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Critical Essay by Eva Manske
SOURCE: "The Nightmare of Reality: Gothic Fantasies and Psychological Realism in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates," in Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Kristiaan Versluys, Rodopi, 1992, pp. 131-43.
Below, Manske details conventions of Gothicism and realism in Oates's fiction, emphasizing the breadth and violence of her representation of American life.
"All art is autobiographical. It is the record of an artist's psychic experience, his attempt to explain something to himself: and in the process of explaining it to himself, he explains it to others." This statement by Joyce Carol Oates comes from her introduction to a collection of contemporary American short fiction which she edited under the title Scenes From American Life. While the title of the short story collection could easily serve as a very general description of Ms. Oates' own wide ranging, prolific oeuvre—an exploration of widely differing scenes from American life—her conviction that all art is autobiographical leaves the critic baffled and wondering when looking at her impressive output of novels and short stories which are dominated by traumatic experiences and obsessions, violent themes and conflicts. Although one does not know how much of her fiction is, in fact, autobiographical, there are recurrent places, settings, events, experiences, memories and insights into peoples' feelings that seem to suggest that Joyce Carol Oates makes extensive use of her own psychic experience. With her haunting tales about ordinary people, whose lives often turn into nightmares, she is indeed attempting to explain a troubled experience and bitter sense of American life to herself and to others.
Since the start of her literary career in 1963, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than twenty novels, hundreds of short stories (many of them collected in prize-winning collections and anthologies), half a dozen volumes of poetry, several books of literary criticism and essays, theatre plays and screenplays, earning her a reputation as one of the most prolific and gifted "serious" writers who, in the words of her contemporary John Barth, "writes all over the aesthetical map."
Although most critics agree that Joyce Carol Oates has given readers nothing less than a modern panorama of American life that Lee Milazzo in his recent collection of Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates compares to the cyclorama, a form of visual entertainment popular in the 19th century that "allowed eager viewers to see both the overall contours and specific details of great historical (and sometimes contemporary) events", not all critics agree on the literary merits of this oeuvre. To quote one of the more hostile critics: in his review of Oates' novel Solstice, titled "Joyce Carol Oates on Automatic Pilot", Jonathan Yardley writes:
Of all the idiocies on the contemporary American literary scene, surely none is more idiotic than the persistent rumour that the next American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature will be Joyce Carol Oates … To be sure, were writers to be recognized solely for their productivity, then certainly Oates would get all the prizes; they'd have to invent new ones just for her … Writers, reviewers and readers gaze at her in awe: she is, in the words they occasionally apply reverently to her, "a writing machine". It seems not to have occurred to anyone, that writing is like anything else: if it is done too hastily and too profusely, it almost inevitably is done badly.
While this is a highly unfair and, all in all, unjustified judgment (and most other critics provide a more balanced and sensitive critical evaluation of her work), there is undoubtedly an uneven quality to her fiction. Some of her novels and stories are rather shrill in depicting the human situation, remain melodramatic renderings of everyday life, highly charged with unrelenting scenes of shocking, random violence, of madness and emotional distress that Oates chronicles as dominant elements of experience in the lives of her characters.
"Typical activities in Oates' novels", says one reviewer, "are arson, rape, riot, mental breakdown, murder (plain and fancy, with excursions into patricide, matricide, uxoricide, mass filicide), and suicide" [Hudson Review 25 (Spring 1972)]. And S. K. Oberbeck stated in a mean while often quoted observation on her fiction [in Washington Post Book World (17 September 1971)]: to read Oates "is to cross an emotional minefield, to be stunned to the soul by multiple explosions …"
Despite these sensational and melodramatic traits of her fiction that some readers see as shortcomings, Oates is a serious and intellectual writer whose explicit commitment to art as "moral, educative, illustrative" informs her unrelenting attempts to lead her readers to a more profound "sense of the mystery and the sanctity of the human predicament".
