This research paper is a literary critique of Joyce Carol Oates’ Marriages and Infidelities, a collection of short stories.
Joyce Carol Oates’ writing is like a puzzle, whose pieces are either already put into place for you, or whose edges are so obscure that they do not mesh to form a comprehensible design of events. Each piece is exact and fitting in some places leaving some room for intrigue and mystery, or so distorted in other places that the meaning becomes disfigured. But it goes without saying that in all of Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories, there is an intensity of feeling which comes charging through the simplicity and starkness of her writing that transcends most of her vague transitions and shadowy relations between characters. Images are not even left to the reader’s imagination and description is kept to a minimum.
Ms. Oates is concerned with the way in which the world acts upon her characters, and how they, in turn, act upon one another. It is the accumulation of experiences filling the void of our beings, like trash in a receptacle, that is only emptied, relieved of its contents, after it is overflowing, that is the ongoing theme of most of her short stories. She seems to bring her characters to the breaking point, to the apogee of their tolerance and will for life, and in the end they give in, some give up, perhaps against their will, from some outside imposition. Her characters are run over by trucks, killed by their husbands (as with the frail blonde female charity patient in “Inventions” who is killed by her husband, having become resigned to the fact before it actually happens, sensing her impending doom and struggling against it until fate intercedes and takes over); and the little boy Jackie (in “Puzzle”) who is at the mercy of his overanxious parents, ridden with guilt at the responsibility of this child’s welfare, whose “accidental drowning” is closer to a self-fulfilled prophecy.
There is another common theme in Ms. Oates’ short stories – she creates a sense of detachment (partly expressed by her repeated line, “I am not here,” used in many of her stories), and at the same time she counters this detachment with an intensity of feeling that seems to yearn for the detachment as the only refuge; and for many of her characters, this final relief can only come through death.
Her lack of detailed analysis, visual imagery, descriptive prose, or shifting focuses within one piece, lend her stories a carefully guarded style that is too stark, and the segue of thoughts and events too abrupt to allow for smooth, engrossed reading. Rather than merging with her characters, it is preferable for the reader to regard them from an objective distance, lest we become equally emotionally entangled in her web of contradictions, and her whirlpool of obsession. While keeping her writing stark, she appears to be preventing poetry in her prose rather than striving for simplicity of style.
The point of view remains constant – the reader is always looking through her eyes at her subjective world. Her problem, says Brad Darrack, is “temperament.” Her main subject is her self and therefore, her character’s must all veer in the same direction.
There is a total absence from or disregard for form in most of her short stories. Her experiments with form in ”
Nightmusic,” and “Plots,” are not successful and suffer from an almost contrived passion; it is too subjective to convey meaning. The impact of sheer anguish and terror which permeates her themes create their own amorphous mass that smothers its characters rather than shaping them. What Elizabeth Dalton has disapprovingly called “violence in the head,” is, I suppose, the vestiges of her Irish-Catholic, working-class background. “She is too burdened by some mysterious demon to want to be an artist, to make the right and well-fitting structure. . . .”
What makes a true artist, perhaps, is their ability to master the fete of their characters, to control them, rather than be the victim of their overpowering manifestation. There has been much dispute as to whether a good writer overpowers or is overpowered by his characters. We are all victims of experience to an extent, but it is how we actively shape or reproduce that experiences that determines the path of our live. Ms. Oates appears to be both regurgitating the past and reflecting upon it, in a steady stream of thoughts. But at times her writing has the tone of someone who is at the mercy of their experience, her inner stirrings, rather than the master of her craft. A skilled artist sifts the unconscious flow, straining the excess, rather than letting it gush out in a raging torrent of images and impressions. In the annals of literature her prose is neither fresh nor original nor vivacious. It is tormented, but neither in a socially constructive way nor in a psychologically profound one. She is purging herself and the vestiges of her soul will not endure to be hailed as a writer who created a rare and powerful vision and the dictates of time may wear her passages thin. Her laments are standard, though far from trivial, but may be quickly rendered antiquated because of her lack of polished style. Her venom is more of a seething tirade and precarious adjustment to the social ills that befall us rather than a profound statement on humankind. There are others who have come before her and spoken on the same subject, but with an eloquence of style that will be remembered (Gogol, Melville, Ingmar Bergman). “Joyce Carol Oates is an anarchonism: the last of the 19th century Gothic novelists. . . .”
Those who are not moved by her prose style or her blatant uncrafted, shifting forms, cannot help but be moved by the vividness of feeling which she unabashedly creates and the immediacy and urgency of action. If the reader is not sucked into this miasmas of pain punctured further by the reality she provokes, then they are most likely shying away from the introjection of reader into character which renders the reader vulnerable and almost responsible. Upon reading Oates’ stories, I am needled with the obligation to act, to do something, having been impelled, despite myself, by the momentum of her convictions, whose force is at the same time negated somewhat by her counter-conviction that, although life is cruel and harsh, that is the way things are. Change may be as inevitable as our doom, but resistance is not her mode – submission and a detached acceptance is her motivation. She introduces the facts while not allowing herself to get tangled up in the well of conflict introduced by her grisly bits of reality. “These (stories in Marriages and Infidelities) are her characteristic exercises in extreme sympathy, a sympathy that lays out all the facts and almost scientifically withholds easy judgments. . . .”
