Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 2,874 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley

SOURCE: "The Transgressive Other in Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 255-62.

In the following essay, Wesley surveys Oates's later fiction to describe the function of "the transgressive other" in her narrative technique.

According to Tony Tanner [in Adultery in the Novel, 1979], "Very often the novel writes of contracts but dreams of transgressions," a paradoxical statement well illustrated in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Although Oates has been thought of primarily as a realist, even a moralist, her work may often be understood with respect to its dialectic with the text, its superimposition of a narrative leveled against the text itself to decenter the social codes through which it is organized. This radical contradiction is regularly mounted by the intriguing and anti-social character that I designate as the transgressive other, who is defined by a narrative position in contrapuntal relation to domestic norms and standards of communicability within which the text is located. The most famous example of this "transgressive other" is Arnold Friend in Oates's frequently anthologized short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but other such figures are a recurrent device throughout her career and a dominant feature in her most recent novels.

In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" [in The Wheel of Love] fifteen-year-old Connie is engaged in the tentative process of defining herself through a counter-ideology—made up of popular music, shopping center trinkets, and youthful sexuality—that opposes the belief system of her parents and her "plain" and "steady" twenty-four-year-old sister until mock-heroic Arnold Friend introduces her to the unapprehended corollary to heady independence: that in abandoning family norms she also loses family protection. To read the moral of this story as a disparagement of tasteless teenage defiance is entirely possible. In fact, critics generally interpret "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" as Connie's initiation into evil, and in the ending of the story they discover Connie's capitulation to the shallow values of a debased culture. Her own commentary on the story in a review of the film based on it shows that Oates is also particularly concerned with the ending, specifically with the reversal in the movie version of the text's "unfilmable" last paragraph. In Joyce Chopra's adaptation, Connie is saved from the murder that is her probable fate after the conclusion of the story; at the end of the film she returns to her family, "rejecting the 'trashy dreams' of her pop-teen culture." In Oates's version, however, Connie does not return to her family nor abandon her adolescent impetus toward freedom; although she will probably be raped and killed, the diction of light and open space of the final words of the story implies positive value in "the vast sunlit reaches of the land … Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it."

That Arnold, the probable rapist and killer, is a diabolic figure and a depraved lunatic is indisputable. As Oates reports, she based him on a "tabloid psychopath" whose "specialty was the seduction and occasional murder of teenage girls," but that he is also somehow useful, even appealing, is the clear implication of the surprising tone of the ending of the story. Arnold's positive function is, I believe, that he openly confronts the codes of the family. Although he himself has no genuine identity (he borrows his artificial form from a humorous pastiche of teenage styles and slogans), he forces Connie into a recognition of the necessary displacement of the unexamined forms of "family" that both define and confine her:

"The place where you come from ain't there any more, and where you had in mind is cancelled out. This place you are now—inside your daddy's house—is nothing but a cardboard box I can knock down any time. You know that and you always did know it. You hear me?"

That Arnold has a positive function as the transgressive other to the text of the American family is demonstrated by the fact that similar figures of limit and challenge are a constant feature throughout Oates's oeuvre. Max, the manipulative esthete of With Shuddering Fall (1964); Richard Everett, the matricidal memoirist of Expensive People (1968); Trick Monk, the trickster foil of the protagonist in Wonderland (1971); Hugh Petrie, the nihilistic cartoonist of The Assassins (1975); Bobbie Gotteson, the "Maniac" of The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976); Fitz John Kasch, the post-romantic central consciousness of Childwold (1976); Alexis Kessler, the narcissistic composer of Unholy Loves (1979); Sheilah Trask, the "dark" opposite of Monica Jensen of Solstice (1985); and Maxmilian Fein, the demonic father-lover of Marya (1985) are key examples. What these characters have in common is their opposition to the norms of community and comprehensibility that the texts seem to endorse.

This use of a "transgressive other" to the text as a projection of deviation—a struggle within the text against its own limits of consciousness—is a prominent feature of Oates's most recent fiction, in which the story and status of such an opposing figure is foregrounded. Three important works published in 1989 and 1990—American Appetites, Soul/Mate, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart—mark the emergence of this narrative pattern and its related themes as Oates's central preoccupation at this time.

Soul/Mate is a revealing example of this tendency. Not only does the plot concern the actions and motivations of an extreme "other," a "psychopath" in the tradition of Arnold Friend, but the genre of the work and even the designation of the author emphasize the thematics of "otherness." Soul/Mate, a "psychothriller" according to the book jacket, a genre Oates reserves for the consideration of the otherness themes of "identity, twins and doubling," is the second of her novels to be published under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. "I wanted a fresh reading; I wanted to escape from my own identity," Oates explained, and in a discussion of Romain Gary's nom de plume, she posited the writer's need for "an erasure of the primary self" so that "another (hitherto undiscovered?) self may be released." This employment of an alternative authorial "other" strongly suggests the desire to test the ideological limits of "Joyce Carol Oates," a writer by now established in a particular tradition.

