Joyce Carol Oates

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Joanne V. Creighton

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1471

[The Wheel of Love] has thematic unity: focusing exclusively on the emotional complexity of human relationships, the collection offers a rich—if distressing—view of the mysterious, volatile, and disorienting power of love. But the very obsessiveness of this thematic emphasis may contribute to the reader's disaffection with Oates. The reader is overcome with fatigue, bombarded as he is with repeated instances of unrelieved emotional misery. Moreover, he is likely to lose sight of the well-realized story in the chaff of the less luminous ones.

In this collection sexual love is invariably a compulsive, essentially joyless, terrifying, painful and unwelcome experience. (p. 375)

The Wheel of Love is populated with innumerable men and women who have sealed themselves off from physical and emotional experience. Oates often employs clerics such as Sister Irene of "In the Region of Ice" and Father Rollins of "Shame" to depict the emotional sterility that sometimes accompanies the protective sanctuary of the celibate life…. Other men and women of the volume do not need the garb of the religious life to exclude physicality from life. For example, Pauline of "Bodies," a talented sculptress interested only in "heads," is coolly aloof from "bodies," from the physical and emotional bonds among people, until an emotionally disturbed young man forces her into a relationship by the violent expedient of slashing his throat before her on the street.

Sometimes the fragile shell of immunity from emotional relationships is in danger of cracking. (p. 376)

Clearly, most characters in this volume are too weak to stand the "strain and risk" of love, and even if they can, the momentary highs of sexual ecstasy or felt love are inevitably accompanied by prolonged lows. Either the loved one dies ("The Wheel of Love," "What Is the Connection Between Man and Woman?") and the bereaved husband or wife is inconsolable in his grief, or the lovers seek death to be relieved from the burden and pain of powerful feelings ("Unmailed, Unwritten Letters," "I Was in Love"), or the lovers are punished for their happiness by the resentment of others (the woman's son attempts death in "I Was in Love" after her rendezvous with her lover; the husband in "Convalescing" is involved in a serious auto accident after hearing of his wife's affair). Furthermore, a number of Oatesian characters are so entangled in filial relationships that they are incapable of healthy love relationships outside of the family. Often a child is inhibited by the strength and vibrancy of the parents. (p. 377)

Feeling themselves to be unworthy of love or unable to risk it, or unable to experience it, or unhappy within it, jointly the characters of the collection offer a dismal view of the human being's incapacity to enjoy a healthy and wholesome emotional life. The pervasive low resiliency of the characters may fatigue and depress the reader as well; and from the volume as a whole, one may be left with an overwhelming sense of pessimism about the potentiality for fulfilling human relationships…. [The] thematic unity of the volume invites a faulty generalization which obscures rather than enhances the artistry of the separate stories. Oates is not writing about Human Nature; she is rather fashioning incidents which depict the problems and limitations of individual human beings. She excels in her ability to individuate and to specify; she is less successful when she attempts to draw generalized human types and situations.

The least successful kind of story, in my opinion, is usually unrelieved interior monologue, often in first person, in which an emotionally distraught person dwells obsessively upon his unhappiness. Although the technique is...

(This entire section contains 1471 words.)

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innovative, the cleverness of conception does not compensate for the monotony of content…. The staccato-like report of [the young woman in "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters"] is monotonous and annoying. I suppose it is psychologically valid that she attempts to contain her near-hysteria within the short sentences of her exhaustively thorough confession, but the story does not build in dramatic intensity through the bombardment of every detail of action and feeling. (pp. 377-79)

"I Was in Love," is a tedious account of the state of high tension, guilt, and suppressed hysteria of a woman who is having an adulterous affair…. The message that love is burdensome, inconvenient, and disruptive is blatantly clear; but Oates fails to place this observation within a larger context, fails to raise our perception above this hysterical woman's complaint. Should one accept this woman's misery as the inevitable consequence of love, or does Oates mean to isolate specific traits of this woman which create her suffering? Oates has failed to give her story a meaningful shape. Like the woman herself, the reader achieves no perspective on her situation; there's no illumination, no epiphany, no climax beyond the contrived death of her son.

Some stories fail for just the opposite reason: the specific situation rendered fails to support the ponderous generalization affixed to it. Such a story is "What Is the Connection Between Men and Women?"… Again Oates employs an unconventional technique and again it fails to redeem the content…. At the alleged moment of illumination, all remains dark. What is the connection between men and women? Surely the story doesn't show or tell. (pp. 379-80)

Paradoxically, Oates is at her best when she is most conventional, when she relies on her impressive skill as an omniscient third-person narrator who selects and refines details in such a way that a story is rendered with dramatic immediacy and intensity. Oates's most successful vantage point is at a distance from her characters where she dispassionately sketches with deft strokes their interior and exterior lives, places them in vividly specific contexts, and clinically records the mounting tension and conflicts of the story. Two of the most memorable stories of this collection, "In the Region of Ice" and "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," display Oates's scalpel-like control of her metier. Both stories begin with a sketch of the central character which does not so much describe the woman as it suggests through a few descriptive details qualities of disposition which will function importantly in the story: the imposing illusion of intelligence, seriousness, and restraint of Sister Irene; the shallow, adolescent narcissism of Connie. (p. 380)

["Where Are You Going"] is enriched by the very ordinariness of Connie and her friends and their dreamy infatuation with the sleazy and experimental no man's land of adolescence. Connie's encounter with Arnold Friend is not just a unique instance of how one girl's experimental flirtation jettisons her too rapidly into the world of experience, not just one girl's perception of the deception of appearances and the terrible reality of evil, but a particularly vivid instance of a universal experience: the loss of innocence. (p. 381)

