Unholy Loves Summary
Comprising five sections, each subdivided into short chapters, Unholy Loves moves through an academic year in the lives of the members of the English department at Woodslee University in upstate New York. Each section is introduced by a date on which a social event occurs: September 1, November 5, December 31, March 8, and May 10. At the center of each event is the presence or absence of Albert St. Dennis, famous English poet-in-residence, whom more prestigious universities have failed to attract to their campuses. The action of the novel takes place in the consciousness of the participants in the communal rituals of academia.
In the first section, the reader is introduced to the characters of the novel as they react to St. Dennis and to one another at a party given by the dean of humanities, Oliver Byrne, to welcome their famous guest. Not to be outdone, Lewis Seidel, who hopes to publish an article or book on St. Dennis, hosts a second party, this one after the poet’s first public appearance at the university. Seidel is embarrassed when St. Dennis fails to make an appearance. Competition for the attention of St. Dennis is most apparent during the New Year holidays, when it is obvious that those not invited to St. Dennis’s New Year’s Eve party find themselves at the Housleys’, where some of the guests are disturbed at having to settle for second best. In March, a social function at the Wallers in honor of a visiting authority on Russian ecclesiastical history is marked by mordant revelations about failing marriages, ill health, the demise of the love affair between two of the main characters, and, finally, the shocking death of St. Dennis in a fire. A keenly ironic final social event on May 10, a luncheon in honor of the (forced) retirement of Gladys Fetler, a Shakespeare scholar and the department’s most popular teacher, concludes the school year.
Around three main characters—St. Dennis, Brigit Stott, and Alexis Kessler—Oates builds a fictional house of mirrors in which all the characters take turns serving as mirrors for themselves and for all the other characters. Occasions for a labyrinthine series of maskings and unmaskings are provided by the social events honoring St. Dennis. Oates weaves long interior monologues with sparse dialogue to reveal each character from many angles. The illusion prevails through much of the novel that no one angle or point of view dominates, yet Oates returns consistently to her three main characters and especially to Stott, subtly moving Stott to the center of things, so that it is her viewpoint with which the reader is finally left. She is the most fully revealed character. Having experienced the total isolation for which Oates’s characters have become famous, Stott has not surrendered to it, unlike St. Dennis (for reasons of age) and Kessler (who lives only for his music). In existential acceptance of her condition, she has emerged on the other side of despair. Consequently, she gradually becomes the consciousness through which the author filters the dark personal and professional realities of her own life and of the academic profession.
Like Anton Chekhov’s plays, Unholy Loves is plotless. What sketchy plot there is consists mostly of the arrival and death of St. Dennis and of the affair of Stott and Kessler that begins and ends with the passing of the school year. Like Chekhov, who uses a cherry orchard as a device for character revelation in his static drama, Oates employs the visiting poet as an echo for the philosophy of her main character and as a structural device by which her characters reflect and refract images of themselves, images that deteriorate progressively, even as they take on a life of their own as monoliths of modern academic types.
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. Her critical analysis of Unholy Loves is particularly insightful.
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 1980s, self-authoring women who seek alliances with their culturally devalued mothers.” Offers a perceptive reading of the evolution of feminist elements in Oates’s work. Includes a perceptive reading of Unholy Loves.
Daly, Brenda. “Marriage as Emancipatory Metaphor: A Woman Wedded to Teaching and Writing in Oates’s Unholy Loves.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37 (Summer, 1996): 270-288. Daly argues that the novel demonstrates the need for reform of academic authority as well as the ways in which competition within the academic setting prevents growth in the community. She shows how Oates’s later novels, Solstice and Marya, A Life, expand and explore feminist themes within academe.
Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. An illuminating look at the novelist once dubbed “the dark lady of American letters.” Drawing on Oates’s private letters and journals, as well as interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, Johnson offers a definitive study of one of America’s most gifted novelists.
Wesley, Marilyn C. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’ Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. An interesting study spanning the spectrum of Oates’s work. Includes a helpful bibliography and index.