In Beasts, Oates explores the underbelly of a common before-bed/during-class fantasy: that of being seduced, admired, respected by a professor. In this case the greasy yet intoxicating Professor Andre Harrow is joined in his frequent seductions by his part French wife, Dorcus, a jealous green parrot, and a host of date-rape drugs. Oates chooses as her protagonist a modern Philomela, who cannot speak because a man has cut out her tongue, yet who gains freedom and adulthood through an apposite revenge.
Oates uses a frame story and first person narrative to create distance between the reader and truth. She leaves just the right amount of mystery, the right amount of questions never answered: who sets the fires? did Mr. Harrow love his girls? are seduction and submission synonymous?
Currently, I am trying to read books by women authors; I have found most of my favorites are men, and I’ve decided it’s from lack of exposure to ecriture feminine. One can certainly tell that a woman wrote this novella. But what is it that makes that so? Is it the subject matter? Sex. Drugs. Seduction. A young woman’s coming-of-age. Is it the writing style? Emotive. Referential. Tight.
Helene Cixous would be proud. Oates writes from the body; she writes about the body; her subject matter is the body. The woman’s body is her body of work—whether sculptural or poetic or danced or slit. One could discount this text as merely a perfect midnight snack of a novella. To those, I would suggest rereading it in glaring morning sunshine on a full stomach.