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"Life After High School" by Joyce Carol Oates
Transcript of "Life After High School" by Joyce Carol Oates
Born in Lockport, New York (June 16, 1938)
- The area suffered the hardships of the Great Depression, but Joyce Carol Oates spent her life on a farm, writing novel after novel throughout her high school and college career
- When she was only 19, she became valedictorian of her graduating college class
- She spent her life writing short stories and novels with gothic convention to reimagine time periods in American history as a college professor
- Joyce Carol Oates then moved on to use her childhood and family experience to create works and moving studies of the female experience
- After her husband, Raymond Smith’s death in 2008, she suffered from severe depression and suicidal thoughts
- She continues to live and write in Princeton, New Jersey where she is a Professor of Humanities
Joyce Carol Oates portrays the themes of growing up and the transition from youth to adulthood and feeling the need to conform to society in her short story, “Life After High School” through the use of symbols, repetition, and a typical plot line.
Image by Tom Mooring
"Life After High School" by Joyce Carol Oates
The Name "Sunny"
This is a symbol because Sunny stands for light and translates to mean youth and innocence. Barbara was given the name Sunny because she was so charismatic, but the author used it to mean that she was only an adolescent and retained that childlike innocence for most of the story, or for as long as she kept the nickname. (226)
The Engagement Ring
The engagement ring is a symbol of desire, or Zachary’s attempt to secure an essence. Throughout the story, Zachary vainly tries to love Sunny with the hope that she will love him back and his final attempt appears in the form of the engagement ring. The desire here, though, is not for Sunny herself, but for heterosexuality and the ability to conform to society. He wishes for innocence perhaps, where he views being gay as having lost it. (229-230)
The Finality of Death
Conforming to Society
Related Characters and Works
This symbolizes the turning point of where Sunny becomes Barbara. On a deeper level, this is interpreted as Barbara’s growing up point, where she goes from being an innocent and youthful adolescent to an adult who is familiar with the many hardships that come in life. Sunny was the adolescent and Barbara is the adult. The act of maturing is stemmed from the death because Sunny is exposed to it and now has that experience to carry with her forever. (237)
This is a major theme of the story because Zachary’s death transformed Sunny into the innocent and youthful girl she was into Barbara, an adult and all the experience that comes with being one. She has been exposed to the world and forced to mature from the event so quickly and immediately lost her childhood innocence. (240) (242)
Where no one particularly noticed Zach before, including Sunny (to a degree), everyone was made aware of him after his suicide. The guilt Sunny feels for his death is all too surreal because the fact that he is really gone forever is insurmountable. She even ceased to be Christian after his death, it seems, because it seemed to final and impossible that an afterlife existed and Zachary would be at peace. (239)
This is a huge theme in the story because Zach tried desperately to hide the fact that he was a homosexual through his supposed love for Sunny Buhrman. He knew society would reject him if it was discovered that he was gay, so he pined for the girl and appeared almost stalker-ish. The fact that he tried to put on a mask and hide his true self proved deadly for him, though, as he found he was not truly happy with the path he was taking and committed suicide in the end. The point is to be who you are, and you may find your true essence, making for complete and total happiness. (244)
This is seen through the story as Zachary may have felt society constricted him so that he lost his sense of free will (to be gay) and thus, a feeling of purposeless enveloped him, leading him to cause his own destruction. It shows that the world constricts teenagers and adolescents so that they feel they need to choose a certain path and are not allowed to be themselves. This then leads to more suicides in the teenage population and kids either being forced to grow up or never getting the chance to. (244)
She is a vibrant and kind adolescent girl who retains popularity at school and is well-respected. She is a cheerleader and one who commonly viewed as being above or better than the average high school crowd. Sunny is a typical popular and appealing teenager and is a Christian. (218)
He is a shy and extremely intelligent adolescent boy who keeps to himself and has a small circle of friends. He is socially awkward and struggles to talk to girls. Zach is a typical awkward and nerdy teenager. He is valedictorian of his class and is a loyal Christian. Secretly homosexual, but tries vainly to love Sunny Buhrman, for fear of societal rejection. (217)
He is a boy who talks to Zach occasionally and is not important until the end of the story, where he confesses to Sunny that Zach had come to him before he died. He reveals the truth that Zachary was a homosexual and his rejection of love and not Sunny’s was the reason the suicide was committed. (244-245)
In the short story, Oates opens up the plot by beginning with the phrase in which Zachary is repeating Sunny’s name after having given her the engagement ring. Towards the end of the story, we see this same event, but in context and understand everything that happened to lead up to that point. The purpose of doing this, I believe is to prepare readers for what is to come so that they pay more attention to the text that sets up the circumstance. Also, it makes them eager to read on to discover how it came to be. This shows me that the events that lead up to Zachary giving Sunny the engagement ring are very important and contain/help portray the story’s main themes.
