challenge of conventions and limits—that has been present throughout Oates's career. The introduction of her 1981 book of essays collected under the title Contraries states, for example, that "the seven essays in this volume, written over a period of approximately twenty years … were originally stimulated by feelings of opposition…." But this practice has been a source of confusion for Oates's audience. In 1979 Linda Wagner surveyed the unpredictable variability in critical response to Oates's works [in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, 1979], and Joanne Creighton noted [in Joyce Carol Oates, 1973] that readers have often been unable to relate the deterministic expectations invoked by Oates's generally naturalistic techniques to "a modernist formulation" of her "visionary perspective." Generally misread and frequently condemned, Oates has never abandoned the interrogations of the social assumptions and novelistic practices in which her fiction is rooted, and her most recent novels propound again the insistent dialectical stance epitomized by her series of "transgressive others." The effect of these provocative works is the assertion of the existence of alternatives just outside the reach of ordinary experience, while the ambiguous treatment of the figures and contexts of such alternatives acknowledges both their genuine threat and their ultimate value.
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 American short fiction which she edited under the title Scenes From American Life. While the title of the short story collection could easily serve as a very general description of Ms. Oates' own wide ranging, prolific oeuvre—an exploration of widely differing scenes from American life—her conviction that all art is autobiographical leaves the critic baffled and wondering when looking at her impressive output of novels and short stories which are dominated by traumatic experiences and obsessions, violent themes and conflicts. Although one does not know how much of her fiction is, in fact, autobiographical, there are recurrent places, settings, events, experiences, memories and insights into peoples' feelings that seem to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates makes extensive use of her own psychic experience. With her haunting tales about ordinary people, whose lives often turn into nightmares, she is indeed attempting to explain a troubled experience and bitter sense of American life to herself and to others.
Since the start of her literary career in 1963, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than twenty novels, hundreds of short stories (many of them collected in prize-winning collections and anthologies), half a dozen volumes of poetry, several books of literary criticism and essays, theatre plays and screenplays, earning her a reputation as one of the most prolific and gifted "serious" writers who, in the words of her contemporary John Barth, "writes all over the aesthetical map."
Although most critics agree that Joyce Carol Oates has given readers nothing less than a modern panorama of American life that Lee Milazzo in his recent collection of Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates compares to the cyclorama, a form of visual entertainment popular in the 19th century that "allowed eager viewers to see both the overall contours and specific details of great historical (and sometimes contemporary) events", not all critics agree on the literary merits of this oeuvre. To quote one of the more hostile critics: in his review of Oates' novel Solstice, titled "Joyce Carol Oates on Automatic Pilot", Jonathan Yardley writes:
Of all the idiocies on the contemporary American literary scene, surely none is more idiotic than the persistent rumour that the next American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature will be Joyce Carol Oates … To be sure, were writers to be recognized solely for their productivity, then certainly Oates would get all the prizes; they'd have to invent new ones just for her … Writers, reviewers and readers gaze at her in awe: she is, in the words they occasionally apply reverently to her, "a writing machine". It seems not to have occurred to anyone, that writing is like anything else: if it is done too hastily and too profusely, it almost inevitably is done badly.
While this is a highly unfair and, all in all, unjustified judgment (and most other critics provide a more balanced and sensitive critical evaluation of her work), there is undoubtedly an uneven quality to her fiction. Some of her novels and stories are rather shrill in depicting the human situation, remain melodramatic renderings of everyday life, highly charged with unrelenting scenes of shocking, random violence, of madness and emotional distress that Oates chronicles as dominant elements of experience in the lives of her characters.
"Typical activities in Oates' novels", says one reviewer, "are arson, rape, riot, mental breakdown, murder (plain and fancy, with excursions into patricide, matricide, uxoricide, mass filicide), and suicide" [Hudson Review 25 (Spring 1972)]. And S. K. Oberbeck stated in a mean while often quoted observation on her fiction [in Washington Post Book World (17 September 1971)]: to read Oates "is to cross an emotional minefield, to be stunned to the soul by multiple explosions …"
Despite these sensational and melodramatic traits of her fiction that some readers see as shortcomings, Oates is a serious and intellectual writer whose explicit commitment to art as "moral, educative, illustrative" informs her unrelenting attempts to lead her readers to a more profound "sense of the mystery and the sanctity of the human predicament".
