Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Mastiff” was originally published in the July 1, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Trevor

A man and a woman, uncertain in their couple status, are out for a hike. When the story begins, they pass a massive dog, pulling its master along the trail. The woman is grateful they go a different direction, and the story becomes an internal consideration of the couple’s thoughts and feelings about relationships and about each other, the danger of the ferocious dog just outside consciousness.

It’s interesting that the man, whose name is Simon, is always referred to as “the man,” by both the narrator and the woman. Similarly, the woman, whose name is Mariella, is always known as “the woman.” They’ve had sex, but the narrator notes that “they were not yet intimate.” Everything feels more like a rehearsal for the real thing. Despite moments of joy, they each have major hangups, and as the hike continues we don’t really think they’re going to last long.

Mostly, it feels that each is in this relationship because, at this late stage of life, they feel that perhaps it would be best to settle. The woman, at forty-one years old, “wanted a relationship tha seemed mature, if not old and settled, from the start.” The man, a scientist who is, so the woman suspects, quite a bit older, finds most of his comfort at work. He’s not sure he’s ever been in love.

Joyce Carol Oates is wonderful at revealing their insecurities and vulnerabilities they’d rather keep covered, and we feel the tension as the hike continues. The woman wonders, with more and more force, whether the man is capable of caring for her at all. He wonders the same thing:

The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her. He hoped to like her more than he did — he hoped to adore her. He had been very lonely for too long and had come to bitterly resent the solitude of his life.

As we might expect, the couple runs into the big dog again, and it leads the woman to reevaluate her role in their relationship. When once she resented the fact that he followed her closely down the mountain because he “wanted to watch over the woman, whom he didn’t trust not to hurt herself,” by the end of the story she thinks, “In their relationship, the man would always be the stronger; she would resent his superior strength, yet she would be protected by it. She might defy it, but she would not oppose it.” This, in turn, leads her to crave the relationship, even though the man’s breathing is wet and heavy like a big dog.

It seems a bit on the nose.

I’m still trying to figure out whether I liked this story. I can certainly say that I enjoyed it and Joyce Carol Oates shows again that a healthy dose of telling rather than showing can be as invigorating and captivating as the best show-don’t-tell moments. I’m genuinely at a loss, though, as to whether the story is saying much more than what is standing out on the surface. I hoped that skimming through it again in the process of writing this post would help, but it hasn’t. My favorite aspect is the refusal to see the characters as more than “the man” or “the woman” and how that relates to their own thoughts about their relationship. Other than that, it held my interest but didn’t, in the end, deliver much.

Happily waiting for your comments to help me see more.

Betsy

Trevor, your invitation to disagree with you regarding “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates interests me very much! I believe you wondered if anyone thought the story would stick. For me, I feel sure it will.

But a warning for the rest of you: read this wonderful story first — otherwise I will give away too much.

First of all, I thought the mastiff-owner double image worked very well. There is the suggestion of rape in the language that describes the pair. The young man’s calves “bulged” with muscle, and his dog has “bulging, glassy eyes.” The dog is massive, and Oates specifically says the dog’s “long, large tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber.” To further the sense of sexual assault and menace, Oates insists that the dog’s “breathing was damply audible, unsettling,” an intensified intimation of inappropriate intrusion. The animal wheezes and pants. That the young man in the hoodie who is its owner runs away after the attack furthers the sense of rape.

The mastiff-owner pair also mesh with the two main characters. Like the trail, they circle round and round each other. The man and woman are in the sunlight, while the dog and its owner are lying in wait, so to speak, until dark, past the time when the sun has set “like a broken bloody egg.”

Oates has given the story a neat structure, with the dog-owner assaulting us first, middle, and last in the story. During the attack, we fear that either the man or woman or both will die as a result. What works extremely well for me is the story’s last paragraph. Although the man is in the hospital, they have survived the attack, and the woman has a flashback:

To her horror, she realized she was hearing a panting sound, a wet-chuffing breath, somewhere beside her, or below her on the trail, in the gathering dusk, waiting.

The woman, Mariella, realizes that being safe in the hospital is not the end of it; death is always in the wings, waiting. The horror of this mirrors the uncertainties of commitment and at the same time makes commitment a necessity.