The structure and meaning of the novel also underscore this concern for the evasion of bounds. The two main characters of the work are Dorothea Deverell, a decorous and passive art historian approaching middle age and Colin Asch, a waif-like and appealing serial killer. Written from the third-person limited-omniscient point of view, the chapters of Soul/Mate alternate between the perspectives of Dorothea and Colin to produce the effect that these characters do indeed mirror one another despite their differences in style. "[O]ur lives are … parallel," he. "[T]heir predicaments were identical," she observes at a crucial point; "they were united in their desperation to escape." And, in fact, Colin does serve as the agent of Dorothea's unacknowledged wishes. Standing between her and future fulfillment as the director of the prestigious Brannon Institute and the wife of her lover Charles Carpenter are two impediments—Dorothea's slanderous enemy Roger Krauss, who favors another candidate for the appointment that she has been promised, and Mrs. Agnes Carpenter, Charles's alcoholic wife. By garroting Krauss and drowning Agnes, Colin clears the way for the happiness that is Dorothea's implicit fate at the conclusion of the novel.

That Colin is Dorothea's psychological other is obvious. Where she is methodical, he is manic. Where she is self-doubting, he is narcissistic. Where she is self-abnegating, he is wildly paranoid. Where she resolutely denies, he perversely accepts. Where her personal relationships are mired in "stasis," his intimate connections are resolved through deadly action. But the otherness Colin represents has a social dimension as well. While Dorothea is preternaturally sensitive to the nuances and codes of her group, Colin's self-absorption radically distorts his ability to decipher even rudimentary gestures. This is dramatically demonstrated in the first of the murders the book details:

[D]riving out of Fort Lauderdale in the red '87 Mustang with the sliding sun roof the woman had given him, which she surely wouldn't call the police to get returned … he happened to see, one lane over to the right, one car length ahead, a car he thought at first to be identical with his, lipstick-red, two-door coupe … but it turned out to be a Toyota of about that year, and what drew his attention to it like a magnet was it had a sliding sun roof too and the roof was partway open and there was a hand stuck through it wriggling the fingers to taunt him.

Or was it a signal?

Cornering the driver in a rest stop men's room, Colin demands to know the meaning of the taunting wave. Explaining that he was stretching to try to keep awake, the man insists that Colin has "misread" him. Colin, however, stubbornly adhering to his own deadly misinterpretation, accuses the unfortunate motorist of having tendered a "false signal" and kills him for the crime of deceptive discourse.

A novel, of course, is made meaningful insofar as it may be read with regard to the codes and systems it invokes. But recognizable patterns of language and culture are consistently obliterated in Colin's perversions of communication and understanding. It is pertinent that Colin is presented as the anti-author of a kind of parody of the novel. In the "Blue Ledger" Colin sets down aphoristic interpretations of his own experiences—the initials of his victims, the money he has received from them, and the coded notation of their deaths. Significantly, the codes employed involve reversal. The moment of Agnes Carpenter's murder, for example, is recorded with her initials inverted as C.A.88104am. In the denouement of Soul/Mate another meaningful reversal occurs to contradict symbolically the communicative function of the text: instead of preserving his journal, before his suicide, Colin carefully feeds it page by page into the fire.

This transgressive other represents, then, a dislocation of basic patterns of meaning. In his "Blue Ledger" Colin carefully records Blakean comments that outline the collapse of organizational categories:

Thus "praise" and "blame" are equally unmerited.

Thus "he" (agent) and "it" (action) are falsely separated.

Thus even the most general time demarcations—"past," "present," "future"—are invalid.

For in the Blue Room (which at certain times Colin Asch was privileged to enter [through the act of murder]) all things become one. The fierce blue light erases all shadow. There is no gravity, no weight. Not even "up" and "down."

The dissolution of contradictories characteristic of Colin's "Blue Room" posits an alternative to the opposed terms—for example, good/bad, male/female—upon which communities and texts are structured, an alternative, in his case, both attractive and deadly. At once "angel boy" and "devil twin," Colin is the intermediary between two universes of meaning—that of social repression but semantic order and that of freedom but incoherence. Soul/Mate suggests, therefore, that the very oppositions that make meaning possible—the arrangements from which civilization emerges—also make it destructive or impossible in the social or family experience of many of Oates's characters. Again, Colin's story provides the example.

The motivation for Colin's deviance is the extreme freedom realized in the dramatic loss of his parents in an automobile accident in which they were both drowned:

The boy managed to get out and swim to the surface, but his father and mother were trapped inside the car, in only about eight feet of water, so the boy tried to save them diving back down trying to get the doors of the car open, trying to pull his mother free and then his father…. [A]nd it was said that Colin had gone mad in those minutes, that his mind had simply shattered.

