Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Essay by Janis P. Stout

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 3,974 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Janis P. Stout

SOURCE: "Catatonia and Femininity in Oates's Do with Me What You Will," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, May/June, 1983, pp. 208-15.

In the following essay, Stout discusses the motif of passivity in Do with Me What You Will as a key element of stereotypical femininity.

Despite her involvement with women characters and the unsparing accuracy with which she has depicted their lives, Joyce Carol Oates is not generally regarded as a feminist writer. One of her more thoroughgoing critics has observed that Oates actually "appears impervious to feminist and liberationist ideas." That appearance derives, in part, from Oates's stance vis a vis historic time and from her tone in speaking out of that stance. Poised at the threshold of social change, she chooses to look back at the gloomy interior or sideways at others poised on that threshold. She does not map out visionary vistas of the future or sound a summons to the bold to make that future real. Nor does she speak of the past, with its institutionalized modes of feminine subservience, with loud and obvious denunciation. Instead, even when her works are experimental and strange in their forms and effects, she writes fundamentally as a realist. But it is precisely this scrupulous realism in depicting women's lives that makes Oates's fiction finally a feminist document. By intensifying and magnifying the realism of her female characters' lives to the point where realism breaks into surrealism, she compels the reader to experience and acknowledge the inadequacies and injustices of the past and so to acknowledge the need for change.

Oates's method in her novel Do With Me What You Will (1973) is precisely this explosion of realism into a surrealism that, like the satire of a Swift or a Pope, convinces by appalling. It is the classic reduction ad absurdum. Its object is one of the more traditional stereotypes of femininity, the old notion that women are inherently docile or passive, with its corollary that indeed they ought to be so: the perfectly feminine woman is perfectly passive or acceptant. Making her modest proposal very quietly but unflinchingly, Oates delineates a heroine who embodies this passivity—as well as a yet more brittle stereotype of perfect womanhood, physical beauty—and, by the very clarity and extremity of that depiction, makes her character's feminine perfection into disease and deformity. She shows that in its purest expression passivity is not an ideal quality but an enforced denial of the self tantamount to a fixation upon death.

The central character of the novel, Elena, is so blighted by her extraordinary beauty and by her own interiorizing of others' demands for passive accommodation that she becomes, at times, a virtual nullity. She almost ceases to exist as a separate person, moving, instead, in a fog of dullness and unassertiveness so dense that she scarcely experiences even her own bodily sensations. She merely accepts the imprints of others and echoes their wishes. At times of stress she reaches the perfection of this accommodating passivity by lapsing into catatonia, a state of suspended animation in which, like a very good little girl, she ceases to assert (or even to record) her own being. Catatonia, then, the perfection of passivity, becomes at once the perfection of Elena's femininity and the exposure of that stereotype as a fraud.

Elena's peculiar passivity, and the anxieties she tries to stifle by means of her quiescence, derive most obviously from an early childhood trauma of being kidnapped and grossly neglected by her estranged, mentally-ill father. The father continually urges her to be obedient and quiet and praises her when she makes no disturbance. His assurances of his love imply that it is conditional upon her being submissive: "'And the way you obeyed me!… I'll always love my good little girl, my sweet beautiful daughter….'" He wants her to be a perpetual child and "never grow into a woman," a thought he finds "shocking, ugly." Indeed, he finds it preferable to think of her "perfect in death"—the ultimately passive state. Elena readily accepts the social quiescence her father urges on her. Apparently it is a role naturally congenial to her. She obediently crawls under the schoolyard fence as soon as he approaches her and tells her to come away. She repeats words that he urges her to say and does not "resist" when he insists she must go to the bathroom during a filling station stop in their flight. At times, however—and this will prove very significant—she uses this very passivity as a means of escape or disguised resistance. When her father tries to distract her from the distress of being kidnapped from school by giving her a present, she "did not seem to know what to do with it," and when he wipes her nose after telling her she "mustn't cry" she "didn't resist, but did not seem to notice." Most tellingly, she uses a quiescence like the stasis of death to withdraw from unwanted gestures of affection: "the fingers reached out to touch me, the right side of my face. That side went stiff. He stroked my face and like magic my face went stiff." Indeed, her quiet passivity nearly brings her to death, as she obeys her father so well that she remains unnoticed in their room, grossly neglected, and when found is not only filthy and vermin-ridden but dehydrated and nearly starved.

