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date: 16 June 2024

Oates, Joyce Carolfree

Oates, Joyce Carolfree

  • Maile Chapman


  • North American Literatures

Joyce Carol Oates is a novelist, short-story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet of great intellectual complexity and stylistic range. Her body of work offers an interdisciplinary portrait of American culture that often depicts the darker aspects of human nature through psychological, physical, and sexual violence. Her prolific literary output is now legendary: she has published over one hundred books that include novels, short-story collections, novellas, books of poetry, books for children and young adults, and collections of literary criticism, reviews, and essays on topics ranging from tragedy to boxing. She has received awards and honors too numerous to catalog, including the National Book Award, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature, the PEN Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Short Story, a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel as well as for Life Achievement, a Heidemann Award for one-act plays, a Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Mademoiselle College Fiction Award, and well over a dozen Pushcart Prizes. Her short fiction has appeared twenty-two times in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, and she was the first recipient of an O. Henry special award for continuing achievement (1970). Her contribution to American letters extends beyond the enormous critical and popular response to her work: she has edited several anthologies of short fiction, was instrumental in establishing The Ontario Review, and since 1974 has managed a small press with her husband, Raymond Smith. She taught at the University of Detroit as an instructor (1961–1965) and assistant professor of English (1965–1967), and also at the University of Windsor (Ontario) as a member of the department of English (1967–1978). Since 1978 she has been writer-in-residence and currently is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University.

An academically precocious child, Oates was the first in her family to attend college, and the juxtaposition of her early education in a one-room schoolhouse with her later literary career is represented in several of her novels. Her childhood hometown of Lockport, in upstate New York (where she was born 16 June 1938), also appears often in her writing; it is sometimes described with nostalgia, but frequently poverty and violence appear as part of the social environment, and she has commented that despite the support and stability of her own family life, her memories of early violence in the economically depressed community have influenced and inspired her adult work. In 1956 she left Lockport with a scholarship to Syracuse University (from which she received the B.A. in 1960). While planning for a career in education, she continued to work steadily at her typewriter, producing several novels in a period of time that she has referred to as an “apprenticeship.” Most of them remain unpublished, and many were subsequently destroyed. As an undergraduate she won the prestigious Mademoiselle College Fiction Award for her story “In the Old World,” which would be included in her first published book, a collection of short stories titled By the North Gate (1963). Many reviews of the volume recognized her startling and original talent while singling out the violent content for debate. In fact these early stories deal with themes and preoccupations that appear throughout her later work, such as murder, suicide, rape, and violent assault, and the question of why her work contains such imagery has persisted. It was asked of her so many times that she responded in an essay titled Why Is Your Work So Violent?, in which she exposed the essentially chauvinistic assumptions about suitable topics for “women's writing” behind the question.

Oates left Syracuse to earn her master's degree in English at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her husband, Raymond Smith. They married in 1960, and after completing their degrees the couple moved to Beaumont, Texas. She began a Ph.D. program in English at Rice University in Houston but decided to focus on writing rather than further graduate study when one of her stories was listed on the Honor Roll of Best American Short Stories. Soon after, she received notification that By the North Gate had been accepted for publication.

Early Novels

Oates's first published novel opened a phase of her writing that has been referred to as “psychological realism” and “American naturalism.” With Shuddering Fall (1964) introduces Eden County, a fictionalized version of Oates's childhood landscape, which Karen Herz flees with Shar Rule, the race-car driver son of a neighbor. Their relationship is a struggle characterized by brutality and indifference, and one of their violent sexual encounters causes the pregnant Karen to miscarry. As she hemorrhages, Shar leaves for a racetrack, where he dies in a suicidal crash. The final section of the book describes Karen's subsequent breakdown and recovery in a mental institution and her eventual return to Eden County. Oates's next published novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), would become the first in a “triptych” of novels that examine American life from different social and economic viewpoints. Beginning with the itinerant and impoverished Walpole family traveling across the country in the 1920s and 1930s, the novel follows the life of Clara Walpole, who runs away from the poverty and uncertainty of her upbringing to seek a more secure existence. When her lover leaves her pregnant and stranded, she finds security as the mistress of a wealthy man. Violence once more complicates the relationships, and as an adult the child kills his foster father and himself, after which Clara goes insane and is committed to an institution.

