Joyce Carol Oates – Happy


Joyce Carol Oates has been born in 1938 and is still a famous American writer. With a reputation for prolificness – she wrote some fifty-four novels and thirty-one short story collections, just to give an example - Oates has been one of the leading American novelists since the 1960s.

Her short fiction “Happy” was published as a component within the collection “Raven’s Wing” in 1986.

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·         Interpretation, additional remarks

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Short Short Stories Universal: Thirty Stories from the English-speaking World - Reingard M. Nischik


Die short-story ist der Kurzgeschichtensammlung „Short Short Stories Universal: Thirty Stories from the English-speaking World” von Reingard M. Nischik entnommen. In diesem Buch finden Sie viele spannende Kurzgeschichten aus Kanada, Neuseeland, den USA, Afrika, Großbritannien, Indien, Australien und der Karibik.



Martin Averv: Mini-Marts

Margaret Atwood: Murder in the dark

Carol Shields: Pardon

Michael Bullock: The Head

Stephen Leacock: My Financial Career

Katherine Mansfield: Carnation

Keri Hulme: Planetesimal

Ernest Hemingway: Banal Story

Jovce Carol Oates: Happy

Graca Palev: Mother

Donald Barthelmt: The Baby

Richard Brautigan: Holiday'in Germanl'

Alice Childress: The Health Card

John Updike: Pygmalion

Maxine Hong Kingstorr: On Discovery

Nadine Gordimer: A Lion on the Freeway

Graham Oreene The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen

Joyce Cary: A Special Occasion

David Lodge: Guess What Happened?

John B. Keane: Of Cats and Cuckoos

Bernard MacLaverty: A Rat and Some Renovations

Virginia Woolf: A Haunted House

Manoj Das: Encounters

Sunita Jain: Fly the Friendly Skies


Alan Marshall: Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo

Jane Hyde: Caught

Jamaica Kincaid: Girl

Jean Rhys: I used to live here once


In this material, the short story “Happy” by Joyce Carol Oates will be analyzed. This short fiction was published as a component of the collection “Raven’s Wing” in 1986.

In the beginning of an interpretation, it is important to start with an introductory sentence, which should contain the following general information: name of the author, title of the text and the literary genre.  

As an abstract, the short story is about a girl coming home for Christmas and meeting her mother’s new husband for the first time. Although her mother seems to be happy, the girl stays quiet and impassive most of the time. She seems to observe the happy couple as if she does not trust her mother’s happiness. In a way, her mother and her stepfather to be celebrate themselves by having a few drinks, still the girl stays unemotional. In the end the stepfather states that he is absolutely happy and in love with her mother and that he wants the girl to know that. 

It is useful to explain in a few sentences what the short story is about. After that, one should analyze the short story step by step in a more detailed way.

So far, the abstract reflects the plot of the story. But although there are not many things taking place and no complex plot is given, there is a hidden story below the surface. It seems as if the narrator actually tells a story about a girl “slipping inexorably, and against her will, into the sexual hold of her new stepfather over both her and her aging mother.”[1] Oates indicates this by creating a subconscious disposition while reading the text. The short fiction does not depict obvious gothic features like darkness, death, terror, castles and ghosts, or decay – just to mention a few. Nevertheless it brings up a subconscious and deeper feeling of anxiety, mysteriousness, and threat. Therefore, in a way, it subscribes itself in the recurrent dusky discourse of Raven’s Wing. Like all the other stories within this collection, this text “maintains the extraordinary standard Joyce Carol Oates has set for herself throughout a quarter of a century. She continues here to explore ever more deeply the mysteries and varieties of American experience.”[2] Although, “Happy” is not dominated by violence, it is important to know that “[Oates] typically portrays American individuals whose intensely experienced and obsessive lives end in bloodshed and self-destruction owing to larger forces beyond their control. Her books blend a realistic treatment of everyday life with horrific and even sensational depictions of violence.”[3] This let the behaviour of the stepfather and the reaction of the girl appear in a different light. In a lot of her works Oates focuses on “the emotional complexity of human relationships”[4], while she especially intends to highlight the “view of the mysterious, volatile, and disorienting power of love.”[5] “Happy” stands for Oates’ “linkage of feminine desire and the horrific.”[6]  

This paragraph foreshadows the possible intentions of the author by looking below the surface of the story. Furthermore, it gives background information about Oates as a writer and her strong leaning towards the dark side of life. This will be important for the analysis of the story.

The point of narration emphasizes this subconscious feeling even more. The heterodiegetic narrator is omniscient, although he mainly focuses on the girl, so that it almost seems as if the girl is telling the story on her own. But the narrator hardly reveals feelings or thoughts of the characters. Apparently, he just tells the things happening - the plot. But considering his way of telling the story, it becomes obvious that this reveals a lot of the character’s feelings without explicitly mentioning them. By referring to the characters with “the girl” (p. 47, l. 3), “her mother” (p. 46, l. 3) and “her mother’s new husband” (p. 46, ll. 5f.), the narrator makes clear that it could be anyone else. In this way they stay anonymous. The special focus on ‘the girl’ is made by relating the mother and the new stepfather – every time they are mentioned – to ‘the girl’. Like the girl, they do not have names, but furthermore they are just “her” (p. 46, l. 3) mother and “her” (p. 46, ll. 5f.) mother’s new husband. Within this determination, there is also a kind of graduation. Already the length of the description reveals how close the person is related to the protagonist. Therefore “her mother’s new husband” (ibid.) seems to be very far away, which comes along with a certain neglect and distance. This parallels the relationship between ‘the girl’ and ‘her mother’s new husband’. The expression for her new stepfather is distant, unemotional, and almost cold. The behaviour of the girl mirrors this as well.

