A novelist of character, Oates distinguishes among her personae by the degree to which each is revealed. The three main characters reveal themselves in their full human dimensions. Others, such as the dean of humanities and the department chairman, enjoy only three-quarter profiles. Still others seem only half-drawn, such as Gladys Fetler and Gowan Vaughan-Jones, who are admirable for their personal and professional ethics. The least revealed of the characters are the younger members of the English department, who worry about non-retention and who, consequently, appear as floating Dantean shades in the subterranean psychological regions Oates’s characters inhabit.
It is through the mind of Albert St. Dennis that the reader is given first impressions of Woodslee. Nearly seventy-one, he finds himself in America, an alien world, for the first time. Even his deceased wife, Harriet, who flits in and out of his interior monologues, seems quite unable to help him make sense of this strange otherworld. At a welcoming party early in the school year, his dislocation and sense of isolation affect him physically, and he becomes sick on his host’s handsome rug. Of the large group assembled for the occasion, only two persons stand out for him: Stott and Kessler, and, at one point, as though in a prophetic gesture, he clasps a hand of each, joining one to the other. His own isolation, however, only grows until rumor has it that he spends much of his time in the small-town library where tea is served by an aging librarian.
For Brigit Stott, the only novelist in Woodslee’s English department, St. Dennis presents a possibility “for another of her unholy loves.” Recently divorced, she feels her loneliness as a “raging ravenous despair” that has “allowed her to see into the depths of the universe itself, and to find it distinctly inhuman.” Having difficulty writing her novel in progress, she recollects a line from Emily Dickinson: “This is the Hour of Lead,” the title Oates uses for chapter 4, in which the death of St. Dennis is reported. Realizing early that the aging poet will not be her love, she spends the night (after that party in September) with Kessler, and the two continue a torrid love affair for some months.
Alexis Kessler, a beautiful bisexual man in his twenties (Brigit is thirty-eight), takes on mythic qualities of Apollo. Living for music, he has had some success with ballet compositions in New York and has come to Woodslee “in retreat.” He would like to compose music for some of...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)