What makes "In the Region of Ice" and "Where Are You Going" so memorable is not only the precise rendering of the central character's evolving response to the male intruder in her world, but also the richness and clarity of thematic statement in each story. Unlike the lesser stories—where the reader is frequently unable to rise above the tortuous responses of the characters themselves—"In the Region of Ice" and "Where Are You Going" do give the reader perspective on the protagonists' predicaments. Sister Irene is one of many frigid, inhibited women in Oates's fiction, but unlike many of them, she is portrayed as a person at least partially responsible for her own limitations. (p. 382)

Similarly, "Where Are You Going" is more than a tale of the inevitable seduction of a young girl like Connie. Oates captures so well the vacuousness, cheapness, and narcissism of life for Connie and her friends who have nothing better to do than to stroll up and down a shopping center plaza looking for excitement. That this fictional scene is in fact a mirror-image of reality for many young teenagers does not mean that the adolescent world is inevitably as Oates creates it. (p. 383)

Oates has written some stories where the reader cannot rise above the emotional duress of the characters, stories, often in first person, of unrelieved and tedious delineation of misery better told to a psychiatrist than to the reader. Occasionally Oates makes first-person narration work. She even experiments successfully with second-person; "You" is an effectively crafted account of a daughter's obsession with "You," her mother. But she is more often successful with the built-in restraints of third-person narration. This angle of vision allows her to set up character and scene dispassionately. The carefully chosen details, the directly rendered action, the heightening tension, and the coolly incisive authorial descriptions of feelings replace the unrelieved harangue of an emotionally distraught character and contribute to a sense of distance and perspective. (pp. 383-84)

Joanne V. Creighton, "Joyce Carol Oates's Craftmanship in 'The Wheel of Love'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1978 by Newberry College), Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1978, pp. 375-84.

Linda W. Wagner

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242

To view Oates' fiction in retrospect is to be surprised that what seemed to be basically "realistic" fiction has so many variations, and shows such range of experimentation, such wealth of literary antecedent. But whether she writes a comic Expensive People, an impressionistic Childwold, or that strangely heightened realism of them and the short stories, her interest is less in technical innovation than it is in trying the border between the real and the illusory, in testing the space in which those two seemingly separate entities converge….

Oates' conviction—made increasingly clear in the progression of her fiction—is that people in the modern world generally pretend to be tied to the factual, the largely physical details of living (accordingly, reassuringly, she will give numerous details about a dimestore cosmetic counter or a physician's crowded dining table). But although we focus on these tangible props, our understanding of them does not necessarily help us apprehend the larger forces behind them. Oates has repeatedly been called a "realist" because her technique often does suggest that method; but for the most part, her accumulation of fact is an irony—locating and describing the easily discernible is precisely what will not work in any full confrontation with reality…. The fascination for Oates as writer lies in acknowledging that her readers' interest will center on character rather than on milieu ("All literature deals with contests of will"), and then working within a method which seems to emphasize the latter.

If Oates is never a simple realist, neither is she the traditional character-oriented story teller. Her insistence on the importance of character remains oblique to usual protestations of that sort. Since one of the comforts of art is that it allows the artist to create order, to impose a personal moral standard on chaotic surroundings, most writers use character to reflect those personal standards. (p. xviii)

In Oates' fiction, for all its emphasis on fact and all its reliance on powerful character, the assumption that the artist is in control is clearly absent. Artist-as-judge has become artist-as-recorder. Her readers have sometimes expressed dismay that such unpleasant things happen to characters, while Oates as author appears to have little opinion about these reprehensible situations—little opinion, little sympathy, little outrage. What kind of moral judgment underlies Oates' fiction? So different is her approach to the use of character-to-instruct that many readers feel uncomfortable interpreting her fiction…. [Oates] tends to judge implicitly. Content to observe people in their usually mundane worlds, she presents them in their touching inarticulateness; most important, she ascribes little if any "meaning" to their suffering. Recognizing the mysteries of life—especially at this commonplace and often silent level—is Oates' accomplishment; translating that mute suffering so that readers are moved by it even when they do not fully understand it is her aim. (pp. xviii-xix)

Oates's fascination with character has, in effect, created her prolegomenon, for her world view is one that recognizes the primacy of emotion over reason, that emphasizes the reality of human passion…. The force, the intensity of passion, is an index of a character's being able to transcend the trivial. All these details in Oates' fiction insist, more clearly than any philosophical treatise could, that the mundane will only starve us; that coherent pattern is not, in itself, adequate. Her admiration for writers such as Chekhov, Yeats, and the absurdist playwrights stems from the fact that they resist "systematic definitions"; they "remain true to their subject—life—by refusing to reduce their art to a single emotion and idea." (p. xix)

[Her] collection of short fiction, Scenes from American Life, presents a paradigm of Oates' personal movement from the ostensibly objective and factual to the strange, mysterious, fantastic—or, at least, inexplicable. (pp. xix-xx)

Oates' own stylistic changes, and her approaches to what have remained remarkably consistent themes, depend in large part on that kind of progression—from dealing with "lies that seem quite plausible" to "lies that exhibit themselves proudly as lies"; from the painfully serious to the near-comic or grotesque; from the halting pace of detailed realism to the flurry of surreal speed. The progression is not, of course, rigid; hints of Oates' later styles occurred in her first writings…. The connotation of "progression" to suggest a linear course is somewhat misleading: Oates' later fiction moves instead toward an unfolding, an opening; its movement is circular rather than linear, hoping to lead in and down as well as out, aiming toward revealing those emotions common to every person—reader, character, author. (p. xx)

