After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away
: by Joyce Carol Oates
How life just happens, and the journey to self discovery awaits, daunting yet inevitable


Abstract: [(Essay date June 15 2009)] In the following literary criticism, K.B. analyzes the journey of self-discovery described by Joyce Carol Oates in After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away, how the impact of a dramatic experience affects an individual, and identifies how such a personal experience is accurately relayed to a scholarly audience.


Joyce Carol Oates’ After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away presents a stunning experience in which the reader may venture into the confusing, terrifying, and often devastatingly pivotal years of adolescence. Oates describes a torturous young-life journey from the eyes of a severely unstable young teenager, Jenna Abbott, who survived a car accident that killed her mother and left Jenna barely alive. In addition to unspeakable mental anguish over the loss of her mother (and best friend) and her responsibility for the accident, relocation to a new town, new school, and new family leads Jenna into a twisted, convoluted, and angst-filled new life. Her attempts to forget her past life revolve around excessive drug use, cold defiance toward her guardians, and association with other rebellious, unhappy and unmotivated teenagers who encourage her self-destructive behavior. Nevertheless, Jenna moves steadily along the path to recovery, which goes hand-in-hand with her most significant path, that of self-discovery.

Jenna separates her life into ‘before the wreck’ and ‘after the wreck.’ Indeed, she is a completely different person following the tragedy that led her into this new life. She cannot bring herself to face the life she has lost, which she will never have again. “Before the wreck was my old, lost life. Before the wreck was the other side of the bridge. (13)” Following the accident, Jenna retreats, subconsciously, into “the blue,” (Oates’ description of Jenna’s drug-induced state in the hospital) and periodically does the same throughout the book, by use of other drugs, to escape the reality of her life. Oates’ repetitive use of “in the blue” serves to accent Jenna’s disassociation with reality, giving in completely to the preferable state of calm unconsciousness. Oates initially describes the stark contrast between Jenna’s drug-induced in the blue state and the state of awakened reality while Jenna is in the hospital. “In the blue, it’s easier to float happy and serene and smiling at how silly people are…In the blue that was how I felt. I was never sad. But when I wakened, the air was so raw. I was a raggedy old cloth doll battered and banged and wrung and tossed down. I was so tired and so old. Wanting only to return into the blue forever (12).”

With the mention of an old cloth doll, perhaps a symbol of youth, Oates presents the idea that oftentimes along the path of maturation, we are bogged down by painful reality. We are tempted to give in, persuaded to remain in a state of less responsibility. Several times throughout the novel, Oates uses the symbolism of birds to describe Jenna’s yearning for freedom from her suffering, from adolescence, from her unwanted new life. In a passage that describes this, Oates uses snow geese, a seemingly contradictory symbol of purity (childhood) and freedom (adulthood). Such a symbol serves to emphasize Jenna’s confusion as she begins her recovery. “I heard the sudden sharp cries of the snow geese. Where were they going? [...] Oh I wanted to fly with them! So bad I wanted to fly with the snow geese but could not get my arms free...” (8-9).

Jenna casts off any hopes of having friends or relationships with the thought process that having friends is only a means of getting hurt. Jenna’s initial social disassociation is absolutely tied to her own attempts at self-preservation- that is to say, she is, understandably, terrified of getting hurt again. The best example of this is her feelings of potential friendship for her physical therapist, Maria, about whom she says, “I wanted to ask Maria to be my friend not just for now but always. Except I remembered: After the wreck I wasn’t going to like anybody ever again. Why? Because they fly away and leave you alone. Too risky” (27). This frame of mind shows how completely detached Jenna initially was from everyone around her. This changes as she meets other teenagers at her new school and, not caring about anything, allows them to influence her life and mold her behaviors, sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Prominent among Jenna’s new group of friends is Trina Holland, who can be considered the antagonist of the novel. Trina is a horrible influence on Jenna, seemingly ‘adopting’ the new student at Yarrow High, taking Jenna under her wing and introducing her to drugs, underage drinking, defiance of elders, and other such immoral behavior. Jenna is too mentally broken to recognize the stupidity behind such decisions (Or perhaps, it is the stupidity of the decisions that attracts her in her reckless state). She follows Trina’s behavior willingly and obediently, clinging to Trina, whom she considers her new best friend. Naturally, Jenna’s behavior changes drastically, taking a downward spiral as far as drug addiction. The audience is absolutely meant to experience a feeling of immense relief when Trina finally disappears from Jenna’s life. Her note to Jenna (Following Trina’s hospitalization for rape and injury after a party she and Jenna attended) can be analyzed for use of diction and syntax to emphasize Trina’s character. “you were the best friend i ever had (i gues)…i was a shitty friend but it’s too late now…i’m sorry (?) […] baby you screwed up as bad as me…should’ve run away and hid…the guys would’ve taken care of me afterward […] i don’t want to see you again ever…maybe i hate you , screwing us both up…calling cops is RATTING…i guess you wanted to help me…i’m not any RAT […] your card and flowers i ripped into pieces…Percs make you laugh& laugh & you get tired and sleep…” (257). Trina’s constant jumps from one subject to another throughout the letter highlight her instability and incapability as a friend; her frequent grammatical mistakes reflect her drug-induced state and reinforce the negative influence she had on Jenna while they were ‘friends.’ It is of great relief to the audience when Trina finally exits Jenna’s life, leaving Jenna to continue a more healthy adolescence.

