Upon the Sweeping Flood Analysis
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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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 Oates’s stories—seem to rush on the reader like the wind, the rain, and the panicked horse, to startle like the snakes, animated by an omnipotent God, expressed by an inspired omniscient author in a shotgun style.

The reader’s sense that Oates is not aesthetically in control of her style contributes to the nightmare quality of her depiction of characters; landscapes; wind, rain, and flood; eerie darkness and light; horses and snakes; the erratic blows of the ax and the sticks; descriptions of the house and of the characters (enhanced by their dialogue)—a bizarre atmosphere of calamity, in which the characters, too, are out of control. It is a wonder that her style distracts no more than it does. Would a more refined style dissipate the wayward energy of...

(The entire section is 555 words.)