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Critical Essay by Margaret Rozga
SOURCE: "Threatening Places, Hiding Places: The Midwest in Selected Stories by Joyce Carol Oates," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 34-44.
Below, Rozga discusses the significance of Midwestern setting in Oates's short fiction, focusing on her representations of Madison, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan.
Joyce Carol Oates has employed numerous settings for her short fiction over the course of her twenty-five years as a publishing writer. Frequently she has chosen to set her stories in the location where she herself resided at the time of the story's composition. Thus having grown up in rural New York state, Oates often used rural settings for her earliest stories. But these rural settings are generic rather than specific; no actual places are named. Several early reviewers compared her settings and her characters to those of William Faulkner. Oates did, in fact, at first begin to establish her own fictional territory, Eden County.
Oates moved on, however, to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and later to teach at the University of Detroit. When she chose to write stories set in these locales, she did not fictionalize in the same way. Instead in this later group of stories, she names the actual cities, and, moreover, she names specific streets and sites in those cities. Despite this move toward the more realistic, place continues to play a symbolic function in her fiction. The economic and racial tensions that characterized the historic Detroit in the 1960's become important in Oates' fiction as reflections of widespread disintegration, personal as well as social. What Detroit means and what Oates has made of that meaning are perhaps fairly widely known through the reputation of her award winning novel them and through one of her most frequently anthologized stories, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again." In this last named work, the city itself functions as the chief antagonist, a degree of intense emphasis on place not equalled in many of the other stories. Nevertheless, something remains of that sense of place as working against the character's search for personal meaning and purpose.
With Madison, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan, in particular, Oates suggests that the academic atmosphere in the one case and the social upheaval in the other inhibit the individual. In the academic atmosphere of Madison, Oates' protagonists take refuge in the intellectual and stunt their emotional growth. On the other hand, characters cast adrift in the social disintegration of Detroit experience such tumultuous and twisted emotion that their power of understanding on an intellectual level is overwhelmed. Only those are "saved" who find the equivalent of Madison in Detroit's universities or, what is more usual, find refuge in Detroit's suburbs.
Four stories illustrate with particular clarity how these Midwestern cities can be places of refuge or places of terror: "Expense of Spirit," "Sacred Marriage," "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction," and "The Dead." Reference to a fifth story, "The Lady With the Pet Dog," may help in maintaining a balanced view. Though Oates looks critically at the cities in her Midwestern experience and fiction, she does not resort to stereotypes. The Midwest is not ridiculed as the ignorant, uncultured provinces. Unlike the famous Chekhov story to which hers is a counterpart, Oates's story has no wretched violins, no ugly grey fences. Ohio, the home of Oates's Anna, is not the S—- of Chekhov's heroine. The twentieth century American Midwest poses different challenges.
The challenge of Madison, Wisconsin, is to maintain a sense of wholeness in an atmosphere that may encourage intellectual development but does so in a way detrimental to the person. "The Expense of Spirit," from Oates's first collection of short stories, By the North Gate, is set at a graduate student party in Madison. It shows how grotesque human behavior can become when characters are isolated from ordinary human responsibilities and pursue intellectual goals to the neglect of other aspects of development. Leo Scott, surveying the apartment where the party is being held, wonders, "What would become of them all? Would leaving college jolt them overnight into becoming American citizens, thinking of house payments and cars and church—for the children, of course—and supermarket stamps to paste in books?"
At the present time of the story, the characters face no such worries. Leo, in particular, has taken refuge in his role as scholar. The role, however, is not enough to protect him from the very real pain of his wife's leaving him. He goes to the party, desperate to find her, but instead is brought face to face with himself. The noise at the party escalates from the playing of "soft, thin, effeminate pieces" by Ravel on the piano to the drunken rebuff Gordie hurls at Leo, "What the hell are you looking at? I hate your goddam face!" As more people arrive and more quarrels erupt, it is clear that behind the intellectual pretensions, chaos reigns.
