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Joyce Carol Oates: With Shuddering Fall

Oates’ first novel – she had previously published a collection of short stories – showed many of the themes that would appear in her later novels. Oates is a lapsed Catholic and the theme of religion was strong here as it would be in other of her novels. The novel is set in Eden County as some of her later novels would be, though Eden County is certainly no paradise. The main character is Karen Herz, who is inspired by the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac at the command of God, which is read to her by her father. When Shar, a racing car driver, badly beats up her father, he tells her to kill Shar. The end of the first part of the novel sees her running off with Shar, to whom she is clearly attracted. But Shar is also attracted to her. More so, he feels trapped and tries to break away but cannot. But Karen is going to remember the command of her father, just as Abraham remembers the command he received from God. When Shar needs her, she abandons him and leaves him to crash to death. She has then to find her redemption. She spends time in a mental asylum and then has to make her peace with her father, which she does at the end. This is a very powerful novel, particularly for a first novel and it is amazing that it is out of print. Not only does it foreshadow her later work, it is one of the best novels since Flannery O’Connor to show the link between violence and religion in American culture.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Vanguard Press