In a recent review for the New York Times, the critic Laura Miller describes Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde as “the most ferocious fictional treatise ever written on the uninhabitable grotesqueness of femininity” (2000, 6).
Oates, for whom “the greatest realities are physical and economic” (Oates qtd. in Allen 1987, 61), has chosen the female body to stage many of the social changes of the last fifty years.
Contemporary artistic and academic interest in the body is a consequence of the profound transformations of Western industrial societies brought about by a number of related processes such as the new systems of production, consumption, and distribution which characterise post-Fordism as well as the cultural framework of postmodernism.
With the movement of industrial capitalism towards a post-industrial system based on a global economy, service industries, advertising, advanced consumption, and the manipulation of communications through public relations industries, the traditional relationship between employment, property, and the body has changed dramatically.
For women, these changes have been accompanied by paradoxical facts. Having achieved a degree of economic power which would have been unthinkable some decades ago, women have become powerful consumers supporting an economy whose cultural logic and marketing industries continue to objectify women’s bodies through the stylized eroticism of advertising campaigns, themselves promoters of always-innovative notions of beauty, fashion and health. But new perspectives on the body have also been a consequence of the many transformations in the private sphere.
The experience of physical intimacy has also changed within personal relations. Relationships are no longer exclusively based upon a property contract, nor dominated by the heterosexual paradigm but depend on a series of new expectations about personal satisfaction through intimacy and sexual contact. Women’s bodies are subject to other kinds of sexual control and scientific regulation as they are made more “efficient” and “sexy” through reproductive technologies, plastic surgery, etc.
These changes are responsible for the contemporary commercial interest in the body and for the pervasiveness of corporeal images not only in consumer culture, but also in art, where the body is exposed as increasingly malleable and accessible. It is thus not surprising that Western contemporary art returns to the body, no longer as a private and unified space, but made public, commodified, and disjointed.
In the photographs of Cindy Sherman, for instance, the body is often presented as an assembly of fragments where the female sexual organs are, critically, fetishised. Other examples of deconstructed bodies can be found in the sculpture of Louise Bourgeois, where the fragmented body is the site of challenging gender-metamorphosis and Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, where the male sexual organ is paradoxically both domesticated and sublimated.
Diverging from many caricatured bodies in popular art and literature, which shock the eye of the viewer (or reader) but often cannot dispute their own commodified status, Joyce Carol Oates’s characters always struggle to resist commodification and exploitation.
Oates’s bodies fight back, interrogating the visual/textual frames in which they are inscribed. Her characters do not, however, undergo the “fantastic” emancipation possible in the work of authors such as Angela Carter, whose magical realism offers a more drastic rewriting of our social reality.
Oates’s characters can only change their own plots by renegotiating their roles within the logic of the social world. Their bodies are always contextual bodies, bodies in time and bodies in history. As Marilyn C. Wesley points out, “Oates’s characters are universally repelled by the chaotic. It would be impossible for Oates’s characters to remain within the undifferentiated state of the imaginary rather than attempt to participate in the cultural organisation of the symbolic” (1995, 120).
Her characters are always represented in social frameworks, whose logic they have to recognise and understand so that they can eventually translate it into gestures of defiance. Novels such as ‘Them’ and ‘Marya’ convey that socialising process by staging their female protagonists’ entry into the world of language and culture, through a process which implies the redefinition of their physical selves and often the rejection of their own sexuality. The disturbance of gender categories, which is presented as a reticent process of Oates’s novels, finds an interesting terrain in her short fiction. By generating tensions between her stories, Oates creates visible dialectics within her collections which show how cultural constructions of the female body are not only painfully experienced, but also actively challenged and transformed by her heroines.
Joyce Carol Oates’s conscious involvement with the gothic as a specific genre — which she has called “Gothic with capital ‘G’ ” (qtd. in Johnson 1994, 18) — starts in 1977 with her short story collection ‘Nightside’ and is pursued in the early eighties with Bellefleur (1980), ‘A Bloodsmoor Romance’ (1982), and ‘Mysteries of Winterthurn’ (1984). Displaying traditional gothic devices in terms of imagery and methods of characterization, this trilogy examines America “through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres” (Oates 1988, 373).
Oates returns to the gothic genre in 1994 with ‘Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque’, where she takes a more conspicuously metafictional approach to the genre. This can be seen, for instance, in Oates’s rewritings of Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ into her own ‘The White Cat’, or in her revision of Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” as “The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly”. In the first story, Oates voices the repressed sexuality of James’s ambiguous tale, and in the second story, she frames the seemingly unmotivated violence of Poe’s protagonist in the context of power/gender relations within a contemporary middle-class American family.
