WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- By the North Gate (New York: Vanguard, 1963).
- With Shuddering Fall (New York: Vanguard, 1964; London: Cape, 1965).
- Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (New York: Vanguard, 1966; London: Gollancz, 1973).
- A Garden of Earthly Delights (New York: Vanguard, 1967; London: Gollancz, 1970).
- Expensive People (New York: Vanguard, 1968; London: Gollancz, 1969).
- them (New York: Vanguard, 1969; London: Gollancz, 1971).
- Anonymous Sins and Other Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969).
- The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (New York: Vanguard, 1970; London: Gollancz, 1971).
- Love and Its Derangements (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970).
- Wonderland (New York: Vanguard, 1971; London: Gollancz, 1972).
- The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (New York: Vanguard, 1972; London: Gollancz, 1976).
- Marriages and Infidelities (New York: Vanguard, 1972; London: Gollancz, 1974).
- Angel Fire (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973).
- The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1973).
- Do with Me What You Will (New York: Vanguard, 1973; London: Gollancz, 1974).
- Miracle Play (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974).
- The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974; Solihull, U.K.: Aquila, 1975).
- Plagiarized Material, as Fernandes (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1974).
- The Goddess and Other Women (New York: Vanguard, 1974; London: Gollancz, 1975).
- New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (New York: Vanguard, 1974; London: Gollancz, 1976).
- Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Stories of Young America (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1974).
- The Seduction and Other Stories (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1975).
- The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese, as Fernandes (New York: Vanguard, 1975; London: Gollancz, 1976).
- The Assassins: A Book of Hours (New York: Vanguard, 1975).
- The Fabulous Beasts: Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975).
- The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1976).
- Childwold (New York: Vanguard, 1976; London: Gollancz, 1977).
- Crossing the Border: Fifteen Tales (New York: Vanguard, 1976; London: Gollancz, 1978).
- Night-Side: Eighteen Tales (New York: Vanguard, 1977; London: Gollancz, 1979).
- Son of the Morning (New York: Vanguard, 1978; London: Gollancz, 1979).
- Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
- All the Good People I've Left Behind (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Black Sparrow, 1979).
- Cybele (Santa Barbara, Cal.: Black Sparrow, 1979).
- Unholy Loves (New York: Vanguard, 1979; London: Gollancz, 1980).
- Bellefleur (New York: Dutton, 1980; London: Cape, 1981).
- Three Plays (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review, 1980).
- A Sentimental Education (New York: Dutton, 1980; London: Cape, 1981).
- Contraries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
- Angel of Light (New York: Dutton, 1981; London: Cape, 1981).
- A Bloodsmoor Romance (New York: Dutton, 1982; London: Cape, 1983).
- The Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982 (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review, 1982).
- The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews (New York: Dutton, 1983).
- The Mysteries of Winterthurn (New York: Dutton, 1984; London: Cape, 1984).
- Wild Saturday and Other Stories (London: Dent, 1984).
- Last Days: Stories (New York: Dutton, 1984; London: Cape, 1985).
- Solstice (New York: Abrahams/Dutton, 1985; London: Cape, 1985).
- Marya: A Life (New York: Dutton, 1986; London, Cape, 1987).
- Raven's Wing (New York: Dutton, 1986; London: Cape, 1987).
- You Must Remember This (New York: Dutton, 1987; London: Macmillan, 1988).
- Lives of the Twins, as Rosamond Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).
- On Boxing (New York: Doubleday, 1987; London: Bloomsbury, 1987).
- The Assignation (New York: Ecco, 1988).
- (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (New York: Dutton, 1988).
- American Appetites (New York: Dutton, 1989; London: Macmillan, 1989).
- Soul/Mate, as Smith (New York: Dutton, 1989).
- The Time Traveler (New York: Dutton, 1989).
- Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (New York: Dutton, 1990; London: Picador, 1992).
- I Lock My Door upon Myself (New York: Ecco, 1990; London: Blackstaff, 1992).
- Nemesis, as Smith (New York: Dutton, 1990; London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1991).
- Oates in Exile (Toronto: Exile, 1990).
- Heat and Other Stories (New York: Dutton, 1991).
- In Darkest America: Two Plays (New York & London: French, 1991)--includes Tone Clusters and The Eclipse.
- I Stand Before You Naked (New York & London: French, 1991).
- The Rise of Life on Earth (New York: New Directions, 1991).
- Twelve Plays (New York: Dutton, 1991).
- Black Water (New York: Dutton, 1992; London: Macmillan, 1992).
- Snake Eyes, as Smith (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
- Where Is Here?: Stories (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1992).
- Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (Franklin Center, Pa.: Franklin Library/New York: Dutton, 1993; London: Macmillan, 1993).
- Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review/New York: Braziller, 1993).
- Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (New York: Dutton, 1994).
- What I Lived For (New York: Dutton, 1994; London: Macmillan, 1995).
- George Bellows: American Artist (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1995).
- The Perfectionist and Other Plays (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1995).
- You Can't Catch Me, as Smith (New York: Dutton, 1995).
- Zombie (New York: Dutton, 1995; London: Signet, 1996).
- Demon and Other Tales (West Warwick, R.I.: Necronomicon, 1996).
- First Love: A Gothic Tale (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1996).
- Tenderness (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review/New York: Braziller, 1996).
- We Were the Mulvaneys (New York: Dutton, 1996).
- Will You Always Love Me? and Other Stories (New York: Dutton, 1996).
- Double Delight, as Smith (New York: Dutton, 1997).
- Man Crazy: A Novel (New York: Dutton, 1997).
- Scenes from American Life: Contemporary Short Fiction, compiled by Oates (New York: Random House, 1973).
- Night Walks: A Bedside Companion, compiled by Oates (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review/New York: Persea, 1982).
- First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft, compiled by Oates (Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review/New York: Persea, 1983).
- Best American Essays 1991, edited and introduced by Oates (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991).
- The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Oates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
- The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats, edited by Oates and Daniel Halpern (New York: Dutton, 1992; London: Macmillan, 1993).
- American Gothic Tales, edited and introduced by Oates (New York & London: Plume, 1996).
- Emily Dickinson, The Essential Dickinson, edited by Oates (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1996).
- H. P. Lovecraft, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft: Major Works, selected and introduced by Oates (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1997).
- Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers, edited and introduced by Oates (New York & London: Norton, 1998).
[This entry was updated by Sarah Catlin Barnhart (University of South Carolina) from the update by Nancy Barendse (Charleston Southern University) in the Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, volume 6, pp. 216-241, of the entries by Michael Joslin (University of South Carolina) in DLB 2: American Novelists Since World War II, Alex Bateman (University of South Carolina) in DLB 5: American Poets Since World War II, and Holly Mims Westcott in DLB Yearbook 1981, and from the entry by Marilyn C. Wesley (Hartwick College) in DLB 130: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II.]
Creating fictional worlds has always been an obsession for Joyce Carol Oates. She began as a child--even before she could write she told her tales through pictures. During her elementary school years she wrote stories and constructed two-hundred-page books, which she designed and bound herself. When she was fifteen her first novel submitted to a publisher was rejected as too depressing for the market of young readers; the book concerned a dope addict who is rehabilitated by caring for a black stallion.
More frequently known for her fiction than for her poetry, Oates had her first collection of stories, By the North Gate, published in 1963. The title is taken from a poem by Rihaku in which the north gate is the boundary between civilization and savagery. The existence of savagery in civilized society is one of the predominant themes of both Oates's poetry and fiction. In all of her works, social form becomes merely a disguise for the undercurrents of psychological, and often physical, brutality. Since the publication of these stories (followed in 1964 by her first novel, With Shuddering Fall), Oates's critical acclaim has grown steadily.
Joyce Carol Oates was born in the small town of Lockport, New York, on 16 June 1938 and grew up in a rural setting nearby in Erie County. Together with her brother, Frederic, and sister, Lynn Ann, she was raised as a Roman Catholic in a home free from the depressing economic problems which plague so many of her fictional families. Her father, Frederic James Oates, was employed as a tool and die designer, while her mother, Caroline Bush Oates, ran the household. Oates received her early education in a one-room country schoolhouse but attended junior and senior high school in town. In 1956 she graduated from Williamsville Central High School. Seldom does Oates discuss her growing up, and she dismissed this period of her life to a Newsweek interviewer as "'dull, ordinary, nothing people would be interested in,' not because it was really dull and ordinary but because it was terrible to talk about. 'A great deal frightened me,' she said cryptically, but would not elaborate."
Traces of her early environment appear regularly in Oates's short stories and novels. Her most frequently used setting is Eden County, a fictional version of her western New York State milieu. She creates from the area near Buffalo, Lockport, and the Erie Canal a country of poor and wealthy farmers, small hamlets, towns, and growing cities. Lockport and the Erie Canal appear in Wonderland, while many of her other works are located in the rural areas of Eden, an allusive name, about which Oates has said, "It's not paradise at all. It's pretty bad as a matter of fact."
At Syracuse University, where she began studying in 1956, Oates turned out a novel a semester while majoring in English and minoring in philosophy. Her writing professor, Donald A. Dike, introduced her to William Faulkner , who she admits became a major influence on her work. Another important literary influence was Kafka: "In college, I was Franz Kafka for a while." The university library magazine provided one forum for her publications, and she was cowinner of the Mademoiselle college fiction award in 1959 for her short story "In the Old World," which appeared in that magazine. In addition to her writing, she was an outstanding student, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and served as class valedictorian when she received her B.A. degree in June 1960.
After her graduation Oates entered the University of Wisconsin graduate English program. While working on her master's degree, she met Raymond Joseph Smith, a doctoral candidate, whom she married on 23 January 1961. Oates received her degree in June of the same year and followed her husband to Beaumont, Texas, where he held his first teaching post.
Around that time she discovered that one of her short stories had been cited in the honor roll in the latest volume of Martha Foley 's Best American Short Stories. "I hadn't known about it until I picked it up and saw it. I thought, maybe I could be a writer."
Since that time Oates's publishing record has been overwhelming; novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays, and critical studies seem to flow effortlessly from her active mind. She readily confesses to "a laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book." She composes her work rapidly and spends little time rewriting. "It's mainly daydreaming, I sit and look out at the river, I daydream about a kind of populated empty space. There's nothing verbal about it. Then there comes a time when it's all set and I just go write it. With a story it's one evening, if I can type that fast." Despite the rate of composition, Oates's strongly individualized writing voice carries her quickly and evenly through her novels and stories.
The presentation of a realistic sensation of life that provides a moral lesson to the reader is the intention behind her work. The concern with capturing the whole experience leads her to pile fact upon fact, to overload her fiction with detail. Often criticized for this superabundance of graphic minutiae, she responds, "One has to be exhaustive and exhausting to really render the world in all its complexities and also in its dullness." She attempts more than a detailed picture, as she has clearly explained in an interview: "What I would like to do, always, in my writing is an obvious and yet perhaps audacious feat; I would like to create the psychological and emotional equivalent of an experience, so completely and in such exhaustive detail, that anyone who reads it sympathetically will have experienced that event in his mind (which is where we live anyway)."