In that sense her novels do much more than merely chronicle the horrors of a time wasted by wars, political assassinations, social riots, random violence and the psychic shocks of people paralyzed by their fear of being powerless to change their lives or things around them. Although these are recurring themes especially in her fiction of the sixties and seventies, her recent novels (Marya: A Life, 1986; You Must Remember This, 1987; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990) are efforts to not only raise the consciousness of ordinary people to the realization of the destruction of their lives, but—in her own words—attempts to "show us how to get through and transcend pain" and, furthermore, attempts to encourage her readers to affirm life and give meaning to it.
Again and again, Oates stresses the fact that her writing is "about the mystery of human emotions" and that at the same time her fiction is concerned with "… the moral and social conditions of my generation." It is important for the critical understanding of her fiction to respect her commitment to literature as a communal effort and her own responsibility and obligation as a writer in providing a "voice of the communal consciousness of our culture."
Oates refuses to accept the often stated verdict that today the novel has lost its power to interpret life and that realistic fiction has lost its ability to render convincingly contemporary experience and to make sense of human life in contemporary culture. Quite to the contrary, she insists on "the power of narrative fiction to give coherence to jumbled experience and to bring about a change of heart." Her novels and short fiction reveal a distinctive blend of a compelling hallucinatory but at the same time realistic rendition of the special time and place she is writing about with her intense and often haunting psychological depiction of characters and her complex propositions about the nature of human personality. This is her way of realizing her aim:
I still feel my own place is to dramatize the nightmares of my time and (hopefully) to show how some individuals find a way out, awaken, come alive, move into the future. I think that art, especially prose fiction, is directly connected with culture, with society; that there is no 'art for art's sake' and never was, but only art as a more conscious, formal expression of a human communal need, in which individuals seem to speak individually but are, in reality, only giving voice and form to the intangible that is in the air around them…. Surely, the whole era participates in every creative act, an isolated individual's statement of hopelessness, voiced to no one at all, or a writer's published, distributed and advertised books. It is really all one event, with a multitude of aspects.
Not only does she admit a somewhat old-fashioned and seemingly outmoded "laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book", but when faced with criticism [in Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, 1989] that her fiction was "a charnel house of Gothic paraphernalia: blood, fire, insanity, anarchy, lust, corruption, death by bullets, death by cancer, death by plane crash, death by stabbings, beatings, crime, riot, and even unhappiness", Oates coolly explained: "A writer's job, ideally, is to act as the conscience of his race. People frequently misunderstand serious art because it is often violent and unattractive. I wish the world were a prettier place, but I wouldn't be honest as a writer, if I ignored the actual conditions around me."
Underlining the responsibility of the artist "to bear witness—in an almost religious sense—to certain things, including the experience of the concentration camps … the experience of suffering, the humiliation of any forms of persecution", she sees herself as a medium who takes in and gives shape to the stimuli coming from her culture. She applauds works like Harriette Arnow's neglected novel The Dollmaker which she praised because it showed the power "to deal with the human soul, caught in the stampede of time, unable to gauge the profundity of what passes over it, like the characters of certain plays of Yeats who live through terrifying events but who cannot understand them; in this way history passes over most of us. Society is caught in a convulsion whether of growth or of death, and ordinary people are destroyed. They do not, however, understand that they are destroyed."
This is a revealing statement with respect to her own portrayal of characters who all yearn for control over their lives but are often hopelessly caught in the stampede of time and history, in their own destructive dreams, passions and ambitions, in heartbreaking confusion and painful inarticulateness. So it is not surprising that Oates sees the role of the artist and writer also as a kind of Cassandra: "It may be, his role, his function, is to articulate the very worst, to force into consciousness the most perverse and terrifying possibilities of the epoch, so that they can be dealt with and not simply feared." Almost all of her novels focus obsessively on "the very worst … and the most terrifying possibilities of the epoch", presenting a nightmare of reality in a wide variety of styles, genres, fictional techniques and narrative experiments. Although Oates is sceptical of metafiction and of most of the flamboyant experimentation that characterizes postmodern fiction, she should not be dismissed as a traditional or conventional writer. Presenting herself as a storyteller whose work appeals to general readers as well as to more "literary" ones, she adapts her style to the subject she is exploring and uses a keen visual sense which allows readers to "see" individuals and events depicted in her fiction in a new, startling and often shocking light.
