Oates, Joyce Carol (1938 -)
JOYCE CAROL OATES
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, playwright, author of children's books, nonfiction writer, and poet.
Considered one of the most prolific and versatile contemporary American writers, Oates has published, since the start of her award-winning literary career in 1963, more than twenty novels; hundreds of short stories in both collections and anthologies; nearly a dozen volumes of poetry; several books of nonfiction, literary criticism, and essays; and many theatrical dramas and screenplays. Writing in a dense, elliptical style that ranges from realistic and naturalistic to surrealistic, Oates concentrates on the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual malaise of modern American culture in her fiction, exposing the dark aspects of the human condition. Her tragic and violent plots abound with depictions of rape, incest, murder, mutilation, child abuse, and suicide, and her protagonists often suffer as a result of the conditions of their social milieu or their emotional weaknesses. Although her works in other genres address similar issues, most critics concur that her short fiction best conveys the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes. Among the dominant motifs in Oates's collected fiction is her evocation of a profoundly Gothic sensibility in American culture. Particularly in such works as her novels Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), and the short story collections Night Side: Eighteen Tales (1977) and Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994), among several others, Oates draws upon the emotional extremes of human existence to produce what critics view as a modern and supremely Gothic vision of the history, culture, and collective psyche of the United States.
Born June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, the daughter of a tool-and-die designer and a homemaker, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County—later represented in much of her fiction as Eden County. A bookish, serious child, she first submitted a novel to a publisher at the age of fifteen. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; the following year she earned a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor. From 1962 to 1968 the couple lived in Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit and published her first novels, short story collections, and poetry. She also witnessed the 1967 race riots, which inspired her National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). Shortly thereafter, Oates accepted a teaching position at the University of Windsor, Ontario, staying until 1978, when she was named a writer-in-residence at Princeton University; she joined the faculty there as a professor in 1987. Despite the responsibilities of an academic career, Oates has actively pursued writing, publishing an average of two books a year in various genres since the publication of her first book, the short story collection By the North Gate (1963). Her early novels consistently earned nominations for the National Book Award, while her short fiction won several individual O. Henry Awards and the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement in both 1971 and 1986. A poet of some merit, and a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies, Oates also is a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of a variety of topics. During the 1990s Oates gained additional recognition as a playwright for authoring many plays produced off-Broadway and at regional theaters, including The Perfectionist (1993), which was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play in 1994. In subsequent years, Oates has continued her prolific output of novels, short stories, dramas, and criticism.
With her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), Oates foreshadows her preoccupation with violence and darkness, describing a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death by accident. Oates's best known and critically acclaimed early novels form an informal trilogy exploring three distinct segments of American society: A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) chronicles the life of a migrant worker's daughter in rural Eden County; Expensive People (1967) exposes the superficial world of suburbia; and them presents the violent, degrading milieu of an innercity Detroit family. Oates's novels of the 1970s explore American people and cultural institutions, combining social analysis with vivid psychological portraits of frustrated characters ranging from a brilliant surgeon (Wonderland, 1971), a young attorney (Do with Me What You Will, 1973), and the widow of a murdered conservative politician (The Assassins, 1975), to religious zealots (Son of the Morning, 1978) and distinguished visiting poets and feminist scholars (Unholy Loves, 1979). Her short stories of this period, most notably in Marriages and Infidelities (1972), and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974), considered by many to be her best work, concern themes of violence and abuse between the sexes. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," among these, tells of the sexual awakening of a romantic girl by a mysterious man, Alfred Friend; this story is considered a masterpiece of the modern short form and was adapted for film. Two additional collections of short fiction from this period, The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (1975) and Night Side, reflect Oates's developing interest in Gothic themes. Set in the late nineteenth century, the title piece of the latter collection takes the form of a Victorian ghost story and features a clash between the skeptical materialism of its narrator and the inexplicable qualities of the spirit.
During the early 1980s, Oates published several novels that exploit the conventions of nineteenth-century Gothic literature as they examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, and the influence of family history in shaping destiny. Bellefleur follows the prescribed formula of a Gothic multigenerational saga by depicting supernatural occurrences while tracing the lineage of an exploitative American family. A Bloodsmoor Romance displays such elements of Gothic romance as mysterious kidnappings and psychic phenomena as it details the lives of five maiden sisters in rural Pennsylvania during the late 1880s. In Mysteries of Winterthurn Oates explores the conventions of the nineteenth-century mystery novel. The protagonist of this work, Xavier Kilgarvan, is a brilliant young detective who models his career after that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In the episodes that make up the novel, Kilgarvan investigates bizarre cases of murder and incest shrouded in supernatural mystery. Like these lengthier works, many of her subsequent shorter fiction, such as the stories of Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, also rely on elements of Gothic horror, in many cases drawing inspiration from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James. Other short stories by Oates, including "Demons" and "Family," probe the terrifying details of alienated and homicidal families.
Most of Oates's remaining fiction of the 1980s features more explicit violence than does her earlier fiction, which tends toward the depiction of psychological afflictions and obsessions. In Marya (1986) a successful academic searches for her alcoholic mother who had abused her as a child, and in You Must Remember This (1987) a former boxer commits incest with his niece dur-ing the McCarthyist 1950s. Oates's subsequent works continue to address relations between violence and such cultural realities of American society as racism (Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990), affluence (American Appetites, 1989), alienation (I Lock the Door upon Myself, 1990), poverty (The Rise of Life on Earth, 1991), classism (Heat, 1992), sexual-political power dynamics (Black Water, 1992), feminism (Foxfire, 1993), success (What I Lived For, 1994), serial killers (Zombie, 1995), incest (First Love: A Gothic Tale, 1996), and familial implosion (We Were the Mulvaneys, 1996). In My Heart Laid Bare (1998) Oates returns to the Gothic family saga structure of Bellefleur, recounting the decline of an American family over two centuries in a story deeply concerned with the ongoing history of racial tensions in the United States. Additionally, Oates's series of mysteries published under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith—Lives of the Twins (1988), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), Snake Eyes (1992), and You Can't Catch Me (1995)—concern the psychopathic exploits of aberrational academics and are noted for their use of Gothic motifs.
Critics hold diverse opinions about Oates's work, particularly about her repeated use of graphic violence, which some have called a "distorted" vision of American life. Eva Manske (see Further Reading) has summarized the general view: "Some of her novels and stories are rather shrill in depicting the human situation, remain melodramatic renderings of everyday life, highly charged with unrelenting scenes of shocking, random violence, or madness and emotional distress that Oates chronicles as dominant elements of experience in the lives of her characters." Considering the often extreme content of her work, the mention of Oates's writing in conjunction with Gothic conventions has become a commonplace among contemporary critics. Several of her early novels, including realistic works such as With Shuddering Fall and Wonderland have been regarded for their grotesque depictions of both physical and psychological violence, and studied within Gothic literary contexts. Oates herself has suggested that Gothic concerns with the bizarre dimensions of human experience and extremes of brutality and psychological duress are essential components of contemporary life. She has also remarked that the term itself (when left uncapitalized) merely signifies "a work in which extremes of emotion are unleashed." According to this definition, Oates's entire oeuvre could be considered in terms of its generically "gothic" qualities. In particular, Oates's use and adaptation of the supernatural and psychological themes formally associated with the Gothic literary tradition have been most frequently discussed in conjunction with her novels Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn. These works draw heavily upon the preternatural atmosphere of dread and a collection of tropes and conventions evoked in the nineteenth-century Gothic novel. Other works discussed in Gothic contexts include the short story collection Night Side, which Greg Johnson has studied in terms of the link between the psychological and the unseen spiritual realm these stories draw upon in rendering the dark and inscrutable mysteries of the human psyche. Additionally, her novels penned under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith have been said to prominently feature the Gothic trope of the doppelgänger, or double, while her stories and novels set in Eden County are thought to strongly echo the "Southern Gothic" atmosphere found in the novels of William Faulkner and thus likewise explore a haunting landscape crafted in a peculiarly American idiom. While some critics have dismissed her Gothic fiction as whimsical, others have suggested that it invigorates this literary tradition, particularly feminist critics who often have likened Oates's ghosts to the cultural status of "invisible woman," as Cara Chell (see Further Reading) has pointed out. Overall, critical consensus has tended to characterize much of Oates's work as a powerful reinterpretation of a centuries-old literary tradition, one that adapts the Gothic sensibility into a contemporary mode by plunging readers into the often terrifying and hidden emotional recesses of modern American society.
By the North Gate (short stories) 1963
With Shuddering Fall (novel) 1964
The Sweet Enemy (play) 1965
Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (short stories) 1966
Expensive People (novel) 1967
A Garden of Earthly Delights (novel) 1967
Women in Love and Other Poems (poetry) 1968
them (novel) 1969
The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (short stories) 1970
Wonderland (novel) 1971
Marriages and Infidelities (short stories) 1972
Angel Fire (poetry) 1973
Do with Me What You Will (novel) 1973
The Goddess and Other Women (short stories) 1974
Miracle Play (play) 1974
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (short stories) 1974
The Assassins: A Book of Hours (novel) 1975
The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (short stories) 1975
Childwold (novel) 1976
Triumph of the Spider Monkey: The First Person Confession of the Maniac Bobby Gotteson as Told to Joyce Carol Oates (novella) 1976
Night Side: Eighteen Tales (short stories) 1977
Son of the Morning (novel) 1978
Cybele (novel) 1979
Unholy Loves (novel) 1979
Bellefleur (novel) 1980
Angel of Light (novel) 1981
Contraries: Essays (nonfiction) 1981
A Sentimental Education (short stories) 1981
A Bloodsmoor Romance (novel) 1982
Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970–1972 (poetry) 1982
Mysteries of Winterthurn (novel) 1984
Solstice (novel) 1985
Marya: A Life (novel) 1986
You Must Remember This (novel) 1987
Lives of the Twins [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1988
(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (nonfiction) 1988
American Appetites (novel) 1989
Soul/Mate [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1989
The Time Traveler (poetry) 1989
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (novel) 1990
I Lock the Door upon Myself (novel) 1990
Nemesis [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1990
I Stand Before You Naked (play) 1991
The Rise of Life on Earth (novel) 1991
Black Water (novel) 1992
Heat: And Other Stories (short stories) 1992
Snake Eyes [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1992
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (novel) 1993
The Perfectionist (play) 1993
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (short stories) 1994
What I Lived For (novel) 1994
Will You Always Love Me? (short stories) 1995
You Can't Catch Me [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1995
Zombie (novel) 1995
Demon and Other Tales (short stories) 1996
First Love: A Gothic Tale (novel) 1996
Tenderness (novel) 1996
We Were the Mulvaneys (novel) 1996
Double Delight [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1997
Man Crazy (novel) 1997
My Heart Laid Bare (novel) 1998
Broke Heart Blues: A Novel (novel) 1999
The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (short stories) 1999
Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon [as Rosamond Smith] (novel) 1999
Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (essays and nonfiction) 1999
Blonde (novel) 2000
Faithless: Tales of Transgression (short stories) 2001
Middle Age: A Romance (novel) 2001
Beasts (novel) 2002
Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (novel) 2002
I'll Take You There (novel) 2002
Bad Girls (play) 2003
The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (nonfiction) 2003
Freaky Green Eyes (novel) 2003
Small Avalanches and Other Stories (short stories) 2003
Tattooed Girl (novel) 2003
Where is Little Reynard? (juvenilia) 2003
I Am No One You Know (short stories) 2004
JOYCE CAROL OATES (STORY DATE 1996)
The following short story originally appeared in the collection Demon and Other Tales in 1996.
