The Museum of Dr. Moses

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

It is hard to say where Joyce Carol Oates gets the ideas for such gruesome subjects and images as those featured in The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspensea jogger who shoots another in the face, a poached baby, a humanities professor who turns his decaying corpse into a valentine, a chubby little boy who returns to the wild, a man who appreciates the infinite variety of women before he kills them, and a dotty old doctor who creates a museum of medical horrors. The stories in this collection are not for the queasy or weak at heart or for before- or after-dinner reading.

The Museum of Dr. Moses is also probablynot among the best works in this prolific author’s fifty-year writing career. (For Oates’s best, readers should go to such novels as 1969’s them and 1996’s We Were the Mulvaneys and such story collections as 2006’s High Lonesome.) A couple of the collection’s stories are little more than sketches, some characters and actions are not well developed, and Oates overdoes the gory details and ambiguous endings. Significantly, the collection is still high-quality work: fascinating, gripping, imaginative, and morbidly entertaining. Oates is equally good at entering the minds of both children and psychopaths, and she is such a practiced and accomplished craftsperson/stylist that she can hold the reader’s attention much like a snake charmer. To students and scholars, the stories are also useful for what they reveal about Oates and her work.

For one thing, the stories tap into elemental, archetypal human fears that run through folklore and fairy tales and that help shape the American urban landscape, with its ghettos, suburbs, and gated communities. Almost any newspaper or news report shows that these fears are not just imaginary or psychological but realistic (even if often exaggerated or sensationalized): Violence is endemic to American life, both on a personal and societal basis, and is obsessively reenacted in movies, television shows, and games. It is not surprising that the sensitive and highly intelligent Oates, who grew up poor in rural upstate New York, was a teenager in the repressed 1950’s, was valedictorian of her two-thousand-strong graduating class at Syracuse University, and taught college English in or near decaying Detroit during the troubled 1960’s and 1970’s, should take an interest in violence.

In addition, it is not surprising that she would depict violence realistically but also be drawn to Gothic forms and conventions, with their evocation of fear and horror. Both realism and the Gothic element are parts of the American literary tradition, and the well-read Oates had plenty of models to look to. The Gothic element, for example, enters into the work of such modern writers as William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) and the earlier writers Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Another contemporary writer who makes use of the Gothic is Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933). It seems to be the point of both McCarthy and Oates that, too often in American life, the realistic and the Gothic tend to converge.

Among nonliterary influences apparent in The Museum of Dr. Moses are feminism and Freudianism. In the title story, for example, old Dr. Moses Hammacher wants his new middle-aged wife to get a face-liftand even performs the operation himself, using staplesso that she will look young again as he remembers her. From the context, the author makes clear what she thinks of face-lifts, women who get them, and men who push women into getting them (Dr. Moses comes over like a Nazi Frankenstein). The stories also feature sexual predators and battered women. Nevertheless, some feminists apparently reject Oates, perhaps because she is not feminist enough or is also influenced by Freudianism. The influence of Freudianism can be seen in her depiction of pathological minds.

The destructive effect of poor parenting on children, both actual and alleged, is a repeated pattern in the stories. In “Suicide Watch,” for instance, Seth M. Niorde blames lack of attention from his father for his own drug addition, self-destruction, and violence, but Seth is hardly one to cast stones, since he tells a horrible story (maybe not true) of how he accidentally poached his own...

(The entire section is 1780 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 17 (May 1, 2007): 36.

The Boston Globe, August 26, 2007, p. D5.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 11 (June 1, 2007): 535.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 26, 2007, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 26 (June 25, 2007): 31.

School Library Journal 53, no. 11 (November, 2007): 160.

The Washington Post, October 28, 2007, p. BW04.