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Critical Essay by Cara Chell
SOURCE: "Un-Tricking the Eye: Joyce Carol Oates and the Feminist Ghost Story," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1985, pp. 5-23.
In the essay below, Chell examines Mysteries of Winterthurn for the diverse ways that Oates uses conventions of the ghost story to indicate feminist concerns.
Joyce Carol Oates has matured into writing feminist fiction. She says (or has said) she isn't doing that: "I am very sympathetic with most of the aims of feminism, but cannot write feminist literature because it is too narrow, too limited." However, while some critics may have defined feminist literature narrowly (insisting on only sympathetic female—not sympathetic male—characters, for example), feminist literature covers as breathtaking a range as feminists, or as women, do themselves. Joyce Carol Oates is writing it. Her discussions of being a "(woman) writer" include recognition of the difficulties specific to a female writer. She is continually "insulted" by "sexist" (her words) questions like "Why is your writing so violent?" A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) is obviously "a feminist romance with a lot of axes to grind" and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) is a thematically sophisticated feminist novel in which Oates explores what it means, as in the title of her recent book of poetry [Invisible Woman], to be literally or figuratively an "invisible woman."
In Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn, Oates combines nineteenth-century forms and a unity of place. In the latest and perhaps most challenging of these three, Mysteries of Winterthurn, Oates uses these methods and her raised consciousness to place a chilling portrayal of family violence—with women and children as a traditional patriarch's most ravaged victims—squarely in the middle of an equally chilling portrayal of the society that creates, condones, and makes invisible such violence. In this novel, Oates also writes a biting parody of the cautionary tale, which she describes in "At Least I Have Made a Women of Her" as a story where "the only admirable female is a lady…. Bodies scarcely exist but clothes are everywhere in evidence…. Here is a world of female delusion in which individuality is dissolved into types, and the eye's reading of the face is never to be corrected." Oates uses the past to reflect upon the present, to write her revenge on the cautionary tales of men like Hawthorne (her Hester's victimization is even more obvious, and while her narrator blames the victim, Oates does not). If many of Oates's former mentors have been male, the influences on this most recent work are female. Mysteries of Winterthurn owes much to both Charlotte and Emily Brontë; her contemporary use of the nineteenth-century detective novel is much like Diane Johnson's The Shadow Knows; her eighteenth-century protagonists are vivid reminders of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's in The Yellow Wallpaper, and Oates's version of hell housed in Winterthurn's Hotel Paradise, complete with Dr. Wilts's fatalistic soliloquy, is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood.
Oates writes about the invisibility of women within the framework of a philosophical novel that has its intellectual roots in the psychology and pragmatism of William James and C. S. Pierce. The novel's progress is contemporaneous with James's career, and the protagonist, Xavier Kilgarvan, follows the pattern of the early twentieth-century intelligentsia in thinking about the "true." Oates makes clear that truth happens to an idea, that circumstances become true (Emerson's "I make my circumstances" is engraved on Kilgarvan's card), that to cling to an absolute idea is foolish. To emphasize this point, she uses all the cards she holds: she writes a ghost story/detective novel, with classical mythic allusions, plots borrowed from standard classic texts, class wars, and racial and religious prejudices, ghosts, magic, angels. Sarcasm and humor hide the fury in the story line, as in much of contemporary women's fiction and poetry. Oates, in borrowing, or rereading, to use Adrienne Rich's better word, these methods, is making the same discoveries other feminist writers are making: "Aristotle and his logician heirs tell you that nothing can be true and untrue at the same time," states Alicia Ostriker in Writing Like a Woman. "Such is the foundation of all rationality. One of the many pleasant results of experiencing a myth for yourself is that it shows you where Aristotle is wrong."
Oates uses two techniques (favorites of Henry James and Edith Wharton and thus appropriate to the novel's period) to clarify her vision of the relationship of pragmatism to the invisibility of women: the unreliable narrator and the ghost story. The supernatural becomes a tool that Oates uses to reveal the victimization of some of her women characters and the tool through which she allows them some form of vindication, although a still invisible form, not public. Oates forces the reader to "see" that in the context of the novel (while the foolish narrator is worried about what is "natural," "true," and "real") what is actually real are the deeds of ghostlike cherubs. By creating a ghost story that her narrator does not want to believe and by forcing the reader to believe it, Oates sets the much-vaunted "reality" of her pompous, presumably masculine, narrator on its head. Her central symbol is a trompe l'oeil mural of the Madonna and Child intended as a prized possession of a patriarchal dynasty. The trick is turned on the patriarchs; ultimately, the ghosts and the women survive.
