Oates, Joyce Carol: Title Commentary
JOYCE CAROL OATES: TITLE COMMENTARYDo With Me What You Will
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
JOSEPH PETITE (ESSAY DATE AUGUST 1986)
SOURCE: Petite, Joseph. "A Predator in Liberationist Clothing." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 7, nos. 3-4 (August 1986): 245-48.
In the following essay, Petite investigates the repressed nature of the female characters in Do with Me What You Will.
In Do With Me What You Will Joyce Carol Oates, it has been argued, creates the truly independent woman. Noting that the novel is dedicated to a member of the national board of the National Organization of Women, Patricia Hill Burnett, Constance Denne says of the book: "Its subject is the raising of a young woman's consciousness and her liberation. Elena … breaks through to a higher level of awareness, and, integrated, affirms not only what she wants but also how she will get it."1 Christopher Lehmann-Haupt also sees Elena as liberated, suggesting that since she and her mother, Ardis, are anything but passive, the title is ironic. He finds Elena's decision to leave her husband for Morrissey "an uncompromising assertion of her newly discovered self."2 A reviewer for Publisher's Weekly concurs; this is the story of Elena's liberation. Choosing Morrissey, he says, is the "love through which she begins at last to be her own person."3
Critics, however, have failed to notice the direct contradiction between the liberationist rhetoric supplied to Elena and Ardis and the facts of the novel. Elena merely improves on her mother's techniques for exploiting men. The fact is that her "victory," her domination of Jack, has won her nothing. Not only isn't she the new woman Denne describes, she isn't even new in Oates' fiction. Like Clara in A Garden of Earthly Delights, she thinks of male/female relations as an adversary process. Like Maureen in them Elena is alienated from men and frigid. Like many of Oates' women, Elena has traded for security, only to find herself lonely.4 Even in her affair with Jack her object is security not liberation. Ardis tutors Elena in alienation from men; men are "machines."
'If it's one thing I can't understand,' she said, 'it's men mauling me. It's very annoying, it's boring. You won't like it either. You try to think of something else but you can't. Men are like machines, they're like automatic washers that must go through certain cycles, one after the other, it's all predictable and boring … for women who have no imagination, who can't think of anything better to do with their lives, maybe it's all right for them, but not for someone like me.'5
Machines is precisely how the frigid Maureen in them sees men. In response to a man's sexual advances, Maureen reflects that, "a man was like a machine: one of those machines at the laundromat where she dragged the laundry. There were certain cycles to go through."6 In talking of male/female relationships in her fiction, Oates repeats her own words a great deal.
Rather than being liberated, Elena is trained to see men as providers, though Ardis camouflages this manipulation by convincing herself of her own philosophical depth: "'We're our own ideas, we make ourselves up; some women let men make them up, invent them, fall in love with them they're helpless to invent themselves … but not me, I'm nobody's idea but my own'" (p. 72). Obviously Ardis considers herself a woman of "imagination." The facts, however, indicate she is not at all liberated. When we first meet mother and daughter they are scheming to get financial security from Mr. Karman by convincing him that it is his idea that they should be "protected" by him (p. 72). Knowing his need to be their benefactor, Ardis cynically uses the word "belong," (employed by so many of Oates' women) only here it is obvious that she has no intention of being a helpless dependent: "'I want Elena and myself to have your name, yes. And then some day I want to be your wife, I want to belong to you'" (p. 62). The critics have too easily taken these words at face value, and have failed to explore the larger picture of male/female interaction in Oates' work.
Rather than being liberated, Ardis is guilty, just as men are, of exploiting the opposite sex. However, in spite of the success of the plan with Marvin, Elena is lonely. Her emotions are so twisted by Ardis' teaching that she is frigid, and ironically views her own absence of response as a sign that she is in control of both her husband and her lover. Certainly exploitation is not a sign of personality growth, nor is the inability to respond.
Elena is aware that her marriage is arranged by Ardis, that "her life is being prepared" (p. 97). Ardis, frank about the exploitation, tells her plainly, "'You're set for life'" (p. 10). Marvin, the typical Oates husband, is at work "all the time, maybe sixteen hours a day" (p. 115). Elena's contribution to the marriage is to let Marvin go through his cycles: "When he made love to her in the months afterward, she felt no pain, no alarm; she felt nothing, but drifted like this, absolutely still, gentle, opened to him and empty" (p. 119). When he asks if she loves him, she knows the game has to be played if the male is to continue to protect her: "She realized that she was expected to answer him. And so she whispered, 'Yes,' and wondered if it was the right word, the magical word he wanted" (p. 119). This could just as easily be the scene between Clara and Revere in A Garden of Earthly Delights where Clara "lets" Revere love her in order to remain under his protection. In return for Revere's "strength" to count on, "She … (gives) herself over to him"7 "telling him what he wanted to hear and letting him love her" (p. 260).
Elena's description of the emotional arrangement in her marriage leaves no room for doubt about its emptiness: "'It isn't any of my business, his life. It belongs to him. It's private. I've lived with him for only a small part of his life, I'm just a fraction of it … I belong to him but he doesn't belong to me'" (p. 375).
Elena's alienation from men carries over into her affair with Morrissey. She holds herself back. "So he made love to her: she felt the love being made, forced, generated out of his misery as a physical creature, grinding itself into her" (p. 344). Not responding to a man, she believes, gives her power over him. In her marriage she also reaches a point where she uses sex to defeat her husband: "She has eluded him, she had established a kind of triumph over him" (p. 414). It is after this "victory" that she leaves Marvin.
Elena feels "a feverish certainty" about her liberation; "she did not need anyone, she did not love anyone, she was free" (p. 536). Interestingly, of all of Oates' women Elena most resembles Clara and Maureen, two women whose emotional lives are stunted precisely because they are alientated from men. They are unable to love, if love means sharing, and Elena describes herself as free beause she does not love. Elena's move is not into "adult-hood," but into herself, and is therefore destructive.
