Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Joyce Carol Oates has stated in a Chicago Tribune Book World article that a single dominant theme runs throughout her work: “I am concerned with only one thing: the moral and social conditions of my generation.” During the course of her prolific career, Oates has often taken the ordinary conditions of day-to-day living, and, while presenting the realism of that world, she has also shown the terrifying conditions that lurk just below consciousness. Gretchen is a character who plays an imaginary stalking game, but her game with the Invisible Adversary becomes hauntingly nightmarish because of the utter lack of empathy and emotion that she feels toward others. Gretchen herself becomes almost a mechanical animal as she stalks her prey.

In Scripture, Satan is often referred to as the Adversary, which is no doubt alluded to in this story with the Adversary’s taunting and influence to maliciousness. Here, the Invisible Adversary is also Gretchen’s psychological projection of her own need to feel something in a gritty suburban world filled with “a jumbled, bulldozed field of mud,” “no sidewalks,” “gigantic concrete pipes,” “geometric areas,” and “artificial hills.” It is not the Adversary but Gretchen who enacts the petty theft, destroys property, and leaves a trail of mud with her scuffed and expensive boots. The plodding and insistent stalking is menacing in its utter disregard for the broken trail it leaves behind....

(The entire section is 443 words.)