Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

Stuart thinks of himself as normal and gentle. However, interacting with the violent, unfeeling, and crude boy and girl, he finds himself taking on their characteristics. The hurricane and the flood provoke this process, as it aggravates the worst qualities in the girl and her “loony” brother. Joyce Carol Oates shows how something in human nature produces, needs, and thrives on violence, personal and vicarious. Morality and convention, according to Oates, cannot control this urge and may contribute to it. Stuart’s altruism saves them, but he wants to force them to be grateful. The violent intrusions of chance can significantly aggravate a person’s innate inclinations toward violence.

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During the course of the story, Stuart is put through a profoundly wrenching experience. He goes from asking the deputy, “Do you need help?” to begging the rescue boat, “Save me!” He goes from declaring, “I know what I’m doing!” to doing something totally uncontrollable. Because the deputy assumes that Stuart is better off than “these folks coming along here” and that he would not care what the hurricane does to them, Stuart believes that he must act on the social obligation to “see if anybody needs help.”

Stuart is isolated from his own people in this remote region of swampland. As “the slashing of rain against” his face excites him and he feels “a strange compulsion” to “laugh madly,” he breaks out of his normal life. The engine of his car and the wind “roared together.” In the farmhouse, he is isolated even from the other people who live in the swampland: In the attic, on the flood-surrounded roof, and finally on the hill, his isolation intensifies, allowing the free expression of his most primitive instincts.

The horse that runs amok at the beginning of the story is an expression of the violence of the storm as a pure force and of the irrational, erratic behavior of the strange boy and girl. These insane elements contrast with Stuart early in the story. The pair represents the mindless, valueless forces in nature that work on people who try to live within some rigid, civilized context. When Stuart goes for the ax, the boy thinks that he might hit him: Stuart’s sense of “helplessness, at the folly of his being here, for an instant almost made him strike the boy with the ax.” The girl senses his impulse and attacks Stuart.

The Good Samaritan of the beginning of the story is so transformed by psychological and natural disruptions that he is moved to kill the boy and the girl for whom he has risked his life (and neglected his own family) to save. As the horse is an expression of the violence of wind and rain, the writhing snakes are a manifestation of the flood stage of the hurricane. Beating the snakes with a stick is the trigger that releases irrational violence in Stuart, and he strikes the boy. The raw vitality of suppressed desires, impulses, urges, and instincts suddenly explodes. The girl is so impressed by the change in him that she does not defend her brother this time; she falls back on brute survival, preparing to defend herself. Thus, Stuart’s instinctive altruism is converted, by a climate of natural and human violence, into hatred and homicide. In her depiction of motiveless violence, Oates suggests that much ordinary human behavior apparently is as motiveless as that of the panicked horse and the snakes.

Stuart can no longer believe that “his mind was a clear, sane circle of quiet . . . inside the chaos of the storm.” He believes that he has “blundered” into “the wrong life,” and that “his former life” was incomplete. He knows that he has “lost what he was just the day before,” that he has “turned now into a different person, a stranger even to himself.” The wind “tolled” the death knell of his former self. The howling outside becomes internalized in “the howling inside his mind.” It is from external forces that he has now internalized that he begs the rescue team to “save” him.

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