(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Solstice begins with traditional realism, as Oates documents her characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and lifestyles, but gradually the novel’s structure grows fragmented, acquiring the lineaments of fable through the use of symbol and myth. There are pointed literary allusions. Most conspicuous is the reference to the cosmic image of the solstice, that time of year when the sun seems to stand still. The days of solstice, December 22 and June 22, are the shortest and longest of the year, respectively. Plot elements follow the calendar: Shortly before the winter solstice, on December 6, Monica gets an unwelcome letter from her former husband. A malefactor poisons Sheila’s dog. Oates incorporates a pun on sol and soul. The approach of the solstice, with its brief dark days, disheartens Sheila, for in it she recognizes “the old, old eclipse of the soul.” If the solstice brings about stasis and equilibrium, it is akin to the stillness of death. The wild oscillations in Monica and Sheila’s partnership keep them off balance, but this perpetual restless movement is the essence of life.

Seasonal changes are functional. At Christmas, Sheila abruptly leaves for the warm climate of Morocco. From Monica’s bereft viewpoint, Sheila withdraws like the sun in winter, leaving their companionship at a terrible standstill. With the vibrant Sheila in eclipse, Monica broods until her friend comes back, restoring life and warmth.

Sheila also needs Monica as a source of brightness. Connected to the solstice is the image of light. Sheila, as a painter, must respond to light, but Sheila’s own forces are bound up with darkness. In intense light Sheila looks ravaged, while at dusk she entrances Monica with her loveliness. Not having enough light of her own—for her personality embodies the inner, chaotic forces of creativity—Sheila needs...

(The entire section is 769 words.)