This 1996 novella makes for a curious little book. The hardcover’s title is lettered on the dust jacket in a shiny purple foil blackletter typeface, and the narrative is pointedly labelled “A Gothic Tale” on the title page. Barry Moser’s cover and inside illustrations—stark black-and-white engravings—hark back to a nineteenth-century style. Given this packaging, all postmodern pastiche with a nudge-and-a-wink from the shiny purple decoration, one would not necessarily expect such grim subject matter as the protracted molestation of an eleven-year-old girl by her seminarian cousin, and yet that is what First Love is about.
In the novella, our narrator, young Josie, has been taken by her absconding mother to live with her great-great-aunt in a decaying old house in upstate New York. There, neglected by her aged aunt and abandoned by her mother (who is out working and looking for a new man), Josie falls victim to the predations of her cousin, Jared, Jr., on leave—for his mental health—from the Presbyterian seminary where he is studying. Though its title is largely ironic, First Love does suggest that her cousin’s sexual trespasses are a partially-desired opening to the adult world of feeling for Josie. I am aware that this does not meet present political standards for the representation of such subject matter; I am only reporting on what I believe Oates to be communicating in the tale, as in this passage, also reprinted on the back cover, whose mingled fear and desire, given in fragmentary clauses, characterize the novella’s prose style as a whole:
Shutting my eyes sometimes to the point of dizziness, vertigo. To the point of an almost unbearable excitation and dread. And I see him, my cousin, Jared, Jr., so many years later. I see him as an upright flame, a figure and not a person. If I try to summon back his face, the sound of his voice, and the sensation in my stomach like a key turning in a lock when he touched me, I lose everything.
There is, no doubt, a presently unwelcome nuance in the portrait of female—and perhaps more broadly, childhood—desire, which I think is authentically Gothic in its forbidden suggestion of what society—Christian society especially, portrayed by Oates as noxiously hypocritical—represses.
The novella begins with Josie’s being drawn into nature, where a black snake (who either represents or supernaturally is Jared, Jr., just as she will later see him as a black hawk) crosses her path. It ends when she refuses to participate in Jared’s desire to make her his accomplice in preying on the poor children of their town for the purposes of child pornography, rape, and murder. While Josie’s mother, Delia, is the novel’s most interesting character, a witty pragmatist and nihilist, she is too flighty and selfish to help her daughter resist evil. Josie wins on her own, through an innate moral sense perhaps grown, Wordsworth-style, out of her childlike love for nature, nature unspoiled by man’s phallic and predatory intrusion as snake or hawk. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s recent God Help the Child by this novella’s intimations of childhood victimization by universal adult corruption. On finding Jared’s stash of child pornography, Josie takes it as evidence that children are excluded from the social/religious compact: “For the Covenant would not be with children, would it?”
The novella ends with Josie alone in the house—Jared, Jr., having realized she was incorruptible, has returned to the seminary; her mother is away again, presumably with a man; and her aunt is confined to her room by a stroke. Josie has refused to perpetuate her family’s evil; her soul returns to goodness as the earth awakens in spring, free of social corruption:
Late April, yet it’s the first real day of spring. A blue-windy, brilliant day, eagerly you open your heart to the vast sky tracked by long diaphanous clouds stretching for what appear to be hundreds of miles, you hear birds, songbirds, newly returned from the south after the long winter, their exquisite sweet spring cries.
Goodness and beauty, like evil and ugliness, are also repressed, and they also return. This is a comprehensive and holistic vision, aware of Marx/Nietzsche/Freud, but circumscribing them too. To place such a vision in “A Gothic Tale” is to validate the intelligence of fiction, also implicitly of women (primary authors/audiences of the Gothic for three hundred years)—though not uncritically, as most of the women in this story uphold repressive society for their own reasons and advantages. But a Gothic heroine, however tempted to the dark side (“Feel yourself drawn!” is the novel’s refrain), may at least resist in a Gothic narrative. What this novella—and perhaps its genre—does not offer is any vision of fulfilling adult love. Its counsel is limited to its other refrain, “Fear will save your life,” and Josie, even at the end, has “not the courage to contemplate” the “deep pit of fathomless time yawning beneath” her great-aunt’s house, which pit we may take to be both the unconscious and history. She has attained her individual freedom, but the house still stands, and she is still in it.
I know I need to read a long novel by Joyce Carol Oates—this is my second short one, after the similarly-themed Beasts—but the novellas in an oeuvre so vast can be irresistible. So far I admire Oates’s stylistic intensity, her witty play with literary history and form, and her moral complexity and irony. Her politics come out in the fiction a bit bluntly and not without patronizing cliche—is religion as one-dimensional as she claims here? and are the poor only victims of the rich? But these are appealingly old-fashioned flaws, and I look forward to going on in Oates’s work, to see what else she makes of our Gothic inheritance and our twisted desire.