Critical Context

Mysteries of Winterthurn is a pivotal novel by one of the towering figures in contemporary American writing. Joyce Carol Oates is a writer of prodigious output and wide recognition in American letters. Playwright, essayist, and poet, she is the author of dozens of novels. Among her several honors is the National Book Award for her 1969 novel them. She is both a chronicler and critic of the American experience, and while her early work is concerned with contemporary life, her middle years saw her turn to history as a shaping factor of present-day America, especially American women. Her project in these “middle novels” which include Mysteries of Winterthurn, Bellefleur (1980), and A Bloodsmore Romance (1982), was not only to consider history but also to have the reader live it directly by emulating the very style in which past novels were written.

By emulating a past style, Oates is able to present a critique of both the style and the culture that gave rise to it. Mysteries of Winterthurn takes up the Victorian virtues of clear thinking as well as the Victorian abhorrence of making an honest confession of the darker side of human nature. As such, it is at one and the same time a gripping mystery story, a re-creation of past literature, and a foremost example of postmoderism that examines the abandonment of restraining Victorian values and the emergence of a new feminism.