Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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By using the device of an observer-narrator, Oates is able to tell the story from the point of view of a young girl, but with an emphasis on the actions of the adults. Sylvie observes and records the actions of the main characters, but she does not see into their minds. There are gaps in the story because of Joan’s flight and the narrator’s confusion about what has happened. Although Sylvie continues to observe her uncle, she never really understands him either.

Oates describes the small details of ordinary contemporary scenes. The love story begins in the harsh, cold light of the swimming pool of the YMCA with its antiquated white tiles, wired glass skylight, and sharp medicinal smell of chlorine. Joan’s apartment building is shabby and worn with a “weedy back yard of tilting clotheslines and wind-blown trash.”

The sentence structure itself reflects the action. In two long, smooth sentences of almost eighty words each, Oates describes Joan’s style of swimming as “a single graceful motion that took her a considerable distance.” Oates uses a long, graceful sentence to describe this type of stroke. The only scene of violence in the story comes up suddenly. Waxman appears without warning and the situation explodes in violence almost immediately. Oates describes this scene with speed. Clyde reacts with quick actions, animal-like responses. She uses phrases such as “Waxman leapt after her” and “Clyde . . . scrambled forward . . . bent double . . . and managed to throw himself on Waxman.” Everything happens so fast that, in retrospect, Clyde cannot even remember his “lightning-swift action.”

Oates’s choices of images and metaphors show her underlying concern with violence. In the opening paragraph of the story, the narrator says that this story lodges in the memory “like an old wound never entirely healed.” The inanimate objects in Joan’s apartment are described in terms of violence, “battered-looking furniture” and “injured-looking Venetian blinds.” The pool, on the other hand, is a symbol of security and safety. The water provides an environment in which Joan is “sealed off and invulnerable.” Later, Oates juxtaposes the shelter of the pool where Joan and Sylvie are “snug and safe” with the icy “pelting” rain that hits the skylight overhead.

In describing Joan, Oates piles up details of physical description to show that she is a cautious person, trying to get her life under control. Joan focuses on the details as a way of establishing some sense of order in her life. Joan’s face is “carefully made up” with an “expertly reddened mouth.” Her hair is “carefully waved,” and her nails are “perfectly manicured, polished an enamel-hard red.” Joan’s appearance provides a picture of a person who is in control, as if these details of grooming protect her from intrusion. In contrast to these details, the small scar “is like a sliver of glass” that shows her vulnerability.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

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