By Joyce Carol Oates
Hedonism, defined in its more vernacular sense as personal gratification regardless of its effect on others, forms the center of Joyce Carol Oates’ novella of young, naive college women falling prey to a pair of svengalis. You might think of it as a modern incarnation of the age old tales, with painfully real consequences for those accused, of demonic possession for sexual purposes, sort of like seventeenth-century Urbain Grandier and the Ursuline nuns of Loudun, France.
An adult Gillian Brauer strolls through the Louvre when she encounters a grotesque totem portraying a maternal figure. She recognizes it as one of the only surviving works of artist/sculptor Dorcas (meant as ironic?) Harrow, wife of her old literature teacher Andre Harrow (harrow, as in a tool to break apart and lay open the soil for seeding; quite clever, given the story). The recognition hurtles her back to her days at a Catamount, a small New England women’s college. She relates in vivid detail how she and many of the women living in her cottage taking Andre’s course in poetry writing come under his spell and how the high purpose he and his wife appear to espouse proves in its extremity to be said hedonism and for the women descent into traumatic degradation. Surfeit to say that the end result of turning oneself over to the pair exhibits in self-destructive behavior and destructive acting out (the fires) as Andre encourages the women to expose all their insecurities, which he mines for his own and Dorcas’ own purposes. And, even as was with poor old Grandier, immolation proves something of a just evening up of the score.
This Oates excursion into the vulnerabilities of lithe young women searching for identity and acceptance is for readers curious about the darker side of humanity and those who stumble into its clutches. w/c