At the end of the novel Elena believes she has broken her bonds. If she loves, she believes it will not be because she is slavishly dependent on a man, but because she chooses to love. Initiating a relationship, she feels is the equivalent of being adult and male, and it is in this sense that she admires maleness. Yet we see that her real interest is not simply in initiating a relationship; it is in dominating, and the object is still security. Though she believes she "loathes" this role, she finds it an expression of "freedom." Making Morrissey fall in love with her is a victory, proof of her power and control:
She did not need love. But if she wanted love she must have Morrissey.… Never in her life had she conquered any territory, achieved any victories. Never. Never had she been selfish, never evil or adult. And now if she wanted Morrissey she would cross over into adulthood to get him, into the excitement of evil. Extending her freedom as men do, making a claim … claiming a man … almost against his will, forcing him. It saddened her, it was degrading. Spiritually she loathed it. As a woman she loathed it. Yet there was an excitement in the risk she would run.
Her freedom, it seems, is definable only in terms of her ability to take freedom away from a man. Elena wants not freedom to be herself, to love and be loved as a whole person; she wants control. While at the end she is free of male influence, she is still obsessed with her original need to protect herself. She has not reached a new level of awareness. She has simply adopted male habits of domination. Her liberation is only rhetorical. A predator is no less a predator because she is female and spouts liberationist dogma.
- Constance Denne: "Joyce Carol Oates' Women," Nation, 219 (December 7, 1974), pp. 597-599. All future references will be in parentheses.
- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt: "Stalking the Eternal Feminine," New York Times (15 October 1973), p. 35.
- Anon. Review of Do With Me What You Will, Publisher's Weekly, 204 (20 August 1973), p. 84.
- See my article, "The Marriage Cycle of Joyce Carol Oates," The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology. Vols. V and VI.
- Joyce Carol Oates: Do With Me What You Will (New York: 1973), p. 70. All future references will be in parentheses.
- Joyce Carol Oates: them (New York: 1969), p. 209.
- Joyce Carol Oates: A Garden of Earthly Delights (New York: 1966), p. 223. All future references will be in parentheses.
BRENDA DALY (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Daly, Brenda. "How Does 'I' Speak for 'We'?: Violence and Representation in Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang." In Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, pp. 205-22. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
In the following essay, Daly views Foxfire to be a novel about girls who utilize language to defend themselves against male-perpetrated violence.
Through its narrator, Madeleine "Maddy" Wirtz, Foxfire, Confessions of a Girl Gang 1 explores the complex relationship between language and violence. Fifty-year-old Maddy, a member of FOXFIRE (always spelled in caps) from age thirteen to age seventeen, uses her notes and memories—as well as some flights of imagination—to chronicle the gang's adventures from 1952 to 1956. "It was a time of violence against girls and women," Maddy explains, "but we didn't have the language to talk about it then" (100). In retrospect, Maddy—who has completed college and now works as an astronomer's assistant—understands that the girls in FOXFIRE had no language for the violence perpetrated against them; however, as narrator, Maddy has a different problem: how can she tell the gang's story—that is, how can an "I" speak for a "we"—without doing violence to, without denying the voices of, the women she once loved? This question is of critical importance because the gang was formed so that collectively its members would have the power to resist the violence perpetrated against them. Under the leadership of Margaret "Legs" Sadovsksy, the FOXFIRE gang devised a range of creative strategies, many of them verbal, to defend themselves against sexual harassment and violence. As Legs tells Maddy, "It's a state of undeclared war, them hating us, men hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are but nobody wants to admit it, not even us." (101).
To defend themselves against male violence, the girls in FOXFIRE must first admit what adults, especially males in positions of authority, refuse to acknowledge: institutionally sanctioned violence toward women, violence perpetuated by the silences in public discourses. As Teresa de Lauretis argues, the silence of male-dominated discourses—the way language "names certain behaviors and events as violent, but not others" (240)—is one way that "violence is en-gendered in representation" (240). To illustrate her point, de Lauretis cites the work of feminist social scientists Wini Breines and Linda Gordon, who explain that as long as no word existed for "family violence," medical professionals usually ignored the causes of a patient's injuries, returning wives and children to their abusers, thereby perpetuating domestic violence. Again citing Breines and Gordon, De Lauretis argues that the use of gender-neutral language in most studies of incest perpetuates sexual violence by obscuring the fact that "in cases of incest as well as cases of child sexual abuse, 92 per cent of the victims are female and 97 per cent of the assailants are male" (242). What is at stake, de Lauretis emphasizes, is whether the social order—in this case the family—is to be "maintained or to be dismantled" (242). The violence engendered by such presumably "neutral" institutional discourse has a direct bearing upon the lives of poor teenage girls, such as those depicted in Foxfire, many of whom, while running away from violent or neglectful families, become vulnerable to sexual violence on the street.
The traditional canon of literature also constitutes a form of violence, as Judith Fetterley asserts, because "through what is taught and how it is taught, our educational system ratifies boys' sense of agency and primacy, their sense of themselves as subjects, particularly as defined against their sense of girls as objects" ("'Not in the Least American'" 880). By contrast, Maddy is striving to define her subjectivity, not by making the girls in FOXFIRE into mute objects, but by establishing their claims to language and agency, along with her own. Strictly speaking, Maddy's voice occupies an "intermediate" zone between personal and communal narration. Maddy is, in fact, not the protagonist—that role belongs to Legs—but she is telling her own story and, at the same time, the gang's. As Susan Lanser points out, narrative individualism has prevented analysis of this "intermediate" type of narrator: one who is "reconstructing the life of another woman but is in some sense the protagonist herself, not simply an eye witness or an autobiographer" (21). At the same time, Maddy's narrative authority comes from her membership in a community that, contradictorily, has authorized her to write the gang's history, but not to tell it. In my view, Maddy's style of communal narration, her attempt to create an "I" that can speak nonviolently for a "we," is born out of her recognition that violence, whether linguistic or physical, arises from a desire for stability, certainty, and control.
"For the violator," as Laura Tanner says in Intimate Violence, "violence may come to serve as a temporary affirmation of an unstable self, a material manifestation of a disembodied ideology, an expansion of one's own insubstantial form out into an alien world" (4). Even though Maddy's authority is already unstable because of her gender and class, she reveals her uncertainties as a narrator: she is striving to avoid representational violence by acknowledging that, even as she attempts to tell the "Truth," she doubts that it is possible to do so. She admits that, at times, she is not simply reporting an event, but inventing it, while at other times she admits to losing control over the narrative. As narrator, Maddy's voice is structurally superior to others in the gang, but she refuses to claim linguistic agency by denying other points of view. Sometimes, for example, Maddy makes it obvious that Legs has a different point of view. Furthermore, Maddy's authority is clearly contingent upon her position in the community; Legs is always first in command of the FOXFIRE gang.
