The Profane Art

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and William Faulkner take a feminist tongue-lashing from Joyce Carol Oates in her fourth collection of essays and reviews, The Profane Art. In addition to this pen whipping, Oates also analyzes the imagery of the American city in fiction from the early twentieth century Naturalists to more contemporary writers; she traces not only the fear of failure but also the act of failure experienced by many modern writers. She chastises her colleagues for neglecting Carl Jung, and she reviews the collected letters and works of contemporary writers preoccupied with suicide and murder. What distinguishes these essays and reviews is the candidness of her criticism and her praise. This is an often opinionated yet thoroughly substantiated assessment of twentieth century writers, their traditional attitudes, their imagery, their art, and their obsessions.

In “At Least I Have Made a Woman of Her,” Oates’s criticism centers on the limited vision which male writers have of the female potential, particularly their intellectual potential. In “Imaginary Cities: America,” she illustrates the city as an archetypal image in the Naturalistic works of Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, and Anzia Yezierska. Her reviews, for the most part, demonstrate her admiration and respect for and knowledge of such authors as Anne Sexton, whose poetry seems despairing, Iris Murdoch, whose thematic ideas are illustrated at the expense of character development, Flannery O’Connor, whose allegiance to her Catholic faith is well remembered, and Carl Jung, whose journey into the unconscious led to volumes of books.

Of the fifteen essays and reviews collected in The Profane Art, all but two have been previously published in such periodicals as The Georgia Review, English Language Notes, Modern Fiction Studies, Hudson Review, and in newspapers and magazines, specifically The New York Times Book Review and The New Republic.

Among the finest essays in a collection distinguished for its scrutiny and its criticism is “At Least I Have Made a Woman of Her.” A close look at the essay reveals Oates’s harsh, analytical tone toward the images of women presented in works by Yeats, Lawrence, and Faulkner. She illustrates the “deep-rooted nineteenth century prejudices” that linger among the twentieth century writers. According to Oates, these writers “have presented Woman through the distorting lens of sexist imagination.” In Yeats’s highly regarded poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” Oates unveils the Victorian attitudes that Yeats espoused. The poem is a prayer which asks that his infant daughter grow to be beautiful, although that hope is qualified: “May she be granted beauty and yet not/ Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught/ Or hers before a looking glass.” Oates regards this prayer as a request that this infant not be too beautiful, “for such beauty might arouse in her a sense of her own autonomy.” Her criticism takes on harsher tones as she continues to dissect Yeats’s poem. He wants his daughter to practice courtesy.

May she become a flourishing hidden treeThat all her thoughts may like the linnet beAnd have no business but dispensing roundTheir magnanimities of sound.

Oates interprets this wish, this hope, as Yeats wanting his daughter only to be an object for others, and she readily condemns him: “This celebrated poet would have his daughter an object in nature for others’—which is to say male—delectation. She is not even an animal or a bird in his imagination but a vegetable: immobile, unthinking, placid, ’hidden.’”

Oates shows little sensitivity to the works of some modern writers as she uncovers the hidden prejudices concerning women in their works. She asserts that these authors have deep-rooted prejudices against the independent woman, and that this bias surfaces in their writing. After Yeats, Oates tackles D. H. Lawrence as one who tries to depict women as liberated but does not feel natural about it and therefore takes revenge in his characterizations. Using Women in Love (1920) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) as examples, Oates claims that Lawrence creates women for the pleasure of men. Gudrun of Women in Love is “the autonomous, self-determined, unsentimental female—and a serious and talented artist as well.” Lawrence, however, loathes her and makes her loathe herself. Oates believes that Gudrun must be represented by Lawrence as unnatural because in “his cosmology she is a force beyond nature. And a competing artist as well.” Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a character much like Lawrence himself who seems to maintain the puritanical belief that women exist for men. When Mellors lists the ways in which women have disappointed and failed him, Oates says, Lawrence appears to be taking revenge on women of his acquaintance. She claims that Lawrence is one of those “’liberators’ of the twentieth century whose gospel, as applied to and experienced by women, may in fact constitute a more...

(The entire section is 2154 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Kirkus Reviews. LI, March 1, 1983, p. 290.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 825.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 29, 1983, p. 2.

National Review. XXXV, April 29, 1983, p. 502.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, March 11, 1983, p. 73.