Novels for Students


Joyce Carol Oates

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


them is a story about urban life in America, centered on the experiences of a mother, Loretta, and her children Jules and Maureen. In the "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book, Joyce Carol Oates explains that she based one of the characters, Maureen Wendall, on a young woman who had been her student at the University of Detroit, and indeed chapters eight and nine of the middle part of the book consist of letters written by Maureen to a former instructor whom she addresses "Dear Miss Oates." Whatever the source that inspired the events in this book, it is highly unlikely that all of the events in the Wendall family's life between 1937 and 1967 could be drawn from any one person's experiences. This presentation of the story as "history in fiction form" does, however, help readers believe that all of the details that are rendered in graphic brutality are true to what life in the poorest of urban areas must have been like.

them is actually the final installment of a trilogy about life in various settings within American society. The first novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), follows forty years in the life of a farm family. The second, Expensive People (1967), examines the world of suburbia and the values that are held and lost there. The urban world depicted in them is so vicious to love and prone to random violence that in there is no peace to be found by its protagonists, Maureen and Jules Wendall, the siblings who have been hardened by city life: they leave to pursue empty dreams in California and suburban Detroit.

Author Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is widely recognized as one of America's most active writers, having published dozens of novels, poetry collections, short story collections, dramas, and essays. She was born in 1938, the same year as Jules Wendall of them, and she grew up in the rural countryside on the outskirts of Lockport, New York, attending a one-room school during her primary education. After receiving a typewriter at age fourteen, she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship, graduating as class valedictorian in 1960, and the following year she earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin. From 1961 to 1967 she lived in Detroit and taught at the University of Detroit, a time that she cites as an inspiration, not just for them, but for the rest of her writing career: "Detroit, my 'great' subject," she wrote in the essay "Visions of Detroit," "made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am—for better or worse." them, her third published novel, won Oates a National Book Award at the age of thirty-two.

From 1967 to 1978 Oates taught at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, just across the river from Detroit, and during that time, while handling a full teaching course load, she managed to produce an average of two to three novels per year. In 1978 she began her long-standing affiliation with Princeton University, first as a Writer-in-Residence from 1978 to 1981 and then as a professor, from 1987 to the present. Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, edit the acclaimed journal The Ontario Review. Throughout her career her writing style has taken several turns, from the urban realism of her early novels to a more imaginary worldview to the history ad romanticism of her Gothic novels (such as Bellefleur, Bloodsmore Romance and Mysteries of Winterthurn) of the mid-1980s. In recent years Oates has diversified even further into different genres, producing several books of poetry and essays, and a few of her plays have been produced to mixed reviews. Some of her latest works, a series of suspense novels, have been published under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith.

Plot Summary


The them of Oates's novel are Loretta Wendall, her daughter, Maureen, and her son, Jules, as well as the pressures of their culture, the targets of their hatred, and the multitude of characters that surround them. The novel is set in Detroit and its environs and spans the years 1937 to 1967—from Great Depression to racial unrest and riots. In between, the story is told through the layered perspectives of these three characters as it follows the intimate details of their lives.

The Thirties

In an urban slum, Loretta Botsford stands in front of a mirror admiring herself. Her father is an alcoholic casualty of the Depression, her mother is dead, and her brother, Brock—confused and alienated—has grown increasingly hostile. Despite this, Loretta is happy, and her appearance is one source of joy. She is gloriously generic—a Hollywood look that is shared by hundreds of other girls—and she feels a sense of security in their shared conformity. After arguing with Brock, Loretta goes out and meets Bernie Malin in the street. He comes back, they have sex, and she is awakened by a gunshot. Brock has killed Bernie, and Loretta runs out in terror. A policeman, Howard Wendall, brings her back to the apartment and then forces himself upon her.

Now married to Howard and pregnant with his (or Bernie's) child, Loretta is content even though she feels her life has ended. Her father is institu-tionalized, and Jules is born. Howard is accused of corruption, loses his job, and he and Loretta move with her mother and father-in-law to the countryside. A second baby, Maureen, is born, and Loretta feels increasingly lost without a city surrounding her.

The Forties

Howard goes off to war. Jules is a bright little boy who wanders around the area fearlessly until he's traumatized by the sight of a decapitated man in a plane crash. The narrative shifts to Jules's perspective, and describes his frustrations with the stultifying life of his family. He discovers the meaning of power while putting on a magic show for Maureen. Having lit and put down a match, he watches while the fire consumes a barn in a matter of moments. Meanwhile, Loretta grows more and more restless, and decides to take the children to Detroit. The first day there, she is arrested for streetwalking.