In the midst of this din, Leo loses his hold on the personal image with which he had come to the party, "Watching himself in the mirror as he shaved, he had prepared his expression for his friends: he would appear to them as fresh, happy, perhaps even innocent." In the midst of the confusion of attempted comfort and actual hostility at the party, Leo cannot long maintain that pose. Later he will turn to an external embodiment of the image of innocence in his student, Miss Edwards.
In the meantime, Leo locates another image for himself. He sees "exotic masks on one wall—three in a row. One of them reminded Leo of himself: a thin, drawn, dissipated face, with a sardonic grin implying a constantly present sense of irony that had choked off all other emotions, even self-pity." As with the pose of innocence, however, Leo's attempt at the ironic or sophisticated cracks as soon as it is challenged. Leo attempts to banter with Claude, but Claude cuts Leo off, "If I were you I would not make qualitative judgments on anyone else. You are not the man for it." There is no irony in Leo's reply: "What does that mean?" Leo is angry enough to pour his beer over Claude's head, but he cannot bring himself to act at all. He cannot fulfill either of the images he picks out for himself. He is neither the innocent, nor is he the sophisticated ironist.
At this point, again with an escalation of noise and "commotion," the two people arrive who fulfill these images. Miss Edwards, Leo's student, is only seventeen, and she exclaims in her excitement at being included in "faculty" circles. The graduate students all laugh at her naivete about their status. Jason, the Black graduate student who has brought her to the party, is from the start the ironist Leo would like to be. He explains to the girl the reason for the laughter in such a way so as to establish his own control over the situation: "'Oh, ain't she a princess!' he cried. 'Thinkin' they let the faculty teach ones young as her. Honey, it's dirt cheap labor that teaches you—ain't they 'splained that in the catalogue?'" Leo attaches himself to the couple who represent the combination of innocence and irony he believes could save him from painful realities, even from himself. He finds some respite, at least temporarily, in Miss Edwards' chatter and in Jason's vodka.
The whole party, in fact, then centers itself about Jason and Miss Edwards and, for a time, tones down. Miss Edwards is allowed a long monologue on topics ranging from her excitement at being at the university to her belief in equality. When she finishes, the cynicism of the group, and the noise, begin to reassert themselves. Someone claps; Marty sticks out his tongue and says, "Christ." Leo thinks again of his wife, of her in their bedroom mirror, but he cannot even imagine his reflection in that mirror, a sign of his growing realization that their marriage is over. Someone then brings home to Leo a cruel but accurate reflection. In a game of charades, the imitator wails, "But where's my wife?" Leo is again paralyzed. Only Miss Edwards can respond; without any hesitation, she slaps the person playing charades and flees from the party. In her innocence, she knows her only possible response to such cruelty is to flee before she gets caught up in the larger charade of the party itself.
Jason and Leo follow after her, but as much a part of the Madison academic scene as they are, they bring chaos with them. The three struggle together, break free and struggle again. In a description that shows how he has internalized the noisy atmosphere of the party, Leo feels his "mind had emptied and was buzzing hollowly." Leo's final position is desperate. He falls "to his knees in the cold street and embracing their legs, their bodies, as if he were terrified they might leave him." Leo holds on to Jason and Miss Edwards as images of the self he thinks he needs to be to survive. The innocent can reject and flee from the ugly; the sophisticate can laugh it off. Leo can really do neither. The party at Madison presents a challenge to his sense of identity that he cannot meet. Whatever success he may have as a student and as a teacher does not translate into an ability to relate effectively with others.
Howard Dean in "Sacred Marriage" [in Marriages and Infidelities] has advanced somewhat further in his academic career, but he has not advanced at all in an ability to come to terms with himself, and he is perhaps even further behind Leo in understanding others. When he fails in the end, defeated by a dead man, in both academic and human terms, he invents a self-protective purpose with which to shield himself from the failure, and he hurries back to Madison where his illusion may survive.