While drawing heavily on her childhood experience—growing up in a small town in upstate New York in a working class family that suffered from the grim economic conditions of the Depression years of the 1930s—Oates has written not only about the rural setting of this harsh and grim landscape. She wrote about the big city—most memorably about the violent urban slums of Detroit between the 1930s and the 1960s (them, 1969; Wonderland, 1971; Do With Me What You Will, 1973), about the emptiness and sterility of suburban life (Expensive People, 1968) and of the academic setting (Unholy Loves, 1979; Solstice, 1985; Marya: A Life, 1986) and political novels set in Washington D.C. (The Assassins: A Book of Hours, 1975; Angel of Light, 1981). In recent years Oates has published a cycle of novels that could be called "experimental genre novels" beginning with Bellefleur (1980) and followed by The Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984). In these novels Oates presents "America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres". These novels deal in genre form with 19th-century and early 20th-century America: a family saga, a romance, a detective mystery and a Gothic horror. The novels are, in Oates' words, "post-modernist in conception but thoroughly serious in execution. Primarily, each novel tells a story I consider uniquely American and of our time. The characters … are both our ancestors and ourselves."
In these novels—which are a startling departure from her usual mode of writing—Oates makes explicit and extensive use of the Gothic tradition in American literature and she described her novels appropriately as "'Gothic' with a capital-letter G." Greg Johnson states in his study on Oates' fiction (Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, 1987) that in these books "she combines her usual psychological realism with a free-wheeling, explicit use of fantasy, fairy tales, horror stories, and other Gothic elements; the central settings of all three novels, for instance, include a huge forbidding mansion and such assorted horrors as a female vampire (Bellefleur) and a painting which comes to life and murders a couple on their honeymoon (Mysteries of Winterthurn)."
But although Oates claims that her intention was "to 'see' the world in terms of heredity and family destiny and the vicissitudes of time (for all five novels are secretly fables of the American family); to explore historically authentic crimes against women and children, and the poor; to create and to identify with heroes and heroines whose existence would be problematic in the clinical, unkind, and one might almost say, fluorescent-lit atmosphere of present-day fiction," and that therefore she had to resort to the outright Gothic, she links this to her desire to present a convincing psychological portrait of characters and a sweeping social and historical picture. "If Gothicism has the power to move us (and it certainly has the power to fascinate the novelist) it is only because its roots are in psychological realism. Much of Bellefleur is a diary of my own life, and the lives of the people I have known." It is significant that she intended her novel Bellefleur as "a critique of America, but it is in the service of a vision of America that stresses, for all its pessimism, the ultimate freedom of the individual.
In that sense, she herself admits that her genre novels are more than mere Gothic stories and that the imaginative construction of a Gothic novel involves the systematic transposition of realistic social and historical as well as psychological and emotional experiences into Gothic elements and structures. The reader familiar with the Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries will recognize in Oates novel Bellefleur, e.g., themes, obsessions and actions which were the stock-in-trade of the tales of terror. The mysterious and cruel events have a distinctly Gothic flavour to them. But one has to agree with John Gardner's observation who in his review of the novel [in New York Times Book Review (20 July 1980)] states: "What we learn, reading Bellefleur, is that Joyce Carol Oates is essentially a realist. She can write persuasively of out-of-the-body experiences because she believes in them. But she does not really believe in a brutal half-wit boy who can turn into a dog, a man who is really a bear, vampires or mountain gnomes…. Miss Oates believes in these legendary characters only as symbols; and the problem is that they are not symbols of the same class as those she has been using for years, the symbols provided by the world as it is…. The only really frightening scenes in Bellefleur deal with real-world atrocities … and these scenes in fact come nowhere near the horror of scenes in earlier novels by Miss Oates…. What drives Miss Oates' fiction is her phobias: that is, her fear that normal life may suddenly turn monstrous. Abandoning verisimilitude for a different mode (the willing suspension of disbelief), she loses her ability to startle us with sudden nightmare."