Jenna’s positive influence is found in a teenager named Gabriel Sancroix. His nickname “Crow” is no coincidence among the other references throughout the novel to flying and birds. Crow appeals to Jenna’s search for freedom and self. Just as crows may be considered ugly and therefore taken for granted, in the same way Crow is underestimated and misunderstood. He serves as a static character who, despite his rebellious and mysterious personality, provides the constant source of healing for Jenna throughout her recovery. Jenna finds comfort in Crow’s ability to relate perfectly to her suffering, though it isn’t until late in their friendship that Jenna musters up the courage to tell him her story. Ambiguity is immediately identified in their first encounter when Crow comments on the hopelessness in ‘running on a hurt ankle.’ “See, you walk like me, like walking on thin ice. After a bad crash you hold yourself tight and stiff like somebody scared as hell of falling through the ice, scared of feeling pain” (89). It is Crow’s friendship that ultimately brings Jenna back to reality and encourages her to find happiness.

One of the strongest of Oates’ attempts to communicate Jenna’s emotional state is her sentence structure. When she is having a particularly emotional experience, Jenna’s thoughts become choppy and childish, often excessively punctuated or not capitalized. Oftentimes, a chapter in the novel will comprise a mere one to five sentences, physically emphasizing her immediate attitude. For example, Chapter 26 comprises mostly these lines: “i hate them. i will never forgive them. freaking like that like i’d OD’d on them. [...] everybody will know my so-called family called 911 to call an ambulance on christmas eve to have me carried out on a stretcher, taken to the ER to have my stomach pumped!!! i guess that is what happened. it’s not like i was there” (177). As the passage reveals, Jenna goes through a period of prolonged avoidance of any relationship with her guardians, her aunt and uncle and their family. Refusing to allow her Aunt Caroline to serve as a mother figure, Jenna is determined to cut herself off from her new family. It kills Jenna to see her aunt’s attempts to replace her mother. “Not Mom but Aunt Caroline is calling up the stairs to me. Her voice is eager, hopeful. I am not trapped in a dream, I am awake and hating it. I can’t. I won’t. I’m not your daughter(168).

Gradually, after many terrible judgment calls and a final rude awakening, Jenna realizes that she must move on and get her life back on the right path. After a not-so-clean, yet healthy break with Trina Holland, Jenna begins to live the life of a normal teenager again. When she allows herself to fully remember the day of the tragic accident that claimed her mother’s life, she recalls that there was a bird in the road, that her mother had swerved to avoid hitting the creature. Not just any bird, but a hawk. From snow geese to a crow to a hawk, Oates intricately ties together an extended metaphor. From innocence to confusion and self-hatred to strength, Jenna’s journey fits perfectly with the literary device. Her progression from a normal life, to a tragic twist of fate which leaves her in a preferred in the blue drug-induced subconscious peace, to depression and dismissal of friends and family, to clinging to disobedience and juvenile delinquency, all the way to finally finding herself through the positive influences in her life, like Crow, is clearly an enormous undertaking for a sixteen-year-old.

