Unmailed, Unwritten Letters by Joyce Carol Oates

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Unmailed, Unwritten Letters Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Unmailed letters exist in the everyday world, in some sort of objective reality, yet unwritten letters exist only in the mind. The title of the story is strategic; it forces the reader into the uncomfortable role of voyeur. As the reader looks over the shoulder of the writer of these “letters,” the reader is actually looking into her mind, reading her fears and desires. Because of this, the action of the story is not sequential but psychological.

In the first letter, addressed to her parents, the narrator discusses a change of doctors and dentists. The banality of this first paragraph (“everything is lovely here and I hope the same with you”) acts as a foil to the remainder of the letter. That is, the first paragraph is recognizable as a letter, perhaps “unmailed,” but the second paragraph is truly “unwritten” thoughts directed at the narrator’s parents. The change is obvious both in the subject matter (“your courage, so late in life, to take on space”) and in diction (“I think of you and I think of protoplasm being drawn off into space”). Such is the tension between writing and thought that the reader must continually bear in mind.

The second letter addresses Marsha Katz, who, it seems, has been sending odd gifts anonymously to the narrator. The narrator and Marsha’s father are having an affair; the precocious daughter is trying to incite guilt feelings in the narrator. At times the narrator tries to “read” the little girl’s meanings, to interpret her stories; one story deals with a dead white kitten, representing (the narrator thinks) the victimized daughter herself.

She “writes” to Greg, her husband, next. The letter is an attempt to remember their first meeting, but its more submerged meanings deal with her inability to carry children to term and with her infidelity—her feelings of inadequacy and guilt. She refers to Marsha’s father, her lover, as “X.” She cannot bear to write (think) his name before her faithful husband.

Next she addresses her “darling,” Marsha’s father. She recounts a dream of his death, “mashed into a highway.” His face is so badly disfigured that it is unrecognizable. In the same way that she converts him into a nonentity in the previous letter, an “X,” so here she psychologically removes his face. She also dreams of suicide; the two deaths become equivalent in her dreamworld.

As the story proceeds, the narrator reveals the details of her marriage and of her affair. Greg has been a sincere, but at times ineffectual, politician in Detroit during the racial turmoil of the late 1960’s. Ridden with guilt, the narrator writes to Greg of her infidelity with Katz; falling in love a second time, she says, is “terrifying, bitter, violent.” However, she does...

(The entire section is 704 words.)