Like Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, or Catcher in the Rye, many enduring novels not intended for adolescents eventually find their way onto junior high school reading lists. That bright period when we are ourselves the hero, lost in the tale, enraptured and transported, remains for most of us a memory of ideal reading when we identify with the heroes and heroines of books, and absorb both the story and its covert lessons in a way we eventually lose the ability to do.
A surprising number of novels, like the ones mentioned above, and like Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Foxfire, have adolescents as heroes. Young people, and perhaps people of any age, like stories in which a youthful protagonist acts successfully and independently against adult authority, but there are few enough stories in which the rebellious young person is female. This perhaps explains the enduring popularity of Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women. Well-meaning, book-buying parents have doubtless always believed that it is from such books that girls learn—let us say from Beth and Jo—the “womanly” values of sharing, sacrifice and courage, cooperation, and cheerfulness (while boys might learn bravery or protective behavior from the Hardy boys or Tom Sawyer, or even Billy Bathgate). But of course girls have really loved Alcott’s Jo (or Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet) because she is not particularly “good,” and refuses to fit in with prescriptions for female behavior,1 any more than the Foxfire girls do in Oates’s novel, which is subtitled Confessions of a Girl Gang. You could say that Foxfire is a girls’ book, in that it picks up on and dramatizes the secret aspirations, fears, and resentments of females, and you would also note that it has this in common with some very great works of literature, like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice.
The history of the Foxfire gang is recounted in adulthood by one of its members, Maddy, looking back at her journals of a time when, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, she was banded together with other girls in a poor community in upstate New York, in a sisterhood dedicated to redressing injustices and indignities inflicted on them by men and poverty, forces they accurately perceive will blight their lives. These themes are announced on page six, in their hostile reaction to a congressman who has come to speak in their school assembly,
a fullback on the football team president of his senior class Class of’ 33 so proud such an honor American way of life free enterprise blah blah those of us who served our country in the War this God-ordained sovereign nation….
As he enumerates precisely the structures that will exclude them, “we so resented that asshole up there talking talking talking taking up the entire assembly expecting us to believe there isn’t a special creation of God, or of man, to which we didn’t belong,” with the perspicuity allowed to preadolescent girls, they are moved to take up arms against their adult enemies.
In the Fifties there were fewer words for oppression. The girls have the sense that they are victimized, but nobody has told them so, and people like the congressman tell them the opposite. Without buzz words, all they can feel is that the men are “assholes.” It is the vocabulary of, and only a little later than the epoch of, Holden Caulfield, a period whose relative innocence is one of the reasons, perhaps, for setting the novel then, in the mythical mists of an earlier and simpler time, which is also, as it happens, the period of the author’s adolescence, from which it acquires the emotional power of distilled memory.
Presumably the chronicler of a girls’ gang of today would have to include crack, abortion, and drive-by shootings, contemporary street language. It is interesting to contrast recent works about boys’ gangs, like Jess Mowry’s Way Past Cool, which, though crawling with guns, drugs, and “cocksuckas,” is strikingly sentimental, upbeat, and warm, and above all, historically self-conscious.2 What these indignant, surprised girls in the Fifties laboriously discover, the Nineties black ghetto boys know from scratch, and even look back nostalgically to what they’ve heard of as an ideal past—the civil rights era of the Sixties. And Oates’s girls are intrinsically more cruel, because they are more outraged, and because they are young, and not yet thoughtful, and probably because Oates is less sentimental than Mowry. And her girls are right in seeing that no one is going to protect them, what with men “hating us, men hating us no matter our age or who the hell we are but nobody wants to admit it, not even us.”
The leader of the Foxfire gang is a supergirl, Legs Sadovsky, who can leap twelve feet from a culvert, and she’s “chaste, intolerant, teeth bared in a horse’s grimace,…a powerful stallion all hooves, flying mane, tail, snarling and steam-breathed.” She breaks rules and eludes pursuers. The members are all poor, from terrible, abusive homes, with uncaring or absent parents, whose adult problems Oates touches on with more sympathy than the girls themselves have. It is to each other they pledge fidelity, in blood. Their first act is to defend the meek, nubile Rita, who is always being kept after school and pawed by one of the teachers, by humiliating the teacher and driving him out of town. When Maddy tries to buy an old typewriter from Uncle Wirtz, he keeps raising the price, five dollars, eight, ten, but nothing “if you’re a good girl” (pressing her hand against his crotch). It’s the kind of indignity Foxfire can redress. No young girl will read of Foxfire’s successes against their tormentors without laughing.
