The Symbols and Figurative Language in Theft, a Chapter within Joyce Carol Oates Book Marya A Life

Last Updated: 05 Jan 2023
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"Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a severe condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in and alternately take control of an individual. The person also experiences memory loss that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness." American Psychiatric Association. Symbols and figurative language pervade the chapter "Theft" within Joyce Carol Oates's book, "Marya: A Life." Oates uses such devices in a creative manner that, upon deeper analysis, can cue readers into more than the mere story of a fictional schoolgirl. At first glance, "Theft" only portrays a story about Marya's life and her time spent at school. With more concentrated analysis, though, another purpose emerges: Oates is writing this story to assert her own multiple personalities. Three characters in particular reveal Oates's personalities: Marya, who favors being isolated and focused on her education; Imogene, a popular and established young woman; and Phyllis, the broken down and forgotten misfit. These three characters and their associated symbols provide insight about the many personalities Oates experiences during her college years.

Marya Knauer, the main character in "Theft," exhibits the intelligent, often lonely and determined personalities Oates experiences while in college. Initially, Marya establishes herself as somewhat introverted, focusing primarily on her education and much less on social aspects that can accompany college life. Oates writes, "Marya prized her aloneness, her monastic isolation at the top of the house, tucked away in a corner. She could stay up all night if she wished, she could skip breakfast if she wished, she could fall into bed after her morning classes and sleep a heavy drugged sleep for much of the afternoon" (p. 142). When describing Marya's interests, Oates depicts her subpersonality that would rather remain in solitude. While isolated from the outside world, both Oates and Marya dictate what they want to do and exactly when they want to do it. To represent the interference of Oates's other subpersonalities, Oates

implements a distraction to Mayra's solitude by another character, Imogene.

Oates portrays Imogene Skillman as a witty, beautiful, and seemingly “put-together" individual. For much of "Theft," Marya seems to be jealous of Imogene's personal qualities and physical possessions. Oates writes about Imogene's "air of flippancy, carelessness. In fact Imogene was quite intelligent - her swiftness of thought, her skill at repartee, made that clear...... Imogene was always Imogene, always on" (p. 147). This quote reveals Marya's envy for the way Imogene presents herself. Through her wit and intelligence, Imogene makes many friends in her sorority and throughout the college community. Imogene's charisma attracts people towards her, something that Marya cannot accomplish. "Imogene was nearly as tall as Marya, and her gold- gleaming hair and ebullient manner made her seem taller. Beside her, Marya knew herself shabby, undramatic, unattractive..." (pg. 148). Through these quotes, Oates suggests that Marya feels somewhat jealous of Imogene. Based on this suggestion, an inference could be made that perhaps Imogene represents the character Oates longs to be. Imogene's peers perceive her as witty and beautiful. These characteristics, among others, could reveal Oates's own dreams during her College years. Oates develops Imogene's character to illustrate her own ideas and dreams of Oates's personal image of her best possible self.

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While Imogene represents the idea of Oates's best possible self, it seems as if Phyllis's personality represents Oates's worst possible self. At first, the reader learns that Phyllis shows herself as a dedicated college student who receives above-average grades. As the chapter continues, Phyllis becomes overwhelmed with school stress and her family forces her to return home. Just as Phyllis's family members arrive to retrieve Phyllis's belongings from her dorm room, "Marya helped with Phyllis's books and papers, which lay in an untidy heap on her desk and on the floor surrounding the desk. There were dust balls everywhere...An odor of grim

despair....Marya discovered a calculus bluebook slashed heavily in red with the grade of D; a five-page paper... with a blunt red grade of F" (160). Marya learns that Phyllis, who appears as a smart and confident character, had actually been performing poorly in school. With these failures looming, other negative habits arise. For example, while cleaning Phyllis's room, Marya found a few of her own possessions. These possessions included Marya's favorite pen and a check that was stolen from Marya earlier in the chapter. By describing Phyllis's poor grades and issues with theft, Oates creates symbols to convey certain qualities that she fears seeing in herself.

In "Theft", Oates uses many symbols to assert her multiple personalities. These symbols often appear in the form of three different characters: Marya, Imogene, and Phyllis. Marya represents the personality which most resembles Oates at any given moment. Oates describes Marya as a brilliant student who is also slightly introverted. She often excludes herself from her peers in order to complete school work and focus on other individual tasks. Imogene represents the woman Oates longs to be. Imogene focuses less on school, and more on social activities. She participates in a sorority and frequently goes out on dates, despite already being engaged to a successful lawyer. Phyllis, the final personality portrayed by Oates, symbolizes the woman Oates fears becoming. Phyllis leaves school secondary to overwhelming circumstances and engages in immoral theft behaviors. Oates uses all three of these characters to successfully assert her own multiple personalities while also developing symbolic portrayals of her personal hopes and fears. When asked, Oates says she does not have any identity disorder, however, the symbols she uses and the characters developed in "Theft" make her readers believe that Oates may, in fact, have a Dissociative Identity Disorder.

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The Symbols and Figurative Language in Theft, a Chapter within Joyce Carol Oates Book Marya A Life. (2023, Jan 05). Retrieved from

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