In that respect, her novels set in the contemporary America are more convincing, although in her attempt to convey the nightmare of everyday reality she makes extensive use of Gothic elements there, too. Her fiction often displays the kind of extreme psychological intensity and outright horror of events and emotions that result in disturbing, vicious and often disgusting scenes of violence. As Oates commented, "gothic with a small-letter 'g' suggests a work in which extremes of emotion are unleashed"—and this could be applied to almost all her fiction. Her characters—be they rich or poor, uneducated or cultured—"live within a psychological pressure-cooker, responding to intense personal and societal conflicts which lead almost inevitably to violence."
This recurrent violence as well as such traditionally Gothic elements as extreme personal isolation, violent physical and psychological conflicts and symbolic actions, melodramatic and passionate circumstances and events, or painful psychic states like loss of identity, emotional turmoil, suicide, rape, murder, incest or the psychological explorations of madness and insanity, are in Oates' words "a fairly realistic assessment of modern life."
Throughout her fiction these Gothic elements and fantasies have the larger function of expanding the thematic range and suggestiveness in conveying the atmosphere of public and private American life in the past and today. Already at the beginning of the 1970s Alfred Kazin noted in his essay on Oates' fiction [in his Bright Book of Life, 1973] that Oates showed in her novel them a particular sensitivity to individual lives helplessly flying off the wheel of American gigantism, and that more than most other women writers Joyce Carol Oates seemed "entirely open to social turmoil, to the frighteningly undirected and misapplied force of the American powerhouse."
Kazin rightly compares her in her instinct for and her imaginative recreation of the "melodrama" of Detroit in the 1960s to earlier writers like Theodore Dreiser (who wrote about Chicago), or Stephen Crane and John Dos Passos (who wrote about New York). But Oates is clearly different from these forerunners and her depiction of life in contemporary America is concerned with an unrelenting perception of the sheer chaos of life. Her special concern seems to be an insistence on the fact that the real American tragedy of today is the failure of people to find a language for expressing what is happening to them. This view of literature as silent tragedy that Oates noted already as praiseworthy in Arnow's novel, is also evident in her own fiction. Many of her characters move through a world that they perceive as wholly physical, and her books are packed with descriptions of this overwhelming material and physical reality. A kind of obsessive patience seems to guide her when she follows her characters through the immense factuality of contemporary existence, tracing with insight and compassion their moving around, their thinking and feeling. A density of detail marks her description of the often unconscious reactions of her characters that she explores in shockingly monstrous and violent scenes or in the everyday routines and stifling experience of a boring uneventful life.
The exploration of the inner world of women is for many readers her most memorable and fascinating contribution to the fictional exploration of a social and individual context. Women's fear of violence and damage dominates the fiction. But even more disturbing is the confusion and ignorance and heightened sense of helplessness and terror her female characters feel concerning the possibility of control over their lives. This lack of control is also expressed in the terror of the body that many of her women experience—fear of their own bodies and of men's bodies. This extends to the depiction of sexual relationships and female sexuality in general. Sexual relationships are often experienced by her female characters as threatening, and sex is described as a brutal assault on the female body, in a language that by now has become familiar: grinding, driving hardness. Sexual relationships are often bordering on incest and thus are guilt-ridden and destructive. In these imaginative renderings of female psychology and women's responses to the outer world as well as to their inner world her women suffer intensely. In many cases Oates shows that the response to existence pushes her female characters into psychic nightmares or over the edge into mental breakdown and death. Often their only form of protest is a complete breakdown or even self-destruction. Often there seems to be no relief of the feelings of despair and hopelessness, no salvation or transcendence of the unbearable pain, suffering and humiliation. Nor is the family a source of comfort and strength.
