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     This dissertation presents a thematic analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’s recent novels. Joyce Carol Oates (1938)
is a contemporary American writer, reviewer and essayist, as well as being the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished
Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. She has written more than 50 novels, and more than 30 short
story collections, novellas, dramas, volumes of poetry and essays. This study focuses on the novels that she has
written about the middle- and upper classes since 1990. The goal of the study is to examine the ways in which
Joyce Carol Oates’s recent novels represent the reality of contemporary America. A thematic approach is taken
to Oates’s novels, providing cultural, sociological and historical contexts for her work. In particular, this study
draws on sociological and cultural studies of American society in the second half of the 20th century, and its
attitudes relating to family values, middle-class values, and the American Dream.
     The introduction provides biographical details, summarizes the critical reception of Oates’s work, offers an
overview of the main topics of her oeuvre, and elaborates on Oates’s attitude towards her predecessors’ works.
Throughout her career, Oates has frequently returned to the themes of violence, personality, and social struggle,
no matter which mode of story-telling that she might be employing. As she readily admits, she has drawn on
many writers over her career, with the influence of D.H. Lawrence, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce being
most evident. The introduction also outlines the study and discusses its methodology.
     The first chapter focuses on the interaction between traditional and contemporary ways of life in rural and
small-town America. This theme is explored through the prism of Oates’s portrayals of women in Mother,
Missing, We Were The Mulvaneys, The Falls, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, What I Lived For and My Sister,
My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike. The women that Oates portrays in these novels fall into three
groups: subordinate wives, liberated women and hedonist socialite types. In her portrayals of the first two
groups, Oates employs motifs from her early work, including those relating to the settings of the novels, the
strong presence of natural powers and rural landscapes, poverty, and extreme violence, all of which eventually
serve as character-shaping forces for her ‘social climbers.’ Like some of the women in her early novels, some of
Oates’s more recent female characters manage to escape their deprived existences by reinventing themselves and
manipulating others. The third group consists of cultural stereotypes, characters that Oates uses to satirize the
decadence of middle- and upper-class suburbs.
     Portraying families in her recent novels, Oates questions the validity of the idealized picture of the postwar
nuclear family, and the assumed prosperity and good life enjoyed by the postwar generation. The analysis of the
novels reveals that on the one hand, Oates looks upon rural and small-town American family life with nostalgia;
while on the other, she is critical of the disadvantages and entrapment suffered by women who are subject to the
strict norms of family life. Oates finds contemporary America to be lacking in strength of character, stability,
reliability and moral decency, qualities that are often associated with the Protestant world-view, while
simultaneously criticizing the limitations that this same Protestant ethic imposes on her characters. The novels
discussed in this chapter show that Oates values the simple life and man’s relationship with the natural world,
and reveals her insistence on revising and memorializing the past.
     Chapter 2 is devoted to Oates’s vision of success and failure as concepts central to the American Dream. This
section of the study argues that Oates views the drive to succeed in American corporate and political culture as
both extreme and treacherous. The analysis of the novel, What I Lived For, demonstrates that in Oates’s view,
the fundamental characteristics of American society – including work, upward mobility and property ownership
– have lost their intrinsic and moral value. Work has become inseparable from gambling and con-artistry,
upward mobility has had the effect of detaching individuals from trusted social networks, and people’s homes
have turned into places of misery and emotional devastation. Success itself has become a never-ending
construction of the image of success. For Oates, failure is morally preferable to success; while failure stimulates
growth and improvement, success releases people from their commitments and responsibilities.
     This chapter analyses the satiric portrayal of city life in the context of the social, urban and economic
developments that occurred in American during the second half of the 20th century. It suggests that Oates uses
the setting of the action, Union City, as a metaphor for contemporary America. Thus the scenes of destruction
and social injustice that Oates paints in this city function as a warning against the negative effects of short-term
investment and political corruption.
    Chapter 3 examines the concept of boredom and feelings of meaninglessness in the upper classes, as
portrayed in Middle Age: A Romance. In this social satire, Oates explores what is left of the meaning of life
when people have achieved the highest possible social status, and satisfied their material needs. Drawing on
philosophical discussions of boredom, this chapter examines how Oates’s characters experience pre-retirement,
how they contemplate the meaning of their lives, and how they attempt to find fulfillment. The study finds that
Oates traces the causes of boredom and feelings of meaningless to a combination of factors, namely social and
racial exclusivity, isolation, traditional upper-class mentalities, Protestant ethics, and the suppression of
individuality. Although the feeling that one’s existence is meaningless may make life a misery, the novel implies
that boredom, when combined with a rediscovery of authenticity, may also serve as a form of stimulation. In her
narrating of the characters’ fates, Oates is suggesting that expressing one’s individuality, reconnecting with
society at large, and becoming involved in social issues may serve as remedies for the feeling of having died
    Oates’s engagement with popular and celebrity culture is discussed in Chapter 4, which is concerned with
Oates’s novel, Blonde, her fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe; a novel based on an unresolved murder, My
Sister My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike; and Broke Heart Blues. Blending fact and fiction, and
taking little distance from real events, Oates’s critique reveals celebrity culture to be shallow and corrupt. She
envisions actresses as victims at the hands of producers and directors, and portrays television program makers
and tabloid publishers that ignore ethical issues in their race for fat profits. Oates also chides audiences and fans
for their immaturity and appetite for sensationalism. As this chapter shows, Oates is concerned about the gradual
penetration of celebrity lifestyles into ordinary people’s lives. To her mind, a culture that is based on
entertainment will eventually turn against individuals, destroying their sense of reality and morality, and causing
their personalities to fragment.
    The chapter discusses how the American character has changed over the decades, from the ideal
‘industrialist’ type of the early 20th century to the contemporary focus on public image. It then further examines
the relationship between an image that is created for commercial purposes and public consumption, and the
person behind the image. Oates is concerned that when the person behind the image comes to fully identify with
the image, s/he will lose touch with himself/herself and with reality. Audiences are frequently unaware of the
nature of the real person, and demand the creation of a myth based on an image, not the referent. The chapter
suggests that Oates approaches celebrity culture as symbolic of the ultimate fragmentation of reality in
contemporary society: the rejection of memory and the past, and the celebration of absolute freedom that is
associated with rootlessness. The effacement of traditionally celebrated qualities, such as reliability and integrity,
is central to Oates’s portrayals of characters that are trapped in celebrity and socialite lifestyles.
    The last part of this study offers an overview of the various literary genres that Oats has employed in her
recent novels, and discusses how she has adopted these genres in her work. The chapter shows how Oates
challenges the limits of both historical and modern romance, thriller and detective genres, by blending fact and
fiction, and by embracing popular fiction and parodying the postmodern novel. Next to that, she employs gothic
and melodramatic devices, and offers very graphic descriptions of violent or sexual acts. Oates’s novels are often
emotional and melodramatic, which has led to the perception that she balances between being a literary writer
and a popular writer. The chapter attempts to show that the demarcation line between highbrow and lowbrow is
blurred in contemporary fiction, and that Oates is one example of a writer who embraces both. She writes about
general social issues, while making her work accessible to society at large.
    Furthermore, Oates uses parody in much of her work. In doing so, she tends not to mock the text or genre that
is being parodied; rather, she imitates it, keeps it at a respectable distance, and questions, revises and challenges
it. Oates combines parody with social satire, a tool that she uses to expose social constructions and limitations,
and the lack of morality and ethics in society. In doing so, Oates not only parodies the work of other writers, but
also parodies her own work. Above all, she stays true to her ideal of the artist as an antagonist, who questions
and reexamines the world around them, while remaining bonded to a community.

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