The story awakens in me memories of two encounters with mastiffs – one when I was hiking alone on Mount Norwottuck, a popular park in the Holyoke Range. I had the distinct sense of threat, and I knew the owner of the dog was aware of how I felt. Why else would a person take a mastiff up Norwottuck? You can’t help it — a brush with a mastiff feels like a brush with death. Death by dog is not unheard of in the United States. Recently, a woman jogger was killed in California by dogs, and was, in fact, the fifth person to be killed by dogs in California in the past two years.

But the story also awakens in me the memory of myth: a three-headed dog was stationed at the edge of the Greek underworld, its purpose to prevent anyone escaping back to life.

The image of the mastiff and his owner would be merely a parlor trick, just a horror story, except that Oates uses it to talk about human vulnerability and fear of commitment and its unknowns. In a way, the mastiff and its owner are like a pair in a marriage: at any moment one may bolt on the other. That is just a fact of life.

Parallel to the dog attack in “Mastiff” is the struggle both Mariella and Simon are having with themselves and each other and the fact that marriage — or commitment — requires surrender to a state of vulnerability.

Mariella herself hates to feel vulnerable; even a backpack makes her feel “burdened”; she carries the vulnerability her run-away father created in her like a burden. When she looks at Simon, she thinks, “how self-contained . . . how maddening!” She is troubled by the way Simon creates in her an impossible situation of simultaneously opposing emotions: “At times, [Mariella] quite liked his air of authority; at other times, she resented it.”

Throughout, Oates refers to Mariella as “the woman” and Simon as “the man,” and Oates openly refers to a man-woman issue — that men are generally physically stronger than women. “She would resent his superior strength, yet she would be protected by it. She might defy it, but she wouldn’t oppose it.” Later, she realizes that a man’s strength might ebb away, and that her task might be to help him. I am touched by this. My husband is 70, and his strength amazes me. Mariella’s thoughts on the topic of strength interest me.

At its crux, the story poses the idea that surrendering to another person feels threatening — as if the surrender is a loss, or as if the surrender has been mandated by an attack, or as if the surrender might actually be a rape. When this story begins, “Technically, the man and the woman were ‘lovers,’ but they were not yet intimate.” That is, they have not yet reached a point where they would surrender to swearing to protect each other, or risking that they might hurt each other, or both. The moment the man risks his life to save the woman is the same one as when the woman carries the man to help. This is intimacy — the saving.

I have to say here that one of the ways the story feels powerful to me is the way the dog-owner pair and the couple of lovers are wedded to each other: two faces of the human condition of commitment.

Finally, though, (and this is where you and I, Trevor, may really part company) Oates talks to me woman to woman about what it is to be a woman and to choose to surrender to a man. Oates, being Oates, poses it as a dangerous operation. She says, “In the new man’s company, the woman felt a rare hopefulness.” And on that promise, she decides to choose to love him. That is just magnificent. Falling in love is one thing. Choosing to love is another.

Woman to woman, there is another aspect of the story that fascinates me: the flashback. The act of choosing to love is one that must be made over and over, and it’s always in dangerous territory. It’s a “task,” a “duty” of love, and it’s made in spite of, or because of, the dark breath of death that waits just below you on the trail. There they are, safe in the hospital, Mariella can hear the man’s wet breathing, and then in a moment, what she hears is the panting of the waiting dog of death. I liked that, though I know you felt it to be too neat, Trevor. I just liked all the ways the story insisted that being human is being alive in spite of being in the midst of death and threat.

I also couldn’t read this story without being reminded of Oates’s memoir from 2010 in the New Yorker, “A Widow’s Story.” In that account, she remembers a car accident in which she and her husband almost died, but didn’t, and which occasioned such treasuring of each other afterwards. And yet, she admits, their marriage wasn’t perfect (her husband never read her novels). As she says in her interview this week in Page Turner, people are imperfect.

Curiously, a writer also has the strange proposition of having to surrender to her reader. The reader may refuse to read the work altogether, like Oates’s husband. Or the reader may willfully misunderstand or even attack what the writer has written, as did Janet Maslin and Julian Barnes when they reviewed the book version of A Widow’s Story. (They thought Oates broke her contract with her readers when she didn’t admit she had re-married before she finished the book. She offered an appendix in the next printing. But, in a way, “Mastiff” answers them. She tells of a man and woman newly aware of their own separate loneliness, and tells how it only took them seven weeks to know that the moment of commitment was at hand.)