Most of [her characters] look for fulfillment in romantic love, although in Oates' fiction, genuine love is rare. It remains illusive, even though mentor figures deify it…. Oates' plots are often based on the search for love; perhaps that is one reason she writes frequently about teenagers, though her characters of every age and marital state are usually in quest of some idealized romance. This pervasive use of the love relationship suggests the real vacuum in the lives (and imaginations) of her characters. For example, the single-mindedness of the fifteen-year-old Connie in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" underscores the assumptions of the title—women and girls are possessions to be watched, valuable chiefly for their physical properties (beauty, chastity). In Oates' cryptic accumulation of detail, she conveys not only literal meanings but also attitudes toward the women described…. Choosing the term "psychological realism," Oates achieves her seemingly objective tone … at least partly by writing in third person. No matter how many factual details she gives about a character, the point of view distances the reader…. (pp. xx-xxi)

[Knowledge] in Oates' early novels is presented didactically. By the time of them, 1969, she has modified her third-person exposition enough to rely a bit more on the image and scene conveying meaning…. For all its third-person perspective, [scenes in them resemble] the kind of stream-of-consciousness she used in Expensive People and would use to a greater extent in The Assassins: A Book of Hours and Childwold…. The possessed Kasch of Childwold could only be believable through an interior monologue…. Oates' change to first person enables her to follow the non-rational impulses of her characters, to give her readers some insight into that mysterious world of emotion that prompts most action. For her at least, the third-person appeared to be less flexible; and those characters developed in fiction told objectively too often remained enigmas to her readers. The mixture of first and third in Son of the Morning works very well; this novel also has a concentration of focus on a single character that is new to Oates' fiction.

Regardless of the difference in effect between Oates' third-person and first-person narrative, her fiction continues to show patterns and oddities of contemporary life. (pp. xxi-xxii)

For a writer so dedicated to shaping our vision of American culture, and so interested in revealing the mysterious forces of human response, Oates' later novels hardly diminish the bleakness of her first fiction; but their method is somewhat changed. That her canvas remains the same is more a charge to our responsibility than to hers. (p. xxiii)

Linda W. Wagner, "Oates: The Changing Shapes of Her Realities," in Great Lakes Review (reprinted with permission), Vol. 5, No. 2, Winter, 1979 (and reprinted in a different form as "Joyce Carol Oates: The Changing Shapes of Her Realities," in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Linda W. Wagner, G. K. Hall & Co., 1979, pp. xvii-xxxi).

G. F. Waller

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3627

The almost obligatory topic with which to introduce Oates is, in fact, the amount she has published. A survey of her work may suggest a compulsive writer and maybe even a lack of self-criticism. Her poems … are often jagged and metrically uncertain, and sometimes over-packed with superfluous words; but frequently they can crystallize with electrifying clarity inexplicable moments of experience on the edge of fear, despair, terror, or joy. Many read, in fact, like passionate footnotes to her stories or novels…. As well as overlapping with her fiction, her criticism, it should be noted, is often extraordinarily suggestive, especially in the way it opens up, by analogy or brooding meditation, startling psychological and philosophical perspectives.

It is in the short stories perhaps that Oates's best work is to be found…. Many of the stories are certainly repetitive or trivial. But some—"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters," "Accomplished Desires" from The Wheel of Love, "The Sacred Marriage" from Marriages and Infidelities, to mention a few of the best—are so bewilderingly evocative that they must rate along with the masterpieces of the genre…. [But] it is with her novels that her reputation and importance must rest. It is there that her prophetic urgency, the obsessive desire to "dream America," emerges at its most tantalizing, frustrating, and evocative. The early novels, although technically more cautious, nevertheless share the same obsessions as the mature works of the seventies, where Oates attempts to dramatize the mystery of the human spirit struggling amongst our personal and shared nightmares. (pp. 2-4)

Alongside most of her contemporaries, Oates does stand out as a curiously chameleon figure. "America outdoes all its writers," observes Richard, the narrator of Expensive People, and Oates takes her role seriously as searching for ways of surviving within the flux of modern America. At times … she moves vigorously towards postcontemporary fictionists like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme, but even in such stories, "the social and moral conditions of my generation" are kept consistently in view. Rather waspishly, she criticizes "new fictionists" and "black humorists" for their refusal to "deal with the utterly uncontrollable emotions that determine our lives." (p. 6)

Biographical trivia aside, there is a real sense in which, in Oates's words, "all art is autobiographical." It is initially the record of an artist's psychic experience, an attempt to explain something to himself. Just as in her novels and stories the "real" Detroit becomes "transparent" in her imaginative X ray of the felt experience of living there, so her everyday life as woman, writer, wife, professor, or housewife, provides only a superstructure of a literary personality: quiet, passive, yet fiercely creative, crystallizing not (or not only) her own but her era's deepest, most tangled, obsessions…. We can see that there is an explorative unity in Oates's work; despite its surface variety, like D. H. Lawrence's, the diversity of her writing is already forming itself into what we might term an emotional autobiography, although one that is hardly a mirror of the surfaces of her own life. Looking at obvious affinities, we can set her early writing in a realist tradition, then note the frequent flirtation with the antirealists or fabulators in the late sixties, and see her, in the seventies, taking up a cautiously experimental but hardly avant-garde place in the contemporary city of words. (pp. 8-9)

But a more interesting means of defining the importance and power of her fiction can be achieved by a less academically predictable route. Oates's fictional mode, more than most novelists', has developed as a distinctive state of feeling thrust at her reader. Some of the most compelling writing in contemporary fiction, her stories force upon readers an often frightening sense of our own fears, obsessions, and drives. Indeed, her work operates in terms best described by that increasingly fashionable motif in contemporary fictional theory, the notion of the "implied reader."…