When Elena is rescued from her father, her aggressive mother, Ardis, reinforces the message of docility, praising her for being "very good" in that she "never resisted" the doctors and nurses. Like her father, Elena's mother forces her into expressions of love which she obediently mouths although "the air at the back of her mouth" was "almost gagging her." Elena is being taught to associate love with fear, and to use expressions of love as means of escaping disapproval. In this, as in other ways, Elena says what she senses that others expect. Her mother and father have both taught her that lesson, but the readiness with which she accedes to their pressure indicates an inherent tendency to submissiveness. Oates is not clear as to whether such a tendency is peculiar to Elena or is a natural trait of women. But she is clear that the trait is reinforced by social conditioning and that this kind of submissiveness must be overcome if a woman is to achieve personhood.

If Elena's experience with her father is more traumatic, leaving anxieties from which she never fully recovers, her life with her mother is finally more baleful. Ardis's role as a model and the fact that she is overwhelmingly domineering make it difficult for Elena to judge and resist her. Ardis actively instills in Elena an urge toward statis, or nonbeing, as a positive value. She extols deathlike sleep, "absolute unconsciousness," as the "most important thing in life" and insists that a state of stony immobility is the highest value, the "center of the world." Later, preparing Elena for an arranged marriage, Ardis urges her, "Think of statues, the famous statues made of stone, Elena, think of how perfect they are, the peace in them." Again, Elena appropriates the lesson without question: "I looked down upon my own body and saw that it had gone into stone, and the folds of my dress had become the creased folds of a gown. Such a body does not even need a head."

Ardis's lessons in immobility begin early. Even in childhood Elena is employed as a fashion model, with her mother functioning as her manager. In modelling, Elena's two most destructive and most stereo-typically feminine qualities, her extraordinary beauty and her extraordinary passivity, coalesce. She is, of course, a very good model—a virtual statue. She can sit under the lights "not seeing anything, not moving her face, not even sniffing, hardly breathing." She is perfectly malleable, perfectly submissive to the male authority figures who "propped her up onto stools, tilted her face, shaped a smile with their fingers." With her mother praising her as a "very good little girl to sit so still" and the photographers echoing her father's insistence on immobility—they tell her "Don't move. Don't blink. Be good."—it is little wonder that Elena is suicidally good at modelling. She so perfects the art of sitting still that she sits open-eyed under the lights until her eyes are burned.

Elena's early passivity and immobility culminate in her first catatonic fit. She has been taunted by girls at school who, knowing she was afraid of the dark, threatened to turn off the lights in the school basement. Worse yet in Elena's mind, "they said the boys were hiding down there." In response, Elena falls into a sort of catatonia. As her principal reports it to Ardis, "she seemed to become paralyzed." In the school nurse's office she lies utterly still, hearing and feeling but giving no sign of sentience. "I couldn't talk," she recalls. "I couldn't move." Typically, Ardis acts protective in the presence of others, but when they are alone accuses Elena of disgraceful and rebellious behavior. She threatens her with being given back to her father or with being sold by means of a newspaper ad "a bad girl is for sale." A number of elements coalesce in the incident: Elena's fear of the unknown, of death and of darkness; her fear of males; her father's role as both a threat and a refuge; her use of immobility, a deathlike state, as an escape from anxieties too potent for her to handle through her usual methods of repression and concealment. Even more significantly, she unconsciously uses immobility as a means of asserting her will.

During adolescence, Elena remains uncannily beautiful and is thus, to her mother, highly marketable in marriage. But Elena is scarcely aware of Ardis's manipulations and in fact remains very frightened of males. When an incident of sexual aggression occurs at school, she evades her anxiety, avoids acknowledging it or tracing its origins, by again lapsing into a catatonic state: "she seemed to go dead, all sensation flowed out of her, her brain went dead, black." Nevertheless, her extreme beauty and radical passiveness—so extreme that she is often scarcely aware of what goes on around her, and thus appears radically innocent as well—attract the attention of Marvin Howe, a more potent, powerful, and wealthy man than Ardis had dared to hope for. The attraction is so unlikely that Ardis accuses her, once more, of subversively manipulating it, of playing her own ambitious game. Ardis is wrong, of course; Elena has not asserted herself at all. She has only sat quiescently by while her mother strove to arrange a marriage to a small-time night club operator, and her very lack of active playing for attention has drawn Howe. But once again her static passivity has functioned, unintentionally, as a means of asserting herself and thwarting her mother. At the end of the book it will function that way intentionally.

