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Oates, Joyce Carol: General Commentary

JOYCE CAROL OATES: GENERAL COMMENTARY

LINDA WAGNER-MARTIN (ESSAY DATE 1995)

SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Panoramic, Unpredictable, and Human: Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Novels." In Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel since the 1960s, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Ben Siegel, pp. 196-209. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

In the following essay, Wagner-Martin traces Oates's changing portrayal of women and gender power in her novels.

Although Joyce Carol Oates must be named among America's most successful contemporary novelists, she remains strangely marginalized. The value of her fiction keeps getting displaced, subsumed under arguments about who she is, what her concerns as a writer really are, what role her fiction plays in the paradigm of current literature. Throughout a sprawling labyrinth of reviews and personal interviews, Oates has long evinced her belief that the novelist's function is moral and at least partly didactic. The writer observes culture, lamenting its travesties and tragedies. He or she uses technical virtuosity to write effectively about any theme, any character, any concern. Oates has frequently been compared with Faulkner because of her command of craft, her technical daring, her general artistic sophistication—and her admittedly dark vision of human possibility.

That she is a woman writer is probably less significant than that she draws from all kinds of belief and "knowledge." Yet her gender has skewed reviews of her books throughout her career, beginning in 1964 with With Shuddering Fall. She recently wrote that "the impulse to create, like the impulse to destroy is utterly mysterious." It is "one of the primary mysteries of human existence."1 Once those mysteries are accepted, and the power of the sub (or supra) conscious acknowledged, the writer's work becomes chameleon. It is then realistic, fantastic; labored, effusive; predictable, oblique; naturalistic, mythic; utopian, dystopian; generic, avant-garde; exaggerated, understated. Each of these terms has been used at some point in Oates's career to describe her fiction. Panoramic in theme, unpredictable in method, her writing reflects the human condition as she acknowledges it to be in the latter third of this century. For the most part, her assessment of that human condition is critical. Hence her recent novels have charted themes that society as a whole would rather ignore. Among these are sexual abuse, incest, and the enslavement of physical passion and its consequent betrayal.

One of Oates's most controversial stands within her fiction is that culture is male-determined. In her fiction, women do what they do because of the men of power in their lives. Women are wives, fearful of what their husbands will think or do. They are unquestioning in their submission, or they are young women or adolescents waiting to trap the man who fathers their child, learning early the tricks of sexual manipulation. Or, they are children, sensing where family power lies and responding to the (usually male) sources of it. There are few families anywhere in Oates's fictions that are not male-dominated. There are few women or female adolescents who have lives of their own; their ambition rather is to keep their man, whether father or lover, happy. Because of this schema of domination, most of Oates's main characters are male. They are the determinants of the culture; their actions and decisions count in the lives of all Oates's characters. Oates is often criticized for writing about powerless women and for focusing her attention on men, yet the American culture she describes is still male-dominated. It is in this context of describing gender power that Oates's fiction of the 1980s begins to differ from her earlier work.

Oates's Marya, A Life (1986) ostensibly creates a different milieu for the title character. In Marya's "night of patchy dreams, strangers' voices, rain hammering on the tarpaper roof close overhead,"2 the reader realizes that Marya's union organizer father has been killed. Marya comes to understand the meaning of his death—and the depletion of her family's economic and human resources—later. This occurs when her mother takes her into the morgue and she sees a body, but the body "hadn't any face that you could recognize" (p. 11). Abandoned by their mother, Marya and her two young brothers live with her father's people. Sexually abused during the years she is eight, nine, and ten by her cousin Lee, "who liked her" (he is twelve, thirteen, and fourteen), Marya learns to exist by going "into stone." From her early life on, Marya typifies Oates's fragile, damaged characters, who are often so numbed by the pain of their existence that they perform at what appear to be subhuman levels.