[In] Oates's fiction we have a vivid example of how a writer must rely heavily on the emotional cooperation of the reader. Her geographical landscapes evoke our own emotional or moral dilemmas and allegiances and in reading her we attend not so much to the shifts of plot or scene but to our own changing emotional reactions. (p. 9)

In order for her novels, to use D. H. Lawrence's phrase, to "inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness," Oates's fiction plunges us into a distinctively felt atmosphere. All the novels are similarly structured, often as triptychs (with an occasional summary addendum, as in Do With Me What You Will), usually concentrating on three phases of a central character's growth to self-awareness. The underlying pattern of discovery in the novels is evoked by the charisma of emotional extremism: actions seem inevitably violent, speech is ejaculative and hostile, underlying fears constantly burst through the surface of the action. Oates's typical imagery reinforces this extremism: imprisonment, shattering glass, bursting and breaking, explosions dominate the emotional field of the action…. As Phyllis Grosskurth points out, crazy is a favorite word in the novels, and all of Oates's important characters live just on the boundaries of sanity as they clutch and claw at the possibility of momentary order in the flux of their lives. Her intention is partly to achieve a shock of emotional extremism which will involve both attention and recognition in the reader's experience…. The form, or formlessness, of her work, then, is deliberately perspectival as we, her readers, are driven to create the form, or formlessness, of our own lives and our own private fictions…. (p. 11)

[There] is also in Oates's fictional world something of what she perceives in Lawrence's poetry, where one finds "literally everything: beauty, waste, 'flocculent ash,' the ego in a state of rapture and in a state of nausea, a diverse streaming of chaos and cunning."… In Oates's novels such chaos is invariably situated in the emotions, in the convulsive eruption of obsessive feeling, in the pain, anguish, distraught embarrassment, and violence of the personality…. Our understanding of Oates's fiction depends on our sensing how the "meaning" … is as much in the voice as in the words: the reader is asked to respond to an unusual extent to mood, timbre, and modulation of voice. We may, of course, be nauseated, appalled, fearful, and hostile. But once seized by that voice, we cannot choose but listen, and to submit to Oates's world is to enter a realm of psychic violence potentially disturbing to any sensitive reader. Oates has an unusual ability to bring out the reader's own hidden fears and psychic nightmares…. The real "events" by which Oates's characters are motivated lie deep within the protean chaos of the personality, and her readers are directed back into the depths of their own inner worlds, perhaps to encounter chaos there. (pp. 11-12)

Oates's fiction can be tellingly approached through a Lawrentian perspective. Her brilliant account of Lawrence's poetry—surely, despite its brevity, one of the most suggestive pieces of Lawrence criticism in recent decades—speaks of him in terms that strangely reverberate upon her own approach to the artist's role…. Fascination with flux, with art as prophecy, with the therapeutic exposure of the self—these central Lawrentian motifs are fused and re-created in Oates's work. (pp. 12-13)

It is because of the seriousness with which Oates takes the novelist's role as prophet that we might judge her by Lawrence's understanding of "morality" rather than by purely aesthetic criteria, or within the conventional formal terms of fiction…. His argument was that only the novel could express its reader's deep awareness of the age's perspectival relativism…. Only the novel, the bright book of life, could reflect and direct the dynamism of the age. (pp. 14-15)

[It] is above all the novelist's responsibility to "re-create and reinterpret the world," to provide, even though forced to employ the slipperiness of words, the impetus towards what Lawrence called "the Deed of life." Paradoxically, even tragically, the writer " is committed to re-creating the world through language…. The use of language is all we have to put against death and silence." The destiny of the novelist is therefore to simultaneously subject himself to and evoke for us the chaos within, exorcising and exhorting at once, providing the reader, one would hope, with the challenge of a profound waking dream. Our dreams offer to show us the deepest roots of our creativity: we hunger for significance and art satisfies that hunger. So the novelist's role, today, becomes that of "dreaming America," an attempt to master in fiction the "chaos outside and inside ourselves," occasionally "winning small victories," then facing the inevitability of "being swept along by some cataclysmic event of our own making." The novelist, [Oates] writes, encounters Lawrence's "madness for the unknown," his "diverse streaming of chaos and cunning" and attempts to render a stasis in his own fiction and, through our receptivity, in the fictions we ourselves constantly create, revise, and re-create. (pp. 15-16)

But it is [the] emphasis on the apocalypse beyond and through corruption, or in Oates's own terms, the transcendence achieved through obsession, that she shares fundamentally with Lawrence. Oates apparently came to Lawrence relatively late, but she must have sensed immediately a genius whose characteristic stance uncannily challenged her own obsessions, leading her to assert that ultimately only someone spiritually attuned to Lawrence could comprehend his work.

The most obvious connection between Lawrence and Oates is their fascination with sexuality…. Like Lawrence, Oates is fascinated with the power and the dynamic of sex. She focuses repeatedly on the numinous aura of sexuality, on how sexuality contributes to, or so often mocks, our attempts to order our lives…. [While] Oates's view of sexuality acknowledges its embodiment of our hunger for purpose, she also notes that love must be acknowledged as a violent and unstoppable force, not simply an instinctive urge to achieve rest of transcendence. Again, an interesting comparison is with Lawrence. In both writers sexual relations are relations of possibility and power. They may be like the destructive preying of Gudrun upon Gerald, the fierce battle for equilibrium between Birkin and Ursula, or in Oates's work, what she terms "the totally irrational, possessive, ego-destroying love, which can't be controlled and is, perhaps, a pathological condition of the soul," such as the relationship between the lovers in Do With Me What You Will or the tragically unfulfilled desires brought out in stories like "Scenes of Passion and Desire" or "I Must Have You." The most painful and evocative scenes in Oates's work focus on the power of sexual attraction and repulsion and it is in her concentration on sexual desire as an unpredictable and awesome force for change in the personality that her closest thematic connection with Lawrence is found. In love, all we have fixed and made "permanent" … may be suddenly and fearfully shattered. Life becomes fragmentary and unpredictable; where once we had lived by rationality and comfort, in love we become defined primarily by fear and fragility. As in Lawrence's fiction, with Oates's best work we are involved in the affective dimension of the writing. Its rhythmic surges and melodramatic intensification make us face, in ourselves, that same fear and fragility.

