Joyce Carol Oates and naturalism

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Joyce Carol Oates and naturalism
Vernon, Susan L
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
University of Colorado Denver
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iv, 80 leaves : ; 29 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Naturalism in literature ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 78-80).
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, English
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Susan L. Vernon.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
34367116 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L54 1995m .V47 ( lcc )

Full Text
Susan L. Vernon
B.A. Wichita State University, 1969
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Susan L. Vernon
has been approved for the
Graduate School
/y.M n'P

Vernon, Susan L. (M.A., English)
Joyce Carol Oates and Naturalism
Thesis directed by Rex Burns
The thesis focuses on three of Joyce Carol Oates's
novels: Childwold, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, and
The Rise of Life on Earth. In a 1973 interview Oates
stated that she wanted to show her readers "the direction
to take, in order to achieve happiness." In spite of
that stated goal, her work shows that we have little to
do with controlling the direction of our lives and our
happiness. A study of three female characters from the
three novels shows that the message Oates communicates is
not what she aspires to convey. Only one of the three
women approaches happiness by the end of her story.
Oates's work reveals, instead, that the three women are
the products of their heritage and are constrained and
stimulated by biological forces, by their surroundings,
by their parents' influence and behavior, and by
unprovoked experiences and incidents which happen to them
or around them. Oates dramatizes the tenets of
determinism, both biological and socio-economic, and
these three novels exist inside the framework of literary
naturalism. Oates's unacknowledged philosophy is
revealed through the characterization of the three women
and through the imagery which corroborates and
intensifies Oates's unstated view. Oates's imagery
emphasizes the presence and the force of the natural
environment, elements man attempts unsuccessfully to

1. INTRODUCTION .................................... 1
2. ARLENE HURLEY BARTLETT .......................... 8
3. CALLA HONEYSTONE.................................33
4. KATHLEEN HENNESSY .............................. 55
5. CONCLUSION.......................................73
BIBLIOGRAPHY ......................................... 78

Joyce Carol Oates distinguishes herself as a writer
by clearly stating what she aims to achieve in her work.
Interviews with her over the years shed light on what
compels her to write. She has spoken simply and strongly
about her preoccupation with "the imagination of pain."
In a 1973 interview in the Ohio Review, she explains:
Most of my writing is pre-occupied with "the
imagination of pain" and this is simply
because people need help with pain, never with
joy. There's no need to write about happy
people, happy problems, there's only the moral
need to instruct readers concerning the
direction to take, in order to achieve
happiness (or whatever: maybe they don't want
happiness, only confusion.) So I feel the
moral imperative to chart the psychological
processes of someone, usually a hero, but
sometimes a heroine, who has gone through
suffering of one kind or another but who
survives it (or almost survives).
(qtd. in Milazzo 54)
Further comment from Oates in her own critical book,
New Heaven, New Earth, testifies:
I still feel my own place is to dramatize the
nightmares of my time, and (hopefully) to show
how some individuals find a way out, awaken,
come alive, move into the future. (52-53)
The preceding quotations reveal that Oates hopes to
assist and guide her readers by exposing them to others'

difficult experiences so that, in turn, they will be
able to deal successfully with the sometimes painful
events in their own lives. One can argue that indeed
people may at times also need help with joy, for if our
lives are joyful, yet others are experiencing pain, we
may feel guilt over our good fortune. It can be
uncomfortable to be joyful when disaster and misery are
so abundant in the world.
Oates's exposure and dramatization of society's
multitude of problems in her voluminous body of work
easily fulfill her stated goals and self-imposed
obligations. But the survival Oates speaks of causes her
readers to pause and question what "survival" is to
Oates. Often, Oates's characters survive to continue
living lives of isolation, abuse, grief, and pain.
Therefore, the reader questions the significance of
survival when the character's quality of life has not
Oates's comments on survival, expanded further in
the previously quoted Ohio Review interview, are
surprising. She speaks of the Wendall family, characters
from her early novel them:
I was very deeply into, very obsessed with,
a certain small group of people a few years
ago; they became the "Wendall" family of
them. Well, some of these people are "real,"

and some fictionalized, of course, but the
fact about themwhich reviewers seemed
never to mention, though the book was widely
reviewedis that they all survived. Critics
for magazines like Look and The New Yorker
dwelled on the characters' sufferings, their
miseries . but what excited me about the
Wendalls and what really excited them . .
was how well they did. Now, of course, a well-
educated, liberal, handsomely-paid New York
reviewer might think that the small grubby
successes of the poor all across America are
depressing . but to any of the millions
of "Wendalls" in the United States, these
accomplishments are marvelous. My young
heroine stole someone else's husband; my
young hero got out of Detroit by way of a
fluke, a federally-funded poverty program,
and he made it to the West Coast. These are
bitter little ironic successes, to us, but
not to them. It takes education, money, and
a lot of spare time to develop the ironic
sense, the habit of irony. (qtd. in Milazzo
Many will not consider that stealing another woman's
husband is an "accomplishment." Others will recall
that Jules Wendall killed a policeman during the Detroit
riots, shortly before his departure to the West Coast.
Survival, for Oates, apparently has little to do with
becoming a better person possessing a sense of right or
wrong. Oates's survivors often adapt to their misery,
resign themselves to an unfulfilling life, and refrain
from suicide.
In his book Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, Greg
Johnson discusses survival with respect to the charac-
ters in them;

Significantly, all of the characters survive;
they do not simply go mad in the manner of
several earlier Oates characters, but rather
make significant internal adjustments that keep
them within the social and psychological
mainstream but also allow for a measure of
personal autonomy. (76)
Further on he speaks again of survival, discussing the
two main female characters in them:
Loretta and Maureen represent two kinds of
survival: giving oneself up to the constant
violent flux of life, as Loretta does, becoming
tough artd resilient in the process; and
hardening oneself to the environment and to all
other people, as Maureen does, as a defense
against further suffering. (81)
Toughness, resiliency, and hardness, then, are other
traits of Oates's survivors.
With this expanded view of Oatesian survival,
another intriguing and puzzling comment is Oates's
expressed "moral need to instruct readers concerning the
direction to take, in order to achieve happiness." When
we contemplate Oates's "moral need," and we then
scrutinize her work for guidance, we are dismayed with
the characters' behavior and the outcome of the stories.
Confusion enters the picture.again. Moreover and more
importantly, Oates's statement implies that we choose and
control the direction of our lives, thereby achieving and
controlling our happiness.
A critical reading of three of Oates's novels will

substantiate that she fails "to instruct readers
concerning the direction to take" and will reveal,
instead, that Oates's work demonstrates that we have very
little choice in the direction we take. We are able to
make minor decisions in life, but the overall direction
is not something we can regulate. Instead, Oates shows
that the course of our lives depends upon the forces
within us and around usthe biological and socio-
economic framework into which we are born and within
which we live and die.
In Childwold (1976), I Lock My Door Upon Myself
(1990), and The Rise of Life on Earth (1991), Oates
portrays three women who face difficult situations which
provoke them into a variety of behaviors. In Childwold
Oates writes about forty year old Arlene Hurley Bartlett,
a widow living on welfare in her father's farmhouse. In
the two more recently published booksI Lock My Door
Upon Myself and The Rise of Life on EarthOates writes
about Calla Honeystone and Kathleen Hennessy, two women
who seek fulfillment in their lives yet are doomed to
live lives of isolation and emptiness. The three novels
depict circumstances these women must face as a direct
result of their emotional and biological needs and drives
which at times put them at odds with their societies.

Beginning with the stream-of-consciousness,
fragmented style of Childwold, proceeding next to the
lyrical beauty of I Lock My Door Upon Myself/ and ending
with the stark, simple prose style of The Rise of Life
on Earth, we will see how Oates sets the tone and mood
for each woman's story. Yet, as we reflect on how Oates
crafts the novels and characterizes the woman, we will
see that the message she communicates is not what she
aspires to convey.
In these novels Oates does not show "the direction
to take, in order to achieve happiness." Only one of
these three women approaches happiness at the end of her
story. Oates reveals, instead, that these women are the
products of their heritage and are constrained and
stimulated by biological forces, by their surroundings,
by their parents' influence and behavior, and by
unprovoked experiences and incidents which happen to them
or around them. We will see that, though these three
"survivors" do make some choices, the choices can only be
made within narrow parameters. Their stories illustrate
that the women have few options and, in fact, sometimes
the women simply allow things to happen to them.
Furthermore, their behavior is sometimes simply an
emotional response and not a carefully thought out choice

The few choices they make are both emotionally and
biologically driven and sometimes result in more harm
than good. They do attempt in varying ways to improve
their lives but with little or only brief success.
One by one, if we scrutinize the actions of these
three women, we can easily document that they are
constrained by many obstacles. Not only do Oates's
characters' actions and stories reveal her unexpressed
philosophy of life, even the imagery she uses supports
and expands the vision. Repeatedly, Oates's imagery
emphasizes the presence and force of the elments of the
natural environment, elements which man attempts
unsuccessfully to control. Oates dramatizes the tenets
of determinism, both biological and socio-economic, and
these three novels exist inside the framework of literary
naturalism. Each novel in turn will reveal Oates's
unacknowledged philosophy as we focus upon the
characterization of each woman and the imagery which
corroborates and intensifies Oates's unstated view.