There, again, the vexing, mysterious sound!—a faint mewing cry followed by a muffled scratching, as of something being raked by nails, or claws. At first the woman believed the sound must be coming from somewhere inside the house, a small animal, perhaps a squirrel, trapped in the attic beneath the eaves, or in a remote corner of the earthen-floored cellar; after she searched the house thoroughly, she had to conclude that it emanated from somewhere outside, at the bottom of the old garden, perhaps. It was far more distinct at certain times than at others, depending upon the direction and velocity of the wind.
How like a baby's cry, terribly distressing to hear! and the scratching, which came in spasmodic, desperate flurries, was yet more distressing, evoking an obscure horror.
The woman believed she'd first begun hearing the sound at the time of the spring thaw in late March, when melting ice dripped in a continuous arhythmic delirium from chimneys, roofs, eaves, trees. With the coming of warm weather, her bedroom window open to the night, her sleep was increasingly disturbed.
She had no choice, then, did she?—she must trace the sound to its origin. She set about the task calmly enough one morning, stepping out into unexpectedly bright, warm sunshine, and making her way into the lush tangle of vegetation that had been her mother's garden of thirty years before. The mewing sound, the scratching—it seemed to be issuing from the very bottom of the garden, close by a stained concrete drainage ditch that marked the end of the property. As soon as she listened for it, however, it ceased.
How steady the woman's heartbeat, amid the quickening pulse of a May morning.
Out of the old garage, that had once been a stable, the woman got a shovel, a spade, a rake, these implements festooned in cobwebs and dust, and began to dig. It was awkward work and her soft hands ached after only minutes, so she returned to the garage to fetch gardening gloves—these too covered in cobwebs and dust, and stiffened with dirt. The mid-morning sun was ablaze so she located an old straw hat of her mother's: it fitted her head oddly, as if its band had been sweated through and dried, stiffened asymmetrically.
So she set again to work. First, she dug away sinewy weeds and vines, chicory, wild mustard, tall grasses, in the area out of which the cry had emanated; she managed to uncover the earth, which was rich with compost, very dark, moist. Almost beneath her feet, the plaintive mewing sounded! "Yes. Yes. I'm here," she whispered. She paused, very excited; she heard a brief flurry of scratching, then silence. "I'm here, now." She grunted as she pushed the shovel into the earth, urging it downward with her weight, her foot; it was a pity she'd so rarely used gardening implements, in all of her fifty years. She was a naturally graceful woman so out of her element here she felt ludicrous to herself, like a beast on its hind legs.
She dug. She spaded, and raked. She dug again, deepening and broadening the hole which was like a wound in the jungle-like vegetation. Chips and shards of aged brick, glass, stones were uncovered, striking the shovel. Beetles scurried away, their shells glinting darkly in the sunshine. Earthworms squirmed, some of them cut cruelly in two. For some time the woman worked in silence, hearing only her quickened heartbeat and a roaring pulse in her ears; then, distinctly, with the impact of a shout, there came the pleading cry again, so close she nearly dropped the shovel.
At last, covered in sweat, her hands shaking, the woman struck something solid. She dropped to her knees and groped in the moist dark earth and lifted something round and hollow—a human skull? But it was small, hardly half the size of an adult's skull.
"My God!" the woman whispered.
Squatting then above the jagged hole, turning the skull in her fingers. How light it was! The color of parchment, badly stained from the soil. She brushed bits of damp earth away, marveling at the subtle contours of the cranium. Not a hair remained. The delicate bone was cracked in several places and its texture minutely scarified, like a ceramic glaze. A few of the teeth were missing, but most appeared to be intact, though caked with dirt. The perfectly formed jaws, the slope of the cheekbones! The empty eye sockets, so round … The woman lifted the skull to stare into the sockets as if staring into mirror-eyes, eyes of an eerie transparency. A kind of knowledge passed between her and these eyes yet she did not know: was this a child's skull? had a child been buried here, it must have been decades ago, on her family's property? Unnamed, unmarked? Unacknowledged? Unknown?
For several fevered hours the woman dug deeper into the earth. She was panting in the overhead sun, which seemed to penetrate the straw hat as if it were made of gauze; her sturdy body was clammy with sweat. She discovered a number of scattered bones—a slender forearm, curving ribs, part of a hand, fingers—these too parchment-colored, child-sized. What small, graceful fingers! How they had scratched, clawed, for release! Following this morning, forever, the finger bones would be at peace.
By early afternoon, the woman gave up her digging. She could find no more of the skeleton than a dozen or so random bones.
She went up to the house, and returned quickly, eagerly, with a five-foot runner of antique velvet cloth, a deep wine color, in which to carry the skull and bones up to the house. For no one must see. No one must know. "I am here, I will always be here," the woman promised. "I will never abandon you." She climbed to the second floor of the house, and in her bedroom at the rear she lay the velvet runner on a table beside her bed and beneath a bay window through whose diamond-shaped, leaded panes a reverent light would fall. Tenderly, meticulously, the woman arranged the skull and bones into the shape of a human being. Though most of the skeleton was missing, it would never seem to the woman's loving eye that this was so.
In this way the woman's bedroom became a secret temple. On the velvet cloth the skull and bones, unnamed, would be discovered after the woman's death, but that was a long way off.
JAMES EGAN (ESSAY DATE 1990)
SOURCE: Egan, James. "'Romance of a Darksome Type': Versions of the Fantastic in the Novels of Joyce Carol Oates." Studies in Weird Fiction 7 (1990): 12-21.
In the following essay, Egan discusses Oates's combination of "the parodic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic, into a Gothic delineation of the American Dream" in Wonderland, Son of the Morning, Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn.
During the 1970s a critical consensus began to take shape about the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, namely that her work was moving away from "external", realistic experiences toward the fantastic and visionary (Walker 27; Wagner xix). "Her writings," Mary Kathryn Grant has suggested, "presuppose a nightmare world which challenges the very limits of man's endurance and tries his spirit to the breaking point" (2). Increasingly, this "nightmare world" has assumed peculiarly Gothic qualities. Probably the best description of Oatesian Gothic has been offered by Greg Johnson: "Her work combines such traditionally Gothic elements as extreme personal isolation, violent physical and psychological conflict, settings and symbolic action used to convey painfully heightened psychological states, and a prose style of passionate, often melodramatic intensity" (16-17). The Gothic is prominent, concentrated and of particular importance to the thematic statement Oates makes in five novels: Wonderland (1971), Son of the Morning (1978), Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984). An examination of these novels reveals that Oates has refined two forms of Gothicism, a contemporary and a somewhat antiquarian version, to the point where she can articulate an intricate cultural fable which integrates a wide range of thematic motifs, character types, and narrative patterns long associated with the Gothic tradition. That fable derives from her ironic perception of the American Dream and its workings. In short, Oates combines several discrete elements which recur in her writing, notably the parodic, the visionary, and the apocalyptic, into a Gothic delineation of the American Dream. As her Gothic mode evolves from Wonderland to Mysteries of Winterthurn another significant pattern develops: she moves from an indirect, allusive, and aesthetically remote high Gothic toward a direct, overt use of recognizable Gothic idioms found in popular literature for the past century.
Several parallels between the Gothic aesthetic and the general characteristics of Oates's fiction are readily apparent. Her vision of the world is typically dark, skeptical, and parodic, stressing "confrontations with mindless evil", frenetic quests which result in discoveries of inner "emptiness", "hidden, unlovely depths of passion", or the perilously thin line between civilized behavior and savagery (Creighton 27, 32, 40). Her first five novels have been described as "dramatizations of nightmares" (Grant 8). Consistently, Oates examines the shifting borders between the real and the illusory, the self and the Other. For more than a decade she has shown a recurring fascination with the "ways the personality may be invaded by mysterious and unpredictable moments of vision, insight or inspiration, and with the dislocations such invasions cause in the texture of everyday life" (Waller 82). In both her realistic and non-realistic fiction, Oates deals with a remarkably wide range of psychological horror, madness, obsession, and paranoia (Creighton 18). A discussion of the novels in question will illustrate their Gothic qualities.
In a 1980 interview with The Paris Review Oates was asked whether the fact that she had written about medicine, law, politics, religion, and spectator sports meant that she was consciously "filling out a 'program' of novels about American life" (370). Though Oates denied that she was deliberately developing such a scheme, American settings, characters, and themes manifest themselves prominently in all her long fiction, and as her vision of American culture and its value systems clarifies, the Gothic slant of her writing becomes more apparent. Written before Oates's Gothic aesthetic had fully asserted itself, Wonderland (1971) blends the realistic, grotesque, absurd, and macabre. Wonderland may be fairly described as "horrific" and a "shocker", yet Oates refrains from extremes of the fantastic in her subject matter and plot line. The novel's opening details the sort of sensational episode common in tabloids or even newspaper headlines: one day in December 1939 Jesse Harte returns from school to find that his father, having murdered the entire family, now waits for him in their chillingly quiet home. Jesse flees into the night as the sound of his father's shotgun blast fades behind him; though wounded, he has escaped death. After he has lived for awhile with his grandfather, doing heavy farmwork in a grimly naturalistic setting, the affluent Pedersen family adopts Jesse, who becomes a "project" for Dr. Karl Pedersen and strives to emulate his new "father" in all ways, eventually winding up in medical school. Oates presents realistically, almost minutely, the numbingly demanding duties of an intern in a large metropolitan hospital and the grinding pressures that beset Jesse as he evolves into a prominent brain surgeon.
The grotesque and the absurd, however, go hand-in-hand with his professional success. The entire Pedersen family is obscenely fat and obsessed with eating: Hildie and Friedrica, Jesse's siblings, are obese, neurotic child prodigies, and Mrs. Pedersen an obese alcoholic. Oates establishes grotesque gluttony as a metaphor of the various obsessions and compulsions which haunt Jesse throughout his life. She sets the Gothic tenor of Wonderland by means of a motif Irving Malin associates with new American Gothic, the monstrous family, in this case headed by a narcissistic, "misery-giving" father and containing stunted siblings (58, 65). The Pedersen family tries in various ways to "suffocate" Jesse and "no solution to family strife" seems possible. As Malin argues, images of suffocation and endless strife characterize the new American Gothic version of the familial (9, 80-90). Problems more profound than gluttony set in when Jesse begins work as an intern at a Chicago hospital. At the point, Wonderland recalls Kafka's absurdist parable, "A Country Doctor". Jesse must confront the human wreckage, pain, and confusion of a brutal urban world: the horror of sick and beaten children; the gruesome sight of a woman who has aborted her fetus with a fruit juice glass; the endless wounds he must minister to. Like Kafka's country doctor, Jesse faces an impossible task, to heal the "wounds of life" which the order of things dictates cannot be healed. Jesse cannot stop the flow of blood any more than the country doctor can heal the inexplicable, worm-infested sore he has been summoned to cure.