Although she is quite certain about the intention of her work, Oates is less exact about her antecedents. A legion of writers has contributed to her development. In addition to Faulkner and Kafka, she includes as other important influences "Freud, Nietzsche, Mann--they're almost real personalities in my life. And Dostoevsky and Melville and Proust. And Sartre's Nausea." Beyond this diverse list, she sees herself as a romantic in the tradition of Stendhal and Gustave Flaubert . She also has obvious bonds with the great American naturalists--Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell , and John Steinbeck --but her concern with unusual psychological states and her lyricism and vivid imagery remove her from their company. The result of this wide variety of artistic models is an original synthesis which defies simple labels--realist, naturalist, gothicist, psychologist, satirist, and journalist--that have been pinned on her. Oates has been advised by her critics to cease work for a while to allow writer and reader alike to digest and properly evaluate what has been produced. Nevertheless, she continues to create and publish at an incredible rate; each month her output grows; each year a new novel, or a volume of short stories or poems, or a critical work appears. She contributes stories and essays across the entire spectrum of periodical publications from Playboy and Cosmopolitan to the Southern Humanities Review and the Shakespeare Quarterly.
Oates's first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), sounds the themes of violence, madness, and lust which have become her trademarks. This story of a country girl, Karen Herz, and of her destructive love affair with a stock car racer, Shar Rule, demonstrates the immense power of feminine passivity in its battle with masculine violence. From the moment that the thirty-year-old Shar roars into Eden County to bury his hated, dying father until, defeated by Karen, he smashes into the wall of the Cherry River raceway, he attempts to force the eighteen-year-old girl to respond to his violence. Karen, however, acting to avenge her father, whom Shar has seriously beaten, is indomitable.
While many reviewers responded favorably to this first novel, most missed the point of the story, which "was conceived as a religious work. Where the father was the father of the Old Testament who gives a command, as God gave a command to Abraham, and everything was parallel--very strictly parallel--and how we can obey or not obey it, and, if we do obey it, we're not going to get rewarded for it anyway," as Oates told Linda Kuehl, an interviewer for Commonweal (5 December 1969). The parallel is explicit in the novel: Mr. Herz reads from the Bible the story of Abraham and Isaac on the day before he commands Karen, "Don't come to me until you get him. Kill him. Kill him." Karen fulfills his command, despite her growing love for Shar, filling the story with violence, riots, perverse lust, and death. This religious theme is an important aspect of With Shuddering Fall and indicates the religious questioning of the author, who is a lapsed Catholic and was then questioning the role of religion in her life. That she was haunted by her Catholic upbringing is evident in much of her early writing, but her Catholic heritage grows less and less important in her later works.
Technically With Shuddering Fall is fairly simple and straightforward. The narrative point of view is third person, limited throughout, with Karen the center of consciousness for most of the novel, although Shar and others assume the center for certain sections. The novel is divided into three books, "Spring," "Summer," and "Fall," which coincide with Karen's meeting with, destruction of, and recovery from Shar. The prose style helps maintain control, as John Knowles notes in his review for The New York Times: "This material is not as garish as it sounds because of the clarity, grace and intelligence of the writing." On the other hand, H. G. Jackson, in Harper's, calls it "merely hysterically incoherent," while Dorrie Pagones, in Saturday Review, writes, "Miss Oates is often both esoteric and violent, adjectives seldom ascribed to women writers, and her imagination seems to have no limits."
Her second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), is the opening volume of an informal trilogy which develops the dual themes of problems caused by economic circumstances and of the difficulties of young people striving to free themselves from the oppressive situations of their lives. The chronicle of three generations, A Garden of Earthly Delights depicts the sordid world of the migrant laborer, the lonely world of the social outcast, and the sterile world of the comfortable middle class. The novel opens powerfully with the birth of the heroine, Clara, in the back of a decrepit transport truck for migrant workers in the 1920s. "Very much like Dreiser here, Miss Oates's honest grip on reality makes us feel but not flinch," Elizabeth Janeway writes in her review for The New York Times.
Clara's escape from the endless road and her establishment in Tintern, a small town in Eden County, are affected by the enigmatic young man, Lowry, who fathers her son. When Lowry, not knowing that Clara is pregnant, leaves for Mexico, she decides to bring her life into control by seeking out and surrendering to Revere, the local wealthy patrician who has been attracted to her. Taking her from her dime-store saleswoman's existence in the town, he establishes her as his mistress in her own home in the country and, following his wife's death, marries her and brings her and her son, Swan, who he thinks is his, into his world. To give Swan a strong position in life is Clara's main reason for marriage, but this decision leads to disaster, as Swan induces a miscarriage for Clara by causing the violent and bloody death of one of his stepbrothers in a hunting accident. Finally, after destroying Revere's original family for Swan's benefit, Clara sees him shoot his stepfather and then himself. As a result, she sinks gradually into insanity, as did her migrant mother. Most of the reviewers found this ending melodramatic and contrived.
From the migrant world and farming community of A Garden of Earthly Delights Oates moves to the earthly paradise of the sheltered suburbs of wealthy America in Expensive People (1968). About this volume she has written, "Expensive People is the second of three novels that deal with social and economic facts of life in America, combined with unusually sensitive--but hopefully representative--young men and women who confront the puzzle of American life in different ways and come to different ends." Her "sensitive" but "representative" youth in this work is an eighteen-year-old, 250-pound maniac, Richard Everett, who presents the story in the first person as a memoir he is writing prior to committing suicide.
Expensive People is Richard's tale of his pitiful life. He is the child of a highly successful corporate executive, Elwood Everett, who jumps from position to position,
ever bettering his prestige and salary, and of a minor woman writer, Natashya Romanov, who poses as the daughter of émigré Russian nobles but who is really the daughter of poor immigrants. Richard is hopelessly neurotic, perhaps psychotic. Wallowing in self-pity, he describes the promiscuous conduct of his social-climbing mother, whom he hopelessly loves. Her periodic desertions of him and his father drive Richard to murder.
Natashya, or Nada ("nothing") as Richard calls her, provides the plot for her own destruction by leaving behind her notebook in which she has sketched out a psychological novelette about a young man who terrorizes people by sniping at them but missing the first three times, "then the fourth, when you've been conditioned to the others, results in the murder." Interpolated in Expensive People is a published Oates story, "The Molesters," which is presented as one Nada contributed to the Quarterly Review of Literature. Richard interprets the tale to mean that his parents are knowingly "molesting" him. Richard follows the plot of the novelette, and the next time that Nada packs her bags to leave, he shoots her. Or does he? The psychiatrists say that the experience is an hallucination and that someone else shot Nada. Richard insists that he did kill her; so at eighteen he writes his chronicle of disintegration, after which he begins to commit suicide by eating until he bursts.
This novel is a sharp reversal from Oates's earlier efforts. It is a satire on the moral and artistic bankruptcy of the upper middle class. This presentation is effective, although she continues to present the details of day-to-day existence. Oates undercuts the realism of the narrative by extending her descriptions to absurd lengths, as when she has Nada telephone more than thirty different services necessary to suburban life. The use of the first-person narration is also a departure for Oates, one she found to be successful. In addition, the subject matter of this eccentric novel gives her a chance to discuss writing technique (Richard explains in great detail his theory about "How to Write a Memoir Like This," using tips from articles in The Writer and Amateur Penman, Let's Write a Novel! by Agnes Sturm, and Waiting for the End by Leslie Fiedler). The critical reception of this volume was varied; some reviewers were quite enthusiastic, while others were skeptical of the value of this unusual work.
The final volume of Oates's informal trilogy is them (1969), winner of the 1970 National Book Award. In this novel, she turns to the world of the lower middle class to chronicle the survival of the Wendall family from 1937 to 1967. In an unusual admission, Oates states, "This is a work of history in fictional form--that is, in personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists. In the years 1962-1967 I taught English at the University of Detroit. It was during this period that I met the 'Maureen Wendall' of this narrative." This young woman was a student and later a correspondent of Oates's, who incorporates in the body of the novel letters purportedly received from "Maureen." Oates describes Detroit with accuracy and a great profusion of detail which at times encumbers the narrative, although she further states that "the various sordid and shocking events of slum life, detailed in other naturalistic works, have been understated here, mainly because of my fear that too much reality would be unbearable."
Shot through with violence from beginning to end, them depicts the lives of Loretta Wendall and her son, Jules, and daughter, Maureen. Early in the novel, sixteen-year-old Loretta is jolted from her sleep by the sound of a bullet crashing through the skull of her first lover. Her brother, the murderer, flees, leaving her to muddle her way through the problem; she finds a policeman, Howard Wendall, whom she knows slightly, and brings him to the sordid apartment, where he, aroused by the thoughts evoked by the body in Loretta's bed, takes her on the kitchen table. He marries her after helping to dispose of the body but is suspended from the police force, and they move to the country. Howard goes off to war, and Loretta moves back to Detroit, where she is arrested for prostitution by the first man she approaches. Ever-resilient Loretta bounces back and survives, lives through several years with Howard until he is killed in an industrial accident, and then passes from man to man, ever hopeful, never truly touched by the horrors surrounding her.
Loretta's daughter, Maureen, is a composite of Oates and the "real" Maureen. One of the tragedies of the fictional girl's youth is the loss of her class minutes book for which she, the class secretary, is responsible. That Oates can make this insignificant event poignant and memorable is a measure of her power. Oates says this of the episode: "This is something that had happened to me too, and both of us responded in a very weak, rather victimized way, by being annihilated almost and reduced to tears and despair by a completely foolish event which is so small and yet, when you're that age, it can sort of run over you." Always the victim, Maureen turns to the library and literature to find peace and order; she reads Jane Austen and feels great sympathy for Emma but cannot feel such sympathy for her own relatives--the horrible reality of her life has become surreal to her. After literature, the only escape route she can envision is wealth.
Money is magic in them, and the characters pursue it almost by instinct. Maureen at fourteen begins picking up older men in her craving for money. She hides the money she earns in a book of poetry in her room, but her stepfather finds the money and beats her into a catatonic state, in which she hides from life for more than a year. Her brother Jules is similarly enthralled with money. His early years are believably depicted, but when he reaches manhood, his bizarre adventures make him merely a name acting through a series of unbelievable events. He has a relationship with a beautiful kept woman, who introduces him to the strange Bernard Geffen. A wealthy man trying to become a success through the gangster world, Geffen hires Jules as his chauffeur, pays him hundreds of dollars, gives him ten thousand dollars to buy a new car for them, and finally leaves Jules sitting in the car while he goes into a decaying building and has his throat slit. During his brief career as Geffen's driver, Jules catches sight of his employer's niece, Nadine, the daughter of some wealthy people in Grosse Pointe.