As Maddy relates, the girls of FOXFIRE refuse to become the blank screens of male desire or violence. Working together, under the capable guidance of Legs, they devise a game called "hook and bait" to trap the men who would buy them for sex. Invented primarily to meet a desperate need—to raise capital to pay the gang's living expenses—the game also provides the pleasures of revenge. Their strategy is simple but effective: while one girl acts as the attractive "bait" with which to "hook" the male gaze—as if she were merely a blank screen for male desire—the rest of the gang watches, waiting for the right moment to attack. The object of the game is not to kill or injure, but to demand money from men willing to treat them as commodities. The tricky part of the game is, of course, timing the attack to catch the man with his pants down, just before the girl who is playing "bait" can be forced to turn a trick. It is Margaret "Legs" Sadovsky, the gang's remarkable leader, who invents the game following a job interview that turns into an attempted seduction. Because Legs was "fed up with the kinds of jobs available in Hammond for young women with her qualifications" (225), she had dressed as a man2 to interview for a position as an encyclopedia salesman. When the interviewer, mistaking Legs for a young ("feminine") man, tries to seduce "him," she draws her knife. To save himself, the injured Mr. Rucke bribes Legs by giving her all he has.
"Just something that got snagged on my hook" (232), Legs explains upon returning to FOXFIRE with Rucke's money, watch, ring, camera, even some marijuana. Though she didn't get the job, the interview inspires the invention of the money-making game, "hook and bait." In a chapter called, "FOXFIRE HOOKING: A Miscellany, Winter 1955-56," Maddy describes the disguises worn by gang members who play "bait"—it may be "an alone-looking girl of about seventeen years of age, pretty freckled face and curly red hair" (233) or "the one with dead-white skin and luscious lips, big sloe eyes, sleek black hair" (234) or "a shapely girl with eye-catching platinum blond hair waved and curled like Marilyn Monroe's" (236). The gang stages the game in different settings—at a train depot, a hotel, and an inn—and they hook a variety of "fatherly" men: a man with "a fatherly, an avuncular look to him" (233), a man who takes "the hook in his smug little purse of a mouth" (234) with the comment, "I have a daughter myself" (235), and another man who is "a good Catholic husband and father" (236). When Maddy plays the bait, "sitting in the Trailways station glancing through a newspaper" (239), a man "with a fatherly-bullying smile" almost wins the game by leading Maddy, in a manner "snug and fatherly" (244) into an isolated alley. By the time FOXFIRE arrives to defend her, she is already swallowing blood.
Despite its dangers, the gang plays this tricky game quite successfully, hooking "fatherly" men who read them as blank screens, as bodies without voices, as "bad daughters" who function as currency to be circulated by the fathers. According to the homosocial rules of "hooking," the prostitute circulates as daughter/currency among men; however, FOXFIRE turns the tables, rewriting the rules of the game. As Elaine Scarry observes, voice and body historically have been understood as "paired opposites," a structural relationship "between the disembodied torturer (at times no more than a voice) and the (speechless) victim who is all body," a relationship that is "played out again in biblical history with a God who is all voice and in Marxist economic theory with its remote commands issued by a disembodied capitalist class" (quoted in Morris 251). Since these paired opposites—voice and body—are gendered, a (woman) writer finds herself in a different relationship to language; as de Lauretis points out, Nietzsche can speak from the position of woman, because that place is "vacant" (239). The novel makes this point most powerfully when Legs decides to kidnap a wealthy businessman and hold him for ransom. At this moment, when FOX-FIRE attempts to turn a male body into a commodity—a body that the gang hopes to circulate like currency—the novel raises questions about the ethics of violence.
I will return to this ethical issue after first illustrating how the gang plays the language game—that is, how they fight sexual violence with words. I begin my analysis of the novel's word games with the gang's rewriting of the body in its ritual of membership. As Maddy reports, FOXFIRE is a linguistic creation, born during a formal swearing-in ceremony. The ceremony takes place on New Year's Day, 1953, when four girls arrive at the home of Legs (also "Sheena") Sadovsky: Goldie (also "Boom-Boom") Betty Siefried; Lana Loretta Maguire; Rita (also "Red or Fireball") Elizabeth O'Hagan; and Madeleine (also "Maddy," "Monkey" or "Killer") Faith Wirtz. All wear black, and all wear crosses around their necks, as instructed by Legs. Once all have entered her bedroom, which is darkened except for five burning candles, Legs distributes five shot glasses filled with whiskey, "with priestly decorum" (39). Next, in an "incantatory" voice, and in language she probably borrowed from conversations with a "retired" priest, she leads them in this secret oath: "Do you solemnly swear to consecrate yourself to your sisters in FOXFIRE yes I swear to consecrate yourself to the vision of FOXFIRE I do, I swear to think always of your sisters as you would they would think of you Ido in the Revolution of the Proletariat that is imminent in the Apocalypse that is imminent in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and under torture physical or spiritual Ido" (39-40). The girls must also swear, "never to betray your FOXFIRE sisters in thought word or deed never to reveal FOXFIRE secrets" (39-40), a promise Maddy clearly breaks by writing the FOXFIRE confessions.
Following this swearing-in ceremony—a playfully serious parody of religious, civic, and legal ceremonies that traditionally confer power on men—Legs produces an "elegant silver ice pick" (40) with which she writes the gang's emblem upon her own body. Maddy, who is last in the ceremony, asks Legs to tattoo her left shoulder: "At first it was a tattoo of blood, oozing blood-droplets, points of pain on the pale tender flesh of Maddy's left shoulder," but after the bleeding stopped, they rubbed alcohol into their wounds and used red dye to form the flame-tattoo; then, "while the bleeding was fresh, they pressed together eagerly to mingle their blood their separate bloods" (41). In this ceremony they become "blood sisters," as Legs says, in a serious parody of homosocial rituals in which men celebrate their collective power. And in the Dionysian frenzy that follows—when Goldie is pulling down Legs's bra and giving Lana "a jungle-cat bite of a kiss," when Rita is "pressing her grapefruit-sized bare breasts against Goldie's smaller taut breasts and someone dribbled whiskey on Rita's breasts and licked it off" (42). This parody of ceremonies—those rituals in which language is an action conferring power—is not a pale imitation, but an aggressive recontextualization, a carnivalization of language by which the FOXFIRE gang appropriates linguistic power for itself.
