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Joyce Carol Oates: A Garden of Earthly Delights

The novel starts with the birth of Clara Walpole. Her parents have lost their farm in Kentucky and are now migrant workers. An accident on the truck they are riding causes Clara’s mother to go into labour and she gives birth to Clara – born out of violence. Her father, Carleton, is an embittered man. He drinks and takes out his frustrations on his family. He also longs to return to Kentucky. Like her father, Clara also longs to escape the restrictions she faces. She takes up with a bootlegger, Lowry, and the two run away together. Carleton follows them but never finds them. He has a breakdown and ends up in a hospital where he dies without ever seeing his family again. But Lowry is not reliable and Clara is looking for material comfort, particularly when she becomes pregnant. She takes up with a local rich man, Revere. Revere sets her up as his mistress and she fools him into thinking that her son, Swan, is his. Meanwhile, Lowry has gone off to Mexico. Lowry drifts around and ends up as a soldier, fighting in World War II. When he returns, Clara, who is living in Revere’s house with her son, rejects him.

But this is where her problems really begin. Both Clara and Swan (now renamed Steven) do not really fit into the Revere household. Revere has married Clara but his three sons from his first marriage intimidate Swan who is not macho like they are. Things come to a head when Swan accidentally kills one of them in a hunting accident. Clara then causes the other two to leave – the first because he assaults a woman who reminds him of Clara, the second whom Clara provokes into making a sexual advance to her, when he is drunk. Swan sinks into despair after rejection by a woman and it all ends in tragedy. Again and again, Oates will give us portraits of people who don’t quite fit in and whose lives end up in madness and tragedy. Clara, like her parents, will end up insane. She won’t be the last Oates heroine to end up this way.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Vanguard Press