Oates succeeds in describing such an experience in a way that the audience may understand close to completely how Jenna herself felt throughout the novel. Jenna’s journey of self-discovery and freedom from pain was perhaps the most difficult many-a-reader will come across. Such a dramatic experience is depressing and tragic, yet excellently delivered and understood. Self-discovery is not something to be attempted in order to force oneself to grow up, it is not something anyone can look for, so to speak. It often happens in the cruelest, harshest way possible, yet it usually turns out immensely life-changing and moving. Oates provides excellent insight into such a coming-of-age experience in After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away.

(K.B. 2009)



Black Girl / White Girl: By Joyce Carol Oates
The role of parents in determining the success of their children

Abstract: [(Essay date 15 June 2009)] In the following literary critisicm, K.B. analyzes the impact of family on social behavior and explores the necessity of familial love in allowing an adolescent to find themselves.


It was by random circumstance that Minette Swift and Genna Meade became roommates at Schuyler College in the fall of 1974. Minette was a black Merit Scholar student, paying a tuition greatly reduced by her scholastic achievements and social background; Genna was a white private schoolgirl paying full tuition and hiding her family relationship to the history of the college. Genna’s life revolved around the turbulent years of and after the Vietnam War. Her parents, radical “hippie” activists, ran an unconventional and often dysfunctional household, disregarding traditional family values of love and compassion, and instead emphasizing the importance of free will and government-independence. Minette’s family was the quintessential perfect, loving, family. Founded on the rock of faith, guided always by moral values and Christianity, the Swifts were absolutely the opposite of the Meades. Coming from completely different familial backgrounds, it is hard to imagine two such completely unique young women being able to function in close-quarters over the course of the college year. Indeed, their relationship is in no way easily established. As Genna struggles to find herself and Minette struggles to prove herself, the girls find themselves thrown together into a harsh, unpredictable world.

Oates successfully utilizes various symbols within her novel to bring out the underlying meaning of the work. First, Minette’s Christianity is her entire identity. She is morally righteous and completely unopposed to speaking her mind when it comes to religious matters. But Minette is stubbornly independent, rude, and stuck up. She defends but does not teach her faith, instead using it as some kind of self-satisfactory proof of her pure, elite status. It is to the dismay of Genna, who was raised to observe Christianity as a ‘tragic farce,’ that Minette has no interest in sharing her religion. After all, Christians pride themselves on being ‘the light of the world,’ and yet Minette neglects to show the happiness her faith gives her, let alone share it with those who do not understand. This is greatly ironic, and serves to provide some understanding of Minette’s confusion in her struggle to prove her worthiness in the world. “Minette had told me proudly that her father, ‘the Reverend Virgil Swift,’ had hosted the Christian Youth Fellowship Conference that summer in Washington, to which ‘many thousands’ of young Christians from all over North America had come. ‘For prayer and thanksgiving and to renew their pledge in Jesus’[…] All this was a riddle to me. Yet I believed that one day Minette would take pity on me and explain.[…] when (somehow, I had no idea how) I had proved myself to Minette, that I might be trusted” (48). The poster hung in Minette's room contributes to this idea. The message “I AM THE WAY THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE” accurately describes the Christian religion, but only serves to further highlight Minette’s refusal to behave like a loving, open, faithful Christian. Another symbol which contributes significantly to the meaning of Oates’ work is Minette’s textbook, Norton Anthology of American Literature, which was thrown from the window of the dormitory. Minette initially suspected Genna, her own roommate, of the crime, but later moved on to suspect others. Destruction of Minette’s book symbolizes the desired destruction of Minette’s education, of any advancement for black people. In a society sick with racial discrimination, it is not hard to understand Minette’s suspicion, yet it is clear that Minette absolutely contributes to her own unpopularity.

Genna Meade’s desperate struggle to appeal to her roommate is understood when her family is taken into consideration. Genna refers to her mother by her first name, Veronica. As if that wasn’t enough to describe the thoroughly non-maternal role Veronica plays in Genna’s life, several times throughout the novel, the mother-daughter relationship is painfully described. “When she’d been Mommy, she had loved me, I think. I know that I loved her. Later, as Veronica, she’d confided in me with the air of one imparting wisdom, that ‘love’ is an illusion of the ego, no more substantial than vapor. ‘If I disappear your feeling for me will disappear….If I die, you should not grieve. If you die, I will not grieve. I promise!” (33). Not entirely the same, but equally dysfunctional is Genna's relationship with her father. Max Meade was a radical political activist turned prominent civil defense lawyer. According to Max Meade, "The family is the locus of obsession. The family is about possessing and being possessed. The family is the transferal of genes from one generation to the next...The family is a freak. The family is extinct" (33-34). Largely neglected by her own parents, then, Genna turns her attention to a potential friend, Minette, and makes many efforts to spark a relationship with her roommate.