Mysteries of Winterthurn is feminist fiction in that it "corrects" "the eye's reading of the face" and makes visible—through use of the invisible—the historical, stereotypical absurdities about women still believed as "true" by twentieth-century male novelists and their culture. Oates claims, "the most celebrated of twentieth-century writers have presented Woman through the distorting lens of sexist imagination…. The paradox with which the feminist critic or sympathizer must contend is this: that revolutionary advances in literature often fail to transcend deeply conservative and stereotypical images of women, as if, in a sense, the nineteenth century were eerily superimposed upon even the most defiantly inventive literary 'visions' of the twentieth century." To correct this fearful refusal of the (male) modernists, Oates steps back into the nineteenth century with an ironic (often sarcastic) eye and imposes her own re-vision on the cautionary tale to show the raw, violent misuse of women by men that stereotypes masked. Her pragmatic ghosts outdo the flesh-and-blood sophists defending values concerning sex, class, and race that upper-class, patriarchal, white society sees as "rational" and "true." Her point is that those stereotypes are only "true" within a white, upper-class masculine view which makes invisible any other views. Take away the patriarchal prejudice, and other interpretations become visible and equally true. In reading Mysteries of Winterthurn, the reader who holds racist, sexist, or classist beliefs must come to feel as foolish as the foolish narrator.
As if to make sure that her audience understands her point, Oates breaks her coherent whole, Mysteries of Winterthurn: A Novel, into three stories that develop thematically, telling of three separate investigations by the detective Xavier Kilgarvan into mysteries all occurring in his hometown, involving his kin, and spanning his youth, young adulthood, and early middle age. All three are unsolved in the traditional sense—not given visible, public solution and punishment. Where punishment is accomplished, the reader knows it to be unjust. The stories, "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower; or, the Tragedy of Glen Mawr Manor," "Devil's Half-Acre; or, the Mystery of the 'Cruel Suitor,'" and "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown; or, Xavier Kilgarvan's Last Case," show by their vivid titles the unity that Oates maintains. All three, with some variation, involve cruel crimes against women, but each ends with different responses by women directly or indirectly involved. Those primarily affected are the Kilgarvan sisters, Georgina, Perdita, and Thérèse, daughters of Judge Erasmus Kilgarvan, and five working-class women whom the reader comes to know only as victims of brutal sex crimes done by a particularly foppish, demented young ruling-class heir, Valentine Westergaard. Xavier is a cousin of the Kilgarvan sisters and a member of Valentine's social set. Oates's unreliable narrator follows the pattern set by that century's society; for the most part, he blames the victim for the crime. Even though society does look for a scapegoat to punish, people believe that chambermaids seduced their employers, butchered factory girls wantonly accepted the attentions of upper-class gentlemen and deserved their fates, even if that includes rape and dismemberment, "suffragettes" asked for rape and mutilation by foolishly speaking in public places.
Crimes against women are most fully revealed in the first of the three murders, "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower." This story introduces the prototypical patriarch, Erasmus Kilgarvan, whose death shortly before the time period of the novel's action sets off many of the subsequent events. In the important chapter describing the judge's funeral, "The Keening," the narrator tells the history of the man he sees as an upstanding citizen, a man of superior intellect, and a county judge who believed that "he was ordained by God, as well as by the State, in his judicial role." Reading between the lines actually given by the narrator (lines like "why, and how, a man of such superior intelligence and proven canniness … chanced to marry not one, but two women of inferior mettle … [women with] an hereditary malaise, in virulent union with female pathology of an undefined sort," the reader gradually sees that Erasmus is a wife beater of the first magnitude, both of his wives eventually dying of his abuse, the first, Vivian Battenberg, "ending in … virtual disappearance, or 'fading away,'" the second, Hortense Spies, eventually poisoning herself with arsenic paste.