Oates's fiction of the 1980s increasingly focuses on the subhuman, not as a criticism of these characters but as a criticism of the society that forms them. Many are as dehumanized as Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940). But Oates's most brutalized characters are women. Victimized by older male relatives—fathers, uncles, cousins—and unprotected by the obtuse or blandly uncaring women of their families, Marya and Enid, the protagonists of her shattering novel You Must Remember This (1987), barely survive their frequent psychic mutilations. You Must Remember This begins with Enid's suicide attempt: "She swallowed forty-seven aspirin tablets between 1:10 a.m. and 1:35 a.m. locked in the bathroom of her parents' rented house.… She stood five feet three inches tall in her bare feet, she weighed eighty-nine pounds."3 Victimized by her adored young uncle, Enid acts out the horrifying fear that she—though innocent—will be found out, that her uncle will be discovered, that (most realistic of Oates's plot machinations) she will come to enjoy this evil. Wearing her thin silver chain with the Virgin Mary stamped on the medal, she dresses herself all in white like a bride and goes to find death. She seeks the death she has convinced herself she deserves, the death only she can control. Through her chosen death, she will finally come to some kind of power. Oates's poignant cry for women to have control of their bodies and their lives shapes both Marya, A Life and You Must Remember This.

In both books, Oates resolves her tormented narratives through reconciliations of daughters with mothers, through resolutions of the matriarchal bond. The books are unlike A Garden of Earthly Delights or them, two of Oates's earlier novels in which mothers are perpetrators of male coercion. These two more recent books explore the ways women come to know both their "selves" and their potential as women in contemporary culture. Even in these efforts, however, Oates's women are very male-dependent. Marya goes through countless debilitating relationships with men, including a dying priest, as well as teachers and other lovers. Like Enid, she leads her life with a relentless subtext of romance, watching for the man who will make her dreams come true—despite the fact that she never dreams. Marya is too numb to have a normal subconscious life. Oates portrays one of her heroine's early high school romances so that the reader is reminded of the cultural imperative for Marya's behavior: "In the beginning she had pursued him [Emmett Schroeder].… Falling in love—'romance' of one kind or another—behaving like all the other girls.… Her 'feeling' for boys, for men, was largely a matter of daydreaming" (p. 101).

Both Marya and Enid have accepted what Oates, in her preface to You Must Remember This, describes as the "green of romance, of nostalgia, of innocence." Oates's working title for You Must Remember This was "The Green Island," retained here as a subsection title. It provides an image that pulls together the notion of the fresh innocence of adolescence with the highly romanticized fantasy of being shipwrecked on an island with someone. The metaphor of life as some uncontrollable sea and of a woman's safety dependent on her being rescued by a man (any man, regardless of the source of his power) prompts most of Oates's women characters' behavior.

Growing up through a 1950s girlhood that was itself dominated by this myth, Oates knew too well that conventional wisdom Marya and Enid accepted. She has referred to both these novels as her "most personal" books. She also has compared herself as an adolescent to Enid, "The contours of whose soul so resemble my own," not in the experience of sexual abuse but in the painful development of an independent psyche.4 Women in the world Oates depicts in You Must Remember This (carefully dated 1946-56) followed the injunctions of their culture: "You Must Remember This" is not only the title of a maudlin, mindlessly romantic ballad, but it is also a prescription for living the female life. A woman's role was to serve, to listen, to follow orders, and not to originate anything.

He instructed her to hold still. Not to move. Not to move.

And not to look at him either. Or say a word.

(Marya, p. 15)

She remembered his voice, Don't tell anybody will you.

(Remember, p. 4)

"Get in! Close the door!" Felix said.…He was nerved up, angry. "Does your father know you hitch rides?" he asked.… It's cheap and it's asking for trouble—I don't want any niece of mine doing it.… You led me on, acting the way you did fooling around the way you did you knew damn well what you were doing didn't you!—and now I see you out on the street hitching rides!…

He lit another cigarette, he let her cry for a while, then said, "It's stopped raining," though in fact it hadn't quite stopped yet. "You can get out now, Enid. Get out."

(Remember, pp. 130-32)

Even as adults, Oates's women characters continue these patterns; they are frozen in the psychological states abuse has created for them. In Marya's later relationship with Professor Fein, she again takes orders and lets herself be manipulated. She is used and reused, both sexually and professionally. Yet it is the much older and cynical Fein who tells her that she must find her mother. The novel builds to that predictable ending, but the effect of Marya's finding her mother is left ambiguous. She has written to the woman she has not seen since childhood, and her mother has replied. In the novel's last scene Marya prepares to open her mother's letter:

As if a dream secret and prized in her soul had blossomed outward, taking its place, asserting its integrity.… She placed the envelope carefully on a table and sat in front of it staring, smiling, a pulse beating in her forehead. How odd to see her name—Marya Knauer—her name in a handwriting that belonged to her mother, a handwriting she did not recognize.