I deliberately choose Mikhail Bakhtin's term carnivalization because, as Patricia Yaeger points out in Honey-Mad Women, we must turn to Bakhtin, rather than Foucault, if we are to find a theory of transgressive practices that liberates not only words but speakers, speakers such as the young women in Foxfire. In Yaeger's view, as in mine, "There is little room in Foucault's system for the linguistic play affirmed, say, in Bakhtin's descriptions of insult and parody. According to Bakhtin, such transgressive practices allow not only words, but speakers themselves to be released 'from the shackles of sense,' to define moments within discourse when we are able 'to enjoy a period of play and complete freedom and to establish unusual relationships'" (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World 423; qtd. in Yaeger 89). Although the gang enjoys only a short period of such playful freedom, they celebrate by writing on a variety of surfaces—on paper or placards, on cars, buildings, or cakes, as well as on their own flesh—and with a variety of materials—with crayons and ink, blood and frosting, paint and nail polish, ice picks and an old Underwood typewriter. They also use different genres—tattoos, graffiti, letters, and a ransom note. During these carnival moments, the gang radically reverses the position of women: FOXFIRE claims collective agency through acts of violent inscription, thereby rejecting the role of mute body, often violently inscribed by men. The novel depicts a number of these reversals.
One such reversal—also depicted as a scene of recognition between women—takes place in a chapter called "Black Eye" when Maddy's mother opens the bathroom door, which has a broken lock, to see her daughter standing before the mirror. Because it is early in the morning and both mother and daughter are half-naked, they can read what is written on the other's body: Maddy is inscribed with the "beautiful FOXFIRE tattoo … my tattoo so lurid and flamey red exposed for Momma to see," while her mother is inscribed with a "big purplish-orangish black eye as if a giant's fist has walloped her good on the right side of her face" (58). Although both mother and daughter have been written upon, the flame on Maddy's shoulder is a reversal, a mirror image, of the black eye inscribed by the male "giant." Men possess the power of a giant, not only because of greater physical strength, but because of economic dominance. For example, Maddy's mother has been widowed by war, but she cannot earn enough to support herself and her daughter. Yet her husband's family offers her no financial help. In fact, when Maddy asks her uncle for a favor—she wants an old Underwood he has put out with the trash—he tries to force her into providing sexual favors in exchange for the typewriter.
A second scene occurs when Legs, newly released from a girls' detention center and employed by the Park Service, accidentally comes upon a "dwarf" woman named Yetta. Legs is helping to clear underbrush at the edge of Cassadaga Park when she grows thirsty. At that moment she spots a house attached to a tavern, that happens to be closed. When no one answers her knock on the door of the house, she goes to the back yard looking for an outside faucet. There she sees a strange woman "child-size but not child-proportioned with a long torso and a misshapen back, and her face, not ugly exactly, but strange, sort of twisted like her spine" (198). What is most shocking to Legs is that "this woman is wearing a dog collar around her neck and the collar is attached to a lightweight chain which is attached to a clothesline" (198). Although Legs is a "giant" in the eyes of her gang—a mythical figure with powers usually attributed only to heroic males—Yetta is actually a mirror image of the many "dwarfing" experiences of abuse that Legs has experienced at home, at school, at work, and in a girls' detention center. Drawn to those who cannot defend themselves, imagining herself as a protector of women, Legs returns with Goldie to observe what happens to Yetta at night. Hiding in the bushes, the girls are horrified by what they see: Yetta lying "naked, spread-eagle, a terrible sight to see her with her wrists and ankles tied to the bed's four posters so her deformed body is completely exposed and completely open … and one by one men come into the room" (200 Oates's ellipsis).
The attachment of the tavern to a house underscores the close relationship between commercial and family violence—the latter a form of violence that, as stated above, didn't even exist until feminists named it.3 Legs and Goldie try to prevent family violence when they return to the house where they confront a "bear-size" man who identifies himself as Yetta's brother. Boldly, since the two girls are alone, Legs argues that "there are laws prohibiting such things, abuse, forced prostitution" (200), but Yetta's brother retorts angrily that "it's none of her fucking business what people do in the privacy of their own home" (200). Unfortunately, because Legs has been abused by many figures of authority—father, principal, judge, prison guards—she does not trust them enough to ask for their help. Nonetheless, she returns, alone, to the scene of the crime. Again she watches men enter Yetta's room where "one by one bare-assed their genitals swollen, penises stiffened into rods, mounting the dwarf-woman, the woman-that's-a-body, one by one pumping their life into her, evoking those cries" (202), and her rage flares. Recalling the words of Father Theriault, a defrocked and alcoholic priest who speaks "of capitalism of the curse of human beings apprehending one another as commodities the tragedy is that men and women not only use one another as things but use themselves, present themselves, sell themselves … as things" (202-3 Oates's ellipsis), Legs sets fire to the house and tavern. The fox's fire burns. In this instance, words of protest have proven to be useless. In the next chapter, called "FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD," Legs manages to finance a mortgage on an old farmhouse that, in sharp contrast to Yetta's, protects the FOXFIRE "family"—as they define themselves—from abusive men.