The narrator blames both women and dutifully reports the opinions of Dr. Colney Hatch, the society doctor, about the two women's failings. Oates is particularly revealing (and her use of her narrator is particularly sarcastic) in her vivid description of the insidious conditions women must combat in the society she describes. Dr. Hatch, for example, says as he looks from across the room at the ill Georgina, "Congestion in the head is most likely a consequence of congestion in the bowels,… both being symptoms of an overwrought nature, in the female sex in particular…. Thinking, reading, writing, etc.,—these place an inordinate strain on the system, and bring about any number of disorders." The entire second story of "The Cruel Suitor" shows a society quick to blame the victim for the patriarchy's crimes. Even the narrator admits that during the trial of Valentine Westergaard, "the roles of murderer and victim were, by shrewd degrees, reversed." Westergaard is found innocent of murder of the many women who, he said, "unmanned" him, who were "unclean" and "so determined to provoke manly rage in their thrashings and sobbings and bloody discharges!" After Xavier proves satisfactorily (to the narrator, the reader, and most of the town) that Valentine viciously seduced and sadistically murdered the young women, at the trial Westergaard himself manages to induce a "reasonable doubt" in the minds of the jurors by declaring he was haunted.
If the first two mysteries are particularly feminist in the disclosing of vulnerable positions of women in society, the third mystery further develops Oates's theme. In "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," while there is a woman victim—Perdita, victim of rape—the murder victims are Perdita's husband, mother-in-law, and the woman who appears to be her husband's lover, all vested members of the patriarchy. The dead are virtually hacked apart by axes and the bodies of the two apparent lovers are strewn with hearts. It is in this part of the novel that the subtleties of Oates's plot begin to convince the reader that women are not always passive victims and begin to give a more realistic view of women, if not a Utopian one.
The element of the supernatural enters the plot with the very first mystery and continues throughout the three stories, although with varying implications. What is most significant, perhaps, is where the original—and "real" in terms of believability in the context of the novel—ghosts come from. In the plot of the novel, the chief victim of Erasmus's cruelty is his oldest daughter, Georgina, the outlines of whose life Oates models after Emily Dickinson. That cruelty becomes evident only as the plot of the novel unfolds and as the element of the supernatural becomes explained.
The obvious mystery of the first segment of the novel is the death of an infant and the resulting insanity of its mother, Abigail Whimbrel, Georgina's cousin, after they sleep in the "Honeymoon Room" at Glen Mawr Manor, the ceiling of which is painted with the trompe l'oeil mural. The Madonna and Child of the painting are accompanied by a troop of angels or cherubs. The reader soon realizes, although the narrator is reluctant to admit to the obvious, that the murder of the infant and the molesting of the mother is done by the mural's angels, who come off of their ceiling, viciously nurse at Abigail's breast and eat away at the infant's head and body. Perdita, the youngest Kilgarvan daughter, explains to the young Xavier when he stands in the room after the crime, stares at the painting, and feels a red water drop, a tear drop or a blood drop, fall from one of the painted angel's eyes. She says, "angels may turn demon, with the passage of time,—if starved of the love that is their sustenance."
Perdita's explanation points to the heart of the original crime. Young Xavier soon finds, in the attic above the painted ceiling, the corpses of five infants, semimummified and still with the wire that strangled them around their necks. Two things become obvious to the reader: that the killer angels are perhaps the "representatives" of the strangled infants and that the infants' mother was Georgina. All the clues—Georgina's sometimes mad behavior, her periodic bouts of sickness and of wearing eccentric clothing, her near-hysteria over the proposal of a gentleman suitor—now clearly point to the chief crime of the original mystery: the judge's repeated incestuous "use" of Georgina, her subsequent pregnancies, and the bizarre behavior she resorts to to hide the crimes and their results. Without the actions of the angel-demons, the infants' corpses never would have been found.
