Joyce Carol Oates and the Traits of the Mid-Twentieth Century Writer
Just as society changes over time, writing changes over time. Writers today rarely write in the same forms as Shakespeare once did. As well as style, the subjects of writing change, with this expected since society has changed over time. For example, it is hardly likely that Shakespeare would have written about the issue of feminism. Even looking at writing on a shorter time scale of a century, it can be seen that writing styles and themes change. These changes are so apparent that there are various traits associated with twentieth century writing and other traits associated with writing in the second half of the twentieth century. To illustrate how these traits appear in literature, the work of one of the most celebrated American writers of the twentieth century will be discussed. This writer is Joyce Carol Oates, with Oates a mid twentieth-century writer. Some of the traits associated with the mid twentieth-century writer include: writers use spare dialogue and often employ a disjointed style, writers seek to create open works with alternate meanings, writers create works where the aim is to avoid creating any sense of completeness or any central reference point, writers focus on the artificiality of any total perspective, and women's issues and gender relationships are a focus. Each of these traits can be seen in the works of Joyce Carol Oates. To illustrate how these traits are incorporated into her work, three works will be discussed. The first work discussed will be the short story The Lady with the Pet Dog. Another short story, Heat, will be discussed second. Finally, the short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? will be discussed.
The short story The Lady with the Pet Dog is actually a rewriting of Anton Chekhov's earlier story of the same name. Chekhov tells the story of a young man, Gurov, in an unhappy marriage who meets a young girl, Anna, while on vacation. In the end of the story the main character leaves his wife and realizes the real love he feels for Anna. Oates retells this story by changing the perspective and describing the events from Anna's perspective. This is a good example of the trait of creating works with alternate meanings. Oates is creating a story that has alternate meanings itself, while also showing that Chekhov's version can be looked at in another way. This is a common characteristic of Oates's work, with this seen in various other works. In Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates Greg Johnson notes that several of her novels, including her first successful novel Bellefleur took this approach by reimagining American history and representing it in new ways. This is also a good example of Oates making an effort to focus attention on the artificiality of any total perspective. Chekhov created a total perspective and a clear message in his version, by focusing on the main male character, while largely ignoring the perspective of Anna. By showing Anna's perspective, Oates illustrates that Chekhov's story only has clear meaning because it tells just one side of the story. In short, the events are based on the interactions of at least two people and as soon as you include these two people, a total clear perspective is not possible. The story also has the trait of not creating any sense of completeness or any central reference point. In Chekhov's version the reference point was the main male character of Gurov. In Oates's version the narration is focused more on events, and less on the character's emotional responses or thought patterns. Even with Anna as the main character, Oates does not include the emotion that would give the events clear meaning. This means it is up to the reader to establish what the events mean and how they should interpret them. This includes the fact that Oates never gives the male character a name, only referring to him as 'the stranger.' This makes it even more difficult for the reader to establish the overall meaning of the events being described. The use of spare dialogue and a disjointed style is another characteristic evident in The Lady with the Pet Dog. Dialogue is used very sparsely, with description used more than interaction between characters. Oates also chooses not to tell the story as a straight narration, but instead to use constant flashbacks. The story begins in the middle of the event, flashes back to the past to fill in the gaps, and then moves forward. Finally, The Lady with the Pet Dog is a story dealing with women's issues and gender relationships. Oates takes a character that was barely represented in Chekhov's version and allows her story to be told. This approach suggests a feminist perspective. The story also focuses on the relationship between the two, with the overall theme of the story being the failure of love. It is important to note that Oates does not write the story as a love story. In contrast it is more like an anti-love story. In the beginning of the story Anna expresses how she feels about love saying that she believed in her husband, but that it all turned out wrong. In the end of the story Anna and Gurov apparently realize their love for each other with Anna saying Gurov is her destiny. While this would suggest a love story on the surface, Oates approach makes Anna's statement of love for Gurov insincere. From the character hoping that love does not let her down at the beginning, to the character declaring that she has found her destiny at the end, the impression is given not that she has found real love, but that she has convinced herself that Gurov is her love. The overall impact is to show Anna as a character waiting for love to save her. In the end then, the story suggests that relationships may not be about real love, but about people desperately wanting to believe in love. It is also noted that this is a common characteristic of Oates's stories. One source describes the female characters in Oates's stories as being "in need of comfort from men" while noting that they usually don't get what they want (Themes in Joyce Carol Oates' Writings). This is exactly the impression the readers gets at the end of the story: that Anna has not got the love she wants, while being so in need of comfort that she fools herself into believing she has really found love. With this approach to women's issues and gender relationships, The Lady with the Pet Dog meets the fifth trait of the mid twentieth-century writer.
Heat is another short story that meets many of the traits associated with the mid twentieth-century writer. Heat was included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, with Oates also including an introduction to the story. In this introduction she states that the story was deliberately created in a way that deviates from the usual narrative style. Oates describes her intention saying the story was written, "...as if each paragraph, or chord, were separate from the rest. For how otherwise can we speak of the unspeakable, except through the prism of technique?" (Oates 607). This style of the story makes it a good example of using spare dialogue and writing in a disjointed style. The comments by Oates also show that this is not just done for no particular reason, this style was specifically chosen so that Oates could present disturbing subject matter. There is no doubt that the subject matter is distressing, with the story describing the murders of eleven-year-old twins. This is a characteristic that is common to Oates's work. One author notes that Oates has received much criticism for including too much violence and focusing too heavily on disturbing events (Kamm). Oates's disjointed style is a method that separates the reader from the tragedy of it, so the story can be taken in. The disjointed style is also expanded, with the story itself not offering a clear ending. As Oates jumps from description to description, what happened to the twins is the main point of interest. It is known that they have died, but the circumstances surrounding their deaths are not as clear. Throughout the story, the reader expects that this will be the conclusion, as if Oates has set up a mystery and will then solve it in the end. However, Oates offers no such conclusion. The reader is left to guess at why they died. The reader is also left to guess at what the meaning is in the story. Oates emphasizes in the story that the twins could not bear to be separated, including saying that. Oates also uses the phrase "when death comes for you, sometimes you know and sometimes you don't" at several points in the story. One interpretation is that this suggests that one twin knew of the death and the other…