Almost all of the early FOXFIRE triumphs recorded by Maddy are to some degree verbal victories. For example, in their first adventure the girls cover with graffiti the car of a middle-aged math teacher who has been sexually harassing Rita "Red" O'Hagan. By age eleven, Rita had "the contours and proportions of a woman" (23), as well as a certain "conspicuous female helplessness" (25) and as a result had already begun attracting unwanted male attention. At age twelve, for example, her own brothers, along with older boys from the Viscounts gang, had made her "the object of certain acts performed upon her, or to her, or with her, for most of a long August afternoon" (25). However, when Mr. Buttinger, her ninth-grade teacher, not only made fun of Rita's mistakes but was observed "sometimes drawing his thick beefy hands against her breasts quickly and seemingly accidentally" (29), the gang decided to act. The next time Buttinger forced Rita to stay after school, they were ready: they painted "tall lurid red letters" on the back and passenger side of his 1949 Ford. During his drive home, Buttinger feels himself "running the gauntlet of witnesses, some of them students" (31), but, out of dread, waits until he arrives home to read the words that have made a "spectacle" of him: "I AM NIGGER LIPS BUTTINGER IM A DIRTY OLD MAN MMMMMM GIRLS!!! I TEACH MATH & TICKLE TITS IM BUTTINGER I EAT PUSSY" and mysteriously, on the bumper, "FOXFIRE REVENGE!" (31). Shortly afterward, Buttinger retires from teaching.
FOXFIRE's next triumph is also, in part, a matter of possessing the word—in this case, owning a typewriter. When Maddy Wirtz tries to buy her uncle's used Underwood, with which she plans to chronicle the gang's adventures, the gang saves her from his attempt at sexual blackmail. Uncle "Wimpy," as they call him, demands five dollars for the machine even though it had been put out on the curb with the garbage; "I'm a businessman, sweetie," he says, "I'm not the goddamed Salvation Army" (61). Maddy returns with borrowed money, but once again he raises the price—this time to eight dollars. Then, after teasing his niece for an hour, "He brought her hand against the front of his trousers: against his bulging crotch" (67). She manages to get away, and, after consulting with her gang, returns. Uncle Wirtz mistakenly interprets her return as signaling a willingness to submit to his sexual demands. This time, however, she has brought along the gang who wait, hidden, ready to attack when signaled. Just as Wimpy unzips his pants exposing "a red boiled sausage," Maddy "scrambles to her feet, tugs at the blind to release it so it flies up to the ceiling," calling for the attack: "they have a board they're using as a battering ram, within seconds the window is broken, shards of glass go flying, it's an explosion, it's festive, the girls of FOXFIRE piling through the window like young dogs eager for the kill, there's Legs, there's Goldie, there's Lana, there's fierce little hot-eyed Fireball, and Maddy's one of them, five girls springing on Wimpy Wirtz caught frozen in astonishment and disbelief, gaping, pants open and penis exposed, big as a club but already it's beginning to wilt, and retreat. And they're on him" (76).
Inflamed by their success, the gang finds great pleasure in writing FOXFIRE's "secret flame-tattoo in red crayon or ink or nail polish just a few inches high on a locker or a desk or a window at school" (80), or drawing "a giant flame five feet in height in bright red-blood paint on these surfaces: the eastern side of the railroad viaduct above Mohawk Street; the southern side of the Sixth Street bridge; the wall facing Fairfax Avenue of the boarded-up Tuller Bros. warehouse; the brick wall facing Ninth Street of the high school; the tattered billboard high on stilts overlooking the Northern Pacific railroad yard!" (80). Their next adventure, a protest against a pet shop's mistreatment of animals, is also a triumph of words. They drive customers away by carrying picket signs bearing the words, "TYNE PETS IS CRUEL TO ANIMALS," "IF YOU LOVE ANIMALS DON'T SHOP HERE," "SHAME SHAME SHAME," "HAVE MERCY ON ME," and "HELP ME PLEASE" (92). It is a tactic they have learned from local unions, but they add an unusual twist, disguising their identities by wearing Halloween masks: "Legs has a crafty fox mask, Goldie has a snarling wolf mask, Lana has a snooty cat mask, Rita has a panda mask, and Maddy, naturally, has a puckish monkey mask" (92). This carnivalesque moment, in which the costumed young women assert the transformational power of the word, illustrates what Yaeger calls "the animality of the letter" even as the gang calls attention to the violence of representation: the fact that, historically, man's flight from the body has been predicated upon his identification of woman as body, animal, nature.
Of course, FOXFIRE does not define its protest in such academic rhetoric, yet Legs's sympathetic identification with Yetta, as well as the gang's with the animals at the Tyne Pet Shop, indicates a desire to transform that violent binary hierarchy: voice/body, writing/text, culture/nature, man/woman. Of course, the gang's desire for transformation includes economic hierarchies as well. As Legs understands, the power of words is not enough. FOXFIRE must have a home of its own and an adequate income. Indeed, the demise of FOXFIRE is brought about primarily (though not exclusively) by the gang's lack of a strong economic base. However, in its heady early days the gang usually managed to find ways, as well as words, to triumph over their oppressors. Halloween is such a triumphant occasion. "ITEM. Hallowe'en: the sisters of FOXFIRE in disguise as gypsies in long black skirts, exotic scarves and jewelry, wearing black domino masks travel miles away to uptown Hammond to go trick-or-treating in the affluent residential neighborhoods" (93). While trick-or-treating they acquire quite a bit of loot, "but their real mission as Legs envisions it is to familiarize themselves with alien territory—the world of the 'propertied bourgeoisie'" (95). They write their Halloween graffiti on the plate glass windows of business establishments: Lana writes, "SATAN LIVES," Maddy prints, "BEWARE THE CAT," and Legs scrawls, "NO ESCAPE NO MERCY $$$$ IS SHIT ABOMINATION DEATH" (94). In this and other episodes, the novel emphasizes the point that the gang performs its subversive acts not simply as women, but as poor women.4
Indeed, it is largely because she is poor and untrained in good-girl submissiveness that Legs is "detained" in Red Bank State Correctional Facility for Girls. Yes, she had pulled a knife to defend a new gang member from harassment by members of the Viscount gang, and, yes, she had stolen a car to make her getaway, but most of FOXFIRE had gone along for the ride. However, Legs is clearly their leader, and the judge must punish someone: "Legs drew what is called an indeterminate sentence, five months minimum, no stated maximum" (130) which she had the audacity to declare "unconstitutional" (131). In the eyes of her gang, the fact that Legs is incarcerated only raises her stature. As Oates comments, "She begins as a young girl and ascends to a kind of mythic state, at least in the minds of her Foxfire sisters" (Karpen 6). Despite her mythic attributes, Legs finally collides with the patriarchal power that cages young women—institutional power personified by principal Morton Wall, Judge Oldacker, and her father Ab Sadovsky. Though known for his public drinking and fighting, Ab Sadovsky appears in court not to support his daughter but to testify against her. Like Yetta, Legs is caged and—because she imagines herself always in flight, running like a horse,5 climbing like a cat, even flying like a hawk—such confinement drives her almost mad.
