Unmailed, Unwritten Letters Style and Technique

Joyce Carol Oates

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stories told by means of a series of letters (called epistolary narratives) were rather common in the eighteenth century; in the twentieth century, however, such a form of storytelling is rare. For this and other reasons, Oates’s story is considered experimental.

Oates takes a somewhat obsolete form of narration and radically modernizes it. Because these letters have no specified destination (and therefore no respondents), one’s attention is not, as it conventionally would be, on an interchange of two or more points of view, but rather on the workings of a single psyche. One’s attention is paradoxically not on communication but on an inability to communicate (hence, “unmailed” and “unwritten”).

The style of the work follows from the epistolary noncommunication. That is, it becomes an interior monologue that admits a broad range of styles. Whatever such a person (a white, middle-class, well-educated woman of the 1960’s) could think is, in this story, stylistically appropriate. Oates’s style is therefore a not very distant cousin of the stream-of-consciousness technique.

At times the prose sounds like letter-writing (“I don’t know how to begin this letter except to tell you”), at times like metaphysical speculation (“that delicate hint of death”); at times, it is reminiscent (“we met about this time years ago”); at times, the prose exists in a sexually vivid present tense (“he kisses my knees, my thighs, my stomach”). In short, the story contains an ever-changing style that reflects the nuances of the panic-stricken woman who is the story’s center and its circumference.