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An Analysis of Joyce Carol Oates’ Short Story “Big Burnt”

Ecco, 2017

“Big Burnt” is one of several rich narratives from Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection Beautiful Days. Protagonist Lisbeth Mueller is diffident, full of rich inner life, and emotionally vulnerable. The male protagonist, Mikael Brun, is cold and taciturn.

Lisbeth, often referred to simply as “the woman,” goes on a trip with an accomplished, middle-aged scientist and Harvard professor Mikael Brun to Lake George. When they go out on a boat and the weather turns turbulent, the Lisbeth’s anxiety rises:

“The woman was determined to smile…(44).”

Such is the obsequiousness and sweetness of Lisbeth in her desire to be pleasant and companionable to the man in her life. All the small indignities, unintentional but nonetheless, which she suffers smiling, recounting moments when he did not hold the door open for her, or when he ignored her while speaking to the marina attendant. Such are the courtesies that men can be oblivious to; not because they mean any harm, they just don’t notice.

Mikael, often referred to as simply “the man,” tries to keep his cool while the woman notices “quick-gathering thunderclouds” (45). He doesn’t like to lose control of the situation, and she doesn’t like for him to think that she thinks that he’s lost control, in her perpetual considerateness.

Lisbeth’s thoughts are occupied with Mikael, and how she might contrive to be emotionally closer to him. She is somewhat baffled as to why she was asked to be on this trip in the first place; had he accidentally called “the wrong woman” (55)? The third person omniscient perspective also allows us into Mikael’s thoughts: We learn that he had indeed called several other women first; but nonetheless, Lizbeth was “the one” (57).

The prickly Mikael hardly seems worthy of Lisbeth’s admiration. At times his thoughts towards her are deprecatory, he can hardly remember her name; but then at other times he seems to be contemplating marrying her, “It is not too late” (78), the 48 year old man thinks to himself.

Lizbeth’s sole desire is to make Mikael love her; she daydreams about their relationship to come and envisions their honeymoon. She imagines that other people perceive them as to be already married. Anxiously, she thinks about negotiating the boundaries of this new relationship:

“Did the woman dare ask the man about his marriage? She did not” (46).

Mikael, like other male characters in this collection, cannot seem to show affection and is emotionally stunted: “…the man did not always behave towards her in a way that signaled affection…” (48). The sweetness of Lisbeth, though, is that she is patient with the gruff Mikael. She wants him to come around and share some level of intimacy with her; that is always her desire throughout the narrative, as other Oates’ female protagonists likewise aim for. Sweet nurturing women and cold, aloof men make for fascinating pairs in Beautiful Days.

Lisbeth, a regional actress in theater and adjunct professor, lacks confidence in herself and feels as though she cannot quite find the right words with Mikael. She second guesses herself: “…the woman hesitated, not quite knowing if this was the right thing to say…” (47).

Lisbeth resolves in the most beautiful line of the story:

I can love enough for two. You will see!” (48).

[italics in original]

Though you might not find this type of sweet and nurturing woman much in Hollywood films, you would find her in real life. Such a woman quite naturally wants to connect with a male partner, someone who may be congenitally ill-suited for emotionally intimacy, but she may complement him nonetheless, as Lisbeth could have complemented Mikael if he had simply let her.

But sadly, Lisbeth cannot bring Mikael around.

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