Wonderland 's parallels with Kafka's allegory also point to the Gothic subtexts which unify Jesse's journey through the nightmare world of American culture. Modern Gothic themes of violence, breakdown, and putrescence permeate the novel (Punter 3). Jesse narrowly escapes from a father who has collapsed, only to enter an environment where insanity reigns. The Pedersen family is a bizarre illusion, all of whose members have retreated into the neuroses that best sustain them. Despite Karl Pedersen's grandiose, patriarchal ambitions and tyrannical power, he and his family are degenerating, and the amount of psychological violence he can bring to bear on them cannot arrest the decline. Moreover, as Jesse interns he enters what amounts to an urban Gothic environment of dark hospital corridors, chaos, and various species of death, pressures which erode his sanity. His hospital setting contains various Gothic "paraphernalia of death", not only the grim devices of abortion (318), but the vast medical machines designed to save lives, machinery which seems at times to do the opposite (Hennessy 50). Yet Wonderland 's closest affinities with the Gothic tradition are classical; its echoes of Shelley's Frankenstein.1 Early on, Karl Pedersen has a protective, almost messianic interest in Jesse, just as Victor Frankenstein had in the creature—the creature was Victor's "project", and Jesse becomes Pederson's. Like the creature, Jesse reads voraciously and tries earnestly to learn from the social world he inhabits. Ultimately, Pedersen disinherits and disowns Jesse, much as Victor disowned the creature. Yet in each case the legacy of the creator lives on: Wonderland abounds in macabre, perverse doctors and scientists, Dr. Perrault in particular, who all serve as ironic role models for Jesse as he tries to define his identity. Throughout the novel, Jesse's past haunts him, and he repeatedly tries to escape from it, as Victor did from his. No matter what Jesse does, though, he inevitably parrots Pedersen in thought, deed, even in word. Like the creature, Jesse is a double, a simultaneous embodiment and refutation of Pedersen's ideals.
Oates has, in effect, gothicized the American Dream, for the reader discovers in Jesse's life an inverted Horatio Alger parable in which Jesse acts much like a Gothic hero in his aggressive quest for power, success, and, in his role as brain surgeon, control over life and death (Day 17). The sins of Pedersen are revisited, in Gothic fashion, on Jesse, who lives an emotionally empty life in a mansion not unlike Pedersen's, torturing his daughters in some of the ways Pedersen had tortured his own children (MacAndrew 85). Zombie-like, Jesse acts out the false, horrific American Dream of "conquest, control, ownership" and the triumph over "mutability" (Friedman 177). As Jesse moves across the symbolic landscape of American culture he disappears into the Gothic darkness. The skeptical vision of Gothicism converts Jesse's search for success and freedom into the worship of a destructive bondage. Modern American culture often mythologizes the doctor as a secular savior. Wonderland 's Gothic vision offers a dark version of this mythology, for although Jesse the brain surgeon has the power to save life, by the novel's end he has become the psychological destroyer of his wife and daughters, as much the destroyer as his maddoctor mentors were. Oates demythologizes the sacrosanct American healer of the body, the doctor. She does so with a sophisticated mixture of contemporary and classical Gothic motifs which are worked into the texture of a complex psychological novel. True, Wonderland qualifies as horrific in many ways, but Oates depends upon an erudite evocation of the Gothic rather than stereotypical devices of plot and character. Her extensive thematic reliance upon Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, is allegorical and indirect rather than literal, and the same might be said of her allusions to the fantastic works of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. Her strategy of indirection makes substantial demands of the reader, calling upon him to decipher patterns subtle enough to qualify as "high" Gothic. The reader must recognize the nuances of the Gothic tradition to feel comfortable with Oates's subtexts.
Published in 1978, shortly after Oates has "officially" experimented with Gothicism in two short story collections, the Poisoned Kiss (1975) and Night-Side (1977), Son of the Morning shows a more pronounced Gothic configuration than Wonderland did. Oates again draws upon recognizable features of contemporary American life, religious fundamentalism, electronic evangelism, and faith healing, treating many of the details of the evangelist Nathan Vickery's career realistically: Nathan's presence at a rural snake-handling ritual, his apprenticeship under the Reverend Marian Miles Beloff, and his final emergence as a Christian cult figure. Her primary concern in Son of the Morning appears to be exploring, through Vickery's behavior, the numinous (or what passes for it) and the relationship between divine and diabolic. As S. L. Varnado has demonstrated, a pronounced interest in the numinous, particularly in its "sense of absolute overpoweringness", the "mysterium" or form of the numinous experience and the paradoxical qualities of attraction and repulsion inherent in the numinous has long been a part of Gothic tradition (12-13). Put another way, "except for the fact that Gothicism rids itself of moral prohibitions, the Gothic vision clearly approximates religious affirmations" (Bayer-Berenbaum 13). Many similarities can be found between Christ's life and Vickery's. By the age of eight, Nathan has developed a "peculiar … precosity", almost a psychic intuition. Also at the age of eight, he has a conversation with his grandfather Thaddeus, a confirmed atheist, which parallels the young Christ's examination by the elders in the temple (117-26); like Christ, Nathan demonstrates to his elder a wisdom beyond the boy's years. From his adolescence on, moreover, Nathan experiences raptures, visions of Christ, and vivid, occasionally Dantean glimpses into the world of the damned (157). Throughout his life, Nathan's relationship with others seems remote, as though his comprehension of the human condition suffers because he is partly other, not completely human; the situation echoes the mysteries of Christ's divine-human nature. Nathan's intuitive insight, his power as a faith healer (which seems to grow as the book progresses), and his acute sensitivity to the workings of a world beyond the material suggest the Gothic qualities of the novel as well.2 Whether or not Vickery's behavior and powers fully qualify him as a Gothic being, he surely does fit the prototype of a Gothic hero: active, seeking power, and in this case godhood (Day 17). Eventually, Vickery comes to believe that he is Christ, and in a public ceremony on Good Friday mutilates himself as an act of "humility" by cutting out his eye (236).
The mutilation signals a change in the tenor and direct of Son of the Morning as Oates begins to illustrate the relationships between the divine and the diabolic. Significantly she entitles the section of the novel where Nathan begins to appear demonic "Last Things", an apocalyptic phrase which calls to mind the reign of Antichrist before the end of time. In some respects, the mutilated Nathan's attitude resembles that of Satan, the biblical "Son of the Morning". After the blinding, for example, he considers himself above sin (257) and inclines to a regressive gospel of hate (323-24). Nathan revels in the public consciousness of him as an "avatar of Christ" (299), displaying some extraordinary powers which imply that he may, in fact, be the supernatural being his disciples perceive him to be. In one instance, Nathan disarms a follower who attacks him with a hunting knife. To witnesses, Nathan's fingers appear badly slashed, yet neither cuts nor blood can be found on his hands (313). Another time, an attacker delivers a vicious blow to his forehead with a crowbar, but his head is only bruised, not crushed (354).3 Nathan's career as an avatar culminates in his most powerful experience of the Other:
He saw that the hole before him was a mouth, and that the writhing dancing molecules of flesh were being sucked into it, and ground to nothing … but really he heard nothing and saw nothing, for You had swallowed the entire world. He knew his ministry was over, his life was over, that everything had come to pass as it was ordained, but he knew also—for even then You allowed him the realization of certain truths—that his terror had just begun.
An ontological horror of a God consumes Nathan, a great vortex fully as terrifying as the scenes of hell he had witnessed earlier in the novel (157, 226). Or perhaps Satan has chosen to claim his fallen avatar.
Nathan's vision of the God-thing represents the culmination of a series of modern Gothic motifs which parody not only the messianic faith healer but the concept of the divine he represents. Nathan's "incarnation" mocks the Christian version of the Incarnation: his mother was gang-raped and his father was never identified. As Nathan testifies for Christ early in his career, he learns the "trade" of preaching from the Mammon-like Beloff troupe, whose every action mimics religious conviction. Violence and spiritual rape predominate in the "Last Things" (Punter 3). Nathan's followers physically and emotionally attack him and he appears to be undergoing a nervous collapse after becoming convinced that he and Christ are one. Gothic doubling mocks Nathan's raptures: the demonic imitates the divine and worse, seems inseparable from it. Son of the Morning offers a Gothic-fantastic treatment of the numinous—ontologically dreadful, cold, and repellent, totally Other and unknowable. The story contains enough conflicting or confusing data about the numinous to prevent the reader from achieving harmony with it. We are left, instead, with the discomforting idea that the numinous cannot be deciphered, and that if it were, mankind would tremble in fear before the Godthing, an alien, formless horror. Oates concedes in Nathan's vision of the vortex that the numinous appears to be overpowering, but her treatment of "creature-consciousness", of being "dust and ashes" and the sense of "sheer self-depreciation" that the numinous allegedly brings about seems ominous (Varnado 12). If the "mysterium" or form of the numinous is something "absolutely and intensely positive", she again calls the phenomenon into question (Varnado 12).
Oates's treatment of the numinous in Son of the Morning may be read as another Gothic version of the American Dream, focused this time on a healer of the soul instead of the body. Ambiguity and parody riddle her portrait of this spiritual healer. Even if one were to argue that she affirms rather than doubts the numinous, Oates echoes a Gothic "contempt for the forms of institutionalized religion" (Bayer-Berenbaum 37). The reader recalls that Nathan's rise to power and spiritual control causes him to join forces with the Beloffs, and then to set up his own megalomanic cult; in both cases the "forms of institutionalized religion" are suspect. Nathan's gospel of hate parodies the American Dream's assumptions about the New Jerusalem's redemptive powers, and his Gothic vision of the Other undercuts the notion of visionary transcendence itself. As she had done in Wonderland, Oates again treats the Gothic idiom allusively and indirectly. To cite one instance, the novel's title recalls Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, a character Nathan comes to resemble in the story's final section. The concept of the numinous itself, the experience of God and the validity of the experience, is intricate, not easily accessible.
Oates handles this complex concept in a complex way, presenting Son of the Morning as a psychological novel, though it admittedly features the familiar American character type of the preacher. She adds yet another level of complexity to an indirect, ambiguous tale by means of an ambivalent narrative point of view. The reader must struggle to identify the narrator, who eventually turns out to be Nathan taking a retrospective look at his life. Son of the Morning uses the Gothic, but not to reach a wide audience.