Minette refuses most social interaction with her roommate, preferring to remain alone in her room. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear just how strong Minette forces herself to be. Overwhelmed by pressures of racial injustice and schoolwork, she is said to often be heard crying in her room. “I could hear how more distinctly the sound of weeping, muffled against a pillow. I hesitated before knocking at the door. ‘Minette…?’ No answer. But the sound of weeping ceased” (72). Perhaps the reason for Minette's amazing emotional strength, how she could stand to hide her tears until she was completely alone, was that she had always had a loving, supportive family back home to support her. This leads to another element that highlights the contrast between the Meades and the Swifts- communication. Minette receives frequent family phone calls and constant care-packages in the mail stuffed with homemade baked goods and knitted clothes.
Food is by far, an extremely important symbol in the novel. Minette gains fifteen pounds in the beginning of her freshman year. Her food intake is her means of finding comfort in her new environment. Genna receives the once-in-a-while phone call from her mother, short, broken conversations that comprise excessive foul language (from Veronica) and ramblings about FBI interference on the phone line.

Genna Meade is absolutely not defined by her parents. Indeed, her childhood and character were molded by the unconventional and largely unhealthy home in which she was raised. It is clear, however, that Genna wants nothing to do with her family and she is determined to disassociate herself from them. This is exemplified in her denial of any relation to the founders of the college. Though Elias and Generva (her namesake) Meade, founders of Schuyler College, were honorable in their attempts to bring about racial equality, participating in the Underground Railroad and striving to do their part, Genna is tortured by the moral ambiguity of her immediate family's fight for racial equality. Various violent and illegal activity has become associated with the Meade family, which leads Genna to question if her parents' radical ideologies are right. The overwhelming instability of Genna's drug-influenced, materialistic mother is exemplified by their outing to the Valley Forge shopping mall. The seemingly typical mother-daughter outing at Christmastime could not, however, have gone more wrong. After questioning her mother about the likes of one of her father's clients and former radical activist partners, Veronica loses control. "There were many enemies deserving of punishment and so you targeted your goal. Dow Chemical was the target. This was a target that deserved annihilation. You, looking at me like that, you little shit, who are you to judge?" (136). The way Veronica speaks to her daughter throughout the novel is similar to this. It is easy to understand why Genna would be striving to disassociate herself from her parents and discover her own identity separate from them.


It becomes clear that Minette identifies herself with the ideologies of her influential father. Completely the opposite, Genna makes every effort to find herself despite the characteristics with which she is defined based on her family. Genna’s constant efforts to win over Minette reflect her desires for the family she never had.


(K.B. 2009)

Black Girl/White Girl
by Joyce Carol Oates:

Overcoming Social Obligation in a Socially Obligated Society


[(Essay date 2 June 2008)] In the following essay, L.B. examines and analyzes the literary tecniques Joyce Carol Oates uses to portray American Society in the Post-Vietnam era. L.B. claims that Joyce characterizes the way in which the choatic, diverse society of the 1960s leaves the white population in a desperate search for an identity, as societal pressures steal the minorities' identities and heritage.]

In a post-Vietnam world characterized by race riots and fierce political activity, Genna Meade, a freshman at Schuyler College, discovers the pressure people of all races endure to find happiness in a broken society. In Black Girl/White Girl, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Oates presents the possibility that radicals, who fought for equality amongst the races, ironically ruined a heritage-based class of minorities. Through descriptions and symbolism, Oates portrays two incongruous groups of Americans in search for their identities.