In “Puzzle,” Oates explores the intertwined relationship of three people grappling with the strain of survival, thwarted by the emotional agony they afflict on one another, yet clearly unable to take the elements of her life and unravel the mystery of each so as to pass judgment. Events in the life of these three characters, a mother, her husband and her son, invade their already precarious existence – ravaged by the aggregate of time and the lack of emotional resources and physical sustenance – being manipulated by external forces without being given the power to manipulate these forces themselves. In frustration, they turn against one another in a twisted passion of love and hate. And naturally it is their little boy, Jackie, the weakest and most vulnerable by virtue of his age and inexperience, who is the most afflicted. His parents’ fears as to what might happen to him are magnanimous, and these fears are transferred to the little boy who becomes obsessed with death and acts on their fears, becoming the victim of his parents’ obsessions. If the mother had a forewarning that her little boy might fall into the ditch (because of his obvious display of intentioned carelessness and self-destructive actions) why did she not do something to prevent this inevitable accident? In her own aftermath of guilt she wonders the same thing, but never resolves it, and likewise leaves the reader wondering about this unexplained sequence of events. In her own words, she makes a meek attempt at piecing his accident together, but the puzzle still remains. “Jackie did not die because my husband forgot about the ditch . . . he did not die because we had to move here, because my husband was a failure . . . he did not die because I wanted his father dead. There is no reason. He died.”
But all the preceding evidence builds the foundation for an explanation for his demise, and then we are left with none. The complicated triangle of human emotion that passes between three people cannot be wiped away with a simple fact-of-life – that Jackie just slipped (for no apparent reason), and fell (that is gravity, after all), and drowned (there was no one around to save him). In such a case, the reader could be left to their own devices to construe motivation and meaning, but Ms. Oates does not develop her characters strongly enough for us to be able to anticipate their moves and motivations. She is not detached enough from herself as a writer to strip her characters bare and sculpt them into the appropriate mold. But while her depths of introjected emotion may detract from one aspect of her writing, it is never without the passion and plea for empathy that will rouse her readers, if only to squirm uncomfortably at her onslaught of emotion. This seems to be one point of unanimous agreement amongst her critics, that Ms. Oates is wholly consistent in her emotional impact, “To read Oates is to cross an emotional minefield, to be stunned to the soul by multiple explosions, but to emerge to safety again, with the skull ringing with shocked revelation and clarity.”
While some readers may protest Ms. Oates’ lack of clarification and revelation, others may appreciate this detached observation and lack of justification in her writing. In one form she is the documentary journalist, in another sense, a novelist without the reporter’s meticulous and orderly sequence of details and facts; but neither form which she pursues is dynamic enough to stand alone, nor cleverly entwined to be able to segue together.
In the haunts of her autobiographical fiction emerges a kind of Darwinian struggle for survival, with events and feelings all heaped upon one another, without the skillful plotting of theme, of character, and of form that characterizes most worthy novels. For this stream of consciousness documentary style she has been both criticized and applauded. As one critic comments, “To her critic, Miss Oates writes as if she never made the connection between cause and effect, as if she were simply a reporter, not an interpreter. She’s calm when she might have been shrill, and her coolness turns what might have been a feckless story into a powerful one.”
This approach and entrance into her fiction as reporter rather than interpreter works in some of the stories contained in this volume, while not in others. In “Inventions” there is again a similar theme of a complex triangle of people acting upon one another in the struggle for self-affirmation, by attempting to sever the shackle which binds them in a destructive interaction. What incentive lies behind the doctor’s ill-conceived advice to his desperate female patient, who in the end succumbs to the fate she imagined all along – a fate which she disclosed to the doctor in the hope that it might be averted – but which consummated itself in the end despite the doctor’s quiet, careful efforts, and the woman is murdered by her husband. His assistant with her compassion and lack of cool, professional regard, was able to foresee the disaster, and it is hard to believe that the doctor could have been even less observant than she. Again, the theme of detachment enters into this story, and suggests that his separation from the victim prevented the keener vision and foresight that his more empathetic assistant was able to obtain.
In some of her short stories, found in Marriages and Infidelities, Ms. Oates has created visions which are laid out in a way as to leave the whole picture of the imagination of the reader, by only introducing fragments, that the construction must be completed by the reader. This technique, however, is not as skillfully executed in some of her other stories. In “Spiral,” “Plot,” and “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” “the narrative line is so tenuous and the shadow so emphasized that the stories break up on the granite rock of obscurity.”
Aside from all the loose threads and unresolved life lines, fraught with distress and the daily turmoil of existence, even her shadowings and lack of commitment to plot is in its own way provocative. Although the heaviness in some of her stories in this volume weight them down with a plethora of emotion that cannot be comfortably assimilated by the reader, and the single-mindedness of other stories steals away the mystery of life at the core of every human drama, the breadth of her passion and conviction of feeling and the real-life drama consistently portrayed, revives even the weakest of her outpourings, which are well worth ingesting, if only for some momentary reflections on our labyrinthian existence, the events of which could never be reduced to trivia.