“Love, Forever” by Joyce Carol Oates

04May05

Yeesh, what a disturbing story. I read the first bit last night before falling asleep, so after I read the second part today I re-read the beginning and shivered. If someone had given me this story without an author name attached, I could have made an educated guess that Joyce Carol Oates was the author because of the characterization of the main character and the descriptions of violence.

In her essay “Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates,” Charlotte Goodman notes, “Oates’s female characters often experience acute psychological malaise because of their powerlessness, and many ultimately become suicidal or psychotic.” Or, in this case, homicidal. Goodman’s essay concentrates mainly on Oates’ female characters in her novels, which, understandably, receive more character development and background story than the main character of this very brief short story. Thus, one cannot conclude whether the main character’s mother influenced her actions, as Goodman notes, but some of Goodman’s other observations are pertinent: the main character does expect the attentions of a man to validate her existence and, ultimately, her “search…to better [her] status or find happiness and fulfillment through relationships with men, marriage, and motherhood…ends in failure.”

In a story about a mother killing her children in order to keep the affections of a man, probably one of the creepiest sentences to use as the final sentence must be, “Sherri was the one Mommy always loved best.”

Oates uses an interesting style of writing for the second part of the story. Her sentences seem hurried or child-like and lacking proper punctuation. For example:

The entire day, the sun was hidden behind clouds, one of those gauzy gray days you feel like screaming but she was calm, she was in control. Six-year-old Tommy ran inside when the school bus let him off all excited saying the bus driver had almost hit a buck in the fog and she smiled and kissed him and walked past as if she hadn’t heard. She’s been smiling all day. It wasn’t practice, it was her natural self: as, in high school, she’d smiled all the time. She was waiting for a phone call, she’d left a message on the answering service of one of the girls she used to work with, when she was working, and when the call came she had something planned to say she’d memorized, a strange man prowling the woods behind the trailer, a man with a beard, or maybe without a beard, probably a hunter, she hadn’t wanted to stare out at him wasn’t worried really but she’d mention it, then talk of something else. Not too much detail—that gave you away. From TV you learned that.

The sentence structure seems to be somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and….uh, not stream-of-consciousness. (How would you describe it?) Oates’ writing style seems indicative of the main character’s machination and excitement and, perhaps, her psychosis as well. The style also offers the reader access to the character’s mindset, but doesn’t quite submerge the reader in her thoughts as a complete stream-of-consciousness style would have.

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