Nadine, who symbolizes the riches of a world he can never enter, becomes the overriding compulsion of Jules's life. He persuades her to run away with him, and while they drive to Texas, Jules commits petty crimes to support them. Nadine, however, refuses to have sex with him, and when he becomes disgustingly ill, she leaves him. Several years later, they meet again and finally consummate their relationship. After an afternoon and evening of making love, Nadine shoots her lover and then herself. Jules recovers only to become a caricature of success.
At the conclusion of the novel, Jules and Maureen both escape from the horror of their lower-class backgrounds. Jules, after pimping for a young, upper-middle-class student whom he turns to prostitution, becomes involved in the Detroit riots of 1967, during which he kills a policeman and makes friends with one of the organizers of the riots. After the destruction, the organizer lands a federal grant to set up an antipoverty program in California. Joining with him, Jules heads west in a parody of the traditional American hero striking out for new frontiers. Maureen's success is her seduction away from his wife and family of a dumpy, community college, part-time English teacher, who marries her and takes her to the haven of the suburbs. In the world of them these are "success" stories.
The critical reception of this work was generally favorable. Almost all reviewers were impressed by the detailed panorama displayed by Oates. Robert M. Adams, in The New York Times, said, "Miss Oates writes a vehement, voluminous, kaleidoscopic novel, more deeply rooted in social observation than current fiction usually tends to be." With this novel, Oates became a major figure in the literary world.
Following them, she began a series of novels which, in her words, "deal with the complex distribution of power in the United States." The first novel of this group is Wonderland (1971), which concerns the medical world and the "phantasmagoria of personality." The "hero" of Wonderland is Jesse Harte/ Pedersen/Vogel. His story begins in blood with his father's mass murder of the rest of the family and his suicide after wounding Jesse. Jesse Harte is eventually adopted by the famous physician and mystic, Dr. Pedersen, who awakens his slumbering intellect. Living several years in Lockport with the strange Pedersen family, all of whom are grotesquely fat, eccentric geniuses, Jesse develops a drive to emulate Dr. Pedersen. When he helps the alcoholic Mrs. Pedersen attempt to escape from the perverse domination of her husband, Jesse is ejected from the family. Without Pedersen's help, Jesse, now Vogel, struggles through medical school and internship but then marries the daughter of one of his medical professors and becomes the protégé of a brilliant brain surgeon. With an inheritance, Jesse establishes a clinic and becomes himself a successful neurosurgeon. Despite his professional success, Jesse cannot control his life or his children's lives: his marriage is unhappy; his children are alienated from him; his attempt at a love affair fails; the novel ends in despair.
The catalogue of violence and perversion in this novel includes mass murder, drug addiction, castration, abortion, homosexuality, self-mutilation, the assassination of President Kennedy, cannibalism (a doctor eats a broiled uterus which he has cut from an attractive cadaver), and the more typical horrors a doctor sees in the emergency room. Wonderland is unrelenting in its assault on the reader. Although many of the individual episodes are magnificent accomplishments, the novel as a whole does not reach the level of Oates's other work.
The critical reception of Wonderland was mixed. Many reviewers were highly impressed, while others were repelled by the work. The unmitigated pessimism of the novel makes it one of the least attractive of Oates's works, but Wonderland has such power and intensity that it cannot be ignored.
Do with Me What You Will (1973), her next novel, presents the world of lawyers and is in Oates's words, "a celebration of love and marriage." Structured to resemble a legal presentation, Do with Me What You Will is divided into four parts: "Twenty-eight Years, Two Months, Twenty-six Days," "Miscellaneous Facts, Events, Fantasies, Evidence Admissible and Inadmissible," "Crime," and "The Summing Up." The first two sections are temporally parallel, with each part presenting the story of one of the two main characters; part one is Elena Howe's and part two is Jack Morrissey's. The third section documents their love affair, and the fourth neatly concludes the novel by updating all of the main characters' lives and setting them on their ways.
Elena's story is an updated Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Kidnapped by her crazed, divorced father when she was seven, Elena early withdraws into a protective shell and remains oblivious to the world. When rescued from her father, Elena, ill and confused, cannot even speak, and when she finally does, she stutters. Her mother, a cold-blooded, man-hating opportunist, never understands Elena's problems and drags Elena through childhood and adolescence until she marries her at seventeen to a famous criminal lawyer, Marvin Howe. At the end of "Twenty-eight Years, Two Months, Twenty-six Days" Elena is frozen in a trance, staring at a statue in Detroit, where she and Marvin live.
Jack Morrissey's story commences when his father murders a wealthy man. Marvin Howe defends his father, and by coaching Jack as his star witness, gains an acquittal by reason of temporary insanity. Astounded by the power of the law, Jack decides to become a lawyer himself. He does, but unlike the rich and celebrated Howe, Jack crusades for the poor and downtrodden. While in the South working with the American Civil Liberties Union, Jack meets Rachel, whom he marries. Later they move back to Detroit, where Jack continues to help the impoverished and gains a reputation as a top lawyer for liberal causes. They never have much money because Rachel insists on sharing their money with the oppressed. When he sees Elena Howe and learns who she is, Jack feels compelled to know her. At the end of "Part Two" he is trying to awaken her from the trance which ended "Part One."
The third part of Do with Me What You Will depicts the progress of the love affair which develops between Jack and Elena. With her first sexual climax, she begins to awaken to reality, but because she is frightened, as well as exhilarated, by her emergence, she hides from Jack. When he forces her to choose between him and Marvin, she withdraws from him altogether, returns to Marvin, and confesses her sin. Marvin, certain he has gotten her back permanently, burns the files of evidence which his detectives have gathered since the affair began.
"The Summing Up" follows the main characters to a final decision. Elena rejects Marvin and security and pursues Jack, who has returned to his wife and the child they adopted to salvage their marriage. She succeeds. The novel ends affirmatively with Jack and Elena together.
Technically, this volume is one of Oates's most successful efforts. The critical reception of Do with Me What You Will was positive; after the extravagances and horrors of Wonderland, most welcomed the restraint and affirmation of this novel. As the second volume of the trilogy which concerns the basis of power in the United States, Do with Me What You Will brilliantly reveals the complex fabric of law which envelops all of society.
Leaving the orderly world of law, Oates enters the chaotic world of politics in her next volume, The Assassins: A Book of Hours (1975). There is a multiplicity of themes in this novel: politics and political assassination, art and religion, heroes and hero worship; unfortunately, none of these themes is fully developed. Critics of The Assassins were baffled and worn out by the narrative. J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times, expressed his frustration: "Joyce Carol Oates has subtitled her novel, 'A Book of Hours.' And painfully exasperating hours they are, every one of them."
The novel chronicles three confused lives, whose center, a powerful political figure, has been destroyed. Divided into three parts, the novel gives these characters--Hugh, Yvonne, and Stephen--an opportunity to demonstrate their relationships with the assassinated ultra-right-wing hero Andrew Petrie and the ways in which the violent death has affected them. Hugh opens the novel with his first-person account of his hatred for his brother Andrew, whose death moves him toward insanity. Hugh is an artist, a caricaturist, whose savage cartoons have earned him respect but whose disintegration isolates him from all society. The second part of the tale falls to Yvonne, Andrew's young wife, whose story is one of love and hero worship. She tries to carry on Andrew's work, but her limited ability to understand subtle differences confuses her. Third comes Stephen's narrative. He is Andrew's youngest brother, a religious mystic whose tale reveals Andrew to have been the subject of his religious compassion. Hugh ends his account by shooting himself in the head; Yvonne is shot and dismembered by an axe-wielding hunter at the conclusion of her section; and Stephen wanders off on a pilgrimage when his tale is finished.
The narratives are each individually confusing, and although they are mutually illuminating, much remains unclear. The story progresses through flashbacks and dreams, and the confusion is compounded by the unreliability of the narrators. Hugh is an unabashed liar; Yvonne is often confused and is bent on protecting her husband's reputation; and Stephen lives in a world not of this earth. The novel is chaotic, but then Oates obviously intends to present as accurately as possible the chaos of modern life.
Childwold (1976) is Oates's most free-flowing novel, the most intentionally Joycean in its structure, language, and narrative technique. Childwold is a rustic hamlet in Eden County, whose name has symbolic value: the novel is full of children and of childlike adults. Near this small town lives the Bartlett family on a decaying farm, and when Fitz John Kasch, the principal character of the novel, falls in love with fourteen-year-old Laney Bartlett, he muses over the name, composing "a litany, a sacred chant, the words of which were so beautiful I woke weeping--Childwold / Childwood / Childwide / Childworld / Childmold / Childwould / Childtold." This type of wordplay is an important part of the novel, as demonstrated by a page-length "litany" on the same word later on and by similar expansions of Kasch's name. Many different characters--Kasch, Laney, Grandpa Hurley, Arlene Bartlett, and her two sons Vale and Brad--tell significant parts of the story, each in a distinctive voice. Throughout the novel Oates's increasing fascination with psychic matters is manifested in the strange experiences of the characters.
Childwold is the story of Kasch and his interaction with the Bartlett family, a colorful menage of Arlene Bartlett, her married daughter Nancy, and their many children, legitimate and illegitimate, who provide the most obvious explanation of the title. Hovering over the novel, the not-yet-ghost of times past, is Arlene's eighty-three-year-old father, Joseph Hurley, upon whose farm the family lives. The world-traveling Kasch returns to recover his lost innocence to the nearby town of Yewville, where he meets and falls in love with Laney Bartlett, whom he pursues and instructs, lusts after and lends books to. However, when Arlene arrives to ask Kasch about his relationship with her daughter, he transfers his affection to the more mature woman. He marries Arlene and celebrates their homecoming and the consummation of the marriage through a lyric marriage song, which reveals him at the pinnacle of his physical and poetic life. However, bliss is short-lived in Oates's novels; defending his new family, Kasch smashes to pulp the skull of one of Arlene's former suitors. Tried, acquitted, hospitalized in a mental institution, Kasch withdraws from all society, and upon his release he buys the old farm and lives in the crumbling house as a hermit.
As usual with Oates's novels, plot summary leaves out much of importance: Grandpa's extraordinarily rich psychic life; Vale's brutal, degraded existence; Laney's fragile, failing child-world. The novel is full of poetry, the self-conscious rhythms of Kasch, the untutored, natural music of Grandpa. This is an excellent novel by any standard, as most critics recognized. Irene H. Chayes, in New Republic, wrote, "This is a novel that at last is comparable to the best of her short stories and by an evolutionary leap has already moved beyond them, into the tradition of literature, going back at least as far as the Romantics, in which the philosophical problems of man's existence and his destiny are bound up with the problems of art."