So, the supernatural comes into Oates's narrative in part as a way of revealing the crimes of the patriarchy. She uses three kinds of supernatural forces that develop in the course of the novel. In the first mystery, the first type is those agents (and forces) beyond or outside of the tangible, beyond what the patriarchal world sees as "rational," "true," "natural": the avenging angels in Georgina's house. Oates makes the reader believe in this first type by inserting action done by supernatural forces into the narrative right before the reader's very eyes, so to speak. Therefore, the reader is forced to acknowledge the reality of the supernatural, even while the narrator is reluctant to reveal events without rational explanation. This kind of supernatural agent or occurrence includes, of course, the angel-demons from the trompe l'oeil painting, and parts of the other two stories: an experience Xavier has in quicksand, where he is lured by a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't lavender glove and teased by butterflies the reader suspects may be angel-demons, and, in the third story, a ghost Letitia Bunting sees. Whether or not the narrator is willing, these supernatural elements are real phenomena seen by real characters in the novel. Oates presents two other kinds of supernatural agents. The second are historical tales of the supernatural, told mainly in the second story, such as that of "Bishop" Elias Fenwick, a mad religious fanatic who is supposed to haunt the Devil's Half-Acre. Oates gives no evidence to support or deny this sort of ghost story, although it makes sense in the context of the narrative to see the person who "became" this ghost as the victim of class struggle. The third kind of ghost, which Oates begins to use in the second story and develops with more complexity in the third, is either an ironic excuse for sadistic acts, in the case of Valentine Westergaard, or a complex metaphor/excuse for psychologically determined acts that the late twentieth century would define as insane.
Part of what makes the supernatural in Oates's story a vehicle for her feminist message is that the existence of these agents is denied by the "rational" members of the ruling patriarchy, but is freely admitted by some women, some children, and by some members of the working class in Winterthurn, who, the Editor's Notes admit, were "perhaps far more sensitive,—nay, altogether more astute, in comprehending Evil." Lucas Kilgarvan, the disinherited toymaker brother of Judge Erasmus Kilgarvan and the father of Xavier, who is presented by Oates as a highly sympathetic character, one of several representative "good" men, defends the likelihood of this sort of ghost to Xavier," for where rank injustice has been perpetrated, and the Law is of no avail, shall not a man's spirit seek some manner of balance, or restitution?—or the meager solace of revenge, in committing mischief?"
In the case of the "actual" supernatural, rather than the historical or the psychological, in "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower" these forces act out the "meager solace of revenge" for themselves and the victim. In "The Cruel Suitor," the "actual" supernatural becomes an educational agent for Xavier, convincing him of his own fallibility. In this second story the supernatural is also twisted into a psychological excuse for evil done to the victims. By the conclusion of the novel, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," when the victim metamorphoses into the agent of her own wrath, she no longer needs an avenging angel. By then, the reader must decide whether or not the supernatural is merely a twisted excuse for uncondonable evil, is a justified psychological rationale for uncontrollable behavior, or is yet some third more haunting and unexplainable force.
However the supernatural is interpreted throughout the three stories, Oates uses it to reveal the true plight of her women characters, to allow her women to be (more or less) survivors and, in a sense, vindicated victors, although they seem—in their visible actions—to be only victims in their "real" world. In Mysteries of Winterthurn, her spinsters and fallen women might have been written to illustrate feminist theories about reality versus myth. Oates's angels in the house do not quietly knit; they are powerful, viciously angry, supernatural forces who avenge themselves and their mother. In fact, the angel in the house myth becomes one of the key ironies of the novel, since the angels or cherubs are, throughout, the actual supernatural forces and, simultaneously, the interchangeable symbol for the "demonic" and powerful side of angry, victimized women. Oates's closely textured writing links the "angels" and "angel-demons" of the painting with the judge's view, symbolic of the patriarchy's view: "Give Woman wings & she is either angel or beast."