Such instances of unwanted pregnancy, madness, and institutionalization in Oates's work question the limited horizons of women in difficult situations while documenting a distinctly female kind of madness, often with sexual elements. Instability, however, is not limited to female characters and also occurs in the second novel of the trilogy, which takes place among the privileged residents of a suburban community. Expensive People (1968) is the confession of Richard Everett, a gluttonous and repulsive young man who claims to have murdered his mother, Nada. He wants to be punished, but instead he is diagnosed as delusional and his confession is not believed. The final novel of the triptych, them (1969), is the most critically acclaimed of Oates's early novels; it received the National Book Award in 1970. Based on the life of one of her students in Detroit, where Oates and her husband lived at the time of the race riots in 1967, them begins with Loretta, a sixteen-year-old girl living in the slums of Detroit, awakening to find her young lover dead. Realizing that her brother has murdered the boy, in her panic she is “saved” by Howard, a police officer who coerces her into having sex with him even before the body has been moved. Loretta, pregnant, marries Howard, who is later arrested for involvement in a prostitution ring, and the family is exiled. Loretta eventually takes the children back to Detroit, where she is almost immediately arrested for solicitation. And so the sordid cycle of poverty begins again and will lead her children, Maureen and Jules, into circumstances similar to those Loretta had earlier hoped to escape.

In 1967 Oates left the turmoil of Detroit for Windsor, Ontario, after accepting a teaching position at the University of Windsor. Her literary reputation now established, she continued to publish not only novels but also collections of short stories such as The Wheel of Love (1970) and Marriages and Infidelities (1972), as well as collections of essays such as The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (1972) and the poetry collections Anonymous Sins (1969) and Love and Its Derangements (1970). Though Oates's work was well received, some critics commented on the seeming lack of moral conclusions regarding the violence in her fiction. With Wonderland (1971), Oates began a shift toward addressing this issue in a novel that she has called an investigation into the “phantasmagoria” of personality. Also based on a true event, the novel follows Jesse Harte, who as a young boy survives the murderous and suicidal rage of his father that annihilates the other members of his family. As an adult, Jesse seeks replacement father figures and finds them in a series of physicians. Wonderland was published with two different endings, neither of which contains the kind of violent catharsis of her other novels, and one of which gives Jesse the chance to repudiate his father's act of destruction by finding and saving his runaway daughter.

The Gothic Novels

A major stylistic change in Oates's writing is apparent in the best-selling Bellefleur (1980), a vivid tale that incorporates and critiques the genres of romance and historical fiction by blending historical facts with flamboyant and hallucinatory elements such as shape-shifting, clairvoyance, and vampirism. The novel was completed in Princeton, New Jersey, where Oates and her husband relocated in 1978 after she accepted a yearlong position as writer-in-residence at Princeton University that would eventually lead to the endowed chair that she holds today. Just as Wonderland marks the beginning of one shift in her writing, so Bellefleur marks another, and during her early years at Princeton, Oates wrote a series of Gothic novels that reveal her scholarly knowledge of literary convention alongside her ability to subvert the practices of different genres to describe life in America during historical periods. The first of these, A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), capitalizes on the repressive narrative strategies of the romance form by telling the story of the Zinn sisters from the point of view of an elderly, thoroughly nineteenth-century female narrator who upsets everyone with an admission of unmarried motherhood. The next of these Gothic novels, The Crosswicks Horror, takes place in Princeton during the early twentieth century; it remains, like a substantial quantity of Oates's work, unpublished. Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) is a detective story in which the hero-sleuth must solve multiple outbreaks of violent murder. It is characteristic of Oates's productivity that while writing this series she also produced the realistic novel Solstice (1985), as well as numerous short stories unrelated to the Gothic project.

A Return to Realistic Novels

Following the Gothic novels Oates published Marya: A Life (1986), You Must Remember This (1987), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993), We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), and Man Crazy (1997), all of which critics have described as more visibly autobiographical than her earlier works. Marya: A Life is one example among many in these novels in which a female protagonist shares some of the background details of Oates's life, particularly the transition from a rural upbringing to a more intellectual or academic adulthood. Marya, raised by unsympathetic relatives in a small town, is sexually molested by an older cousin and later nearly raped by a group of male classmates during a going-away party on the night before she leaves to attend college as a scholarship student. As an adult, Marya becomes intellectually successful but unhappy in her emotional relationships, which prompts her to search for the mother who abandoned her. Intellectuals and academics also appear in American Appetites (1989), which takes place in a fictionalized version of Princeton, and Nemesis (1990), which Oates, writing under her pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, based on a real sexual abuse scandal in the English department at Princeton.

In the 1990s Oates continued to write about disturbing and fascinating situations taken from contemporary American life. Black Water (1992) is a novella written from the point of view of a young woman who drowns in an accident reminiscent of the events at Chappaquiddick, in which a young woman died after an accident in a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy. Zombie (1995) is based on the case of the gruesome serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Man Crazy (1997) is the story of a girl who willingly enters a cult where she is sexually used and abused by men, and Blonde (2000), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, concerns the life of Norma Jean Baker, otherwise known as Marilyn Monroe. Broke Heart Blues (1999), like Blonde, examines the phenomena of celebrity and desire, in this case through the story of a teenage boy accused of murder in a small town. John Reddy Heart becomes a tragic idol, the object of intense public fascination and adoration, after he is tracked down by police in a manhunt following the shooting death of one of his mother's lovers. Another section of the book, from his perspective, gives a less romantic version of his flight, trial, and incarceration.

