Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 2,151 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley

SOURCE: "The Transgressive Heroine: Joyce Carol Oates's 'Stalking'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 15-20.

In the essay below, Wesley explains how Oates's fiction challenges gender ideology by describing the characterization of the protagonist of "Stalking."

Although Joyce Carol Oates has frequently been labeled a non-feminist and criticized for the passivity of her female characters, her works actively challenge restrictive gender ideology. A case in point is the Oatesian figure I will define as the transgressive heroine, whose murderous early debut is the short story "Swamps," the first story in Oates' first collection, and whose continuing truculent influence is felt in the Kalistruck heroines of The Goddess and Other Women, in the powerful women of Bellefleur, and in the wilful artist of Solstice, and who is most fully present as the protagonist of the 1972 short story "Stalking."

A previous stage in the evolution of the transgressive heroine is the figure of the anti-hero—the protagonist who is "not simply a failed hero but a social misfit, graceless, weak, and often comic, the embodiment of ineptitude and bad luck in a world apparently made for others"—a commonplace in our contemporary literature. "The Hero, who once figured as Initiate, ends as Rebel or Victim," Ihab Hassan explains [in Radical Innocence, 1961]. The presentation of this anti-hero places him in counter-relation to the social structure which produces him. Oates' transgressive works, however, recognize the impossibility of the superimposition of an imaginary counter-structure. While the anti-hero, like Ralph Ellison's "invisible man," stages his protest by defining a metaphoric space of freedom and moving outside the system, the transgressive protagonist, unable to dream of lighting out for any territory, however surreal, repeatedly inscribes her discomfort from within. The victimization and ineffective rebelliousness of Oates' transgressive heroines serve to illuminate and interrogate the system which creates them.

Transgression, Michel Foucault argues [in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, 1977], implies an operation more complex than the antithesis of two terms: its purpose, like the repeated violations perpetrated by Oates' transgressive protagonists, is to reveal the dysfunctional interaction between the terms:

Transgression, then, is not related to the limit as black to white, the prohibited to the lawful, the outside to the inside, or as the open area of a building to its exposed spaces. Rather, their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust.

Exhibiting such transgression articulates the terms and questions the limits they impose.

In "Stalking," Gretchen, the protagonist, is female—a fact which forces us from the outset to recast the convention of the anti-hero as a problem of gender. Our first glimpse of her indicates her problematic situation:

She is dressed for the hunt, her solid legs crammed into old blue jeans, her big, square, strong feet jammed into white leather boots that cost her mother forty dollars not long ago, but are now scuffed and filthy with mud. Hopeless to get them clean again, Gretchen doesn't give a damn.

Gretchen is uncomfortably suspended between contradictory ascriptions of gender. Unlike the male anti-hero whose failure is marked by weakness, the transgressive heroine suffers from inappropriate strength. Like the ugly step-sister at the royal ball, she cannot contract her foot to any comfortable relation to the feminine apparel whose value is defined by the social system and promoted by her mother, and hence cannot claim her feminine reward. Her size, her shape, and her manner violate clear demarcation between conventional masculine and feminine identification, an interpretation reinforced by this detailed description of Gretchen's face:

She has untidy, curly hair that looks like a wig set loosely on her head. Light brown curls spill out everywhere, bouncy, a little frizzy, a cascade, a tumbling of curls. Her eyes are deep set, her eyebrows heavy and dark. She has a stern, staring look, like an adult man. Her nose is perfectly formed, neat and noble. Her upper lip is long, as if it were stretched to close with difficulty over the front teeth. She wears no make-up, her lips are perfectly colorless, pale, a little chapped, and they are usually held tight, pursed tightly shut. She has a firm, rounded chin. Her facial structure is strong, pensive, its features stern and symmetrical as a statue's, blank, neutral, withdrawn. Her face is attractive. But there is a blunt, neutral, sexless stillness to it, as if she were detached from it and somewhere else, uninterested.

The face is, of course, no less coded than the foot. We are used to intimately observed catalogues of features in literature. What is remarkable about the use of the tradition in this story is that Oates rarely employs her gaze in this exhaustive fashion. She sketches her characters by a brief mention of their hair color and then, typically, looks through their eyes at the closely observed world around them rather than into their eyes like a rapt admirer. The function of this sustained description is keyed to the problematics of gender. The hair suggests the familiar associations of female sexuality; but although as a turbulent "cascade," it evokes abundant "nature," which usually signifies feminine sensuality, the suggestion of wig-like appearance quickly undercuts this automatic ascription. Perhaps Gretchen is neither natural nor sensual. In effect, this description invokes the literary code of femininity only to revoke it—a strategy immediately employed again in the next two sentences, where the eyebrows are emphasized as dark and thick, a feature conventionally expressive of masculinity. And, in fact, the eyes, those symbolic windows to essence, return not the modest glance of a woman expected in this context but the provocative stare of "an adult man." Further, this contradiction of femininity is at least a partly willful undertaking of Gretchen herself. Such is the message of the mouth, which has deliberately refused the application of the cosmetic allure of color and is "pursed" in tight rejection. The cumulative effect of this manner of presentation is summarized in the climactic series of adjectives, "blunt, neutral, sexless." Gretchen's statue-like physiognomy, as Oates orchestrates its "meaning," is a complex field of reference upon which is played out the repudiation of conventional femininity.