The story of Childwold takes place in Oates1s
fictive Eden County in upstate New York following the
end of the Viet Nam War. The name itself is the name of
a small rural town and the farming area which surrounds
it. One of the five main characters in Childwold is
Joseph Hurley, a retired farmer living on the eight acres
remaining to him following years of overwhelming farming
disasters. Another is Fitz John Kasch, the novel's
protagonist, an unemployed, divorced, middle-aged man
living off of inherited wealth in the small town of
Yewville. He is introspective and morose, a man seeking
an inner peace and yearning for something intangible.
For a while he believes he has found that in Laney
Bartlett, a fourteen year old girl living in poverty in
the Eden Valley. She shares a rambling, ramshackle
farmhouse with her grandfather, Joseph; her widowed,
forty year old mother, Arlene; and Arlene's many
offspring fathered by we-know-not-how-many-men. Arlene's
oldest child, Vale, a Viet Nam War veteran whose behavior
is violent, suffers both physical and emotional pain from

his injuries and memories of the war.
During the one year time period of the novel, Kasch
first pursues and loves Laney Bartlett, but months later
he suddenly plans to marry Laney1s mother, Arlene, after
Arlene comes to speak with him and find out about the man
who is spending time with her daughter. This bizarre and
sudden turn of events turns again when a former violent
lover of Arlene's, Earl Tuller, comes to the farm
unexpectedly while Kasch is there. The incident ends
with Kasch unintentionally killing Earl. These events
happen so rapidly, within a few pages, that the reader is
catapulted along. Suddenly, in the final chapter, Arlene
is with a new boyfriend at the town's Volunteer Firemen's
Picnic. Joseph has died. In the final pages of the
novel, Laney, returning to the farm from college, seeks
Kasch, who is now living in the Hurley's former
farmhouse, a recluse seemingly on the borderline of
sanity. He never answers his door, even for Laney, who
waits for "a sign" from him (287).
In Childwold the self-examinations and interior
monologues are primarily those of Kasch, Joseph, and
Laney; therefore, the reader feels more intimacy with
those three characters; nevertheless, interwoven
throughout the novel from beginning to end is the

character of Arlene Hurley Bartlett. We gradually come
to know this woman though we have little access to her
private thoughts. Much of what we learn about Arlene
comes from the thoughts or comments of Laney; Laney's
older sister, Nancy; or Joseph. Arlene is an attractive
woman at the midpoint of life, and she is one of Oates's
more sympathetic characters. Though it is not difficult
to find fault with Arlene, for every weakness she has a
strength. We see her in many roles: wife, lover,
mother, daughter, widow, victim, and welfare recipient.
Arlene's mother died when Arlene was only six years
old. Joseph raised her lovingly. She is his favorite
child. She has had little formal education, having
dropped out of school at the age of twelve because she
was needed at home. Arlene's house is a mess. She is on
welfare. She is uncultured, and she sleeps with whomever
she pleases. At the age of fifteen she married her
sweetheart, Lyle Bartlett, a man in his mid-twenties.
Since his early death in an automobile accident in 1969,
she has had several lovers. Some of the relationships
have resulted in the birth of illegitimate children. It
is unclear how many children Arlene has. Oates shows
through the character of Arlene that the effects of
poverty and a homogeneous social group limit one's

options and direct the course of one's life. But, not
realizing what options other socially and economically
advantaged individuals have, Arlene is content with what
lies close at hand.
In Arlene Bartlett, Oates achieves her goal of
creating a character who goes through great difficulties
and survives virtually undamaged. However, survival does
not equate with choice, and Oates's use of the word
"survival" is bewildering, for one can argue that a being
who is breathing has survived, no matter how pathetic
that individual's condition. Nevertheless, of the three
women we will focus upon, Arlene is the "survivor" least
damaged by the events in her life.
Arlene's first major loss in life came with the
death of her mother. Years later Lyle's death left her a
young widow with several children. She has survived love
relationships gone bad and rebounded from a violent
beating by her most recent lover, Earl Tuller. She has
borne illegitimate children, ignoring scorn, and has
grieved over the death of a newly born baby. She has
always been poor with little opportunity and, it seems,
little initiative to better herself educationally,
personally, or financially. Arlene is like so many women
who either have had no bright future or, if there was,

compromised it for the love of a man.
Oates links Arlene with the animal world by drawing
a portrait of a woman who is, for the most part,
uncontemplative and who responds to her sexual desires
without hesitation. She has a very strong sex drive, and
her intense need for a man makes her vulnerable. Laney
tells us:
Momma is lonely, Momma needs a man, needs to
sit out in the car with a man, arguing,
kissing, smoking cigarettes, passing the time;
needs to sneak him in the house when she thinks
we're asleep, needs to be loved. (82)
Oates shows Arlene's pleasure in physical love and
childbearing by sharing one of Arlene's sensuous dreams.
Arlene's passionate yearnings for physical pleasure,
along with her uncontemplative nature, result in her
neglect to sensibly weigh out all of the costs, both
personal and financial, of childbearing and childraising.
A more rational and responsible behavior seems impossible
for Arlene.
Arlene's dream reveals her sense of fulfillment and
delight in carrying a child and is one of Childwold's
most intriguing passages. In the dream Arlene is
enjoying the act of love with a faceless man who at times
resembles Earl. The resulting pregnancy leaves Arlene
"utterly content":

... it was inside her, secret, dark, warm,
living, inside her, she had it now and would
not relinquish it until the very end, until it
was time, months and months of pleasure, . .
how she wanted this, this, how she loved it,
her entire body filled and throbbing slow with
life, it did not matter that the men deserted
her, that they died, killed themselves in car
wrecks and had no insurance and no savings and
no thought of herit did not matter: only
this mattered, and she had it. (78-79)
When Arlene awakens, realizing there is no baby inside
her, she is left with a feeling of emptiness:
She woke, it was over, there was no baby, there
might never be another baby, she would live the
rest of her life like this, empty, yearning,
sick with yearning, ashamed. (79)
The emotions the dream reveals are emphasized again
when Laney shares her mother's overheard passionate
It's when I feel most alive, says Momma, you
overheard her once, you were only a baby but
you knew what she meant, you understood the
tone of her voice; it's when I feel most alive
. . that, and being pregnant. God how I love
it, I love it. I can't get enough of it.
Arlene's dream draws attention to her pleasure in
the physical act of love and the resulting pregnancy.
While her sister chastizes her about another pregnancy,
Arlene thinks: ". . .ah! when the baby kicked, how
perfect the world became!" (78). Arlene is in touch with
the physical world and enjoys her pregnancy. She is in
no way an intellectual, so her fulfillment in life does

not come from mental challenges or stimulation. Being a
poor woman with little opportunity to purchase pleasure,
what remains for her is physical pleasure, the one
pleasure as available to the poor as to the rich.
In her book Joyce Carol Oates, Ellen Friedman
declares: "Arlene is a mother-earth figure; she is like
James Joyce's Molly Bloom in her sexual appetite and like
Dylan Thomas' Polly Garter in her naturalness" (165).
Though Arlene's yielding to her sex drive and her
irresponsibility about birth control bring problems into
her life, Arlene's physical drives overpower a more
rational behavior. Oates shows that a biological drive
controls Arlene's destiny. Without the strong drive,
Arlene might be more selective in her choice of love
partners or might even, at times, choose celibacy.
Selectivity and choice are not options for Arlene.
Arlene's family is important to her and they give
her a purpose in life. She is a helpmate and companion
to her father, comforting and caring for him in his old
In a way she enjoyed his grumbling, his bad
moods; it gave her a chance to cheer him up.
Unless he was in a really bad mood, or had had
too much to drink. . She was his favorite
child, after all. Always had been. (36)
Arlene's strength is noteworthy, but there are

cracks in the armor which protects Arlene. Fate ended
the lives of two people very close to Arlene. Arlene's
mother probably had little lasting influence upon the
molding of Arlene's personality and character because she
died when Arlene was so young. Nevertheless, the death
itself, the loss of her mother, was surely traumatic,
causing an emptiness in Arlene which perhaps increases
her need for the caresses of her lovers.
In Darkness Visible, the author William Styron
shares his own personal story of a debilitating
depression which led him to the brink of suicide and to
hospitalization. The final pages of his powerful
narrative offer his beliefs on the source of his own
The genetic roots of depression seem now to be
beyond controversy. But I'm persuaded that an
even more significant factor was the death of
my mother when I was thirteen; this disorder
and early sorrowthe death or disappearance
of a parent, especially a mother, before or
during puberty-^appears repeatedly in the
literature on depression as a trauma sometimes
likely to create nearly irreparable emotional
havoc. The danger is especially apparent if
the young person is affected by what has been
termed "incomplete mourning"has, in effect,
been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief,
and so carries within himself through later
years an insufferable burden of which rage and
guilt, and not only damned-up sorrow, are a
part, and become the potential seeds of self-
destruction. (79-80)
All three of the women who are the focus of this study

lost their mothers through death or abandonment before
puberty. We shall see how this common fate affected each
woman differently.
Whatever strength and resiliency Arlene possess come
from the constant and everpresent love of Joseph. Before
her birth Joseph had suffered great financial losses, and
"he would never recover what he had lost: so he wanted a
baby girl, a daughter. He wanted a baby girl. He didn't
know why" (104). Though Joseph himself was confused over
this unrelenting compulsion to beget a daughter, what
Oates has done with this incident is to show the
subconscious drive to carry on the species and, in
particular, to ensure that Joseph's genetic makeup is
carried on. Generally, with most species, it is the
female who not only bears the offspring but nurtures it
until it can survive on its own. Subconsciously, Joseph
felt that begetting a female child would increase his
chances for continuing on through his heirs. Joseph's
urgency to produce a female child was in response to both
economic and biological forces. The fact that Arlene has
born many children both in and out of wedlock never
brings forth a word of disapproval from Joseph.
Friedman's "mother-earth figure" is actually carrying out
her father's subconscious wishes.