The Fifties

It's ten years later, Howard is in Detroit, he and Loretta have a new child, Betty, and Jules is in love with a nun. The novel jumps forward three years—Jules has lost his virginity and Grandma Wendall has moved in with the family, who have moved to a new address. The narrative takes up Maureen's perspective. Maureen is a fastidious, quiet girl who spends her evenings at the library and harbors a violent hatred for the mess by which she's surrounded. Howard is crushed in a workplace accident, leaving the children almost unmoved. Loretta gets a job and a new husband, Pat Furlong, and Grandma Wendall is institutionalized. As the children grow, they diverge from the early potential they showed. Jules flunks out of high school, and Betty is often in trouble with the police. Maureen is still a "good girl" until she loses the Homeroom Secretary's minute book in a quasi-Fall from Grace. During her obsessive attempt to find it she becomes fixated on the money she needs to leave home and begins prostituting herself. Her grades drop.

Loretta is pregnant and out of work. Furlong finds money hidden in Maureen's room and beats her nearly to death when she comes home. Profoundly disassociated from her body, Maureen sits in a sort of waking coma for a year, growing fatter and fatter. The novel switches to Jules's perspective. Loretta and Furlong are getting divorced, Brock is in town, and Jules has a job as a driver for Bernard Geffen, a wealthy, gangster-like man who is later stabbed to death. Becoming a florist's delivery boy next, Jules is obsessed with Geffen's niece, Nadine, and pressures her to talk to him alone. Nadine—not a very stable girl—asks Jules to run away to Texas or Mexico with her. They steal a car from her parents' friend and take off. Jules is forced to mug and rob to support them, but his efforts fail when he collapses with severe diarrhea. When he recovers, he finds that Nadine has gone, taking the car with her.

Back in Detroit, the narrative is told from Maureen's disturbed but growing consciousness. A series of letters from Jules chart his downward trajectory, from bright hopes in Houston, to a job in Tulsa as an experimental subject that leaves him hospitalized and near blind. While Brock is helping Maureen to recover, the narrative is intercut with a letter from Maureen to Oates, written in 1966. The next ten years of Maureen's life are laid out in "future retrospective." Brock helps her to recover, she gets a job, leaves home, and attends the University of Detroit, where Oates is one of her teachers.

The Sixties

It's 1966. Jules is back in Detroit—driving for his Uncle Samson—and Brock is dying. In a restaurant with Samson he comes face to face with Nadine. They meet several days later. She's married, but says she still loves him. Jules and Nadine finally make love, but Nadine is still dangerously obsessed with the untouchability of her body. After convincing herself that her mind is sullied and that she's a whore, she shoots Jules.

In April, Maureen is in love with her married teacher, gazing into her mirror just as Loretta did in the novel's opening scene. She hates black people with a ferocity that paralyzes her. Jules, shot twice, is still alive, but has disappeared. The narrative takes up the teacher's perspective as he is drawn to Maureen's intensity and need. In May, televisions blare the noise of war protests in the background as Maureen tells her mother that she's getting married. It's 1967, and Jules walks through Detroit observing the protests before meeting Mort, a man with a Ph.D. in sociology who's involved with various causes. Jules listens as the academic members of UUAP discuss possible black leaders to take over from President Johnson and the necessity of revolution.

In July, the temperature soars and Jules's relationship with another woman, Marcia, is strained by his involvement with a woman named Vera. Jules is awakened by sirens. The riots have begun, and he is swept along with the mob. The revolutionaries of the UUAP are beaten by police. A policeman chases Jules, refusing to let him go, and with a weary sense of righteousness, Jules shoots him in the face. Loretta's building is burnt down and she is given temporary refuge in a middle-class home. Watching a television program about the riots, she sees Jules among the panel of UUAP members being interviewed. "Fire burns and does its duty," he says. In the final scene, Jules and Maureen say good-bye. She has a new life now, and he is going to the West Coast with the UUAP.


Brock Botsford

Brock Botsford is Loretta's brother. In the book's early chapters, he is a teenager with a gun, looking for some trouble; when Loretta brings Bernie Malin home to spend the night in her room, Brock comes in during the night and shoots him dead. He shows up in Detroit years later, staying with Loretta and Maureen after Furlong has gone away. Maureen credits his attention with bringing her out of her catatonic state. Brock enters a hospital with a mysterious degenerative disease, but he does not die: one day he gets dressed and walks out of the hospital, never to be heard from again.