In the world of Winterthurn, the visible is "male." The "female" is invisible. In fact, Xavier's progress toward an acknowledgment of chaos, of the imagination, of the supernatural, makes him both stereotypically feminine and invisible; he becomes a "phantom," "silent as a ghost," and "possessed of nearly as much power as if he were invisible." So, Oates presents the supernatural as representative of the immediate powerlessness of the invisible person in society. The supernatural, here, is the place where the invisible female or child becomes relatively visible—even if not literally visible to all eyes—and powerful. And, in fact, the representatives of the patriarchy seem to at least unconsciously admit this power of the former victim. Valentine Westergaard for a time worries that "little Trixie, or Molly, or Emmie, or all three, or indeed, all, have quite bested me, in exacting their revenge from beyond the grave in this odious wise!" Combining the detective novel and the ghost story gives Oates two vehicles for showing how women are invisible in this society. In fact, she makes a point reminiscent of Susan Glaspell's in "Trifles." Women, both directly involved and not, repeatedly tell authorities about the angel-demons and about the identity of the Cruel Suitor, but their knowledge is dismissed as trifling. So, since patriarchal authorities will not give validity to women's testimony, in Joyce Carol Oates's city of Winterthurn, women have supernatural forces to listen to them and act for them. The angel-demons symbolize women's sometimes invisible, sometimes evil strength, demonstrating how the victim vindicates herself, in admirable and not-so-admirable ways. Georgina and Perdita are examples of this power. Each of them has, first, a supernatural way to some type of survival, and, second, a "real" way.
Georgina is the most invisible of the sisters, partly because she is the most victimized by her father, and perhaps partly because she is a poet, since during her lifetime her poetry is read by few people and is inaccessible even to those few. The real Georgina is almost completely invisible and ghost-like. The townspeople call her "the Blue Nun" (Oates's use of a nun being both sadly ironic considering Georgina's nonvirginal state and a stock convention of ghost stories in general). Characters describe her resemblance to a "'life statue' from the nearby cemetery [which] had roused itself," to a nun and a witch. They call her "haunting." She is quite literally veiled throughout her section of the novel (a choice of clothing considered by the narrator and the townspeople as discreet and appropriate). Her least action, such as coming to a store very early in the morning, is seen as "exposing herself to all manner of gossip and speculation" (emphasis supplied). What she does not expose, and what Winterthurn chooses to ignore, are her father's terrible crimes. Her "illnesses" are regarded as eccentricities and she is faulted for her camouflage: "There were periods when she seemed to affect a deliberate carelessness in her toilet, and in her apparel, wearing dresses that hung on her like sacks, as if to disguise her inordinate thinness; and to refute the very notion of feminine responsibility."
Georgina accepts, with almost astonishingly little protest, her society's view of her and her father's treatment of her, like the Iphigenia who is her model. She even accepts her father's dictum that she should stop publishing her poetry (although she does not stop writing it), since the poetry offends her society, which defines it as "strident," with "rude jarring images, and dashed-off lines; a penchant for the sickly, the morbid, the willfully unfeminine."
In Oates's feminist plot, Georgina's vindication, both supernatural and "real," is appropriate to her trials. The supernatural element of her vindication is illuminated by consideration of Oates's use of Iphigenia as Georgina's chosen pen name. That name is not only particularly suited to Georgina's personal history, but it also implies that in choosing it, Georgina shows an understanding of patriarchal society and of the lack of matriarchal authority in that society. The myth of Iphigenia and her parents Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, a myth Oates has used before as the basic plot of Angel of Light, points to a possible interpretation of the demon-angels' actions and Georgina's supernatural vindication. Oates may mean the demon-angels to be acting as the avenging Furies, creatures on wing defending matriarchal power and—in Georgina's case—avenging their mother. That Georgina was in some way aware of the angels and their actions, and that she related them to the judge's crimes, is apparent in one of her poems:
Know, Sweet Babe—
Thy Father's hand—
Rudders—all thou fearest—
'Tis of Him—of HIM—
(& not of ME—)
These Seraphim sing—
