Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Review by Ellen Joseph

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 680 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ellen Joseph

Critical Review by Ellen Joseph

SOURCE: "Growing up Assured," in The Sunday Herald Tribune Book Week, October 25, 1964, pp. 21, 23.

In the following review, Joseph comments on the plot, themes, and characters of With Shuddering Fall.

The enthusiasm that greeted Joyce Carol Oates last year upon the publication of her first volume, a collection of short stories called By the North Gate, clearly was not misplaced.

Her new book, a novel titled With Shuddering Fall, is set in the same world as the stories, a world of harsh weather, gratuitous destruction, inarticulate men without the veneer of culture facing the extreme experiences of life.

The central figures are Karen Herz, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of a dominating but indulgent farmer, and the racing car driver Shar, who encounters Karen when he comes to attend the death of his demented father in a junk-filled cabin on the edge of the Herz property. From their meeting follow rape, car-wreck, murderous confrontations, enraged lovemaking, the death of a rival driver, miscarriage, raceriot, suicide and insanity.

This list indicates the external events of the story. What it fails to indicate is that Miss Oates, although her action scenes are vivid and intense, is not at all interested in shock value but in why her characters communicate with violence, how these events drive them to new realizations and growth. The struggle to become a woman, to develop from a "brutal, clever child" into a man, is her theme.

Karen is the catalyst for the change in Shar. Although she came into his life as the chance object of the "deadly whimsical range of his desire," she forces him to lose "the simplicity of vision, and simplicity of emotion" that "had always been essential in his life" and to gain ultimately the ability to make choices. As Karen knows, "His life was an accident … but his death wasn't—he made his death for himself! He was a man!"

Karen starts out with out such simplicity and shows finally no clear evidence of womanhood. In contrast to Shar, who tries to win her and make sense of his life "through violence, a communion of pain," she uses the weapon of "silent, limp passivity." This passivity grows out of the same condition that, despite the more obvious reasons Karen has for wanting Shar's death, is the most powerful source of her refusal to reciprocate his love: so precarious a sense of her own identity, of the reality of her existence, that she cannot give herself to anyone for fear of being lost. When at the end she returns to her family, neither Karen nor the reader is convinced that she will be able to maintain the conviction that now "She understood them, she was with them and at the same time a little apart from them, and had not lost herself in the experience."

Through Karen and Shar Miss Oates raises questions about the effects of stepping out of established roles, about guilt, love and hate, sanity. But in the same way that she sometimes makes Karen's figure overly vague in her attempt to convey the dream-like, foggy state that illustrates Karen's unsureness of who she is, she occasionally, in her attempt to show her characters' search for meaning, burdens actions or states of mind with labels that ring of academic explication. More importantly, she causes the reader to question her judgment in making the character who bears the greatest weight so young and unformed.

Nonetheless, a young, soul-searching heroine at the center of cataclysmic events is part of a tradition that goes back to Richardson's Clarissa. And With Shuddering Fall is a traditional novel. Although Shar, at least at first, has all the marks of the modern hero—living by the mystique of speed, measuring events not in terms of external values but by his own physical being, functioning in a completely irrational environment—the general movement in the story is Karen's, from a rejection of society, through a period of suffering, to reconciliation. The virtues of the work are traditional, too. The prose is clear, unmannered, intelligent, with metaphors acting as signposts, and details always illuminating.

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This section contains 680 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Ellen Joseph
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