Maddy, Legs, Rita, Goldie, Lana, and others. As they grow more daring, they enact female fantasies of avenging crimes against the powerless—they release sad dogs cruelly confined at the pet store, and have standoffs with boys’ gangs, and humiliate the school principal, who is “left there half-sobbing in frustration, outrage, fear, both his pant legs torn, his voice quavering, ‘D’you hear me? Expelled! You’re all expelled!’ ” Like all fantasies realized, theirs of invincibility comes into conflict with reality. When they steal a car to escape from a dangerous situation, Legs is sentenced to some months in reform school, where she learns the grown-up skills of accommodation, patience, and superficial conformity, and she also learns that “we do have enemies, yeah, men are the enemies, but not just men, the shock of it is that girls and women are our enemies too.”
And they will become conscious of class enemies, too. After Legs gets out, the girls, at least for awhile, are powerful because their understanding of the world becomes increasingly sophisticated. They move from acts of vengeance to the exploitation of dependable male urges, by luring men with an air of innocent vulnerability (say, by pretending to be lost in a bus station) then blackmailing and swindling them, always without losing their own innocence or their powerful indignation. The cynical intelligence is Legs’s. The male victims—lovelorn husbands, lonely salesmen—almost (not quite) command the reader’s sympathy, but never that of the pitiless Foxfire girls.
They finally go too far with an elaborate kidnapping plot. Legs, demurely called by her real name, Margaret, insinuates herself into the affections of the rich Kellog family, and the girls abduct the father when, predictably, he suggests “a little drive? along the river? out toward Morganstown—there’s a nice little inn there.” The plot ends when they accidentally wound their victim, and “Legs contemplating him in that detachment beyond horror or even alarm sees how the Enemy is after all only a man…on his back, bleeding.” They cannot let him die. With the arrival of compunction, Foxfire is over, Legs has to flee, and the prospect of adulthood compels the collaboration of the others. Another name for collaboration is realism, or maturity. Some members of Foxfire will tamely marry, all will have to get jobs and play by the rules. Maddy, the chronicler, will have interesting work, try marriage. But all have been marked by their days of Foxfire freedom, and quotidian reality will never quite satisfy them.
Gerda Lerner, a feminist historian, describes the collective consciousness of women as having evolved in the same stages as that of the Foxfire girls, beginning with “the awareness of women that they belong to a subordinate group and that, as members of such a group, they have suffered wrongs,” then the realization that this is not innate but is caused by society, followed by a sense of sisterhood, and the definition of goals and strategies, and finally “the development of an alternate vision of the future.”
This is the subject or subtext of much fiction written by women; usually it is corrected by a reality principle which punishes the female protagonist for her consciousness or attempts to implement her goals and strategies.3 (italics mine)
One thinks of George Eliot punishing Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. Having constructed a fable of ideal feminine power, Oates was faced with the problem of how to end Foxfire without accepting the punitive reality principle on the one hand, without straining our credulity with a conventional happy ending, and without the kind of quasi-fantasy that drove Thelma and Louise off a cliff. Literary endings are rarely perfect, but Oates has come close to finding one by allowing the more prosaic sisters, who marry and/or go to college, to identify with and exult in the more mysterious and possibly glorious destiny of Legs, who is spotted in an indistinct photo of people around Fidel Castro.
All this is not to say that Oates is writing for young girls or that only girls or women will like or understand the story because it is about female adolescents and there’s no sex in it. All the same, it does raise some interesting questions of literary audience. Much has been written about women’s writing—its inspirations, what aspirations and frustrations it expresses, but less about women’s reading, still less about girls reading, or even children’s reading in general, though Bruno Bettelheim and others have written about its didactic and expressive functions. As in Little Women, lessons of gender are clearly, if covertly, included. Decades ago, girls read stories about spunky Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton, another adventurous girl detective. Outwardly inspiring, these stories were full of admonitory asides dealing with matters of sexual appropriateness. “I like your being a reporter, Horace,” says Judy to her brother.