The illusion with which he concludes is the illusion with which he begins. Dean invests the dead poet Connell Pearce with power over him. In his initial letter to Pearce's widow Emilia, Dean had written, "Your husband has partly created me. Without his work I would not be the person I am." But what sort of person is Dean, the scholar, the academic? Gradually, enough of his past is revealed that we have an impression. Dean admits to being frightened sometimes by his fiancee "who had not exactly promised she would marry him," and frightened even of "her little girl, whose stepfather he might well become." He feels that love is a "mysterious process. He had always felt himself apart from it, baffled and unable to control it."
On the other hand, the poet whom he studies and whom he claims has shaped his life is the epitome of control. Pearce had even planned a very effective means to protect himself from scholars like Dean and Felix Fraser who arrives shortly after Dean himself. The main purpose of Pearce's marriage to Emilia seems to have been to leave behind a guardian of his unfinished work. So Dean concludes when he discovers Pearce's notes for a religious parable: "He is a noble, dying old man, she is a very beautiful young woman. She is worthy of being his wife. And therefore he marries her and she nurses him through his last illness, buries him, and blesses all the admirers of his art who come to her, for she alone retains X's divinity."
The critic is aghast to find out the poet has been one step ahead of him and that he is just living out the story that the writer created. He is even more disturbed to find out that Emilia will live out the part created for her, though she seems to be unaware of how she is playing a part. She has no intention of marrying Dean despite their affair. Dean, in his depression, thinks that his is a "joke of a life." The self-examination, however, is all too short-lived. As he returns to the Midwest, he discards any disturbing thoughts and puts himself back in line with the life and goals he held before his experience in the exotic-sounding Mouth-of-Lowmoor, West Virginia:
The sun rose. The fog burned away. Howard's depression burned away, gradually, and by the time he came to the Ohio state line at Marietta it was nearly gone. He felt instead the same marvelous energy he had felt upon first seeing those piles of Pearce's unpublished, unguessed-at-works. That was real. Yes, that was real, and whatever had happened to Howard was not very real…."
Thus Howard Dean seems to be concluding with a retreat into his academic role and a retreat from confrontation with himself and all his fears.
Torborg Norman [in Isolation and Contact, 1984] advances the argument that Howard Dean leaves Pearce's home with enough insight to enter into a meaningful marriage with his previously feared fiancee back in Madison. Norman writes that "the real art in the Oatesian sense would lie in the transformation of the nervous fiancee to dream lover." However desirable such a transformation might be, Howard Dean's concluding thoughts seem to preclude that happening. He resolves instead "to bring Connell Pearce to the world's attention: that was his mission, the shape of his life." The fiancee has no explicit place in his concluding thoughts. He is going back to Madison as a place of narrow refuge.
Detroit presents quite a different kind of challenge to one's sense of identity and search for a full life. The narrator/protagonist in "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters" [in The Wheel of Love] is perhaps the first to define the problem posed by Detroit: "In Detroit the multiplication of things is brutal. I think it broke me down. Weak, thin, selfish, a wreck, I have become oblivious to the deaths of other people." Another fragmented narrative, also in The Wheel of Love, Oates' third collection of short stories, further develops this definition of Detroit. Detroit is the place of impending storms, threatening apocalypse because it presents more disorder than anyone can comprehend or deal with. Most people respond by shutting out whatever would disturb their superficial peace. The young narrator/protagonist, however, is driven by the atmosphere of the city to search for something she cannot quite name. She catalogues the weather in such a way so as to suggest some of the forces at work: "small warnings of frost, soot warnings, traffic warnings, hazardous lake conditions for small craft and swimmers, restless Negro gangs, restless cloud formations, restless temperature aching to fall out the very bottom of the thermometer or shoot up over the top and boil everything over in red mercury." The social climate, as well as the actual weather, is the disturbing quality about Detroit; social cohesion is tragically lacking. The undercurrent in Detroit's weather is the discontent of those who do not partake in the city's wealth. The narrator, a suburbanite herself, is made to feel the wrath of the dispossessed when she is beaten by Princess and Dolly in the lavatory of the Detroit House of Correction. Princess and Dolly typify the city which is dirty and dangerous and poor, except for Hudson's Department Store and Cobo Hall, "that expensive tomb."