Poetry is Georgina's "real world" vindication. If the angel-demons or Furies try to take care of her enemies, Georgina takes care of herself through her art. With it she makes herself visible and defines herself, in creating at least a spiritual link with other people that circumstances make impossible for her physically to accomplish. Georgina's own theory of poetry, that "all poetry was, in a sense, translation, or artful rendering, of the Unknown depths of passion, into the Known strictures of language," allows the supposition that Georgina put a considerable amount of her own emotion (emotion that certainly wasn't or couldn't be displayed) into her poetry. That she created for herself such an outlet despite her circumstances is a victory. Of course, the critical popularity of her poems, edited and published after her death by Clarice, and the financial security they afforded her half-sisters, gives to Georgina another, though posthumous, form of vindication. Perdita is "invisible" in less dramatically significant ways than Georgina. Since she is alive throughout the novel's three parts, being a slightly younger contemporary of Xavier, we see her as a battered child, as a young woman very susceptible to the dictates of her society yet with the ability to see through them, and then as a young, childless wife who is confined by the expectations of her priggish husband and mother-in-law. Perdita is one of the many women in the novel who have basic intelligence and good sense (although not Georgina's creativity) but whose capabilities are totally ignored and are therefore invisible. Early in the story, Xavier realizes Perdita is "no faery child, but a very real young girl" and during the course of the novel, Oates demonstrates to the reader just how a "very real young girl" would view the society in which she is trapped. Perdita has the good sense to realize, for example, that if she had a "stake" she would rather bet on horses to make her fortune than to marry. The narrator says that the "impetuous young woman" was heard to remark, "If gambling be a sin against God … is it not a far more grievous sin to gamble one's very self, than merely with money?" Perdita, in fact, at least in part through her instruction by her sister Thérèse ("my Angel Thérèse") knows of the "dread Abyss" that separates men and women in the custom of their society, which considers "Woman is all that man is not: Woman is not all that Man is."
This separation across the abyss seems to symbolize, in Perdita's mind, the impossibility of acting on her intensely sexual nature. Perdita and Xavier are passionately attracted to each other, but until Perdita finally makes her ultimate rebellion from her society, she is not free at all to act on that passion, although she honestly admits her feelings to Xavier, shocking Xavier and almost shocking the reader, given the context of the narrator who continuously implies that she should be keeping those passions invisible.
The confinements that finally drive Perdita to her rebellion Oates buries in the narrator's prose, graphically demonstrating how Perdita's needs are invisible to society and how her actions are "exposed" only insofar as they are scandalous. In a lengthy parenthetical phrase, for example, the narrator details Perdita's unsuccessful attempt to adopt an infant, her desire to personally manage her Iphigenia royalties (a desire thwarted by her husband), and her joining "a ladies' cycling club, with the brazen intention of bicycling in Juniper Park, in a veritable army of bright-colored stockings, tamo'-shanters, and bloomers!—this caprice being cut short, as one might imagine, when Reverend Bunting was informed by a parishioner." Perdita's attempt to keep the infant is made especially poignant by Xavier's discovery that Perdita baptized the child "Iphigenia" and that, despite the "tearful protestations, and threats the unhappy woman made against her own life," Reverend Bunting and Dr. Hatch "had concurred in their judgment that to provide costly medical treatment for the piteous thing, and, as it were, 'nurse' it along, would be contrary to God's will … [and therefore] the foundling was allowed most mercifully to expire."
In this novel Oates uses chapter titles to great effect, and also causes her narrator—through the device of Xavier's "detecting"—to reveal chronological events in highly significant ways. Therefore, it is easy to make a case for the fact that the child Iphigenia's death or murder (part of the terrible strand of children's deaths and murders that runs through this novel) is the final horror that caused Perdita's rebellion. Oates tells the story of the infant's death in the chapter titled "The Betrothal," where Xavier discovers evidence of Perdita's love for him and visits Perdita to find her wearing, instead of her wedding ring, an antique ruby ring she took from Xavier when they were children. At this point in the narrative, the reader, although not the narrator or Xavier, finds the title of this story, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown," and many other clues beginning to add up to the possible (although never completely clear) solution of the murders: that Perdita and Xavier planned the murder of Harmon Bunting, Letitia Bunting, and Amanda Poindexter, and that Xavier, disguised as "the Red-Haired Specter" carried out the gruesome ax murders. Perdita's being found in her bridal gown raving about rape makes sense in the context of her finally acting on (even if in an extreme way) her passion for Xavier.
Oates's supernatural and "real" methods in Perdita's rebellion and vindication merge more in her twentieth-century story than in Georgina's nineteenth-century one. In Perdita's story the ghostly element is tied to the psychological. If "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower" is a ghost story told in the manner of Henry James or Edith Wharton with at least the possibility of "real" ghosts, "The Bloodstained Bridal Gown" is more a ghost story told in the manner of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House—there are ghostly occurrences, but the agents are ultimately flesh-and-blood people acting under peculiar psychological motives.