The patterns set in Elena's childhood and adolescence determine the quality of her adult life and her marriage to Marvin Howe. To some extent she functions in a normal upper-middle-class wifely way, giving dinner parties and attending functions with her husband, taking evening classes (when he "lets" her). But at the same time, conditioned by her mother's teachings and by her own anxieties to regard immobility as a refuge and a goal, she maintains a passivity resembling numbness. She bows her head "submissively" to receive Howe's gift of a necklace; she feels her self to "belong to" him. Clearly, Elena's passivity is a kind of death, a state almost of suspended animation. A woman who has difficulty focussing on simple events, so unalert that she fails to notice her own mother at a party and so pliant that she shapes her speech according to what is the "right," or expected, answer, appears merely defective. But for Howe, Elena's passivity is the essence of her femininity. Not only does it mean that she never causes friction by opposing his will, but it becomes for him an aspect of her fascinating otherness. Her blank unawareness is a radical innocence in which he can bury the torments of his own sense of guilt and corruption. He wants to "give" her everything, he says, and finds gratification in her mere acceptance of what he gives. Like her extreme beauty—which is also a kind of frozen death, "a substitute for existence"—Elena's passivity is the perfection of a stereotyped femininity. It is the reduction of a person to the status of a statue, a beautiful and immobile object to be possessed and admired.

It is clear, however, that Elena herself feels trapped and dissociated from a sense of self by her perfect playing of the feminine role. She has moments in which the banality of her life strikes her with a peculiar intensity. To stifle the anxieties produced by this sense of emptiness, she develops a fetish of counting—the number of boats on the lake, the number of trees she passes when walking, etc. Indeed, Elena feels her femaleness itself as an enslaving determinant that can never be escaped. When she hears, in casual party conversation, that in cadavers "the womb remains when all the other organs have disappeared," she is panic-stricken but, properly reticent, hides her response—"I was very cold but I didn't shiver." That is, she holds herself still, statue-like. Disguising her feelings reinforces the pattern of immobility.

Once again, as in her childhood and adolescence, Elena's habit of repression or denial culminates in a catatonic trance. Following a particularly empty exercise in social role-playing as she walks toward her husband's office, she stops to look at a statue of the nuclear, family—for her a source of repression and control—and falls into immobility. Statues in general represent for Elena a kind of perfection through absolute withdrawal; the association was made explicit for her when her mother likened her to a beautiful statue and commended that state as the highest aspiration, a state when she would be "at the center, the center where everything is at peace." Now, needing peace, unable to confront her husband with the truth of her half-unrecognized dissatisfaction, she "stands without moving … posture unbreakable; backbone like steel." Projecting herself into the "perfect hardness" of the statue, she is "happy" that "everything has come to rest, in perfection it comes to rest, permanent." She is now "beyond anyone's touch," safe from the treacherous surging of human emotions. But of course her state is not perfection at all but "something wrong with her." As the man who will become her lover, Jack Morrissey, views her at this point (at the end of a long second section of the novel which leads up to the same moment as the first section), she appears "sick" with "dead-white skin," "trapped in a kind of stasis."

Before going on to look at Elena's emergence from self-nullification into self-realization, it would be well to summarize what Oates has done with the motif of passivity. At the point at which both the first and the second parts of the novel end, Elena's frozen stasis before the statue, the novel has described an elaborate reductio ad absurdum of traditional assumptions made about women. It has taken the stereotyped idea that passivity is one of the basic traits of the truly feminine character—a plausible enough idea, since women are not only "biologically receptive rather than aggressive" but "schooled in passivity"—and has created a character in whom both passivity and physical beauty, another requisite of the ideal female, reach their apotheosis. But the radical perfection of these traits does not amount to perfection of the individual, after all, but to extreme neurosis and a kind of living death, that is, to the destruction of the individual. When Elena is most passive, she is simply catatonic, lost in unawareness of either the outer world or her own self. The implication is clear: to idealize a stereotyped passive femininity is to idealize defect and self-destruction. Oates shows clearly that the structure of traditional expectations in which 20th-century women find themselves is a smothering constriction denying them the possibility of a self-fulfilling life. In order to reach selfhood, Elena must break out of the constraints of this traditional structure. And Elena, for all her strangeness, is a character emblematic of womankind.

It is largely through her affair with Jack Morrissey that Elena will move towards healing and authentic selfhood. But to understand that change, we need to look again at her marriage to Marvin Howe, specifically at the patterns of their sexual relationship. For Elena, that relationship is a void; it scarcely exists. Just as she deadened herself to her father's caresses long ago, so she now goes "into stone" with Howe, withdrawing herself from the experience of making love with him so that she "felt nothing." She exercises no volition in their lovemaking whatever:

… she waited to accept him, she waited. She would go perfectly still inside his embrace, opening to him, his terrible frantic, helpless energy.

This either did or did not happen.

Tolerating sex with neither aversion nor pleasure, she "obeys and is very still, unresisting," the epitome of the woman-as-receiver. Afterward, when Howe asks if she loves him, she answers yes and wonders if that is "the word he wanted." Her own feelings are irrelevant; or rather, she has none. To Howe, this passive acceptance seems wonderfully feminine, his ardor is as extreme as it is controlling: "Kissing loving worshipping her: lie still."