This paragraph focuses on the point of view. It reveals furthermore that the ‘names’ of the characters say a lot about the story itself.

By telling the story from the girl’s point of view, the reader gets to know something about her attitude towards her new stepfather and the whole situation. She already experiences the meeting at the airport as unsettling. The choice of words causes a feeling of uneasiness. The hug of her mother is described as “hard” (p. 46, l. 5) and the description of the handshake with her stepfather is almost depicted in a dramatic way: “In his handshake her hand felt small and moist, the bones close to cracking” (p. 46, ll. 9f.). Especially this description seems to be significant for the whole text. Already here, the girl feels small and kind of subordinated, as if her stepfather sets her under pressure. The stepfather is surrounded by a certain, hardly describable thread. But the stepfather is not the only reason for this sinister atmosphere. The sideburns of her stepfather are “razorsharp” (p. 46, ll. 7f.), the new ring of her mother is “spiky” (p. 46, l. 17), her mother obviously becomes older, which is shown in the facts that the “veins in her arms [are] ropier [and] the arms themselves thinner” (p. 46, ll. 11-13). Besides, this is slightly related to the gothic concept of morbidity. All these little things make the girl saying “very little, murmuring ‘Yes’, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I suppose so’” (p. 47, ll. 21f.). She does not really interact with her mother and her stepfather. She seems to think about something else. While the mother is talking about her happiness, she is “too embarrassed to reply” (p. 47, ll. 24f.), which reveals her uneasiness. But neither her mother nor her stepfather seem to notice anything.   



In this paragraph, Oates choice of words is considered because it contributes to the uneasy feeling of the daughter.

The ‘parents-to-be’ are lost in each other so that they do not notice the uneasiness of the daughter, whereas their love emphasizes the daughter’s uncomfortableness. For the daughter there seems to be a contradiction between the process of aging and sexuality. The aging mother is “sexually rejuvenated by a late marriage to a sixtyish second husband.”[7] This is mirrored in the new awareness of her body. Although the mother obviously gets older – as mentioned before - she takes care about herself, she dresses up and makes herself up: “The pancake makeup on her face was a fragrant peach shade that had been blended skillfully into her throat. On her left hand she wore her new ring: a small glittering diamond set high in spiky white-gold prongs (p. 46, ll. 14-17).” The mother behaves like a teenager in love, when drinking “soda with a twist of lime” (p. 46, l. 19) or “martinis on the rocks” (p. 47, l. 1), while “giggling” (p. 47, l. 11) and underlining that this is “fancy” (p. 46, l. 19). The enumeration “at dinner they were in high spirits again, laughing a good deal, holding hands between courses, sipping form each other’s tall frosted bright-colored tropical drinks” (p. 49, ll. 12-15) underlines this.[8]

Furthermore the sexual atmosphere becomes obvious when the “waitress in a tight-fitting black satin outfit” (p. 47, ll. 13f.) brings the mother and the mother’s new husband two more martinis and the new husband calls her “sweetheart” (p. 47, l.15). In every kind of description, physicalness plays on outstanding role. The female black singer wears a “V-necked red spangled dress” (p. 48, ll. 1f.), which actually does not have any further importance for the plot. Nevertheless it is highlighted. All the glittering things seem to distract the reader from the actual menacing situation. They fit in the typical American Christmas decoration, whereas the mother and her new husband represent the love Christmas is always connected to. But the glittering and shining objects can not only be interpreted as symbols for sexuality, moreover, they could be seen in contrast to the mysterious and menacing feeling of the girl. As the symbols of love, they come along with the title “Happy”. The jewellery is the expression of this new love, especially the ring. So, they are expressions of their happiness and therefore they resent the sinister feeling of the girl. Apart from that, even the background music seems to contribute to the sexual atmosphere. After all, Hoagy Carmichael stands for jazz-music, wrote pop songs and a lot of ‘cuddly’ love songs.

The only person described in a detailed way, but without sexual allusions, is the comedian. She is described in an almost snide way: “a young woman, about twenty-six, small bony angular face, no makeup, punk hairdo, dark brown, waxed, black fake-leather jumpsuit, pelvis thrust forward in mock-Vogue-model stance” (p. 48, ll. 2-5). Although she does not fit in this sexual atmosphere, her appearance nevertheless seems to break through the surface of the story. It is obvious that the story does not contain a closed happy world. Moreover there is something bothering. Thus, it is not surprising that the new husband comments this comedian in a snide way: “afterward her other’s new husband confided he did not approve of dirty language, issuing from women’s lips, whether they were dykes or not” (p. 49, ll. 4-6). Here the authority of the new husband becomes clear. He decides what women do or not.