“There’s so much opportunity. Sometimes I wish I were a boy.”
“And you would be—“
“A detective,” she broke in quickly. “A great one who goes into all kinds of dangers. I wouldn’t mind that—afterwards. There would be that thrill of finding out things.”
Significantly, three pages later, Horace gives Judy a present: “the daintiest, loveliest party dress, and, most wonderful of all, a necklace of blue beads,” with assurances about how it brings out the color of her hair, and “a lovely pair of white satin pumps with sheer stockings to match and, at the very bottom, a crisp dollar bill.” Judy accepts the pretty clothes and the compliments to her appearance, but she rejects the dollar, explaining that she’s “going to sell blackberries and earn my own ticket money,” and moreover is going to ride an obstreperous colt to town to do it. Horace “looked at his daring sister in astonishment.” The reader’s understanding that Judy eventually will accept all the blandishments of someone more appropriate than Horace is implicit, but it need not trouble for the moment. Usually the endings of such stories contain only a ritual nod toward the adult future, for instance by signaling that the protagonist will go off to college in the fall, but tactfully do not take the young hero or heroine very far into the domain of mature reality.
Some feel that girls do not learn from, and on the contrary feel excluded from, “boys’ books,” but in the experience of others, childhood is a period of “genderless” reading. (It did not occur to this writer that she would not be going before the mast until about the age when it probably occurred to my brother that he wouldn’t either—no middle-class children from a rural corn state would likely be going to sea.) Reading Tom Sawyer, any reasonable girl would identify not with Becky but with Tom, for who would want to be the prissy Becky? Do boys, if they happen to read Jane Eyre, identify with the dishonest, fundamentally timid Rochester, or the valiant and spirited child, Jane? Does anyone give boys Jane Eyre? Nobody seems to discuss the oddness of boys being often deterred from reading “girls’ books,” although, I would suppose, the elements in Jane Eyre (or Foxfire), notably female rebellion, that are understood by young girls, would also be understood by boys. In the matter of reading lists, pre-adolescent girls are honorary boys, but boys, apparently, miss out on many great works. Will men, then, be prepared to like Foxfire?
Sometimes if a writer who is a woman writes about female things, this is considered to limit the interest of what she has to say or to rule out male readers (though no one objects when a male author writes from a woman’s point of view—no one thought Tolstoy or Flaubert odd). Nor do people belittle the subject if a woman writes from a man’s point of view, as Oates sometimes does with results that people always find perfectly convincing and engrossing. Always intuitive about the wellsprings of violence and impulse, and the closeness of these things to hope and despair, Oates here has power and humor, the clarity of an allegorist, and the economy of a poet, in a format that risks misunderstanding.4 The stories about Judy Bolton do not interest after the ages of eight or nine; Foxfire may join Catcher in the Rye in the ranks of books on high school reading lists, strenuously objected to by conservatives for its subversive charm, or else be excluded from the sacred canons because it’s about a bunch of young girls.
December 2, 1993
See Simone de Beauvoir’s account in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter of her indignation at Alcott after reading Good Wives, and learning of the perfidious and expedient denouements to which her favorite characters had submitted, pp. 104–105. In the long run, of course, Jo is all that a bookbuying parent could wish, by marrying and buckling down to woman’s work. ↩
Way Past Cool (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992; HarperCollins, 1993), p. 101: “What your prob is, you born bout thirty years too late. Ain’t no more Panthers, my man. Ain’t nobody fightin to make nuthin better. An all them little suckers think it so way fuckin past cool to be endin up dead or spendin their lifes in cages like animals cause they figure it the badge of bein black. Yo. See the joke, man? Them little shits stuck behind bars of whitey’s cage an thinkin that make em bad!” ↩
Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (Oxford University Press, 1993). ↩
Oates herself has noted (Playboy, November 1993, p. 66), “You also don’t say, ‘Hemingway, a male novelist, has written some good books. But people describe women writers in such a way that we are lumped together . My real kinship would be with someone in the realistic-novel category who’s man. But I’m not put in that chapter because I’m a woman.” ↩