Joseph's relationship with his wife, Anna, had
deteriorated over the years, and, at the time of Arlene's
conception, it was risky for Anna to have another child.
Through the divulgence of the story of Arlene's
conception and of Joseph's relentless compulsion to
produce a female child, Oates clearly draws a parallel
between humanity and animals as she will do again and
again in the other two novels. Oates writes that Anna
believed Joseph was "just ah animal, like all men (102).
Joseph shares that Arlene was:
His favorite child, did she know she was
his favorite, his pretty one, his Big Eyes,
his kitten? Did she know he had had to
struggle for her, wading thigh-deep in his
wife's hatred? (103)
Joseph's love for Arlene and his acceptance of her
behavior, with no disapproval, allows Arlene to be the
woman she is. Public scorn does not seem to disturb
Arlene for she receives from her father what therapists
currently refer to as "unconditional love."
Joseph's reminiscences during the Christmas season
preceding his death give insight into the atmosphere of
the Hurley home:
All my kids turned out fine. An'grandchildren
tooreal fine. I'm proud of you all, I am.
I ain't like other people I could name, always
whining and complaining about their kids don't
have no time for them, or their grandchildren
you know what I mean? . 'Course I might

just be lucky, eh, your momma being how she is,
a real fine daughter, even if she does fuss a
little too muchgets the kids all fevered-up
for Christmas which I don't approve of . .
but she's a real fine girl, I don't give a damn
what Carrie and them others say, your momma
maybe has a little trouble now and then but
she'swell you know: she's what she is
and that's that. (176)
Joseph's love is the firm foundation which supports
Arlene. With this kind of acceptance from her father,
there is little motivation for Arlene to change her
behavior in any way. This does not mean that Arlene is
not affected by the loss of her mother and quite possibly
yearns for the love which death terminated. Instead,
Oates dramatizes the current psychiatric theory or belief
that every human being needs one person to think that
they are special during the years they grow into
adulthood. One person who consistently loves, consoles,
supports, guides, and nurtures enables a child to mature
into a mentally healthy, capable human being with a good
self-image. From birth to middle age, Arlene has had
that "one person" in Joseph. In spite of the loss of her
mother, and in spite of the fact that "she cried at least
half-a-dozen times a day" (85), Oates often shows Arlene
as a happy and resilient individual who deals with life's
inevitable crises in a variety of ways which work for
her. In the final scenes of the book, Oates impresses

upon the reader that Arlene has a positive self-image and
is self-satisfied. Certainly, of the three women who are
the focus of this study, Arlene is the healthiest, and
she is the only one who has never lived without a source
of love.
Oates shows Arlene using a variety of coping
behaviors. Arlene shields herself from the truth about
the men in her life. She controls her mind in ways which
overlap and meld into each other. She censors her
thoughts, protecting herself with inaccurate memories.
She sometimes idealizes her late husband, and at times
she avoids thinking and remembering at all if the subject
is unpleasant. Because she thinks so kindly and lovingly
of her dead husband, it is some time before the reader
discovers that the marriage was, in truth, hardly a
marriage at the time of Lyle's death. They were no
longer living together, and he sometimes hit her. The
narrator shares Arlene's thoughts:
Lyle was in his mid-twenties but looked
younger: handsome, small-boned, sweet. So
sweet. There were other men, other boys,
Arlene Hurley had been very popular, . .
she'd had her pick at their age, but she had
known enough to marry a man who was sweet, a
man who wouldn't hurt her. (201-202)
Then the narrator tells us, Lyle was "the sweetest man
Arlene had ever known, until he changed" (203).

Laney shares her mother's advice: "There are things
best forgotten, Momma says" (56). In the final pages of
the novel, Arlene is at the Volunteer Firemen's Picnic
with a new boyfriend and she rationalizes:
But why dwell on the past, on unhappy things.
Why ruin this beautiful day. Why, why, no
sense to it. Wally was sweet, so sweet. Why
not go along with his mood, just be happy, why
not be like everyone else . ? (270)
Kasch's reflections on the "split-brain' are
relevant in regard to Arlene's behavior:
. . Read of a split-brain patient, left/right
sides unaware of each other. "Selves." The
right was mute, highly emotional, violent. The
left was analytical, verbal, "civilized." They
were strangers. They had never met. Ah, yet
we think of ourselves as one person! We hug
that delusion to our deaths! Not just the mad
who are split but all of us, brains split as if
with an ax, one side in authority, one side
the self, and the other quietly waiting. . .
The split-brain patient walked about in his
single body but sometimes fought little wars.
One hand threatened the other. One hand did
damage, and the other tried to restrain it.
Arlene fights "little wars" the same as Kasch's "split-
brain patient." Most of the time the "splitting" of her
brain works well for Arlene, and if Laney did not tell us
about her mothers actions and feelings, we would know
little about Arlene's innermost struggles. Oates
provides the reader with only infrequent glimpses into
Arlene's private thoughts and feelings, just as Arlene

herself seldom honestly appraises her past and present
behavior. Arlene's "split-brain" functions to keep her
Thinking about his daughter, Joseph shares that
Arlene is "able to run a household big as theirs, but
still a baby; she cried at least a half-a-dozen times a
day" (85). His thoughts are enlightening in two ways.
First, this is a clear example of why Arlene is the
person she is. Her house is filthy, and it is an over-
statement to say that Arlene "runs" her household. Her
father's approval of how she takes care of their
household does not give her any incentive to change.
Second, we rarely see Arlene's unhappiness. The "verbal"
side of Arlene sets forth the reasons why she should be
happy. In The Rise of Life on Earth we will see the
same "split-brain" function Kasch speaks of operate
shockingly within Kathleen Hennessy.
There are numerous instances showing how Arlene
deals with unpleasantness from the past. Laney gives us
an account of the family's visits to Lyle's grave after
church on Sundays. Afterwards Arlene tried to raise
everyone's spirits by exclaiming: "... Thank God!
that's enough of that for one week. And no fighting in
the back seat, you kidshear? None of that. No tears,

no bad thoughts, . ." (45).
Again, after Earl Tuller has violently beaten Arlene
and she has ended the relationship with him, she deals
with their breakup in the same way:
Driving the car Earl had given her for her
birthday back in April. She had turned on the
radio at once; didn't want to be alone with her
thoughts. Always thought of him in the car.
Once again, Arlene controls her thoughts to protect
herself. In this instance she does not want to weaken
and allow Earl to come back into her life. This is as
much of a choice as Arlene will ever make. On the
surface it appears to be a wise decision, and the reader
thinks Arlene is changing. But soon she will fill the
void in her life with Kasch, and shortly after Kasch's
death, she will fill her emptiness with Wally.
Arlene has a sense of humor, a light-heartedness,
which gets her through difficult times and turns a
potentially awkward situation into an amusing one:
"Momma says there was a father, always a father, each one
of us has a father. But it's a game; who is he? where
is he?" Laney questions (44). Even the children tease
each other about having different fathers.
During the one year time span of the novel, Arlene's
lover, Earl Tuler, "big and brutal" (46), takes over her

life, warning that he won't tolerate her fooling around
with another man and influencing her selection of
apparel. He is a rich, blunt, crude, uncultured man who
"slapped her bottom in front of the children and even in
front of the old man." There were times when Earl
"pinched Arlene so hard, sometimes her buttocks showed
black and blue for days" (46).
The narrator tells us through the thoughts of Laney:
"You think of your father, and of the other men who have
loved your mother, who have beaten her, hurt her, broken
her" (133). Lyle and Earl are not the only men who have
hit Arlene. Even though a woman is driven by strong
sexual desires, this does not necessarily mean that she
will end up in abusive relationships, for it is usually
an abused child who becomes an abused woman. Arlene was
not an abused child and, in fact, was especially loved by
her father. It is Joseph, though, who is a part of
Arlene's problem because of his silence. Because he
expresses no disapproval of Tuller's rough treatment of
Arlene, which takes place in front of him, he signals to
Arlene that the behavior is not out of line. A man may
treat a woman that way. It is his privilege, and a woman
may be an object, a possession undeserving of gentleness
or respect. Joseph's ignorance and unawareness are as

much a part of Arlene's heritage as is his love.
Earl Tuller is man as animalbrutish and
domineering. But, unfortunately, Laney confides, "Momma
said how he came along in time to save her lifea strong
proud good manlike there weren't many of, these days"
(56). No one ever encouraged or expected Arlene to be
responsible for herself, so it is not surprising that
she expects a man "to save her life" instead of taking on
the responsibility herself. Her behavior pattern is
well-established by this time in her life. However,
Arlene remains steadfast, refusing to see Earl after the
violent beating, but, in no time, she begins a
relationship with another man. She is too sexually needy
to abstain for very long.
Arlene blames "bad luck" for the unpleasant events
in her life. When the woman from the County Child and
Welfare Services Agency arrives at the farmhouse
unexpectedly, Arlene's house is dirty and cluttered.
Arlene refers to the woman as a "bitch" and blames "bad
luck" for the inopportune visit, worrying that her checks
might be discontinued:
What bad luck! Always such bad luck! . .
She could rake the Gordanier woman's face with
her nails, could scream and scream and scream,
it was unfair, it was so unfair. . . (205)
In the final pages of the novel, Arlene is still blaming

bad luck. Though there is such a thing as bad luck,
Arlene is lazy. Once again, if Joseph expected Arlene
to keep the house clean in exchange for free rent, it is
likely that she would do so. Once again, he approves by
his silence.
Arlene does not change discernably over the course
of the story, but for the first time, she does begin to
think about her life, and she questions its course. The
day Vale's anonymous Christmas gifts arrive, Arlene gets
into a confrontation with Laney and Nancy. She
defensively explains to her daughters, "... Well, I'm
under such pressure, I'm going crazy, ... I don't know
don't knowdon't know what to do with my life--"
(187). This is an unexpected revelation that Arlene is
finally thinking of doing anything. But then, of course,
she simply continues on as before.
When she visits Laney in her attic room, seeking
information about Laney's relationship with Kasch, she
is astonished with the decor of the room, with the
collection of pictures cut from magazines, the cards and
photos, the colorful pillows, the objects displayed in a
myriad of colors and shapes, the inviting, warm and cozy
atmosphere achieved. The creativity, imagination, and
sensitivity which Laney exhibits in decorating her room

are foreign and confusing to Arlene who, nevertheless,
finds the room pleasing, inviting, and soothing. Laney's
room shuts out the world while it simultaneously displays
the beauty and diversity of the world. It is a
revelation to Arlene that someone can change his or her
environment and turn a barren room into a refuge full of
color, interest, variation, stimulation, and beauty.
In this scene Oates communicates that if our world
is small, and if there is a sameness throughout it, many
will remain unimaginative. Creativity stimulates more
creativity, and change brings about further change. This
encounter is very important because it shows that Arlene
has not thought about the possibility of changing and
improving her environment and her life. Her house is
run down and a mess, and she simply accepts its
condition. Oates effectively shows the reader that
Arlene's world is extremely narrow and insular. She has
had virtually no exposure to any other home, world, or
Another important aspect of the visit to Laney's
room is that Oates impresses upon the reader Arlene's
vacuousness. During the visit Arlene suddenly realizes
that her daughter is growing away from her, moving into a
world unknown to Arlene. She picks up the book Laney is

reading, and it makes no sense to her: "She was baffled,
as if the words were meant to deceive her, sly and
insulting. What did it mean! All those fancy words!"
(93). Arlene then comprehends that her daughter is
reading and "treasuring" a book which she could not
understand. That realization hurt Arlene and made her
angry. She comprehends suddenly that Laney's unique self
is thriving, and she can no longer control Laney whose
metamorphosis is well underway. Laney is undergoing many
changes Arlene did not experience. Kasch has opened up
the world for Laney with books and experiences. She will
benefit from the exposure her mother did not have.
The day that Arlene seeks Kasch, she enters the
Kasch Memorial Museum for the first time. She is drawn
to a large map of Eden County and is fascinated by its
It crossed her mind that she'd been born and
lived out all of her life, so far, within a few
inches on this map. Was that good or bad? Did
it matter? She was still smiling, there was
something about the discovery of the map that
excited her.
I've been happy here, she thought. (218)
Once again, Oates shows the insularity of Arlene's world.
Not only that, she again shows us in this very powerful
scene, how uncontemplative Arlene has been throughout her
life. This is a woman who is in her forties and has