The symbols in the story (as mentioned before) are subtle and allow the tale to be read on two different levels: the literal and figurative ones. Literally, Sunny’s nickname, the engagement ring, and Zachary’s death are exactly what they seem to be, but on the figurative level, they retain much deeper meanings. These meanings can then be applied universally and generally to develop main themes of the story such as the finality of death (through Zachary’s death) and the transformation from youth to adulthood (through Sunny’s nickname). The symbols allow readers to easily translate universal themes from the story.
A Typical Plot Line
The fact that the story is set up around a very typical and common plot line, that is, having a shy and goofy looking teenage boy trying to get the attention of a popular and pretty cheerleader, helps to better deliver Oates’ main themes. This is because readers can more easily identify and relate to the characters and their positions at the high school and therefore, be able to notice any differentiation from the usual. For example, the reveal of the engagement ring is not necessarily typical of what a boy like Zachary’s actions would include. One would expect him to secretly continue to admire Sunny from afar, but never do something so bold as to propose marriage. This event and other important ones throughout the story are more likely to stand out to readers, thus, again, getting across major themes.
Oates' Time on the Farm
The fact that Oates grew up on a farm may have played a part in the story because farmers at the time tended to be more conservative, and therefore, favored the traditional things such as heterosexuality and viewed homosexuality as foreign and different, thus dangerous. Also, Christians were originally to believe that homosexuality was wrong, so Oates may have been taught so, only to find that later on, it is okay to be gay. She then would write this into this short story that it is okay to be yourself, no matter what society thinks.
The Great Depression
This possibly influenced the work because in the time of the Great Depression, people were struggling to make ends meet and earn enough money for themselves. At the time, this may have created a sense of overall purposelessness and an increase in suicides because of that. Oates may have drawn upon the connection between purposelessness and suicides of that time to write about Zachary and how once he failed to create an essence for himself (after societal rejection of his homosexuality), winded up ending his own life.
Catcher in the Rye & Holden Caulfield
The short story relates to Catcher in the Rye because Holden’s job as the book goes on, he discovers, is to protect children and their innocence from the evils of the world. Sunny’s innocence in the story is lost as a result of Zach’s death, as a part of her growing up and becoming an adult. The theme of holding onto innocence as much as possible to stay happy is apparent in both the works. Growing up is inevitable, but Holden’s job is to make sure kids undergo the change when they are ready. Sunny may have not been entirely ready for the transition, but it happened nonetheless and she has become an adult, having experienced the real world.
A Clockwork Orange & Alex
This book relates to “Life After High School” because of the role that society plays in children growing up and adolescents alike. In Alex’s world, society and the government was making youths into clockwork oranges, capable of only evil, violence, and destruction. In this story, society forced Zach into believing that homosexuality is a bad thing and to live happily, he must change his person. In both pieces, society changes youths into different beings apart from what they would have wanted to be. It demonstrates the sheer influential power of the environment.
What are your feelings towards the character of Zachary after his death? Are you sympathetic for the boy having been denied his love for Sunny? Or are you unfeeling because he was only stalking and obsessive towards Sunny in the first place?
What do you think the significance of the last line of the story, “What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?” (245) is?
It turns out that Zachary was in fact a homosexual. Did you pick up on this immediately? Or did subtle clues in the story lead you to this conclusion and what were they?