I Lock My Door Upon Myself

By Joyce Carol Oates

Random House

That this book is short — running at just under one hundred pages, these being punctuated by generous spaces — is the least of its virtues.

Oates’ tragic novel portrays an illicit New England love affair in the tradition of Ethan Frome. The evocative tale of Calla, a woman indifferent to society who lives solely within herself, is a quilt sewn together out of lush, visually rich snapshots.

The novel, set in the present, chronicles the past through the reflections of Calla’s granddaughter. She has set out to uncover the tale of the old woman whom she knows only as a recluse, a victim of self-imposed exile. In doing so, she presents the tale of a tragic figure.

In her youth, Calla is a strange, wild woman. Tall, red-haired, lanky, she eschews social conventions, preferring to wander aimlessly through the wilderness surrounding her family farm. She is married off to George Freilicht, a stolidly respectable farmer, by a family desperate to stave off possible scandal. She comes across a black man, a water diviner named Tyrell Thompson, during her rambles, and the connection is immediate. Calla immediately opens herself to him, pouring forth speech from a mouth which has previously remained silent. They become lovers.

We are uncertain whether Calla is simple or brilliant. To her in-laws, she appears “touched.” She is animal-like, slave to whimsy and urges which compel her to roam. “I do what I do, what I do is what I wanted to have done,” she murmurs inwardsly, and it is this principle which guides her. Even her three children, results of marital obligations which are then shrugged aside, occupy little of her time.

Oates deals with the issues of language and blood, the spoken and the felt. Initially, Calla is mute, nameless, her true name known only to herself and immediate family. To others, she is known by her Christian name, Edith Margaret. It is only after meeting Tyrell that the words pour out of her, endless rivers of narrative that encompass her life and mind. It is to Tyrell, too, that she reveals her real name. And thus, while discovering her sensual self, she also asserts her own humanity.

There are few insights directly into her mind, her conversations remain mysterious, and it is only as she awakens to herself that we become privy to snatches of inner dialogue.

Oates’ prose is fluid, vibrant. Sensual, filled not only with images but scent and sound, it successfully conveys the vivid nature of Calla’s world, recreating her rigid, stifling surroundings. Her need to escape becomes inexorable.

Yet there is no sense of histrionics, of the cheap melodrama designed to evoke cathartic tears. Straddling the line between aloofness and intimacy, Oates never allows her patches of narrative to overstate themselves.

The result is fiction which embraces the reader, drawing her into a world which combines the vividness of realism with the unspoken murkiness of dreams. It is crisp, precise, spare yet full. It is these qualities which, combined with its brevity, render it thoroughly accessible to overworked students attempting to stave off reality.