As readers we are forced by Oates's concentration upon our feelings to focus on the intense state in which her characters make discoveries about themselves. The typical Oates character, usually a woman, is continually bombarded by sensation—fear, insecurity, a sense of formlessness from within, pursuit from without. (pp. 17-18)

Like [Lawrence's] Ursula desperately climbing the tree to escape the horses to tumble "in a heap on the other side of the hedge" and realizing that she is "trammelled and entangled" and "must break out … like a nut from its shell," so Oates's women characters must make some radical act of the whole integral personality to discover their true inner direction.

It is perhaps the very totality of both writers' obsession for the importance of sexual connections that makes them reach for what Lawrence saw as a dimension of experience found through and yet somehow beyond sex. Both writers link human sexuality with the Nietzschean vision of the self struggling to overcome itself…. [Pain,] memory, and fear are transformed as sexuality becomes, in its mystery, terror and joy, part of the neutral rhythm of the circumambient universe, the life of sensation and emotions by which men and women transcend time, place, and limitation. From such connections, not only do all life-affirming human commitments grow, but humanity is challenged to reach beyond itself. Lawrence's thought here, Oates has argued, "is really revolutionary; it is a total rejection of that dogma of the West that declares Man is the measure of all things."…

Lawrence's vision of sexual transcendence often strikes readers as paradoxical in a writer so obsessed with sexual attraction and repulsion; but at its strongest, sexual connection was for Lawrence a means of finding a nourishing relationship with nature and the universe: perhaps, he wrote, the human race is dying, but there is "a flame or a Life Everlasting wreathing through the cosmos for ever and giving us our renewal, one we can get in touch with." Fifty years later, less ideologically explicit, but with equivalent passion and evocation, Oates's prophetic vision attempts to define the tragedy of our age, in which individuals yearn towards a new consciousness, sensed through and yet ultimately transcending sexuality, by exploring similarly the way passion and its necessary violence "redeem and may perhaps make a kind of eternity."… (pp. 19-21)

In Lady Chatterley's Lover the mechanism of industrialization is a symbol of the repetitive, mechanical forces of human reason and repressed emotion. With the woods increasingly shrinking back from the encroaching mines and factories, for Lawrence it was increasingly urgent to seek the dark flame of human spontaneity, and the deed rather than the word of life. Similarly, from Oates's work we sense just how crucial it is to move beyond the limitations of our isolated self-concentration. We must ultimately open ourselves to the obliteration of the ego and our fixation with its uniqueness. Just as Lawrence saw the fulfillment of the individual consisting in going beyond the individual, to a relationship of star-equilibrium, so Oates looks beyond the guilt-obsessed individuality of our era. (p. 23)

Lyrical prophecy is usually irritatingly unanalyzable; it is exhortatory not descriptive, demanding the assent of faith not logic. But in these two writers there is an accompanying grasp of sensual reality that roots their vision in the world. Lawrence's apocalyptic mysticism was based on a vision of a transformed individuality; Oates speaks of "the potential of normality" and of the growing contemporary realization "(so clear in imaginative literature, so muddled elsewhere) that it is here, in the soul, inside the fantastically complex phenomenon of man, that the salvation of the world will take place." (p. 25)

Both Lawrence and Oates … are only superficially novelists of place and landscape. "Landscape," wrote Lawrence, is "meant as a background to an intenser vision of life." So Oates's Detroit …, like her Eden County or her California, like Lawrence's Derbyshire or Swiss Alps, exist not as settings in their own right but are created through the leaps of lyrical, passionate feeling with which they are experienced by the characters and the reader. Throughout Oates's fiction, details of setting are habitually chosen for their associations of feeling. In "Ruth," from The Goddess and Other Women, the incipient violence within a decaying marriage is evoked by the deceptively realistic opening description…. The concentration of natural surroundings—the original wood, the swamp, the dying trees mysteriously connected with the highway—not only set a mood, they provide the reader with an initial emblem, a moral focus for developments later in the story. Similarly, although evoked tactilely, at times almost photographically, Oates's Detroit in Them particularly possesses the vivid significance of an X ray rather than the gaudy realism of a Kodakchrome print. In a not dissimilar way, Lawrence's Derbyshire in The Rainbow or his Australia in Kangaroo are imbued with the spirit, not the pictorial details of place. (p. 75)

Oates's vision of places like Detroit similarly arises from her concern with the city as symbol. She is obsessed not merely by the social profusion of America, but by the ways eddying, brooding currents of feeling tie our society together, and her fiction evokes the city as a revelation of psychological rather than social realism…. The sense of victimization, the rootless bewilderment and paucity of relationships are all rooted in the psyche, and they emerge in our involuntary movements, or cryptic, frustrated ejaculations of command or insult. Likewise, the autonomy of transcendence that may liberate us in the city is possible only from within ourselves. Detroit is everywhere. We cannot escape its pressure upon us, but we may transcend it through the resources we discover within our inner lives. (pp. 75-6)

