Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Feminism, Masculinity, and Nation in Joyce Carol Oates's Fiction

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Feminism, Masculinity, and Nation in Joyce Carol Oates's Fiction

Article excerpt

One of Joyce Carol Oates's great accomplishments as a contemporary writer presenting the American landscape for almost half a century is her rich documentation of cultural shifts in the US. This essay looks particularly at how her constructions of male characters register, dissect, and endorse such changes. In the last twenty-five years, paralleling the cultural debates about masculinity and the rise of masculinity studies, Oates's male characters, especially but not exclusively her father figures, help to chart how changing ideologies of masculinity serve feminist purposes. Moreover, in the reciprocity between world and text, this shift in constructions of masculinity has implications for a shift in ideologies of nation.

The architecture of this change in ideas of masculinity, in particular hegemonic masculinity, may be gleaned by tracing character development from Oates's early to her more recent fiction. A comparison between "At the Seminary" (1965) and "Faithless" (2001) readily reveals the pattern also present in her longer fiction, the main subject of this essay. In "At the Seminary" a sister travels with her parents to visit her brother, a seminary student who has increasing doubts about his calling and thus has summoned his family. The seminary in this story is clearly delineated as a male preserve. Oates brilliantly contrasts the cold marble and glass seminary with the defiant young woman beleaguered by her emotions and appetites and resentful of the seemingly accusatory seminary. In the end, the young woman feels herself menstruating, and in defiance, she lets the blood flow right onto the seminary floor. As a result of this act, her brother feels compelled to remain at the seminary. The story is a multivocal commentary dissecting some cultural ideas relating to the male/female binary: for instance, the implicit condemnation of women for their very biology, especially in the context of a male institution such as the seminary; also the association of women with nature, which is coded female and antithetical to the male spirituality of the seminary. The story also reassigns the meaning of blood, usually having masculine associations with violence and war, to an association with the feminine. In the end, the brother sacrifices himself in order to maintain the system of hegemonic masculinity represented by the seminary. To refuse would mean validating his sister's transgression and thus endangering the sex/gender order to which he has been committed. At the end of the story, nothing has significantly changed and though attacked, traditional masculinity is reinforced at the expense of both brother and sister.

In later portraits, Oates registers social changes that do allow for elasticity in gender roles. By following several generations, the title story of the 2001 collection Faithless records changes in hegemonic masculinity over time. The mother in "Faithless" is an abused woman, kept a virtual prisoner on her husband's farm. Decades after the fact, it is revealed that her husband murdered her while she attempted to escape him. Oates's story may have been influenced by Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers," published in 1917, in which a woman kills her husband, but the sheriff and his male cronies are blind to the evidence because it is all in the kitchen. Their wives who find the clues plainly visible in the kitchen (where men cannot read the signs) decide not to reveal her crime because along with evidence of her guilt, they also find evidence of her husband's abuse of her. She is judged by a "jury of her peers." Glaspell's story is set early in the 20th century, when Oates's story also begins. Both stories describe social systems that make it possible for men to keep women virtual prisoners in their homes, barred from telephones, from music, from travel to relatives in the case of Oates's story, from modes of socializing that might have made their lives bearable. They do not have access to funds, and forms of self-expression in the religious, rural community of Oates's story are considered frivolous and unchristian. …

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