Eden County provides the background for Son of the Morning (1978), which Oates describes as "a first person narration by a man addressing himself throughout to God.... the whole novel is a prayer." The title of the novel comes from the book of Isaiah, in which Satan is called "son of the morning." In Oates's novel the son of the morning is Nathan Vickery, a charismatic preacher conceived during the gang rape of a virgin. Though, unlike Satan, Nathan does not willfully bring about the downfall of others, his one-sided view of life has evil effects. He has seven visions of God, the first at the age of five, and these become his obsession. The novel presents the various characters who enter and then leave Nathan's life: his mother, who is too young and too immature to care for him; his grandmother, who nurtures his spirituality; his grandfather, a skeptical intellectual; the various preachers who attempt to act as mentors in his youth; Leonie, a young woman whom he first desires and then rejects; and Japheth, the theology student who becomes his disciple but later attempts to murder him.
One of the most dramatic moments in Son of the Morning occurs when Nathan, remorseful over having felt lust for Leonie, puts his eye out before a congregation. Rather than repulsing his followers, this act strengthens his appeal to them. He goes on to lead a group called the Seekers of Christ, attracting hangers-on who hope to profit personally from his powers of leadership. He, however, is detached from their desires for money and power, as he is from all things worldly. After Japheth's attempt to murder him, Nathan is changed. There is a final apocalyptic downfall, but only symbolic death. At the end of the novel, he returns to Yewville, the town where he was born, having renamed himself William Vickery and divorced himself from his evangelistic past. However, he still searches for God, and his despair in this search permeates the novel.
"I wanted to write about religious experience from the other side, about interior experience," Oates said about Son of the Morning. Oates aimed to show in this book "how interior experience becomes modified and can't be controlled as it is taken over by the evangelical church." While writing this novel, Oates devoted hours each day to reading the Bible in an attempt to put herself "in the place of a fundamentalist Protestant who could go to the Bible every day for guidance and would not have any critical or historical preconceptions.... Getting into that frame of mind was a very shattering experience. Every day is a battle between good and evil, between God and the devil." Son of the Morning was generally well received by critics, who admired both its ambition and what they saw as its varying achievements.
Cybele (1979), named for an ancient bisexual goddess who was celebrated in orgiastic rites by eunuch priests, tells the tale of a man who is sexually powerless but who nevertheless is doomed by his sexual desires. Cybele focuses on Edwin Locke, successful and attractive, with a wife, two children, and a good education--all the requisites for a happy life--and a midlife crisis that leads him to engage in a series of affairs, each more disastrous than the last. First he pulls Cathleen, a married woman from his own social circle, into an affair; she is followed by Rita, a swinging gold digger who takes him for his money and then leaves with a former lover; and finally, after attempting reconciliation with his wife, Cynthia, he becomes involved with Zanche, an artist who has a strange daughter and who introduces him to bohemian life. Edwin is impotent; sex therapy is expensive and offers no help. Everyone seems to want only Edwin's money, and there is the suggestion that money is all he has to give. His sons, with whom he has never spent much time, are estranged from him, and his attempts to win them over fail. By the end of the tale Cynthia has built a new life for herself. Edwin, however, is more miserable than ever.
The final scene of the novel is characteristically Oatesian in its grotesqueness and violence. Edwin attempts to make love to Zanche's nine-year-old daughter, Chrissie, only to discover that the daughter has a penis. He hurts her and begins to tear apart the apartment. Zanche returns with friends, who attack Edwin. He manages to get away from them, but they catch up with him later, and his decaying body is eventually found near the expressway. In the last paragraphs, which flash back to an earlier moment, Rok, one of the killers, is trying to get his lighter to work so he can set fire to Edwin's body. Cybele reiterates effectively a favorite theme of Oates's, the moral bankruptcy of the upper middle class. Edwin's fate is of his own making, and he has no redeeming nobility to earn the reader's respect.
In Oates's next novel, Unholy Loves (1979), the setting is Woodslee University in upstate New York, an expensive and prestigious school for Ivy League rejects. Covering faculty politics and personal lives during one school year, the plot focuses on the social occasions that bring the faculty together. The catalytic event of this novel is the arrival of Albert St. Dennis, a distinguished elderly poet, for a year's residence. He is alcoholic, possibly senile at times, and near the end of the novel he dies in a fire he has accidentally set after an evening of revelry.
The most important of the many characters in the novel is Brigit Stott, who is having a difficult time writing her third novel. A member of the English department, as are many of the characters, she is separated from her husband and feels she is a failure both as an artist and as a woman. At a party to introduce St. Dennis to the faculty she is led into an affair with Alexis Kessler, a brilliant but erratic pianist and composer who is in danger of being fired from Woodslee, largely for his temperamental and bizarre behavior. The affair between Brigit and Alexis is at first idyllic, then stormy, violent. The last scene of the novel brings them together briefly, but their relationship is over. The affair, however, has helped to push Brigit beyond the stalemate she has reached; she is considering leaving Woodslee for a job nearer her family, from whom she has previously felt estranged, and she is back at work on a new novel. This conclusion provides a sense of optimistic completion and the implication that one may gain a degree of control over one's own life. Brigit says, "But whatever happens to me for the rest of my life ... won't be inevitable. I think that's why I feel so optimistic." However, Alexis has the last sentence of the novel, introducing an element of doubt: "But surely, my love, that won't last?"
Much of the third-person omniscient narration in Unholy Loves presents the insides of the characters' minds. The reader flits from character to character and from thought to thought within each character's mind. However, the style is appropriate for the subject matter. Two of the characters keep journals, and in presenting the mental journals of the various characters, the book itself takes on a kind of journal-like quality. (Oates herself keeps a formal journal, which she says "resembles a sort of ongoing letter to myself, mainly about literary matters.")
Oates claims that there has been "humor of a sort in my writing from the first, but it's understated or deadpan." Unholy Loves is probably a good example of that humor, but in this novel it sometimes seems intentionally catty, the laughter often closer to sneering. Critics recognized the achievement of the novel while noting that it was not one of Oates's major efforts.
Bellefleur (1980) is an ambitious novel dealing with six generations of the Bellefleur family. Jean-Pierre Bellefleur has established an empire whose power is made visible by the sixty-four-room castle built by his nephew. The castle, called Bellefleur, provides a suitably Gothic background for the strange beasts, transformations, and prophetic events that comprise the fabric of the novel, including such oddities as a half-wit boy who seems to turn into a dog, a captured gnome who becomes a devoted servant, a strange beast that is actually a house cat, and a giant bird that steals a baby. The story jumps back and forth from generation to generation but focuses on Gideon Bellefleur and his beautiful wife, Leah, who attempts to restore the decaying Bellefleur empire to its former grandeur. In the end her hopes are quite literally crushed when Gideon crashes his airplane into the castle, destroying himself and his family. It is left to Jedediah, the holy man of the family who has made his hermitage on the mountain, to come down and found a new Bellefleur line. "The point," John Gardner writes in The New York Times Book Review (20 July 1980), "is one made in Son of the Morning and elsewhere. Loving God completely, one cares nothing about the world, not even about people whom one sees, rightly, as mere instances; on the other hand, completely loving oneself or the world, one loses one's soul and becomes (as Gideon in the end) a figure of death."
A rich and complex story, Bellefleur creates a weirdly Gothic setting against which strange occurrences seem normal. Gardner notes that "what is known in Shakespeare criticism as 'sliding time' becomes a calculated madness" in Bellefleur. Though there are realistic details and a genealogical chart, no dates are given, and one feels that specific time is deliberately obscured in order to create an otherworldly feeling.
Oates says she attempted to write Bellefleur for years: "I would collect images along the way--a clavichord I saw, a snatch of conversation I heard--but I never could find the right voice." She finally began the novel after suddenly envisioning a woman sitting beside a baby in a cradle in a shabby but lushly overgrown walled garden. The novel took possession of her, and she attempted to write a chapter a day. She calls Bellefleur her "vampire" novel. "Even talking about it still drains me," she says. "I've had many such psychic vampire experiences in the past." Writing this novel helped her to develop theories about nineteenth-century Gothicism: "Using the werewolf, for instance, is a way of writing about an emotional obsession turning into a kind of animal." Finishing the novel left her with a kind of homesickness, "like loving a place you know you will never go back to."
Critics responded to Bellefleur much as they did to Son of the Morning, applauding its ambition, seeing much that is good and a little that is not. They were generally enthusiastic but did not find the novel flawless.
Angel of Light (1981) takes its title from the name Henry David Thoreau gave to John Brown, some of whose descendants are the central characters of this novel. The book is loosely based on the fall of the House of Atreus, brought about when Orestes, at the urging of his sister Electra, avenged the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, who have killed Agamemnon in his bath. In Oates's novel Maurice Halleck, director of the Commission for the Ministry of Justice, apparently commits suicide by driving his car off the road into the deep water of a swamp. He leaves a note, confessing his involvement in a bribery scandal, which clears his old school friend and assistant, Nick Martens, who is the actual lawbreaker. Halleck's daughter Kirsten, an anorexic, drug-using boarding-school student, cannot accept her father's guilt. Though she has no hard evidence otherwise, she is too aware of his great integrity to believe that he would accept a bribe. She is convinced that his death was somehow caused by her mother, Isabel, and Nick, who have been in love since shortly after Isabel's engagement to Halleck. Kirsten's monomania eventually draws in her brother Owen, a success-oriented Princeton senior bound for Harvard Law School and a career like his father's. Their determination to kill Isabel and Nick ultimately brings their own downfalls as well, in scenes of Oatesian violence that leave Owen and Isabel dead and Kirsten and Nick, who now confesses his guilt, in self-imposed exiles.
Thomas R. Edwards writes in The New York Times Book Review (16 August 1981) that "In her portrayal of the Halleck children, Miss Oates achieves a fresh and frightening picture of a desire that exceeds any available attainment. Owen and Kirsten ... strive to reconstruct reality in the image of their dream of justice, as [John Brown] had once also tried to do, with equally shattering effect." Edwards speaks of Angel of Light as "another chapter in Joyce Carol Oates's ongoing exercise of the imagination, but ... also a strong and fascinating novel on its own terms." Some other critics were not so generous with their praise, seeing in the novel more soap opera than human drama.
Oates continued her cycle of genre experiments with A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), her version of the family saga in Victorian America. Ostensibly about John Quincy Zinn, it tells the story of the five Zinn daughters through the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Diane Johnson (The New York Times Book Review, 5 September 1982) identifies Oates's theme as "the lot of women, especially the customs and attitudes that confined and oppressed them in the 19th century, but also the present-day remnants of those conditions." It is apparent that the narrator is unreliable because "she expresses [her views of feminine conduct] so pointedly that we cannot miss the novelist's intention, which is to emphasize their ridiculousness."