In the Page-Turner interview with Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Treisman remarks, “There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about the notion of likability in fictional characters — and whether female writers are under pressure to consider it more than male writers are.”

Oates replies that we are all flawed and imperfect, and that she can “identify with — all sorts of people.”

I find this question, and Oates’s answer, really interesting. Isn’t the question less that we dislike characters who are unlikable and more that we dislike characters who are unbelievable?

In this case, Treisman indicates that she finds Mariella unlikable.

But to me, Mariella is compelling because she is so believable. What I find believable is that it matters to her to know that she can choose to love Simon. The circumstances make Mariella and her choice all the more believable — that she and Simon have both been threatened by a strange conjunction of evil, accident and possible death. Within that conjunction, they can see this possibility: that they have it in them to survive if they submit to the uncertainties and frictions and dangers of a relationship, if they can choose to save each other.

I very much like “Mastiff” and thank Joyce Carol Oates for writing it. So yes, Trevor, I do think the story sticks. But that may have more to do with me being a woman, and also with me being closer than you to the dog that guards the underworld — close enough I can hear it panting.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2013-06-25T18:09:10+00:00June 24th, 2013|Categories: Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker Fiction|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Julie July 1, 2013 at 12:11 am

    “The woman, Mariella, realizes that being safe in the hospital is not the end of it; death is always in the wings waiting. The horror of this mirrors the uncertainties of commitment and at the same time makes commitment a necessity.”
    That’s gorgeously said, Betsy, and really brought the story together for me. Thank you.

  2. Dan Madeley July 1, 2013 at 1:47 am

    The story made me feel kind of despairing. It’s so awfu, so pathetic, really, to be in one’s forties (as I am) and to be, in essence, not much further along the road, relationship-wise, than your average teen-ager, trying to make it work but full of self doubt and over thinking everything. The only difference is, unlike teenagers, these people don’t have all the years ahead for trial and error, falling in and out of love and hopefully finding happiness. No, they’re trudging up a hill on a trip neither one particularly wants to be on. Ten they’re “over the hill” and on the way back down (thankfully! This tedious and humiliating trip is finally winding down!). But then, of course, life doesn’t care about your mental preparedness, or your age. Actually it’s not even like that, not even kind enough to be indifferent
    The older you are, the more- not less- likely it is that something horrible will happen. And that’s what I liked about this bleak story. The dog attack seems like such a horrible, merciless thing to happen to these poor souls. And in the end, the woman realizes that, if she wonders what life is, she needn’t wonder any longer. A brutal attack and a chilvorous and heroic act is an amazing, fantastical thing. And in the end, she is completely lost, unsure what to think, unsure what to feel. When decades have chipped away at the hopefull anticipation for love, until rubble is all that’s left. And the city health inspector sends you a notice that it’s your responsibility to remove the rubble or face a fine for the health hazard that surrounds you. Even then, and forever after, it will never be too late for devastating tragedy to strike, until it does for the final time.

    Iread this knowing of the grief Oates went through recently, so maybe that influenced my dark reading of the piece.

  3. Dan Madeley July 1, 2013 at 2:27 am

    To add, it struck me as a kind of ironic, “knight in shining armor” piece. What this guy did was the the stuff of medieval legends. But these people are middle aged. And their relationship is far from an idealized young love. So, I think that causes the reader to reflect on the complicated feelings the woman must be feeling, there at the hospital.. Grateful that he saved her life, concern for his injuries, guilt for taking him for granted, perhaps. But at the same time she can’t help but feel how odd it all is, such a heroic, self sacrificing act by the middle aged man she probably doesn’t even call her “boyfriend” or “partner”. Must be quite a lot to get her head around and consider what, exactly, it all means. And why is it happening now?

  4. Betsy July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Julie, thanks. And Dan, seeing Simon as a knight strikes me as right, knights being, in the end, required to assume terrifying responsibilities. Simon is a scholar but at this moment he is knightly: strong and fearless and immediate in a time of need.

    What an interesting question, Dan: why is it all happening now? I think Oates answers it – she says that Simon has noticed something is missing; she says that Mariella would like to “be married”. As if a gift of being 40 is seeing things differently.

