Themes and Meanings

Joyce Carol Oates makes an insistent comparison between Katherine’s public and private lives. Initially, she seems to be completely selfless in both—supporting her wreck of a family, giving her life to the service of others. However, soon the public and private dimensions of her life become ironically reciprocal: The less competent she becomes in gratifying her personal desires, the more competent she becomes at managing the lives of other unfortunates.

However, “competence” in her job entails achieving a productive distrust for humanity. The more she is hurt personally, the more readily she can detect true suffering from camouflage: “With frightened people, lies were obvious because they never looked up at Katherine; with the bold and brazen, lies were obvious because they tried to stare her down. The only people who puzzled her were those who couldn’t remember the truth, who didn’t know themselves if they were lying.” A passage such as this, placed in the very center of Katherine’s story, gradually accumulates layers of irony as the story proceeds. In her domestic and professional capacities, Katherine lies to herself without knowing it. Katherine helps others because she feels better when she does. Her fiancé becomes like one of her welfare “people” in her mind; her mother’s medical expenses “equaled so many hours of her job.” When Katherine “investigates” a poor neighborhood, the narrator slyly creeps into her mind, where...

(The entire section is 602 words.)