Through dense physical descriptions of her characters, Oates portrays not only a character’s appearance, but their life-styles and personalities, as well. The following description of Genna’s roommate Minette Swift is the first of many. As Minette’s place at Schuyler and in society changes due to her pejorative college experiences, Minette’s physical appearance mirrors such changes: "Minette […] was compact and durable like her father. […] She wore a long-sleeved white blouse covered in eyelet ornamentation, and a wide black leather belt so tight it made her waist crease. […] And those shell-pink plastic glasses that looked as if they must be pinching her face," (Oates 31). From this description key facts can be gathered about Minnette’s background. Firstly, a reoccurring symbol throughout the novel is Minnette’s black leather belt. In this quote that belt is described as very snug, but not uncomfortable. This belt is representative of Minnette’s African American heritage, as indicated by the color black. Upon entering Schuyler College, Minnette fits snuggly into her heritage, just as her belt fits snuggly on her waist. However, once corrupted by a college environment, in which African Americans and other minorities receive unwelcome special treatment, Minette gains weight, making it increasingly difficult to fit the belt around her waist as her heritage slips away simultaneously. The shell-pink glasses, representative of Minnette’s naiveté, are lost less than halfway through the novel: “The shell-pink glasses were long gone as if they had never been” (207). Minnette sheds her glasses as she sheds her happiness.

Minette is representative of the African Americans of the ‘60s and ‘70s who were satisfied being left to lead a traditional lifestyle. It was these such Americans who had a difficult decision to make: join or the Civil Right Movement or conform to white societal standards? The same decision is faced by the main character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (which is alluded to in this novel), who must either fight for a cause or conform to survive on the harsh, unforgiving streets of New York City. Minette, unable to make that decision, clings to her family-oriented lifestyle. Surrounded my minority girls with straightened hair and skinny jeans and living with a roommate who grew up with a radical hippie father, Minette is surrounded by the pressures of societal obligation. It is this pressure that leads to Minette’s ultimate demise.

In direct procession to Minette’s physical description, Oates paints a picture of Genna’s mother: "Veronica wore an ankle-length crimson dress […] with a dramatic V-neck that showed the tops of her pale pear-sized breasts, […] extravagant make-up, […] thronged sandals on her bare, very pale feet. […] There were nails and toenails flashing crimson lacquer. A talcumy-perfumy-anxious odor wafting in the woman’s wake. (33). The above description contrasts those of Minette and her family that portray a well-dressed, structured family. The excessive make-up, painted nails, and odorous perfume indicate Veronica’s materialistic interests and her desire to cover herself in artificial beautification products, representing Veronica’s inability to identify herself and her role in society. Veronica’s character presents a paradox in itself. She “is easily hurt if you ‘take over’ one of her household tasks,” (23), and yet she refers to herself as Genna’s “hippie mom […] the one who burnt the turkey” (132) on Thanksgiving. She supports her husband’s fight for civil rights and yet worries about Genna rooming with a black girl. Oates uses Veronica to show the diversity and chaos amongst the white race during this time period. While the African American race was uniting for the fight for equality, white people found themselves stuck between the conformity of the 1950s and the societal revolt of the 1960s.

Genna’s father Maximilian Meade, a prominent, radical civil defense lawyer is described as eclectic and rebellious. Genna describes her father’s physical appearance in the following passage: “Where in the 1960s Max had worn his thick burnt-apricot hair Viking-style to his shoulders, now out of vanity he shaved his head, thought not carefully and not a regular intervals. […] His style was to reach into a closet and grab what was nearest,” (23). Max’s uncouth hairstyle and the drastic change he made from long hair to bald represent his political place in society. While he fights for an honorable cause, civil rights, his actions are far from honorable. His impetuous actions lead to violence and time spend in jail, while Genna, finds herself constantly ashamed of her father, and yet trying to please him. Max’s intense lobbying efforts yield two unwanted consequences: Firstly, Genna finds herself obsessed with living up to the social obligation her father has placed on her: help the fight for equality. Secondly, Genna’s obsession leads to a disgruntled Minnette who neither welcomes nor endorses Genna’s efforts. This presents an interesting point. Perhaps, the less one makes of an issue, the more likely it is that the issue will disappear. Oates, through Genna’s failure to connect Minette, is making the statement that if activists fighting for equality could have simplified their efforts to subtleties instead of chaotic acts of violence, more could have been accomplished. The more publicized and dramatic an issue becomes, the harder it becomes to solve, as the case may have been with the Civil Rights Movement.

In contrast to the numerous and frequent descriptions of Minette and Genna’s family, Genna, the narrator, receives minimal description. This caters to the idea that a person is greatly defined by the people who surround them. Genna, coming from a drug-addicted mother and a radical hippie father who finds himself in and out of jail, seeks the comfort and guidance she lacks at home. The lack of Genna’s physical appearance is telling of a complete loss of identity. Genna, unlike Minette, is a very static character. From beginning to end Genna is more concerned with Minette’s well-being than her own, and finds herself desperately hoping for some form of recognition from her father. In short, Genna’s life is driven by those around her. Genna’s static character proves Oates’ point that in the turmoil of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the white people find themselves desperately searching for an identity, even more so than the minority population.