In that sense her novels do much more than merely chronicle the horrors of a time wasted by wars, political assassinations, social riots, random violence and the psychic shocks of people paralyzed by their fear of being powerless to change their lives or things around them. Although these are recurring themes especially in her fiction of the sixties and seventies, her recent novels (Marya: A Life, 1986; You Must Remember This, 1987; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990) are efforts to not only raise the consciousness of ordinary people to the realization of the destruction of their lives, but—in her own words—attempts to "show us how to get through and transcend pain" and, furthermore, attempts to encourage her readers to affirm life and give meaning to it.
Again and again, Oates stresses the fact that her writing is "about the mystery of human emotions" and that at the same time her fiction is concerned with "… the moral and social conditions of my generation." It is important for the critical understanding of her fiction to respect her commitment to literature as a communal effort and her own responsibility and obligation as a writer in providing a "voice of the communal consciousness of our culture."
Oates refuses to accept the often stated verdict that today the novel has lost its power to interpret life and that realistic fiction has lost its ability to render convincingly contemporary experience and to make sense of human life in contemporary culture. Quite to the contrary, she insists on "the power of narrative fiction to give coherence to jumbled experience and to bring about a change of heart." Her novels and short fiction reveal a distinctive blend of a compelling hallucinatory but at the same time realistic rendition of the special time and place she is writing about with her intense and often haunting psychological depiction of characters and her complex propositions about the nature of human personality. This is her way of realizing her aim:
I still feel my own place is to dramatize the nightmares of my time and (hopefully) to show how some individuals find a way out, awaken, come alive, move into the future. I think that art, especially prose fiction, is directly connected with culture, with society; that there is no 'art for art's sake' and never was, but only art as a more conscious, formal expression of a human communal need, in which individuals seem to speak individually but are, in reality, only giving voice and form to the intangible that is in the air around them…. Surely, the whole era participates in every creative act, an isolated individual's statement of hopelessness, voiced to no one at all, or a writer's published, distributed and advertised books. It is really all one event, with a multitude of aspects.
Not only does she admit a somewhat old-fashioned and seemingly outmoded "laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book", but when faced with criticism [in Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, 1989] that her fiction was "a charnel house of Gothic paraphernalia: blood, fire, insanity, anarchy, lust, corruption, death by bullets, death by cancer, death by plane crash, death by stabbings, beatings, crime, riot, and even unhappiness", Oates coolly explained: "A writer's job, ideally, is to act as the conscience of his race. People frequently misunderstand serious art because it is often violent and unattractive. I wish the world were a prettier place, but I wouldn't be honest as a writer, if I ignored the actual conditions around me."
Underlining the responsibility of the artist "to bear witness—in an almost religious sense—to certain things, including the experience of the concentration camps … the experience of suffering, the humiliation of any forms of persecution", she sees herself as a medium who takes in and gives shape to the stimuli coming from her culture. She applauds works like Harriette Arnow's neglected novel The Dollmaker which she praised because it showed the power "to deal with the human soul, caught in the stampede of time, unable to gauge the profundity of what passes over it, like the characters of certain plays of Yeats who live through terrifying events but who cannot understand them; in this way history passes over most of us. Society is caught in a convulsion whether of growth or of death, and ordinary people are destroyed. They do not, however, understand that they are destroyed."
This is a revealing statement with respect to her own portrayal of characters who all yearn for control over their lives but are often hopelessly caught in the stampede of time and history, in their own destructive dreams, passions and ambitions, in heartbreaking confusion and painful inarticulateness. So it is not surprising that Oates sees the role of the artist and writer also as a kind of Cassandra: "It may be, his role, his function, is to articulate the very worst, to force into consciousness the most perverse and terrifying possibilities of the epoch, so that they can be dealt with and not simply feared." Almost all of her novels focus obsessively on "the very worst … and the most terrifying possibilities of the epoch", presenting a nightmare of reality in a wide variety of styles, genres, fictional techniques and narrative experiments. Although Oates is sceptical of metafiction and of most of the flamboyant experimentation that characterizes postmodern fiction, she should not be dismissed as a traditional or conventional writer. Presenting herself as a storyteller whose work appeals to general readers as well as to more "literary" ones, she adapts her style to the subject she is exploring and uses a keen visual sense which allows readers to "see" individuals and events depicted in her fiction in a new, startling and often shocking light.
