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One of America’s most prolific and versatile contemporary writers, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than forty novels, nearly thirty volumes of short stories, nine collections of verse, several plays, and numerous nonfiction works since her first book appeared in 1963. In her fiction, Oates focuses upon the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual decline of modern American society. Employing a dense, elliptical prose style, she depicts such cruel and macabre actions as rape, incest, murder, mutilation, child abuse, and suicide to delineate the forces of evil with which individuals must contend. Oates’s protagonists often suffer at the hands of others as a result of emotional deficiencies or socioeconomic conditions. Critic Greg Johnson commented: ”[Oates’s] particular genius is her ability to convey psychological states with unerring fidelity, and to relate the intense private experiences of her characters to the larger realities of American life.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
“Dull, Ordinary” Origins
Joyce Carol Oates was born on June 16,1938 into a working-class Catholic family outside Lockport, New York, and she was raised amid a rural setting on her maternal grandparents’ farm. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in Erie County, a parallel community to the fictitious Eden County where many of her works are set. She displayed an early interest in storytelling by drawing picture-tales before she could write. Oates has said that her childhood ”was dull, ordinary, nothing people would be interested in” but has admitted that ”a great deal frightened me.” In 1953, at age fifteen, Oates wrote her first novel, though it was rejected by publishers who found its subject matter, which concerned the rehabilitation of a drug dealer, exceedingly depressing for adolescent audiences.
Education in Literature
Oates began her academic career at Syracuse University and graduated from there as class valedictorian in 1960. In 1961, she received a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, where she met and married Raymond Joseph Smith, an English educator. With the encouragement of Smith and her professors, Oates began to write and publish short stories. The following year, after beginning work on her doctorate in English, Oates inadvertently encountered one of her own stories in Margaret Foley’s anthology Best American Short Stories. This discovery prompted Oates to focus on writing professionally, and in 1963 she published her first volume of short stories, By the North Gate (1963). Oates’s first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), foreshadows her preoccupation with evil and violence in the story of a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death in an accident. Following the success of this debut novel, Oates published a critically acclaimed trilogy that explores three distinct segments of American society. Critics attribute the naturalistic ambience of these works to the influence of such twentieth-century authors as William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell. The first volume of the trilogy, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), is set in rural Eden County and chronicles the life of the daughter of a migrant worker who marries a wealthy farmer in order to provide for her illegitimate son. The woman’s idyllic existence is destroyed, however, when the boy murders his stepfather and kills himself. In Expensive People (1967), the second work in the series, Oates exposes the superficial world of suburbanites whose preoccupation with material comforts reveals their spiritual poverty.
Detroit and the Civil Rights Movement
Oates taught at the University of Detroit between 1961 and 1967, a time period when the city suffered not only from widespread economic hardship, but racial tensions heightened by the civil rights movement, which advocated racial equality and spurred several political protests in the city. Oates’s critically acclaimed novel them (1969), the third installment of her trilogy and winner of the National Book Award for fiction, depicts the violence and degradation endured by three generations of an urban Detroit family. Critics acknowledge that Oates’s experiences as a teacher in Detroit during the early 1960s contributed to her accurate rendering of the city and its social problems. Betty DeRamus stated: ”Her days in Detroit did more for Joyce Carol Oates than bring her together with new people—it gave her a tradition to write from, the so-called American Gothic tradition of exaggerated horror and gloom and mysterious and violent incidents.”
In 1967, Oates and her husband moved to Canada to teach at the University of Windsor, where together they founded the influential literary journal Ontario Review. Since leaving the University of Windsor in 1977, Oates has been writer-in-residence at Princeton University in New Jersey. A continually versatile and prolific writer, Oates has published and been recognized for such novels as Bellefleur (1980), Black Water (1992), Blonde (2000), and I’ll Take You There (2002). Oates has also composed several dramas that were produced off-Broadway in New York and has published numerous volumes of poetry. In addition, she is a respected essayist and literary critic whose nonfiction works are praised for the logic and sensibility with which she examines a variety of subjects.
Works in Literary Context
Oates has established a reputation for consistently versatile work, ranging in genre from stories of upperclass domesticity to horror and psychological crime, but throughout her work, she reveals ”an uncanny knack for understanding middle America, suburbia, and the temper of the times,” to quote a Contemporary Novelists critic. Violence and victimization are often featured in Oates’s stories and novels, but existential questions of self-discovery abound as well. She writes about real people in real situations; as one Publishers Weekly reviewer put it: ”Reading an Oates novel is like becoming a peeping tom, staring without guilt into the bright living rooms and dark hearts of America.”
Oates has been linked with the Gothic tradition in literature because of the prevalence of horror, evil, and the supernatural in her work. Her novels of the 1970s explore characters involved with various American professional and cultural institutions while interweaving elements of human malevolence and tragedy. Wonderland (1971), for example, depicts a brilliant surgeon who is unable to build a satisfying home life, resulting in estrangement from his wife, children, and society. The Assassins: A Book of Hours (1975) is a psychological tale that dramatizes the effects of the murder of a conservative politician on his wife and two brothers. In these and all her fiction, the frustrations and imbalance of individuals become emblematic of U.S. society as a whole.
