Clara felt heavy and hot and sad, imagining already school over in the afternoon and the way she would have to run to get away from the stones and mud balls. She and Ned would both have to run, cutting across muddy fields, with the boys laughing behind them…”White trash!” They were white trash, everybody knew that, and what it meant was that people were going to throw stones: you had to get hit sooner or later. -From A Garden of Earthly Delights, page 47-48-
There are plenty of stones getting thrown in Joyce Carol Oates’ early novel: A Garden of Earthly Delights. The novel centers around the character of Clara, an economically disadvantaged child growing up as part of the dysfunctional Walpole family. Clara is literally born in a ditch at the side of the road – symbolic of her later struggles to rise from the muck of poverty and dysfunction to make something of her life. Clara’s early years are marked by her alcoholic, abusive father who is a Kentucky-born migrant farm worker. Carleton Walpole is a harsh, angry man who moves his family from one encampment to the next, never providing a stable home for any of them.
He turned and shaded his eyes to look back over the camp. He saw now that it was the same camp they’d been coming to for years. Even the smells were the same. Off to the right, down an incline, were two outhouses as always; it would smell violently down there, but the smell would be no surprise. That was the safe thing about these camps: there were no surprises. Carleton took a deep breath and looked out over the campsite, where the sun poured brilliantly down on the clutter; rain-rotted posts with drooping gray clotheslines, abandoned shoes, bottles of glinting red and green, tin cans all washed clean by the rain of many months, boards, rags, broken glass, wire, parts of barrels, and, at either side of the camp, rusted iron pipes rising up out of the ground and topped by faucets. -From A Garden of Earthly Delights, page 58-
Oates’ descriptions are raw, real and depressing – she captures the hopelessness of Clara’s surroundings perfectly. So it is no wonder when Clara meets the much older and charming Lowry, she wastes no time in fleeing from her father and her downtrodden family. Still a child, Clara envisions a life much different from that which her mother lived. She is not discouraged by the seemingly insurmountable challenges she faces, and is not afraid to work hard. She sees Lowry as her knight in shining armor, a man she can rely on. But as with all the men in Clara’s life, Lowry is less than dependable.
If Lowry was in one of his moods, it was like Clara did not exist. Or she was some kind of thing tied to his ankle, or a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, a weight, a burden but not too much of a burden; for Lowry wasn’t the kind of man who endures much of a burden. -From A Garden of Earthly Delights, page 130-
As the novel progresses, the reader watches Clara evolve from a girl with dreams of a home she can call her own, to a woman who is hardened by the world around her. With the impending birth of her son Swan, Clara takes control of her future by falling back on her ability to manipulate others into giving her what she needs.
The day Clara took her life into control was an ordinary day. She did not know up until the last moment exactly how she would bring all those accidents into control, like a driver swerving aside to let a rabbit live or tearing into it and not even bothering to glance back: he might do one or the other and not know a moment before what it would be. -From A Garden of Earthly Delights, page 195-
Clara’s relationship with Revere – a man who offers stability and predictability to her – is developed over the last half of the book. This relationship represents all that Clara’s father was unable to provide, and so it is rimmed with sadness and disappointment. The adult Clara, a woman who sees happiness in the accumulation of wealth, is a hard character to like. She hides behind the lie that everything she does is done for Swan – her only son. And yet her behavior is solely narcissistic and tinged with childishness. Swan is a tragic figure, a boy cut loose from his “roots” and unsure about where he fits in society. His moral decline is almost predictable, and yet still stuns the reader.
Originally written in 1966 (the first novel in the Wonderland Quartet), A Garden of Earthly Delights was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1968. Oates rewrote it in 2002 for publication by the Modern Library. She writes:
As a composer can hear music he can’t himself play on any instrument, so a young writer may have a vision he or she can’t quite execute; to feel something, however deeply, is not the same as possessing the power – the craft, the skill, the stubborn patience – to translate it into formal terms.
In rewriting her novel, Oates discovered some autobiographical elements to which she had previously been unaware – her own upbringing on a struggling family farm, her youthful exposure to stories about her paternal grandfather (a violent alcoholic named Carlton), the crude language of her childhood which was accepted as commonplace, and the similarity of the name Clara to that of Oates’ mother Carolina. In the rewritten version, Oates attempts to examine her characters more thoroughly so that the reader can ‘experience them intimately, from the inside.‘
A Garden of Earthly Delights is not so much about what happens to a young girl raised in poverty and abuse, but is more about the awful gap between social classes. It is about a young girl who must confront her past in order to move into her future. And it is about survival, as well as about those who do not survive. Oates writes:
The trajectory of social ambition and social tragedy dramatized by the Walpoles seems to me as relevant to the twenty-first century as it had seemed in the late 1960s, not dated but bitterly enhanced by our current widening disparity between social classes in America. Haves and have-nots is too crude a formula to describe this great subject, for as Swan Walpole discovers, to have and not to be, is to have lost one’s soul.
This is not an enjoyable book. It is harsh, shocking, and tragic. Dreary and depressing at times, this is a novel not always easy to read. And yet Oates writes with a beauty that is hard to deny. Her ability to uncover the soul of her characters is amazing. Readers who enjoy strong literary novels with tragic characters, will want to read this book. Those who are offended by foul language (Oates does not temper her dialogue) or dislike stories centered around dysfunctional families, will probably not like A Garden of Earthly Delights.