While drawing heavily on her childhood experience—growing up in a small town in upstate New York in a working class family that suffered from the grim economic conditions of the Depression years of the 1930s—Oates has written not only about the rural setting of this harsh and grim landscape. She wrote about the big city—most memorably about the violent urban slums of Detroit between the 1930s and the 1960s (them, 1969; Wonderland, 1971; Do With Me What You Will, 1973), about the emptiness and sterility of suburban life (Expensive People, 1968) and of the academic setting (Unholy Loves, 1979; Solstice, 1985; Marya: A Life, 1986) and political novels set in Washington D.C. (The Assassins: A Book of Hours, 1975; Angel of Light, 1981). In recent years Oates has published a cycle of novels that could be called "experimental genre novels" beginning with Bellefleur (1980) and followed by The Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984). In these novels Oates presents "America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres". These novels deal in genre form with 19th-century and early 20th-century America: a family saga, a romance, a detective mystery and a Gothic horror. The novels are, in Oates' words, "post-modernist in conception but thoroughly serious in execution. Primarily, each novel tells a story I consider uniquely American and of our time. The characters … are both our ancestors and ourselves."
In these novels—which are a startling departure from her usual mode of writing—Oates makes explicit and extensive use of the Gothic tradition in American literature and she described her novels appropriately as "'Gothic' with a capital-letter G." Greg Johnson states in his study on Oates' fiction (Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, 1987) that in these books "she combines her usual psychological realism with a free-wheeling, explicit use of fantasy, fairy tales, horror stories, and other Gothic elements; the central settings of all three novels, for instance, include a huge forbidding mansion and such assorted horrors as a female vampire (Bellefleur) and a painting which comes to life and murders a couple on their honeymoon (Mysteries of Winterthurn)."
But although Oates claims that her intention was "to 'see' the world in terms of heredity and family destiny and the vicissitudes of time (for all five novels are secretly fables of the American family); to explore historically authentic crimes against women and children, and the poor; to create and to identify with heroes and heroines whose existence would be problematic in the clinical, unkind, and one might almost say, fluorescent-lit atmosphere of present-day fiction," and that therefore she had to resort to the outright Gothic, she links this to her desire to present a convincing psychological portrait of characters and a sweeping social and historical picture. "If Gothicism has the power to move us (and it certainly has the power to fascinate the novelist) it is only because its roots are in psychological realism. Much of Bellefleur is a diary of my own life, and the lives of the people I have known." It is significant that she intended her novel Bellefleur as "a critique of America, but it is in the service of a vision of America that stresses, for all its pessimism, the ultimate freedom of the individual.
In that sense, she herself admits that her genre novels are more than mere Gothic stories and that the imaginative construction of a Gothic novel involves the systematic transposition of realistic social and historical as well as psychological and emotional experiences into Gothic elements and structures. The reader familiar with the Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries will recognize in Oates novel Bellefleur, e.g., themes, obsessions and actions which were the stock-in-trade of the tales of terror. The mysterious and cruel events have a distinctly Gothic flavour to them. But one has to agree with John Gardner's observation who in his review of the novel [in New York Times Book Review (20 July 1980)] states: "What we learn, reading Bellefleur, is that Joyce Carol Oates is essentially a realist. She can write persuasively of out-of-the-body experiences because she believes in them. But she does not really believe in a brutal half-wit boy who can turn into a dog, a man who is really a bear, vampires or mountain gnomes…. Miss Oates believes in these legendary characters only as symbols; and the problem is that they are not symbols of the same class as those she has been using for years, the symbols provided by the world as it is…. The only really frightening scenes in Bellefleur deal with real-world atrocities … and these scenes in fact come nowhere near the horror of scenes in earlier novels by Miss Oates…. What drives Miss Oates' fiction is her phobias: that is, her fear that normal life may suddenly turn monstrous. Abandoning verisimilitude for a different mode (the willing suspension of disbelief), she loses her ability to startle us with sudden nightmare."
In that respect, her novels set in the contemporary America are more convincing, although in her attempt to convey the nightmare of everyday reality she makes extensive use of Gothic elements there, too. Her fiction often displays the kind of extreme psychological intensity and outright horror of events and emotions that result in disturbing, vicious and often disgusting scenes of violence. As Oates commented, "gothic with a small-letter 'g' suggests a work in which extremes of emotion are unleashed"—and this could be applied to almost all her fiction. Her characters—be they rich or poor, uneducated or cultured—"live within a psychological pressure-cooker, responding to intense personal and societal conflicts which lead almost inevitably to violence."
