Mysteries of Winterthurn
Mysteries of Winterthurn is Joyce Carol Oates’s fifteenth novel. This fact becomes startling only with a consideration of Oates’s preceding accomplishments, for the forty-six-year-old Oates, a faculty member in Princeton University’s English department, has so far produced an oeuvre of such proportions as to beggar the strength and imagination of ordinary mortals. Her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), was published but twenty years ago. In the interim, in addition to the other fourteen novels, Oates has also published nearly a dozen volumes of short stories (the first in 1963) as well as volumes of poems and essays. Also she has published a play and edited anthologies of literature. At the same time, Oates has taught English at the University of Detroit, Michigan; the University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada; and Princeton. So prolific an output in so short a time might suggest to the casual observer a certain dilettantism, but Joyce Carol Oates is no dilettante; she is a serious writer of fiction and an important figure in the contemporary American literary scene.
Oates has won many awards and honors: a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, the Lotos Club Award of Merit, the National Book Award (for the novel them, 1969), among others. She won a first prize in the O. Henry Awards for short stories and has had many of her short stories published in the annual volumes of The Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. Further, her novels have been offered as main selections or as alternates by the Book of the Month Club and by the Literary Guild of America. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters as well as the Modern Language Association. In fact, one critic cogently wondered when Oates found time to eat or sleep or teach or carry on other normal activities. Certainly, Oates’s energy is daunting.
During the last few years, Oates has, in her novels—according to her own admission—been experimenting with form. Bellefleur (1980) was designated “a gothic family saga”; A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) was a romance; and Mysteries of Winterthurn deals with mystery and murder. All of these novels focus on late nineteenth century and early twentieth century experiences in the American Northeast—a locale with which Oates is very familiar. Although this series of novels presents slightly different perspectives on similar situations, the basic literary approach remains constant: Oates takes her point of departure from the conventional eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic novel.
This genre, which is still popular in the late twentieth century in the form of paperback gothic romances, can be traced to such works as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Apparitions, supernatural occurrences, and unfathomable terror are the stock-in-trade of the Gothic novel; Oates updates the genre and shifts the locale, while retaining many of the conventions of the classic Gothic. Thus, in Mysteries of Winterthurn, a figure in a mural sheds not a tear but a drop of blood; grotesque deaths occur; the protagonist is inexplicably shut in a dungeon; mysterious evidence and so-called clues appear and disappear; murder suspects are and are not verified; and the innocent are punished while the guilty go free. Oates treats the Gothic novel ironically by exposing transparent inconsistencies.
In Mysteries of Winterthurn, Oates also mimics various practices of nineteenth century popular fiction not exclusively associated with the Gothic. She makes liberal use of dashes, preceded or followed by other marks of punctuation; a comma, for example, consistently precedes a dash and sometimes follows the paired dash; often, a dash will be followed by an exclamation point. In personal correspondence, reproduced to create the aura of verisimilitude, the ampersand replaces the word “and.” Words within a sentence are capitalized for emphasis: “believing in the Unknown”; “wreak Justice upon his head.” Likewise, words, phrases, and even entire sentences are, contrary to contemporary typographical practices, italicized for emphasis, for the same reason that some words and phrases are put in quotation marks. Diction, too, mirrors earlier conventions: Someone sends a “missive,” not a note or a letter; “naught” is used for nothing; “albeit” functions mostly for although and occasionally for however. Chapter titles are reminiscent of those of Victorian novels, and the narrator—for the most part following the objective, third-person point of view—deviates periodically according to Victorian usage, to address the reader directly and to comment freely on the events taking place. These devices...
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