In her introduction to this short story collection (which won the 1970 National Book Award), Elaine Showalter observes that “To portray female experience and sexuality, Oates revived the Female Gothic” (xvi). Her analysis is spot-on:
The modern Female Gothic is a parable of women writers’ fantasies, desires, and nightmares about creativity vs. procreativity—the anxieties of giving birth to stories instead of babies, in a society that viewed female artistic ambition and sexuality as unnatural and deviant. The obsession with monsters and freaks, in the work of Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, was a metaphor for this anxiety, and the mother’s body, rather than the haunted castle, is the place of imprisonment, since it represents the fate of women who give in to their sexual desires. (xvi-xvii)
Further, she notes that in Oates’s work, “while women seem powerless and paralyzed by their biology, their poverty, and their passivity. Oates’s heroines in the 1960s, like Gothic heroines in the eighteenth century, are dependent on men to rescue, even abduct, them and carry them away” (xvii).
As part of her Garden of Earthly Delights trilogy, Oates uses metafictional techniques such as an author’s note in which describes the work as a “work of history in fictional form,” and including herself as a character in the novel. Though there are a few other metafictional elements to the novel—such as Oates’s appearance as a minor character in a couple of chapters—but more important to me is the prevailing theme that reality is not what it appears, especially for women below the poverty line in America. For example, both Loretta and her mother-in-law at different points in the novel, after life has worn them down, claim that their current appearance is not what they really look like. Maureen sometimes wonders, when her mother speaks to her, if “maybe her mother was talking to the real Maureen, a girl who was hypocritical and selfish and sly” (185). Such a sense of unreality seems necessary in order for women to survive in this world, one run by men and money, which women can only procure through thievery or prostitution. As Jules’s beloved Nadine says, explaining why she married,
A woman is like a dream. Her life is a dream of waiting. I mean, she lives in a dream, waiting for a man. There’s no way out of this, insulting as it is, no woman can escape it. Her life is waiting for a man. That’s all. There is a certain door in this dream, and she has to walk through it. She has no choice. Sooner or later she has to open that door and walk through it and come to a certain man, one certain man. She has no choice about it. She can marry anyone but she has no choice about this. That’s what I’m thinking. (386)
Though this does reflect what many of the women (and men) in the novel seem to think, it’s interesting to consider the presence of nuns in the novel. Jules fantasizes about them; Loretta feels enmity toward them.
Even for men, however, life is a dead end. The story of Maureen’s brother Jules plays this out—and Loretta’s brother Brock, who kills her first lover as they slept, and reappears in Detroit years later only to be hospitalized and be one more person who requires care. As Jules sits with him, he realizes, “It could not be possible that he, Jules, was growing up into a man like every other man—that there was no special skill in him, no grace or delicacy, no destiny in proportion to his desire” (366). Jules realizes this shortly after it is revealed that Maureen has flunked out of college and has a job as a typist—a lousy job, in her mother’s consideration, but when compared to her catatonic state after being beaten almost to death by her stepfather, it’s admittedly an improvement. them is the stories of quiet desperation, without even the energy to pursue desperation too much.