Social Concerns / Themes

Joyce Carol Oates takes the title of this novel from a chapter tide in Henry "David Thoreau's Walden (1854), "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For." Lurking behind Thoreau's description of his simple life that made him fully awake to the sustaining power of nature is his protest against the materialism and exploitation of nineteenth-century America. He was not just escaping to Walden Pond but also escaping from a society that built mills and railroads and canals that worked laborers long hours in unhealthy and dangerous conditions so that the upper classes could wear fashionable clothing and spend their leisure time in travel through a United States that was clear cutting its timber, pushing Indian populations into its least hospitable land, expanding its borders into Mexican territory, and continuing to allow the institution of slavery. Thoreau has been criticized, both in his own day and ours, for not becoming a more active social reformer, yet social reform was never his intent. What Thoreau lived for was personal integrity, and he believed that people must march to their own drummers as a way of finding that integrity.

Like Thoreau, Oates is concerned with what constitutes personal integrity in a society even more rife with moral and political corruption than was Thoreau's. Her central character, Jerome (Corky) Corcoran, is hardly a Thoreauvian ascetic: He is promiscuous, alcoholic, hot-tempered, and naive about himself and the corruption...

(The entire section is 594 words.)