Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Review by Eleanor J. Bader

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 726 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eleanor J. Bader

Critical Review by Eleanor J. Bader

SOURCE: "A Working-Class Sorority," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, p. 15.

In the review below, Bader elucidates the feminist themes of Foxfire, noting the questions raised by the text.

The place is Hammond, New York, far upstate, near Canada. For five girls—Legs Sadovsky, Goldie Siefried, Lana Maguire, Rita O'Hagan, and Maddy Wirtz—working class kids from the shabby, hopeless section of town, the truth is indisputable: "We didn't belong and never would."

Foxfire, the girl gang they create in 1953, is their antidote, their way of thumbing their noses at the teachers, bosses, upper-class students, landlords, and politicians who disdain them. The brainchild of Legs, Foxfire starts as a tiny, secret society and gradually evolves into a complex organization dedicated to exacting justice for the disenfranchised, especially women. Maddy, alternately known as Maddy-monkey and killer, chronicles the group's development; Oates's novel [Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang] is written as an expanded version of Maddy's notes.

This journal-of-sorts reveals the inner workings of a protofeminist support or consciousness raising group. But Foxfire is also the stuff of every adolescent girl's dreams: a brash, inventive sorority out of adult earshot and adult control. Unlike Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which testifies to the meanness of many girl-children, Foxfire members are there for one another, bolstering each other through exhilarating antics born of revenge and the quest for recognition. In a world that treats them badly, Foxfire provides sisterhood and, in so doing, transforms each of the group's members.

Although Foxfire's mission constantly changes during its three-year history, its philosophy grows out of theories developed by Legs, their first-in-command. One of her precepts involves men, and their relationship to the women of Foxfire. Maddy discusses Legs's beliefs in her record book:

"They hate us, y'know?—the sons of bitches. It's all of them: men. It's a state of undeclared war, them hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are but nobody wants to admit it, not even us," she'd rant. She'd get so worked up there was no reasoning with her and it made us nervous 'cause like I said (and this is true right up to the present time in America) there are things you don't want to think about if you're female, say you're a young girl or a woman you're female and that isn't going to change, right?

At first, Foxfire's goal is to publicize the sexually harassing behavior of a high school math teacher. Painting public denunciations of him for all to see, they embarrass him into leaving town. Then, they beat up a salesman who attempts to force Maddy into a sexual encounter. As things escalate, Foxfire's actions take on bigger and bigger proportions, culminating in a final plan to kidnap a rich corporate executive and collect a $1 million ransom.

Like Thelma and Louise and other examples of this genre, Foxfire's perfect crime turns out to be flawed. As one thing after another goes wrong, the crime not only gets bungled, but Foxfire, itself, disintegrates. While Maddy survives the group's decline, and eventually goes on to get a college degree and a "respectable" job, several members of the gang end up in jail and some, including Legs, disappear. To her credit, Oates allows a thread of ambiguity to emerge. Is Legs dead or did she escape? Might she have assumed a new identity and still be out there, somewhere, fomenting feminist revolution?

Oates has written a dazzling, if unsettling, novel that looks at questions of leadership, loyalty, and sexual identity through the lens of the mid-1950s. Although the book sidesteps lesbianism, Oates's touch is light enough to be opaque: how the sexual tension between characters gets resolved is left to each reader's imagination. Again, one wonders: Did they? Could they? Might they later? Although I closed the book saddened that Foxfire did not last, permanence did not much matter to Legs or the women in her entourage. "Like a flame is real enough, isn't it, while it's burning?" she once asked. "Even if there's a time it goes out?"

Foxfire's flame, short-lived and brilliant, teaches the women of Hammond that it is possible to fight injustice and sexism. Together, the sisterhood they create transforms a tiny piece of small-town America and reminds us, 40 years later, that in unity there is strength. Que viva, sisters.

(read more)

This section contains 726 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Eleanor J. Bader
Follow Us on Facebook