For Gretchen is, without doubt, an "anti-heroine." At thirteen years of age, her size-fourteen body is evidently "graceless." She is a clear "misfit" in a "world apparently made for others," a world whose gender requirements are garishly evident in the people, objects, and decor of the shopping mall Gretchen visits:

Dodi's Boutique is decorated in silver and black. Metallic strips hang down from a dark ceiling, quivering. Salesgirls dressed in pants suits stand around with nothing to do except giggle with one another and nod their heads in time to the music amplified throughout the store…. "WCKK. Radio Wonderful…."

"Need any help?" the girl asks. She has long swinging hair and a high-shouldered, indifferent, bright manner.

Gretchen's actions in the story rebel against the alienating strictures of a system that would define her in terms—artificial, commercially attractive, thoughtlessly benign—that are appropriate to the stylized world of the salesgirl. In one store, Gretchen shoplifts a tube of pale pink lipstick, "Spring Blossom," which she takes into the "Ladies Room" to examine, destroy, and discard. As if to underscore her rejection, she also breaks the toilet into which she tosses the pilfered lipstick. And in Dodi's Boutique, Gretchen takes several dresses into the changing cubicle. She muddies one with her boots; she deliberately tears out the zipper of another.

What changes the focus of this story from Gretchen as a rebel-victim to Gretchen as a transgressive protagonist is the intriguing contest central to the action. Gretchen is not merely out shopping on a November Saturday afternoon; she is engaged in hunting down an imaginary antagonist who leads her from an open field into the mall, through several stores, and home again. "The Invisible Adversary," a male figure, is the conscious target of Gretchen's hostility throughout the story: "You'll be sorry for that, you bastard." " You'll regret this." " You'll get yours." Gretchen's "stalking" maneuvers finally force the Adversary out onto the highway, where he is struck by a car. He is "limping like an old man" as they both return to Gretchen's home. The story ends with Gretchen watching television: "If the Adversary comes crawling behind her, groaning in pain, weeping, she won't even bother to glance at him."

The sequence of events and attitudes demands that the reader determine who or what the Adversary represents and what his function is in the story. The thematic contest that engages Gretchen, we have already discovered, is the struggle for and against gender identity. Certainly this projection acts out a role in that struggle. In a review of a biography of Carl Jung, Oates indicates her extensive knowledge and admiration of Jungian theory, so we may identify the Adversary as an animus figure, that personification of the masculine component of a woman's unconscious typically projected in dreams and fantasies. The Jungian objective is the integration of all the unconscious elements of the personality, but what is most striking in Gretchen's story is the violence with which she strives to destroy and reject what Jung understood as her masculine nature.

The text suggests only two coded means to gender production, which do not appear to intersect. The woman may participate in the endless replication of the feminine body and her domestic accouterments through purchase encoded in the capitalistic system and epitomized in the reiterated "family rooms" Gretchen sees displayed at the furniture store:

She wanders through Sampson Furniture … a ritual with her. Again she notices the sofa that is like the sofa in their family room at home…. All over the store there are sofas, chairs, tables, beds…. People stroll around them, in and out of little displays, displays meant to be living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, family rooms…. It makes Gretchen's eyes squint to see so many displays: like seeing the inside of a hundred houses.

Gretchen herself participates directly in the practice of a masculine code of aggression:

Some boys are fooling around in front of the record store. One of them bumps into Gretchen and they all laugh as she is pushed against a trash can. "Watch it, babe!" the boy sings out. Her leg hurts. Gretchen doesn't look at them but, with a cold, swift anger, her face averted, she knocks the trash can over onto the sidewalk. Junk falls out. The can rolls. Some women shoppers scurry to get out of the way and the boys laugh.

That the seemingly desultory destructiveness is really constitutive is evident in the emphatic differentiation in this encounter between the powerful males and the victimized female "babe," between the forceful Gretchen imitating the masculine mode and the flustered powerless women. Further, Gretchen's general anger and resultant vandalism are codified in the story as components of the ritualized stalking, hunting, and killing—activities of the primitive male hero. But Gretchen is not a hero, although it is her masculine capacity for anger and physical strength that compromises her participation in the feminine world "apparently made for others."

In the same way that she has tried to feminize her large feet by stuffing them into the feminine white boots purchased by her mother, only to finally react by desecrating them when the transformation proved inadequate and incompatible, Gretchen responds with distressed ambivalence to the gender definitions of her shopping-center world. Rather than embracing her masculine capabilities to define herself as a rebel contradicting, negating, restrictive feminine identification, Gretchen becomes a transgressor. Instead of claiming, like the "invisible man," some free but lunatic space outside the arena of constricting definition—the open field of the "Invisible Adversary" at the beginning of this story, for example—Gretchen compulsively enters and re-enters the mall, where she is repeatedly attracted to its signifying objects. She reaches for the lipstick and the dresses again and again, only to destroy them out of frustration at their lack of congruence with her own requirements. By fantasizing the destruction of her masculine capabilities, Gretchen reveals a maladaptive complicity with a code of feminine definition which will confine her to the characteristic but ineffective rage that her story presents.

"Stalking" illustrates the transgressive "spiral" which by repeatedly desecrating limitation exposes it to examination and interrogation. Underlying the concept of the transgressive heroine is the assumption that a rule which is "transgressed" is not destroyed but merely violated. Such violation calls attention to conditions that provoke defiance—a gender ideology which supports economic rather than human development in this case—at the same time that it underscores their continuing existence. The repetition of this maneuver produces not reform, but the possibility of reform. "Transgression," according to Foucault, "carries the limit right to the limit …; transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance…." The transgressive heroine of Oates' fiction, a female protagonist who repeatedly violates the forms of gender stricture without personally solving the social problem of gender restriction, promotes feminist reform, understood as literary challenge to patriarchal ideology.

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This section contains 2,151 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley
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