Literary Techniques

In the preface to them, Oates calls it "a work of history in fictional form," in fact the history of the Depression and the Detroit riots. She pretends that the character Maureen Wendall is based on one of her own students at the University of Detroit, and places "correspondence" from Maureen to a "Miss Oates" in the novel. A third- person narrator, flashbacks, vivid dialogue, fast-paced action, and a careful chronicle of two generations of the Wendall family make the novel significant, memorable, and intriguing. Another Oates technique, that of transformation or metamorphosis, is equally effective as the pretty Loretta becomes the vulgar but gritty housewife, the shy and bookish Maureen becomes the amoral prostitute and materialist. Finally the Oates sense of place—the degradation of Detroit, the ostentatious luxury of Grosse Point, the contrast between the world of privilege and the world of poverty— dramatizes the problem of survival for the unfortunate in modern America and the difficulty in believing that any kind of justice can exist in this environment.

Ideas for Group Discussions

People love her or hate her. Rarely are they indifferent. Given these strong reactions, discussions of Joyce Carol Oates promise to be animated, even heated. Participants in discussion groups will want to grapple with the ever-present question, "Why is she so violent?" Rather than merely reacting to the violence, they might ask how the violence connects to the realities of the twentieth century and how Oates's characters use violence as a protest against the realities they see. Beyond the questions about violence, readers will want to talk about how Oates manages to convey her huge range of characters from their internal perspectives, and how convincingly she presents their particular social milieu, whether they are lawyers or preachers or doctors or politicians or academics or teen-agers.

Oates is at once learned and accessible. Most of her work can bear comparisons to particular pieces of classic literature and interpretations from philosophical or religious perspectives. Readers who have an academic literary background will find Oates rich in allusions; those with less background will still find her accessible.

As readers discuss them, they will find it interesting to apply the general characteristics of Oates's fiction to the level of violence generated in the era of the 1960s, with the decade's war on poverty, its erupting cities, its experiments with open-enrollment colleges, and its emerging feminism.

1. them chronicles the lives of three members of the Wendall family: Loretta, Maureen, and Jules. What stages of development do each of these characters go through? Have they changed or remained static? Are they survivors only or have they found valuable responses to the lives they find themselves in? To what extent are they responsible for their own fates?

2. How does each character pursue the American dream? What is his or her American dream? Is it yours?

3. Oates never had a student whose letters she used as Maureen's. Why does she claim she did? Is Maureen the kind of student she could have had?

4. Do you find Nadine to be an affirmative voice in the novel? Why does she keep washing her hair?

5. Is the relationship between Jules and Nadine based on love? What kind of love? Romantic? Sexual? Obsessive? Controlling?

6. What kind of parenting happens in this novel? Is there any healthy parent/child relationship?

7. How is this novel not only about them, but also about us?

8. How well does Oates capture the atmosphere of Detroit? What is her attitude towards it? How does this city represent America?

Social Concerns

The dramatic immediacy of them, its focus on poverty and violence in America from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the socio-economic character of its protagonists, combine to embrace a wealth of social concerns. From the handgun murder of Loretta Wendall's boyfriend by her brother Brock to the shooting of her son Jules by his girlfriend Nadine, the novel explores the debilitating and traumatic effects of violence in American society. The lives of both men and women in the lower middle class are beyond their control: Their jobs are meaningless and tedious, and their lifestyles are modeled on the fantasy world of popular magazines and the television set. The lives of Loretta and her daughter Maureen illustrate the importance of women's issues for Oates. Woman as victim, woman seeking out violence and danger to brighten her drab life, woman collapsing beneath the burden of her own femininity in a harsh, violent, masculine world; all the themes permeate the texture and establish the thematic direction of them. Loretta's main virtue seems to be the ability to survive, the sole achievement of many of Oates's protagonists, and a clear indictment of an indifferent culture.

Literary Precedents

them is clearly a naturalistic novel. It resembles Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) in its employment of a female protagonist, emphasis on power and sex, focus on the ordinary person, attraction of its characters to the glittering symbols of wealth, and careful research into the socio-economic background of the period. The fundamental difference is that while Dreiser's Carrie suffers for trying to improve her condition, Oates's characters suffer tragically merely by attempting to maintain their current status, to hold on to some affection, stability, and economic security. Oates surpasses Dreiser in her portraits of familial relationships and sense of dramatic timing, but she sometimes shares Dreiser's penchant for the clumsy, overblown style, and the repetitious insistence on the misery of the novel's characters.

Related Titles

them is the third part of a trilogy, encompassing A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968), and them. Each novel chronicles the history of a family; each novel deals with a different social class. The Walpoles of A Garden of Earthly Delights are migrant workers; the Everetts of Expensive People are suburbanites and moderately rich; the Wendalls of them are lower-class (and sometimes lower-middle- class) urbanites. Expensive People, unlike the other two members of the trilogy, has a male narrator who speaks in the first person; it is also satiric rather than naturalistic. All three focus on violent action, but the violence in Expensive People is stylized and unconvincing. Each novel has a central male character (Swan, Richard, and Jules) who resorts to violence to escape from the confining mold of his family and environment, but only Jules is successful. Women are portrayed most successfully in them; in fact the symmetry of the trilogy is destroyed by Loretta Wendall, who usurps the place of Jules in them and shifts the focus of the novel from male dreams to the female's ability to cope with an uncertain and violent reality.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Protest against the War
In 1969, protests against the war in Vietnam brought the ideas of radicalism and revolution into the...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

them is divided into three unequal sections. The first, “Children of Silence,” begins with Loretta as a...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1969: Urban America is still recovering from the race riots that devastated Baltimore, Boston, Kansas City, Newark, Chicago,...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Assemble an audio collage of the music that would
have been playing during some part of these characters’
lives in the city:...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

them was released on audiocassette by Center
for Cassette Studies in 1974.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Greg Johnson, himself a poet and acclaimed short story writer, has written extensively about Oates. His recent biography of her is called...

(The entire section is 278 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Robert M. Adams, “The Best Nightmares Are Retrospective,” The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1969,...

(The entire section is 275 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Creighton presents the first critical study of the novels Oates published between 1977 and 1990, including the mystery novels published under the name of Rosamund Smith.

Daly, Brenda. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996. An excellent study that argues that the “father-identified daughters in her early novels have become, in the novels of the 1980’s, self-authoring women who seek alliances with their culturally devalued mothers.” Offers a perceptive reading of the...

(The entire section is 186 words.)