Sometimes referred to as Oates's Little Women, Bloodsmoor chronicles the lives of Constance Philippa, Malvinia, Octavia, Samantha, and Deirdre Zinn, beginning with Deirdre's abduction in a balloon. On the day of her marriage to a German baron, the tomboy Constance runs away; she returns for the reading of Aunt Edwina's will disguised as a young man, Phillipe Fox. Malvinia runs away with an actor, has an affair with Mark Twain , and ends up as a faculty wife. Octavia, the dutiful daughter, endures a first husband given to sexual perversity (whom she kills) and a vicious son (whom she allows to die) to be rewarded with a loving, ideal second husband. Samantha, inheriting her father's scientific inclinations, elopes with an obscure young man and invents the baby stroller and disposable diapers while her father formulates atomic weapons. Deirdre returns as a famous medium who, when subjected to scientific investigation, loses contact with her spirits but saves the world (for the time being) by allowing her father's nuclear formula to burn in the fire that destroys his laboratory.
In the third novel of her cycle of genre experiments, The Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), Oates "re-imagines" the detective story. She introduces the young consulting detective Xavier Kilgarven and presents three of his most baffling cases, three of his failures. Setting the novel in nineteenth-century upstate New York, Oates also employs such nineteenth-century conventions as the omniscient--although unreliable--narrator, slow pace, and ornate language.
Kilgarven's cases involve crimes against women, underscoring Oates's theme of the invisibility of women. They are powerless in nineteenth-century patriarchal society; their intelligence and common sense are ignored by men, and their differences from men are viewed as symptoms of disease. In the first case, "The Virgin in the Rose Bower, or The Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor," Kilgarven, while falling in love with his cousin Perdita, investigates a series of murders at his cousins' home, deaths attributed to angels in a ceiling mural who come to life. In "Devil's Half-Acre, or The Mystery of the 'Cruel Suitor,'" five local factory girls are raped and butchered by Valentine Westergaard, a young man in Kilgarven's social set. And in "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown, or Xavier Kilgarven's Last Case," a minister (Perdita's husband), his mother, and his adulterous lover get axed.
Throughout these stories the unreliable narrator speaks for society in blaming the victims for the crimes, and the reader must infer the true plight of these women. When the narrator reports that Kilgarven's aunts died because his uncle married women of inferior stock, the reader infers that he was a wife-beater and they died from abuse. Westergaard is found innocent of murder because the working-class girls "asked" for his upper-class attentions and "deserve" their fate. Perdita's oldest sister, Georgina, is accused of periodic bouts of peculiar behavior and lack of attention to her personal appearance, when in fact she is being used incestuously by her father and bears him five children.
While one critic calls this novel "one of Oates's more accessible books," "essentially an entertainment," another sees a loftier aim: rather than being a detective's search for the truth, it is "a philosophical investigation into the nature of 'Mystery.'" Literary allusion abounds in the work: Kilgarven, modeled after Sherlock Holmes, thinks like Ralph Waldo Emerson ; Georgina, a reclusive poet, is patterned after Emily Dickinson and, through her pen name, Iphigenia, is connected with the Greek myth; the cousins are like creations of the Brontës; one critic finds similarities between Winterthurn and works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Djuna Barnes .
As Rebecca Pepper Sinkler points out in The New York Times Book Review (20 January 1985), "Almost a half-century ago, Virginia Woolf called for a new kind of fiction, one in which women would be described not 'only in relation to the other sex.' ... Joyce Carol Oates, never squeamish about looking into the dark places of the soul," has written such a fiction in Solstice (1985). The novel tells the story of an improbable friendship between Monica Jensen, the narrator, who is divorced and beginning her life again as a teacher in a private school, and Shelia Trask, an artist and widow of a famous sculptor, "dark, mercurial, driven, reclusive." Their relationship, says Mary Soete (Library Journal, 15 November 1984), "turns on a subtle undercurrent of sexuality and on Monica's passivity and ultimate victimization, as [Shelia] ... leads her into a labyrinth." Through these women Oates looks at the transformation of a friendship into an obsession, described by Michael Harper (Los Angeles Times Book Review, 6 January 1985) as "love for another that ultimately becomes a struggle for the survival of self." Sinkler concludes that Solstice "should dispel a lot of comforting ideas about the nature of women."
In Marya: A Life (1986) Oates returns to upstate New York. She tells a fairy tale in which, Mary Gordon notes in The New York Times Book Review (2 March 1986), "a deprived child [is] mysteriously transformed not into a princess but a scholarship girl" in an "intensively and compassionately observed account of the lives of dirt-poor but intellectually passionate young women." Oates takes up Marya Knauer's story when she is eight; her father has been bludgeoned to death, and her mother, Vera, takes her to see the body before abandoning Marya and her two younger brothers. Turned over to an uncle's family, Marya is repeatedly abused sexually by her cousin, and she develops a shell of brilliance and sarcasm to keep people at a distance. Pushing herself through college and graduate school, Marya becomes a tenured professor, only to quit for success in the literary world of New York. At midlife she realizes she must reclaim what Elaine Showalter calls her "matrilineal past," and she returns to her hometown to try to discover her mother. This is only right, says Gordon, since the romance of the novel is not between Marya and her various men but between the abandoned daughter and her mother.
You Must Remember This (1987) is also set in upstate New York, beginning in 1953. It is the story of the Stevick familly, especially the passion between fifteen-year-old Enid Maria and her thirty-year-old half-uncle Felix, a former boxer. Oates begins with Enid's suicide attempt, establishing what John Updike, writing in The New Yorker (28 December 1987), calls the pattern of Enid's "flirtations" with nothingness, a blending of self-destructive and erotic impulses: masturbation, reckless jumping on a trampoline, swimming to exhaustion, shoplifting, contemplating her wallpaper, her attraction to the canal and to the narrow footbridge below the railroad trestle, her affair with Felix. Updike also describes the novel as a 1950s fairy tale of options for women: Geraldine marries into "a local life of chronic pregnancy and domestic drudgery"; Lizzie becomes a singer and possibly a New York hooker; and Enid goes to college.
Robert Phillips (America, 14 November 1987) believes Oates's theme is love: familial love, romantic love, and lust, with subplots about the love of power, music, and boxing. Calling it her "most blatantly sexual book," he describes it as "a toccata and fugue on the mysterious and unfathomable nature of sexual desire." Noting superficial similarity to Vladimir Nabokov 's Lolita (1955), he finds Oates's eroticism to be like that of D. H. Lawrence . The novel was heralded by many critics for the realism and power of Oates's boxing descriptions; Updike even commented that, on the strength of her fight scenes, the sport should be outlawed. But Sven Birkerts notes in The New York Times Book Review (16 August 1987) that in this novel Oates relies "much less on the kind of violence that saturated ... them and Wonderland. The violence is now carried inward, where it has a chance of being countered by other psychic forces."
Lives of the Twins (1987) was published under the pen name Rosamond Smith. Oates explained her experiment--which caused consternation when her authorship was revealed--as an attempt to evade the pressure of her own literary reputation: "I just wanted a new identity, kind of a freshness to have a book come out where nobody was comparing it to other books." The spare style of this book contrasts drastically with her usual abundance. On one level it is a horror story of psychological suspense; on another it is a metaphysical novel about identity and freedom, and their illusions. Molly Marks falls in love with her therapist, Johnathan McElwain, and learns that he has a twin, James, who is also a therapist. The twins have nothing to do with each other because of a hurt James inflicted on Johnathan in the past. When Molly seeks out James to discover what that hurt was, she becomes a pawn in the brothers' lifelong war for domination. Oates unifies the novel with many sets of doubles--characters, actions, pets, lunches, deceptions. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (The New York Times Book Review, 3 January 1988) sees the novel as an exploration of the deepest desires of human beings and of what happens when people drop the masks they normally wear.
American Appetites (1989) includes familiar elements of Oates's style and some variations. She focuses on Ian and Glynnis McCullough, married for twenty-six years, whose relationship comes to an abrupt end rather than the slow deterioration characteristic in many of Oates's novels. Despite the pervasive violence in most of her works, the fight between Ian and Glynnis is the only act of violence in the novel, the bulk of which is Ian's trial for the murder of his wife, whom he has killed in self-defense. In a variation of her hunger theme, Oates shows that Ian and his friends have only appetites, not hunger; they have no imagination or passion.
Nemesis (1990), another work released under the name Rosamond Smith, is a cross between a murder mystery and a novel of horror and suspense. Maggie Blackburn, a music teacher at Forest Park Conservatory in Connecticut, finds her sympathy torn between a student rape victim named Brendan Bauer and manly Clavin Gould, the head of the conservatory. Her feelings for Brendan are complicated by guilt, because he was seduced by villainous resident genius Rolfe Christensen during a cocktail party held at her home. Maggie feels responsible for Brendan's rape later that night. When Rolfe is fatally poisoned by a box of chocolates, the search for the killer begins. In trying to clear Brendan's name, Maggie uncovers the double lives of her fellow academics.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) returns to upstate New York in the 1950s for the tale of how narrator Maddy Wirtz and four of her friends (Legs Sadovsky, Goldie, Lana, and Rita) form a gang called Foxfire. The gang seeks revenge on the males (ranging from old boyfriends to teachers) who have exploited them. The girls grow up and go on to college and marriage, except for their bold leader, Legs, who is later seen in a photo of people surrounding Fidel Castro. This novel examines the largely unspoken American problem of young females growing up in a predatory male world.
What I Lived For (1994) turns to the male side of American experience. The novel is a detailed account of Jerome ("Corky") Corcoran, a city councilman, real-estate developer, and ladies' man. The story begins in 1959 with the murder of his father but concentrates on one weekend in 1992 as he investigates the apparent suicide of a young woman who had accused another city council member of rape. Corky also finds out that his lover's crippled husband has given her permission to carry on an affair with Corky, which is a severe blow to his ego. At the climax of the story, he steps between his ex-wife's daughter, Thalia, and her intended victim, taking a bullet. Set in Union City, New York, on Lake Erie, this novel questions the American ideals of masculinity, community, and family through Corky's interior monologue.
You Can't Catch Me (1995) is another Rosamond Smith novel. Old-school gentleman Tristam Heade travels from his home in Virginia to Philadelphia to look for a rare book, but people keep mistaking him for someone named Angus T. Markham. Angus is Tristam's opposite--a womanizer who knows how to live well. When the mysteriously tattooed Fleur Grunwald appears in Tristam's hotel room, he yields to the temptation to play Angus for the night. Fleur has a split personality, and her alternate, Zoe, describes the torture inflicted on her by her husband. Fleur/Zoe asks Tristam to rid her of her monstrous husband, and he is motivated by a thirst for revenge as well as fear that he must act in order to remain in her good favor. He begins to lose himself in the role of Angus, acting as he believes Angus would.