never before thought about the fact that she is spending
her life in an area of a few square miles! Coming so
soon after the visit to Laney's room, we might expect
this sudden insight would be depressing to a woman of her
age. But, after a brief moment of contemplation, seeing
graphically how small her world has been and continues to
be, Arlene decides that she has been happy.
Following her reflecting over the map, Arlene then
entered the women's washroom and admired herself in the
mirror. She was self-satisfied and pleased with what she
saw. In the final pages of the novel, Arlene continues
to deal with the past as she has all along. Her view of
life is fatalistic, and she still proffers the same
It did no good, thinking morbid thoughts,
dwelling upon the past, turning over and over
in her mind how things went, how they might
have gone instead, how lives were changed,
irreparably changed, in a few minutes. A
certain choice made, no time to think ahead:
and that was that. If only Kasch had not been
nearby when Earl showed up. . . (274)
In this passage Oates says that we do make some choices,
but those choices are made because of other preceding
events which then result in a chain of events over which
we have no control. Arlene thinks, "If only . ," but
clearly fate operated here.
Though Arlene is optimistic and cheerful in her

final scenes, this novel does not end with that same
feeling of optimism. In the final pages, the reader
hears of the violent, deathly encounter between Kasch and
Earl Tuller from Kasch's point of view. In a word he
summarizes the battle and its outcome as, "Fate" (280).
Oatess vivid description of their fight brings to mind
documentary nature films which capture the rutting season
of elks with the huge males, driven by a mindless force,
locking antlers and butting heads over and over. Kasch's
memories tell of the brutish encounter:
Stern bulging elks' eyes, we had; grunting
straining ludicrous bodies. We fought over
your mother, he and I. ... I rushed forward
to my doom. ... A queer sullen inertia to us,
despite our frenzy. The stupidity of brute
action: a corresponding stupidity in the body,
in the very marrow of the bones. Futility.
Waste. (282)
Oates tells us through the thoughts of Kasch that the
violent act "was done through me, through the brute
agency of me, . ." (281). Once again, Oates shows a
person responding to an uncontrollable force, mirroring
the actions of animals. Kasch the rational, educated man
did not commit these acts. They were done "through"
Kasch. He was simply the human vessel acting out the
life force.
Another force of nature which flows throughout the
pages of Childwold is the river and the streams which

empty into it. The river touches upon the lives of all
the main characters, playing an especially important role
in the lives of Joseph and Laney. Following Joseph's
first heart attack, he sought the river, later
remembering that "it was the river, something about the
river, called me to it. It was this river" (227).
Years later Joseph chose to die in the river, secretly
leaving the farmhouse early one morning:
Let the river carry everything away! (247)
. . the dream-river beckons, breaks at my
feet. . The dream-river crashes out of the
night alive at my feet, boisterous and bucking
and alive. . . (248)
As a child Laney almost drowned in the river, and
years later, from the flowing river, Laney came to
understand: "Life is a flow, a powerful directed flow,
not to be stopped, not to be stopped for long" (234).
The implication here is that just as we cannot control
the river, there is little that we can do to control our
Laney was drawn to a familiar creek one day while
experiencing one of her first menstrual periods. On that
day Laney reasoned that the menstrual blood flowing from
her body was as uncontrollable as the creek which flowed
to the river. Oates also shows that our lives flow into

each other's, and we are changed by that uncontrollable
. . . you don't own your body, you don't own
the creek, you can't control it, you mustn't
try, you must float with the current . your
blood flows with it, you are rivers and streams
and creeks. . . (196)
Laney falls asleep that same night with thoughts of
menstrual blood: "Just bleed, bleed, says Momma,
nochrist, nogod, dark earthy-wet rivulets, secret, sleep,
the creek carries it away, the words drown, you don't own
yourself" (196). Once again, Oates speaks of humanity's
lack of freedom.
Oates connects Laney with the animal world as she
does more extensively and more creatively years later
with the characters Calla Honeystone and Kathleen
Hennessy. She uses feline imagery for Laney. Laney is
"catlike, arrogant," and the same as "one of the cats,
sly and self-centered and so quiet" (14). Kasch speaks
of Laney as a "sinewy desperate animal" (86) and as his
"lily of the snowfields" (65). Along with the animal
imagery, Oates will expand her use of floral imagery in
the two later books.
Oates links Arlene with the biological world not
through the use of animal or floral imagery, but through
the focus on Arlene's sensuality. Water imagery, in

particular the river, parallels Arlene's life as it does
Laney's, functioning symbolically with its meandering
turns, its highs and lows. The night Earl beat Arlene,
Laney and Nancy were there in the farmhouse kitchen
helping her, and, as the little children cried in fear
and confusion, "the river rushed into the downstairs
through the opened windows carrying all before it, such
a din, such a tide, an earth-quivering sickhearted
tide . ." (58).
Years later Oates will once again use the imagery of
water, including the flowing water of a creek and a
river, as an integral part of the haunting story of a
young woman named Calla Honeystone.

I Lock My Door Upon Myself is perhaps the most
captivating tale ever written by Joyce Carol Oates. It
is a simple story, artfully told, of a passion between a
black man and a white woman, a passion that holds no hope
of a happy ending. From the first page of this
compelling story, we know it will be a tragic tale. The
abbreviated life story of the white woman, Edith Margaret
Honeystone, is recounted by her granddaughter, the third
person limited narrator of the first two parts of the
novella. In the third and final section of the book, the
granddaughter's narration changes to first person
narration as she shares her own personal, limited
experiences with her grandmother during the latter years
of Edith Margaret's life.
Oates has explained in interviews that she writes
the first sentence of a story after she has written the
last. The first sentence of this novella, actually a
phrase, powerfully sets the stage for the heart of the
novella and captures the mood and attitude of the two
main characters as it introduces the water imagery, which

. there on the
will continue throughout the text:
river, the Chautauqua, in a sepia sun, the rowboat
bucking the choppy waves with a look almost of gaiety,
defiance" (3). With the rowboat taking on the
characteristics of its human cargo, Oates communicates,
from the first phrase, that this will be a story of
rebellion. In that same first paragraph, we discover
that the passengers are a black man and a white woman and
that the rowboat is headed towards the falls ahead with a
sixty-foot drop and "churning white water" (4). Not only
do the observers on the shore "shout in warning," the
birds join in, their "cries . lift sharp and piercing
with warning" (3). This intriguing beginning quickly
draws the reader into the story as swiftly and surely as
the rowboat is drawn towards Tintern Falls.
The next chapter, chapter 2, consists of one
paragraph. From it we are able to place the time of the
event and the where of it1912 in the Chautauqua River
Valley in upstate New York. Oates has divided the
novella into three parts. Part I includes twenty-three
chapters, but only one or two of them are as long as the
typical chapter length with which readers are familiar.
By the end of chapter 2, Oates has powerfully and
succinctly set the stage for the harrowing events of

1912. She then turns our attention backwards to the
white woman's birth in 1890 and chronologically tells the
woman's life story.
In chapter 3 Oates introduces the narrator to the
reader, increasing reader interest and intrigue. We
learn that the woman in the rowboat is the narrator's
grandmother and that her grandmother's mother, who died
"in the agony of childbirth" (5), named her baby Calla,
the same name as the flower frequently displayed at
funerals, the calla lily. Oates suggests that Calla's
mother knew that she herself would not survive Calla's
birth, thus she left her with "a legacy suggestive of the
grave" (5). The narrator distances herself from her
grandmother's actions, increases already mounting reader
tension, and sets the tone of the story by defensively
telling us that "if her mad blood courses through me now
I have no knowledge of it and am innocent of it" (5).
Moreover, Oates's reference to "mad blood" introduces the
concept of heredity and biological determinism quite
early in the story. The narrator wants us to believe she
is a sane and rational human being. We, of course, know
that no matter what the narrator claims to have "no
knowledge of" nor how "innocent" she is, as a direct
descendent of her grandmother, there is a genetic,

biological relationship which cannot be escaped or
By the end of chapter 3, only the third page of the
text, the reader perceives that this will be a disastrous
story, gripping and deadly. Chapter 3 brilliantly sets
this tone with the reference to "mad blood" and the
comment about the name Calla, which is "suggestive of the
grave." Next, the narrator explains that her grandmother
"was forced to consider her name specially ordained,
fated: . ." (5), thus furthering reader acceptance and
belief that this is a true story, and that by being named
after a funeral flower, one is more likely to take risks
and be accepting of death. More importantly, from the
beginning of this story, Oates introduces the concept of
fate and of a destiny one will live out, not a choice one
will make. A presentiment of calamity and death
permeates the text.
The narrator further explains that Calla's real
name, her baptismal name, was Edith Margaret, but the
child insisted on being called Calla, "though no one knew
who'd told her about that name, . ." (6). Oates ends
chapter 4 ominously with the simple declaration: "From
the first, Calla was a difficult child" (6). Here again,
because Oates says "from the first," we are to understand

that Calla was born a difficult child, not that she
became one later. The personality trait was genetic.
Oates's characterization of Calla continues,
portraying an independent, stubborn, willful, strong
female. Her sense of self was innate, for no one had
told her that she was special or unique. Calla possessed
"too much energy, restlessness, had to be slapped,
spanked, paddled." Her punishment, referred to as
"'discipline,'" included "blows with open hands and blows
with closed fists and also pummelings, hair pulling, even
shouts of fury and frustration, screams." The narrator
wryly explains, "There was never cruelty in the
transaction, only justice" (6). Calla withstood the
physical trauma by withdrawing into herself:
So she learned to hold herself taut, rigid,
her jaws locked against pleading or weeping,
her eyes half shut so that milky crescents
showed, inside which, stubborn too, vision
itself seemed to withdraw;. . . (6)
Calla's father drank too much, and by the time Calla
was thirteen, her father had left. Crop failures and
flagging grain markets forced him to sell off almost all
of his fertile land. Like Joseph Hurley in Childwold,
he floundered, but Joseph remained on his last few acres
and was a loving father and grandfather. Albert
Honeystone left the Chatauqua Valley at the time of his

