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 St. Dennis’s poems. With his bleached blond hair, his “epicene features,” and his controversial ballet in New York, he is simply accepted as a genius, a prodigy, “so handsome and yet so unmanly.” He and Stott stir local gossip as they walk along the river arm in arm. When he leaves her for a holiday on a Caribbean island, she returns once more to a serious involvement in her teaching and writing. At the end, he cannot believe that she will not have him back as a lover. He cannot accept her view that their mutual erotic attraction is transient: “But surely, my love, that can’t last?” These are his last words and those with which Oates concludes the novel.
Then there are the self-serving and calculating characters of the novel, who are also taken through the same revelatory process as the main characters. Lewis Seidel hopes to capture the favor of St. Dennis to further his plans for “original research” on the poet. One of the “unassailable” members of the English department, he wields power or gives the impression of doing so. In addition, he envies the attention paid Stott by other males, and he wishes to enjoy her respect and perhaps her more intimate feelings.
Oliver Byrne, the dean of humanities, regards St. Dennis’s residency at Woodslee not only as a coup for the university but also as a means of some sort of promotion, if not at Woodslee, then possibly at a school such as Cornell. Academic intrigue reaches...
(The entire section is 1,858 words.)