Marya, this is going to change your life, she thought, half in dread.

Marya, this is going to cut your life in two.

(p. 275)

The ending of You Must Remember This is much more ambiguous. Oates's layered structure has Enid leaving for college, the appropriate demise of Felix, the reunion of her parents (which culminates in an almost powerless sexual act), and the poignant letter from Enid's brother, Warren. In following his example (leaving "home"), Enid has saved herself—the reader supposes. But Warren's closing letter to Enid expresses the unpredictable—and ungovernable—power of physical passion:

Strange isn't it—how "love" seems to carry with it no knowledge. The people I have loved most in my lifetime (including you) I haven't known at all. Nor have they known me.

The blood ties are so powerful and deep and mute. Something terrifying there. How we feel about one another—even about the house on East Clinton Street—so strange, helpless, paralyzing and exciting both. It's only away where people don't know me or haven't known me for very long that I am myself.

(p. 416)

In You Must Remember This, Warren takes a positive maternal role. Although Enid's mother does find a professional life for herself—in her sewing and designing, her physically leaving the house—the ending of the novel shows her once again locked in the sex act, repeating her husband's hesitant profession of love. But she has provided for Enid the beautiful quilt the latter takes with her to school; it is an emblematic gift of women's understanding and power (albeit worked in the wedding ring pattern). The ending of Oates's 1987 novel seems to countermand the comparatively simple ambivalence of Marya, A Life.

Elaine Showalter, in her essay on Oates and this novel, finds Marya's reaching back "to find the mother who has abandoned her, and to reclaim a matrilineage that is both painful and empowering,"5 to be mostly positive. Showalter states that for Marya to deny "the mother's country … is to be a permanent exile" (p. 152). Yet she also acknowledges—in response to the grim tone of the book—that Marya's gesture of reconciliation is not itself a panacea.

The community of women is not idyllic, but torn by rage, competition, primal jealousies, ambiguous desire, and emotional violence, just like the world in which women seem subordinate to and victimized by men.

In this comment, and in other reviews of You Must Remember This, critics have again taken up their pastime of making Joyce Carol Oates into a feminist writer. One of the reasons Marya, A Life and You Must Remember This were well received is that in these books comparatively strong women characters endured, even succeeded, though undeniably damaged by the gender struggles of their culture. It seemed to Oates's many readers as if she had become more interested in the problems of women and might be moving toward writing about fully achieving women protagonists. (The thirty-five years of Oates's career as novelist have engendered a tapestry of criticism about the absence of feminist themes in her writing.6)

Oates has repeatedly spoken to the conflicts of being both writer and woman—not about any inherent conflict in being a woman who writes, but about critics' reaction to women writers. In her essay "(Woman) Writer: Theory and Practice," she stated: "She is likely to experience herself, from within, as a writer primarily: perhaps even a writer exclusively.… When the writer is alone with language and with the challenging discipline of creating an art by way of language alone, she is not defined to herself as 'she.'"7 Oates then declares—though less militantly than she might have in either the 1960s or the 1970s (as she has no desire to discount her female being and psyche): "Is memory gender-bound? Are impressions filtered through the prism of gender? Is there a distinctly female voice?—or even a conspicuously feminine voice?" (p. 23).

Most of Oates's essays and prefaces that deal with the gender issue have been negations of the Gilbert and Gubar position that now dominates the critical world. This view suggests that women writers suffer under an "anxiety of authorship" different from, and more intense than, the anxieties of male writers. Oates is confident enough of both her vision and her voice to downplay the effects gender has on the writer's natural state of hesitancy. Hence when Oates herself writes about Marya, A Life, she sees the importance of the closing episode: She perceives Marya's attempt to find her mother as less a matriarchal connection (the search for parent become thoroughly gender based) than a humane one. Oates states that Marya's action is positive because she makes the choice "finally"; she chooses "not to accept the terms of their [her] own betrayal."8 She acts against the betrayer, the parent who happens to be mother rather than father.