troubles, and no one knew what became of him or whether
he was dead or alive. With both her mother and father
gone, both biological and economical forces had altered
the course and the circumstances of Calla's life.
Oates again emphasizes Calla's uniqueness, telling
the reader that Calla did not physically resemble either
side of the family. She uses animal imagery to describe
Calla, choosing images which focus on the wildness,
naturalness, and independence of animals. Not only is
Calla "willful, unpredictable," she is also "cunning as
a half-domesticated creature" (7). Oates proffers a
defense for the family's physical efforts to punish,
correct, and control Calla with the excuse that Calla
"had to be disciplined, just an animal a wild animal
just white trash . ." (9). Calla would disappear from
home or school for days, then "she'd show up at a
neighbors farm like a stray cat or dog . ." (8). She
often ate in the barn with the animals: "... Oh she's
an animal herselfthat one" (8). Her wavy-red hair was
not washed often, was "thick as a horse's mane;" (7), and
there was an "odor lifting from her unwashed body a
powerful stink as much earth as animal . ." (13).
The comparisons with animals and the emphasis on
individuality hint at what is to come and lay the

groundwork for reader acceptance of the likelihood of the
later events in the story, particularly the animal-like
attraction between Calla and the black man, Tyrell
Thompson. The portrayal of Calla prepares the reader for
Calla's later spontaneous attraction to Tyrell Thompson
and her ready willingness to die with him, the finale to
their passionate and adulterous sexual relationship.
Theirs was an overpowering attraction, fated and
Once again, as she did in Childwold, Oates clearly
links humanity with animals. We are another rung on the
ladder of evolution, driven by biological forces over
which we have no control and seeking many of the same
necessitiesfood, sex, shelter, and protection from
the elements. The animal references also develop an
image of one who is outside the mores and proprieties of
human society. They set the tone of the story and
position the reader to see that regulations and customs
are superimposed upon human beings. Calla had little use
for her society's rules. They were unimportant to her,
but at times she halfheartedly tried to fulfill the
duties imposed upon her. One such effort was the bearing
and raising of her children. The only time her husband,
George Freilicht, brought up that her "seeming

indifference to her children had provoked comment" (33),
Oates writes of Calla's frank reaction:
. . Calla responded, unthinking, immediate,
with the air of a child who cannot be relied
upon not to speak the obvious, "Oh--but I
didn't really wan't them, I thought you did."
Oates makes another connection between Calla and the
world of the natural environment with the use of floral
imagery, likening Calla to flowers and weeds. Calla's
hair was "the color of orange poppies" (11). Not only
was she named after a flower, she "flourished like the
hardiest and most practical of weeds, burdock, sunflower,
taking root in any soil and once rooted impossible to
extirpate, . ." (8). Here again, Oates injects the
notion of nature as a force impossible to control, and
the imagery unites Calla with the natural, biological
world. The floral imagery is also an effective method of
subtly communicating thoughts of brief bloom which is
inevitably followed by wilting and death.
All of the descriptions, the imagery, and the
comparisons throughout the story emphasize Calla's
strength, uniqueness, independence, and self-assurance.
She was such a confident person that even when she was
criticized, her response was to look upon the criticism
in a positive way. Calla was aware that people, "even

her mother's people," said that she was: "'Touched in
the head' . ." (12). Calla's reaction was like that of
a person who sees a glass as half-full, not half-empty:
. . she was both outraged in her pride and
strangely pleased for, somehow, yes she liked
that thought, that idea, "touched" by the
finger of God Himself: compelled to live out a
special destiny none of the fools and idiots
and commonplace sinners around her could guess.
Calla's pride must have been innate for no one around her
guided her to prize her uniqueness. Her sense of self
was strong and unwavering. As a child she thought, "My
self is all to me. I don' t have any need of you" (6) .
Her father had even suspected that Calla was not his own
child because her physical appearance and her stubborn
strength were not to be found on either side of the
family. In this instance Oates combines the idea of
chance with the certainty of heredity, for at some point
in Calla's ancestry all of the physical attributes and
the personality traits existed in the genetic makeup of
one of her forebears. The mixture of traits will vary in
each individual, but they can be traced backwards to
their origination.
Oates's use of italics throughout the text, as in
the preceding paragraph, is not consistent, and in some
instances its function is confusing. In many examples

the italicized words are the private thoughts of Calla,
and they are interspersed throughout the text, giving the
reader the notion of having direct access to Calla's
private thoughts and feelings without a narrator
filtering them. From some of the italicized thoughts, we
gain information, as in the preceding example, that even
as a child, Calla felt complete and self-satisfied. In
other examples Calla seems to be confiding in us. The
technique effectively involves the reader, evoking
sympathy, drawing the reader even closer to the story,
and giving it a sense of immediacy. Of course, from a
practical standpoint the italics simply draw the reader's
visual attention to those words. We take special note of
them, and the effect of the words stays with us because
of the emphasis which is both visual and informative.
Following the departure of Calla's father and the
death of her grandparents, she went to live with
relatives on the maternal side of her family. She was
prone to periods of long silence and from time to time
would disappear, returning to her former farmhouse as an
animal does by an innate sense of direction, remaining
there until someone came to bring her back, forcing her
once again to eat and bathe and dress properly. In time
the family decided she must marry. That would relieve

them of the difficult responsibility and would provide
support for the girl. The narrator questions what Calla
might have thought of the man proposed to her as a
husband and questions her motives for agreeing to the
match. Surely Calla accepted her fate as necessary for
her survival, and the marriage took place in 1907.
The story of the sexual relationship between Calla
and her husband, George Freilicht, is simultaneously
grim, hilarious, and pathetic. Freilicht's humiliating
struggle to consummate the marriage was a physical battle
he refused to abandon, for he was driven by the
biological force which ensures the survival of the
species. Oates's description of Freilicht once again
focuses on the animal-like nature of human beings. In
bed with Calla, Freilicht is a "grunting creature," and
his knee "was so hairy! so laughingly hairy! like a
gorilla's Calla had seen pictured in a magazine!" (25).
He attempts to enter Calla, "lips drawn back from his
teeth," the same as a carnivore. His penis is described
as a weapon, "the terse hard rod." When he gives up his
attack "in simple animal exhaustion," he crawled away
from "that place of combat" and slept apart from Calla
on the floor (26).
This astonishing bedroom encounter brings to mind

Frank Norris's naturalistic novel McTeague. One can
easily draw comparisons with the memorable passage when
the dentist McTeague is working on the teeth of Trina,
his future wife. While she is under ether, "Suddenly the
animal in the man stirred and woke; . (27).
McTeague's "better self" fights to control in himself
"the animal, lips drawn" (28). Norris speaks of man
trying to control the animal instincts as "the old
battle, old as the world, wide as the world . ." (28).
The nightly physical grappling persisted between
Calla and Freilicht until suddenly and surprisingly she
submitted. Their union produced three children, then
sexual relations between the couple ceased forever. The
birth of her children did not change Calla Honeystone.
She had no interest in them, and their care fell to other
willing females in the family circle.
In time Calla again began her solitary wanderings,
lying down "like an animal overtaken by sleep" (30)
whenever exhaustion overcame her. She was totally self-
satisfied, self-preoccupied, self-immersed. Who can say
what thoughts passed through her mind or if any thoughts
passed through her mind? Was she merely a being who saw
and smelled and breathed, and only that, the same as the
animals Oates likens her to? Her sense of reality was a

private reality inside the boundaries of her own
consciousness and, except for the italicized thoughts in
the text, the attempt of the narrator to speak for Calla,
her private emotions and thoughts remain private.
Then came that day in autumn when Calla walked away
from the farmhouse with no destination in mind until
suddenly: "The creek drew her, a nameless creek
somewhere east of Shaheen, wide, low, murmurous, with a
dank smell of lichen dried and baked . (35). On
that day she first laid eyes on Tyrell Thompson with no
awareness that the water they both sought would carry
them together on a ride of rebellion, a ride flagrantly
flaunting their passion, a ride ending three lives.
From this point on Oates draws the reader into the
maelstrom with Calla and Tyrell Thompson. Once again, it
was water that brought Calla and Tyrell Thompson
together. Water, essential for life, brought the
essential into Calla's life so that for the first time
she came to life. It was also the first time that Calla
made a connection with another human being, and the
manifestation of that connection was the introduction,
". . 'Yes I'mCalla, . .'" (43). No one else had
heard of that name since she had left the old farmhouse
north of Milburn.

From the search for water with a willow dowsing rod
sprang a love which awakened sensations and brought forth
intense yearnings with which Calla Honeystone had had no
experience. For the first time, Calla desired a man.
This was her initiation into sensuality. Oates writes:
"Aloud Calla said, as if tasting the word, 'Ne-gro.' And
black and rich and strange it tasted, like licorice"
We can seek the reasons Calla belonged with Tyrell
Thompson, for she did belong with him. It is unlikely
that she was tempted as by forbidden fruit. It seems
more probable that in him she saw a reflection of
herself. She visited the Negro community and "felt a
thrill of horror, amid the blacks. . Like me they
are outcasts in this country. No not like me: they are
true outcasts" (40). If it was shared ostracism which
drew them in like an undertow, from that force lust and
love surfaced and swiftly carried them along.
As Calla held the willow branch on that fateful day
when Tyrell Thompson came to the Freilicht place, the
branch jerked in response to the water running deeply
underground. He explained to her: ". . 'It _is alive.
Like we are alive. And the water too"like calls out to
like"'" (48). And that was how it was to be with Calla

Honeystone and Tyrell Thompson.
The cohesiveness, beauty, and power of the novella
arise from several literary techniques. The aura of
poetry and folklore emanate from this story with Oates's
artistry in the creation and use of imagery, repetition,
alliteration, and personification. The characteristics
of water are used practically and for literary emphasis.
It functions practically because the search for water,
essential for life, brought Calla Honeystone and Tyrell
Thompson together, and later it is the element which
transports them to their intended deaths. It is a
recurring presence in the narrative:
. . the trickling of water in the April thaw;
the dripping of icicles, the rivulets making
their way down the windows, the ditches, the
streams, the creeks making their way veinlike
through the hilly countryside to the river, to
the lake, the Great Lakes. . . (20)
. . I was drawn after that man like water
sucked by wind, shaping my shape to his. . .
. . looking at each other their eyes drowning
in each other as the roar of the falls ahead
began by odd fast jumps to increase in volume
more rapidly than one might expect and the sky
had dissolved in white spray and froth. . .
. . the curious pain that rose and broke,
rose and broke, rose and broke like cascades of
glittering white water in which she yearned to
drown. . . (95)