In the suburbs, on the other hand, is the boredom and vacuity of those with abundant possessions. Separated from the dirt and disorder of the city, suburbanites feel safe. Some of the narrator's thoughts capture and exaggerate this attitude. As she listens to the maid vacuum the carpet in her parents' room, for example, she thinks, "a vacuum cleaner's roar is a sign of all good things." Beneath the clean surface, however, all is not perfectly in order. Some of the suburban young people shoplift, do poorly in school, or drift into the city, like the narrator, vaguely searching for more substantive reality. But they are inarticulate about what they seek. The narrator cannot answer the question posed by Clarita, the nondescript, city-conditioned woman who presents herself to the narrator, saying, "I never can figure out why girls like you bum around down here. What are you looking for anyway?"
Whatever she seeks, what the narrator finds is abuse, violence and the rage of those kept from the good of suburban cleanliness. Princess and Dolly who beat her, help her understand the meaning of her experience. The moment of insight comes through with her switch from third to first person: "Why is she beaten up? Why do they pound her, why such hatred? Princess vents all the hatred of a thousand silent Detroit winters on her body, the girl whose body belongs to me, fiercely she rides across the Midwestern plains on this girl's tender bruised body … revenge on the oppressed minorities of America! revenge on the slaughtered Indians! revenge on the female sex, on the male sex, revenge on Bloomfield Hills, revenge, revenge…."
Though she has this moment of insight, the young narrator is unable to carry the weight she feels thrown at her. She cannot resolve the contradictions and discrepancies in the society represented by Detroit and its suburbs. She can only follow her parents back to Bloomfield Hills and to her pink bedroom where she weeps, haunted by the memory of what she experienced in the city. She is at the end similar to Leo Scott in "Expense of Spirit," clinging desperately to fragments, the illusion of a place of refuge having been destroyed. The image of her Detroit lover now superimposes itself on the presence of her father. Though she abandons the third person stance she has used for much of the story, her use of the first person does not carry with it any assurance of her personal stability or triumph. She weeps because the "God in gold and beige carpeting" has no power to rescue or pull her world together into a coherent whole.
The brutal climate of Detroit reaches a deathly point in Oates' "The Dead" [in Marriages and Infidelities]. In this story Oates makes Detroit a place of literal death—the place where the student Emmett Norlan was beaten by the police during an anti-war demonstration and dies later in the hospital of liver failure; "he just disintegrated…." It is the place where Ilena Williams' marriage dies, unable to survive the strain of her infidelity and her husband's bullying. It is the place where values die. Father Hoffman, head of the English Department at the small Catholic university in Detroit where Ilena taught is "a little corrupt in his academic standards: the Harvard years had been eclipsed long ago by the stern daily realities of Detroit." His corruption costs Ilena her job. She is fired for refusing to agree to grant a degree to a master's candidate who cannot name a poem. She has enough sense of value left to be "astonished" that "anyone would allow him to teach English anywhere." But the institutional and personal corruption around her takes its toll.
Ilena finds herself consuming whatever drugs she can get hold of. Her personal problems are intertwined with the larger social problems of Detroit. Ilena perceives the connection in these terms: "The marriage had been dwindling all during the Detroit years—1965–1967—and they both left the city shortly before the riot, which seemed to Ilena, in her usual poetic, hyperbolic, pill-sweetened state, a cataclysmic flowering of their own hatred." She seems aware of her exaggeration, and, at least as it applies to her marriage, other evidence in the story provides a more sober view. When, for example, her husband reacts scornfully to the idea of having children because, "You don't bring children into the world to fix up a rotten marriage," Ilena thinks that she had not known it was rotten, "exactly." It may also be that the cause and effect work as well in the opposite direction, the negative despairing attitude prevalent in the city twisting the emotions of the characters and thus blighting their marriage.