Colin's subsequent actions are attempts to resolve his complex reactions to this experience. His rage at his mother's abandonment finds expression in his brutal treatment of women. Significantly, he fantasizes drowning Hartley, one of his lovers, in shallow water, and he does dispatch Agnes in this fashion. His equally powerful love for his lost mother is expressed through his adoring fixation on Dorothea, who, as Hartley reminds him, "looks old enough almost to be your mother." Colin chooses to murder Agnes Carpenter rather than Charles Carpenter, his rival for Dorothea's affections, because he imagines Dorothea and Charles can replace his lost parents: "It would be the most natural thing in the world; older childless couples often take up younger unattached men. A kind of spiritual adoption. 'You will never be lonely again.'" And when Colin finally kidnaps her, even obtuse Dorothea is aware that together they seem to be enacting "a grotesque parody of domesticity." The conclusion of the novel finds Dorothea and Charles together about to embark on their marriage in a new house. Oates's most uncharacteristically unambiguous ending sets this recovery of familial arrangement against the disorder Colin has introduced.

Similar domestic resolutions counter the appeal of disorder in both American Appetites and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. In the first novel, a staid middle-aged man accidentally, but with much provocation and passion, kills his wife during a vituperative drunken argument. The book is structured around the complicated issue of his guilt; and during the course of his attenuated trial, the defendant himself experiences the emotional state of otherness. "It seems so easy, somehow," Ian McCullough musingly remarks to his lawyer. "Crossing over…. To what's on the other side." When the scandal first hits the newspapers, the lawyer suggests that Ian move into the Sheraton Inn under a false identity to avoid publicity. During this interval, Ian experiences an alternative self, the "Jonathan Hamilton" who signed the guest register. He wears a "pair of plastic clip-on lenses, dark green" to "give substance to his incognito." He makes minor adjustments to his appearance and discovers in his assumed alter ego interests and attitudes he had not previously acknowledged in himself. But this dark liberation, which is the substance of the plot, is countered by the ironic frame of the novel. American Appetites commences, as does Soul/Mate with the domestic ceremony of an elaborate dinner party. It concludes with another dinner party. So despite the introduction of the theme of transgressive otherness, the frame of the book attempts to rectify the deviation that has been the central preoccupation of the novel. Despite McCullough's cataclysmic experience, the only substantial change in the structure of his world is the woman who officiates at the consistent dinner, an undeviating ceremony of communal regularity at either end of an attenuated exploration of violent alternative.

In Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, young Iris Courtney moves from the failed family of her working-class background into an upper-class family of inherited wealth and academic stature at the conclusion. This novel also endeavors to contain in domestic resolution the deviation from social order that consumes Iris throughout the novel. For the plot of Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart concerns her experience and pursuit of otherness. In an uncharacteristic gesture of chivalric bravado, a young black boy accidentally murders the retarded and repulsive Red Garlock who has been sexually menacing Iris. His differing race and his antisocial crime situate Jinx Fairchild as a fascinating "transgressive other," a "soul-mate" with whom Iris is obsessed throughout her life.

Different in plots and even in the class levels of social experience addressed, these three recent works are similar in their presentation of equivocally appealing otherness that violently controverts social/textual standards and in their attempts to contain that appeal within a recuperated domesticity asserted in the endings of the novels. These works of the transgressive other oscillate between the complicated advantages and disadvantages of dual alternatives: painful and radical freedom and stifling necessary order. But the transparent gestures of containment that frame or conclude these narratives do not stabilize the radical contradictions set in motion by the texts.

Soul/Mate, American Appetites, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart exaggerate a philosophic basis in productive contradiction—a constant challenge of conventions and limits—that has been present throughout Oates's career. The introduction of her 1981 book of essays collected under the title Contraries states, for example, that "the seven essays in this volume, written over a period of approximately twenty years … were originally stimulated by feelings of opposition…." But this practice has been a source of confusion for Oates's audience. In 1979 Linda Wagner surveyed the unpredictable variability in critical response to Oates's works [in Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates, 1979], and Joanne Creighton noted [in Joyce Carol Oates, 1973] that readers have often been unable to relate the deterministic expectations invoked by Oates's generally naturalistic techniques to "a modernist formulation" of her "visionary perspective." Generally misread and frequently condemned, Oates has never abandoned the interrogations of the social assumptions and novelistic practices in which her fiction is rooted, and her most recent novels propound again the insistent dialectical stance epitomized by her series of "transgressive others." The effect of these provocative works is the assertion of the existence of alternatives just outside the reach of ordinary experience, while the ambiguous treatment of the figures and contexts of such alternatives acknowledges both their genuine threat and their ultimate value.

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This section contains 2,874 words
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Critical Essay by Marilyn C. Wesley from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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