Both stories give bodies and voices to canonic female characters — the murdered wife of Poe’s narrator and Miss Jessel, the famous governess of James’s story. These two literary allusions disclose Oates’s feminist intent in reshaping the moulds of gothic literature, in order to place the female body and female subjectivity in other positions than that of ghosts or victims.
Oates uses the term “grotesque” in the afterword of ‘Haunted’ to define a specific aesthetic practice within gothic fiction. Referring to literary and visual arts — describing works as generically different as Gogol’s stories, Goya’s paintings, or Cronenberg’s films as representatives of the art of the grotesque — Oates characterizes the form by a “blunt physicality that no amount of epistemological exegesis can exorcise” (1994, 117), a feature which according to her distinguishes the grotesque from the more “genteel” narrative of the “Victorian ghost-story” (304).
As far as its emphasis on the physiological and visceral is concerned, Oates’s notion of the grotesque conforms to the notion of female gothic as described by Ellen Moers in the pioneering Literary Women. Positing that female experience can be distinguished by the tendency to “visualise the self” (1977, 90), Moers finds in the modern female gothic a specific type of spatial imagery based on portrayals of physical distortion and disfigurement.
Moers’s view is supported by other feminist critics such as Juliann E. Fleenor and Claire Kahane, who argue that the treatment of spatial and physical imagery in gothic literature in general, and female gothic in particular, has been dominated by feelings of fear, disgust, or self-loathing towards the female role and female sexuality.
Claire Kahane, for instance, rejects the dominant Oedipal paradigms in the study of gothic fiction, arguing that gothic fiction by women is defined by a primal apprehension which is directed not towards the father but towards the “mother-woman experienced as global, all-embracing, all-powerful” (1983, 243).
This apprehension illustrates women’s conflicts with their physical selves and is translated into the blunt physiological imagery of gothic writing by women. In this sense the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates can be placed within a tradition of women writers, which goes back to eighteenth-century author Ann Radcliffe, and is rearticulated with great disparity in the contemporary popular gothic of authors such as Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt, or the canonized gothic of Isac Dinesen, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.
The horror of female physiology, described by many of these women writers and inscribed within the logic of patriarchal society, is often considered a result of a sense of defectiveness enforced by the patriarchal paradigm which “valorises the visible phallus as the image of autonomous power” and suggests that “women [who are] encouraged to see themselves as congenially impaired […], experience a disturbed sense of self, a feeling of lack or estrangement that gives them a special eye for the imagery of self-hatred” (244).
A useful way to explore the female gothic appropriation of the female body can be found in Kristeva’s concept of abjection in Powers of Horror. Drawing on Freud’s work, particularly on Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents, Kristeva’s concept of abjection plays a crucial role in explaining the formation of individual subjectivity from a pre-Oedipal perspective.
For Kristeva, the abject is a result of the process of individuation and complex experience of loss, which follows the separation from the mother. This loss, which constitutes language and desire, is accompanied by a necessary rejection of borderline elements (such as hair, excrements, etc.) which threaten the autonomous identity of the subject with the presence of disorder, filth, and chaos.
The rejection of these polluting fluids and substances — reminders of absolute connection with the mother’s body — is imposed socially by means of social rituals (such as religious practice) articulated within the logic of the Symbolic. According to Kristeva, the idea of the mother’s body as an unreachable point of origin is always associated with those defiling elements. Subsequently, all that is female is, in a way, a reminder of the mother’s abject body and is therefore presented as a threatening presence to the symbolic order.
Kristeva’s specific emphasis on the maternal body has been criticized, most notably, by Judith Butler, who highlights that the Kristevan maternal is problematically presented as a pre-cultural reality. In Butler’s view the abject female body is not really external to the Law of the Father: “[T]he repression of the feminine does not require that the agency of repression and the object of repression be ontologically distinct” (Butler 1999, 119).
The female body is constructed within paternal law, and the spectral or mythological constructions of the maternal should be understood within the Symbolic or — in Lacanian terms — according to the Law of the Father. Butler thinks that in order to avoid a self-promoted repression of the female it is necessary to take into account the full complexity and subtlety of the law and to contest the illusion of a true body beyond the law.
Whilst Kristeva’s notion of abjection is an extremely helpful concept for the analysis of Oates’s gothic-grotesque, where the female body is often translated into images of physical excess and disgust, it is also important to stress that, for Oates — as for Butler — the female/maternal body is always socially constructed, always experienced within the Symbolic.
