Joyce Carol Oates, is not just a good writer, she is among America’s greatest, up there with Faulkner and Dreiser and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first book in her Wonderland Quartet which explores our American class struggle; our values, our culture, our dreams. Published in 1966, it’s set in the depression era. Titled after Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych of the same name, this garden is the Garden of Eden, our American Eden where anything is possible and everything exacts a price.
Clara Walpole is the child of Kentucky migrant farm workers. She’s born into violence and poverty. Early on she realizes her beauty is a ticket out. She has no idea where she’s going, she just knows, at the age of fifteen, she’s got to get out.
Clara is an unforgettable heroine, but throughout the novel she’s tied to and dependent on the men in her life. Part I is Carlton, her father, Part II, Lowry, her lover, and Part III, Swan her son. Her most life-changing act was to seduce Curt Revere and convince him he was the father of her child. That took a lot of street smarts for an uneducated teenage girl. She was well aware of what she had done.
“Today she changed the way her life was going and it was no accident.”
Moving by deceit from one class to another left Clara skittish for the rest of her life. Her garden calmed her down.
“It was a large garden for just a woman to handle, though Revere and Swan could help her. But it was her garden and it bothered her to have someone else working in it. A year ago, before his marriage, Revere’s cousin Judd had put in some large-petaled roses for Clara, and in a way she had minded even that – though she had not let on. Now, since his marriage, Judd never came to see her. His wife would not allow it. So it was Clara’s garden and no one else’s and when her eyes moved from plant to plant, pausing at each dusty familiar flower and occasional insects she’d flick off with an angry snap of her fingers, a feeling of accomplishment rose up in her. The garden was as much of the world as she wanted because it was all that she could handle, being just Clara, and it was beautiful.”
As Revere’s wealthy wife, Clara was exposed to new things. They registered but she was most comfortable with what would have made her child-self happy and what would have brought a smile to the face of her long dead mother. The random times when Clara was alone and could contemplate the world surrounding her in her garden, she was the most at peace.
“At Revere’s great-aunt’s house in Hamilton Clara had seen what a formal garden was, such precision, symmetry, the way colors were repeated and related, but her garden was nothing like that. Clara’s garden was one that Pearl would have liked, Clara thought. Just to walk around in it, maybe to sit in it, in a chair. Sit, and dream. Where it wasn’t just kneeling and stooping and picking desperate to fill baskets for a few pennies each. And you the owner of the garden, with a farmhand to help you.”