‘The Dead’ by Joyce Carol Oates

The Dead by Joyce Carol Oates, 1972

The magic trick:

Simulating for the reader the protagonist’s sense of lost identity

Today we begin a week looking at five stories from Oates’s 1972 collection, Marriages And Infidelities. Each takes its title from a classic short story of the past. If it sounds like a gimmick, get over it and give these stories a chance. They’re brilliant. Oates doesn’t simply draw from old texts in a cutesy, derivative way. She expands some of the themes, compresses others, uses ideas and pieces of structure – all to create stories that both comment on their antecedents and say something entirely new. We’re talking brilliant, brilliant stuff here.

OK, so I’m not going break down these stories against their models. “The Dead” does a remarkable job of recreating the identity crisis, the jealousy, and the snow of the original. But it has its own agenda too. That’s what I’m going to be looking at this week – how these Oates stories create something new.

In “The Dead,” she spills out Ilena’s identity crisis. Ilena is juggling career success with romantic struggles, and all of it is becoming a muddle in her brain.

It soon becomes a muddle in the reader’s brain, too. Oates mixes up the different pieces of Ilena’s predicament. So we get a picture of her current state in Buffalo. Then we travel back and learn about her ex-husband. Bounce slightly forward and learn about her affair at the university. But it’s not even that simple. The story warps back and forth through these three relationships, almost like an omniscient narration stream of conscience. Some elements even get repeated. No wonder Ilena is feeling like she is losing herself.

The reader feels her pain. The loss feels like our own. The confusion feels like our own. So when the narrative evens out and begins to go in a straight line, we can totally understand Ilena’s panic. We’ve got the same sense of unease. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part. 

The selection:

She was so tired most of the time she did not even pretend to feel anything. With Gordon, in those hurried sleep moments back in Detroit, the two of them always fearful of being discovered, her body had been keyed up to hysteria and love had made her delirious; with Bryan, near the end of their marriage, she had sometimes felt a tinge of love, a nagging doubtful rush that she often let fade away again, but with Lyle her body was dead, worn out, it could not respond to his most tender caresses. She felt how intellectualized she had become, her entire body passive and observant and cynical.

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