I Lock My Door Upon Myself by Joyce Carol Oates

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I Lock My Door Upon Myself

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

If a writer’s palette is his life, then the prolific and versatile Joyce Carol Oates has lived many lives. In I LOCK MY DOOR UPON MYSELF, inspired by Fernand Khnopff’s painting, Oates examines yet another human enigma. One sees the principal character, Edith Margaret Honeystone, through the eyes of her granddaughter. Yet at times Edith, whom her mother named Calla before dying, speaks directly to the reader, as though she will break free of any but her own perspective, the any but her own restraints.

Calla’s name, taken from the Calla lily, was not her baptismal name, nor was it what she was called. Only she, and later her black lover, used it. Her husband never even knew it. Thus “Calla,” with its connotations of whiteness, of purity, of biblical ease and freedom, and of death, resounds throughout the novel like a secret spell, an icon of a woman’s fate.

Young Calla is not a stiff, sedate lily, but a wildflower, in her rambles in the woods, in her disinterest in “proper” human relations, in her feral innocence. She marries a man she does not love and bears him three children out of indifference. Then as she wanders in the woods one day she sees Tyrell Thompson, the son of a former slave, a drifter, a man who is the friend of water, who can find it with a divining rod, no matter how deep under the ground it lies.

The passion between these two culminates, in the year 1912, in their final rendezvous. a triumphant and desperate ride in a rowboat down the Chautauqua River to the deadly Chautauqua Falls and over. The image of the white, flame-haired woman and the black man moments before the water rushes them to the book’s climax recurs and resurfaces, each time revealing more, yet still confounding.

The book does not end here, for Calla Honeystone’s life is “a life split in two but not in half.” She emerges from the wreckage to begin a different life, this time as a willing prisoner, a life as decorous as it once was heedless. By the end of the book one sees that Calla is both prisoner and master of her fate.

Oates’s intuitive sense of the exotic amid the commonplace informs the book. Calla Honeystone is a haunting creation, familiar yet confounding, like a family legend, a skeleton in the closet, a recurring dream.