Zombie (1995) is the story of a sexual predator much more sinister than Angus T. Markham. This diary-novel follows thirty-one-year-old Quentin P., who lives alone in an apartment in a university town where his father is a professor. He is a convicted sex offender and a serial killer. The title refers to his quest: he wants to create a male zombie that will do his bidding, sexual and otherwise. He drugs his victims, vagrants and wanderers who will not be missed, and then uses an ice pick on their brains, killing them. He has a drug and alcohol habit, as well as a habit of avoiding eye contact at all costs. The story is written in Quentin's voice and is very matter-of-fact, describing his conquests as one would a pleasant outing. The rationality of his madness is as scary as his heinous crimes; there is no evidence of guilt or conscience in him. The novel is written in fifty-seven short chapters, accompanied by primitive line drawings that often appear to have nothing to do with the narrative. Because of its parallels to the case of real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, many reviewers thought that the novel was a statement about the violence in American culture, and that Quentin P. was supposed to be seen as a product of his environment.
First Love: A Gothic Tale (1996) turns to the experience of a sexual victim. Josie S., an eleven-year-old girl, and her mother, Delia, move in with her great-aunt Esther in Ransomville, New York. There Josie meets her cousin, Jared Jr., a twenty-five-year-old who is on leave from a Presbyterian seminary. Unbeknownst to Josie, Jared Jr. has been accused of child molestation in the past. Josie becomes his next victim as she seeks attention in any form from him. She is further estranged from her already distant mother, who is apparently too busy with her own life to take interest in what her daughter is doing. The story is told in flashback by Josie as an adult but slips into second person when describing her relationship to Jared Jr. According to Oates, the novel is "gothic" because it handles subjects such as a very young girl's search for romance and the masochism involved in her relationship with Jared Jr.
Set in fictional upstate Mount Ephraim, New York, We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) depicts the "perfect" family: successful businessman father, dedicated mother, football star son, cheerleader daughter, smart son, and pitiable runt son. This perfection disintegrates in the face of the events of Valentine's Day 1976, when the cheerleading daughter is raped by her prom date. The daughter is sent to live with distant relatives, and thus the decline begins; Oates allows the family to reunite only after years of separation and the death of the patriarch. The story examines the effect a sexual victimization can have on an entire family and explores the ways allegiances and resentments form and change within families over time.
The next Rosamond Smith novel, Double Delight (1997), introduces Terence Greene, model husband and father. While serving on a jury in Trenton, New Jersey, he meets assault victim Ava-Rose Renfrew. He becomes obsessed with her, first deceiving himself into believing he acts out of pity, then accepting his desire and beginning an affair with her. As her power over him grows, she (and other members of her family) increasingly take advantage of Terence. His fascination with Ava-Rose is attributed to the fact that he married above his class; but some reviewers were not convinced by this explanation. In a twist on Oates's usual theme, Terence is a male victim of a female predator who uses sex as a weapon.
Man Crazy (1997) is once again the story of a female sexual victim. Ingrid Boone loses her father at age five and spends her whole life looking for a man who will give her affection. She starts out as a good student who even wins a prize for her poetry, but her search for affection soon leads her to alcohol, drugs, and various men. As Quentin P. in Zombie was a serial killer, Ingrid becomes a sort of serial victim. At her lowest point she finds Enoch Skaggs, leader of a murderous satanic cult, who shares many similarities with real-life cult leader David Koresh. At the height of her despair, Ingrid finds salvation. The book takes the form of a long letter or diary addressed to Ingrid's doctor/lover. In his 21 September 1997 article in The New York Times Book Review, A. O. Scott blames "the absence of a persuasive narrative content" for the gratuitous nature of the violence in the novel. But the story, set in upstate New York in the 1970s, explores the way the human desire for love often compels one to act against one's better judgment, yet can also be one's salvation.
Novels represent only a part of Oates's literary production. Her short stories are considered by many to be her most polished pieces; she has written and published hundreds of tales. In 1990 she won both the Elmer Holmes Bobst Lifetime Achievement Award in fiction and the Rea Award for the short story, a twenty-five-thousand-dollar prize that honors living American writers "who have made significant contributions to the story as an art form." The convergence of these two awards suggests not only Oates's literary achievement but the significant place of her short fiction within that achievement. Because of her prodigious production of short stories, Oates says that "their role is virtually indistinguishable from my life! Most obviously the short story is a short run--a single idea and mood, usually no more than two or three characters, an abbreviated space of time. The short story lends itself most gracefully to experimentation, too. If you think about it, the story cannot be defined, and hence is open, still in the making. I like the freedom and promise of the form."
Oates's style, technique, and subject matter achieve their strongest effects in the concentrated form of the short story, for the extended dialogue, minute detail, and violent action which irritate the reader after hundreds of pages are wonderfully appropriate in short fiction. The disoriented and disturbed characters whom the reader follows with exasperation and doubt through the novels captivate him or her when depicted concisely at the moment of crisis. Her short stories present the same violence, perversion, and mental derangement as her novels and are set in similar locations: the rural community of Eden County, the chaotic city of Detroit, and the sprawling malls and developments of modern suburbia. An additional milieu explored in her tales is that of the academic world; many of her pieces concern the shallow nature of her fellow professors and their inability to communicate to their students or among themselves. While experimenting more freely in her stories than in her novels, Oates creates pieces of consistently high quality that the compactness of the genre enables her to maintain. According to Oates, "Each of the story collections is organized around a central theme and is meant to be read as a whole--the arrangement of the stories being a rigorous one, not at all haphazard."
Oates's early short-story collections established her as a literary star. Her first book, By the North Gate (1963), and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966) were generally and unambiguously praised for their realistic themes and form. These first two collections established Oates as a regional writer, who, like William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor , to whom she was compared, spoke with considerable authority about a particular geographical and moral location in a recognizable voice. Her eleven collections that were published in the decade from 1970 to 1980, however, present a different kind of writer with a different artistic agenda. The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970), Marriages and Infidelities (1972), The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies (1974), The Goddess and Other Women (1974), Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974), The Seduction and Other Stories (1975), The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (1975), Crossing the Border (1976), Night-Side (1977), All the Good People I've Left Behind (1979), and A Sentimental Education (1980) establish Oates as increasingly interested in thematic and formal experimentation.
The challenge of determining the nature of Oates's preoccupations, methods, and significance resulted in a wide range of critical response to the short stories as well as to the novels. The 1970s also introduced the ubiquitous questions about the violence of Oates's fiction and the volume of her production. During this period Oates's critics added to an extensive collection of frequently contradictory epithets describing her characteristic style: naturalistic, realist, romantic, surrealist, traditional, formal, experimental, Gothic, feminist, nonfeminist, tragic, and comic.
The Wheel of Love, Marriages and Infidelities, The Seduction, and Crossing the Border, as Katherine Bastian suggests, are centrally concerned with the permutations of love. To examine the possibility of a bridge between self and other is the philosophical problem addressed by Oates's predominant theme of love. At the heart of this inquiry is a symbolic concern with the viability of marriage--the institutionalized form of the self/other connection--a concern that links the varied collections of the decade.
The marriage theme prominent in her stories of the 1970s points to a deeper concern: the necessity and possibility of personal and social transfiguration. Thus Oates's "love" stories, with varied personal configurations, epitomize seminal motifs and issues through the use of catastrophe as an occasion for productive reevaluation and possible growth. The cataclysmic emotional responses of various characters to the unsettling experience of love suggests the need for rearrangements of the social forms that foster intimate connections in American society. Similar concerns operate in collections organized around other themes: female experience in The Goddess and Other Women; the situation of young people in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?; the world of academics in The Hungry Ghosts; the imagined world structured by the sensibility of a fictional Portuguese author in The Poisoned Kiss; and the otherworldly preoccupations of Night-Side.
In Oates's preface to Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? she comments on a split in the reception of her popular stories of youth that had been collected from previous volumes. Traditional readers, she explained, had seen only desperation in her fiction, unlike young readers who had responded to the "revolution" that such fiction encouraged. Like her endorsement of romantic love, Oates's optimistic insistence on the transformative potential of her disturbing stories of young America may account for the peculiar tone of the ending of Oates's most widely anthologized and analyzed short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" The tale of fifteen-year-old Connie's capitulation to probable rape and murder by fiendish Arnold Friend concludes with the otherwise puzzlingly positive diction of this description of her destination: "the vast sunlit reaches of the land Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it."
The latent potential for change that unites the variety of thematic situations in Oates's work is reflected as well in her revisionary treatment of traditional forms in both individual stories and in the arrangement of her story collections. During the 1970s she seemed to be trying to develop a repertoire of methods for writing the typical Oates story, which, as she describes it, combines allegory with psychological realism. In the collections of this decade, she excels in stories from the perspective of an omniscient narrator; develops the first-person form, especially the interior monologue; updates older genres, such as the epistolary story; and creates innovations, such as that in the story " & Answers," from The Goddess and Other Women, in which an overwrought mother passively replies to the implicit but omitted questions of a psychiatrist probing her response to her daughter's accidental death.
The most striking difference between the first two decades of Oates's short fiction and that of the second two decades is the greater degree of contextualization of her protagonists. For Oates the compelling issue of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have been the personal relationships of her characters; the demanding concern of her work in the 1980s and 1990s is the social, even political, conditions of such relationships.
Last Days (1984), which is in two parts -- the first presenting plots of personal apocalypse, the second focusing on the moral exhaustion of international politics -- provides a deliberate bridge between psychological concerns and social concerns. There is in each of the stories of the first section,"Last Days," a similar moral abdication by a father or by adult males that is a causal factor in the something that is wrong that these stories mean to name. An atmosphere of psychic despair connects this sequence to "Our Wall," the second half of the collection. Several of the stories in "Our Wall" apparently grew out of Oates's participation in an international writer's conference and tour of several European countries under the auspices of the United States Information Agency in spring 1980, an experience that also finds expression in Marya: A Life. In Marya, Oates extends the biographical portrayal of the life of her working-class protagonist from the family into the world of the academy and politics. Both the public spheres in Marya fail to provide the necessary protective order the protagonist seeks.
In Raven's Wing (1986), Oates's next collection, the characters--who are pathetic, even hopeless--consistently reveal a deep sense of their own situations. Their improvisations in response are frequently ineffectual, obviously unhappy, but highly expressive gestures of their need for control in a threatening world. Because of this skewed desire for responsibility, despite plots of violence and despair, the energy of Raven's Wing may be contrasted to the resignation of Last Days.
The best stories, "Raven's Wing," "Golden Gloves," "Little Wife," and "Surf City," treat elaborate improvisations in the face of helplessness. The issue of human responsibility is most clearly articulated in "Little Wife," a story of paternal degradation. In Last Days paternal abdication results in the destruction of the child; in this story, however, it occasions the child's moral elevation. Judd, the twelve-year-old protagonist in "Little Wife," has a father who has been a participant in the destruction of a young woman. "Damn his soul to hell, Judd was the first to notice the girl," the story begins. It ends with Judd notifying the authorities that "a girl who was sick, a girl who was dying, kept locked up by some men" had to be helped. Judd observes, first with curiosity and later with horror, his father and his father's friends pick up the girl outside a bus station, use her for sex, for prostitution, and for violence, and evidently intend to let her die. In the course of the story, Judd progresses from a state of mind in which "he didn't really care, he knew how things would keep on without him, drift on their own way," to becoming an active agent of responsibility.