. . beyond the' locked door of her room the
century rushed headlong as over a series of
cataracts. . . (95)
Oates uses the water imagery in harmony with the
imaginative use of alliteration, which she sprinkles
throughout the text. We see the rowboat in a "sepia sun"
(3). Where Calla first saw Tyrell Thompson, the old mill
stood "in its dreamlike dilapidation" (37). Calla is
"whiskey-warmed" (72). She and Tyrell Thompson made love
by "blunt brash daylight" (55). Rising above her, Calla
heard his "lightly mocking murmurous words" (66). Later
in the story the rowboat is seen in "slanted sunshine"
(75). Following the ride over Tintern Falls, the men
pulled Tyrell Thompson's "broken battered body" from the
water (87). Most effective is Oates's choice and use of
the name Tyrell Thompson- He is never called "Tyrell" or
"Thompson," but always Tyrell Thompson. His name
reverberates throughout the text, an obvious and frequent
example of alliteration and repetition, adding a
rhythmic, melodic sound like the lapping of water on the
In the memorable first line of the novella, Oates
effectively uses personification with the rowboat
"bucking the choppy waves with a look almost of gaiety,
defiance." Again, in Part II, we see "the stolen

weatherworn rowboat bucking the waves with a look almost
of gaiety, defiance" (75). Later, once more, it is the
"bucking rowboat" which begins "to shudder, to cavort,"
(78). And, remember that furtive night when the lovers
met secretly, and they ran "past the dessicated
cornstalks shivering in the wind . ." (57). The
"bucking rowboat" and the "cornstalks shivering"
mindlessly respond to the forces of the biological world
the wind, the water, the sunjust as Calla and Tyrell
Thompson heedlessly respond to the biological forces
which draw them together and drive them on to their
intended deaths.
Another technique Oates uses to achieve the mood and
tone of the novella is her expansion of the use of
repetition that comprises alliteration to the repetition
of words, phrases, and sentences as one finds in poetry
or in songs. The repetition unifies the text and adds an
echoing quality, reinforcing and emphasizing the thoughts
and sounds:
. . Calla oh Calla1 Calla! . (55)
. . Callal oh Calla! . (56)
Calla oh Callal (56)
. . Calla oh Callal . . (58)

I'm Calla. .
. . "My name is Calladidn't you hear?"
. . My name is Calla; Calla is my only
name. . . . (56)
. . My name is Calla. (96)
And then I weakened, and I died.
And my children were born. (26)
So I weakened, and I died. And my children
pushed forward to be born. (28)
. . I am drowning, that is what this
is. . . (29)
. . I am not drowning, really, I will swim
free. (29)
The novella also takes on a characteristic of
folklore because the story of Calla and Tyrell Thompson
is handed down orally with slight changes occuring as one
person re-tells the story to another:
. . the two were seen together hurrying in
stealth, on country roads in the Shaheen area,
in Tintern Falls, . her black lover who was
in some versions a water dowser clad in black
near seven feet tall with a glass eye and a bad
limp, in other versions a preacher with a
scarred face and rope burns showing on his neck
where he'd been hanged and left for dead or
maybe he's got nine lives, did actually come
back from the dead vowing revenge and in
others a "rogue" of a Negro escaped from a
chain gang in Georgia come North to seduce

white men's wives and take his pleasure and his
revenge in one. (52)
Near the ending of the novella is another excellent
example of the folkloric quality of the text:
Yet for years they were seen together and tales
of such sightings repeated, seen always at a
distance so that their exact identities were in
doubt yet everyone in the Chautauqua Valley
knew who the red-haired white woman and the
giant of a black man were glimpsed at dusk
walking together by the river their arms
defiantly around each other's waist their
smiling faces lowered together conspiring.
. . (96)
The element of believability which folklore strives
for is also a feature we ponder in the story of Calla
Honeystone and Tyrell Thompson. Along with the preceding
samples of how people spread and carried on the story of
the doomed lovers, Oates introduces the issue of
believability in two other ways. The first is the
narrator who speaks for her grandmother, then questions
how she can speak for her. Plausibility comes up over
and over. Often a notion is put in the reader's head to
mull over:
. . maybe in fact Tyrell Thompson did have a
wife, a black woman with whom he lived in Derby
when the mood struck him, maybe he had a number
of women, and more children than he could
recall. . . (67)
Repeated references to dreams and dreaming add one
more ingredient to the rich mixture. Who has not

awakened from a dream-filled sleep to the confusion of
wakefulness and the encroachment of reality, sometimes
bringing with it the regret that it was just a dream or,
perhaps, relief to find that it was a frightening
dream which will surely fade from memory as the minutes
pass? The private thoughts of Calla refer repeatedly to
And so around me life took on the contour and
texture of a dream, thouqh I was not the
dreamer. (19)
If this is a dream it is not my dream, for how
should I know the language in which to dream
it? (20)
"I was only trying for us two to not be
wakened, Mrs. Freilicht. If we've been
dreaming." (32)
Part III of the novella focuses on the life of Calla
after the "scandalous incident at Tintern Falls" (92).
Fifty-five more years passed until Calla died at the age
of seventy-seven: "A life split in two but not in
half . ." (88). During those fifty-five years, Calla
spent most of her time alone, isolated in a room on the
second floor of the Freilicht farmhouse. Oates tries to
convince us that Calla "chose to withdraw inside the
Freilicht household and inside the farmhouse
itself . ." (84). We try to accept it as a choice, but
this is difficult, if not impossible, to do. Our only

comfort is to hope the narrator is right:
. . Calla lived however disoriented and
bemused and cynical at times and at other times
simply grateful thinking I was never unhappy,
I regret nothing for otherwise she would never
have known him: her lover: whose name she did
not say. . . (96)
Nevertheless, Oates's tragic story is about chance
and fate, about living in a society which molds us and
tries to control us. It is a story about an
overpowering, uncontrollable attraction, a biological
drive which could not be denied. This is not a story
about choice, for Calla did not choose to be a proud,
rebellious woman. She was born that way, and the family
name she acquired at birthHoneystone--comprises the
striking contrasts between the two sexual relationships
in her life.
In her first sexual relationship with her husband,
Calla was as cold, frigid, and unyielding as stone,
giving in to him eventually only because of a sense of
fairness and duty. But in the sexual relationship with
Tyrell Thompson, not only did he call her "honey," she
was like honey when she was with him--sweet, natural,
yielding, with her body's secretions flowing from within
her like honey from a honeycomb.
Chance placed Calla Honeystone and Tyrell Thompson
in the same place at the same time, and love and lust

took over from that time on. Society made the
possibility of a future together truly dangerous, and
economicstheir poverty--made it impossible for them to
seek a haven elsewhere. The suicide trip over Tintern
Falls was their attempt to control when and how they
would die. But fate intervened and Calla survived.
Calla did not choose "the direction to take, in order to
achieve happiness." She simply responded to the forces
within her and the forces outside her.

To leave behind the heartrending story of Calla
Honeystone and move forward in time to the world of
Kathleen Hennessy is a jarring and unpleasant transition.
There is more to cope with in the transition than simply
a movement in time from the tranquil rural past to the
urban setting of modern day Detroit. Though both stories
are troubling, the effect of Calla's is soothed by a
sense of the passage of time and the beauty of the poetic
and folkloric narrative. Oates's language with its
sensual imagery differs greatly from the sarcastic tone
and explicit prose which tell Kathleen's brutal, sordid
The two novellas, published in consecutive years,
share certain factual details. Each story is about a red
haired young woman whom Oates describes with animal
imagery. Each woman, early in life, is motherless and
fatherless. They both experience unpleasant, coercive
sexual encounters. In time, each young woman becomes
pregnant by a man not her husband. Each woman self-
aborts her foetus and survives to live out her life in

virtual isolation. Oates's message is also the same.
In The Rise of Life on Earth Oates works with the
same theme as in the previous two selections. We cannot
escape our heritage, our biological past, nor can we
avoid being influenced, if not controlled by the social
and economic world in which we live. The principles of
biological and socio-economic determinism operate within
this story. Again, we will se a character who survives
great difficulties but certainly does not become happy.
Of the three women we are focusing upon, Kathleen
Hennessy is so severely damaged by the events in her life
that her prognosis holds no hope of happiness.
Her story commences in the spring of 1961 when she
was eleven years old and was hospitalized because of
injuries her father had inflicted. Drunk and enraged by
the desertion of his wife, Joseph severely beat both
Kathleen and her younger sister, Nola, who died of her
injuries at the scene of the crime. Joseph is later
convicted of second degree manslaughter with Kathleen's
recorded testimony of the events of that brutal night
playing a pivotal role in Joseph's conviction.
Kathleen's mother never returns, and Joseph dies in
prison from injuries suffered there in a fight.
From the beginning of this story, Oates dramatizes

situations in which individuals respond to their emotions
and drives with no attempt at self-control, without
reflection, just as an animal responds to drives and
stimulation without thought. In the third chapter of the
story, the narrator reveals, from the point of view of
Kathleen, the truth about that night of violence.
Kathleen, overwhelmed v/ith fear, tried to silence little
Nola's sobs for fear that her crying would incite Joseph
to beat them again. Burdened with her mother's departing
instructions to take care of Nola, and resentful that
Nola sometimes wet the bed, suddenly Kathleen felt a
strange sensation. She felt "ants run over her skin,
tiny fiery ants" (23). Possessed by that strange
sensation, Kathleen was overcome with rage. She banged
Nola's head on the floor, then banged it "against the
sharp edge of the mattress support" (24). Nola became
quiet and limp. She had died and Kathleen was, in fact,
the one who killed Nola.
For the first time the reader will notice the
connection between the physical sensation which overcomes
Kathleen and her resulting loss of control:
. . the rage came over her like fire so she
could scarcely see how she gripped Nola's head
banging it hard and methodically against the
floor to quiet her . against the sharp edge
of the mattress support. . (24)

