‘At The Seminary’ by Joyce Carol Oates

At The Seminary by Joyce Carol Oates, 1965

The magic trick:

Allowing the character of Sally to wrest attention from the reader even as the story seems to be more about her brother

It seems like this should be a story about Peter, the confused soul suffering crises of commitment at the seminary. Certainly, his parents think the story is about him.

Sally, the older sister, though, isn’t having it. The family arrives at the seminary, and the reader settles in for the narrative shift toward Peter. But Sally takes center stage.

At the risk of putting it too dramatically – over the course of the family’s visit, in one afternoon, she fully realizes her womanhood. The combination of her juvenile behavior with religion and subsequent maturation through menstruation, well, it’s not like what you’ll find in most stories, that’s for sure. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part. 

The selection:

“What beauty! Immeasurable beauty!” Father Greer said aloud. His eyes were brittle with awe, an awe perhaps forced from him; he looked quite moved. Yet what was he moved at, Sally thought angrily, what had they been looking at, what did they know? Peter wiped at his nose, surreptitiously, but of course everyone saw him. What did they know? What had they seen? What might they ever trust again in a world of closed surfaces, of panels just sliding shut? She was shaken, and only after a moment did she notice her mother glaring at her, at the cocktail glass and the sunglasses. Her mother’s face was white and handsome with the splendor of her hatred. Sally smirked. She felt the faithful blood inside her seeping, easing downward. Father Greer pointed out something further – someone agreed – she felt the hot blood on her legs. She was paralyzed, charmed.

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