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Joyce Carol Oates: Marya

In this novel, Oates reaches back to her feminist roots, as she tells the story of a woman – Marya, of course – whose father died (killed in a labour dispute) when she was young and who was given up, along with her brothers, to relatives to bring up but who managed, through hard work and intelligence, to make it as a successful college professor. If it sounds somewhat autobiographical, it is. While clearly not a full autobiography, there are elements of Oates’ life in the story. Indeed, Oates has said that it is a conflation of my life and my mother’s. The novel, of course, is also about male power over women. Marya is sexually abused by a male cousin. More particularly, she is harassed, when an academic, by an African-American janitor for no apparent reason. But Marya is no saint. She steals the earrings of a fellow student and when the student demands them back hits her with her fist. Indeed, her attitude towards women, coloured by her view of her mother, who not only abandoned her but is remembered as a drunken, violent woman, tends to be one of opposition. She can cope with the men, competing with them – generally – on their own terms. So one of the key themes of the book is about how she can come to terms with her mother, with the memory of how she was and what she has become. Once again, Oates delivers a first-class novel that is always original and always challenging.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Dutton