Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Wonderland is divided into three sections. Book 1, entitled “Variations on an American Hymn,” follows Jesse’s journey from family tragedy through life with the Pedersens; book 2, “The Finite Passing of an Infinite Passion” (a phrase drawn from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard), depicts his academic career, marriage, and relationships with Monk and Reva; and book 3, “Dreaming America,” is an account, through letters and prose, of Jesse’s search for Shelley. As the titles imply, Joyce Carol Oates is concerned with the nature of American passion and dreams.

Oates uses Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) as thematic sources for her novel. The Alice novels were important influences in Oates’s literary development, and she has thoroughly investigated their psychological and dramatic structures. Thus, like Alice, Jesse bursts into new worlds and must deal with characters that verge on caricatures. The Pedersens, Monk, and others in Wonderland parallel Alice’s Mad Hatter, Red Queen, Cheshire Cat, and other Carroll creations. Oates takes Carroll’s thematic framework and applies it sharply and imaginatively to the American scene.

That scene is Oates’s “Wonderland.” It is the name of the new shopping mall where the dissatisfied Helene meets her lover. “Wonderland” is the name of a poem by T. W. Monk that describes a dizzying, visceral, primal emergence and that is set as a prologue to the novel. In a larger sense, “Wonderland” is an Oatesian world of unnatural proportions where, like the Pedersens’ obesity and the doctors’ fanaticism, ideas, emotions, and aspirations are often ridiculously reduced or horrendously magnified. The portraits Oates creates are exaggerated, narcissistic, and often very comical.

The game of proportions contributes to the novel’s schizophrenic character. At times it is recognizable naturalism, detailing life-sized actions, thoughts, and events; at other times it is nearly psychedelic surrealism, full of swirling movements and syncopated rhythms, more evocative of a dream or of a nightmare than of documentary reality. Throughout Wonderland, Oates’s language and imagery are palpable and graphic. Certain scenes are striking and link the physical manifestations of excess to the emotional phenomena of obsession. Hilda Pedersen gluttonously devours chocolates during a mathematical competition. Helene’s obsession with her own reproductive capacities turns to panic during a gynecological examination. A man, who turns out to be Reva...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)