Style and Technique

It is difficult, and perhaps unproductive, to discuss Oates’s stories as literary constructs. If “Upon the Sweeping Flood” has form, it is so submerged in “experience” as to defy analysis. If there is control, it is not aesthetic control, but the control of gathered forces in a hurricane. The lack of shape and focus makes this story linger in the reader’s consciousness as if it were an actual event one wants to forget. Would greater attention to style, technique, and structure dilute the intensity of her vision and the terror conveyed by her themes?

Oates very seldom uses either the first-person or the third-person central-intelligence point of view; omniscience seems most suited to her vision of life. In this story, the elements are filtered through the perceptions of Walter Stuart, except when Oates alludes to the manner in which he will remember this incident years later, and except for the tale-telling tone in the first line: “Not long ago in Eden County, in the remote marsh and swamplands to the south, a man named Walter Stuart was stopped in the rain.” With stark authorial authority, that omniscient tone is sustained throughout. The author seems to have written in a frenzied burst of energy, the heat of which one feels simultaneously with a cold objectivity, as she violently renders her own involvement in the miserable predicament of her characters. Narrative drive, character depiction, the author’s vision—in this as in many of...

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