I think, or I like to think, that Do with me what you will is a novel which could not be written fifty years from now. This is not yet an aesthetic judgment, but a personal preference. I don’t like to read about browbeaten women or even about their breaking free. I don’t intend, though, any injustice to Joyce Carol Oates. She is far from a fool; on the contrary, she is a person all too aware of male abuse. Her sympathy is with her main character, Elena Howe, who endures this abuse. But this endurance is depressing at the start and later, when it is altered to action, the action is enforced by the date of composition. The whole sequence makes me, at any rate, want to be born much later, say in 2023.
Elena Howe moves only a little in the novel. After a long mental illness, her wish to die becomes a wish to live, and on that basis she has the courage to replace her bossy husband with her bossy lover. She can at the end leave her husband and persuade her lover to join her. Three small cheers.
All these personal writhings are embedded in a legal context. Both the husband, Marvin Howe, and the lover, Jack Morrissey, are lawyers. The title of the novel, Do with me what you will, is, in fact, Marvin Howe’s casual translation of the legal term nolo contendere. Howe’s choice of nolo contendere is for his own financial defense. Aside from himself, Howe’s favorite clients are admitted murderers. One of his early and typical cases, for which the novel dips back in time, was the defense of Jack Morrissey’s father, Joseph Morrissey, who shot a man he blamed for the death of Ronnie Morrissey, his defective son. Thanks to Howe, Joseph Morrissey remains free, but he also remains afraid to leave his own back yard. And Jack Morrissey hates Howe for his exploitation of the Morrissey family: Howe’s use of his client’s intimate problems and, after the trial, his total indifference to them.
Jack Morrissey’s work is somewhat more admirable. He shares with Marvin Howe the principle of legality, but Morrissey’s legal work is self-sacrificing rather than self-congratulatory. Still, he prefers like Howe cases of admitted guilt. The innocent—his wife Rachel, for example, and his client Mered Dawe, a commune philosopher arrested on a drug charge—confuse and irritate him. They suffer from the law, but they raise issues with which the law cannot deal.
It is not that the novel condones lawlessness or revolution simply because of legal limitations, but it supports the innocent and idealistic. Mered Dawe speaks above and beyond Jack Morrissey. Still, though Jack Morrissey cannot understand or admire Mered Dawe, he does his best for him. And his defense of Dawe fails, almost immediately after Howe’s successful defense of an admitted murderer. The book acknowledges Detroit’s brutality: not just the murders in the city but also the sentimentality which forgives murder and yet cannot tolerate the liberal peccadilloes of such people as Mered Dawe, who believes in “heavenly cosmic love” and once passed an unlighted marijuana cigarette from person to person. Only the innocent are harshly punished—not the murderer, but Mered Dawe, abstract and ethereal physicist.
Through Dawe particularly, who moves her to lie down beside him on a hospital bed, Elena Howe is linked with the innocent victims of the law. Jack Morrissey accuses her repeatedly of not caring, not understanding—whereas readers of the novel, sharing the consciousness of Elena Howe, are meant to pity her. Of course, it is fatal to consider her from the point of view of other characters. She speaks only to discourage speech: she says either “No” or “I don’t know.” Conversations float over Elena Howe’s head. As hostess, she negates sociability: her mind is constantly on the whiskey glasses, who needs more and how soon. One cannot imagine the novel’s conversion into a play, with this lunkhead in the center. Ibsen’s Nora Helmer has much more to say for herself. But then, quite wisely, Ms. Oates has written a novel, not a play—and we are strangely content to be in the lunkhead’s mind.
Joyce Carol Oates’s point is determinedly not legal. She rejects the solution of nolo contendere, and tries to persuade us that, to some small degree, to contend is crucial for Elena Howe. The marks of the restored, the newly constituted Elena Howe are two: (1) she rejects her husband, but also, after months of silence, (2) she telephones her lover again. And he rejects her again. Surely this is sainthood, this capacity for self-debasement? Elena Howe earns her lover, such as he is, through suffering.
In fact, for all her modesty, Joyce Carol Oates is a hortatory feminist. She enforces her convictions upon a heroine unsuited to them. How is one to rouse this heroine, quiet and impassive, to life? It seems to Ms. Oates that Elena Howe must leave her husband and join her lover. The solution only pretends to difficulty: to a feminist, it is essentially simple and predictable. Beneath the seeming moral complexity, Ms. Oates is easily satisfied.
The novel concentrates first upon Elena’s estranged father, beginning rather melodramatically with his kidnapping her, as a child, from a school yard. In their drive west, Elena is seen mainly from the father’s zany point of view, though her unhappiness is clear. In California, the father leaves the scene and never sees Elena again. Elena is returned to her mother’s care, which is at least wry in its dismay. Under her mother, Elena is abashed, silent—and, still very young, married off to Marvin Howe. The following ten years are seen in snatches, slices, sufficient to suggest the tone of the marriage. The novel leaves Elena, after a women’s luncheon, staring at a city statue, hypnotized by it, oblivious to passers-by. The story moves then, rather too abruptly, from Elena Howe to Jack Morrissey, reviews his boyhood, his becoming a husband and a lawyer—his decent, dogged, impoverished, and pugnacious career. The two now known characters are brought together before the statue on the street. The problem becomes their love for each other, from which the novel slowly, painfully glances off. It decides, too glibly, in Morrissey’s favor.
Personal predilection seems to dictate the solution of the novel. In an objective (and therefore unreal) world, not only pity but time itself would argue for Marvin Howe. He has grave defects: he does not confide in Elena or even tell her the truth. But he needs her and begs her to stay with him. And Elena is a woman governed by loyalty in all other and even more difficult relationships. Why do ten married years mean nothing to her? Then, her going to claim her lover inflicts another cruelty. Jack Morrissey must leave his wife Rachel and their adopted son Robert. And unlike Marvin Howe, neither of these people, wife or child, deserves to be left. But Elena Howe is obliged to be active. She moves, she walks over the loves of others, she creates change.
If we try to imagine an egalitarian world, passive virtues may reclaim importance. One would be loyalty to the husband Marvin Howe. Another would be pity for Rachel and her small child. But both are forbidden by feminism. The novel values unassertiveness in its main character, but then imposes assertion upon her. The lesson is not Love Conquers All, but Women Must Assert Themselves.
January 24, 1974