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...
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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 in several of her stories, in fact, mothers have death wishes for their offspring.
The reason that sexual relationships prove to be so destructive to Oates's female characters is that such relationships have an obsessive quality to them and that they ultimately fail to confirm the woman's sense of self. Oates, who called one of her short stories "What Is The Connection Between Men and Women?" and entitled a volume of poems Love and Its Derangements, seems to view the love/sex "connection" between men and women as a bewildering kind of disease, a fever in the blood which often succeeds in unbalancing both partners…. Despite the fact that the women in Oates's fiction actively seek sexual partners, they are usually reluctant participants in sexual relations, and are often depicted as frigid or as passive recipients, rather than equal partners in the lovemaking process. Pejorative terms and words which suggest acts of a pathological nature are often used by Oates to describe sexual intercourse. In one passage [from Do With Me What You Will], For example, the following words appear: "terrible," "spasm," "brutal," "scream," "wildly," "viciously," "agony," "crazy," "murderous," and "mad."… (pp. 21-2)
It is not surprising that Oates, who has such a negative and even idiosyncratic view of sexual relations, shows those characters who seek completion through the sexual act as doomed to failure. Oates's women are driven to find sexual partners—and are in despair once the relationship has been consummated…. Since in Oates's fiction sadomasochism is such a major component of sexual relations, it is not surprising that she portrays physical relationships as certainly disappointing and even destructive.
Oates's fiction suggests that one of the major problems that women face in sexual relationships is that men place unreal expectations on them and fail to see them as they really are—not as lowly sex objects or lofty fertility goddesses, but as human beings with virtues and shortcomings like their own. (pp. 22-3)
Another reason given by Oates for the disappointment women experience in sexual relationships is that rather than trying to establish a mutually affirming bond with their partners, men seek instead from their lovers a narcissistic confirmation of their own powers…. The woman in such a relationship cannot help but feel diminished or negated.
In Oates's fiction, marriage and motherhood are also shown to be damaging to the female ego. Her lower class women are often physically assaulted by their husbands or abandoned by them, and the wives of successful men are frequently treated as menials. The work by Oates which perhaps best illustrates the way women can be damaged psychologically by marital relationships is Wonderland, a novel whose two main female characters are the wives of successful physicians. Women like these, with their big houses and expensive clothes, would be the envy of a poor girl like Maureen Wendall in Them; yet both Mrs. Pedersen and Helene Vogel are shown to be desperately unhappy. (pp. 23-4)
Helene Vogel is typical of many of Oates's women who are devastated when motherhood fails to be as positive an experience as it is touted to be. Despite her sense of disappointment, Helene tries to be a good mother; several mothers in Oates's fiction, however, actually turn against their children. In two stories mothers have subconscious death wishes for their children, and they experience breakdowns when the children accidentally die. (p. 25)
The psychological disturbances that can be seen in Oates's female characters include anxiety, depression, and psychosis, and among her characters are alcoholics, drug addicts, catatonics, and those who are suicidal. What a good many of her characters commonly experience are feelings of depersonalization and disembodiment. In The Divided Self, R. D. Laing speaks of these feelings as being characteristic of individuals who fear that their own identity is in constant danger of being obliterated. Such individuals tend to see themselves and others as objects rather than people. Laing uses the term "petrification" to describe the process of depersonalization: "To turn oneself into stone becomes a way of not being turned into a stone by someone else," Laing writes, and then he goes on to say that turning others into objects serves to rob them of their power. Many of Oates's characters see themselves and/or others as objects. (p. 26)
Perhaps the best example in Oates's fiction of a "petrified" character is Elena in Do With Me What You Will. As the title of the novel suggests, Elena is a person completely lacking a will of her own, a mechanical doll who can be manipulated by others. At the beginning of the novel we see how she is traumatized in early childhood…. In response to this experience Elena develops an impassivity which insulates her from others…. Her behavior perfectly illustrates what Laing means by "petrification."
Phyllis Chesler has observed that depression, rather than aggression, is the characteristic female response to disappointment or loss. Depression is commonly found in many of Oates's female characters. Though a rare female character commits a violent or aggressive act, it is usually Oates's male characters who react violently, and her female characters who are the victims of their violence. (pp. 26-7)
"What does it mean to be a woman?" the catatonic Maureen Wendall thinks in Them…. This question is explored in work after work by Joyce Carol Oates as she examines the roles of women and their relationships. Oates's view of women's lives is certainly a bleak one, and she does not give easy answers to the question of how women should live their lives so as to avoid the anxiety and despair that often leads to madness. Her fiction, however, does provide valuable insights about the powerlessness of women and the causes of their desperation. Unable to gain autonomy over their lives, and threatened by a brutal world where violence against them may break out at any moment, Oates's female characters often become anxious or depressed, and sometimes retreat into madness, which confers upon them the blessings of safety and peace. (p. 28)
Charlotte Goodman, "Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates," in Women & Literature (copyright © 1977 by Janet M. Todd), Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 17-28.
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.
[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.∗
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.
["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 delicate, and her vision of the world has never been a beneficent one. Bellum omnium, rather, a world of predators, a scene of doomed compulsion.
A powerful vision—and yet, for me, there are moments when it falters or begins to pall, and this happens even, or especially, when the author's prose seems most vehement. (pp. 9, 30)
The author's voice and language give rise to some uneasiness. Although the focus of narration shifts from person to person and, with each person, from mood to mood, there's a tendency toward a single voice with a rushing, boiling, slightly breathless delivery throughout. I could not help wishing for a more supple modulation, a more variable cadence…. There are times, too, when the sound and tempo of the words clash with the intended meaning.
Of course, every writer has his or her ineffectual lines. Miss Oates may, however, have more than her share: she is not a careful craftsman and, I suspect, has no great desire to be one. Writing, presumably, in a fever of possession, she is prevented by the heat and urgency of that unconscious dictation from hesitating over fine points.
This cannot be the whole story, though, and I sense in Miss Oates some distrust of conscious craft, a fear, perhaps, of the constrictions of perfected form. Behind this, I imagine, is the desire to be spontaneous, lifelike, free-flowing. Yet the refusal to court perfection, the better to convey the natural rhythms, the sprawl, the ceaseless stream of life, is an esthetic strategy, a calculated, conscious, stance. (And having granted this much, why not be even a little more strategic and catch those shifting rhythms more exactly?)
One has only to think of Miss Oates's exclusions in her present novel, of her selective animation, to see the hand of the author deliberately shaping….
But if this sounds ungrateful, it is not meant to be. It is a tribute to Miss Oates that even her lightly sketched characters seem so interesting. And look what we have been given in this novel and how generously: a wealth of trenchant social and psychological observation, a ferocious comedy. We may not like the Woodslee faculty, but these people most emphatically live and breathe and knock about in the world, working their abrasive wills. And for one among them—Brigit Stott—it is a story of perilous, but triumphant growth. From the turmoil of what may have been her last passionate love, Brigit has emerged neither victim nor vanquisher, but shaken and whole. For the present at least, she has become that rare being—a woman capable of managing her loneliness. The portrayal of such a woman, and with such richness, is in and of itself something of a triumph. (p. 30)
A. G. Mojtabai, "Poet and Teachers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1979, pp. 9, 30.
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.