The Gothic world which Joyce Carol Oates has projected in her novels and short stories is one that is shaped by irrationality, extreme emotions, and violence. Oates's female characters, in particular, are born into a hostile world that fails to nurture them. Rejecting the lives of their unhappy mothers, they long to forge a more meaningful existence for themselves. However, few life options seem available to Oates's women. Most seek fulfillment through sexual relationships, or marriage and motherhood; but sexual relationships in Oates's fiction usually end disastrously, and wives and mothers fail to be affirmed by the traditional female roles they have chosen. Like the women whose lives Phyllis Chesler has documented in Women and Madness, Oates's female characters often experience acute psychological malaise because of their powerlessness, and many ultimately become suicidal or psychotic. (p. 17)
The life choices made by Oates's female protagonists reflect both a desire on their part to live a more satisfying life than that of their mothers, and an inability to create alternate, more meaningful roles for themselves. Oates's prototypical young female protagonist sets forth from her family home in quest of a new life. Like Natasha in Expensive People, she runs away from her home, seeking a "rebirth and rebaptizing."… (pp. 17-18)
Poverty is one of the factors that contributes to the unhappiness of [some of her female characters]. However, a similar determination to avoid the fate of their mothers is expressed by Oates's more affluent female protagonists: Nadine, a major character in Them, is as eager to escape from her family's richly carpeted Grosse Pointe mansion as is Maureen Wendall from her shabby apartment in the slums of Detroit, and in Wonderland, Shelley Vogel, daughter of a famous neurosurgeon, runs away repeatedly from her elegant home. (p. 18)
The means of escape usually chosen by Oates's young female protagonist is that of a sexual liaison. "A woman does not matter to another woman," says one of Oates's characters ("Inventions," Marriage and Infidelities …). What does "matter" to Oates's women are the attentions of men who will, they hope, validate their existence. (p. 19)
[Even] Oates's affluent young women seek relationships with men as a means of adding excitement or fulfillment to their lives. Often these women seem to be searching for a father-substitute, a man who will provide them with the attention and security that they are denied by their own fathers…. It is ironic that the fathers who have abandoned them arouse the love and admiration of their daughters, while the mothers who have also been abandoned only arouse their daughters' contempt.
Though the mothers in Oates's fiction have suffered as a result of their own sexual and marital relationships, it is they who encourage their daughters, above all else, to seek the attentions of a man. Phyllis Chesler's explanation for such behavior is pertinent here: mothers, she says, "must be harsh in training their daughters to be 'feminine' in order that they learn how to serve in order to survive." To train their daughters how to be "feminine" in Oates's world is to teach them how to exploit their sexual attractiveness. (pp. 19-20)
The search of Oates's female characters to better their status or find happiness and fulfillment through relationships with men, marriage, and motherhood usually ends in failure. Sexual relationships in Oates's fiction do not provide women with the sense of completion that they long for and often trigger off violence either directly or indirectly. Losing autonomy over their lives as they obsessively follow their lovers, the women who fall in love frequently become psychologically unbalanced. Marriage is destructive to Oates's women, who are frequently treated brutally, or ignored, betrayed, or abandoned by their husbands. The children who are the products of these unhappy marriages also fail to bring happiness to the mothers in Oates's fiction, and...
(The entire section is 3,560 words.)