In this paragraph, the connection between the uneasiness of the daughter and the sexual atmosphere is described. This foreshadows the analysis of the ending scene.

Right from the beginning the new stepfather seems to contribute to the sexual atmosphere. He “immediately insinuates his stepdaughter into his newfound sexual domain.”[9] The narrative girl “is immediately frightened by the debilitating physical effects this whirlwind romance and second marriage has produced in her mother. The brute physicality of her stepfather’s handshake and both mother’s and stepfather’s assertions that all three of them know and understand exactly what he has done for the narrator’s mother terrify the narrator”[10]: “Jesus, she said, it just makes me so happy, having the two people I love most in the world right here with me. Right here right now” (p. 47, ll. 11-13). Oates succeeds in using similes to reveal the stepfather’s influence on the girl’s mother, when reporting her mother’s expressions “He makes me feel like living again, I feel, you know, like a woman again” (p. 47, ll. 23f.).

In the end, the thread grows even more acute: “Jesus, I’m crazy about that woman, her mother’s new husband told the girl when her mother was in the powder room. Your mother is a high-class lady, he said; he shifted his cane chair closer, leaned moist and warm, meaty, against her, an arm across her shoulders. There’s nobody in the world precious to me as that lady […]” (p. 49, ll. 15-20). This reveals the “horror of mother-daughter relationships when man claim sexual rights and control over their second wife, and extend these rights to their wives’ grown children.”[11] While her mother is away, the danger embodied by her stepfather comes “closer” (p. 49, l. 18). Finally, it is even more perceptible for the reader within the last lines of “Happy”, when the stepfather is as closest as he can get: “I want you to know that, he said, and the girl said, Yes, I know it, and her mother’s new husband said in a fierce voice close to tears, Damn right, sweetheart: you know it” (p. 49, ll. 20-23).

Here the last scene of the story is analyzed. It represents the climax of the thread embodied by the new stepfather.

So the title of the story illustrates a contrast to the ‘hidden’ story. Although, superficially the story is about the new happiness of her mother because she has a new husband and is deeply in love with him, the girl sees a dark side of this love-story. She seems to feel threatened by her stepfather. The title “Happy” is repeated several times throughout the text (p. 46, ll. 11, 13; p. 47, ll. 12, 25), but the girl does not share this happiness. The choice of words and several other stylistic devices underline this impression.

The short fiction “seems explicitly a story about the imposition of masculine knowledge on the feminine mind and body. Oates’[…] feminist Gothicism lies not only in the threatening sexuality of the rapacious stepfather, but in all three of the story’s characters recognition […] that need, sexual desire and happiness in contemporary American culture is so narrowly defined in masculine terms that satisfaction, contentment and happiness in certain American families implies incestuous authority.”[12]

With these last words, spoken “in a fierce voice” (p. 49, l. 22), “Happy” makes clear that it belongs to the volume “Raven’s Wing” published in 1986. The raven is a black-feathered bird, eating carrion and carcasses, its voice raucous and throaty and therefore within living memory representing the ‘evil’, the incarnation of death. So, one could say that this short story – although it is hidden – also takes place below the “Raven’s Wing”. “Damn right, sweetheart: you know it” (p. 49, l. 3) – “the last defiant words of this short-short story, spoken as the law of the father […], in a voice close to tears, is both promise and thread. The phrase is recorded through the nervous system of a young woman, pleased for her mother’s happiness at feeling like a woman again, but horrified by her parents’ aging, haggard appearance, and, apparently, a sensibility without a will or the force to know what should constitute her own mental and physical happiness. […] The phrases ‘I want you to know,’ ‘I know it,’ and ‘you know it,’ in the final paragraph signify what is to be this family’s learning curve. Father knows best, and mother and daughter will suffer for it.”[13]

After having analyzed the short story, it is important to summarize the whole story and tell what the work is about and what the intention of the author could have been.

[1] Wayne Stengel. “The Feminine Consciousness as Nightmare in the Short-Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates.” In: The Postmodern Short Story. Forms and Issues. Farhat Iftekharuddin, Joseph Boyden, Mary Rohrberger, Jaie Claudet (Ed.). Praeger Publishers: Westport, 2003. p. 86.


[4] Joanne V. Creighton. Joyce Carol Oates. Twayne Publishers: New York, 1979. p. 113.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wayne Stengel. “The Feminine Consciousness as Nightmare in the Short-Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates.” In: The Postmodern Short Story. Forms and Issues. Farhat Iftekharuddin, Joseph Boyden, Mary Rohrberger, Jaie Claudet (Ed.). Praeger Publishers: Westport, 2003. pp. 88f.

[8] Cf.

[9] Wayne Stengel. “The Feminine Consciousness as Nightmare in the Short-Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates.” In: The Postmodern Short Story. Forms and Issues. Farhat Iftekharuddin, Joseph Boyden, Mary Rohrberger, Jaie Claudet (Ed.). Praeger Publishers: Westport, 2003. p. 89.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 89f.