This recurrent violence as well as such traditionally Gothic elements as extreme personal isolation, violent physical and psychological conflicts and symbolic actions, melodramatic and passionate circumstances and events, or painful psychic states like loss of identity, emotional turmoil, suicide, rape, murder, incest or the psychological explorations of madness and insanity, are in Oates' words "a fairly realistic assessment of modern life."
Throughout her fiction these Gothic elements and fantasies have the larger function of expanding the thematic range and suggestiveness in conveying the atmosphere of public and private American life in the past and today. Already at the beginning of the 1970s Alfred Kazin noted in his essay on Oates' fiction [in his Bright Book of Life, 1973] that Oates showed in her novel them a particular sensitivity to individual lives helplessly flying off the wheel of American gigantism, and that more than most other women writers Joyce Carol Oates seemed "entirely open to social turmoil, to the frighteningly undirected and misapplied force of the American powerhouse."
Kazin rightly compares her in her instinct for and her imaginative recreation of the "melodrama" of Detroit in the 1960s to earlier writers like Theodore Dreiser (who wrote about Chicago), or Stephen Crane and John Dos Passos (who wrote about New York). But Oates is clearly different from these forerunners and her depiction of life in contemporary America is concerned with an unrelenting perception of the sheer chaos of life. Her special concern seems to be an insistence on the fact that the real American tragedy of today is the failure of people to find a language for expressing what is happening to them. This view of literature as silent tragedy that Oates noted already as praiseworthy in Arnow's novel, is also evident in her own fiction. Many of her characters move through a world that they perceive as wholly physical, and her books are packed with descriptions of this overwhelming material and physical reality. A kind of obsessive patience seems to guide her when she follows her characters through the immense factuality of contemporary existence, tracing with insight and compassion their moving around, their thinking and feeling. A density of detail marks her description of the often unconscious reactions of her characters that she explores in shockingly monstrous and violent scenes or in the everyday routines and stifling experience of a boring uneventful life.
The exploration of the inner world of women is for many readers her most memorable and fascinating contribution to the fictional exploration of a social and individual context. Women's fear of violence and damage dominates the fiction. But even more disturbing is the confusion and ignorance and heightened sense of helplessness and terror her female characters feel concerning the possibility of control over their lives. This lack of control is also expressed in the terror of the body that many of her women experience—fear of their own bodies and of men's bodies. This extends to the depiction of sexual relationships and female sexuality in general. Sexual relationships are often experienced by her female characters as threatening, and sex is described as a brutal assault on the female body, in a language that by now has become familiar: grinding, driving hardness. Sexual relationships are often bordering on incest and thus are guilt-ridden and destructive. In these imaginative renderings of female psychology and women's responses to the outer world as well as to their inner world her women suffer intensely. In many cases Oates shows that the response to existence pushes her female characters into psychic nightmares or over the edge into mental breakdown and death. Often their only form of protest is a complete breakdown or even self-destruction. Often there seems to be no relief of the feelings of despair and hopelessness, no salvation or transcendence of the unbearable pain, suffering and humiliation. Nor is the family a source of comfort and strength.
Though there are a number of tough women in her novels (mostly women coming from a working class background, as e.g. in them, Childwold, A Garden of Earthly Delights), they never really succeed in understanding themselves or transcend the limits of self. They merely survive. Diminished in their response by poverty, ignorance and confusion, they turn to dreams as compensation for a troubling, boring, often unbearable life. They try to escape their everyday reality by seeing themselves as characters in movies, in TV series, in magazines and romantic fiction or even as disembodied people in mirrors—reflections of a self that they want to escape. Dreams become their reality. Victims of the media and their messages which tell them that success lies in improving their appearances, they are desperately trying to change (in most cases they change make-up, hair styles, clothes as an attempt of changing their lives and personalities!). Oates shows that in fact these women are trapped in physical and social surroundings from which they cannot escape. One is reminded of her early statement that "the greatest realities are physical and economic: all the subtleties of life come afterward. Intellectuals have forgotten, or else they never understood, how difficult it is to make one's way up from a low economic level, to assert one's will in a great crude way. It's so difficult. You have to go through it. You have to be poor."