Oates’s fiction has been continuously engaged in investigating the social practices which reinforce women’s problematical relationships with their bodies by creating various plots where her female characters always try, if unsuccessfully, to rewrite their own relationship with their mother’s bodies and their inherited narratives. For Oates’s heroines the subversion of gender discourses remains possible only through the recognition of the inscription of these categories within signification.
At a metafictional level, this recognition of the Law of the Father can be seen in Oates’s own approach to the “Gothic genre”. Oates draws from the mainstream discourse of canonized gothic horror (of male authors such as Poe and James, Wells and Stoker) in order to reverse gothic plots and manipulate gothic conventions, transforming the conventional gothic scripts into feminist gothic narratives.
Oates’s gothic fiction explores how the internalization of gender dichotomies has been perpetuated by aesthetic traditions. In the afterword of ‘Haunted’, Joyce Carol Oates refers among other writers to Bram Stoker and H. G. Wells as important practitioners of the grotesque. It is worth noting that the works by Stoker and Wells are well known for their exploration of the monstrous feminine, which Oates analyzes and rewrites in her fiction.
As Kelly Hurley points out, nineteenth-century gothic fiction epitomized by Stoker and Wells tended to portray the female body as “intrinsically pathological” (1996, 120): “[T]he disorders of the female body were inextricably linked to the female reproductive system, so that sexuality emerged as both casual and symptomatic of female abhumanness” (120). Along with the female vampire of Dracula, which conveys anxiety about the “new women” promoted by fin-de-siècle “feminism”, the central female character of ‘Lair of the White Worm’ (1895) by Stoker is another example of incompatible perceptions of femininity (as obtrusively sexual or asexual and chaste) of nineteenth-century gender discourses (see Hurley 1996, 122-124).
The abject female body in Stoker’s work is obviously that of the sexualised female, portrayed in the later novel as the metamorphosed Lady Arabella, a half-human/ half-worm creature, which lives in slime and disregards gender distinctions and modes of sexuality. The same kind of anxiety is conveyed in ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ (1897) by H. G. Wells, another text referred to by Oates in the afterword of ‘Haunted’, where the female human-beast is portrayed as extremely repulsive (more so than her male counterpart) due to her power to provoke desire in men (human males) despite her indistinct species.
In twentieth-century art, film has been the privileged form for the exploration of the monstrous feminine. In the same afterword, Oates refers to David Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’ (1979) and ‘The Brood’ (1988). These two films are particularly interesting because of their use of female physiology as a form of grotesque. The protagonist in ‘Dead Ringers’ possesses a terrifying triple uterus, while in The Brood an external womb houses monstrous creatures.
In both films it is the female reproductive capacity, a dominant sign of sexual difference, which is rendered grotesque. In her study of the monstrous female body in contemporary film, Barbara Creed has pointed out that, like Cronenberg’s films, many other contemporary science-fiction horror movies which “represent woman as monstrous also define her primarily in relation to her sexuality, especially the abject nature of her maternal and reproductive functions” (1993, 151). Oates’s allusion to these texts conveys her interest in the exploration of the grotesque female body as written by male artists. Most of the stories of Haunted are, as we will see next, a feminist revision of the motif of the monstrous female.
In ‘Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque’ Oates brings back the female body to the prosaic realities of everyday life, allowing the grotesque to emerge from familiar and naturalistically constructed scenarios. The abject and its defiling substances are literalised in the daily lives of her characters.
As Mary Allen points out, “the female body is a liability always out of control, the centre of pain and the source of excretions that proliferate in Oates’s work: vomit, blood, diseased tissue, menstrual blood, and the newborn child itself, the most terrible excretion of all” (1987, 64). However, Oates rewrites the female body against the extra-social bodies fashioned by Wells, Stoker or Cronenberg: hers is irretrievably a socially constructed body, a body always already contextual. Oates uses physiological imagery to describe specific contexts of women’s lives in a great variety of everyday scenarios: regulation of adolescent sexuality (“Haunted”), isolation and sexual fantasies (“Phase Change”), private and public images of femininity (“The Doll”), pregnancy and motherhood (“Extenuating Circumstances”), abortion (“Don’t You Trust Me?”) and domestic abuse (“Martyrdom”).
Whilst many of these stories have the documentary purpose of disclosing quotidian narratives of female victimisation, we also find in ‘Haunted’ a significant number of stories which draw away from the documentary portraits suggested above to create different scenarios where the female body is an instrument of empowerment for the gothic heroine.
These other stories explore the traditional grotesque imagery associated with the female body but subvert plots and structures in order to challenge conventional constructions of femininity.