Some critics believed they were seeing some pattern of more self-assertive women protagonists in Oates's 1980s fiction. For them, her 1989 novel, American Appetites, reversed whatever tendency they might have anticipated. Ian McCullough, highly esteemed research Ph.D., and his wife, Glynnis, author of successful cookbooks, lead a chic upper middle-class social and intellectual life. Disturbed only by the emotional vicissitudes of Bianca, their nineteen-year-old, their life runs to predictable busyness: Ian leads a remote, conventional intellectual life; Glynnis punctuates her suburban days with short-lived affairs—several with Ian's best friends. When Ian becomes fascinated by Sigrid Hunt, one of Glynnis's young protégées who had formerly been a dancer, the outer fabric of their life is shredded by Glynnis's jealousy. After Glynnis's quasi-accidental death, the reader is left to determine motives for Ian, Sigrid, and Bianca—motives for their subsequent behavior, not for their actual or fantasized complicity in Glynnis's death.

Despite the semblance of power each woman in this novel pretends, none is self-actualizing. Glynnis arranges not only her husband's existence but also a great many other people's. (One key anecdote is her memory of having sex with Ian's best friend, Denis, just minutes before the two of them go to lunch with their respective spouses as a foursome.) Bianca's defiance of her mother is a move against that awesome control. Her "present" for her father's fiftieth birthday is the parodic sexual dance, and it provides a useful glimpse into her understanding of the forces that motivate adult culture. Glynnis sits at the center of the web that shapes life in Hazelton-on-Hudson. Hence the shattered glass in the picture window represents Glynnis's webs or lines of power, as well as the actual cracks in the glass as she falls through it to her death.

Rather than equating Glynnis's control with strength, however, Oates shows how frightened Glynnis is once she suspects that Ian might have a lover. His asexuality, which had shown itself in occasions of impotence throughout their twenty-six-year marriage, now becomes more threatening than any overt hostility. In her drunken, violent response to him, Glynnis shows the hidden passions, the hungers, that had prompted so many of her actions in the past. By making Glynnis the proprietor of foods, cooking, and homes, Oates aligns the natural hungers for food and sex with the matriarchy.

Lest the reader miss the horror of Glynnis's complicated life because of the coolly understated prose, Oates underscores the vapidity of suburban women's lives. She does so by creating a macabre affair between Ian and Meika (whose older husband, Vaughn, had been one of Glynnis's lovers) soon after Ian is accused of Glynnis's murder. Meika, like Glynnis, is every bit the predator. By the close of American Appetites, Ian is living with Sigrid and planning a marriage, and Meika and Ian's attorney, Ottinger, are living together. Sexual liaisons are reasonless, impermanent, destructive, Oates's novel warns, but they are an expected part of all hearty and elite "American appetites." Her listeners understand full well the pathetic confession Sigrid makes on the witness stand: "I was caught up in this love affair which seemed to be sucking all the life from me. It was just a state I had drifted into … a pathological state of the soul."9

The closing coda has two of Ian's best friends (one is Denis, the lover Glynnis has taunted him about) come for a lunch that Sigrid has prepared. She has unwittingly contributed to a closed male camaraderie that shuts her out and makes her only a sexual object. The incident shows the mystery and the impenetrability of every human relationship. Supposedly Ian's best friend, Denis, has lied to him about his affair with Glynnis. Both lunch guests, Denis and Malcolm Oliver, have been Meika's lovers. Ian has no idea why he plans to marry Sigrid. He says in a later part of the scene, "I will blow my brains out when the season turns" (p. 337). The rapacity—conscious or unconscious—of these upstanding male professionals lies just under their veneer of accomplishment and wit.

