Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 15) - Essay

Charlotte Goodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1659 words.)

Greg Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In our age of "born-again" Christianity, of neofascism under the banner of biblical truth,… it is not surprising that Joyce Carol Oates's ninth novel, Son of the Morning—which deals with an "inspired" evangelical preacher named Nathanael Vickery—should be her most ironic work of fiction to date, and perhaps her most broodingly serious. Like her earlier masterpiece, Wonderland …, it attempts no less than a thorough analysis of our culture; while Wonderland approaches contemporary American life through its intellect, its scientific and technological ambitions, Son of the Morning examines the phenomenon of America's newly awakened religious impulses, especially in their more peculiar manifestations.

The novel opens with a series of powerful scenes which embody the characteristic Oatesian vision of rapacious nature: a pack of wild dogs … is trapped and killed; a young girl is brutally raped on her way home from church (and thus is Nathanael Vickery conceived). Punctuating these events, which are narrated in third person, are interpolated monologues—actually prayers, addressed to an inscrutable God—which show an older, failed Nathanael interpreting his own life with peculiar diffidence … and brooding constantly on the fact of his despair. This technique keeps the ironic theme of the novel in constant view, even as the story proper charts Nathanael's development from a strange child haunted by visions into a sexually tormented young man, and finally into an enigmatic, powerful, and uncomprising religious leader. (pp. 93-4)

[The] novel has a double focus: it depicts truthfully the phenomenon of contemporary Christian sects, quietly revealing the childish emotionalism, the avarice, the hypocrisy; yet it presents in the story of Nathanael a genuine religious quest, one of such single-minded intensity that its result seems inevitable. Dedicated by Oates (or by Nathanael Vickery?) to "One Whose absence is palpable as any presence," Son of the Morning is a novel which explores thoughtfully and unflinchingly the complexity of human emotion as it rebels against that "absence" by erecting an image tailored to its own longing. The novel's saddest irony reveals that the image must always have two faces, simultaneously exalting and debasing the human spirit. (p. 95)

Greg Johnson, "The Two Faces of God," in Southwest Review (© 1979 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 93-5.

Maureen Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Son of the Morning] Nathanael Vickery is an evangelist who believes that he is visited by Christ, even chosen by God to be one with His Son in a miraculous second coming…. Oates has never shied away from important matters of the day. Though she can become much too elaborate in statements about her fiction, I believe she feels a direct responsibility to her readers to perform as a worthy recorder of the times. What sustains Oates's novels is not her journalistic coverage of migrant workers, Detroit ghettos, the crazed world of revivalism, but her own belief that these subjects must be realized as fiction. At her best she creates whole segments of American life with wonderful fidelity like the small-town childhood of Nathanael Vickery…. Joyce Carol Oates has always been a good child psychologist, and we can see in her portrait of the boy Nathanael his wild imagination coupled with a limited human response and an intellectual impoverishment that will produce the asexual Christ figure, the proud religious man who challenges the power of God.

It is Nathanael's career that makes Son of the Morning falter: too many sermons so much like the Sunday morning fare on television, too much mind-boggling prattle about salvation and the power of prayer, too much monotonous intensity. Oh, for some economy on Oates's part, because it's well worth our knowing about the enormous self-serving energy of a cult leader like Nathanael Vickery. The novel loses force with the long tales of the preacher's manipulating entourage and the inevitable corruption, his scrape with sex and the predictable suicide of his only friend Japheth, whose sin has been to desire, unnaturally, this spiritual man. It's certainly not Joyce Carol Oates's fault that she comes off as a literary lady playing with violence, biblical prose, and simple religious pride gone slightly psychotic…. (pp. 437-38)

Maureen Howard, "Eight Recent Novels," in The Yale Review (© 1979 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 432-42.∗

Paul Zweig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joyce Carol Oates's imagination runs to violent extremes [in "Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money"]: a pack of snarling wild dogs; or the monologue of a dead woman dragged out of a river; a man having a heart attack; or, in one of the book's stronger poems, a flooding river tearing the dead out of the cemetery earth in a soggy dark resurrection. Violence is not so much the subject of those poems as it is their element. A groundswell of violent images carries the reader, and often dazzles him, until the poems seem like segments of a stream of language; a stream whose direction is often unclear, and when it is clear is often not as interesting as the flow itself…. [In the poem "Guilt" the] scene is vivid, yet austere. The cumulative pulsing of images resembles the icy flow of the stream itself. Yet the poem does not fulfill the strength of these lines, for when Miss Oates begins to moralize the scene she becomes curiously thin, even banal…. [Her questions aren't trivial,] but Miss Oates doesn't put them in a way that articulates the poem. Instead, she circles them in a mixture of abstractions and impressionistic images, with occasional thrusts of statement ("that is nature / that is only natural") that are too commonplace to serve for thinking. This falling away from the strength of the language to the theme characterizes much of the book.

The best of Miss Oates's poems create a feeling of controlled delirium, verging on nightmare, which is a lyrical counterpart to the rich violence of her novels…. There is a fluency [in "Holy Saturday"] that offers itself as the order of chaos itself. "The Resurrection of the Dead" and "Coronary Thrombosis" are among a number of other equally impressive poems.

The worst poems in the book are in the section entitled "Public Outcry." These are Miss Oates's political poems, and they are so shrill, so boringly moralistic that I wish she had left them out. I also wish she had chosen a different title for her book. "Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money" implies a militant invective that has nothing to do with the book's best qualities. (pp. 15, 59)

Paul Zweig, "Violence, Madness and Description," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 29, 1979, pp. 15, 59.

A. G. Mojtabai

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Unholy Loves"] opens with a welcoming party, a scene of jealous, strained, fairly poisoned attentiveness, the characteristic swarming of small academics around a Great Name. In his 71st year, the British poet Albert St. Dennis has come to Woodslee College as Distinguished Professor of Poetry. (p. 9)

At once a flickering, erratic presence and a profound central absence, St. Dennis serves well as a ruthless exposer of those around him. His evasions madden and embolden the Woodslee faculty, his indifference calls forth their unholy loves.

Character delineations in this novel are often severely slanted, the satire heavy, scathing at times, for Joyce Carol Oates's touch is not...

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Edward Guereschi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unholy Loves is a mockingly overheated title announcing the novel's satiric fascination with the passions of Academe. Passion—or perhaps choler—is what attends the faculty of Humanities at Woodslee College when aged Albert St. Dennis takes up residence as Distinguished Professor of Poetry. That he will not be what he seems … allows Oates to dramatize her game of appearance and reality and to play it with the envious faculty as well. She plays it expertly. Unholy Loves is brilliant revenge comedy.

The novel's major assets—a veteran's fidelity to scene and character, frequent shifts in narrative from person to person which adds surprise and freshness, a dead-center ear for the rhythms of conversation heard at endless faculty parties … eloquently contribute to her familiar theme of a predatory world. At the center, there are several memorable characters besides St. Dennis, whose indifference to the collective and separate faculty ego triggers off their unholy passions…. Oates is not gentle with these figures; we are always aware that, despite their surface charm and glib concern for others, there throbs a heart carved from Darwin. That identification and empathy are yet so easily stirred is finally a tribute to Oates's great persuasion.

Edward Guereschi, "Fiction: 'Unholy Loves'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 39, No. 10, January, 1980, p. 366.