    I am curious about how this story strikes people in comparison with other work by Oates. It feels strange, but not alien, violent, but not hopeless.

  5. Roger July 3, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    I admire how Oates in the end collapses the aural “image” of the mastiff’s panting, Simon’s breathing, and the fearful sensation of lurking death. Trevor and Betsy, I believe you both were struck by that combination, too, though I can understand where Trevor is coming from by experiencing the story as too on-the-nose. To me, the quality of Oates’s writing at the sentence level enables her to get away with that three-part combination without my feeling as if she’d just tried to pull an obvious trick. That last sentence, with its evocation of a landscape that is beautiful but fragile (like “paper-mache”) is so amazing that I can’t help but feel the dramatic power of what that breathing signifies. Oates’s craft elevates the last line into art, something a lesser writer would have a much harder time achieving.

    As moving as the ending is, I’m just the slightest troubled by the notion of Mariella “choosing” to love Simon as a result of his chivalrous act. Admirable though that act was, I’m troubled because I’d felt Mariella’s annoyance with Simon’s patronizing behavior earlier, his insistence that she drink the water and his sharp comment about talking to strangers. Felt it and felt it was justified. But I’m only troubled enough to make the story more interesting to me, as I can both believe that Mariella will overcome these issues while at the same time suspect she will often feel a meaningful amount of oppression if and when she marries Simon. There is a sense that she is compromising or “settling” (and he will be, too, from his own standpoint) yet equally a sense that she, and he, are enhancing their dignity by pushing through their shortcomings (their own and the other’s) to choose one another.

    Still, is such conscious stock-taking really compatible with romantic love? Is romantic love even what the story purports to tee up? Such questions alone are reasons why the story will stick with me.

  6. Betsy July 4, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Interesting, Roger. I am stopped by the three sided image that you remark upon: violence in the service of ego, violence in the service of self-sacrificing altruism, and death as the natural partner to either. In addition, because she has interwoven the dog attack into a story regarding marriage as a choice, marriage itself (or any of its selves) becomes a landscape where violence is a natural event, either in the service of ego, or in the service of altruism. After all, we all parade our “mastiffs” before us – our degrees, our money, our beauty, our accomplishments, our muscle, hoping to gain control of any territory we enter. There is a violence inherent in our natures that invades even the most sacred of relationships.

    Seen that way, any decision to marry locates its participants in naturally dangerous territory. John Gottman, a marriage scientist in Seattle (I hope I have that right), has been studying couples for years. He makes a natural partner to Oates, in that he has made a science of studying how couples choose to behave. If they allow themselves verbal violence, for instance, there is little hope for them. But he seems to make the point that the couples who regularly veer on the side of altruism often do so as a choice, and his numbers show that choosing to be altruistic gives a couple an edge..

    Roger, you pose the question of whether “conscious stock-taking” is compatible with romantic love. Gottman might respond that conscious stock taking (an awareness of all there is that you have to lose) is the only behavior that will preserve romantic love. But I agree, is romantic love even what Oates is talking about? Is she not talking about a different kind of love? An evolution of romantic love? Dan’s suggestion that Simon is like a knight seems apt – that Simon is an evolved knight. I wonder if she is proposing that in our romance with romantic love, we lose sight of our natural inclination to violence, and thus misapprehend what the territory of marriage will really be.

    Thanks for noticing Oates’s language regarding the word “papier mache”: where at the end, she has Mariella remember what the territory below the mountain-top ‘appears’ to be. In reality, the territory turned out to have a mastiff and his foolish master in it.

    Our notions of marriage are like this sky-view of the land below – beautiful but artificial. Down below, the humans are tearing up the scenery. But I had missed that entirely before reading your comment.

    By the way, I like the way “Mastiff” combines with Tobias Wolff’s “All Ahead of Them”. Both are marriage fables. But while Oates emphasizes the power dynamic in any marriage and its natural threat of violence, Wolff emphasizes that lying is part of the natural territory of any relationship, and that in some cases it is the lying itself that attracts us. Both stories are a nice shock to the system. Basically, I like the way both authors make their stories work as fairy tale or fable, uncomplicated by the lengthy plots and passages of time that are the backbone of novels.

