Joyce Carol Oates—Mudwoman

A story of a woman full of angst. A woman whom modern, educated women can relate to. But only to some extent.

Meredith Ruth (MR) Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. That alone makes her totally unique. She’s achieved the pinnacle, a plum usually denied women, even those with her background and ambition. But what’s more remarkable about MR is her distant past, a past she has apparently, conveniently, naturally forgotten because it was traumatic.

MR is alive only because she was rescued when she was three years old from the horrific and extraordinary fate of sinking and dying in a pool of mud. She was thrown into it by a crazy mother who believed she was fulfilling the will of God. The title of the book, Mudwoman, obviously derives from this experience.

She’s placed in a chaotic foster home, but fortunately, she’s adopted not long after by a loving couple whose daughter died in childhood. These supportive, Pollyanaish parents help make her the high-achieving, well-respected woman she is at 42. But that is merely the surface.

Underneath the polished, grand exterior is a woman full of doubts. She thinks she’s plain, wonders what it’s like to be a wife instead of alone and single, abandoned for the present by a secret lover who’s married. She acts as she’s expected to by the public, her admirers, and her position as university president. MR feels she has to be nice even when doing so contradicts her own beliefs. 

MR, at the pinnacle of her career, is not happy.  When she finally allows herself to remember her past as a mud child, she falls apart. But she  also acts more true to herself and contrary to expectations.  Her downfall is  liberating.

A New York times review calls this book a psychological horror which Wikipedia says is:

A subgenre of horror literature, film, television, and video games (as a narrative) which relies on the character’s fears and/or abnormal psyche to frighten readers, viewers, or players.

I don’t see Mudwoman in that light. I don’t think its intent is to frighten in the usual way horror movies or fiction do, despite the frequent appearance of the King of Crows (which can be interpreted as a terrorized child’s superstition—the crow is around to protect her). It might sensitize you to your own fears and angst, which are deep- seated and enduring rather than momentary, superficial, and other-directed.

Up to a point, this story is a typical thinking woman’s journey, complete with triumphs and angsty tribulations, in vivid prose that only an author with Ms. Oates’ gifts can write. What sets it apart is the heroine’s origin (rising from mud), which invites parallels to the genesis of man from a lump of clay, coming alive when infused with the breath of God (realized in the nurturing by adoptive parents, perhaps) to live exposed to both good and evil. Mud is symbolic.

Mud as symbolism doesn’t preclude Ms. Oates’ use of mud as a new and shocking device to explain a much-explored trope of women’s fiction—the plight of a strong heroine plagued by her insecurities.

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