At any rate, Ilena is able to survive the Detroit experience. Her artistic sense, and some distance from the city, allow her to survive both the personal and the social disorder. Drawing on the experience, she writes a novel, Death Dance. Though she considers it her weakest novel, it becomes a best seller and frees her from financial worries. More important, the act of writing keeps her suicidal thoughts at bay. She survives well enough to return to Detroit and re-encounters the faculty at her former university. Finally in the arms once again of her former lover, she is brought to a vision of a clean slate, if not a new start. Echoing the ending of James Joyce's story "The Dead," Oates concludes with Ilena hearing "beyond the man's hoarse, strained breathing the gentle breathing of the snow, falling shapelessly upon them all."
If Detroit and Madison represent a Midwestern threat and a Midwestern avoidance of reality in particularly extreme and grotesque form, Ohio represents the Midwest in a more moderate way. Oates chooses Ohio as the twentieth century American counterpart to Anton Chekhov's provincial Russian town S—-, each place depicted in the respective author's version of "The Lady With the Pet Dog." Oates does not make Ohio the obvious object of ridicule as Chekhov does with S—-. Chekhov shows the stiffness and rigidity of nineteenth century Russia ensconced in S—-. The orchestra playing at the theatre where Gurov meets Anna again is wretched; obvious badges indicate rank of patrons at the theatre; Anna's house is protected by an ugly grey fence studded with nails. But in Oates, the lovers meet again at a concert and no comment is made on the quality of the music performed. The middle-class status of Oates's Anna can be inferred from her large house, her leisure time and her husband's preoccupation with his work, but aside from knowing he has "business friends" and "a future" we do not get any specific indications of rank. Her house is large and rambling, and, if it symbolizes anything, it is a quality opposite to that of the house of Chekhov's Anna. It symbolizes a society, a way of life in which lack of structure becomes an obstacle to finding oneself. At least this is Anna's perception: "her spirit detached itself from her and drifted about the rooms of the large house she lived in with her husband, a shadow-woman delicate and imprecise. There was no boundary to her, no edge."
The Ohio setting of this story, then, shows the Midwest as more amorphous, without the specific threat of one-dimensional, academic distortion or the emerging hostility of deprived classes. This story, like "The Dead," offers some contrast between the Midwest and the Northeast. Oates's Anna meets her lover on Cape Cod, where she stays in another rambling house, that of her family which supplies her with no better sense of identity than the house of her husband. But amid the noise of the beach, she is defined by the man who will be her lover in the sketch he does of Anna as the lady with the pet dog. Anna carries the sketch and the newly awakened sense of self back to Ohio where she furtively and anxiously re-examines it, trying to make sense of the two halves of her life. She does not find it easy to come to terms with herself, and before she does she flirts with suicide. Finally she sees in her lover the possibility of maintaining a sense of individuality while being in love. Though she seems to find the most successful resolution of these characters, she does not face the test of jeering pseudo-friends, as did Leo Scott in "Expense of Spirit," or the disintegrating social fabric of Detroit in "The Dead." For Oates, Ohio is neither the threat nor the place of escape that Detroit or Madison seem to be.
The facts Oates presents about Detroit and Madison—Woodward and Livernois Avenues, State Street, the anti-war demonstrations and the 1967 riot—are specifically and literally true in a way her portrayal of earlier fictional settings is not. But Oates draws out the symbolic dimension of the facts to create in these Midwestern stories a picture of a society with fatal divisions between the intellectual and the emotional, the rich and the poor, the young and questioning and the older and more established. Her protagonists are sharply and sometimes painfully aware of the divisions. A few, like Anna in "The Lady With the Pet Dog," may find a measure of personal happiness, but the search for personal identity and a meaningful life is difficult for all of them. When such complications as a distorted, one-dimensional academic milieu or a disorienting social upheaval are added, the struggle defies success and Oates's characters do well to cling to their choices or imagine a new beginning as best they can.
This section contains 4,129 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)