At first it is much the same with Jack Morrissey. Elena says what she thinks he wants to hear, and she understands that one of the things Jack most loves about her is her fear of his moodiness. Her overall feeling about their fragmentary times together is one of being domineered.

         I want you this way and from you I want this and
         this and not that
         And I want it now
         And I forbid you to

Sex with Jack is still only an acceptance of his passion; she "felt nothing." But on a particularly agitated day, when he makes love to her urgently and clumsily in the front seat of his car, she experiences orgasm for the first time. It is a joltingly intense experience, as terrible as it is pleasurable.

The sensation in her had now become terrible, spasm upon spasm localized in one part of her body, which she had to fight to control—but she could not control it, it was so brutal and muscular … She clutched at him, trying not to scream, and she felt how wildly, helplessly they struggled, how viciously her body grabbed at him in its agony to keep him with her, to force him again and again into her.

Now, for the first time, she realizes her sexuality as her own deepest self, not merely the passive acceptance of another's passion.

Elena's sexual awakening is not merely a statement of a hapless Sleeping Beauty's summons to awareness by the transcendent male. For one thing, Jack has had many previous opportunities to work a phallic regeneration and has not done so. For another the sexual awakening is not an answer to Elena's problem of coming to active selfhood, but only the beginning of an answer. The sexual episode when she first experiences orgasm has been immediately preceded by Elena's calling into consciousness and into speech certain buried memories of her father, in particular the memory of an incident in which she saw a wild dog or wolf eat a snake on the threshold of her room. She confronts the association of sexuality with horror and cruelty which has troubled her for so long and goes on to assert that, despite the torment her father caused her and despite his manipulative demands that she express a love she didn't feel, she really did, in her own way, love him. Thus she brings to consciousness, so that she can cope with them, some of her most deeply buried neuroses. In the wake of this powerful moment of release and healing, when she and Jack make love, he momentarily behaves with an uncharacteristic "gentleness" that involves deferring to her will: "he asked her if she wanted him to stop." In response, she "pressed herself toward him" and "gripped him"; for the first time she takes the initiative in a sexual experience.

Following her awakening to the autonomy of her sexual self, Elena regresses into self-denial. She awakens the next day thinking "This is the last time I will sleep here," that is, in Howe's bed. But instead of making a decisive step she falls into a period of vacillation between melancholic lassitude and unprecedented self-assertion (she attends an unruly political meeting that she knows neither Howe nor Morrissey would have approved her attending). Unable to force herself to an independent definition of her life, she surrenders all volition by abasing herself before Howe and confessing her affair. But the process has been begun. After a period of withdrawal from Howe—actually a mental collapse, a "self-dissolving nullity" during which her stasis and unawareness are not so total as in her period of catatonia but much more prolonged—she asserts her independence and leaves him.

Elena's decision to shape her own life involves a determination that she "would not be solved," she would not be treated as a passing problem to be disposed of by someone else. That is, she would no longer be passive, no longer be contained by the hands or the mind of another, as she had often felt herself to be. Accordingly, for the first time in her life, she assumes deliberate control of her actions. First she faces the fact of financial necessity and takes up the money Howe has tossed her, which she wanted to decline. Then she has her luxuriant hair cut short, an outward sign of her change in self, and travels back to Detroit to find Jack Morrissey.

The novel ends with a virtual kidnapping, a parallel to the kidnapping with which it opens. Elena goes to Jack's apartment and asks him to see her for only a minute. When he refuses to come out, she goes back to the street and waits there, willing him to come down to her. At this point, in direct contrast to her passive drifting through most of the novel, she has taken control of the situation and is forcing it toward its resolution. Yet the interesting point is that Elena's decisive act is presented largely in terms of the same character traits we have seen all along. She walks away from the door of the Morrisseys' apartment "as if hypnotized." She lets her hair blow "helplessly." She stands "motionless … suspended … waiting, frozen." After all, she is still the same person. She has not severed herself from her past and adopted a new and alien set of characteristics, but has gained impetus and control for that familiar self. She had learned to use her self and her past toward her own ends. In quietly waiting for Jack, who finally appears in his characteristic impatient rush, she is utilizing in a volitional way that very passiveness which before had been an abdication of volition. She is bending her essential femininity toward the "masculine" act of directing and controlling an action.

This kind of totality in the acceptance of the self and the direction of the self-as-given toward a chosen goal is, for Oates, the achievement of selfhood. She does not demand that women sever themselves from their conditioning and triumphantly create whole new modes of being for themselves. The kind of liberation and heroism required for such a freewheeling and active transformation is, she believes, very rare. Instead, Oates affirms the validity of a quieter kind of triumph, the act of integration involved when repressed, deadened women like Elena are able to recognize and redirect the selves that experience in a real and hostile world has created for them.

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