A Princeton Idyll – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 1

This week I’m posting about a few short stories I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates but first I need to provide a little history as to why I’m doing this.  A few years ago, I read Oates’ story “The Girl With The Blackened Eye” for my book group (Indy Reading Coalition) and found it so disturbing that I didn’t want to read anymore of her work.  This all occurred prior to blogging and since starting Mirror with Clouds, I’ve read much praise for Oates’ stories so I decided to read a little more of her work.


For Day 1, I read ” A Princeton Idyll” from Oates’ collection Dear Husband,. Told through a series of letters, the story’s protagonist Sophie contacts her late grandfather’s former housekeeper thirty-five years after Sophie last saw her.  She is inquiring of Muriel, the housekeeper, about events surrounding her childhood and her grandfather.

“A Princeton Idyll” is one of the more skillful uses of letter writing to tell a story. Oates brilliantly takes the well-known fact that tone can be misunderstood in letter writing (or in emails) to keep the reader wondering what kind of secrets Muriel holds and what part they play in Sophie’s childhood.  She even utilizes letters crossing in the mail to further the mystery.

The secret of Sophie’s grandfather is eventually revealed with much laughter from Muriel’s letter.  It’s a secret I found just as funny as Muriel did.  I’m not sure Oates’ intent was humor, though.  There was a seriousness in the ending that makes me think I wasn’t suppose to be laughing along with Muriel but I should have been angry and hurt along with Sophie. I felt a little as though I burst out laughing at a funeral.  Regardless of how I reacted or didn’t react, this story was not nearly as disturbing as the first Oates story I read.

4 responses to “A Princeton Idyll – Joyce Carol Oates Week, Day 1

  1. I’m sort of on the fence with Oates. I find her writing compelling, but in that pick-at-a-scab kind of way. I look forward to seeing how your week goes. I like epistolary stories and this sounds lighter(?) than most Joyce Carol Oates.

    • With the handful of stories I’ve read, I have an appreciation for her; however, I don’t think she will be on my list of favorite authors.

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