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Joyce Carol Oates: Do with Me What You Will

Aah, the parents! As in her previous novels, Oates has the two main characters carry the burden of their parents. Elena Ross is kidnapped from her mother by her divorced father when she is seven. She withdraws into herself and, when she is finally rescued, can barely speak. While growing up, her mother does, indeed, do with her what she wills, finally marrying her off, when she is seventeen, to a successful criminal lawyer, Marvin Howe. At the end of the first section, about Elena’s growing up, she is in some sort of trance, staring at a statue. Everything has come to rest, in perfection it comes to rest, permanent. Then a hand touches her.

The second part is about Jack Morrissey. He too has parental issues, as his father murders a rich man but he is defended by Marvin Howe and gets off on temporary insanity. This inspires Jack to become a lawyer himself, though he does not become a successful criminal lawyer like Howe but rather works to help the poor and weak, working for the American Civil Liberties Union. He meets and marries Rachel but, at the end we realise that his is the hand that has touched Elena.

The third part is, of course, the love affair between Jack and Elena. She is awakened out of her twenty year trance but is scared by the feelings she now has. She flees from him and returns to Howe. The final part, however, has Jack and Elena getting back together, leaving their respective spouses, and gaining one of Oates’ little victories as they now have the life they want. It sounds mawkish but, in the hands of such an accomplished writer as Oates, it works, both as regards the legal background (which plays a bigger part than I have mentioned here) and the relationship issues. It may be less violent and less harrowing for the reader than some of its predecessors but it is just as readable.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Vanguard Press