In 1980 Oates began what she considered a "cycle" of experimental "genre" novels with Bellefleur (Johnson 6). The "Afterword" to the paperback edition of Mysteries of Winterthurn (1985) suggests that her efforts have a particular intention, to "present America … through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres—the family saga and family memoir, the Gothic romance, the detective-mystery novel, and the horror novel" (Johnson 6-7).
In Bellefleur Oates does more than draw upon virtually the entire range of Gothic conventions, for she manages, by means of the elaborate, interlocking tales in this family history, to fashion a Gothic epic and to recreate America in miniature. She combines genres in such a way that the story of the Bellefleurs could be described as a "demonic history text" (Gross 2). Bellefleur Manor, "known locally as Bellefleur Castle" (3), epitomizes a classical Gothic setting: huge, antique, ornate, and sometimes baroque in design, with stormdamaged turrets, a vast, gloomy cellar, and a maze of rooms, some of them unused for decades. So singular is the Bellefleur "history of misfortune" that the family could be said to be laboring under the sort of curse traditional in classical Gothic literature. Supernatural powers abound and a variety of Gothic beings thrive in the castle's environment or manage to work themselves into the sprawling Bellefleur family. The Turquoise Room distinguishes itself as one of the most prominent locations in the manor, possessed of a strange odor no matter how thoroughly it may be aired or scrubbed, and in which guests encounter a number of "foreign presences" (199). After spending a night in the room to investigate its foreign quality, Samuel Bellefleur undergoes a profound psychological change, so profound that his father acknowledges that "what stared coldly at him out of Samuel's eyes was no longer exactly his son" (202). Hepatica Bellefleur discovers an equally haunting presence in the form of her husband, a peculiarly dark man with "cruel red-rimmed eyes", who "gives off a fetid, meaty odor" (281), and sports "tufts of hair … on the backs of his hands and high on his cheeks" (281). "No matter how improbable, how incredible it might seem" (281), Hepatica has married a black bear, a were-thing who certainly appeared human when she first met him. Veronica fares no better after falling in love with the mysterious count Ragnar Norst, whose courtship leaves her alternately rapturous and lethargic. Norst prefers that they meet in the evening, often in clandestine or deserted places (369). Veronica's brother, Aaron, suspicious of Norst, meets with a drowning accident—those who find his body discover a corpse that has been "bled white" (368). Veronica grows progressively more listless and pale until, after an attack of "pneumonia", she awakens, strangely transformed into a woman who now shares the Count's antipathy toward the living. Veronica, it seems, has succumbed to the charms of a vampire. Each of these vignettes represents a variation on the Gothic theme of metamorphosis and accentuates the narrative complexity of Bellefleur : Oates has incorporated into the novel three classical Gothic subgenres, the haunting, the werewolf fable, and the vampire tale. As David Punter points out, this technique of assimilation typifies a sophisticated Gothic narrative structure, and Bellefleur Castle has many such stories to tell (403).
Both the manor and the family, moreover, give off the odor of cultural and psychic decay which permeates modern Gothic literature. Once a wellspring of vitality, the robust marriage of Leah and Gideon gradually disintegrates. Gideon's passion turns to hatred and he engineers the apocalyptic climax of the novel by crashing his airplane into the castle and leveling it. Before her fiery death, Leah's relentless scheming finally succeeds in securing the release from prison of the aged Jean-Pierre Bellefleur II, imprisoned for most of his life on a murder charge. Seemingly senile and disoriented, Jean-Pierre recollects himself enough to address a migrant labor problem affecting the Bellefleur farming enterprises by murdering the leaders of the migrants' union. Nor are aesthetic or religious escapes from the family possible. Vernon, the only poetically inclined Bellefleur, is drowned in the Nautauga river by a drunken crowd of mill workers who fail to appreciate his efforts to incite poetic rapture in them (324). Jedediah, long an exile from the castle because of a burning mystical wish to experience God, finally realizes his desire, though in a bizarre form. Pleading with God to show His face, Jedediah suffers excruciating diarrhetic spasms (440) lasting more than a day. Suicide, murderous rampages, and spiritual degradation serve as modern expressions of the ancestral curse: Oates extends the Gothic motif of the collapsing self to the entire family (Day 78).
Moreover, she organizes the saga of the Bellefleurs around several specifically Gothic themes, notably sexual transgressions (Punter 19, 410-12). On a symbolically stormy night, a strange creature, rat-sized and skeletal, appears at the castle door. The creature turns out to be a large cat, eventually named Mahalaleel, who possesses uncanny powers and develops a strong affection for Leah; in fact, Mahalaleel sleeps in Gideon and Leah's bed—between them. Soon after the cat's arrival, Leah becomes pregnant and undergoes a fantastic physical change, growing to Gideon's height and experiencing a distortion of her facial features so that her "mouth and the flared nostrils and the eyes [seemed] visibly enlarged, as if a somewhat ill-fitting mask had been forced upon her" (55). She gives birth to a "monstrous" child, a hermaphrodite. The episode suggests that Leah has been impregnated by a demon and produced a semihuman child who proves preternaturally precocious—once the unnecessary male organs have been tidily snipped off with a scissors. Leah's inclination to the sexually perverse includes her fascination with Nightshade, a dwarf discovered by Gideon on a hunting trip. Like Mahalaleel, Nightshade dotes on Leah, taking on the role of her devoted servant and confidant; as Gideon's affections stray, the dwarf grows physically larger and more appealing. Again the narrative implies an eccentric sexual relationship, for this is the same Leah who, before she married, kept a huge pet spider named Love which intimidated her suitors (130). Sexual aberrations and "crimes caused by a distortion of natural drives" are not the only Gothic transgressions favored by the Bellefleurs (MacAndrew 88). The assumption that Gothic literature's most prevalent theme may be the revisiting of the sins of the fathers finds ample illustration in the novel. The "sins of the fathers" appears to be a synonym for the family curse, and as Leah's sexual peculiarities and occult child suggest, Oates allows mothers to share equally with fathers. The fate of Vernon indicates that he, too, has suffered for his fathers' errors—the mill workers vengefully drown him in part because he belongs to a family which has financially tyrannized them and their ancestors. In a bizarrely ironic way, the overbearing aristocratic pretensions of the Bellefleurs may even have accounted for the fate of Veronica: had an "aristocratic" mien not prevailed among the Bellefleurs, Count Norst would perhaps have bypassed them. In these and a multitude of other ways, the Bellefleur past wreaks havoc on the present. Fate seems to have decreed that the castle must fall, as inevitably as the House of Usher did.
Oates's creation of a sophisticated, multigenerational family saga allows her to comment on broader patterns in American culture while she recounts the family history. As the novel progresses, Leah grows obsessed with restoring Jean-Pierre's vast empire to its former glory; at the point where Gideon destroys the manor, she has barely over a thousand acres of the original property left to acquire. Leah's empire-building signals the crass indulgence of the most materialistic aspects of the American Dream, the crude desires for power in the form of wealth and the manipulation of others. This rage to live out the Bellefleur fantasy of empire puts her at the mercy of the foreboding ironies of the Gothic universe—indeed, as the novel's plot indicates, her capitalistic quest has dissolved into a Gothically circular journey to nowhere (Day 18). Leah's urge to consolidate and Gideon's passion to acquire and ruin people and possessions alike have led each to a cultural horror, the emptiness of the Dream. Both qualify as Gothic villains, overreachers blind to the probability that by dreaming out the deadly Dream they are compounding the Bellefleur curse invoked by the grasping ruthlessness of their forefathers. Like other Gothic overreachers, they deny fate, deny the basic and necessarily limiting conditions of their existence in a doomed attempt to recreate an earthly American paradise in the wilderness. Bellefleur cautions that the alluring wilderness conceals the dark and ominous, demons and specters eager for self-deluded victims. Oates's saga broadens her cultural critique of the American Dream by showing that the twentieth century shares an ancient Gothic malaise of the spirit.
As suggested earlier, Oates recounts in Bellefleur a designedly "popular" Gothic parable. Whether in the novels of Louisa May Alcott, Thornton Wilder, or John Steinbeck, or in the contemporary weekly television series, the family saga has long enjoyed an enthusiastic audience. Fanciers of the Gothic, moreover, would surely find Oates's tales of shape-shifters, supernatural possession, were-creatures, and vampires, along with the Gothic penchant for melodramatic exaggeration, visible and familiar from their many reincarnations in twentieth-century popular literature and film. As a possible final concession to the workings of popular idioms, Oates presents less psychological intricacy and a more fixed narrative point of view than she had utilized in Wonderland and Son of the Morning.
An Author's Note to Bellefleur claims that in the novel "the implausible is granted an authority and honored with a complexity usually reserved for realistic fiction", calling attention to Oates's creation of a sophisticated Gothic idiom. Having refined the idiom in Bellefleur, she provides variations on selected themes in A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), her most recent Gothic tales. As the narrator of Bloodsmoor, who designates herself the historian of the Zinn family, points out, her efforts may be construed as "allegorical" and "exemplary" (520), and Bloodsmoor could fairly be called a "romance of the darksome and Gothic type" as well (68). Oates establishes and interrelates several narrative worlds in the novel, the world of pastoral romance, the genteel, drawing-room world of manners, and the Gothic world. She organizes Bloodsmoor around a favorite motif, initiation, in this case with a Gothic twist: all the Zinn daughters enter the Gothic universe through various access routes and their experiences collectively constitute an allegorical fable about that universe. Malvinia, the most haughty and tempestuous of the lot, leaves home for a scandalous career as an actress, becoming the mistress and protégé of the renowned rake, Orlando Vandenhoffen. Malvinia indulges herself in the subtle Gothic decadence of the Gilded Age: dissolute parties, fashionable skepticism, and indulgent promiscuity. Malvinia's environment might easily pass for elegant instead of decadent if not for her regular, unsettling sexual experiences with what she considers the "Mark of the Beast". Frequently her paramours discover a ferociously aggressive female, one who bites, kicks, curses, and even yanks at the "masculine organ of regeneration" of Mark Twain, her most celebrated lover. Malvinia and the narrator see her sexuality as a type of demonic possession in which "The Beast [forces] himself into her slender, writhing body—fitting her arms and limbs, and torso, and the nether regions of her being, like a powerful hand thrusting itself into a snug and slightly resistant lady's glove" (463). The Beast parodies Malvinia's attempts at "love declarations, kisses, caresses, and other amorous indulgences" (454) with a Gothic expression of doubling, drawing out a hidden personality, an unorthodox self. Deirdre, adopted by John Quincy and Prudence Zinn at an early age, encounters more explicit and menacing forms of the supernatural. Occult presences surround Deirdre from her childhood on, and at times seem to control her. She takes the inevitable path to womanhood by becoming a famous medium, but her preternatural gifts prove perilous. At one of Deirdre's séances, a Professor Bey, participating in a rationalist inquiry into the proceedings, is invaded by an alien, hostile force. Not long after, Deirdre's own contact spirits overwhelm her, plunging her into the chaotic darkness of the Spirit World (499).