As John Crowley says, "Legs Sadovsky is a brilliant creation—wholly heroic, wholly convincing, racing for her tragic consummation impelled by a finer sensibility and a more thoughtful daring than is usually granted to the tragic male outlaws we love and need" (6). In one legendary exploit, Legs climbs a sixty-foot water tower, defeating all male contenders for the prize money: seventy-five dollars. In another climbing exploit, Legs tries to escape from Red Bank: "skinny and snakey-agile she pushes herself through a crack between buildings" until she reaches "the wall—she doesn't hesitate, leaps up grasping at raw blunt featureless cinderblock, leaps up like a doe shot in the heart, leaps up, up, grabbing and grasping and falling back" (151). Once apprehended, her resistance only increases her prison time. However, Legs finally becomes "tractable; reasonable; obedient; good" (174) following a visit from her father, during which the sadistic man told Legs that her mother had tried to abort her. Meanwhile, the other Legs—though isolated, injured, and caged—watches "the sparrow hawks riding the air in the blue of morning," and "suddenly she was among them her arms that ached from being twisted up behind her back were wings dark-feathered powerfully muscled wings and she ascended the air, the cinderblock wall fell away" (170-71).
Legs vows, "No one and nothing will touch me, ever again. If anybody is to kill it will be me" (174). Although she loves Legs, Maddy cannot make such a vow. The division between Legs and Maddy over the attempt to kidnap a wealthy businessman is the result, to a large degree, of their different experiences: because Maddy's father is dead, she has not experienced paternal violence as Legs has, nor has Maddy been subjected to the violence of prison as Legs has. But their conflict can also be attributed to differences in their personalities. Both yearn for escape, but Maddy's flights tend to be primarily verbal while Legs's are primarily physical. Oates says, "The book is supposed to be a kind of dialectic between romance and realism.… I had originally imagined Legs Sadovsky with a great deal of motion, flying across rooftops, able to jump long distances. Probably, in a larger sense, I was writing a romance, and Legs is one of those figures out of myth" (Karpen 6). Legs is the romantic figure, but the dialectic between romance and realism, between heavenly transcendence and earthly bonds, between the freedom of flight and the pull of gravity, is intensified by Maddy's narrative strategies. As an adolescent, Maddy, the voice of "realism," was no match for Legs. Maddy tells us, "Legs talked, I listened, always I was mesmerized listening to her, always and forever" (15); "I wasn't hoping to analyze Legs' account of what had befallen her, I never tried, those early years," she says. "I wouldn't have granted Maddy Wirtz such authority!" (16).
Maddy gradually acquires a sense of her own authority, not the authority of mastery but of the imagination. As a girl, she had "loved to study maps, maps of the solar system, and the Earth, but maps too of local regions" (8); she loved writing lunar names; and she had been excited by "numbers invisible and inviolate never to be contaminated nor even touched by their human practitioners" (28). Like Legs, Maddy loves freedom, but while Legs chooses the power of moving physically through space, Maddy prefers the power of moving mentally through time and space. Maddy does, in fact, become a scientist whose work is "the contemplation and quantification of rock-debris" (322), but she returns to earth—and to the body—through the act of writing her memoir. "Writing a memoir is like pulling your own guts out inch by slow inch" (99), she says. Sadly, since the gang had pledged itself to secrecy: "Never never tell" (3, 7, 319) the act of writing is itself a betrayal of Legs and of FOXFIRE. In fact, from the start, Legs had regarded Maddy's flights of imagination as a betrayal of their friendship. Once, observing a family buying a Christmas tree, Maddy had said innocently to Legs, "There's something about other people isn't there—you'd like to know who they are?—you'd like to know who they are—you'd like to be them, maybe?" (21). Legs had answered, "You'd betray your friends, huh, not giving a shit about anybody who knows you and your true friend not some fucking stranger, huh?" (21).
Conflict emerges once again when Legs is released from Red Banks. Maddy senses, not without jealousy, that Legs "knows things I don't know, now" (187). For example, Legs has been brutally beaten by a female guard, and she knows now, as she tells Maddy, "that we do have enemies, yeah men are the enemy but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too sometimes" (180). However, the final break between Legs and Maddy occurs when Maddy refuses to participate in the plot to kidnap a wealthy capitalist. Since Maddy's rescue during the game of "hook and bait," she recognizes that the gang's use of violence has escalated—" Since that terrible night. I was afraid of you I guess. You saved my life but I was afraid of you having seen you hit him the way you did" (253)—and she rejects, finally, the very American—and very male—role of romantic outlaw. Here, I believe, Maddy speaks for her author. Although Maddy is not an autobiographical character, Oates acknowledges, "I'm very much like Maddy" (Karpen 6). It is through the narrator's voice, as well as Maddy's refusal to commit a violent (or potentially violent) criminal act, that the novel makes its ethical point: when women take power, they must not simply identify with it but redefine it. Maddy's refusal to write the ransom note constitutes a betrayal of FOXFIRE, but it also marks her rejection of violence as a tactic. Her decision is primarily ethical; however, it also turns out to be practical for, in this way, Maddy avoids becoming an accessory to kidnapping.
