Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The main focus of this work is on love in its many forms. In addition to the love affair that gives momentum to the action, many other sorts of love are depicted in this novel, especially familial love and romantic love. The author’s main point is that love does not carry with it any particular knowledge. As Warren Stevick writes to his sister Enid, “The people I have loved most in my lifetime (including you) I haven’t known at all.” It is only when Oates’s characters are away from family and lovers, with people who do not know them or have not known them for very long, that they find themselves.

The primary impetus for the author was the recollection of the decade 1946 to 1956; she focuses on selected areas of American life during that decade. The novel is suffused with the romance, nostalgia, and, to the author, innocence of that epoch. Oates gives the reader a sense of the era by mentioning well-known film stars, politicians, popular singers, and television personalities. Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny, Marilyn Monroe, and Dinah Shore are all named to give a sense of the times, as are major political events: nationwide, the Joseph McCarthy hearings and the Stevenson campaign; worldwide, the Korean War and the fear-inducing spread of Communism.

This novel, Oates’s seventeenth, centers on the passionate love-hate relationship between Enid and Felix. Here love resembles lust in its purely physical, unthinking nature. The lovers do not...

(The entire section is 552 words.)