Instead of the fully developed characterizations and plots of a typical Joyce Carol Oates short story, the stories in The Assignation (1988) introduce a new genre for Oates, the "short short" prose piece. Running from a single paragraph to six pages in length, instead of detailed psychological portraits, these stories are evocative snapshots of individuals taken during a revealing instant of conflict or posed against the momentary backdrop of a revealing symbol. Such a form allows Oates to showcase poetic suggestion and poetic rhythm, formal properties of her fiction that are usually little noticed.
The title of the collection, with its insinuation of relationship and transgression, sets the dominant thematic tone of the volume. Titles such as "The Abduction," "Adulteress," and "Desire" reinforce these implications. Many of the stories sketch characters, such as the teacher and children in "Sharpshooting," engaged in some action that directly or indirectly tests some kind of limit. "The Boy" presents an affair between a teacher and student; "Photographer's Model" suggests the induction of an attractive little girl into a corrupt lifestyle by a doting uncle; and "The Others" presents an urban commuter joining a band of ghosts in the tunnels of the subway.
Writing in The New York Times Book Review James Atlas dismissed The Assignation as "fugitive pieces, in other words a famous writer's occasional writings and ephemera," but he also commended the stories for their "radiant intensity." A similar mixture of praise and blame greeted the publication of Oates's 1991 collection, Heat and Other Stories , which is a study in serious literary horror.
For Edgar Allan Poe the wellspring of horror was the soul. For Oates the source is often the typical American personality that is dictated by the American social structure. The first section of Heat includes stories of middle-class characters facing contingencies they have constructed their lives to resist. In some stories protagonists must acknowledge the claims of underclass "others" in their own lives, while in "House Hunting" and "The Hair" the source of threatening otherness is occluded aspects of the protagonists' own personalities and experiences. The second section of Heat includes stories of working-class families. Horrifying things happen, such as the death of an old woman who tries to aid a wounded deer; the attack on a girl by a derelict in a library; the rape of a young woman in the desert outside Las Vegas; and the murder of twin girls (in the title story, "Heat"). The emphasis of the section, however, is not on the events themselves but on the way that each anomalous occasion is interpreted, frequently through apocryphal stories and family legends. A similar feature of several of the tales in Heat is the way the story affects a teller or an auditor, many of whom are thirteen-year-old girls. The last section of Heat collects more experimental writing--a doppelgänger story, a ghost story, a dream sequence, a science fiction story--tales exhibiting Oates's consciousness of their existence as stories. They mark the central concern, which is, more than horror, initiation, the meaning of family, class differences, or power--all contributing themes of the collection--an exploration of the meaning of narrative as practice.
Oates in Exile (1990) includes sixteen stories first published in the Toronto literary quarterly Exile over a fifteen-year period. In her introduction, Oates claims that in assembling these stories she recognized her "fascination ... with the fugitive life .... that self-as-glimpsed-from-beneath/beside/above/below."
Where Is Here?: Stories (1992) is a collection of thirty-five short-short stories, most less than four pages long. Many of the stories are experiments in capturing states of mind. "Lethal" is a variation on the common Oates theme of sexual terrorism. "Actress" follows an elderly star who is receiving notes from an old lover. In "Area Man Found Crucified" a wounded war veteran wishes he were dead. In both "Turquoise" and "Murder" women are killed by male violence. "Transfigured Night" describes a woman who is abandoned at the symphony by her husband one night and comes to a new understanding as she walks home in the rain. "Running" is an experimental piece, a single sentence that "runs" on for more than six pages. Reviewers generally preferred the few traditional-length stories in the collection.
Oates then returned to some of her earlier stories that had become unavailable. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (1993) includes stories written from 1963 to 1977, notably "The Molesters" and "Silkie," which were previously uncollected.
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994) collects sixteen horror stories written between 1980 and 1993, along with an essay on the literary history of horror and the grotesque that examines films, plays, and paintings as well. In "Thanksgiving," a father and daughter shop in a mysteriously postapocalyptic grocery store. "Blind" describes an old woman awakened by a thunderstorm in the night to find that she has gone blind and her husband is dead. Even an animal's point of view is explored in "Poor Bibi," the tale of a mistreated dog. "The Model," a story about a creepy artist who tries to lure a young girl to pose for him, is similar to "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" except that in this version the girl is armed with a knife. This volume also includes a retelling of Poe's "The Black Cat" titled "The White Cat," as well as a rewriting of Henry James 's "The Turn of the Screw" from the ghosts' point of view, titled "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly." This volume was followed by Demon and Other Tales (1996), a collection of seven stories. The dust jacket promises the book "offers readers a passport to a world where the inexplicable undermines assumptions of what people know to be true, and who they think they are."
Will You Always Love Me? and Other Stories (1996) is a collection of stories about Americans from all walks of life. Many of these tales deal with the dangerous emotions that lie just under the surface in relationships. "Will You Always Love Me?," included in the 1997 volume of The Best American Mystery Stories, is an account of a woman whose anger at the murder of her sister causes her to give up any hope of finding happiness. In "The Goose Girl," winner of a 1993 O. Henry Award, a divorced woman joins forces with her twenty-year-old son to help him spurn the romantic advances of a neighbor woman who just happens to be his mother's age. "American, Abroad," included in the 1991 volume of The Best American Short Stories, depicts a female art historian who is greatly disappointed when a beautiful young female tour guide stands her up. She is bewildered by her deep sense of loss at the missed appointment. "The Girl Who Was to Die" tells of a stepmother's attempt to bridge the emotional gap between herself and her stepdaughter in the aftermath of the deaths of two of the girl's acquaintances. In "The Revenge of the Foot, 1970," a young student is hopelessly in love with her married professor. He takes her to a party where premed students play catch with a human foot that someone has smuggled out of a lab class. She hides the foot in her purse, later using it to play a prank on her ex-lover professor and his finicky wife.
Reviewers' criticisms about violence in Oates's work miss the key point. Oates uses the art of story to contrast what people wish to believe with what they need to know, and that radical confrontation may be angry, even brutal. Perhaps it needs to be. Critic Walter Clemons defined Oates's task in 1972: "this is the problem that Oates shares with every other American writer today--how to bring order to the violent extremity and complexity of American life without mitigating that complexity" (in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates). Oates's short stories, especially her later ones--virtuoso stories combining perspicuity, perspicacity, artistry, and emotion--show that she is succeeding. In recognition of this success, she received the 1996 PEN/Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in the short story.
Oates's writings are by no means limited to fictional forms. Her poems, generally held to be her weakest efforts, also appear continually and have been partially collected in several volumes. Oates's first volume of poetry, Anonymous Sins and Other Poems , did not attract much attention when it first appeared in 1969. The poems owe more to their ability to startle with discord than to any power to captivate. Repeated themes--horror, isolation, love, violence, and suffering--unify what is otherwise a disjointed effort. Most of the poems are indeed anonymous confessions of sins, told by narrators whose transgressions are violent wrenchings of the psyche. Side by side with language that is occasionally flat and abstract are some of the most startling images in contemporary poetry, images that begin in the commonplace and end in horror, as in "A Married Woman's Song":
Her next volume of poetry, Love and Its Derangements (1970), was more widely received, although the attention was not always favorable. The poems of this volume are short, intense vehicles for often violent inner perceptions, clearly accessible, but sometimes at the expense of genuine lyricism. The emphasis of Love and Its Derangements is clearly on the derangements, although the work ends positively with a series of poems titled "A Landscape of Love." From love's passionate beginnings, there is a breaking apart in which the love is repeatedly lost in the trivia of the mundane world--in thoughts of suicide, in violent angers, and in psychological struggle. The lovers continually dive into the pool of their feelings, only to be cast back up by the depths. Always there is a fear of being trapped and typed to the detriment of the self's conception of its own identity. Despite the obstacles, however, there is an even stronger desire to maintain the struggle for love in the face of what seem to be impossible odds.
In Angel Fire (1973) Oates offers poetry that demonstrates her true lyrical gifts. The lines are surer, sharper, and less abstract than in her previous poems. They have, in fact, the sensual quality of D. H. Lawrence , from whom she takes the epigraph for the volume: "Ours is the universe of the unfolded rose / the explicit / the candid revelation." The first section, "Lovers' Bodies," moves from the physical features of the human anatomy to its reverberations in the spiritual, psychological, and emotional life. Like the poems of the first section, those of the second, "Domestic Miracles," represent brief moments of epiphany. Common events of everyday life, such as merely moving about the house or driving on a mountain highway, suddenly reveal entire landscapes that have become invested with psychological meaning and new perceptions. The third section, "Revelations," begins with the realization of the ultimate aloneness of human beings. In an impersonal world, the self struggles to maintain its separate identity, yet tries simultaneously to identify with the external world and to become one with it. The ultimate victory over these forces, which tend to pull the self apart, comes not through some newfound peace but through a terror that returns the self to wholeness, as in "The Secret Sweetness of Nightmares":
The Fabulous Beasts (1975), perhaps Oates's most accomplished work, begins in a winter world of the soul. Images of snow and ice predominate as the attempt to communicate meets with pain and silence. Yet the silence itself becomes a bond between people that draws them closer together than any language. There is in this work a feeling that one must return again and again to the beginnings, back beyond the common language to the common soul.
The isolation, the suffering for an identity, the love, and the pain all culminate in Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (1978). As the title suggests, women are devoured, and men spend themselves freely to consume women. Of all Oates's works, this is one of her darkest. The poems move from a preoccupation with social roles through a series of transformations that are accompanied by horror. In "The Resurrection of the Dead," the third section of the volume, the soul angrily demands the things of the earth as well as the things of the spirit. The result is a soulless America crowded with useless consumer objects, an America where "immense with appetite we hurry to devour / cockleshells and periwinkles and tiny moons are shattered / beneath our feet."
In The Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982 , published in 1982, Oates collects poems from previous works and contributes new ones, all on the theme of invisibility. In this collection she is considered at her best when writing out of her most personal experiences. Although she continues to receive criticism for focusing too much on abstract concepts and emotions, this volume echoes the themes in her fiction.
The Time Traveler (1989) is a generous collection of seventy poems, most previously published in journals. It includes "Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, 1942," which also appeared in the 1991 volume of The Best American Poetry. One reviewer of the volume was annoyed by what he viewed as Oates's overuse of the exclamation point. Tenderness (1996), Oates's eighth volume of poetry, brings together fifty-seven poems written over an eight-year period, most of which have been previously published. The collection offers a variety of styles and voices.
