Synopses & Reviews
Joyce Carol Oatess Wonderland Quartet comprises four remarkable novels that explore social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. In A Garden of Earthly Delights
, Oates presents one of her most memorable heroines, Clara Walpole, the beautiful daughter of Kentucky-born migrant farmworkers. Desperate to rise above her haphazard existence of violence and poverty, determined not to repeat her mothers life, Clara struggles for independence by way of her relationships with four very different men: her father, a family man turned itinerant laborer, smoldering with resentment; the mysterious Lowry, who rescues Clara as a teenager and offers her the possibility of love; Revere, a wealthy landowner who provides Clara with stability; and Swan, Claras son, who bears the psychological and spiritual burden of his mothers ambition.
A masterly work from a writer with “the uncanny ability to give us a cinemascopic vision of her America” (National Review), A Garden of Earthly Delights is the opening stanza in what would become one of the most powerful and engrossing story arcs in literature.
A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first novel in the Wonderland Quartet. The books that complete this acclaimed series, Expensive People, them, and Wonderland, are also available from the Modern Library.
"The new version condenses the passages that were most overwritten, and her characters' voices are...more colorful. Oates also improves the pacing....[But] parts of this [revision] swoon into...the structurally perfect yet self-absorbed style of graduate workshop writing....If you can push through the cement-thick voice of the first 100 pages, you will find that she tells a gem of a tale." Sarah Cypher, The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"If the phrase 'woman of letters' existed, she would be, foremost in this country, entitled to it." John Updike
For this new edition, Oates has rewritten and revised three-fourths of her novel. In her Afterword she writes about revisiting a novel originally penned at the age of 26.
About the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. She is the author of numerous works of fiction and poetry, as well as books of essays, criticism, and plays. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
The Modern Library 20th Century Rediscoveries is a new series six books a year, one every other month of rediscovered novels from the last century, restored to print in handsome trade paper editions ideal for "New in Paperback" tables and reading groups.
Reading Group Guide
1. By focusing on the stories of Carleton, Clara, and Swan, Oates allows her readers to become intimately familiar with three of A Garden of Earthly Delights
s characters. Which character do you most empathize with and why?
2. In your opinion, why is Carleton indifferent to most of his children and what makes him particularly fond of his beloved Clara?
3. How are migrant workers stigmatized in the text and how do the Walpoles both conform to and break away from these stereotypes?
4. Lowry and Claras relationship begins rather unusually. What did you make of Lowry when he first appeared in Claras life? How did your perception of him change later in the novel?
5. A Garden of Earthly Delights chronicles the lives of characters who are haunted by their individual pasts and by the pasts of their ancestors. What examples of this can you find in the text?
6. The parent-child relationship is central to the novel: sometimes the intimacy between a mother and child mimics that usually found between a husband and wife; at other points in the novel, romantic relationships in the novel take on a peculiar father-daughter dynamic. Discuss this blurring of boundaries in Claras various relationships with men.
7. Oates reveals, “To Clara, a mans love was no sign of his strength but rather of his weakness, something you wanted from him but then had to feel a little sorry about taking.” In several instances in the text, love is explicitly described as a weakness. Discuss how this theme is subtly weaved throughout the text.
8. Oates describes Claras frustration at her lack of education by saying, “Clara was thinking: if she could read better-if she could write-if she didnt have to struggle so with words, things would come easier for her. There were times when an idea brushed her mind, but she couldnt seize it. Like a butterfly fluttering out of her reach.” What role does the thirst for knowledge play in Claras life and later in the life of her son Swan?
9. Oates explains why Swan suddenly loses interest in reading and learning in the following lines: “All knowledge is a drug, Swan believed. And all drugs can be addictive. He would fight it. He knew how. Hed isolated it-this sensation as of imminent helplessness-as the way I which a fetus grows in its mothers belly: tiny head taking form, tiny arms, legs, torso, fish-body becoming human, sucking its energy from the encasing flesh and growing, always growing.” Discuss the characters in the novel and their struggles against helplessness or various forms of addiction.
10. When Clark confides in his stepmother about Jonathans problematic behavior, Clara misses the point, saying, “Im sorry to hear this, Clark. I…like Jonathan….I think he likes me…” What does her response reveal about her character and her relationship to the Revere family (of which she is now a part)?
11. A lack of choices and opportunities is usually connected to poverty, as evident in the beginning of the novel. However, in several instances, Swan records his frustration at being a member of the Revere family, where “nothing is left to chance” and “the only way out of it was the way Robert had gone, by accident, or Jonathan had taken on purpose.” Discuss why Swan, who, through has mothers marriage, has acquired prestige, an education, and wealth, feels trapped by his newfound position in society.
12. What draws Clara and Judd together and how is Claras relationship with Judd different from her relationship with other men in her life?
13. Oates discusses Swans reluctance to form intimate relationships, “Swan understood then that he could not talk to her (Loretta) and if he tried he would only disturb her. He could not talk to his mother either, and of course not to his father, and never to Clark and never to his teachers, and it made sense that he could not now talk to Loretta…” Describe Swans growing feelings of isolation from others that begin in his childhood and culminate in his final act of violence.
14. In her Afterword, Oates explains that “though such terms as ‘victims of abuse —‘abuse survivors-are clichés at the present time, they did not exist in the era of A Garden of Earthly Delights. It was not uncommon in certain quarters for men to beat their families and remain morally as well as legally blameless; though sexual harassment, sexual molestation, and rape may have been commonplace, the vocabulary to define them was not, and it would have been a rare case reported, and a yet rarer case taken seriously by the police.” In the light of this knowledge, how do you think the readers reception of this novel upon its original publication in 1966 was different from that of todays reader?