As with setting, so with character. Lawrence's famous letter to Edward Garnett outlines a view of character which has been strikingly influential in subsequent fiction and psychology, and it is, I suggest, as helpful a key to many of Oates's characters as the American romance-gothic tradition into which she more obviously fits. "You mustn't," he wrote, "look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've been used to exercise to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged elements." We respond to his characters, in their violent, rhythmical lyricism, as states of feeling, as vivid, personified intuitions of human potential, attracting or repulsing other centers of feeling (including the reader's). The very concept of a fixed self was for Lawrence a disastrously over-conscious conception of being, not only in fiction but in life, a solidification of experience that ignores the risk and chaos in the personality…. In a similar way, and despite her careful attention to surface detail, to the social trivia of the farm, city, hospital, or university, Oates concentrates on the moving, shifting surges of the personality that not only respond to but create their surroundings. Her most significant characters curiously combine, in the way romance characters do, heightened cliché and symbolic vividness that resound back upon their surrounding world—and then out to the reader's own world. The horrendous Dr. Pedersen in Wonderland, the dead Andrew Petrie in The Assassins, the ambitious Clara in A Garden of Earthly Delights are all evoked as centers of passionate consciousness, not depicted in the clear objectivity of the "stable ego" of personality. We fix on insignificant objects or incidents and project our inner urges upon them. Thus, minor details of setting, incident, or surroundings are heightened by and are reflections of the personality's obsessive subjectivity…. Tiny details of life suddenly, terrifyingly seize upon us and become obsessions. (pp. 78-9)

Her characters are seized upon by obscurely motivated, inexplicable urges which frequently erupt obsessively, turning apparently solid reality into something else, forcing us tragically to confront our limits and battle unsuccessfully to transcend them. (p. 80)

Because Oates's characters tend to exist as the foci of such obsessions, not as case histories of social or political development, they are frequently depicted in stereotypical form. (p. 81)

Even though Oates's work in the seventies shows more experimentation, her choice of form continues to be determined by the material of the story; she is not interested, it seems, in simply playing with fictional forms. She once criticized Donald Barthelme for his reliance on fragments, quoting a remark in one of his stories, that "fragments are the only forms I trust." It is therefore ironic, and perhaps heartening, to see the skill with which she too can employ fragmentary, open-ended fictions even if she uses fragments without the playful panache of Barthelme or Sukenick. Her … two novels, The Assassins and Childwold, show just how she has developed in her longer fictions. Childwold, in particular, presents us with a polyphony of dislocated epiphanies—scraps of dialogue, isolated memories, written and unwritten fantasies, long naturalistic scenes, few (and sometimes no) transitions, ritual chants, diary entries, quotations from philosophers, snatches of action, long Faulknerian sentences, blocks of space, disjointed paragraphs. Paradoxically, behind the randomness of the novel's surface story is not only an impressive intensification of conflict and self-discovery but a deeply pessimistic story of moral consequence and fearful accident. Rather than producing an atmosphere of cosmic randomness, the formal incertitude of the novel reinforces Oates's grimly coherent vision. The spaces, dislocations, and frayed ends of her fiction invariably point to the apocalyptic state of contemporary America. There are inevitably echoes of her earlier novels … but her technical control and experimentation … are startling. Probably never before has Oates handled such a difficult fictional form so effectively, especially the transition she achieves at the novel's end, as an apparent, if complex, order dissolves into chaos and randomness. (p. 84)

Oates has searched, often repetitively and restlessly, for forms which will be appropriate vehicles of her vision. The world around us appears material and trustworthy, rational and comprehendable—and she sees our salvation as lying in the gaps between the material things and the rational thoughts of our world. Dislocation, fragments, and evocative incoherence may be the way her vision is articulated, but in a sense, her vision chooses her…. Whereas we cannot see Oates in the forefront of the explorers of the postmodernist terrain, her recent work especially shows her capable of leading bivouacs over the most difficult areas of that terrain. (p. 85)

G. F. Waller, in his Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates (reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press; copyright © 1979 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1979, 224 p.

John Gardner

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

"Bellefleur" is the most ambitious book to come so far from that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates. However one may carp, the novel is proof, if any seems needed, that she is one of the great writers of our time. "Bellefleur" is a symbolic summation of all this novelist has been doing for 20-some years, a magnificent piece of daring, a tour de force of imagination and intellect….

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 when it is viewed (as Miss Oates always views it) as a Christian Platonist's "vast array of emblems." The only really frightening scenes in "Bellefleur" deal with real-world atrocities—a boy's stoning of another boy, for instance, or the murder of a family by a bunch of drunken thugs—and these scenes in fact come nowhere near the horror of scenes in earlier novels by Miss Oates, such as the murder of Yvonne in "The Assassins." What drives Miss Oates's fiction is her phobias: that is, her fear that normal life may suddenly turn monstrous….

I cannot summarize the plot of "Bellefleur"; for one thing, it's too complex—an awesome construction, in itself a work of genius—and for another, plot surprises are part of the novel's glory. (p. 1)

Much as one admires the ambition of "Bellefleur," the novel is slightly marred by it: It too noticeably labors after greatness. The book has most of the familiar Oates weaknesses: the panting, melodramatic style she too often allows herself; the heavy, heavy symbolism; and occasional esthetic miscalculations that perhaps come from thinking too subtly, forgetting that first of all a story must be a completely persuasive lie. In "Bellefleur," the artifice undermines emotional power, makes the book cartoonish. (pp. 1, 21)

Unhappily, some of [the] motifs or plot strands—whose recurrence is unavoidable once the machinery gets rolling—are somewhat boring…. [There] is Jedediah Bellefleur, one of the recurring types in Miss Oates's fiction, the saintly man who, like Stephen in "The Assassins" or Nathan in "Son of the Morning," loses his hold on God.