Symbolically, Oates’ messages are well-represented. Religion is a constant symbol, representing not only faith, but family stability and security. Presenting what seems to be a societal paradox for the 1960s, Genna envies Minette’s intense devotion to God. “I envied Minette Swift and her Christian faith for it was a special faith. Her God was a special God whose omnipotence she did not care to dilute by sharing it with just anyone,” (87). Minette uses her faith to define herself, while Genna has nothing to define herself, except her famous family name, by which she is ashamed. The close connection between family and faith is shown through the man who is both a man of God and of his family: Reverend Virgil Swift, Minette’s father. Genna describes Virgil Swift with admiration: "Here was an individual who carried himself with dignity. If in the predominantly white chapel the black man has been made to feel acutely conscious of his skin it was not an uneasy sort of self-consciousness, but one of pride. […] No one was going to indimidate him. [...] She [Minette] has a father, he loves her. […] She is the daughter. She is his," (30-31).

With an unceasing envy towards Minette’s family, Genna continues to hope and fantasize about a family-oriented life, a life that was lost with the close of the 1950s. The simple lines “He loves her. She is the daughter. She is his,” are symbolic of the way Genna feels a daughter-father relationship should be: loving. Genna’s unstable, estranged relationship from her father, causes instability in Genna that makes her strive to be noticed and please her father. This strive centers Genna’s life on the wants and needs of others and prevents her from claiming a self-identity.

A tangible symbol for religion and family background is Minette’s Christian Youth Fellowship Poster. Genna often finds herself mesmerized by its luminescent background and blood-red letters, symbolizing the intensity of Minette’s biblical roots. As Minette’s roots crumble due to strict societal obligations and pressure, the poster begins to fade and tear, as well: “Above Minnette’s desk was the frayed poster,” (232). When Minnette abruptly relocates to another dorm on campus the “ghostly rectangular shadow,” left behind by the poster, represents the identity Genna will be unable to obtain, but will always see in other people.

Another symbol is the leather bag which Veronica buys Genna on their pre-Christmas shopping excursion. Intended as a heart-felt gift, the bag, which was really a whimsical, meaningless splurge by Veronica, is re-gifted to Minette by Genna. This bag, a failed attempt by Veronica to form a mother-daughter bond, proves the fact that a relationship, similarly to an identity, cannot be bought. Genna, feeling as though she is giving Minette the bag in a friendly attempt to form a bond, believes that in giving Minette the bag, she is doing something differently than her mother. She is, in fact, attempting to buy Minette’s affection in search for an identity, just as Genna’s mother attempted to buy a better relationship. This entire situation symbolizes that fighting the government for legal equality will not truly create equality amongst all individuals. While legal equality is essential, without practicing tolerance, the cause is lost. As Max fights the government for equality, he does not practice any form of acceptance or tolerance towards the African American people.

While promoting equality, Oates criticizes post-Vietnam America, and through descriptions and symbols, Joyce Carol Oates presents the irony that existed in this era. Although African Americans and other minorities were pressured to conform to societal standards of acceptability, the chaotic atmosphere of the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War created a society filled with inner-turmoil and corruption. In attempt to find solace, white people often turned to the family-oriented African Americans who held the values and beliefs lost to a broken society of whites. While the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement were clearly effective and essential to social equality, it was the chaos that resulted from the movement that forced minorities out of their comfortable zone and into the face of racial discomfort. Through this novel, Joyce Carol Oates presents the hypocrisy of a past American society in search of an identity.
(L.B. 2008)





The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates: History Lesson

[(Essay date 9 June 2008) In the following essay, L.B. analyzes the way in which Joyce Carol Oates uses allusions and symbols to depict prejudice in modern society. L.B. argues that through her detailed exploration of human tendencies, Joyce Carol Oates presents the idea that one’s history and memory are of little importance when analyzing prejudices in a modern society.]


Through numerous symbols of and references to the Holocaust, Joyce Carol Oates depicts America in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. These allusions reveal a narcissistic American society, stained by personal tragedy and hardship. In a desperate attempt to feel comfortable with any given identity, Americans, like Alma and Dr. Seigl, cling to the painful truths of their heritages and ancestors, only to be met with failure and a longing for love.