Thus she shows her characters as products of their economic, social and cultural realities as well as victims of their own personalities. They desperately try to escape from these grim realities that they find themselves in, but they are repeatedly defeated and this defeat characterizes some traits of her tragic concept of human existence. While readers may be repelled and shocked by her often naturalistic descriptions of these lives, one has to concede that they are part of a closely observed American reality: her characters are locked in history and in a recognizable time and place in American culture, and they are vulnerable to this time, place and culture.
Her concern with these intensely felt nightmarish conditions of the present, with all the anxiety, paranoia, dislocation and explosive conflicts that come out of frustration, of boredom and bitter desperation, is connected with a subtle and convincing exploration of the psychological aspects of her characters' reactions. It is above all this psychological realism in the detailed and compelling presentation of individuals in the midst of various kinds of emotional and psychological upheaval that characterizes the by now familiar "Oates effect", haunting the reader of her fiction.
It is only in recent novels that Oates transcended these fatalistic and grim attitudes. After her detour into the fantastic world of the 19th century genre novels, her books of the late 1980s return to the territory that she has explored before and whose voices she knows perfectly: the world of lower class families in rural upstate New York and the world of academia. Marya: A Life can serve as an example for the changes and the possible transcendence of the violent clash and intense conflict between the individual and the surrounding society. We have again in the scenes of life that the individual chapters present, the usual shocking brutal events: the book opens with a violent chapter in which the eight-year old Marya is forced by her alcoholic mother to look at her murdered father in the city morgue and later she is abandoned by her mother and left with relatives who barely tolerate her. Marya is molested by her cousin and suffers sexual abuse, she is nearly gang-raped during her farewell party before leaving for college, in college she suffers from extreme isolation…. But what emerges in the course of these frightening events and experiences is an unusual and strong person, a woman who is able to break out of the economic and social conditions that determined her before. She is able to escape from the suffocating climate and to find in the life of an academic and a writer a way to become, in Oates' words "an Amazon of a sort, a warrior woman, making her own way, confident and assured."
In the end Marya is determined to face a confrontation with her mother, and though Oates does not show this meeting in her novel and her heroine knows that this meeting will cut her life in two, Oates has presented her in a way that makes not only intellectual emancipation possible but also a kind of emotional maturing that goes beyond the suffering, the ignorance and the numbness that so many women in her novels have to endure.
In this sense Oates shows that some people are able to find a way out of the nightmare of their terrifying experience of reality—that they are indeed able "to awaken, come alive, move into the future".
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 students, landlords, and politicians who disdain them. The brainchild of Legs, Foxfire starts as a tiny, secret society and gradually evolves into a complex organization dedicated to exacting justice for the disenfranchised, especially women. Maddy, alternately known as Maddy-monkey and killer, chronicles the group's development; Oates's novel [Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang] is written as an expanded version of Maddy's notes.
This journal-of-sorts reveals the inner workings of a protofeminist support or consciousness raising group. But Foxfire is also the stuff of every adolescent girl's dreams: a brash, inventive sorority out of adult earshot and adult control. Unlike Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which testifies to the meanness of many girl-children, Foxfire members are there for one another, bolstering each other through exhilarating antics born of revenge and the quest for recognition. In a world that treats them badly, Foxfire provides sisterhood and, in so doing, transforms each of the group's members.
Although Foxfire's mission constantly changes during its three-year history, its philosophy grows out of theories developed by Legs, their first-in-command. One of her precepts involves men, and their relationship to the women of Foxfire. Maddy discusses Legs's beliefs in her record book:
"They hate us, y'know?—the sons of bitches. It's all of them: men. It's a state of undeclared war, them hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are but nobody wants to admit it, not even us," she'd rant. She'd get so worked up there was no reasoning with her and it made us nervous 'cause like I said (and this is true right up to the present time in America) there are things you don't want to think about if you're female, say you're a young girl or a woman you're female and that isn't going to change, right?
At first, Foxfire's goal is to publicize the sexually harassing behavior of a high school math teacher. Painting public denunciations of him for all to see, they embarrass him into leaving town. Then, they beat up a salesman who attempts to force Maddy into a sexual encounter. As things escalate, Foxfire's actions take on bigger and bigger proportions, culminating in a final plan to kidnap a rich corporate executive and collect a $1 million ransom.