The tension between the external and interior lives of an individual is overtly clear in these works, and also exerts a subtle pressure in other recent novels, such as We Were the Mulvaneys, which has had enormous popular impact through its inclusion in Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. The Mulvaneys' initial happiness is based on solid values such as stability and love in the family home. The parents, Mike and Corinne, and the children—Mike Jr., the athlete; Patrick, the good student; Marianne, the cheerleader; and Judd, the baby of the family—have numerous affectionate nicknames for one another, and games and jokes illustrate their strong sense of themselves as a happy, lucky family envied by outsiders. But when Marianne is raped by a classmate, the family struggles, and fails, to help her and to heal itself in the face of antagonism from neighbors and former friends. As in the other novels, the characters' decline is told from behind the public façade. Middle Age: A Romance (2001) further examines loss and community obsession through the sudden death of Adam Berendt, a sculptor and relative newcomer to Salthill-on-Hudson, an affluent village outside New York City. His death affects the women of the village profoundly, forcing them to reexamine their life decisions. One, Marina Troy, finally accepts his gift of a secluded property where she returns to her own efforts at sculpture, a dream given up years before. Another woman vanishes, leaving her husband of many years in order to investigate the secrets of Adam Berendt's mysterious early life, and still another marries and begins a new family. The men of the community are also deeply affected, especially in their relationships to women. One of them, a jaded lawyer, finds happiness in an unexpected baby named for the deceased. Adam Berendt, sought after but reclusive in life, becomes in death an enigma with the power to change the lives of his friends, offering a positive outcome to a tragic death. This conclusion, like those of We Were the Mulvaneys and Man Crazy, has a redemptive quality that, even if tempered by tragedy, offers a more definite emotional resolution than those found in Oates's earlier novels.

Short Stories

Oates is also a preeminent writer of short stories, many of which depict feelings of fear, impending violence, disintegration, loss of control, sexual unease, and anxiety. The Wheel of Love includes the widely anthologized Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, in which Connie, a teenage girl alone in her parents' home, is visited by the stranger Arnold Friend. The two engage in a playful conversation that gradually, in classic Oatesian manner, darkens to reveal Friend's sinister, inexorable sexual intentions. The story is disturbing for its menace and psychological violence rather than for any overt act of force, and for Connie's complicity in her fate. The question of female passivity and complicity, often raised in Oates's fiction, is rarely resolved in comforting ways. The more formally experimental Marriages and Infidelities (1972) includes several of Oates's “re-imaginings” of masterworks of short fiction, such as The Turn of the Screw, referring to the Henry James story of the same title. Other stories in this collection take inspiration from Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, James Joyce, and Anton Chekhov, and are but a few examples of Oates's acknowledgment of her literary influences.

Other collections contain linked stories, such as Crossing the Border (1976), in which an American couple goes to Canada and the vicissitudes and infidelities of their relationship are subsequently examined. The Assignation (1988) includes “Tick,” in which a woman newly separated from her husband discovers a tick embedded in her scalp. When, despite her persistent, frantic, bloody efforts, she cannot extricate it, her reactions vary from thoughts of suicide to resigning herself to a reconciliation with her husband, and the story is an example of Oates's dark, deadpan humor. Images of twins and doubles increasingly appear in Oates's work. Heat and Other Stories (1991) includes “Heat,” in which identical twins are murdered by a slow-witted acquaintance, and “Desire,” in which a middle-aged man unable to connect emotionally discovers the mummified remains of an undeveloped twin in his abdomen. The title story of Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994) includes both doubling and the question of complicity in a story of two young girls trespassing on private property; one of them survives a terrifying, abusive encounter with sexual overtones but later sends her friend alone to the property, where she is murdered. Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001) is her most recent collection, and while Oates's work always contains transgressive elements, these stories do so in new and aggressive ways, such as women meticulously planning acts of violence: one woman stalks her lover on the freeway, intending to kill them both in a crash (“Lover”), and another meditates on the weapons in her life (“Gunlove”).

Defying Categorization

Although some have been highlighted here for the purposes of examination, movements and phases in Joyce Carol Oates's literary work can be difficult to define. She frequently publishes realistic and fabular books within the same year, and often reexamines questions and tensions from past projects in new and innovative forms. An indication of her mastery of these multiple genres can be seen in the inclusion of her work in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, The Best American Poetry, The Best American Short Plays, and The Best American Mystery Stories. Regardless of the outdated complaints of some critics against her productivity and her ability to write in so many literary forms, the range and depth of her oeuvre have made her undeniably, and deservedly, one of the most distinguished and celebrated American authors.