“The Tattooed Girl,” is not only the title of this novel, but a reoccurring symbol. Alma, a silent, awkward girl is most easily identified by the mysterious marks on her face and body: “Seigl was touched by the blemish on her cheek […] he was disturbed to see further blemishes, ugly birthmarks or tattoos, or scars, perhaps burn scars, like webbing on the backs of both her hands, of the color of old, dried blood,” (Oates 77). The reader is never aware of how exactly Alma obtained such markings, but it can be inferred that she suffered from multiple instances of abuse in her past. Her markings are an analogue to the tattoos given to victims of the Holocaust as they were entered into internment camps. These tattoos are ugly and defacing, like a clean wall marked with graffiti. These marks are not works of art, but markings of abusive possession from previous relationships. Ironically, although she has experienced hardship and cycles of abuse in her past, she has difficulty believing that something as horrific as the Holocaust could have occurred. In response to reading Seigl’s novel on the Holocaust, Alma states: “But you don’t know. You write like you know and you don’t know” (252). Alma’s disbelief in the Holocaust is an example of her blindness. As she becomes deeply wrapped up in abusive relationships and self-pity, her mind closes to the possibility that others experience hardships, as well. Therefore, Alma ironically directs prejudice towards those “lying Jews” while she herself, could relate to the victims on an emotional level, showing that her own personal experiences impact her sympathy towards others minimally.

Holocaust novels and an infinite number of historical novels often mold the way in which one views history and those who lived during a given time period. Dr. Seigl’s most famous work, entitled The Shadows, is a Holocaust novel in which he encourages people to relate themselves to the characters, in hopes of connecting the present with the past. Symbolically, Oates uses this novel to examine the possible irrationality of historical fiction, which could lead to unwarranted prejudices. In a heated conversation between Alma and Dr. Seigl, Oates explores the irrationality of historical fiction: ‘’’--in that place, you're pretending you were there with them.’ Somehow, this seemed to Alma the most repulsive act of all. ‘You made 'Dash-aw' up, too, didn't you! You made it all up! You pretended you were there, and you weren't. It's all lies,’’’ (252). Alma finds the simple concept of fiction to be revolting, while Dr. Seigl sees it as an imaginative, necessary form of storytelling in an attempt to give a voice to those of the past. Historical fiction novels are either written directly from one’s memory or the memories of another as told through numerous people. Alma claims that it is only concrete fact that can produce truth, and one’s memory is often not the most reliable source. Seigl, on the hand, believes that it is through imagination that one truly discovers human experience, and therefore, the truth. Through these two opposing views and Seigl’s book, Oates minimizes the importance of one’s memories. Memories can be skewed, whether intentionally or not, to benefit a particular person. Therefore, the truth is often not found. The narrative suggests that Joshua's fiction was not written for the reasons he claims: to retell the story of his ancestors. In a drug-stimulated stupor he admits that "I couldn't tell the truth. They tried to buy their way out--to deny that they were Jews. I lied for them!" (273) Joshua, struggling under the weight of his own ancestors, writes a novel that is a revised version of the truth: unable to face his ancestors' survival tactic of lies and bribery, he makes forces them into an identity that suits his means. In essence, Alma is correct: the retelling of a historical event is often marred by one’s self-interest. His "lies" benefit himself instead of his ancestors: he rearranges experiences in order to lighten the historical burden for himself. Oates shows that while historical fiction, Holocaust fiction in particular, is meant to build a bridge between the past and the present, it adds to the misconception of modern society, leading to prejudices based on inaccurate information.

The novel Night by Elie Wiesel is not classified as a memoir, but
is a mixture of testimony, deposition, and emotional recollections of the truth. It is clear that Eliezer is meant to serve as Elie Wiesel’s representative. Minor details have been altered, but what happens to Eliezer is what happened to Wiesel himself during the Holocaust. There is, however, a difference between the persona of Night’s narrator, Eliezer, and that of Night’s author, Elie Wiesel. The description of this novel is so strikingly similar to that of Dr. Seigl’s book, that it can be speculated if Joyce Carol received inspiration from this novel. Considering Joyce’s argument, it becomes questionable if Night is an accurate portrayal of the Holocaust as it is believed to be.