Jedediah is interesting, up to a point, and he's both dramatically and symbolically crucial to the story; but I at least am sorry when, every few chapters, we have to return to Jedediah and watch him staring at something improbably called Mount Blanc or struggling with his not very interesting demons. ("He's nuts, that's all," we say, and slog on.) In the end Jedediah proves worth it all. He loses his sense of holy mission, thus becoming an appropriate focus of the blind and raging life force Miss Oates writes about in all her work….

Whatever its faults, "Bellefleur" is simply brilliant. What do we ask of a book except that it be wonderful to read? An interesting story with profound implications? The whole religious-philosophical view of Joyce Carol Oates is here cleanly and dramatically stated. She has been saying for years, in book after book … that the world is Platonic. We are the expression of one life force, but once individuated we no longer know it, so that we recoil in horror from the expression of the same force in other living beings…. We are all unreflectable nonimages in mirrors, creatures of time, and time is an illusion….

"Bellefleur" is a medieval allegory of caritas versus cupiditas, love and selflessness versus pride and selfishness. The central symbol of the novel is change, baffling complexity, mystery. One character makes "crazy quilts" in which only she can see the pattern. Another has been trying all his life to map the Bellefleur holdings, but everything keeps changing—rivers change their courses, mountains shrink. Time is crazy. In fact what is known in Shakespeare criticism as "sliding time" becomes a calculated madness in "Bellefleur."…

[This] is the most openly religious of [Miss Oates's] books—not that she argues any one sectarian point of view. Here as in several of her earlier works the Angel of Death is an important figure, but here for the first time the Angel of Life (not simply resignation) is the winner….

[Jed] becomes the instrument of the blind life force that, accidentally, indifferently, makes everything of value, makes everything beautiful by the simple virtue of its momentary existence. Thanks to Jedediah, God goes on senselessly humming, discovering Himself. That is, in Miss Oates's vision, the reason we have to live and the reason life, however dangerous, can be a joy, once we understand our situation: We are God's body.

Joyce Carol Oates is a "popular" novelist because her stories are suspenseful (and the suspense is never fake: The horror will really come, as well as, sometimes, the triumph), because her sex scenes are steamy and because when she describes a place you think you're there. Pseudo-intellectuals seem to hate that popularity and complain, besides, that she "writes too much." (For pseudo-intellectuals there are always too many books.) To real intellectuals Miss Oates's work tends to be appealing, partly because her vision is huge, well-informed and sound, and partly because they too like suspense, brilliant descriptions and sex. Though "Bellefleur" is not her best book, in my opinion it's a wonderful book all the same. By one two-page thunderstorm she makes the rest of us novelists wonder why we left the farm. (p. 21)

John Gardner, "The Strange Real World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 20, 1980, pp. 1, 21.

John Leonard

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

American literature doesn't have many Russians, Dostoyevskys into whose ears a mad god dictates, writers who are possessed. Melville is one, and Faulkner is another, and Norman Mailer on occasion is a third, depending on the phase of his moon. Joyce Carol Oates, however, is a Russian, drunk on God and history, hearing voices, speaking tongues, slapdash and parenthetical and repetitious and headlong, as if she had been hurled out of time and memory and patience, as if the future were a killer whale. (pp. 436-37)

The conventions of literature are, for Miss Oates, truncheons and harpoons. On one level, "Bellefleur" is Gothic pulp fiction, cleverly consuming itself. We are introduced to generation after generation of Bellefleurs, a family with a "curse." Is the curse passion, or greed?…

On another level, "Bellefleur" is fairy tale and myth, distraught literature. There is a walled garden, a decayed tower, a sinister cat, a swamp monster, a spider as big as a humming bird, a man who turns into a bear, a pond that breathes, [and other such elements]….

Can American history contain so much pulp and myth? Are we—in the 130 years or so it takes the Bellefleurs to disgrace themselves—that interesting?… When the vulture swoops to steal the bastard child Cassandra, is Miss Oates really serious?

Yes, she is serious, disdaining God and punishing sinners. Like a serious Russian, she is fierce in her metaphysics. Her allegory is a curse. The Bellefleurs—America—lynched the Indians, enslaved the blacks, raped the land…. (p. 437)

The greed of the Bellefleurs will be punished. Miss Oates is more punitive than Flannery O'Connor; she seems to despise God for his neglect, his failure to pay attention to the children, an indifference on God's part that is as extravagant as his self-indulgence. God put us here, and then wandered off to smoke a cigarette while a lot of ugly history was being born…. America is serious enough for pulp and myth, Miss Oates seems to be saying, because in our greed we never understood that the Civil War really was a struggle for the possession of our soul.

It is pointless to diagram this novel. It is an Old Testament, like the "Four Quartets" of T. S. Eliot. The Bellefleurs rut and build and transgress and avenge and rage and whimper and are destroyed. There are no accidents; a peculiar equilibrium is insisted on. (pp. 437-38)

Our greed is sinful; without God, we will punish ourselves. Miss Oates writes, so impatiently, as if her vulture will arrive before Cassandra can sing a dirge. "Bellefleur" is cold and splendid. (p. 438)

John Leonard, "'Bellefleur'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 21, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 9, 1980, pp. 436-38).