We see here a human being out of control, one who does
not make a rational choice but simply reacts like an
animal to protect her own life.
The nurses who cared for Kathleen during her
hospitalization noted that her demeanor was more like
that of an adult than a child "in her stoic resistance to
pain . (4). When the nurses tried to sooth and
please Kathleen, she usually remained "wordless and
preoccupied; . dreamy, inert, blank, . (7). The
"blankness" in Kathleen will reappear throughout the
story. Oates uses the concept of blankness as an
indication of a numbing of all feeling. It is like a
callus in the way Oates uses it to shield Kathleen, but
it also enables her to be like an unthinking, unfeeling
animal. The blankness serves to deaden her conscience.
It is with the concept of blankness that Oates reenacts
Kasch's split-brain theory, and we see Kathleen as two
people in onea shy, sensitive, caring girl and a cold,
calculating murderess.
Oates introduces fire imagery in the scene when
Kathleen kills Nora, telling the reader that "the rage
came over her like fire . . ." (24). The fire imagery
continues throughout the novel effectively adding another
dimension to descriptions and providing cohesion to the

story. Most importantly, with the use of fire imagery,
Oates underscores and parallels the uncontrollability of
fire with the all-consuming rage Kathleen experiences.
There are many examples in the text:
That startled sweetness breaking out of her
her face like a struck match. (69)
. . my soul like a shimmering flame. . .
. . and it seemed to her a match flaring up
in a darkened room. . . (74)
Crouched in the lavatory stall Kathleen felt
her face afire, her hair afire. . . (70)
. . Dexedrine . flashing and melting
along his nerves. . (109)
Following Kathleen's discharge from the hospital,
she lives in the Children's Welfare Center until she is
placed in her first foster home with the Chesney family.
During Kathleen's stay with the Chesneys, Mrs. Chesney's
son, Tiger, began to sexually abuse Kathleen. He also
teased her at the supper table, a torment even more
unpleasant and agonizing for Kathleen than the sexual
abuse. She knew that she had to submit sexually or he
"would be very angry and merciless in his torment of her"
(41). During this same time period, the boys at school
were also physically abusing Kathleen, pinching her
breasts and nipples. By the age of eleven Kathleen had
suffered physical abuse from three different sources.

Oates shows the reader that Kathleen is an
emotionally damaged girl who at times has no control over
her own behavior as the "fiery ant" sensation comes over
her. Her rage is in response to all of the people who
abuse her. She secretly starts a fire which destroys the
Chesney home, killing Mr. and Mrs. Chesney, Tiger, and a
little baby Kathleen loved.
The night of the fire Kathleen rescued the girl who
shared her bedroom, escaping down the rear stairs, "the
two of them sobbing and whimpering like terrified
animals . ." (50). When Kathleen comes to the
realization of the end result of her deadly actions, she
began screaming and then was carried away, "her screams
mounting even as her mind was utterly blank and
extinguished like a candle flame snuffed out by the
flattened palm of a great merciful hand" (51).
Before Kathleen was taken away from the burning
house, she watched the flames and the firemen.
Describing this scene, Oates inserts, in italics, in the
middle of another sentence the words: "... You
fuckers: now you see . ." (50). Oates intersperces
italicized words and phrases throughout this text as she
did in I Lock My Door Upon Myself. In this book
sometimes the words originate from another character and

are statements which have made a strong and lasting
impression on Kathleen who recollects them when apropos.
At other times the italicized words are the private
thoughts of Kathleen, words which have not been filtered
through the third person limited narrator. In those
instances the italics prompt the reader into believing
that there is direct access into Kathleens mind,
fostering a sense of intimacy between the reader and
Along with the italicized words, Oates occasionally
uses a large type to add a visual emphasis to words. In
chapter 6 Oates inserts long spaces between phrases which
explain how one correctly does a surgical scrub. The
spaces between the words are the pauses an individual
makes when going through the correct procedure for the
important ritual of the surgical scrub. Other hospital
procedures throughout the text are reproduced as one
would actually find them in a textbook. This technique
adds a strong realistic element to the text. We feel
that we are actually there with Kathleen as she completes
her surgical scrub. The meticuous attention Oates gives
to the long, involved surgical scrub emphasizes our
ongoing, arduous struggle to control the environment.
This time the battle is waged against the life forms

which we cannot see which can, nevertheless, kill us.
As in the other two books, water plays an important
role in this novella. It functions as the natural
element which cleanses, purifies, and can extinguish
fire. Yet we see it fail to overcome the fire Kathleen
set at the Chesney's home. The fire destroys the house
and kills several people. Water is also the element
Kathleen uses to spread hepatitis throughout the
hospital, so instead of being the medium which helps to
Control bacteria, it spreads bacteria. In this battle of
forces between water and fire and water and disease,
Oates shows that one element of the biological world can
overpower and control another, just as the bad in
Kathleen can erupt into "fiery ants," overpowering
Kathleen's emotional control, turning her into a killer.
Kathleen cannot overcome the evil forces in her life and
is driven by them to commit vile acts. .. She does not
choose. She is overpowered.
Oates sets up parallels here. Kathleen's family
should have brought love and support into her life.
Instead they abandoned her or beat her. Later we see
that the act of love between Kathleen and Orson Abbott
becomes simply a physical, unloving act, on the part of
Orson, in response to a biological drive. Things or

people can operate in good or bad ways, and Kathleen is a
victim who at times victimizes. Oates shows that one's
heritage can positively or negatively control events in
our lives, just as the elements and forces of nature can
be beneficent or destructive. We have no control over
these matters. Kathleen, who could not control her
abusers, then lost her own self-control and became an
abuser herself.
Oates1s description of Kathleen throughout the
novella leaves the reader with an uncomfortable feeling
which rises from Oates's careful selection of modifiers,
words which one has probably never heard before in
connection with the description of a human being:
Kathleen Hennessy with her pie-shaped face,
pie-shaped maturing breasts, her pale, plump,
soft, seemingly textureless flesh like that of
a mollusk pried from its shell . and her
recessed eyes that were darkly bright and
alert, though betraying no expression; her
delicate complexion riddled with tiny pimples
like buckshot. (3-4)
Notice the unique contrast Oates makes between delicacy
and something which is used to killbuckshot. The
contrasts Oates creates subtly prepare us for the
contrasts between the two sides of Kathleenthe shy,
sensitive, insecure girl who becomes a vengeful killer.
Oates follows the previous comparison with another, even
more grotesque:

. . her small, pert, moist, pink rosebud of a
mouth, that reminded observers of a part of the
female anatomy that is private and should not
be exposed to casual eyes. (4)
Throughout the novella Kathleen is described as
being less than human, which later on makes Kathleen's
actions believable in spite of their morbidity. Oates
uses animal imagery which extends to the mollusk and to
creatures even less like a human being than a dog or a
cow. In one scene Kathleen "began to eat with more
appetite, her jaws slowly grinding, insect duty and
rapacity it sometimes seemed, . ." (8). Insects and
mollusks are living creatures lacking thought processes
and feelings.
Later in the story Kathleen murders patients with no
contemplation and no remorse. She snuffs out a human
life as if swatting a fly, and her unreflective behavior
puts her on the same vacuous level as the fly. Oates's
early insertions of the concept of blankness, and this
early comparison of Kathleen to an insect and the
mollusk, set the stage for Kathleen's later actions and
make them believable and in character to the reader.
Oates continues comparing Kathleen to animals, most
of them not known for their intelligence or beauty:
Kathleen stood passive, with that meekness and
stolidity of a young cow suffused with the heat
of her own flesh, a secret stubbornness in the

legs, the thighs, the haunches, even in the
soft droopy breasts now nearly the size of
Mrs. Chesney's. . . (26)
The comparisons continue. Kathleen is "cow-clumsy with
wide thick hamlike hips" (69). She is a "baby-cow"
(109). She is a "squat passive mammalian figure" (87).
Later in the text Oates points out the resemblance
between Kathleen and Mrs. Chesney, ending one description
with the comment that they both had "that look of no
bones inside their flesh" (26). This additional
description reinforces and reemphasizes the earlier one
about Kathleen's flesh being "like that of a mollusk"
(3), for the mollusk belongs to the classification of
invertebrate animals characterized by a soft, usually
unsegmented body.
Oates also uses the image of the dog, negatively
focusing on the submissiveness of dogs to human beings.
At the supper table Tiger speaks of Kathleen as "a sad
mutt," and he tells her she has that "kicked-dog look
so you naturally want to give her another kick, ..."
(37). When Tiger wanted to use Kathleen sexually, he
called her "as if he were calling a dog" (41). Like a
dog, Kathleen had to be obedient if she wanted to have
shelter and food. Just as a stray dog taken into a home
will gulp down the food someone gives it, Kathleen ate

hurriedly, fearing that there might not be enough food
to go around.
The animal descriptions of Kathleen continue, cruel
and painful insults now originating from intern Orson
Abbott who uses Kathleen roughly as his sexual outlet.
After learning that Kathleen is pregnant with his child,
he blurts out, "... 'Jesus. You shouldn't cry. It
changes your face to a pig'sa pig's snout'" (118).
While hitting her with his fists, he continues calling
her a pig and accusing her of intentionally becoming
In her struggle to deal with the emptines in her
life, Kathleen makes attempts to find solace in religious
faith. The reflections on God in the text are filled
with sarcasm and puzzlement as Oates points out the
unfairness of the Christian God. Kathleen notices that
"certainly God's blessings fell more lavishly upon some
than upon others ..." (92).
During her high school years, the Reverend Deck and
his wife and two of Kathleen's high school teachers
encouraged Kathleen and were emotionally supportive.
Kathleen tried to benefit from their guidance and the
maxims they shared with her. The maxims are often
italicized in the text as she recalls them and tries to

draw strength from them: "The thing is Kathleen we must
never lose faith in ourselves for faith is everything"
(58). The maxims are of little benefit to Kathleen. The
day-to-day emptiness in her life and the lack of a loving
family, a close friendship, or some type of support group
leave Kathleen in a state of aloneness, sadness, and
misery. The infrequent acts of kindness toward her
cannot make up for the cruelty and neglect she continues
to endure. Though Arlene and Calla lost their mothers
through death, Kathleen's loss was the greatest, the most
psychologically damaging, because her mother's departure
was a choice. She abandoned Kathleen and never returned.
If we recall William Styron's thoughts on the effects of
a parent's death or disappearance, we can find the
initial and major source of Kathleen's sorrow, misery,
and rage.
One individual who possibly could have salvaged
Kathleen, the intern Orson Abbott, is himself a sick,
overwhelmed individual struggling with thirty-six-hour
shifts and "the flood of suffering and inarticulate
humanity, . until now obscured from his
consciousness; . ." (89). Orson is self-immersed,
relies on Quaaludes and Dexedrine to make it through his
shifts, and roughly uses Kathleen for his sexual

gratification. The relationship is one more abuse
Kathleen endures. When a life is as void of
companionship as is Kathleen's, it seems that even an
abusive relationship is better than none. She has
nothing to fall back on. There is only emptiness.
Oates graphically describes the sexual encounters
between Kathleen and Orson Abbott. They lack tenderness
and any attempt on Orson's part to caress, comfort, or
communicate with Kathleen. Oates's descriptions of the
rough sexual couplings remind us of the physical battles
between Calla and George Freilicht. Though Kathleen is
submissive in any sexual encounter to the point of being
masochistic, Orson is rougheven brutalwith her and
shows no concern for her physical or psychological
discomfort nor any pleasure she might salvage from the
physical acts. Orson's penis becomes an instrument of
brutality, a weapon, the same as Freilicht's "terse hard
rod." Oates effectively brings to mind pictures we have
seen of cave men, hairy creatures with their backs
hunched over carrying a club. Orson's brutality is
evident in these excerpts:
. . that hard hot angry rod between his
legs. . . (109)
. . his penis so grotesquely swollen like
a club. . . . (110)