Oates foreshadows our bleak knowledge that Sigrid will be left to bear the loss—and probably the guilt—of Ian's death by having her speak only once during the male-dominated luncheon. In that scene she tells the story of her dancing the role of the doomed Princess Creon in Medea, an oblique parallel to her triangle with Ian and Glynnis. Just as Medea in her bitter jealousy sends the princess the beautiful poisoned gifts that melt her flesh from her bones, so Glynnis has given Sigrid the anguishing work of caring for Ian. She is covered by his body in the sex act just as Princess Creon was by the poisoned robes. Sigrid states that "the Princess is so innocently vain, or … vainly innocent, she accepts the gifts immediately, and puts them on, and preens in front of a mirror, and dies an agonizing death" (p. 327).

Becoming lovers the night of Ian's acquittal, Sigrid and he as couple are the immediate result of Ian's fear of death (his own) and his fear from the death (of Glynnis). His fear gives him a sexual power that he had earlier lost. The Medea narrative also suggests incest—in that it includes the Princess's father, the Creon who—in trying to remove her flaming garments—also dies. Oates uses many references to Ian's and Sigrid's ages, to Sigrid's estrangement from her father, to Bianca's estrangement from Ian, and to Sigrid's appearance at the luncheon "like a tall somber child in a nightgown"; the allusions suggest that the sexual bond between Ian and Sigrid, as their names suggest, is incestuous. Sigrid has already had one abortion; the next fruit of her passionate involvements will be Ian's death. The reader is reminded of Ian's irrational binary statement to Nick Ottinger as they wait for the jury to bring in its verdict: "I will blow my brains out … or I will get married again and begin my life over." "I will blow my brains out or I will marry" (pp. 328, 330).

As if to illustrate her statements about gender-determined imaginations, Oates creates in American Appetites a novel in which gender is less important than morality. Men and women alike break codes of marriage and friendship and professional loyalty. Only the "innocently vain, or vainly innocent"—Ian, Bianca, and to a lesser degree Sigrid—can be hurt by disillusion: What does marriage "mean"? What does family "mean"? American Appetites, one of the most graphically bitter of Oates's novels, implies that language—like the social and moral codes it represents—"means" nothing. The most chilling scene in the novel is Denis's lying to Ian about his former relationship to the now-dead Glynnis.

As Sigrid's single narrative suggests, the misleading and oversimplified romance script is to blame for much of the novel's and the culture's sorrow. Dissatisfied with professions and roles, women look for fulfillment in sexual relationships. Sigrid's life was such a paradigm, and one can assume Glynnis's was, too. As Sigrid says, "at the time I became involved in this love affair, I was feeling ill-used and embittered about losing my job at Vassar" (p. 313). The appetites of Oates's characters are explicable, however, not only in terms of the late twentieth-century culture but also as ramifications of primordial gender patterns. In Oates's 1979 novel Cybele, she established the same patterns, creating in the unaware Edwin Locke a precursor of the equally unaware Ian McCullough.

Her Cybele is the story of a middle-aged man whose quick and destructive love affairs with a half-dozen women lead to the actual death with which the novel opens. At forty-four, Edwin Locke was a prosperous businessman, stable in his love for his wife, Cynthia, and his two sons. The family is part of an established suburban social group. At forty-six, he is depleted from sexual and drug experimentation, living on the fringe of society, ready to become a child molester. The explanation for Locke's perversion is given by the mysterious narrator of the novel, the I of Chapter One ("In Memoriam. Edwin Locke") and of subsequent brief references, Cybele. With characteristic whimsy, Oates gives the reader no way of identifying the narrator except through the title.

Cybele is the great earth mother, nature goddess, mother of the gods, and wife of Cronus. She is known also as Demeter, Rhea, Op, protectress of the wild things of the earth. But she is probably best known in mythology for her relationship with Attis. Jealous of his turn to other women, Cybele drives him mad so that he castrates himself. He dies under a pine tree, where violets eventually grow. In other versions of the myth, Attis, like Adonis, is killed by a boar. Spring was the season for Attis to be celebrated because he was the god of vegetation. Other objects or images connected with the Cybele-Attis myth are the lions that either accompanied Cybele or drew her chariot, the drum or cymbals she carried, and the dancing and wild music used to celebrate her being. (Without extensive elaboration, it is clear that American Appetites makes use of a great many of these characteristics.)