Though there are a number of tough women in her novels (mostly women coming from a working class background, as e.g. in them, Childwold, A Garden of Earthly Delights), they never really succeed in understanding themselves or transcend the limits of self. They merely survive. Diminished in their response by poverty, ignorance and confusion, they turn to dreams as compensation for a troubling, boring, often unbearable life. They try to escape their everyday reality by seeing themselves as characters in movies, in TV series, in magazines and romantic fiction or even as disembodied people in mirrors—reflections of a self that they want to escape. Dreams become their reality. Victims of the media and their messages which tell them that success lies in improving their appearances, they are desperately trying to change (in most cases they change make-up, hair styles, clothes as an attempt of changing their lives and personalities!). Oates shows that in fact these women are trapped in physical and social surroundings from which they cannot escape. One is reminded of her early statement that "the greatest realities are physical and economic: all the subtleties of life come afterward. Intellectuals have forgotten, or else they never understood, how difficult it is to make one's way up from a low economic level, to assert one's will in a great crude way. It's so difficult. You have to go through it. You have to be poor."
Thus she shows her characters as products of their economic, social and cultural realities as well as victims of their own personalities. They desperately try to escape from these grim realities that they find themselves in, but they are repeatedly defeated and this defeat characterizes some traits of her tragic concept of human existence. While readers may be repelled and shocked by her often naturalistic descriptions of these lives, one has to concede that they are part of a closely observed American reality: her characters are locked in history and in a recognizable time and place in American culture, and they are vulnerable to this time, place and culture.
Her concern with these intensely felt nightmarish conditions of the present, with all the anxiety, paranoia, dislocation and explosive conflicts that come out of frustration, of boredom and bitter desperation, is connected with a subtle and convincing exploration of the psychological aspects of her characters' reactions. It is above all this psychological realism in the detailed and compelling presentation of individuals in the midst of various kinds of emotional and psychological upheaval that characterizes the by now familiar "Oates effect", haunting the reader of her fiction.
It is only in recent novels that Oates transcended these fatalistic and grim attitudes. After her detour into the fantastic world of the 19th century genre novels, her books of the late 1980s return to the territory that she has explored before and whose voices she knows perfectly: the world of lower class families in rural upstate New York and the world of academia. Marya: A Life can serve as an example for the changes and the possible transcendence of the violent clash and intense conflict between the individual and the surrounding society. We have again in the scenes of life that the individual chapters present, the usual shocking brutal events: the book opens with a violent chapter in which the eight-year old Marya is forced by her alcoholic mother to look at her murdered father in the city morgue and later she is abandoned by her mother and left with relatives who barely tolerate her. Marya is molested by her cousin and suffers sexual abuse, she is nearly gang-raped during her farewell party before leaving for college, in college she suffers from extreme isolation…. But what emerges in the course of these frightening events and experiences is an unusual and strong person, a woman who is able to break out of the economic and social conditions that determined her before. She is able to escape from the suffocating climate and to find in the life of an academic and a writer a way to become, in Oates' words "an Amazon of a sort, a warrior woman, making her own way, confident and assured."
In the end Marya is determined to face a confrontation with her mother, and though Oates does not show this meeting in her novel and her heroine knows that this meeting will cut her life in two, Oates has presented her in a way that makes not only intellectual emancipation possible but also a kind of emotional maturing that goes beyond the suffering, the ignorance and the numbness that so many women in her novels have to endure.
In this sense Oates shows that some people are able to find a way out of the nightmare of their terrifying experience of reality—that they are indeed able "to awaken, come alive, move into the future".
This section contains 4,096 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)