The night of the female: transformation in Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water Part 1 of 2


What happens in Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water at first reading, is a gradual saga of a girl gifted with some charm and some intelligence but constrained by her environment from moving from that state to another. From girl to woman, or lady could be accepted but that needs expansion and qualification lest we fall under the pit of clichés and clichéd readings and problematic terminologies and conceptions.

Kelly Kelleher is 26, not the age of our typical girl. As mentioned, and as soundly inferred, she is both charming and intelligent. One, she has caught the eyes of the Senator and that already tells something. Two, she is a college graduate with high honors and is familiar with Aristotle, if you count that as a factor in determining one’s intelligence. Twenty-six and gifted, we can safely  assume she’s a woman seething to blaze up into her prime, seize and make the most out of the opportunities waiting for someone of her caliber. But on the 4th of July, a chancy meeting proved to be initially ominous as she was unable to defy the expectations of her environment, and her own expectations of herself as silently, wickedly whispered to her by her environment as well. Then begins what we wrongly guessed as a typical story, perhaps forgetting the name of its author – Joyce Carol Oates. Shock factor.

Killing the Plot

She went with the Senator, on the road, on an adventure promising something uncertain but whose uncertainty precisely thrilled her. And then the accident. And as skillfully tucked into, slyly written into the book’s back page, “in a tragic car ride that we hope against hope will not end as we know it must end,” Kelly, this time subverted the expectations, – of the readers, of common fiction, of the patriarchal order, perhaps even of herself – and surpassed the accident as she lived, went on, by herself, all by herself.

Mommy I’m a good girl: Kelly the youngster, the unsure

Her age won’t tell it to us, that age will differentiate Kelly from the typical damsels-in-distress in our mind. She is 26 and has a nice job and probably a nice pay and is challenging people of whatever background, or gender, with her apparent smarts. Yet as if part of Oates’ ingenious manner of weaving characters and making them behave right in our face, the most part of the novel tells us that this proud Kelly is skin-shy after all, and that she is in fact distressed. Easily captivated by the charm and the panache exuded by the Senator (him being a politician), she wrote her undergraduate thesis about him but nearly faltered in writing her own story (thanks to Oates’ feminism and skill at shocking, the faltering ceased somewhere).

At the onset, she was sinking and at the verge of death, asking about her chances, as if all that she has left are chances, no proactivity at all. This repeats in Part 1 #2, “Am I going to die – like this?” as if she is foreseeing, accepting death, not counting the idea of eluding it, surviving it. All throughout the novel, before the shocking was unleashed, we could easily associate uncertainty with Kelly, as we saw her repeatedly asking herself about her readiness, about her fate in general, like “What is going to happen to me?” this internal contradiction seems to degrade further in Part 2 when she’s already mostly under the black water after the accident and waiting, praying, hoping that the Senator will return to save her. Here, she becomes speechless most of the time — the italics replacing, and hence negating the effect of quotations, the supposed transcription of “she said.” Don’t leave me, I’m here, help me. Don’t forget me – they are all italicized. It can be argued that the speechlessness should be taken literally as she was submerged in water and can hardly speak, and not metaphorically. However, I see this in another light. She is literally speechless (hence: the italicization) but she knows something to say, she wants to be saved, she wants help. But she wants and needs the Senator to fulfill what she wants for herself. The girl is trapped under water and she’s struggling for her life, asking for salvation. One might say that it’s natural for someone submerged in black water to ask the help of others but in counter I say, do we actually consider that if Kelly was a man, we would see the scenario in the same light? That we would defend the rationale and possibility of him asking for help than the rationale and possibility of him managing to carry on by himself? I doubt it. Men can no longer seek help; they can already manage to get himself out of the water – we are highly likely to think.

And more of her uncertainty, not knowing exactly what she even wants. In page 33, she was “thinking ‘This can’t be happening!’ as she was thinking ‘Something is going to happen that cannot be stopped.’” What confusion is this? Thinking about two things at the same time? Here, we see Kelly being bugged by an internal contradiction. I read is as, subjectively, she does not want what’s about to happen, but the objective situation makes it appear that what’s about to happen must and is going to happen.

And this leads us to the terrifying desire of the Other – what the Other wants from me, what does it expect from me? In page 18, it says, “You’re an American girl, you deserve to make YOUR wishes known and to have YOUR own way once in a while.” Do not submit to the pressure of the Other, its malicious conferrals which you seriously thought you need that’s why you obey them blindly. A bit further from that point, in page 21, we were told how Kelly’s eyes “had once been a source of great vexation and anguish to her parents, and thus to her.” This time, the parents embody the Other, and the malcontent Kelly’s eyes caused them likewise saddens her because that means, she was unable to satisfy what they want for her, i.e. a certain look of the eye. Kelly not just does not know what she wants; even worse, her wants are really not what she wants for herself; they are what the Other wants for her.

In part 2 #27, we see this again, and this time spewed directly by Oates: “he was in an agony to find a way into her, she felt the jolt of desire: not her desire, but the man’s.” Her desire is to be desired by the man, the Senator, the big Other. And so the admonition: “make YOUR wishes known.”

And for me, the cutest part that typifies Kelly’s child-likeness occurs on #23 of Part 2, when she attempted suicide and when taken and saved in the hospital, she was penitent., conciliatory with her mother: “crying in Mother’s arms she swore she did not want to die, she was a good girl really, she was not a bad girl really…yes Mother was there to comfort her.”

At this point, I thought of a quite interesting way of tying up Kelly’s failure to defy the Other’s desire for her and the implied deep need for her mother during the post-suicide scene. She was caught helpless and seemingly tortured in that realm where the big Other speaks to her, its desires for her imposed and cancelling her own desires. And there was a momentary chance to be very close to her mother again, right after she tried to commit suicide, to regain that proximity to her mother, as if wanting to return to the primordial state in the Imaginary where she is unitary and complete. Hence, we see two Kellys here. The first one is the openly child-like crying and succumbing to the order, begging for her mother to listen to her and believe her saying she’s a good girl and second, the Kelly who’s acting as a 26 year-old but usually fails to act according to her own desires.

Although both version of the old Kelly were casted aside and subsumed well by and in the Symbolic Order, the child-like, with its assertion of coming back near the Mother (and the state of infancy, of unity) for me, seems to be a tad better.

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