Solstice Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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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 orderly illumination that Monica provides. Sheila perceives fair-haired Monica as “a daylight personality” whose “blond aura” sheds a brightening influence and inspires her to paint light into the final Ariadne canvas.

Oates’s other chief reference is to the Greek legend of Ariadne and the Labyrinth. Theseus vowed to kill the Minotaur—half bull, half man—a monster confined in a maze littered with the bones of heroes who had failed. Theseus received help from Ariadne, who, as the daughter of Helios, the Sun, was associated with the return of spring and lengthening days. Because she loved Theseus, she gave him a ball of thread with which to mark his path from labyrinthine darkness into daylight. Theseus slew the Minotaur and escaped with Ariadne; later, he deserted her. Oates makes her own use of the myth: Sheila calls her important series of paintings “Ariadne’s Thread,” quickly declaring that no hero is involved; this is not Theseus’ achievement, but Ariadne’s alone. Ariadne represents the controlling artist who holds in her hand the clue to the dangerous chaos of the maze—the creating unconscious mind—from which she emerges in triumph. As a token of the sisterhood theme, each woman offers the other the redeeming and enabling thread, their guide to empowerment and self-realization.

Oates employs a favorite motif—that of doubles—to depict two personalities forming a complementary pair. In Solstice, she ponders the question of art and the artist. Sheila and Monica are like alter egos, two beings grappling within a single artistic psyche, each unable to exist without the other: the chaos of the imagination against the ordering rational mind, the visual against the verbal faculties. Monica, as beholder, consumer, and critic of her friend’s paintings, senses their mystery. In them, she intuits the dark turbulence, the unleashed egotism of the artist. The paintings intimidate her as she tries to understand them, for like the labyrinth they threaten to engulf her. Later, when she is more accepting, she dreams that the voluptuous paintings engulf her in sweetness.

Literature and the pictorial arts also preoccupy the two women. Monica, the English teacher, is often at a loss in an art gallery, but she respects verbal expression and loves to read. Sheila, who approves of the way visual art “assaults the eye,” cares little for reading. Dismissively, she riffles through Monica’s Victorian novels, which she finds too linear, too orderly.

Oates’s other reinforcing literary allusions include the novel’s epigraph, Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” to characterize Monica’s leaden, moribund psychological condition when she arrives at Glenkill. From Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, Oates cites the lyric—ending with an omen of death—that gives Monica her “golden girl” epithet: “Golden lads and girls all must,/ As chimney-sweepers come to dust.”