From the start, the crime seems doomed to fail. A major problem is that the gang's carefully chosen male victim—Whitney Kellogg, Jr.—refuses to cooperate: he refuses, for example, to speak to his wife on the phone, using words dictated by his captors. A strong-willed man, he simply refuses to speak to anyone and, in this instance, silence is, ironically, more powerful than words. Another problem is that, though Legs has promised not to use violence, a new member of the gang, V. V. the Enforcer, disobeys orders and shoots their stubborn captive, seriously injuring him. At this point Legs draws the line: she calls an ambulance, ending the game. Idealistic and protective to the end, she orders all those not directly involved to run away before she drives off with V. V., Lana, and Goldie in the gang's car, LIGHTNING BOLT. It is a conclusion reminiscent of and even more ambiguous than the movie Thelma and Louise. For, since LIGHTNING BOLT might actually have made it across the Cassadaga bridge—in fact, "is never sighted again, so far as law enforcement authorities can determine" (316)—Legs may still live. This mystery is heightened in the novel's "Epilogue," in which Maddy returns to Hammond some years later. At this time, a now-married Rita shows Maddy a newspaper photograph taken on April 22, 1961, in which a woman—"a figure distinctly American, tall, slender, blond, male? female?"—appears to be listening intently to "a stiff bearded military figure, Fidel Castro" (324). But they can't be certain. And since much of the action in Foxfire occurs in Maddy's narration, the ambiguities persist.
As Maddy records the adventures of FOXFIRE, it becomes evident that the gang has nurtured her gift for words. "Rightly or wrongly," as Maddy says, she was perceived as "having the power of words" because she got good grades in writing and because she could "talk fast" (5). The close relationship between a woman's ability to fight back and her ability to talk back is established not only in many of the gang's adventures but also through Maddy's narrative technique. For example, words play an important part in the gang's final adventure (or misadventure): Maddy's refusal to write the ransom note illustrates a refusal to turn a male body into a commodity. Because Maddy begins many chapters by commenting directly upon the act of writing, her narration not only heightens the dialectic between realism and romance, it also problematizes notions of authority and truth. For example, Maddy acknowledges that she may not achieve unity or consistency in her authorial role. She says, for example, "Whoever's reading this, if anyone is reading it: does it matter that our old selves are lost to us as surely as the past is lost, or is it enough to know yes we lived then, and we're living now, and the connection must be there?" (179). She also acknowledges that she does not have complete control of the writing process. For example, in the novel's final part, five chapters are given the same title: "The Plot (I)," "The Plot (II)," "The Plot (III)," "The Plot (IV)," and "The Plot (V)"—as if a single plot cannot tell the truth, the whole truth. And she begins one chapter: "I was certain this morning I'd be writing about our FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD" (195). In this chapter, called "The Paradox of Chronology/Dwarf-Woman," Maddy supposedly "records" the encounter between Yetta and Legs; however, Maddy admits that she did not witness the actual event. How reliable, then, is her "chronicle," as she sometimes calls it?
And what, exactly, is a "fact"? She speculates openly, "If it were not for language, could we lie?" (196). As a scientist—though she admits that she is not an astronomer, but only an astronomer's assistant—Maddy raises complex questions about the relationship between language, memory, imagination, and truth. For example, she says: "There's the paradox of chronology which arises when you try to record events of historical veracity; the problem of transcribing a document like this notebook is that it's a memoir or a confession where you have not the power to invent episodes, people, places, 'plot,' etc. but must set everything down as it occurred. Not imagination but memory is the agent but language is the instrument in all cases and can language be trusted?" (195-96). Admitting that the episode of the dwarf-woman was "never actually glimpsed by Maddy Wirtz," she hints at the desire prompting her to invent the dwarf-woman episode and to position it just before the chapter, "FOXFIRE DREAM/FOXFIRE HOMESTEAD." She says, "The paradox of chronology is hateful because you are always obliged to seek out earlier causes than what's at hand" (196). As Maddy knows, establishing causality is primarily a matter of careful sequencing: what happens first, it is assumed, causes what happens next. In this instance, Maddy's sequencing of events establishes the victimization of Yetta as a cause of the gang's desire for revenge against violent men. Here, by implying that revenge is the motive, Maddy contradicts an earlier statement that she is writing the gang's history to refute certain "distortions and misunderstandings," such as, "Like we did evil for evil's sake, and for revenge" (3).
Of course, it is Maddy the fifty-year-old scientist-writer, not the thirteen-year-old gang member, who understands that language structures our notions of authority, truth, and social relationships. Looking at her record of the gang's adventures—defined by adolescent Maddy as a "historical document in which Truth would reside forever" (3)—the adult woman observes: "Never does Maddy record in her notebook her own doubts of herself, or of FOXFIRE" (239). Her youthful idealism—her still developing ethical sense and intense loyalty to FOXFIRE—would have made any confession of doubt difficult. While the adolescent Maddy grows intensely anxious during Legs's absence—and admits that without "certain interests of mine like reading about the stars, and Time, yes I guess and typing on the old Underwood typewriter I loved, I would not have known who I was at all. Even maybe, whether I was" (167)—the adult writer acknowledges, "For every fact transcribed in these CONFESSIONS there are a dozen facts, a hundred facts, my God maybe a thousand left out.…Canyou tell the truth if it isn't the entire truth" (99). Even chronology, Maddy realizes, is a fiction, a language effect. She says, "Because one thing rises out of something that came before it, or many things that came before it, so it's like a big spiderweb in Time going back forever and ever, no true beginning or any promise of an end in the way in those years it was believed the Universe was" (99). While the adolescent Maddy desired certainty from math and science—"the world of Numbers that doesn't change, immutable facts, celestial bodies" (100)—the adult acknowledges: "For all material things, we have learned in the twentieth century, are but the processes of invisible force-fields" (221).
As an author, as a writer who is presumably confessing the Truth, Maddy's reflections upon the composing process point to the instability of self, truth, and authority. Even the heavens, which once promised Maddy a stable place to drift—the very names, "OCEAN OF STORMS SEA OF TRANQUILITY LAKE OF DREAMS LAKE OF DEATH" (163) providing a sanctuary from her "scary loose slipping-down life" (166)—turn out to be constantly in flux. For the adult Maddy, the lunar names function instead as a code for the loneliness that Maddy felt in the absence of Legs but that she could not openly express. Another chapter, "A Short History of the Heavens," serves a similar metaphorical purpose. As an adolescent, Maddy had memorized certain facts—so desperate to learn to memorize things she believed to be permanent" (137)—which she now lists: reports of "fiery stones" falling from the sky in Rouen, France, in 1594; of "raining-burning rocks" falling in Salem Falls, Connecticut, in 1923; or of an object shaped like a "pineapple with wings" observed in Puce, Ontario, in 1951 (135-36). Now, such "facts" have become a code for Maddy to confess the powerful passions of her youth: her feeling, for example, that when Legs fell to the earth, it was as if the sky itself had fallen. "What is a meteorite?—it's the metallic substance of a meteoroid that has survived its swift, violent passage to earth through the earth's atmosphere. A meteoroid?—small planets or chunks of planets that, passing into the earth's atmosphere, become incandescent; sometimes trail flame" (136). To Maddy, Legs is a burning star, a meteorite or a meteoroid, an asteroid who fell to the earth.
