Teena Maguire is an attractive single mother in her mid-thirties who enjoys having fun and dressing somewhat provocatively. Her daughter, Bethie, is a sensible twelve-year-old who sometimes resents but loves her mother dearly. On the night of July Fourth, a group of teenage boys attack both of them as they walk home from a neighborhood party, dislocating Bethie’s shoulder and dragging Teena into a boathouse to assault her.
As it becomes clear that the boys are getting minor charges with the help of an expert lawyer, and Teena and Bethie’s lives worsen as the people in the neighborhood blame them for the attack in an escalating fashion, John Dromoor, a police officer who met Teena on one occasion and liked her—and found her in the boathouse after the attack—executes fatal revenge on the attackers one by one.
Oates depicts clear separate characterizations through the different ways her characters communicate. Her cast is, in fact, shown mostly through their own thoughts and words rather than descriptions that the author uses. Oates often covers the theme of sexual abuse in her works, and in this case, she does so through dialogue.
Teena, the main character, is simple-minded and fun-loving until the rape, after which she is a shadow of her former self. Bethie, in contrast, is a very down-to-earth preteen who is yet still very much a child. Bethie resents her mother’s boyfriend for taking time away from her. She also realistically knows that she’ll never be as pretty as her mother, but still loves her mother deeply.
During and after the attack, Bethie fears for their lives. Oates conveys her fear, and her comparison of what becomes of her mother, with a childlike impression of a mermaid: “You didn’t want to say the mermaid scared you, somehow. Since you’d been a little girl, seeing it above the lagoon. A freaky deformed female with no legs.” Oates uses such a simple, clear statement from a child to convey the effects of violence against women.
Each person has their own voice, their own specific characterization that Oates has crafted into existence with this story. Their actions, personalities, and opinions are more clearly conveyed through the dialogue Oates has crafted far better and plainer than simple storytelling might allow. Not only are each person’s (or group of persons) identity, values, and tone displayed, but facets like intelligence, compassion, interest, and other tiny, limitless details into each character are present through the words used by each character for communication.