Places: Wonderland

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1939-1971

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedYewville

Yewville. WonderlandTown in New York’s upstate Niagara County where Jesse Harte, one of six children, grows up in a small and crowded house built by his father, Willard, next to a gas station that he owned until it failed. The novel opens when Jesse is fourteen years old and his father turns the family house into a place of horror by shooting his pregnant wife and children, wounding Jesse, who escapes, and then shooting himself. When Jesse later returns to the house, which has a for-sale sign on it, he has no feelings about the murders, only the realization that he is still alive, a survivor. He later returns to Yewville to live with an aunt and uncle.

Vogel farm

Vogel farm. Home of the orphaned Jesse’s stern and unloving grandfather, where he is taken to live after recovering from his gunshot wound. The farm is located in a rural area outside Yewville, in a place where people live empty lives of “sleep, wake, and work.” Grandfather Vogel keeps the shabby furnishings salvaged from Jesse’s former home locked in his barn and refuses to let Jesse see any of them, thereby denying him tangible links to his past.


*Lockport. New York town to whose nearby Niagara School for Boys Jesse is sent by his aunt and uncle to board. At first, he lives in a dark red building enclosed by fences. However he is adopted by Dr. Pedersen, who lives in a three-story mansion on Locust Street in Lockport. Pedersen’s house has a cavernous foyer and a beautiful music room, but what most impresses Jesse is that he has a room entirely his own for the first time in his life.

Pedersen, his wife, and son are grotesquely fat. Pedersen is a self-indulgent megalomaniac who tries to control everyone in his household. He makes Jesse become a serious student, dedicated to a career in medicine. After Jesse helps Pedersen’s wife escape Pedersen’s control, Pedersen disowns him, making him once again an orphan.


*Chicago. City in which Jesse does his internship after earning a degree in medicine at the University of Michigan. During this period, he lives first in the basement of a three-story frame house but eventually moves to the top floor. There, he lives among slobs who linger in the hallways and with a dominating landlady. After several inconsequential relationships Jesse marries Helene Cady, the respectably boring daughter of a Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher, and with her moves into a small apartment in a four-story brownstone near his hospital.

Jesse and Helene lead separate lives together. Hospital work for Jesse is a blur of frenzied and impersonal activities. His intentions are to be an impersonal presence to do people good. Jesse’s ability and hard work attract the notice of Dr. Perrault, a top surgeon who makes Jesse his assistant at his own clinic. Jesse now becomes Perrault’s younger self, inheriting both his likes and dislikes, and still has no true personal life of his own. After Perrault retires, Jesse takes charge of the clinic.


*Winnetka. Town in Illinois where the newly prosperous Jesse purchases a mansion near Lake Michigan. It has forty-eight windows and a huge living room that Jesse uses only to pace the floor nervously. What most concerns him is his young daughter, Shelley, who has run away with her dominating and sociopathic hippie boyfriend, Noel. He traces Shelley to Greenwich Village in New York City. The search proves fruitless.


*Toronto. City in Canada’s Ontario Province where Jesse finds his daughter in a derelict apartment on Yonge Street, where she is living with Noel and several other men. Shelley is sick and malnourished, and Jesse almost kills Noel but instead causes him to flee in fright. The novel ends with Shelley believing that her father is the devil come to take her home.

BibliographyCreighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. Creighton discusses Wonderland in the context of Oates’s earlier novels and in tandem with Do With Me What You Will (1973). She explores the series of father figures that the novel offers and rejects, as well as its parallels to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ungar, 1980. An exploration of alienation through Oates’s first nine novels. In the chapter entitled “Journey from the ‘I’ to the Eye: Wonderland,” Friedman looks at the novel’s links with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its treatment of the individual’s relationship to the external world.Grant, Mary Kathryn. The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978. Grant’s long essay interweaves discussion of several Oates novels and other writings into a meditation on the elements of violence and tragedy in modern America. Her references to Wonderland bring out themes of self-mutilation, spiritual homelessness, and the alienation of urban life.Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A diverse anthology of seventeen reviews and eleven essays spanning the Oates oeuvre. In addition to excerpts from the other entries in this bibliography, discussions of Wonderland are found in a skeptical Newsweek review, in an essay by Robert H. Fossum exploring the themes of control and salvation, and in a Joanne V. Creighton piece examining Oates’s women.Waller, G. F. Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979. Waller’s chapter on Wonderland discusses the novel as social commentary on some of the more manifest obsessions of modern American life–materialism, sex, and violence–treated with a unique mixture of surrealism and satire.
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