Octavia, the most conventional and tranquil of the sisters, opts for what she assumes will be a traditional marriage to Mr. Lucius Rumford, a wealthy widower of what prove to be decidedly eccentric sexual habits. Soon after the marriage, Rumford puts a hood over Octavia's head before performing the "unitary act" (386). With the passage of time, his conjugal demands grow "gradually more exacting, and more challenging of definition" (425), until they culminate in a most unusual request: he asks Octavia to put a noose around his neck and pull with all the force she can muster. The hooded wife obliges and proceeds to strangle her husband. The Rumford marriage, a Gothically mocking venture into the sexually bizarre, into rape, violence, and death, results in an equally disturbing offspring, Godfrey. An impish, unpredictable child bristling with a dark energy, Godfrey resents Sarah, his infant sister. One day Octavia awakens to a "vertiginous sense of horror, as of suffocation" (433) and rushes to Sarah's room, to find Godfrey standing near the crib of his dead sister. Octavia has perhaps witnessed the revisiting of the sins of the fathers, the disruption of her ordered world by a demonically inspired being from the Gothic universe. Constance Philippa Zinn starts early on a journey into that universe, and exotic transformations mark her passing. When her husband enters the boudoir on their wedding night, he finds a dressmaker's dummy occupying Constance Philippa's place in bed. His bride has disappeared, and she does not reappear until the final chapter, where another fantastic transformation reveals itself. Constance Philippa has adopted the name Philippe Fox, and for good reason: "Mr. Fox was assuredly a male, in every particular: the growth, and expansion, and forcible protuberance, of the inner female organ, being now nearly complete, and having attained a length of some five or six inches in repose" (596). A Gothic metamorphosis has occurred and a new identity has emerged, the true Constance Philippa. Samantha, long her father's devoted laboratory assistant, reckons with the Gothic universe in ways no less sensational than those of her sisters. John Quincy Zinn proves to be one of his age's most distinguished inventors, whose credits include a time machine and the electric chair and whose dreams late in life include a "perpetual-motion machine" which he expects to apply to the "phenomenon of atom-expansion or detonation" (607). Samantha's exposure to her father's eccentric habits, her marriage to the mysterious Nahurn, and her fascination with the process of invention suggest that she may evolve into the haunted wizard John Quincy Zinn finally became. Samantha, however, repudiates her father's apocalyptic zeal for the destruction of the human race, turning her energies to such mundane matters as the inventions of a "self-filling pen" and a "baby-mobile" (672). Her choice of more humane inventions implies that she has seen the implications of John Quincy Zinn's absorption by the Gothic universe.
The final chapters of Bloodsmoor clarify the ultimate significance of the Gothic initiations of the Zinn girls. Generally, Oates diminishes the traumatic effects of terror evoked by the Gothic universe, for each of the Zinns has not only survived her initiation but has seemingly gained from it. Confronting the reversals, deteriorations, violence, and lack of purpose in the Gothic universe has helped each to find her true self, accept it, and then maintain it in an America reluctant to take females seriously. In fact, entering the Gothic universe has, metaphorically, sophisticated all five and given them some distance from the corrosive influence of the patriarchal utopianism characteristic of the American Dream in the nineteenth century, a utopianism which renders femininity inferior and subordinate. As an "exemplary" fable, Bloodsmoor proposes that only when the Gothic universe which coexists with the materialistic, destructively genteel America of the nineteenth century has been reckoned with, can the nation meet the Modern Age as the Zinn sisters did. Oates implies that the Gothic world can be finally redemptive and not destructive by allowing each of the girls to find true love, in several cases a love abandoned since youth because of the unrealistic demands of gentility. Eileen Bender's claim that Bloodsmoor may be seen as a "work of feminist resistance" (132) can be supported by the novel's Gothic initiation rites, which all suggest the competence, creativity, resilience, honesty, and good judgment of the nineteenth-century American woman, despite the societal limitations designed for her. In Bloodsmoor women generally lead the way into the Gothic universe, whereas in the stock Gothic novel an aggressive male usually does, and they surmount daunting obstacles or find effective ways to mitigate the Gothic's dark power, proving the Dream's stereotypical perception of women wrong.
To popularize her Gothic romance, Oates not only draws upon the appeal of the supernatural in many ways, particularly in the character of John Quincy Zinn, a more overt and recognizable Frankenstein-figure than Jesse Pederson was in Wonderland, but she capitalizes upon American Gothic narrative's tendency to provide an "alternative history of the American experience" (Grass 3). In this case, she draws a series of ironic parallels between Bloodsmoor and a well-known nineteenth-century family history and female conduct book, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868). Alcott's women were the essence of accepted, conventional behavior, and they had no contact whatever with the Gothic universe. Oates seems determined to achieve her own sort of popularity by writing an often lurid, dire, sensational exposé of the Alcott fable, offering in its place a "true history" of what the nineteenth century had denied and counting on her readers to recognize a send-up of an entrenched, easily detected myth about the lives of women. The Gothic serves to entice the reader with its enduringly popular melodramatic intrigue and "scandal".
Mysteries of Winterthurn revolves around the exploits of a detective figure, Xavier Kilgarvan, matching him against the caprices of the Gothic world and recording his attempts to win the love of Perdita, a distant cousin. "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower", Xavier's first case, exposes him to a classical Gothic situation, haunted Glen Mawr Manor and a supernatural murder. Mrs. Abigail Whimbrel, spending a night in the manor's Honeymoon Room, is attacked by vampiric cherubs who seem to inhabit the elaborate mural covering most of one wall. For their primary victim, however, the creatures select Abigail's infant son, eating away "part of the throat and torso, and much of the back of the tender head" (55). The mysterious assaults continue (the next victims are lambs who appear to have been attacked from the air), prompting Xavier to test his skills in a state of affairs for which the authorities have no explanation. The ominous Miss Georgina Kilgarvan, his cousin, strikes him as a prime suspect, but verifiable evidence remains elusive. However, Xavier's own analytical methods and the attitudes which underlie them may be his greatest drawbacks. While investigating the Hon-eymoon Room, he sees blood dripping from the mural, but soon recovers sufficiently to "observe, in a more composed tone, that the ceiling must be leaking" (103). Even when the demons swoop down on Xavier himself, he refuses to concede the reality of the supernatural. After his climactic discovery of a group of mummified infant corpses in the attic above the Honeymoon Room, he swoons, with the result that his future recollections of seeing Georgina hovering over the bodies cannot be proven to his own satisfaction. Nevertheless, Xavier's failures must not be dismissed as total—at least he meets in the manor the enchanting, beautiful Perdita, who seems very much a part of the preternatural environment, so much so that Xavier perceives a ghostly phantasm of her in his bedroom (92). When the tale ends, however, both the cherubs and Perdita remain mysteries to the young detective.
An older and wiser Xavier tries to solve another local crime, the gruesome ritual murders committed on an allegedly bewitched piece of ground, the Devil's Half-Acre. He methodically reviews the clues, utilizing the latest refinements in the art of criminology, and believes he has found the culprit, the foppish Valentine Westergaard. Now a veritable Sherlock Holmes, Xavier musters sufficient evidence for a trial, but with disastrous results. Westergaard claims that the ghost of a warlock, Elias Fenwick, commandeered him into bringing five sacrificial victims to the Half-Acre. The jury frees Westergaard and indicts Colin, Xavier's brother, as Fenwick's accessory, a situation for which Xavier's mother holds him accountable. Once again, Xavier fails to penetrate what may well have been the supernatural and, though he still loves Perdita, she appears to be further out of reach than ever.
Perdita, however, becomes a major figure in Xavier's last case, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown", because her husband, the Reverend Harmon Bunting, has been the victim of a gory axe murder. Perdita claims she was raped by the killer, who wiped her own blood on her bridal gown as a way of claiming her for the devil. Summoned from New York to search out the infamous events in the Grace Episcopal rectory, Xavier brings to bear on the matter his highly polished skills, to no avail. Frustrated by false leads and faulty evidence, he turns to drink and dissolution, finally conceding the case. Ironically, concession has its rewards: Xavier eventually wins the hand of the widowed Perdita, vowing never to trade the satisfactions of a husband and father for the "accursèd art of crime detection" (482).4
Xavier's consistent failure to resolve mysterious crimes and the romantic reward that accompanies his failure constitutes yet another allegorical statement about the Gothic world. Clearly Xavier does not resemble the sort of detective-hero described by William Patrick Day, the type of character ideally suited to resolve the "genre's tendency toward absolute instability", who can survive in the Gothic world because he can "reconcile the qualities of the male protagonist with those of the Gothic heroine" (Day 50, 55). Xavier's shortcomings amount to a defense of the fantastic and mysterious, his initiations into the supernatural, the violent, and the bizarre validating the power and sacrosanct status of the dark world. Perdita came from that world, the metaphorical haunted manor, and before Xavier can win her he must concede that some knowledge should remain off limits; that the Gothic universe cannot be deciphered by blatantly analytical schemes; and that recognizing the perimeters imposed by the Gothic stands as a necessary condition of his emotional and psychological initiation. Mysteries of Winterthurn sacralizes the Gothic by preserving its aura of ambiguity, its Otherness. The process of sacralization constitutes yet another Oatesian indictment of fallacies in the American Dream, this time a metaphorical indictment. Xavier has become a renowned investigator, but at the same time his mindset has become reductively materialistic and his methods little more than Yankee ingenuity, clever tinkering. His materialistic approaches to problems of detection connote the arrogant, aggressive materialism inherent in the Dream itself, a materialism capable of comprehending only the literal and immediate, the very opposites of the elusive, symbolic Gothic. When Xavier confronts the Gothic universe, Oates encourages the reader to arrive at an alternative view of the dream, a view distinct from "pietistic … idealization" (Gross 89).
Oates makes the adventures of Xavier Kilgarvan recognizable and accessible by means of the genre of the detective tale and the subject matter of Xavier's investigations. From Dupin and Sherlock Holmes to Mike Hammer and the Continental Op, detective figures have become conspicuous, accepted archetypes of popular literature. Xavier's investigation of the vampiric cherubs allows Oates to link his actions with yet another popular genre, the horror story. She also works the sensational subject matter of the Gothic tradition into his investigation of witchcraft, ritual-cult murders, and, as Cara Chell argues, the possible love-triangle slaying of Perdita's husband (20). In Winterthurn, then, Oates combines the popular genres of mystery, horror, and sensational romance with a linear narrative structure and psychological clarity to make her novel readable as a thriller.