Like Thelma and Louise and other examples of this genre, Foxfire's perfect crime turns out to be flawed. As one thing after another goes wrong, the crime not only gets bungled, but Foxfire, itself, disintegrates. While Maddy survives the group's decline, and eventually goes on to get a college degree and a "respectable" job, several members of the gang end up in jail and some, including Legs, disappear. To her credit, Oates allows a thread of ambiguity to emerge. Is Legs dead or did she escape? Might she have assumed a new identity and still be out there, somewhere, fomenting feminist revolution?
Oates has written a dazzling, if unsettling, novel that looks at questions of leadership, loyalty, and sexual identity through the lens of the mid-1950s. Although the book sidesteps lesbianism, Oates's touch is light enough to be opaque: how the sexual tension between characters gets resolved is left to each reader's imagination. Again, one wonders: Did they? Could they? Might they later? Although I closed the book saddened that Foxfire did not last, permanence did not much matter to Legs or the women in her entourage. "Like a flame is real enough, isn't it, while it's burning?" she once asked. "Even if there's a time it goes out?"
Foxfire's flame, short-lived and brilliant, teaches the women of Hammond that it is possible to fight injustice and sexism. Together, the sisterhood they create transforms a tiny piece of small-town America and reminds us, 40 years later, that in unity there is strength. Que viva, sisters.
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 at the monsters men and women have become to each other and a revelation of our desolate inner lives. What I Lived For is an American "Inferno."
The novel is set in Union City, a fictional place on the New York shores of Lake Erie, something like Buffalo. It tells the story of Jerome (Corky) Corcoran, a two-bit politician and businessman. Though the book opens with the murder of Corky's father in 1959, the bulk of the action takes place over one long weekend in 1992. A lost weekend, it begins when Corky learns that his lover, Christina Kavanaugh, has been conducting their affair with the permission of her crippled husband, a discovery that shatters Corky's ego and sets him ricocheting all over the city, from one reversal to another, following a zigzag course through layers of social class, racial division, political machination and economic distress.
Ms. Oates has constructed a complex plot, with the apparent suicide of a young black woman, Marilee Plummer, at its center. Corky was acquainted with Marilee, and she was a friend of his grown stepdaughter, Thalia. But she was also involved somehow with Corky's mentor, the Mayor, Oscar Slattery, and with Corky's best friend, the Mayor's son and the local Congressman, Vic Slattery. The novel derives its thumping energy from Corky's inept, drunken, miserable effort to find out the truth of what happened to Marilee, and he does. But in Ms. Oates's boldly inventive narrative, the structure of this straightforward mystery is transformed into art of another order entirely, an exemplary work of moral investigation.
The novel unfolds through Corky's interior monologue, which gives the story its form, punch, immediacy and meaning. Ms. Oates has created a pithy, original voice for her protagonist, a kind of scat prose that is poignant, often hilarious, always credible. She begins by giving us a man's habits of perception and ends by giving us his soul. The effect of this device is to make even crucial turns of the plot available to the reader only indirectly. To Corky's clouded and increasingly panicked mind, the other characters are as elusive as shadows on the wall of a cave—and that is how they appear to the reader. "What's it mean, Corky hasn't a clue," Ms. Oates writes early on. "He's not a guy comfortable inside his own head." But before long the reader is. And soon—here is one of the novel's marvels of subtlety—we know by implication and suggestion more about "what's it mean" than Corky does.
I confess that because the bound galleys touted What I Lived For" as a daring portrait of male sexuality, I brought a suspension of disbelief to the novel somewhat unwillingly. Could the ever-versatile Joyce Carol Oates successfully ground a major work in the befuddled inner life of a middle-aged, urban, male Irish Catholic? I wondered. And, sure enough, Corky's lusty frenzy at first seemed created according to an abstract, wholly pejorative idea of American maleness, one rooted in the pages of Playboy (a magazine to which, in fact, Corky makes steady reference).
Was it Corky who had shaped his attitudes and self-image according to the hackneyed, pathetic Hefner ideal—or was it Ms. Oates, an author taking aim at a straw manhood? The early sex scenes between Christina and Corky, for example, are written with a euphemistic and puerile gusto—"Corky's body flames up, he turns to ashes"—and read like clips from a skin magazine's fantasy page. I might have more quickly trusted Ms. Oates's sardonic purpose, her skewering of the Playboy myth, but I was thrown off by the publisher's note that first serial rights of this novel were sold, lo and behold, to Playboy. Who's being had here? Hugh Hefner or me? But that uncertainty was quickly resolved as the consciousness of Corky Corcoran asserted itself, an irresistible accumulation of fragmentary thoughts, feelings and sensations, all rendered with such skill that the world of the novel was soon brought exactly to life.