John Calvin Batchelor

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195

Joyce Carol Oates's 12th novel, Bellefleur, is stuffed with … joyous, breathless nonsense. It is the great gift here. One begins this overlong, voluptuously written book by resisting the Gothic winds; but then, because Hugh Walpole, the Brontes, and Mary Shelley really did invent something magical, one surrenders. Joyce Carol Oates has a huge, hilarious heart, her sense of humor and satire rivaling Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Monty Python. One has previously been informed that she is prosaic and pretentious. Slander. In Bellefleur, she clowns, mesmerizes, takes off. This novel is for the beach, sidewalk cafe lunches, airplane rides. It has some very serious themes, such as time, justice, true religion; but its most serious—you'd hardly know it from the current reviews—accomplishment is that it is funny….

[The] most startling and important fact one learns from this lovely conceit, Bellefleur, is that Oates knows that comedy is more profound than tragedy, is certainly more difficult to write successfully, and is her true calling.

John Calvin Batchelor, "Hot News: Funny Oates" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 31, July 30-August 5, 1980, p. 34.

Russell Banks

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

When a plot grossly outweighs the main story, as it does here, the form is inefficient or else the novel is satirical. Bellefleur is definitely not satirical. It is an incredibly elaborate gothic romance, stuffed to overflowing with outsize, grotesquely intense characters who speak to one another breathlessly, in a rage or merely incoherently, and who beg to be taken as emblems for moral qualities or historical forces, or both. (p. 4)

It is certainly possible to read and enjoy a novel with characters and incidents like these: Faulkner, Garcia Márquez, Flannery O'Connor, and many other modern writers have asked us to face grotesque forms of violence, and by so doing have explored basic themes of character and destiny. But when there is no dramatic logic to those events and characters, when what happens is not inevitable but merely gratuitous, the book fails to move or inform us. Particularly disturbing in this case, however, is not that Bellefleur fails to move or inform us, but that it seems to function as a means of expressing the author's fantasies, for that is what one is forced to conclude from the sheer gratuitousness of the violence and nightmare. Dreams and fantasies hold to different logic than that of narrative art, which is why people quickly grow bored when one tries to recount them; they have a use solely for the dreamer and the fantasizer.

Furthermore, Bellefleur is shockingly humorless, shocking because it is so long and because one cannot understand how an author could avoid creating comical consequences with characters so frequently and bizarrely in conflict. But then dreams and fantasies too are seldom comical.

Beyond this, the language Oates employs is revealing. Lengthy, serpentine, wildly elaborate sentences, uselessly heaped-up modifiers, and phrases and clauses that simply repeat previous phrases and clauses create an inflated, baroque style that is undercut by dashes, exclamation points, italics, ellipses, bad grammar and downright inaccuracies, all combining to give the impression that what we are reading is an author's rough draft. This makes sense, however, if the author is merely fantasizing. After all, one does not revise dreams or fantasies, one simply experiences them.

Bellefleur is not bad because Oates' strategies fail, or because she writes sloppy prose, or because she is humorless; the book fails because she has misused the ancient and honorable occasion for storytelling. This is not a literary work, it is a public showing of a private act, and that is why we are embarrassed when we read it. (pp. 8, 14)

Russell Banks, "Joyce Carol Oates: In a Gothic Manor," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), August 17, 1980, pp. 4, 8, 14.

David Bell

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163

[Much] of Joyce Carol Oates's recent prose output has been an unpruned orchard of high gothic romance. The tales collected in A Sentimental Education are her newest transplants from the genre….

All six stories are plotless rambles through emotional terrain as bleak and autumnal as the settings in which they are cast. (p. 72)

Sound, not sense, is Miss Oates's strength; yet, frequently, her hypnotic cadences are shattered by a crescendo of unblushing hyperbole ("His blood surged, pulse upon pulse, in waves of clarity." "In his arms she was immortal."). Furthermore, there is no logical development or web of inevitability in the movement of her narrative. Each story seems to have been distilled from the subconscious effluvia of the moment. Wordy and vague, they are, at best, accessible only to the most indulgent and empathetic of readers. (p. 73)

David Bell, "Book Briefs: 'A Sentimental Education: Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 72-3.

Robert Kiely

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

That Joyce Carol Oates writes with an unmistakably American voice is a truth more or less universally acknowledged. Though the locations of the six stories in "A Sentimental Education," as in her other fiction, are most often the urban and suburban Middle West and East Coast, she is not a regional writer. Her characters speak with the recognizable monotony of those whose inherited accents have been worn down by an indifferent education, mediocre journalism and exposure through radio and television to plastic English. (p. 7)

One of the characteristics of these tired people and their worn-out language is the lack of the resilience necessary to express self-knowledge through humor….

The loss of accent and of wit signals a broader, more inclusive poverty. Figures in the stories are repeatedly saying that they cannot help being the way they are and their actions bear them out. They are, for the most part, creatures without will and therefore with very little of what normally passes for character….

People behave as if in a state of permanent trance….

Their extraordinary and often violent behavior notwithstanding, the characters in these stories are not very interesting. Psychotic patterns flatten and simplify personality, but they do not replace it. One looks in vain for motivation, for reasoning or feeling of even the most rudimentary kind….

What does Joyce Carol Oates make of this material? As in all of her fiction, she presents it with an impressive eye for concrete detail and an ear for the strained, repetitious dialogues that pass for conversation. One of her gifts has always been to write in such a way that, at a certain level, the reader believes totally in the authenticity of her inventions. Her stories—even the very short ones—have bulk….

Miss Oates has sometimes been compared to Flannery O'Connor. If you take away the dialect, the laughter and the redemption, that's right…. In her stories, there is an American profile: design but no beauty, clearsightedness but no vision, energy but no purpose. If such fiction appears to be an exercise in collective self-hatred, she may well have captured the spirit of the land. (p. 21)

Robert Kiely, "An American Voice," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 4, 1981, pp. 7, 21.


Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 15)


Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 2)