The ghostly agent in Perdita's story is Xavier, who acts in alcohol-induced trances from which he awakens with total amnesia. For a period of time before the murders, Xavier "visits" (much like the ghostly Catherine in Wuthering Heights) Perdita's window as a "demon," a "most diabolical agent, in that his countenance seemed angelic!" By the end of the story, Xavier and the careful reader realize that he has committed the murders so that he and Perdita can be together; he even confesses to a friend (but not to the authorities) that he worked "in order to consummate a secret design" (emphasis supplied). The "real" part of Perdita's rebellion and vindication is in her method of escape. By her participation in the "secret design" (which, incidentally, is never "proven" in the narrative, but which makes sense given the clues Oates provides and given Xavier's chivalrous reluctance to discuss the plan), Perdita achieves both her freedom and the object of her passion. After a suitable period of what the narrator describes as an almost comatose convalescence from her rape by the red-haired specter, Perdita reappears in Winterthurn on her bicycle, wearing bloomers, kissing Xavier in public. Eventually she marries him and has a child.
Assuming that she did assist Xavier in the crime, there is a certain poetic justice in her posing as the upper-class victim of the murderer's rape. Perhaps Oates intends the reader to see Perdita as deliberately playing the role of woman as hapless victim—a part so believable to patriarchal authorities that it would remove her from investigation as the possible murderer. Whether or not Perdita is completely posing as a victim or whether she is truly driven nearly mad by the murders and Xavier's rape is left appropriately open to question. Throughout the novel it is clear that women like Georgina and Perdita do well even to be half-rebels; that their society has so indoctrinated them to accept blame and guilt for acts they did not do, any escape at all is heroic.
It might be argued that Oates's picture of the vindicated or the victorious, of the nonvictim, is not very encouraging if the best she can do is show us an Emily Dickinson recluse or an accomplice to an ax murderer. And that may be an argument worth making. But given the psychological history of both Georgina and Perdita, a case can be made for Oates's doing well with the task she set herself. Both women are corrupted by the patriarchy, but they are far from being total, passive victims. They cannot (and cannot be expected to) escape from patriarchal corruption, but what they accomplish—from poetry to hauntings to actual refusal to accept corruption—is by no means meager. And, Oates gives the reader the third sister, Thérèse, who understands very well how the patriarchy protects itself; she tells Xavier of his naïve mistakes. Thérèse, too, may be guilty. There are clues in the novel that point to the possibility of her acting out perverse behavior or participating in the planning of crimes. But Thérèse is at least a more moderate victor than the violent Perdita or the recluse Georgina. With the financial security provided by her own work and by Iphigenia's poems, and freed of the judge, Thérèse is a successful version of the woman Georgina tried to be: a respected teacher at that same girls' school Georgina had to resign from, a well-dressed woman who even surprises people with experimentation like the "permanent wave," and (appropriate to the heterosexual world of the novel) the companion and eventually wife of the kind, gentle headmaster of the boys' school, a man much like the suitor Georgina was forced to refuse. In fact, Thérèse thinks while comparing the headmaster to Xavier, he "seemed in some obscure wise less manly, as he was the more human!"
Nevertheless, Oates is very much the realist—or the naturalist—even when entering into the world of the ghost story and the detective novel. Mysteries of Winterthurn climaxes, in fact, with a vision of hell called "the Hotel Paradise," with yet another "angel-child, a cherub, amazingly blighted by the hand of his Maker, as if in wrath, or in violent whimsy" and with the death of a renegade rebel from the patriarchal class in despair over his inability to protect the woman he loves, who is black, and their child, this angel. Obviously, the society Oates depicts is corrupt. While she steps forward to identify female victims within a society that victimizes nearly all of its members, she does not pretend to offer redemption. Her hero can become enlightened during his discovery of the patriarchy's crimes. He cannot find solutions. In fact, innocence lost means only that he, too, is corrupt. Xavier's journey haunts him with the knowledge that "there is, after all, no innocence in Mankind; but only degrees and refinements of guilt."
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