In the novels we have examined, a broad range of Gothic themes and devices appear, from metamorphosis, to multiplication of the personality, to the transformation of time and space. Oates proves herself adept at evoking versions of the dualism central to both classical and contemporary Gothic, illustrating as well the Gothic premise that many closed worlds lie within the open and familiar. Particularly effective are her Gothic renditions of "alien [personalities] within the conscious self" (Creighton 138). In Wonderland and Son of the Morning Oates relies primarily upon modern Gothic motifs, while in Bellefleur, Bloodsmoor, and Winterthurn she adapts classical Gothic to her thematic needs. Each novel develops intricate narrative worlds which interact, with sophisticated effects. Wonderland juxtaposes literal and metaphysical Gothic, Bellefleur the cultural epic and the family history, and Bloodsmoor the utopian fable and the sensational exposé. Her sustained exploration of Gothicism in the context of American culture and mythology links the novels under consideration. The Gothic acts as a device for monstrous parody in Son of the Morning, as the crux of an initiation ritual which helps to define the feminine self in Bloodsmoor, and as a sacralized form of purification in Winterthurn. Bellefleur represents Oates's most ambitious and thorough effort to Gothicize the American Dream and to relate American culture to the fantastic worlds which surround or lie embedded in it. In Bellefleur she connects her perception of the Dream as pathology to suitably Gothic images of decay, violence, and the monstrous. Of course, the Gothic vision of Joyce Carol Oates continues to evolve and its final statement cannot yet be determined. However, it is fair to say that she wishes to employ both high and popular literary mediums to achieve her goals. Bellefleur, Bloodsmoor, and Winterthurn all display her familiarity with the genres, themes, and underlying assumptions of popular literature. In these three novels she has, in effect, translated the allusive, metaphorical, and metaphysically intricate Gothic idiom of Wonderland and Son of the Morning into a more direct and familiar way of evoking the powerful, durable impression that Gothic melodrama, horror, sensationalism, and violence have traditionally made on the popular imagination.
1. Cf. Bender, who notes that "Wonderland thus is another Oatesian Frankenstein" (55). She does not, however, develop the parallels with Shelley's novel in any detail.
2. Cf. Johnson 143, 153-54; Dean 140-43. Both Johnson and Dean point to parallels between Vickery and Christ but do not discuss Oates's treatment of the Gothic numinous.
3. Cf. Dean, who notes that Nathan is "unkillable" (141).
4. Cf. Bender, who points out that when Oates's "doomed detectives give up their search for rational solutions, they open the way for loving resolution" (177).
Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art. London: Associated University Press, 1982.
Bender, Eileen Tyser. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Chell, Cara. "Untricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story." Arizona Quarterly 41 (1985): 5-23.
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979.
Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Dean, Sharon L. "Faith and Art: Joyce Carol Oates's Son of the Morning." Critique 28 (1987): 135-47.
Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ungar, 1980.
Grant, Mary Kathryn. The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978.
Hennessy, Brendan. The Gothic Novel. London: Longman, 1980.
Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Malin, Irving. New American Gothic. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Bellefleur. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980.
――――――. A Bloodsmoor Romance. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.
――――――. Contraries: Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
――――――. "Daisy." Night-Side: Eighteen Tales. New York: Vanguard, 1977. 221-43.
――――――. Interview. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Fifth Series. Ed. George Plimpton. New York: Penguin, 1981. 361-84.
――――――. Mysteries of Winterthurn. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984.
――――――. Son of the Morning. New York: Vanguard, 1978.
――――――. Wonderland. New York: Vanguard, 1971.
Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London: Longman, 1980.
Varnado, S. L. Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.
Wagner, Linda W., ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.
Waller, G. F. Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
GREG JOHNSON (ESSAY DATE 1994)
SOURCE: Johnson, Greg. "The Power of Allusion, the Uses of Gothic: Experiments in Form and Genre." In Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 68-93. New York: Twayne, 1994.
In the following excerpt, Johnson examines Oates's treatment of the Gothic in her works, particularly in the 1977 short story collection, Night-Side.
The attempt to define and evaluate literary Gothicism has created an ongoing controversy among critics and scholars, primarily because the term "Gothic" has achieved the kind of connotative vagueness—rather like that other free-floating term "Romantic"—that inspires its use in a startling variety of contexts. In 1969, Oates observed that "Gothicism, whatever it is, is not a literary tradition so much as a fairly realistic assessment of modern life,"1 and in 1980 she added that "gothic with a small-letter 'g'" simply connotes "a work in which extremes of emotion are unleashed."2 Both comments were in response to critical evaluations throughout her career that have associated her work with the Gothic tradition. In the early 1980s, of course, she published three postmodernist Gothic works—Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—as part of a projected quintet of novels that view America through "the prismatic lens" of genre fiction (WW, 373); yet Oates's work had been labeled "Gothic" long before she began concocting these blatantly nonrealistic experiments. Such early novels as With Shuddering Fall (1964), Expensive People (1968) and Wonderland also contained extremes of violence, psychological malaise, and grotesque characterization, and were written in a prose style of passionate, often melodramatic intensity. In the view of some critics, these elements aligned Oates with the Southern Gothic tradition of Faulkner, O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, but the dynamic, hallucinatory power of her best work also recalls the complex explorations of Dostoyevsky, the nightmare visions of Poe and Kafka, and even the fantastic world of Lewis Carroll—whose work Oates has often cited as a major influence.
Although most contemporary fiction described as "gothic"—the uncapitalized spelling having grown more common as the term's connotations have become more far-ranging—has eliminated the supernatural elements that characterized the generative eighteenth-century British Gothics of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, the themes of alienation and psychological break-down have been notable in American literature from the beginning. As Irving Malin observes, Gothicism "is in the mainstream of American fiction" because it evokes the condition of psychological extremity at the heart of our literary tradition.3 In his more recent study of Gothic fantasy, William Patrick Day describes the modernist permutations of the genre in a way strikingly applicable to Oates's work: "The isolation of the Gothic and modernist protagonist is enforced, not only by the failure of communal and traditional value systems, but by the breakdown of conventional concepts of causality and the idea of wholeness of personality and characters. The doubled and divided characters of the Gothic fantasy reflect the break-down of conventional notions of what constitutes a self. This same disintegration appears, more realistically, in the modernist fascination with states of consciousness."4 In her pseudonymous Rosamond Smith novels—Lives of the Twins (1987), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), and Snake Eyes (1992)—Oates has examined "doubled and divided" characters by focusing on the phenomenon of twins, a particular fascination she has explored in her short stories ("Heat" and "Twins," for example) as well, but the more general "break-down of conventional notions of what constitutes a self" is a major theme throughout her work. Furthermore, as Oates asserts in her essay "Wonderlands," Gothic fiction represents "dimensions of the psyche given a luridly tangible form, in which unacknowledged (or rigorously suppressed) wishes are granted freedom. Impulse rises at once to the level of action…. Frequently in Gothic fiction the innocent are not only victimized but are co-opted by the wicked: the wonderland is a marvelous place where we are they—our shadow selves given both substance and potency" (WW, 83). Furthermore, in the preface to Bellefleur she argues that "if Gothicism has the power to move us (and it certainly has the power to fascinate the novelist) it is only because its roots are in psychological realism" (WW, 371).
For Oates, therefore, the Gothic mode provides an opportunity not to evade the social responsibility and philosophical inquiry traditionally associated with serious fiction; rather, its psychological focus and its liberating aesthetic conventions simply provide an alternative, vibrant, and highly dramatic means of expressing Oates's typical themes. Above all, the Gothic enables Oates to probe beyond conventional perceptions of reality, an ambition clearly visible also in one of her finest early novels, Wonderland. Itself based upon the Lewis Carroll books that most influenced Oates as a child, impressing her with their "wonderful blend of illogic and humor and horror and justice" (Phillips, "Art of Fiction," 75), the novel takes as its epigraph a passage from another postmodernist Gothicist, Jorge Luis Borges, which states a primary theme of Oates's short fiction as well: "We … have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false."5
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Virtually all her short-story volumes show some influence of the Gothic tradition, whether in the Faulknerian "Southern Gothic" vein of the early Eden county stories depicting rural isolation and madness; or in the sometimes hallucinatory psychological intensity of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," "The Metamorphosis," and "The Dead" ; or in certain postmodernist experimental tales of the 1980s collected in Raven's Wing (1986), The Assignation (1988), and Heat (1991). In The Assignation, one of her two collections of "miniature narratives," such tales as "Blue-Bearded Lover" and "The Others" recall nineteenth-century Gothic fiction, while others convey the kind of hothouse psychological intensity, the precarious balance between sanity and madness, traditionally associated with the genre. With their brief, truncated scenes and their poetic intensity, they have a brutal, sometimes horrific impact, laying bare with deft economy and unflinching directness the anxieties, longings, and obsessions lying just beneath the surface of "ordinary" life.
Several of Oates's collections, however, are even more notable in their use of the Gothic mode in portraying human consciousness as an ongoing journey fraught with bewildering visions, inexplicable detours, unnameable terrors. Even before Night-Side (1977), Oates published The Poisoned Kiss (1975), her collection of mostly nonrealistic tales that, according to her, seemed to spring from an alter ego named "Fernandes." As Oates noted in the Afterword to the volume, "The only way I could accept these stories was to think of them as a literary adventure, or a cerebral/Gothic commentary on my own writing, or as the expression of a part of my personality that had been stifled" (PK, 188). Although this instance of literary "possession" by a foreign personality, who set all his stories in Portugal (which Oates had never visited), inspired Oates to read voluminously in parapsychology, mysticism, and the occult, she never fully comprehended the experience; eventually, "Fernandes" retreated, and his stories came to an end (PK, 189).
The Poisoned Kiss remains an anomaly in Oates's oeuvre, an experiment in fiction (and in consciousness) that, while lacking the psychological power and wealth of detail that characterize her strongest fiction, nonetheless provides a fascinating gloss on her ongoing exploration of psychological states. Night-Side, however, fully exploits the Gothic mode, occasionally including the traditional staples of supernatural events and exotic settings, but most often focusing upon extreme psychological aberration and isolation, which in turn force her characters to confront riddling and often profound philosophical questions. These stories tend, moreover, to point outward, toward political and social realities, even when they seem most concerned with states of consciousness and make use of fantastic elements. For Oates, as Eva Manske observes, "Gothic elements and fantasies have the larger function of expanding the thematic range and suggestiveness in conveying the atmosphere of public and private American life in the past and today."6
Night-Side certainly encompasses thematic concerns discussed extensively in other chapters: "The Giant Woman," for example, is set in Eden County, "The Widows" and "The Snowstorm" focus intensely on female experience, "Daisy" and "Further Confessions" are highly allusive, and "Bloodstains" has allegorical elements, including a Hawthornean birthmark. As a unified collection, however, Night-Side is located at the border between visible reality and another dimension—exciting but fearful, yielding expansive visions and nightmares—at which Oates's characters suffer a reassessment of their concept of self and their relationship to others, to the world, and to their previously held views of their own purpose and destiny. Often this reassessment pushes them to extremes of insanity or repression; a handful of stronger characters returns from the Gothic world, as do Oates's readers, with a heightened apprehension of a complex reality that is both beautiful and bizarre. Once again, Oates's comments on traditional Gothic fiction describe her own: "Here, suddenly, is a mysterious door in a wall, and here is the golden key that will unlock it, one has only to summon forth one's courage and enter. Whatever awaits will not only be strange and unexpected, it will, in a way impossible to explain, make sense; and it will be ours—as 'reality' never is" (WW, 79-80).
