(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Monica Jensen, emerging from marriage at age twenty-nine, wants to establish her own life and discover her own tastes: She teaches in a private school, enjoys the labor of fixing up a house, and likes her privacy and sense of control. The novel’s action traces her friendship with Sheila Trask, a fairly well-known painter and accomplished horsewoman. Sheila’s energy, disorder, and passion add life to Monica’s existence but force her to question her ideal of control and self-sufficiency.

Several recent novels by Joyce Carol Oates imitate (and thus enrich and question) popular genres of women’s fiction. SOLSTICE uses the contemporary formula of a woman finding herself after divorce, but it refuses to supply conventional satisfactions. The myth of the labyrinth, the subject of Sheila Trask’s paintings, provides the book’s dominant image, and the plot is structured by twists, repetitions, and increasing narrative disorientation. As Monica Jensen turns inward, the terrible monster at the center of the labyrinth may be glimpsed as vacancy (has Monica a “self” to find?), sexual desire for a woman (which Monica cannot face), or the ideology that love may be won by nurture and emotional support. Or, is the monster Sheila Trask herself--the immature, self-centered, tormented artist who is a common romantic stereotype?

SOLSTICE is a relatively short book, which begins with a clear narrative, interesting characters, and entertaining...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Oates’s relatively short sixteenth novel explores in depth the obsessive female friendship of two professional women. It occupies the time frame of an academic year, from September to May. Monica and Sheila are basically out of harmony with the comfortable, smug world of exurbanite Glenkill, though they participate in its social life. The men they meet are unpleasing and are relegated to the margins of their concern.

Monica’s and Sheila’s attachment grows out of their complementary yet conflicting personalities. Monica is fair, whereas Sheila is dark. Monica’s passivity contrasts with Sheila’s tempestuousness. Their alliance is often a power play, with each vying for control. Though infused with erotic tension, their relationship is not overtly lesbian. Both heterosexual in the past, they shy away from mutual physical contact.

The novel has four sections: “The Scar,” “The Mirror-Ghoul,” “Holiday,” and “The Labyrinth.” “The Scar” emphasizes Monica’s vulnerability and preoccupation with the past, as she absent-mindedly strokes her jaw. Her isolation in the old house produces a sense of eeriness: She imagines someone calling her name, a sign of her readiness for a new relationship. Abruptly, Sheila rides into her life, mounted on a splendid horse. The spectacle hints at Sheila’s rugged animal strength and authority as well as the appearance of a knightly rescuer, for from a distance Monica cannot tell if the rider is male or female. Sheila’s intrusion marks the beginning of a period resembling courtship. Flattered, Monica...

(The entire section is 648 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Oates at one time resisted the appellation of woman writer, she demonstrates an acute awareness of feminist issues. Before writing Solstice, Oates completed pseudo-gothic historical novels about women in nineteenth century America, A Bloodsmoor Romance (1984) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), in which she treated patriarchal authority mockingly. In Solstice, she touches on feminist issues, often with irony and ambiguity.

Solstice shows that Oates is responsive to Virginia Woolf’s complaint in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that serious fiction tends to depict women in relation to men but rarely represents two women as friends. Woolf hoped that in time it might be normal to read that “Chloe likes Olivia.” Solstice also suggests the validity of the androgynous woman, which Woolf developed in Orlando (1928).

Motherly and sisterly bonding, mutual support, dominance, exploitation, and female rivalry all occur in Solstice. Generally, Oates treats the two-friends theme without sentimentality. Yet at different times, both Monica and Sheila fulfill a maternal role toward the other. Sheila consoles Monica about her scar, after she is raped, and at the novel’s close. Monica nurtures and protects Sheila when she must paint, taking over household chores and urging her to eat properly. In order to manage Sheila’s practical affairs, Monica neglects other...

(The entire section is 506 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bender, Eileen T. Artist in Residence: The Phenomenon of Joyce Carol Oates. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The useful commentary on Solstice ties the work to feminist traditions. Contains a primary and a selected secondary bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Critical essays on Oates’s work.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Comments throughout on the feminist outlook and gives a perceptive discussion of Solstice. The selected bibliography lists Oates’s novels between 1987 and 1990, as well as poetry, plays, stories, and edited works. Includes a bibliography of secondary works and a chronology.

Daly, Brenda. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. A critical look at the female characters of Oates’s novels.

Dean, Sharon L. “Oates’s Solstice.” The Explicator 47 (Winter, 1989): 54-56. A brief but valuable examination of the solstice and Ariadne imagery.

Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Too early for Solstice, but a helpful introduction to Oates’s work.

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. A thorough biography, including a series of pictures provided by Oates.

Lercangée, Francine. Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986. Lists newspaper and magazine reviews of Solstice. Contains a preface and annotations by Bruce F. Michelson.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Edited by Lee Milazzo. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Published reviews and interviews from newspapers and magazines, 1969 to 1989. Contains only a brief reference to Solstice, but the volume provides a good survey of Oates’s views on her reading and writing.

Oates, Joyce Carol, comp. First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft. New York: Persea Books, 1983. A compilation of essays by twentieth century writers on writing, including an essay by Oates herself.