On the whole, Oates's poetry is not the strength of her canon. Certainly, she has a flair for lyricism, and her images often startle the reader into sensibility, but the subject matter is often too conventional and the language flat and abstract.
Three Plays (1980) includes three works that were produced off-Broadway during the 1970s: Ontological Proof of My Existence (1972); Miracle Play (1974); Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1979). Violent to the point of surrealism, the plays explore what Oates calls "rites of sacrifice" and "the inexpressible coherence of 'fate': the disharmonic music that is torn from us at certain moments in our lives and in history." The Perfectionist and Other Plays (1995) includes nine one-act plays and two full-length plays: The Perfectionist and Black. The Perfectionist, a comedy of manners, was nominated for an American Theatre Critics Award in 1994. The one-acts include Here She Is, a satiric look at the Miss America Pageant, and Homesick, which follows a serial killer and his victim. Another collection, Twelve Plays , was released in 1991. Tone Clusters was a 1990 cowinner of the Heideman Award for one-act plays and was also included in the 1991-1992 volume of The Best American Short Plays. In the afterword of Twelve Plays, Oates describes the special challenges of writing drama, and states: "the task of 'adapting' fiction for the stage is problematic.... How much easier, how much more expedient, simply to set aside the fiction and begin anew, from a new angle of vision!" This collection was not widely reviewed. Although they have merit on their own, Oates's plays also make interesting thematic footnotes to her prose fiction.
As one would expect, the critical writing of Oates is imaginative and revealing. She has written on a wide variety of subjects ranging from William Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett , and each of her essays elucidates both the work under discussion and her own novels, short stories, and poems. While Oates's critical pieces are not examples of careful, exhaustive scholarship, they are the products of a widely read, creative mind that considers deeply the forms and values of literature and renders erudite and fresh discussions of the works she approaches.
The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (1972) is her first collection of critical essays, including some of her work as a graduate student. She discusses Shakespeare, Herman Melville , Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekov, William Butler Yeats , Thomas Mann , and Eugene Ionesco. In these early works she establishes her critical approach: to subject rarely questioned assumptions about an author to close scrutiny. One problem she finds for modern writers is difficulty in creating tragedy out of characters whose lives are more or less equal and whose God is dead. Oates herself rejects nihilism; death is not a means for transcendence. Instead, her characters resist despair through dreaming.
New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (1974) is another collection of essays on famous writers: Henry James and Virginia Woolf , D. H. Lawrence (previously published separately as The Hostile Sun, 1973) Beckett, Sylvia Plath , Flannery O'Connor , Norman Mailer , James Dickey , and Kafka. In them Oates elaborates on the relationship between the artist and the receiver of the art, a sacred relationship for which the artist must take responsibility. The artist's mission, Oates says, is "to force up into consciousness the most perverse and terrifying possibilities of the epoch, so that they can be dealt with and not simply feared" even if, as a result, the artist is denounced.
Contraries (1981), a collection of seven essays written over a period of about twenty years and intermittently revised, were originally stimulated, Oates tells the reader, "by feelings of opposition and, in two or three cases, a deep and passionate revulsion." Her initial responses to such varied works as Oscar Wilde 's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (1873), and Lawrence's Women in Love (1920) provoked questions to which she responds with close attention to specific texts.
The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews (1983) puts together another group of Oates's critical works. In these her evaluations seem clearly biased by her own philosophy of writing, views at times self-vindicating, but that is not necessarily a problem. As Robert Dawidoff observes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 May 1983), "She is evangelical rather than scholarly and a lucid advocate of making people want to read good books," and the conversation about books she envisions is "among friends, with whom the formalities of argument are not so important."
On Boxing grew out of Oates's research for You Must Remember This, in which a main character, Felix, is a former boxer. She assesses boxing historically, from ancient Greece and Rome to today, concluding that the introduction of the referee in the nineteenth century is what "makes boxing possible" because he frees the boxer's conscience. Although her father used to take her to the fights, she admits to starting out with a feminist preconception: "I was interested in the sociology of masculine violence, and then I got more sympathetic with it, and saw it as really inevitable and quite natural." Criticized for overlooking the vulgarity of boxing dominated by television and promoters, she finds even in today's version of the sport that it has merit as tragic theater.
In a 1988 collection of essays, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities , Oates gathers thirty-five pieces, all previously published, covering a wide range of topics. Some of the more academic include philosophic discussions of art, of writing in particular, and of the works of Emily Dickinson , Kafka, Ernest Hemingway , Charlotte Brontë, and Henry David Thoreau , among others. There are prefaces to her novels and an account of the screen adaptation of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as Smooth Talk (1986). She covers topics as diverse as Mikhail Gorbachev, Winslow Homer , a hundred-thousand-dollar Ferrari, and Mike Tyson. In all, one critic says, her opinions are "marred--or enlightened," depending on the reaader's bias, by a feminist sensibility.
In George Bellows: American Artist (1995), Oates dedicates a whole volume to one subject: the career of a painter best known for his boxing scenes and depictions of New York City life. Bellows was as prolific an artist as Oates is, and she attempts to place him within his historical and cultural context. She also brings to light that he created many sensitive portraits of women, both young and old. The November 1995 Publishers Weekly review stated, "Oates's assured, uncannily insightful essay brings us closer to Bellows's spiritual center than most scholarly studies of him."
With each succeeding work, Oates demonstrates her growing ability to write highly artistic, yet socially relevant fiction: her potential is limited only by her energy and her control. Of her energy there is no question; her output resembles the prodigious collections of the prolific novelists of the nineteenth century. Of her control, however, many still entertain doubts; careful rewriting and precise editing are not often evident in her published novels. That Oates is today a major American novelist is an established fact, for her powerful imagination presents compelling visions of contemporary society which cannot be ignored; yet her continuing success and her position in the future depend upon her ability to impose a rigorous artistic restraint upon her compositions.
The Joyce Carol Oates Archive in the Special Collections of Bird Library, Syracuse University, includes correspondence, manuscripts and typescripts, and Oates's journals.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Leif Sjoberg, "An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates," Contemporary Literature, 23 (Summer 1982): 267-284.
- Lee Milazzo, ed., Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989).
- Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson, A Voice of One's Own: Conversations with America's Writing Women (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
- Francine Lercangée with Bruce F. Michelson, Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1986).
- Greg Johnson, Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Dutton, 1998).
- Katherine Bastian, Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories between Tradition and Innovation (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1983).
- Eileen Teper Bender, Joyce Carol Oates, Artist in Residence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
- Harold Bloom, Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Chelsea House, 1987).
- Rose Marie Burwell, "Joyce Carol Oates and an Old Master," Critique, 15, no. 1 (1973): 48-58.
- Cara Chell, "Un-tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story," Arizona Quarterly, 41 (Spring 1985): 5-23.
- Joanne V. Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: Twayne, 1979).
- Creighton, Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years (Boston: Twayne, 1992).
- Brenda O. Daly, "The Central Nervous System of America: The Writer in/as the Crowd in Joyce Carol Oates's Wonderland," in Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic, edited by Dale M. Bauer and S. Janet McKinstry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 155-180.
- Daly, Lavish Self-Definitions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
- Daly, "Misogynist Reviewers: Tiny Gunmen Take Shots at That Siren, Joyce Carol Oates," in Misogyny in Literature, edited by Katherine Ackley (New York: Garland, 1992), pp. 265-287.
- Sharon Dean, "Faith and Art: Joyce Carol Oates's Son of the Morning," Critique, 28 (Spring 1987): 135-147.
- Constance Ayers Denne, "Joyce Carol Oates's Women," Nation, 219 (7 December 1974): 597-599.
- Robert H. Fossum, "Only Control: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates," Studies in the Novel, 7 (Summer 1975): 285-297.
- Doreen A. Fowler, "Oates's 'At the Seminary,'" Explicator, 41 (Fall 1982): 62-64.
- Ellen G. Friedman, Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Ungar, 1980).
- Christina Marsden Gillis, "'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?': Seduction, Space, and a Fictional Mode," Studies in Short Fiction, 18 (Winter 1981): 65-70.
- Mary Kathryn Grant, The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978).
- David K. Gratz, "Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been,'" Explicator, 45 (Spring 1987): 55-56.
- C. Harold Hurley, "Cracking the Secret Code in Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been,'" Studies in Short Fiction, 24 (Winter 1987): 62-66.
- Greg Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1994).
- Johnson, Understanding Joyce Carol Oates (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).
- William T. Liston, "Her Brother's Keeper," Southern Humanities Review, 11 (Spring 1977): 195-203.
- Carol A. Martin, "Art and Myth in Joyce Carol Oates's 'The Sacred Marriage,'" Midwest Quarterly, 28 (Summer 1987): 540-552.
- Torborg Norman, Isolation and Contact: A Study of Character Relationships in Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories 1963-1980 (Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1984).
- Sue Simpson Park, "A Study in Counterpoint: Joyce Carol Oates's 'How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,'" Modern Fiction Studies, 22 (Summer 1976): 213-224.
- Sanford Pinsker, "Suburban Molesters: Joyce Carol Oates's Expensive People," Midwest Quarterly, 19 (Autumn 1977): 89-103.
- Allen G. Shepherd III, "Faulknerian Antecedents to Joyce Carol Oates's Mysteries of Winterthurn," Notes on Contemporary Literature, 17 (November 1987): 8-10.
- Elaine Showalter, "My Friend, Joyce Carol Oates: An Intimate Portrait," Ms. (March 1986): 44-50.
- Janis P. Stout, "Catatonia and Femininity in Oates's Do With Me What You Will," International Journal of Women's Studies, 6 (May-June 1983): 208-215.
- Gordon O. Taylor, "Joyce 'after' Joyce: Oates's 'The Dead,'" Southern Review, 19 (Summer 1983): 596-605.
- Taylor, "Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Wonderland," Southern Review, 10 (Spring 1974): 490-503.
- Mike Tierce and John Michael Crafton, "Connie's Tambourine Man: A New Reading of Arnold Friend," Studies in Short Fiction, 22 (Spring 1985): 219-224.
- Linda W. Wagner, ed., Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979).
- Wagner, "Oates's 'Cybele,'" Notes on Contemporary Literature, 11 (November 1981): 2-8.
- Carolyn Walker, "Fear, Love, and Art in Oates's 'Plot,'" Critique, 15, no. 1 (1973): 59-70.
- Gary F. Waller, Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).
- Joyce M. Wegs, "'Don't You Know Who I Am?': The Grotesque in Oates's 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,'" Journal of Narrative Technique, 5 (January 1975): 66-72.
- Marilyn C. Wesley, "Father-Daughter Incest as Social Transgression: A Feminist Reading of Joyce Carol Oates," Women's Studies, 21 (1992): 251-263.
- Wesley, Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates' Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993).