The uses of symbolism in Joyce Carol Oates "By the river"

Hausarbeit, 1996

9 Seiten, Note: 2


Her work has been compared to the ‘cyclorama’, a device that allowed viewers in the 19th century to see both the overall contours and specific details of historical events and discoveries of the time. Those cycloramas traveled from tiny hamlets to small towns to large cities throughout the United States. While the enormous pictures distorted reality for artistic effect, the studied misinterpretation did not matter to audiences because the cycloramas showed them individuals and episodes they would otherwise never see...

Joyce Carol Oates, born on a farm near Millersport, New York in 1938, began her remarkable career in fictional writing in Senior High School with ‘ A Long way home’ and continued publishing her short stories in the college paper of Syracuse University where she majored in English with a minor in Philosophy. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1962 she moved down to Beaumont, Texas with her husband. There she worked on her first story collection ‘By the North Gate’ which bacame a major success. For critics her success is partly due to her strong way to express things:

„Her sweeping vision of America as a delusive wonderland of colliding forces,where love as often as hate leads to violence, has established Miss Oates as a major -and controversial- figure in American writing.“[1]

After teaching at Lamar Tech for almost five years she moved back north to Detroit, Michigan to teach at the University of Detroit. More successful stories and another relocation to Windsor, Ontario followed until in the late 1960s her short story called ‘By the river’ appears in ‘Best American Short Stories 1969'. While spending a sabbatical year in London she published this extraordinary piece of literary art in her 1972 collection ‘Marriages and Infedelities’. Greg Johnson from Kennesaw State College writes about this volume, it was one of Oates most successful books and included some of her finest work in the genre.[2] Another source adds:

„In Marriages and Infidelities (1972) she brilliantly reimagines and rewrites famous stories by Chekhov, Kafka, James, Joyce, and others.“[3]

She explains:

„...these stories are meant to be autonomous stories, yet they are also testaments of my love ant extreme devotion to these other writers;

I imagine a kind of spiritual ‘marriage’ between myself and them“.[4]

The question of marriage is in fact the overriding theme in these stories. Another quote from Mrs Oates documents how important she feels about human alliances namely those between men and women.

„I believe we achieve our salvation, or our ruin, by the marriages we contract. I conceived of a book of marriages. Some are conventional marriages, others are marriages in another sense - with a phase of art, with something that transcends the limitations of the ego. But because people are mortal, most of the marriages they go into are mistakes of some kind, misreadings of themselves. I thought by putting together a sequence of marriages, one might see how this one succeeds and that one fails. And how this one leads to some meaning beyond the self“[5]

Now, while the reimagining and the portrayal of American life through the modern cyclorama of short fiction will find entrance into my illuminations of ‘By the river’ I want to focus primarily on the use of symbolism in this short story. In interpreting it I will try to place my findings into the greater concept of this literary genre.

„By the river“ is the story about a homecoming of another kind. It narrates about the return of Helen, a 22-year-old woman, to her hometown Oriskany, a rural country town in the Northeast. It lies by a river.

She arrives „this time on a bus herself, had ridden alone, (...) all alone“[6]. It hasn’t been that way before. She has just left her second husband who lives in a big town. Five months earlier she had left her first husband there in Oriskany. Obviously they have a child together, a baby-girl. She had „run away and left them all behind - husband, baby girl, family, in-laws, the minister, the dreary sun-bleached look of the land“[7]. That land, her country-home, is what she intended to return to when she suddenly quit her big-town-husband’s home that very morning. While one would expect her to have returned for the younger husband or the baby whom she left, all she’s yearning for is „that image in her head that has something to do with her family’s house and that misty warm day seventeen years ago (...).“[8] She wants to return to what is a notion in her mind, something that she hopes is waiting to take her in again. As a person who changed so much and who is stuck between those changes now, she obviously looks for the place that hasn’t changed to receive her again.

When she arrives this notion seems to prove: Everything is familiar to her and „for as long as Helen could remember“[9] the same old lady has been sitting behind the ticketcounter at the busstop where she arrives. The utilities of telephone booth, cigarette-, candy- and popcorn machine reassure her of the sense of security and expectability that her need wants her to find. Those expectations are symbols for the continuity and stability that life on the countryside holds. Obviously, her search for those qualities is a deeper one as she has been gone for only five months instead of being absent for years. It may be the search for something she may have never lived but wished she had.

Another symbolic image occupies her mind while she’s waiting for her father to pick her up. It’s a rather nasty and uncomfortable picture that mixes with her state of being and mingles continually with insecurity and hope. Sitting there at the bus station she watches flies crawling languidly around a small sickly-faced baby, an image for evil and hindered happy young life. The irresistability of the ticket-lady staring at her and Helen’s negative interpratation of that look complete the sense of abnogciousness in her. This is the kind of foreshadowing to make a reader believe that something awful is going to happen, something unexpected but still inevitable.

A look at herself in the reflecting candy bar machine makes her recapture enough security to face the memories that revisit her and lead her into capsulating her past life. The biblical word „adulterous“ is the key word to make her spot fate and death through a bemused smile which is more a sarcastical protection toward the outside than anything else. And like it happens when the subconscious takes over things with symbolic value are revealed to the conscious mind. While she is still sitting there suffering from the heat the thought of her father’s hands reminds her of the protection they represented - quite an ambiguous one. „She had endured his rough hands, as a child, because she knew they protected her...“[10]. „To endure“ means to suffer patiently without yielding. So she underwent the touch of her dad’s hands inspite of the hardship she felt. Is her father a cruel man, the reader asks at this point. Did he mistreat or even abuse her? It seems save to assume some kind of abuse behavior - telling from the awkward description of her dad. When it comes to physical abuse, though, it’s another story. Sexual abuse is part of domestic violence and most of the times, statistics say, the perpetrator is in close relation to the victim, often in a state of protection.

The ambiguous relationship to her father would be easier to explain that way. His voice on the phone sounded soft and gentle and protective, she recalls. The „protection of his rough hands“[11] is what she had „endured“12.


[1] Clemons 1972, p. 32.

[2] Johnson 1994, p. 69.

[3] Showalter 1986, p. 131

[4] Showalter 1986, p. 131

[5] Johnson 1994, p. 71.

[6] cf 128

[7] cf 130

[8] cf 131

[9] cf 127

[10] cf 130

[11] cf 130

Ende der Leseprobe aus 9 Seiten


The uses of symbolism in Joyce Carol Oates "By the river"
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen  (Seminar für Amerikanistik)
Contemporary American Short Fiction
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
482 KB
Joyce, Carol, Oates, Contemporary, American, Short, Fiction
Arbeit zitieren
MA Sebastian Hoos (Autor:in), 1996, The uses of symbolism in Joyce Carol Oates "By the river", München, GRIN Verlag,


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