When he was 11 years old, Corky witnessed the murder of his father. He hadn't actually seen the faces of the killers, but the police knew who they were and told the boy to identify them anyway. His family wanted him to do it, and surely so did the ghost of his father. But young Corky could not, and that inability comes to seem the very definition of failure, haunting him as an adult and putting him, on the cursed weekend of the novel's action, in mortal danger. "And why wasn't he strong enough, why wasn't it in him. To identify his father's murderers with a simple lie." Especially him, for whom deception of self and others has become a way of life.
The answer to that question is the resolution of the novel, a ringing affirmation of the most basic law of private and public morality and also of fiction: that character is destiny. To follow the drama of Corky Corcoran's tour through the circles of contemporary America's hell is to move from the pity one feels at witnessing the acute suffering of the damned to the fear one feels on realizing that this doom belongs to all of us. The catharsis Ms. Oates achieves in this novel springs from the recognition—ours, not Corky's—that this blind, drunken, skittish human pinball game has in fact been an arrow-straight moral odyssey, aimed at the truth. The boy who doomed himself by refusing to lie has become a man whose commitment to that most basic virtue may not have been entirely lost. When it threatens to cost him everything, we are heartbroken and we are thrilled.
In her 24th novel, Joyce Carol Oates has written an engrossing, moving study of desperate, lonely and lost souls, of America itself in the midst of its decline. One may approach What I Lived For, as I did, with a certain skepticism, but in the reading it grows and grows, accumulating authority, picking up pace and finally leaving the reader awed—at this writer's achievement, yes, but also, and more forcefully, at the surviving human capacity for doing what is right.
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 derealized. He speaks of himself indiscriminately in the first and third persons and uses his initials to refer to himself most of the time. Apart from his recurrent obsessions and fantasies, he is unable to retain either conscious inner stability or a reliably steady or coherent sense of the outside world.
Many of the details of Zombie owe much to the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, who committed a large number of homosexual murders in Milwaukee. Dahmer dismembered the bodies of his victims, saved some of their body parts and other grisly souvenirs, tried cannibalism on at least one occasion, was finally apprehended in 1991, convicted of 16 murders and was himself killed in prison.
In another sense, Zombie represents the continuation of Ms. Oates's longstanding interest in the extreme, the gruesome, the bizarre and violent in American life. In particular, it is a continuation of the kind of thing she created in Black Water in 1992. That equally short novel consisted entirely of a dramatization of the tortured consciousness of a character modeled on Mary Jo Kopechne as she was drowning. Ms. Oates's considerable facility in transforming what is excruciatingly painful, awful to imagine and difficult to contemplate into rapid, fluent and easy-to-read prose is a characteristic attribute of the traditional Gothic literary imagination—whose resources and conventions Ms. Oates continues to draw on in this updated, post-modern variant of the genre.
The narrator of Zombie—the work is really an extended dramatic monologue—is one Quentin P—-, 31 years old, son of an established academic family living in a Michigan university town, where he is himself a semipermanent, part-time community college student. He has recently been convicted of a homosexual misdemeanor involving an assault on a black minor and has been sentenced to probation. He visits his entirely uninterested probation officer at apparently casual intervals; he is also in private therapy (paid for by his father) and group therapy (paid for by the state)—to both of which he is grotesquely impervious and cunningly adaptive. He is on prescribed medications, as well as on whatever other substances he can pick up on the street. He works part time as a caretaker at a rooming house for students at the state university (where his father is a professor of science). He exists in a haze of fantasies blurred by drugs and alcohol and by his inherent mental condition of violent and frenzied desires, thoughts and obsessions, expressed largely through dissociated snatches and shards of language. As far as possible he makes no "EYE CONTACT with anybody."
His major obsession has to do with his unappeasable need to create for himself a zombie. He has planned and tried to do this through performing ice-pick lobotomies on his victims, who, he insanely concludes, will then become slaves, utterly empty mentally and evacuated humanly, the perfectly void objects for his sadistic compulsion to anally penetrate, violate and harm other men. They will love what he, their "Master," does to them. They will be at once passive entities to be abused and injured, and cuddly teddy bears for him to play and sleep with. There are pages and pages of this, but almost none of it is quotable in this publication. It is quite horrible and almost equally tedious because of its nonincremental and unremitting repetitiveness.
