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.

Ernest Hemingway: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen


7♣  7♣  7♣  7♣  7♣  7♣  7♣  7♣

I drew the Seven of Clubs for Week 9 of my 2015 Deal Me In Short Story project and that corresponded to Ernest Hemingway’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”.  I put this story on my list for two reasons: 1) Hemingway has always been a favorite and 2) I’ve gotten into the habit of putting a Christmas title on my list just for the fun of seeing when it shows up during the year. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


Hemingway starts with a great first line:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

The line brings to mind a vague universalism that quickly and seamlessly spirals into Hemingway at his most horrifically raw. On Christmas Day evening, the narrator wanders from a saloon to the emergency room of the local hospital.  A teenage boy has mutilated himself trying to get rid of the “lust” that he considers sinful.  The reader learns of the event from its retelling to the narrator by two doctors.

On the surface, this could simply be a “this is why religion is bad” story; however, as the doctors, one of whom is Jewish, debate the significance of Christmas Day and whether it’s “our Savior” or “your Savior”, the story becomes more than anti-religion.  In retelling the story, one of the doctors brilliantly but unpersuasively states the obvious to the teenager:

If you are religious remember that what you complain of is no sinful state but the means of consummating a sacrament.

While my amateur research tells me that the religious beliefs of Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor were likely very different, it seems they have crossed paths with at least this story.  Both authors focus on the dark side of humanity and its botched attempts to make things right.

If I was to consider this story a favorite, I think I would have to apologize to all of the Joyce Carol Oates fans to whom I’ve said I found her story “The Girl With the Blackened Eye” too disturbing.  So Joyce Carol Oates fans, please accept my apologies.  As a concession, I will have a Joyce Carol Oates ad hoc short story week sometime in March.