Oates suggests the nature of her enterprise in the book's subtitle: "Eighteen Tales." Like the later Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, Night-Side inhabits a realm of storytelling with its own distinct conventions. Unlike the realistic, carefully plotted short story, the tale allows the narrative freedom of brisk pacing, improbable events, and idiosyncratic characters and settings. This freedom does not, however, preclude literary seriousness; as Poe remarked in the preface to his own volume of Gothic tales, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), artistic adaptations of established conventions are "the results of matured purpose and very careful elaboration."7 Although some of the tales in Night-Side could, in another context, be read as typically Oatesian psychological realism—"The Widows" would fit smoothly into Marriages and Infidelities, for instance—there are others involving the paranormal, the dream state, and other nontraditional approaches to perception and knowledge, and these manage an eerie penetration into their more realistic companion-pieces such as "The Widows," "The Translation," and "The Snowstorm." The result is a collection that, as a whole, brings even "ordinary" experiences—such as being temporarily stranded in a blizzard—into a psychological realm that, like the metaphorical storm itself, blurs the distinction between the familiar, daylight world of ordinary consciousness and a visionary landscape where repressed horrors may spring into vibrant life.
In both "The Sacrifice" and "Bloodstains," for instance, a professional man's carefully constructed daytime self is revealed as alien and meaningless, while "Famine Country" and "Daisy" probe the border between sanity and insanity, focusing on the clash between two incompatible ways of viewing and knowing the world. These may be, as Oates has termed it, "gothic with a small-letter 'g'," yet the realms of experience they explore are so unstable and delusive that they plunge the reader not into the reassuring familiarity of realism but into the unpredictability of nightmares.
The tales that make the most explicit use of Gothic conventions are "Night-Side," which opens the book, and "A Theory of Knowledge," which concludes it. By enclosing the collection within these Gothic borders, Oates again suggests the sensibility that will, in differing ways, infiltrate and control the entire volume. The title piece, set in the 1880s and narrated by Jarvis Williams, a Harvard professor, focuses on his and a Boston colleague's investigation into a Quincy woman who holds séances and regularly makes contact with the spiritual realm. Although Williams is skeptical of the woman's psychic ability, his colleague Perry Moore is an even more "hardened" disbeliever, "a hearty materialist"8 and "an empiricist who accepts nothing on faith" (NS, 8). Written in an ornate late-Victorian style, featuring a series of séances with the usual trappings—moving furniture, sudden drafts, an array of spirit voices gabbling in various languages—"Night-Side" begins as a typical ghost story. There are several turns of the screw, however, that mark the tale as distinctly Oatesian in its focus upon philosophical inquiry and psychological revelation. The narrator's intellectual complacency, his comfortable disbelief in a spiritual realm, is shattered when the medium makes contact with a ghost from Perry Moore's past: a spirit named Brandon, apparently a former male lover who committed suicide when Dr. Moore rejected him. (Earlier the narrator had mentioned that Moore's "failure to marry, or his refusal, is one of Boston's perennial mysteries" [NS, 8].) Brandon appeals plaintively to Dr. Moore, and the seemingly authentic voice of his dead lover brings Moore to a vehement repudiation of his former skepticism. He tells Williams excitedly, "There are spirits!… His entire life up to the present time has been misspent!… [and] most important of all—there is no death!" (NS, 14).
Williams, striving to hold a middle ground between his rationalist principles and his open-minded stance toward the paranormal, visits America's most famous living philosopher, William James, to discuss "the inexplicable phenomenon of consciousness" (NS, 18). James, whom Oates quotes often and admiringly in her essays, states what seems closest to Oates's own position regarding the seemingly nonrational possibilities of consciousness: "we inhabit not only our egoconsciousness but a wide field of psychological experience (most clearly represented by the phenomenon of memory, which no one can adequately explain) over which we have no control…. It is quite possible that there is an element of some indeterminate kind: oceanic, timeless, and living, against which the individual being constructs temporary barriers as part of an ongoing process of unique, particularlized survival" (NS, 19). Parenthetically Williams remarks he is "too timid to ask Professor James whether it might be the case that we do not inevitably own these aspects of the personality—that such phenomena belong as much to the objective world as to our subjective selves" (NS, 19)—a qualification that suggests Oates's frequently stated antiromantic skepticism toward egocentric methods of interpreting reality. When James describes to Williams a philosophically acceptable view of "the 'other side' of the personality" (NS, 20) that might account for psychic ability and Williams decides James is merely describing insanity, Oates turns the screw once again by allowing James to "read" Williams's mind.
Thus the tale, in typical Oates fashion, investigates the mysteries of consciousness from several viewpoints—philosophical, psychological, and supernatural—but neither Oates nor the narrator can settle upon a single, consistent view of Moore's experience. When Moore dies of a stroke, having written a rambling essay on his new spiritualist beliefs that causes Williams to conclude that his friend had "gone insane" (NS, 22), Williams finds himself drawn back to the pure rationalism of Spinoza: "Away from the phantasmal, the vaporous, the unclear; toward lines, planes, and solids" (NS, 26). Tormented by dreams in which Moore appeals to him, hearing rumors that Moore has become a spiritual presence at local séances, Williams recoils in fear from the notion that death ushers human beings into "a hideous dreamlike state, a perpetual groping, blundering—far worse than extinction—incomprehensible" (NS, 29), and escapes back into ordinary life with his wife and children, who represent to him "the dayside of the world" (NS, 29).
For Professor Reuben Weber in "A Theory of Knowledge," such escape is unavailable. At age seventy-seven, retired and living with his daughter in an old farmhouse in rural New York, he spends his days writing in his journal, going through his notes, meditating on his past, yet still hoping to organize a lifetime of philosophical thought into his masterwork, A Theory of Knowledge. Weber's sense of betrayal—by time, by his former colleagues—consumes him; his attachment to the small, underfed boy who visits from an impoverished neighboring family represents Weber's desperate attempt to alleviate his own childlike fear and vulnerability. When Weber rescues the boy late one night from severely abusive treatment by his family, Oates implies the entire incident may be only one of Weber's dreams, a projection in which he valiantly "saves" an unacknowledged version of his own wounded self-hood.
Like Perry Moore and other intellectually prideful characters throughout Oates's work, Weber cannot acknowledge his own defeat by natural processes, cannot relinquish his own self-image as a "disciplined philosopher" far superior to Emerson, a "scatterbrain" (NS, 360), or the "superficial" William James (NS, 354). Oates has remarked that she based Weber's character on that of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and that the story is "a poetic attempt to dramatize the contradictions inherent in philosophizing—in abstracting from the world of sense experience and personal history" (Sjoberg, 117). "A Theory of Knowledge" derives both its pathos and its ironic force from its characterization of old Weber, unable to dress himself or clearly to distinguish past from present (as when he suggests to his daughter that the neighbor boy might enjoy playing with Weber's grandsons, forgetting his grandsons are now fully grown). Weber nonetheless, in sudden spurts of rage and longing, thrusts his egocentric will against his own increasing mental befuddlement and approaching death. He recalls that he "had spent the greater part of his life trying to cut through obscurity, murkiness," yet his experience, like that of other characters in Night-Side, finally focuses upon the "perplexing, humiliating tricks of the mind" (NS, 352). His story turns upon the ironic contrast between two theories of knowledge: the grand but elusive philosophical design Weber still hopes to construct and the tale in which he appears, which dramatizes Oates's own, far less optimistic "theory."
Although "Night-Side" and "A Theory of Knowledge" are both set in the nineteenth century and include the ghostly apparitions and nocturnal adventures common to Gothic fiction, other tales in Night-Side, though employing contemporary settings and less eccentric characterizations, nonetheless explore psychological states—especially the delusive nature of consciousness, memory, and knowledge—with an eerie intensity and sense of mystery that allies them to the volume's more traditionally Gothic tales. "The Sacrifice," for instance, features yet another aging intellectual in Dr. Reaume, a renowned psychiatrist who "had guided his life perfectly" (NS, 262). His encounter with a troubled woman complaining of terrifying nightmares and hallucinations, like Weber's fascination with the little boy, feeds into his need to "save" other people. Similarly, Oates suggests he may be only dreaming the sequence in which, like the woman in Oates's later story, "Naked," he ventures outside his own neighborhood and is attacked by a group of black children, to whom he gives the ludicrous response: "don't you need me, can't I be of service to you …?" (NS, 288).
Even though Dr. Reaume has spent a lifetime congratulating himself on his eminent sanity and his ability to transcend the psychological snarls his patients suffer, his complacency is itself revealed as a delusion; his very name, of course, suggests that his identity is only a "dream." Unlike Weber, Dr. Reaume has managed to produce a crowning achievement, "an immense encyclopedic work with the simple title Psychologies" (NS, 283). Again Oates critiques the intellectual hubris that attempts to transcend nature, to produce systematic explanations—whether philosophical, psychological, or religious—of an inexplicably complex reality. As she notes in the essay "Against Nature," this reality "eludes us even as it prepares to swallow us up, books and all" (WW, 67). This is a notion men like Weber and Reaume—in their egocentric need to create an essentially "fictional" reality, a phantasm, of which they can be the sole lord and master—are unwilling or unable to confront.
This basic pattern of an intelligent, accomplished protagonist, finding his or her assumptions about the world and the self abruptly rendered meaningless or absurd, recurs throughout Night-Side. In "Bloodstains," Lawrence Pryor's failure to recognize his wife one day from a distance, on the street, begins to haunt him, becoming "a dream he had dreamed while awake" (NS, 171) and forcing him into an uncertain new apprehension of his life as a physician, a husband, and a father. The controlling images of blood-stains—a dark-red birthmark he sees on the back of a stranger's neck, his wife's gloves soiled "with something that looks like rust or blood" (NS, 174), his daughter's bloodstained panties she has hid-den in a drawer—strike him as clues to reality he has never quite perceived before. His very eyes feel like "crusts of blood," "wounds where his eyes once had been" (NS, 183). Like many of Oates's characters facing an important transition in their lives—Jesse Pedersen in Wonderland, for example, staring down at the locks from a bridge in Lockport, New York—Lawrence looks out into a river and sees the turbulent, flowing water as embodying a reality in ceaseless flux, one in which his own ephemeral, temporary identity has relatively little meaning.