  7. Rosalind Kurzer July 4, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Why did Oakes chose a Mastiff? I looked up the characteristics of the breed, and it is a protective, loyal animal and not usually violent. Oakes began and ended her story with the animal and its the title of the story…
    Simon’s behavior is more like the true character of a Mastiff than that of the biting dog in the story.

  8. Betsy July 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    What an important point, Rosalind. In her interview with the New Yorker, Oates mentions that the fault lies not with the mastiff but with the owner, that the owner put the dog at risk by bringing him to a place where the master was unable to control the dog.

  9. Jon July 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I found this to be an odd little story and feel a kinship with Trevor’s response–just felt like a somewhat unsuccessful, and somewhat small, work to me.

    I actually really enjoyed the opening section. The writing was very fluid and there was a vividness to the beginning part of the hike and the tensions and vulnerabilities felt by “the woman.”

    The image of the dog and his association with sex felt simply over-the-top. Hasn’t a wild animal, pulsating with life, become a more or less cliche image for sexuality? (Or, perhaps, the embodiment of aspects of male sexuality that certain women may fear?) In any case, kind of felt like a neon sign went off above “the woman” saying “Fear of Intimacy Issues!”

    After the initial section, story just seemed to get small, and I kept hoping there was more to it than the surface discussion. And I realize the small details, such how much water was left in the bottle, etc. were reflecting “The Woman’s” hyper-vigilance and overall state of mind, but they just didn’t resonate (and/or her state of mind just wasn’t that interesting to me.)

    With the ending, not sure I agree with Betsy’s association of the Mastiff with death. Oates associates the fear “The Woman” feels toward The Mastiff with the fear she feels looking out over “The pale-blue rim of the Pacific Ocean. The bald-sculpted hills and exquisite little lakes…” This is a fear of life in general or life outside of oneself, which would seem to fit better with her initial fear of sexuality and vulnerability as represented by the Mastif early in the story.

  10. Jon July 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    p.s., just to clarify last paragraph (Note to Webmaster: Edit function would be a help), I think the Mastif isn’t simply death. Clearly, the symbolism of Mastif evolves over course of story. First, there’s the blunt association with sex, then it’s sudden, unpredictability, then fragility/death.

    To me, I’d summarize it’s import as the fragility and vulnerability inherent to life.

  11. Betsy July 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Hi, Jon. So glad someone chimed in to side with Trevor. Different receptions illuminate the experience. My husband Steve and I differ all the time. We both love Homer, but while he really gets “The Iliad”, for decades I have been mystified. There’s a basis to our disagreement in that he is a historian and I am not, and in particular, a historian of war and diplomacy, while I trend toward psychology and sociology. I find the discussion revealing, find the disagreement part of the experience of art. So I actually like the idea that differences abound in the reading experience.

    “Mastiff”, in particular, feels like a story that could easily divide along gender lines, but I also think it could divide along generational lines. The woman’s “weakness” and lack of trail-savvy put me off, and I wonder if younger women find the ‘weakness of women’ idea beside the point. But as for me, I argue with that anyway – given that Mariella choosing to peform acts of love represents immense strength.

    So glad you wrote in also, because I found your elaboration regarding the mastiff interesting. When I read your word ‘fragility’ I get a different constellation of meaning than when I read ‘vulnerability’, and yet both obtain, and both are preceded and encompassed in the sense of the ‘sudden unpredictablility’ that you mention.

    Simon and Mariella were already being tossed by their need for companionship and their fear of how the state of companionship might alter or threaten or trivialize what they hold most dear. So they were already in difficult territory. Throw the dog in and you have the very total upset they were trying so hard to avoid.

    It’s the kind of surprise you get in the lifeboat: there you are wondering if you will survive and there is an argument about how to save the rainwater. You weren’t prepared to be simultaneously in a fight for your life and in a fight about how to save your life.

  12. Henry "Hank" Chapin July 24, 2013 at 2:20 am

    There were six Mastiffs at the local Honolulu Dog Park the other day. They are really huge and they slobber disgustingly, but they also seemed to be exceptionally gentle. I’m sure they didn’t start off that way as a breed when they must have roamed aristocratic estates to keep off robbers and intruders. The attack in the story seems more like a contemporary Pit Bull attack to me. The real problem is in having dogs that are too powerful for a human being to control. I see this all the time with Pit Bulls. The Hawaiian Humane Society is loaded with Pit Bull crosses.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.