Oates's narrator/author points out in chapter 1 that the story will accelerate greatly as it continues. It assumes the form of dance itself, so that by the end of the narrative "no one will see him [Locke] at all and he certainly will have lost even his incomplete vision of himself."10 The novel fulfills that promise, so that the last chapters become more and more fragmented and less connected to previous segments. As Locke changes lovers rapidly, we know less and less about them and about his state of mind. Oates's narrative method changes to show the precipitous changes in the man and in his social behavior.

The character of Edwin Locke can be read as an ironic recreation of seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke, creator of the idea of the pleasure principle. The travesty which the search for pleasure becomes in Cybele is far removed from the ideal balance that Locke wrote about in 1690 in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oates's Locke exemplifies the horrors of ignorance, of the equation of sexual pleasure with "love," and of a male's complete ego absorption in the sexual act, without thought for his partner. "He knows only that the October night is beautiful, that the future lies all before him, rich with the surprise, the continual shock, of sensual pleasure; it lies in wait for him. The past does not exist. The past is falling away, moment by moment, helpless to impede him.… this is why we are born, Edwin Locke thinks" (p. 98). No other human being is important to this man; his ego has become the center; what matters is his experience, his sensual pleasure. The rest of Cybele chronicles a succession of meaningless relationships—with a hint of homosexual, group, and child partners. These illustrate the indiscriminate search that obsesses Locke.

That search finally becomes faceless. A body is any body, and all sex partners become

An immense hill into which he wants to burrow. Head-first. Trembling with desire. Sobbing with desire. And the hill becomes flesh, and the flesh seems to flinch from his violence, his need, whimpering as if it were alive; but still he forces himself into it. Like this! Like this! Like this! And as he forces himself into it it does give way, it succumbs, he pounds at it with his head, plunging, burrowing, half-choking with the rage of his desire, until he has penetrated my very core.

Cybele's speech gives her identity away to the reader: "my" very core is the feminine principle, the earth mother, who first entices and then traps irretrievably. The passage above continues,

And then the flesh, which has parted for him, in fear of him, begins to contract.

And horribly, he is caught in me. Trapped.

Swallowed alive!

He screams for help, for release. But of course no one hears. His screams are not audible, nor is there anyone to hear. For I have him now, I have him fast, and tight, in the hot tight blood-thrumming depths of me, and he will never withdraw, no matter how frantically he struggles to get free, no matter how valiantly his poor strained heart beats: I have him, I have him forever.

(pp. 200-201)

Oates continues, "it's the oldest story in the world, isn't it?" She reinforces the image of Cybele, waiting till Locke plays himself out, winding to the inevitable end of the saga—his own death.

Death comes to Locke not by castration, which has been gradual throughout the novel in various episodes of impotence, but by scissor stabs to the heart. The real seat of passion, this change from the Attis legend implies, is the heart and not the genitals. Locke dies from the scissor injuries, but he is immolated as well, burned after his murderer "dribbles" gas over his body "with a certain ceremonial grace." Locke's death occurs, Cybele makes clear, because he hadn't "the insight. He never understood." His burned body, found by the very children he would have liked to use as sex partners, is finally mistaken for that of a dog. It is not only bereft of gender distinctions, but also of humanity.

In Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984),11 Oates creates another of these men for whom sexual passion is all-important. Xavier Kilgarvan, the detective-hero of Mysteries, is as passionately foolhardy as Edwin Locke or Ian McCullough. Xavier, at sixteen, falls irresistibly in love with his distant cousin Perdita. Because of horrible crimes occurring in his cousin's home, Xavier (with the idealism suggested by his named saint, Francis Xavier) becomes a detective. Oates gives the reader scene after scene in which conventional religious accouterments carry sinister meaning. For example, the cherubs surrounding the Virgin Mary in a ceiling painting attempt to seduce Xavier as he keeps watch in the murder bower, just as Perdita has earlier enticed him to the attic of her home where Xavier eventually finds wire-choked infant bodies swaddled and laid in bureau drawers. The sensual and depraved grow from, or into, the religious, as Oates follows the familiar Gothic interpretation of humanity's quest for emotional gratification.