Similarly, in "The Snowstorm," a college counselor named Claire is accustomed to helping students in their crises of identity, but when she is trapped on campus in a blizzard, alone and vulnerable, she confronts her own sterility and fear of passion, the same limitation that afflicted earlier characters such as Sister Irene in "In the Region of Ice" and Pauline in "Bodies." A cool, self-contained woman who has endured several romantic involvements while "her intelligence had stood apart from her, pitying her, scornful of her, waiting for the emotional madness to pass" (NS, 106-107), Claire, like Lawrence, glimpses a "dream-woman" in the distance, except in her case the woman is herself: "How strange it was that she should feel herself merge into that dreamwoman, giving life to her, pumping life through her exhausted limbs!" (NS, 109). Unlike Sister Irene, Claire does seem to accept her turmoil as a stage of personal growth and yearns to merge with the dream-woman in order to bring to life a long-repressed element of personality; the conclusion of "The Snowstorm" suggests that, even though she will cling to her individuality, she may also be prepared to make a tentative move toward an intimate relationship that need not represent "madness."
Throughout Night-Side, Oates explores the extreme psychological risk of confronting the "other," whether in a supernatural form, as in the title story, or in haunting visions of an alien and unacknowledged self. Of course the theme of the doppelgänger, the dark alter ego, is present throughout Oates's work, from that brooding early parable of identity, Wonderland, to the later Rosamond Smith novels, but it pervades this collection more thoroughly than any other. Virtually every story, regardless of its style or technical strategy, considers the theme on some level. In the highly experimental "The Dungeon," the artist, named "Farrell Van Buren," is merely a sardonic mask for "little gentle Daryl," who feels entrapped in the "dungeon" of his own self-absorption (NS, 144). A gay man who yearns to reveal his sexuality to a female friend, he nonetheless fears rejection so deeply (and, it would appear, justifiably) that his self-imprisonment is only reinforced, leading him into fantasies of grotesque and even murderous retaliation.
In the darkly comic "Famine Country," a college-age boy, Ronnie, is released from an institution after a drug overdose that killed his girlfriend and almost killed him, and tries to become reintegrated into his family, who are presented as a parody of American banality; his mother is well-meaning but simple-minded, his father is coarse and self-important. Enmeshed in a pseudomystical pursuit of God, his mind damaged by drug abuse, Ronnie tells his baffled parents: "God enveloped me and gave me new life, and I don't know who you people are…. I try to be polite but it's a strain and then when you spy on me and try to make me eat—it's hopeless" (NS, 161). The only resolution for Ronnie's aggrieved mother is to bury the dead turtle that has washed up on their beachfront property, a creature Ronnie interpreted as the "Turtle-God" appearing magically from a primordial dreamscape of mud and slime. Her gesture is a symbolic act of determined repression—not only of Ronnie's madness by her sanity, but of the truth-seeking generation of the 1960s and 1970s by the stolid incomprehension of the more conventional 1940s and 1950s; yet it hardly suggests any possibility of bridging the extreme stances of each generation. America is dramatized here as a "famine country" that lies spiritually impoverished between two equally destructive and irreconcilable positions.
A less hopeless polarity is dramatized through Beatrice and Moira of "The Widows," who are brought together after their husbands' deaths and have their first meeting at 3:00 a.m. Yet they long to escape the nocturnal realm into which their sudden solitude has plunged them. Like Sheila and Monica in Oates's novel Solstice (1985), Beatrice and Moira are physical and temperamental opposites—Beatrice dark and introverted, Moira blond and gregarious—and through their groping conversations, reminiscences, and self-assessments Oates implies a temporary symbiotic union and ultimately a regeneration of self for each woman.
Like Beatrice, the poet and widower Francis Bonham in "Daisy" reflects that "the physical being was untrustworthy, an inferior Siamese twin stuck to the soul, a clownish Doppelganger" (NS, 224), but another double is his daughter Daisy, a mentally unstable girl whose name means "the Day's Eye" but whose hallucinations and violent tantrums suggest she is "The Night's Eye as well" (NS, 230). Based loosely on the relationship between James Joyce and his schizophrenic daughter Lucia, "Daisy," according to Oates, "deals in a surrealist manner with … the relationship between sanity and insanity" (Sjoberg, 117), and may also be read as an allegory for the artist's riddling relationship to the multidimensional world he attempts, and inevitably fails, to control through his art. Like many of the stories in Night-Side, "Daisy" is notable for its length and ambition: these traits reveal Oates's interest at this stage of her career "in developing stories that are really miniature novellas: stories that deal with a person's entire life, greatly condensed and focused" (Sjoberg, 117).
Perhaps the collection's most original handling of its predominant theme, "The Translation" also condenses its protagonist's life experience and again focuses on a painful and unexpected self-recognition. Oliver, a magazine editor and "cultural emissary" visiting Central Europe (NS, 119), becomes instantly infatuated with Alisa, a young music teacher. Unsuccessful in love and suffering a midlife crisis, Oliver depends on his mysterious young translator, Liebert, to convey his interest and admiration, and when Liebert translates Alisa's answers to his eager queries Oliver is charmed by her intelligence and her ability to live a cultured life within the moral complexities of the Soviet regime. Oliver, in his emotional and sexual excitement, views himself as Alisa's potential rescuer, and like many of Oates's characters glimpses in a mirror a new, emerging selfhood, though "the mirror looked smoky, webbed as if with a spider's web; his own face hovered there" (NS, 118).
He has actually become entangled, of course, in the web of his own American naïveté and egotism, for Liebert (Oates slyly gives the translator a name that approximates the German for "lover") is actually a con man who has invented Alisa's "cultured" personality. When he gets a sum of money from Oliver under a false pretext and disappears, Oliver is left with a new translator who convey's Alisa's actual dialogue, revealing she is simple-minded and interested primarily in Oliver's financial status and his love life. An intriguing reworking of Henry James's "international theme," "The Translation" presents Oliver as a hapless American enmeshed in the deceit and sophistication of old Europe, and is typically Oatesian in conveying both irony and compassion toward both points of view: Oliver, in his passionate but misguided longing for love and a meaningful life; Liebert and Alisa, in their wily but self-serving ability to live "in the interstices of the political state" (NS, 124). Also characteristic is Oates's focus upon the beautiful but delusive possibilities of language. Liebert's false translations are, after all, quite artful, a form of fiction, and Oliver attributes an almost supernatural power to Liebert, who appears "as if he could read Oliver's thoughts" (NS, 116) and who seems to translate "magically. Surely it was magic" (NS, 123).
In the broadest sense, "translation" might be viewed as the controlling theme of Night-Side as a whole: how to unify the psyche, how to plunge into its turbulent, darker realms and translate, or integrate, these aspects of personality into the rational, contained "day-side" of the self? Most of Oates's characters remain trapped at one extreme or another: the near-madness of psychological grotesques on the one hand (Daryl in "The Dungeon," Ronnie in "Famine Country" ) and the stiff, sterile repression of people entrapped in their fearful lack of self-knowledge on the other (Dr. Reaume in "The Sacrifice," Weber in "A Theory of Knowledge" ). Relationships of various kinds—between lovers, between parents and children, even between nations—wind through the stories as a kind of elaborate dance between the two realms, which at times seem mutually exclusive but more often are mysteriously intermingled and confused. Even though these "tales," like those collected in the later Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, are more explicit than Oates's other stories in exploring this theme, they are integral to her larger endeavor in fiction, which is to probe relentlessly the complex mysteries of human personality and identity.
1. Quoted in "Writing as a Natural Reaction," Time, 10 October 1969, 108.
2. Tom Vitale, "Joyce Carol Oates Reads from Angel of Light & Interview," taped interview produced by a Moveable Feast (Columbia, Mo.: American Audio Prose Library, 1981).
3. Irving Malin, New American Gothic (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), 4.
4. William Patrick Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 168.
5. Epigraph to Oates's Wonderland (New York: Vanguard, 1971), 13.
6. Eva Manske, "The Nightmare of Reality: Gothic Fantasies and Psychological Realism in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates." Restant 20, no. 1 (1992): 132.
7. Edgar Allan Poe, preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales (New York: Library of America, 1984), 130.
8. Night-Side (New York: Vanguard, 1977), 2; hereafter cited in text as NS.
- Joyce Carol Oates, The Poisoned Kiss (New York: Vanguard, 1975).
- Leif Sjoberg, "An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates," in Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Lee Milazzo (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989).
- Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988).
Lercangée, Francine. Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1986, 272 p.
Complete, well-annotated bibliography of works by and about Oates, through 1986.
Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998, 492 p.
Biography of Oates which describes how Oates's upbringing, her career stopovers in Detroit and Princeton are mythologized in her fiction.
Bender, Eileen-Teper. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987, 207 p.
Explores the thematic and narrative experimentalism of Oates's novels.
Chell, Cara. "Un-Tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story." Arizona Quarterly 41 (1985): 5-23.
Characterizes Mysteries of Winterthurn as a novel informed by contemporary feminism that parodies many of the Gothic literary conventions of the nineteenth century.
Coale, Samuel Chase. "Joyce Carol Oates: Contending Spirits." In In Hawthorne's Shadow: American Romance from Melville to Mailer, pp. 161-79. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
Concentrates on the Manichean vision of American society depicted in Bellefleur.
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979, 173 p.
Evaluates the formal and thematic materials employed by Oates in her novels of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly highlighting her departures from the tradition of American literary realism.
――――――. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992, 142 p.
Continued analysis of Oates's fiction and its relationship to American romanticism.
Goodman, Charlotte. "Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates." Women and Literature 5, no. 2 (1977): 17-28.
Surveys Gothic themes associated with psychologically disturbed female characters in Oates's novels and short stories.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. "Postgothic Fiction: Joyce Carol Oates Turns the Screw on Henry James." Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 4 (fall 1998): 355-71.
Focuses on Oates's imaginative reinterpretations of Henry James's Gothic tale The Turn of the Screw in which she informs her versions of the story with a postmodern sensibility concerning the relationship between fiction and reality.
Jeannotte, M. Sharon. "The Horror Within: The Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates." Sphinx 2, no. 4 (1977): 25-36.
Considers Oates's moral and psychological juxtaposition of protagonists and antagonists in her short fiction.
Manske, Eva. "The Nightmare of Reality: Gothic Fantasies and Psychological Realism in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates." In Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Kristiaan Versluys, pp. 131-43. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.
Argues that Oates's fictional works represent her blending of psychological realism concentrated on the extremes of human emotion with the conventions of Gothic horror.
Nodelman, Perry. "The Sense of Unending: Joyce Carol Oates's Bellefleur as an Experiment in Feminine Storytelling." In Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, pp. 250-64. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Elucidates Bellefleur as a novel of feminist narrative experimentalism.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Wonderlands." Georgia Review 38 (1984): 487-506.
Introduces the Gothic theme of victimization in her novel Wonderlands.
Waller, G. F. Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979, 224 p.
Centers on the Gothic themes central to the American experience depicted in Oates's fiction.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Oates's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 15, 52; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 11; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968–1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 45, 74, 113, 129; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, 19, 33, 52, 108, 134; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 130; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 8, 17; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 70; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.