Pat Furlong

Pat Furlong is Loretta's second husband. He does not work, owing to a back injury, but spends his days drinking in bars. After a while, Loretta becomes tired of him and has Maureen cook for him when he comes home late at night. Furlong's attempts to be a responsible father are limited to accusing Maureen of being involved in bad activities. When he finds out that Maureen has been acting as a prostitute, he beats her nearly to death, for which he receives a four-month jail sentence.

Randolph Furlong

The son that Loretta has with Pat Furlong, "Ran," does not appear in the novel after he is an infant. He is sometimes mentioned as being out in the streets.

Bernard Geffen

Bernard Geffen is Jules's eccentric, rich employer who hires him to be a driver and keeps giving him huge, unthinkable amounts of money—first one hundred dollars then ten thousand dollars. Initially, Jules is suspicious because of Geffen's erratic behavior and the large quantities of money that he gives away, but he is comforted by the fact that the bank is willing to honor the checks. Several days after he starts working for him, Jules drives Geffen to a house and then, after waiting outside for a while, goes inside to find the house empty and Geffen dead, his throat slit with a butcher knife.

Nadine Greene

The niece of Bernard Geffen, Nadine Greene is the great love of Jules's life. Jules becomes infatuated with her one day when he is waiting for Bernard and she passes by the car; later, he goes to her house to see her, and they end up stealing her parents' car and running away for California. In a motel room in Texas, when he is sick in bed, she leaves him. Years later he runs into her in Detroit: she is married to a wealthy man and living in an affluent suburb. She rents an apartment for the purpose of having trysts with Jules, but after their first night together, she shoots him and herself, though neither dies.

Bernie Malin

In the early chapters, when Loretta is a teenager living with her brother and alcoholic father, she takes Bernie as her first lover. However, Loretta's brother, Brock, shoots Bernie while he is in bed with Loretta.

Media Adaptations

  • them was released on audiocassette by Center for Cassette Studies in 1974.


In June of 1967, before the race riots start, Jules lives with Marcia and her four-year-old son, Tommy.

Joyce Carol Oates

Having recovered from Furlong's beating and the psychological trauma that resulted from it, Maureen takes some classes at the local college. Several letters written from Maureen to Joyce Carol Oates, a former instructor, are printed within the book.

Mort Piercy

Mort Piercy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wayne State University and the head of the UUAP, which is an organization that he uses to take federal money and direct it toward violent radical causes. At the end of the novel, Jules leaves for California to work as Mort's assistant.


Vera is the young, mousy girl that Jules picks up at an activist meeting and of whom he sadistically takes advantage when he returns to street life after having been shot.

Betty Wendall

The younger sister of Maureen and Jules, Betty is seldom around the house, spending her time away from home with street toughs in Detroit. She is most prominent in the section in which Pat Furlong finds out about Maureen's activities in prostitution. She warns Maureen before she comes home, conveys the news of what happened to Loretta, and interacts with Maureen when she has locked herself away.

Howard Wendall

When Loretta finds herself with the dead body of Bernie Malin in her bed, she turns to Howard Wendall, a police officer. Howard helps Loretta dispose of Bernie's body, but in exchange she has sex with him, becomes pregnant, and marries him. Howard soon loses his police job by taking bribes, and moves the family to his parents' house in the country. When he returns from serving in World War II, Loretta has taken the children to Detroit to flee the Wendalls, but she has gotten arrested there. Howard joins the family in Detroit, but soon is killed in an industrial accident.

Jules Wendall

Jules is driven by his romantic passions, but he always fails at making his unrealistic dreams come true. The main thing he wants in life is Nadine Greene, his one great love, with whom he is infatuated as soon as he sees her in the driveway of his parents' house. In the novel, he has two relationships with Nadine, one that ends in disappointment (she runs away from him when he is bedridden with the flu) and the other that ends in disaster (she shoots him, then herself).

There are other relationships with women in his life that resemble his relationship with Nadine. Soon after his father's funeral he begs Edith Kaminsky, a girl he hardly knows, for a picture of her, and when it blows away when he is crossing over an expressway, he chases it through traffic, romantically fixated on it. He lives with various women throughout the book, including Faye, who introduces him to Nadine's uncle, and Marcia, who accepts his philandering. He is courteous and protective of his sisters, his mother and his grandmother. …