Nineteenth Century Parody
During the early 1980s, Oates published several novels that parody works by nineteenth-century authors, including Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Bellefleur (1980) follows the prescribed formula for a Gothic multigenerational saga, utilizing supernatural occurrences while tracing the lineage of an exploitative American family. Oates included explicit violence in this work; for example, a man deliberately crashes his plane into the Bellefleur mansion, killing himself and his family. A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) displays such elements of Gothic romance as mysterious kidnappings and psychic phenomena in the story of five maiden sisters living in rural Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. In Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), Oates borrowed heavily from the works of Poe as she explored the conventions of the nineteenth-century mystery novel. The protagonist of this work is a brilliant young detective who models his career after the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. While some critics viewed these works as whimsical, others, citing Oates’s accomplished depiction of evil, maintained that they are significant literary achievements. Though fanciful in form, the books often examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, as well as the role of family history in shaping destiny.
Some of Oates’s novels explore the nature and ramifications of obsession. Solstice (1985) revolves around a relationship between a young divorcee and an older woman that evolves into an emotional power struggle. In Marya: A Life (1986), a successful writer and academician attempts to locate her alcoholic mother, who had abused and later abandoned her as a child. With You Must Remember This (1987), Oates returned to a naturalistic portrait of families under emotional and moral distress. Suicide attempts, violent beatings, disfiguring accidents, and incest figure prominently in this novel, which centers on an intense love affair between a former boxer and his adolescent niece.
Works in Critical Context
Most critics contend that Oates’s short fiction, for which she has twice received the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement, evokes the same urgency and emotional power as her principal novels. Such collections as By the North Gate, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Stories of Young America (1974), The Lamb of Abyssalia (1980), and Raven’s Wing (1986) contain pieces that focus upon violent and abusive relationships between the sexes. One widely anthologized story, ”Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966), a tale of female adolescence and sexual awakening, is considered a classic of modern short fiction and was adapted for film.
The novel them chronicles three decades, beginning in 1937, in the life of the Wendall family. New York Times reviewer John Leonard wrote, “them, as literature, is a reimagining, a reinventing of the urban American experience of the last thirty years, a complex and powerful novel.” Leonard added: them is really about all the private selves, accidents and casualties that add up to a public violence.” Christian Science Monitor contributor Joanne Leedom also noted the symbolic importance that violence assumes and links it to the characters’ search for freedom: ”The characters live, love, and almost die in an effort to find freedom and to break out of their patterns. … The quest in them is for rebirth; the means is violence; the end is merely a realignment of patterns.”
Bellefleur is a five-part novel that encompasses thousands of years and explores what it means to be an American. It is the saga of the Bellefleurs, a rich and rapacious family with a ”curse,” that settles in the Adirondack Mountains. Wrote New York Times contributor John Leonard: ”On one level, Bellefleur is Gothic pulp fiction, cleverly consuming itself.” Oates herself has acknowledged that the book was partially conceived as a critique of the American dream, and critics generally agreed that this dimension enhances the story, transforming the Gothic parody into serious art. Susan Tekulve in Book felt that, like nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe, ”Oates merges Gothic conventions with modern social and political concerns, creating stories that feel at once antique and new. But she also shares Poe’s love of dark humor and a good hoax.” Greg Johnson believed that ”the Gothic elements throughout her fiction, like her use of mystical frameworks, serve the larger function of expanding the thematic scope and suggestiveness of her narratives.”
Oates fictionally reconstructs a familiar historical scenario in her award-winning Black Water, a 1992 account of a tragic encounter between a powerful U.S. senator and a young woman he meets at a party. While driving to a motel, the drunken senator steers the car off a bridge into the dark water of an East Coast river, and although he is able to escape, he leaves the young woman to drown. The events parallel those of Senator Edward Kennedy’s fatal plunge at Chappaquiddick in 1969 that left a young campaign worker dead, but Oates updates the story and sets it twenty years later. Told from the point of view of the drowning woman, the story ”portrays an individual fate, born out of the protagonist’s character and driven forward by the force of events,” according to Richard Bausch in the New York Times Book Review. Bausch called Oates’s effort ”taut, powerfully imagined and beautifully written . . . it continues to haunt us.” It is a fusion of ”the instincts of political and erotic conquest,” wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Published in 2000, one of Oates’s most successful novels to date is Blonde, a fictional re-working of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman commented that the author ”liberates the real woman behind the mythological creature called Marilyn Monroe.” A Publishers Weekly contributor found the novel ”dramatic, provocative and unsettlingly suggestive,” adding that Oates ”creates a striking and poignant portrait of the mythic star and the society that made and failed her.”
I’ll Take You There
Oates moved to the self-discovery of early adulthood in I’ll Take You There. Cited as her most autobiographical novel to date, the book deals with an unnamed protagonist as she comes of age at Syracuse University in the early 1960s. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Stanley Crouch praised Oates’s ”masterful strength of the form, the improvisational attitude toward sentence structure and the foreshadowing, as well as the deft use of motifs.”
- Bender, Eileen. Joyce Carol Oates. Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 1987.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
- Daly, Brenda O. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
- Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
- Wagner, Linda W, ed. Joyce Carol Oates: The Critical Reception. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.
- Bausch, Richard. Review of Black Water. New York Times Book Review (May 10, 1992): 1.
- Crouch, Stanley. Review of I’ll Take you There. Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 26, 2003): 3.
- Eder, Richard. Review of Black Water. Los Angeles Times Book Review (May 10, 1992): 2.
- Leedom, Joanne. Review of them. Christian Science Monitor (October 30, 1969): 12.
- Leonard, John. Review of them. New York Times (October 1, 1969): 45. Leonard, John. Review of Bellefleur. New York Times (July 20, 1980): 1.
- Seaman, Donna. Review of Blonde. Booklist (January 1, 2000): 835.
- Tekulve, Susan. Review of Faithless: Tales of Transgression. Book (March 2001): 70.
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