A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

“Give sorrow words,” William Shakespeare says. “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

Joyce Carol Oates gives her sorrow words in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, which chronicles the death of her longtime husband, Ontario Review editor, Ray Smith, and the first year of Oates’ widowhood.

“Widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife,” Oates writes in this powerful and poignant memoir.

If life were fair, couples that have been married for decades (Oates and Smith were together for 47 years and 25 days, Oates frequently points out) should be allowed to die together.

But life is anything but fair, and it’s the job of survivors to carry on after the loss of a loved one, no mater how impossible that may seem, as Oates observes:

   “Losing a spouse of 47 years is like losing a part of yourself— the most valuable part. What is left behind seems so depleted, broken … But this determination to manage—to cope—to do as much unassisted as possible— is the widow’s prerogative.”

Losing a spouse can drain life of flavor and meaning, leaving the survivor a shell of themselves, as Oates notes:

   “As a widow I will be reduced to a world of things. And these things retain but the faintest glimmer of their original identity and meaning as in a dead and desiccated husk of something once organic there might be discerned a glimmer of its original identity and meaning.”

Oates also examines the frailty of life and the delicate balance of bio-chemistry that makes us human:

Harrowing to think that our identities— the selves people believe they recognize in us: our “personalities”— are a matter of oxygen, water and food and sleep— deprived of just one of these our physical beings begin to alter almost immediately— soon, to others we are no longer “ourselves”— and yet, who else are we?

It’s impossible not to compare Oates’ A Widow’s Story to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both women are literary powerhouses examining the depths of grief following the death of their husbands. Oates subtlety references Didion’s work, and her own “magical thinking” during her husband’s short illness and death. Oates and Didion both imagine their husbands “just coming home,” putting an end to the endless nightmare of widowhood. Magical thinking is a nice way of saying delusional or wishful thinking.

Widowhood forces a kind of exile, an otherness, as the widow moves through day-to-day life like a ghost.

   “I could be a paraplegic observing dancers— it isn’t even envy I feel for them, almost a kind of disbelief, they are so utterly different from me, and so oblivious.”

And a life devoid of meaning, isn’t really a life at all, Oates says:

“To be human is to live with meaning. To live without meaning is to live sub-humanly.”

“Giving sorrow words” is both painful and healing, and perhaps the only way back to the “land of the living” for a writer, as Oates notes in a letter to a fellow author.

   “It’s difficult to write when there’s no joy. (I haven’t gotten started again, myself.) Yet it’s our only way out. Isn’t it?”

Though deeply steeped in sorrow, The Widow’s Story: A Memoir is ultimately a story of survival and rebirth. Oates knows whom to thank for helping her through the early days of widowhood.

   “The blunt truth is: I would (very likely) not be alive except for my friends.”

She also finds recovery and reconnection by embracing her late husband’s favorite hobby: gardening:

   “A gardener is one for whom the prospect of the future is not threatening but happy.”

In the end, Oates finds the strength to carry on, even if it’s a “half-life” frequently filled with sorrow and loss.

   “This is my life now. Absurd, but unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd. If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash.”

We can all appreciate the world forged from Oates’ personal pain, a world where life is simultaneously absurd, unpredictable and incredibility precious.

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Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Reading Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is like slipping into a fever dream. It’s all dark winter mood and brooding atmosphere in this novel.

   Bellefleur covers three generations of the Bellefleur family over the course of more than 200 years. Ms. Oates builds this long, sprawling novel with long, sprawling sentences filled with parenthetical asides and a boatload of commas. In its way, each sentence in Bellefleur is like a tiny fairytale waiting to be unwrapped. The result is a finely crafted novel that draws you in and keeps your there.
   The Bellefleurs seem blessed and cursed in equally extreme measure. The Bellefleur men have a history of violence, rape, and severe gambling problems.
“The Bellefleur curse, it was sometimes thought, had to do with gambling.”
   While Yolande Bellefleur suggests:
“  “The curse on us is that we can’t love right!” She was immediately hushed up. And cautioned never to say such a bizarre thing again, or even to think it.””
   The Bellefleurs are not the kind of family you want to live near. They are to be feared, not just because they can buy and sell you with their fortunes, but because they’re mentally unstable and have a taste for revenge. A simple, brutal message is passed on to all Bellefleur children:
“Nothing is quite so profound as revenge, they were told. Nothing quite so exquisite.”
   The Bellefleur women hold the real power in the clan. They work behind the scenes to manipulate the men—who quite frankly, can use a guiding hand. Led by the beguiling Leah, (“If any Bellefleur succeeded in this century, it would be Leah”) the Bellefleur women propell this family — and novel — forward.
   Are the strange visitors to Bellefleur castle—the great cat Mahalaleel, (“You’re a poor lost thing, like any of us,”) Love the pet spider (…his gloved hands acted as if by instinct, as if, in the dim Bellefleur past, they had killed many a Love, just by holding it fast, gripping it fast, and squeezing…), abused orphan Little Goldie, the troll servant Nightshade—ghosts of family members come back to haunt the manor? What about the murderous monster bird know as the Noir Vulture (one of the coolest, creepiest creatures in all of horror fiction)?
“The baby was lost. As women’s screams lifted from the garden the bird rose higher and higher, with a noisy muscular grace, already jabbing at the helpless prey in its claws— tearing and stabbing at it with its sharp beak— so that pieces of flesh and skeins of blood fell…”
   Even though the Bellefleurs themselves don’t seem entirely comfortable in their weird world, they also seem quite content knowing they’ll never leave. (Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, anybody?) Bellefleur is gothic at its most gothic, (before gothic fiction was taken over by sad emo teens and homoerotic vampires) and Ms. Oates at her literary best.
   Personal Note: A high school English teacher (Ms. Savage) recommended this book to me when I was a sophomore, around 1983, three years after Bellefleur was published. She knew I was a Stephen King fan and thought I might appreciate Ms. Oates modern gothic. But I wasn’t ready for Bellefleur as a 16-year-old boy. I bailed out after the first chapter. But I’m glad I revisited this novel two decades later, when I could truly appreciate it. Good call, Ms. Savage.
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