Seigl’s age is a symbol of the rapid aging victims of the Holocaust
underwent while enduring the horrid pain inflicted by the Nazis. The reader is introduced to Seigl by the following line: “He meant, but he could not bring himself to acknowledge, I can’t live alone any longer,” (1). Throughout the first two chapters of the book, the reader is mostly under the impression that Seigl is an elderly, retired man looking for someone to take care of him in his later years. However, the last line of the second chapter gives a bit of surprising information: “Joshua Seigl was thirty-eight years old,” (20). Had this story been set in the 1700s, this age may signal the near-end of a life, however, in modern society, Seigl has not even reached the middle-aged mark. Seigl, the reader finds out later in the novel, suffers from a mysterious, unidentifiable neurological disease, forcing him to carry a cane or use a wheelchair, giving him the demeanor of an elderly man. Seigl’s inconsistency between his demeanor and his age not only represents the way in which the victims of the Holocaust gave the illusion of aging substantially, it shows the unimportance one’s age in years matters in the scheme of life. Just as one’s personal history effects prejudices very minimally, so does the measurement of one’s history in years. Regardless of age or the wisdom said to come with age, prejudices appear in modern society. As our country aged in the years after the Holocaust, the citizens of the United States vowed to “Never Forget.” And yet, today cruel prejudices against families of Middle-Eastern descent exist, and genocides continue to spread their evil throughout the world. While the history of the United States, after the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, and other struggles of humanity, would appear to be immune to prejudices, they continue to exist in modern society.

Alma’s age is not revealed throughout the novel. Her description gives the illusion of a girl in her early twenties: “She was young, with a very pale face and synthetic-looking ash-blonde hair spilling untidily over her shoulders,” (74). Alma’s lack of definite age signifies that she not defined by her past: by neither her actions nor her age. She sees through the eyes of others, including her Anti-Semitic, abusive boyfriend, who instills his dislike of Jews in Alma temporarily. Oates uses Alma to represent a typical, American girl who is in search of an identity, ashamed of her past, and is willing to grab hold of an identity through practicing racism. For example, Alma hopes to please her boyfriend by expressing her desire to kill Seigl: “Holding the guys’ attention she was drawing Dmitri’s attention too […] ‘I’m gonna! I’m gonna do it! Kill the Jew!’ […] The guys laughed egging her on,” (206). Both Alma and Seigl are unidentifiable through their ages, showing that regardless of a person’s personal history, prejudices are a natural part of human nature and part of the search for identity.

Human ignorance is shown through the death of Seigl. Seigl’s mysterious neurological disorder, which greatly inhibits his movement, represents numbness and ignorance, the same numbness and ignorance that cause prejudices. Seigl’s nerves begin to falter, just as many Americans are numb to their own prejudices and their potentially damaging effects. After undergoing intensive care at the local hospital, Seigl returns home feeling fresh and rejuvenated: “I feel like a new man. Every cell in my body has been cleansed,” (280). In response to his healthy feelings, Seigl convinces Alma to venture outside with him to hike in Mount Carmel Cemetery, without the assistance of his cane. In this instance, Seigl feels a false sense of security. As he climbs to steps along the hillside of the cemetery, his heart falters, sending Seigl flying backwards to his death. It was the ignorance of Alma and Seigl that lead to this unfortunate demise. At Dr. Seigl’s wake Alma thinks the following two words: “’Cremate. Crematorium,”’ (288). These two words allude to the crematoriums installed in almost every Nazi concentration camp. The death of Seigl, which results from ignorance, represents the world’s ignorance to the Holocaust which led to thousands upon thousands of deaths. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world promised to “Never Forget.” And yet, here America stands today, amidst continuing racism and prejudices.

Although it is said that one “learns from their experiences,” in this novel, Joyce Carol Oates undermines the importance of one’s past and personal experiences, suggesting that humans live on a strictly day-to-day basic, taking little from their pasts. Prejudices arouse based on current situations and can neither be foreseen nor prevented. After World War II, Americans felt prejudices towards the Japanese and the Germans. Today, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Americans direct their prejudices towards those of Middle-Eastern descent, while German and Japanese citizens are victim to very minimal prejudices. Prejudices are constantly evolving to fit a rapidly changing society. Through allusions and symbols, The Tattooed Girl explores human tendencies regarding prejudices, revealing the idea that perhaps one’s history and memory are of little importance.

(L.B. 2008)