Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 19)

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Joanne V. Creighton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

(The entire section is 8,962 words.)