The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

Female of the Speciesbook by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

Oates explores the link between passion and violence in this collection of ten stories featuring female predators. In my favorite story, “Doll,” a father earns money by soliciting men to time spend with his daughter on a do-not-touch basis. Doll, no longer an adolescent, continues the charade, adding her own twist by hiding a blade in her sock. Her father doesn’t approve but he’s lost control. He and Doll flee from city to city to escape detection. When Doll meets up with a pimply-faced junior high teacher, she knows how to manipulate his fantasies and gets him into the bathtub, naked with his eyes closed. How he meets up with his fate is both fascinating and terrifying, although anticipated. All three characters–the pedophile, the father and Doll—end up as both predators and victims. Surprisingly, I feel empathy for each of them.

One technique I’d like to emulate is Oates’ skillful use of foreshadowing. Right from the beginning, I’m anticipating how the story will end. After she hooks me into the characters; then, I worry about their fate. She drops clues. That’s where her skill lies. She knows how much to tell and when, without scaring off the reader or precluding a surprise at the end. I know someone will face a horrific death—that seems to be her signature finale, but I can’t stop reading. My stomach gets queasy. Every twist feels like a knife digging into my chest. I try to think of ways that the character might escape destiny. Where did he or she make the fatal mistake? What would I have done?

I’d like to work on characterizing predators and killers. Oates’ villains in these stories don’t start out evil. They are corrupted by family or the circumstances of their lives. She adds enough background information to help me understand their actions, motivations and deficits. When describing their mental states, she often hints at the character’s self-loathing or regret. Their actions are not all despicable; they have good qualities. They’re often very ordinary people who inadvertently crossed over a line, then couldn’t turn back.

In “Hunger” the story opens with a woman lamenting that she’s made the worst mistake in her life. Great hook! While on vacation without her husband, she meets an arty man, a friend of a friend, who lures her into a sexual relationship. She returns home thinking the affair is over, but he shows up at her door and wants her to assist him in murdering her husband. Until the end of the story, I’m on the edge of the chair knowing someone will die, but who? Oates writes as if any woman could fall into this trap—one bad decision and her fate has been cast. I’ve made poor decisions in the past about men, as I assume that most, if not all, women have. It’s difficult not to empathize with this character even when she becomes a killer.

I’m also studying Oates’ portrayal of victims. Sometimes, they’re children, sick, old or helpless, not physically or mentally able or experienced enough to foresee the consequences of their actions. Only one misstep changes or ends their lives. Other victims end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some participate in or hasten their own demise, either knowingly or unknowingly. Oates makes it seem as if terrible things can happen to anyone at any time. I think that’s what makes her stories so terrifying. I end up feeling like the victim, railing at my fate—looking around me wondering what awful thing will happen next as I close the book.

In “Angel of Wrath” Gilead, a mentally challenged man, stalks a woman with a baby, thinking that he’s protecting her. She ends up shooting him in the foot, feels guilty and takes care of him. Then, she allows, even encourages, Gilead to kill the baby’s father who’s hurt her emotionally. Now, she’s trapped herself. At the end of the story Gilead is sitting on her bed hoping she’ll invite him to be her lover. This woman starts out as a victim whom all women can identify with and morphs into a killer when the opportunity presents itself. Could I become like her if threatened and pushed or tempted? Is it that easy for an emotional moment to overcome rational thought? Oates makes me sit back and wonder, not only about myself but everyone around me.

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