Although the novel falls into three seemingly separate tales—horrific accounts of strange and never-solved crimes—Mysteries is the story of Xavier and his obsessive passion for Perdita. Ironically—or with the mockery of narrative conventions so obvious throughout Oates's work—the novel has a "happy ending" as Perdita and Xavier finally marry. When Xavier gives up his occupation as detective, however, the reader assumes that he becomes a lost man. But this irony is never apparent, and the reader—lulled by the conventions of the genre—gives a sigh of relief when the marriage occurs. The reader is convinced that Xavier's efforts have finally paid off in this long-anticipated but unexpected reward.

If anything, Mysteries is a comic novel—although the relationship of Erasmus Kilgarvan to his oldest daughter, Georgina (the self-styled poet Iphigenia), is difficult to read as comedy. Incest is one way of murdering the child, just as Agamemnon tried to sacrifice his daughter to the gods. In her description of Georgina as Emily Dickinson, Oates carefully underplays the macabre. Instead, she makes an important comment about family power structures, the coercion by the religious community, and the impossibility of women using their talents and finding freedom—unless that freedom is sanctioned by patriarchal power.

Her Mysteries of Winterthurn, like its triad genre novels Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance, shows Oates's easy versatility. Such a deviation from her usual intense naturalism or fantasy as to be found in this trio proves again that Oates's writing, collectively, merits the same kind of explicative and diverse critical methodology that is generally applied to Thomas Pynchon's fiction. The chief difference between the two writers is that Oates's sense of humor is even more madcap. She directs her humor at the most sacred cultural and literary conventions while offering so few clues that her fiction becomes a great, wry mystery. In Mysteries of Winterthurn she gives the reader the most rational of frameworks: "Editor's Notes," "Postscripts," "Epilogues," and the detective-novel tradition itself. It proves an organization that suggests ends and reliable conclusions (the three-part, separate mystery structure) and a sane narrative voice that describes a seemingly sane detective figure. What we are left with, however, is a completely inexplicable novel; it is not one of the mysteries explained in any way. We also are left with an ever-widening rift between the rational and the irrational: in the case of Xavier, it is between the psychic health we associate with sanity and his own brand of passionate madness. Oates's Mysteries then is a conundrum of literary conventions, even to the concrete poems created by the entries in her table of contents.

To see these two earlier novels—Cybele and Mysteries of Winterthurn —in the light of Oates's three later fictions—Marya, A Life, You Must Remember This, and American Appetites —is to see how differently she has come to approach the same themes. These include sexual passion and enthrallment, the cultural adoption of the panacea of sex, and the underlying destruction of women's freedom as a result of these attitudes about sexuality during the later 1980s. What might have once become a text that could evoke some humor has become fiction of the highest possible seriousness. Oates is convinced that her writing mirrors life and that life exists in some part to teach and to admonish. This conviction has given her many readers these embittered and embittering novels about women's lives, lived in the strangleholds of the men their culture has empowered. It is not a satisfying vision, but it is a true one. And Oates is once again fulfilling her own role as Cassandra in the panorama of contemporary American fiction.

Notes

  1. Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer, Occasions and Opportunities (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1988), p. 3.
  2. Joyce Carol Oates, Marya, A Life (New York: Berkeley, 1988), p. 1.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates, You Must Remember This (New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1988), p. 3.
  4. Oates, (Woman) Writer, pp. 379-80.
  5. Elaine Showalter, "Joyce Carol Oates: A Portrait," Ms (March 1986), reprinted in Modern Critical Views, Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), pp. 137-45. See esp. p. 137.
  6. See my collection, Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), especially the Introduction and essays by Charles Lam Markmann, Sanford Pinsker, Eileen Bender, and Joanne V. Creighton. See also Victor Strandberg, "Sex, Violence, and Philosophy in You Must Remember This," Studies in American Fiction 17 (Spring 1989): 3-17.
  7. Oates, (Woman) Writer, pp. 22-23.
  8. Ibid., p. 378.
  9. Joyce Carol Oates, American Appetites (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1989), p. 314.
  10. Joyce Carol Oates, Cybele (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1979), pp. 11-12.
  11. Joyce Carol Oates, Mysteries of Winterthurn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984).

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"Oates, Joyce Carol: General Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Jul. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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