  • With Shuddering Fall (1964)
  • A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967)
  • Expensive People (1968)
  • them (1969)
  • Wonderland (1971)
  • Do with Me What You Will (1973)
  • The Assassins (1975)
  • Childwold (1976)
  • Son of the Morning (1978)
  • Cybele (1979)
  • Unholy Loves (1979)
  • Bellefleur (1980)
  • Angel of Light (1981)
  • A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)
  • Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)
  • Solstice (1985)
  • Marya: A Life (1986)
  • You Must Remember This (1987)
  • American Appetites (1989)
  • Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990)
  • Nemesis (1990)
  • Black Water (1992)
  • Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993)
  • What I Lived For (1994)
  • Zombie (1995)
  • We Were the Mulvaneys (1996)
  • Man Crazy (1997)
  • My Heart Laid Bare (1998)
  • Broke Heart Blues (1999)
  • Blonde (2000)
  • Middle Age: A Romance (2001)
  • Beasts (2002)
“Rosamund Smith” Novels
  • Lives of the Twins (1987)
  • Soul/Mate (1989)
  • Nemesis (1990)
  • Snake Eyes (1992)
  • You Can't Catch Me (1995)
  • Double Delight (1997)
  • Starr Brigade Will Be with You Soon (1999)
  • The Barrens (2001)
Short-Story Collections
  • By the North Gate (1963)
  • Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966)
  • Cupid and Psyche (1970)
  • The Wheel of Love (1970)
  • Marriages and Infidelities (1972)
  • A Posthumous Sketch (1973)
  • The Girl (1974)
  • The Goddess and Other Women (1974)
  • Plagiarized Material (1974)
  • The Poisoned Kiss (1975)
  • The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (1975)
  • The Seduction and Other Stories (1975)
  • The Blessing (1976)
  • Crossing the Border (1976)
  • Daisy (1977)
  • Night-Side (1977)
  • The Step-Father (1978)
  • All the Good People I've Left Behind (1979)
  • The Lamb of Abyssalia (1979)
  • A Middle-Class Education (1980)
  • A Sentimental Education (1980)
  • Funland (1983)
  • Last Days (1984)
  • Wild Saturday and Other Stories (1984)
  • Wild Nights (1985)
  • Raven's Wing (1986)
  • The Assignation (1988)
  • Heat and Other Stories (1991)
  • Where Is Here? (1992)
  • Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1993)
  • Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque (1994)
  • Demon and Other Tales (1996)
  • “Will You Always Love Me?” and Other Stories (1996)
  • The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (1998)
  • Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001)
  • The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976)
  • I Lock My Door upon Myself (1990)
  • The Rise of Life on Earth (1991)
  • First Love: A Gothic Tale (1996)
  • Women in Love and Other Poems (1968)
  • Anonymous Sins (1969)
  • Love and Its Derangements (1970)
  • Woman Is the Death of the Soul (1970)
  • In Case of Accidental Death (1972)
  • Wooded Forms (1972)
  • Angel Fire (1973)
  • Dreaming America and Other Poems (1973)
  • The Fabulous Beasts (1975)
  • Public Outcry (1976)
  • Abandoned Airfield 1977 (1977)
  • Season of Peril (1977)
  • Snowfall (1978)
  • Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (1978)
  • Celestial Timepiece (1980)
  • The Stone Orchard (1980)
  • Nightless Nights: Nine Poems (1981)
  • Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970–1982 (1982)
  • Luxury of Sin (1984)
  • The Time Traveler (1989)
  • Tenderness (1996)
  • The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (1972)
  • The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence (1973)
  • New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (1974)
  • Contraries (1981)
  • The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews (1983)
  • On Boxing (1987)
  • (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1988)
  • George Bellows: American Artist (1995)
  • Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews and Prose (1999)
Selected Plays
  • Miracle Play (1974)
  • Three Plays (1980)
  • I Stand before You Naked (1991)
  • In Darkest America (Tone Clusters and The Eclipse) (1991)
  • Twelve Plays (1991)
  • The Perfectionist and Other Plays (1995)
  • New Plays (1998)
Children's and Young Adult Literature
  • Come Meet Muffin! (1998)
  • Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002)

Further Reading

  • Bender, Eileen Tepper. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington, Ind., 1987.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York, 1981.
  • Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York, 1980. Particularly helpful in locating Oates's early novels in American culture and literary tradition.
  • Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York, 1998. The definitive biography; a well-researched and insightful portrait of Oates's professional and personal life.
  • Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson, Miss., 1989. A compilation of interviews with Oates in which she discusses her life, her art, literature, and popular culture, this collection also gives the reader a sense of the often repeated questions regarding her productivity and the violent content in her writing.
  • Souther, Randy. Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page. <∼southerr/jco.html>. This Web site offers the most up-to-date information about Oates's frequent publications and other aspects of her career; it includes links to reviews and other sites of interest.