Although science no longer provides certainty for Maddy, her use of scientific discourse allows Oates to create an evolutionary context in which to situate her analysis of human violence. As Oates says, the novel is a dialectic between romance and realism, a dialectic between the language of romance, in which giant-sized humans possess godlike powers, and the evolutionary language of science. While an individual life may appear gigantic in romantic contexts, the novel re-imagines an individual human life in an evolutionary context, as part of "a big spiderweb in Time." In a chapter called "Homo Sapiens," Oates situates the problem of human violence in just such an evolutionary context. Viewing "THE TREE OF LIFE: EVOLUTION" (102), Legs expresses indignation at such a vision of humanity—"Christ you'd think our hot-shit species would count for more than that" (102-3)! Maddy responds somewhat differently. At first "fascinated by how complex the tree is, how multiple its branches" (102), Maddy's faith in God is shaken by evidence that not just a single human being but an entire species can die out. The thought occurs to Maddy: "Homo sapiens is no big deal! and it doesn't look as if there's any logic to it, the TREE OF LIFE, man's position on the tree, Homo sapiens: thinking man: created by what humanoid God in His own image?" (102). What, exactly, does it mean for women to take on power within such an evolutionary context?
Through the novel's representation of violence—particularly as played out in the figures of Legs and Maddy—Foxfire considers a range of narrative possibilities. During their visit to the museum, for example, Legs and Maddy talk about the terrible things happening to females, things most girls didn't dare to think or talk about: the rape and strangling of a nineteen-year-old nursing student; a pregnant woman stabbed to death in her house; a serial killer charged with the death of eight girls; a little girl "slashed by some madman with a razor" (100). And Legs dares to say, "They hate us, y'know?—the sons of bitches! This is proof they hate us, they don't even know it probably, most of them, but they hate us" (101). Within an evolutionary context, the only sane option is for homo sapiens to give up romantic illusions—illusions of omnipotence, autonomy, and control. Maddy's communal narrative strategies, in concert with a plot that ends with the probable demise of FOXFIRE, emphasize the limits of human power, mental or physical. The plot also dramatizes how Legs's desire for revenge—the kidnapping plot is motivated by revenge, not just economic need—leads to destruction, to violence and death, while Maddy's communal narration encourages readers to reflect upon the possibility that fear, not strength, motivates Legs's desire for conquest of a "man." According to Jessica Benjamin, the desire for omnipotence—a desire evident in the self presented in psychology and philosophy—is rooted in the fear of dependency upon others.
The fear of dependency can also be discerned in the linguistic habit of splitting the self into a privileged disembodied (male) voice and a repressed (m)other. It is through this type of psychic splitting, as de Lauretis points, that "violence is en-gendered in representation" (240). One consequence of such representational violence, as Carolyn Heilbrun says, is that "women have been deprived of the narratives, or the texts, plots, or examples by which they might assume power over—take control of—their own lives" (17). As Heilbrun says, "Women's exercise of power and control, and admission and expression of anger necessary to that exercise, has until recently been declared unacceptable" (17). Foxfire, Confessions of a Girl Gang portrays women as capable of exercising power and control, capable of expressing the unacceptable. Just as Virginia Woolf recognized that, if she wished to write, she must "kill" the Victorian Angel in the House, Oates understands that to open a creative space for women's voices, she must transform those representations of "woman" as a speechless, tortured victim into representations of women who, together, claim their voices and their agency. Ironically, given Foxfire 's critique of the romantic outlaw, the novel's dialectical motion also advances the argument that in order to take power over her own life, a woman must become an outlaw; she must, in community with other women, transgress sociolinguistic codes that position her outside language. The dialectic between romance and realism in Foxfire, as represented in the figures of Legs and Maddy, illustrates the paradox, quoted in Heilbrun's Writing a Woman's Life, that "all women must destroy in order to create."6
- According to Oates, a movie based on Foxfire will be out in 1996. The name "Foxfire" may be an allusion to the original Foxfire Books, edited by Eliot Wigginton. Written by Eliot's students, the stories and articles in the Foxfire Books are about their own working-class mountain community. Tragically, although Wigginton mentored his young writers and found a publisher for them, he was later imprisoned for sexually molesting some of them. On the topic of Wigginton's sexual abuse of children, see Guy Osborne's "Eliot Wigginton: A Meditation."
- This cross-dressing is reminiscent of Constance Philippa Zinn's transformation into a man called Philippe Fox in Oates's A Bloodsmoor Romance.
- See Breines and Gordon's "The New Scholarship on Family Violence." They open by saying, "Only a few decades ago, the term 'family violence' would have had no meaning: child abuse, wife beating, and incest would have been understood but not recognized as serious social problems" (490).
- The fact that they are white women does not become a divisive issue until later, following Legs's release from a girls detention center, when the members of FOX-FIRE do not welcome her new African-American friends, Marigold and Tama. In the detention center itself, as Legs observes, some women are white, some black, but all are poor.
- Legs is described as "running now, leaping and flying across the rooftops of the brownstone row houses descending the street toward the invisible river, she's a horse, a powerful stallion all hooves, flying mane, tail, snorting and steamy-breathed" (12). For an earlier version of Legs, see the story "The Witness," which opens Oates's collection Last Days. Significantly, an even earlier occurrence of this image of the horse can be found in A Garden of Earthly Delights, but in association with a male, Carleton Walpole.
- Heilbrun is quoting Myra Jehlen's "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism" (583).
"Oates, Joyce Carol: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/oates-joyce-carol-title-commentary
"Oates, Joyce Carol: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Retrieved July 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/oates-joyce-carol-title-commentary
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