In this evil project he has failed numerous times. His hard-ware-store ice pick invariably inflicts too much destruction upon the brains of his partly drugged victims, and they invariably die. He disposes of the bodies in a variety of unimaginative ways and has never been caught—indeed, until the very end of the novella he has never even been suspected of anything really predatory. It helps that his victims have—until the exception at the end—regularly been socially marginal nonwhite males, vagrants, pickups at gay bars or wanderers loitering for a hitch at freeway entrances, people who will never be missed because they have already effectively disappeared from social connectedness.
But Joyce Carol Oates has something more in mind than the representation of a monstrous consciousness and individual being. In some unmistakable general sense, her murderous narrator is supposed to signify for us a number of important tendencies and truths about contemporary American society. His effort to create zombies is derived from the irreversible psychosurgical procedure that was routinely performed during the 1940's and 50's, before the invention of powerful psychotropic drugs, on thousands of unfortunate Americans judged to be psychotic, dangerous or incompetent. In a similar sense, we are suddenly informed late in the novel that his father's scientific mentor, who won the Nobel Prize, has been disclosed to have conducted, during the 1950's, "RADIATION EXPERIMENTS" for the Atomic Energy Commission, leading a team of scientists in feeding radioactive milk to retarded children and exposing the testicles of prisoners to "ionizing radiation." In other words, Ms. Oates's aberrant protagonist seems to be, on one side, little more than an individualized and monomaniacally focused version of what American society itself is capable of on its legitimate scientific and medical side. Similarly, the liberal, therapeutic culture in which the narrator, his family and everyone else in the work is immersed—"Remember nobody's judging anybody else. That's the bottom line, guys"—is as inane, phony and ultimately abhorrent as the old punitive culture that the contemporary ethos of nonjudgmental therapy and undiscriminating sympathetic acceptance has largely replaced, with exceptionally indifferent success. Moreover, the narrator lives on fast food, washed down with seas of intoxicants, incessantly watches television and trips out on whatever drugs happen to be handy—just like enough of the rest of America to permit one to entertain the inference that there is something representative about his deranged behavior. This dreadful creature is presented to us as not simply living in mainstream America and as not merely being affected by the culture but as in some sense an embodiment of it, as containing and conveying its truth if not its very essence.
There is something meretricious and all too easy about this proposition and the narrative that carries it. Certainly America is a violent society, and just as certainly the medical profession, including psychiatry, has perpetrated its due share of shameful cruelties and callousness. Fast food is pretty awful on any number of counts, and television seems largely produced for an audience of moderately brain-damaged viewers. But to go on and imply that America today is functionally the social equivalent or cultural analogue of a psychotic monster and serial murderer is to make an insupportable allegorical suggestion. Hitler's Germany and Stalin's gulag were societies that were largely dominated by homicidal, monstrous and indeed psychotic practices and justifications. America today, for all the violence and brutality we have come both to fear and sometimes to deny, has not quite yet descended into collective madness.
The creation of monsters in literature belongs to a long and important tradition. From Frankenstein's creature to Dostoyevsky's underground man to Kafka's Gregor Samsa, to such less impressive characters as Humbert and John Fowles's collector, monstrous beings—characters considered by themselves or by others as monstrous or murderous—have often conveyed something important to us about our humanity; the term monster itself derives etymologically from a word that signifies "warning." Sometimes, as in Frankenstein, we learn that the monster is more human than his human creator; sometimes, as in Kafka, we learn that his ordinary human existence as a traveling salesman in a lower-middle-class family is so dehumanizing that his metaphoric insectlike existence has turned him into a literal monstrous insect. And sometimes, as in Fowles's strange novel, the monster remains a mystery.
But what Joyce Carol Oates means to tell us is far too simple. A dozen serial murderers do not by themselves certify a monstrous social world or culture—although they're surely sufficient to cause one to think gravely about any world that in part creates them and whose material helps furnish the contents of their demented minds. The idea of this narrative—that the uncaught serial killer is somehow peculiarly representative of our current condition—is more interesting than its execution, which, like the writing in which it is embodied, is fluid, fluent, inflated and, finally, neither convincing in itself nor successfully dramatized as fiction.