. . the more violently he thrust himself into
her the harder his erection became, a rod a
club seemingly permanent and unyielding no
tenderness could dissolve it. . . (111-112)
Oates dramatizes the effects of abuse on a human
being. Kathleen's relationship with Orson Abbott is a
continuing testament to the reality that if one is not
treated with love and respect, one has a negative or low
self-image and comes to expect nothing from other human
beings. Kathleen became merely a receptacle for a man's
semen. She briefly held out hope that Orson Abbott might
care for her and want the baby they conceived. If she
had a baby, Kathleen believed that she would never be
lonely again. Her hope is cruelly wiped out.
During one of Kathleen and Orson's rough sexual
encounters, Orson, apparently under the effects of drugs,
simultaneously thinks of his father's well-known precis,
written while the man attended medical school. The
precis, entitiled "The Rise of Life on Earth," is the
source of the novella's title and explains the chemical
reactions which occurred bringing life, at first in its
simplest forms, into existance. The precis documents the
evolution of living matter into higher forms of life, a
process taking hundreds of millions of years and finally
evolving into man as he is today. Orson's drugged
thoughts take place while he is "slamming" himself into

Kathleen, "thrusting to what purpose don't ask, ..."
(111). Orson is the human male as animal, driven by an
overpowering force, the same as George Freilicht, Joseph
Hurley, and Kasch. The stream-of-consciousness phrases
are juxtaposed against the reality of the violent sexual
encounter, and also against the image the reader has of
Kathleen Hennessy. Oates demonstrates that life forms
have progressed and evolved to the elevated state of
being in which Homo sapiens can abuse each other, murder,
and perform self-abortions. There is no way a reader can
escape the sickening discomfort of these realities.
Oates now brings the novella to a close with the
horror of Kathleen spreading hepatitis into the drinking
water, food, and other personal effects of hospitalized
patients. Though at times Oates uses the notion of
"blankness" with Kathleen, at other times she acts as
only highly developed Homo sapiens can actwith
vengeance. In one sense her vengeance humanizes her.
Her acts are vicious and indiscriminate, but she commits
them in a reaction to how she has been treated all of her
life. Her actions are disgusting and horrible, but they
are the actions of a human being suffering overwhelming
Oates begins the final chapter, listing the

necessary medical items Kathleen has collected for her
forthcoming abortion:
A knife handle No. 3 with a No. 15 blade taken
from a minor surgery kit; a scrub package; a
glove package; one dozen thick absorbent cotton
pads and a box of tampons; five Darvon tablets.
And germicide-detergent solution. (125)
The listing of these items adds realism to Kathleen's
self-abortion. Furthermore, they reveal how rational,
precise, and cold hearted she had to become to carry out
this painful and heartbreaking act. She cut out of her
womb the one human being who might have filled her life
with love.
Further remarks of Oates1s from the Ohio Review
interview cited earlier reveal Oates's purpose in writing
so vividly of an incident like Kathleen's self-abortion:
I would like to create the psychological and
emotional equivalent of an experience so
completely and in such exhaustive detail, that
anyone who reads it sympathetically will have
experienced that event in his mind (which is
where we live anyway). (qtd. in Milazzo 49)
Oates accomplishes that goal with the agonizing
description of Kathleen's self-abortion in the isolation
of her little apartment. Following the horrifying
account, Kathleen:
. . lay very still understanding how in the
human world she was invisible and would forever
be thus and so her pain if it was pain and her
suffering if it was suffering and the death of
the tiny skinless thing meant to be her baby if

it was a true death did not matter in the human
world in the slightest You're shit: pig's
snout and seemed not to matter much in God's
world and she wondered if there were others of
her kind and if these others knew of one
another and knew of one. another' s secret
strength, the terrible strength of those whom
the human world has made invisible. . . .
Oates's repeated use of the phrase "in the human world,"
along with her reference to "God's world," serve to
emphasize Kathleen's sense of not belonging and of her
feeling of separation from humanity. Those closest to
her in her lifeher mother, her father, her lover who
did not love hertreated her as less than human, so
she became less than human and existed outside of
society's laws and the Christian God's commandments.
Kathleen lived out the rest of her life in "a
succession of robot-selves" (134). Oates's intention
in the closing paragraphs of the story is to show that
Kathleen had no control over what she became and how she
acted. She was a "robot" who had been programmed by the
many individuals who inflicted pain upon her. She did
not have a choice. She simply responded. Even God was
to blame, if there was a God, for He had failed her as
"He overlooked so many" (62).

Oates leaves the reader of these three works with a
pessimistic view of humanity's chance for happiness in a
world where fate, family, and the forces of nature have
more to do with the course of one's life than any
conscious, rational choice. If there is a lesson we can
learn from Oates's three novels, it is not the direction
one should take to achieve happiness. Rather, the lesson
is that the direction we take depends on where, when, and
with whom we started, and whom and what we encountered
along the way. Furthermore, when we arrive where we
thought we wanted to be, there is no guarantee of
happiness. Society will be there to attempt to influence
and control, and we will learn that passion and joy are
ephemeral. Oates shows us that we cannot count on
whatever or whoever lies close at hand. Mothers die
young or abandon their children. The elements of the
natural world can be beneficent or deadly. We can rely
on nothing, not the love of a parent nor the success of a
suicide attempt going over Tintern Falls.
Oates attempts to mollify us with the notion of

choice. With respect to Calla's fifty-five years of
existence following the incident at Tintern Falls, she
writes that Calla "chose to withdraw inside the Freilicht
household . ." (84). How can we possibly rationalize
that this was a choice for the girl who loved to roam the
countryside, the young woman who rushed from her
husband's bed to join her lover in the fields at night?
As for Kathleen Hennessy, she did not choose to be
"invisible." She did not want to abort her baby. She
cried as she thought, "... I want to have my baby,
it's my baby, I would not then ever be lonely
again ..." (121). For her, there were no other
Now that she knew: she knew there was no
hope: knowing there is no hope can be a
wonderful thing and now she knew, now she
would do it, what must be done. . . (122)
One whom Oates describes as living "in a succession of
robot selves" lives with little choice (134).
Arlene, the one survivor seemingly content with her
self and her life at the end of the novel, continues on
as before, seeking love and security in the familiar
surroundings of Eden County, while around her violence
and death have resulted in Kasch's living in isolation,
somewhat like Calla, and existing in a life like death,
as does Kathleen. We can try to tell ourselves none of

these situations matter, for Oates has also insisted that
the mind is "where we live anyway" (qtd. in Milazzo 49).
In Childwold Kasch elaborates on this concept:
A common misconception I once wanted to write
about in depth: that human life is centered
upon and determined by events. On the
contrary, the interior life constitutes the
authentic life, and actions performed in the
exterior world are peripheral. Reality is what
I am thinking, what is thinking through me,
using me as a means, a vessel, a reed, even,
streaming through me with or without my
consent; the interior life is continuous,
unhurried, almost undirected, unheralded.
With respect to Calla Honeystone1s retreat, the preceding
passage can be comforting, and Calla said that she
regretted nothing. But, when the mind suffers great
pain, as Kathleen's does, and if the suffering does not
cease, and if hope is destroyed over and over, then the
interior life seems no more worthy of salvaging than the
barren exterior life.
Reality seen through the work of Joyce Carol Oates
is often unpleasant. Contributing critic Frank R.
Cunningham emphasizes in American Women Writing Fiction:
Perhaps the greatest terror in confronting
Oates's work lies in the critic's admission
that, unlike most writers in the great
humanistic European and American traditions, we
are faced with a contemporary woman writing in
America with formidable dedication who seems
seldom to believe in human capacities for
learning and for emotional growth and

awareness, in the ego's connection to anything
beyond its temporary sensory gratifications.
One can counter Cunningham's remarks with the assertion
that these three women definitely grew emotionally and
increased their awareness. Unfortunately, growth and
awareness sound like such positive states of being that
we try to convince ourselves that surely good things will
result when growth and awareness abound. That is not
necessarily so. Growth and awareness bring no guarantees
of happiness nor are they a panacea for pain.
Oates's hope "to show how some individuals find a
way out, awaken, come alive, move into the future," and
her desire to "help with pain," and "show the direction
to take" reveal an optimism which is infrequently found
in her work. Oates's work reflects the ongoing, internal
conflict most human beings endure. We tell ourselves
life is precious and worth living, that we are lucky to
be alive, while around us natural and human destruction
and violence continue.
Though we cannot enter Oates's mind, her statements
and her work reflect the emotional struggle we all
experience. She seeks the positive, but as an artist she
is truthful and represents the world as it is, a world
where heredity, socio-economic conditions, and fate

control our destinies. Her public statements, though,
disclose hope and optimism.
Instead of holding Oates accountable for those words
from long ago claiming she will show us the direction to
take, we must recognize and realize that Oates cannot
provide us with a map. Instead, we will see the
direction others have taken, and we will understand the
complexities of why and how that direction came about.
Chance has much more to do with the direction than

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