Kerry Sutherland charts the connections between Joyce Carol Oates’s story “My Warszawa: 1980” (from the collection Last Days) and Henry James’s The Awkward Age.
Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “My Warszawa: 1980” follows the journey of well-respected academician Judith Horne as she travels to and within Poland to participate in an international conference on American culture. She has a vague connection to Poland, with remote family members who were killed in Auschwitz and a Jewish ancestry that can be seen in her features, but she considers these facts unimportant to who she is at the moment. She travels with her lover, who is as remote emotionally as her dead forbears are physically. The emotional connections she makes with the people and land begin to affect her well-ordered and controlled life, including her relationship with him. As they sit side by side on the plane to Poland, he attends to his work as journalist, typewriter on his lap, and Judith gazes at the landscape, an opened book on hers. It is Henry James’s The Awkward Age, unread, chosen by Judith with a logic she cannot recall. Why does Oates give James to Judith, and why does she choose this novel in particular to influence her? Nanda’s story is a warning to Judith, a red flag that unfolds as the younger girl’s ruin proceeds before her eyes, and Judith realizes that the man she loves will never marry her, just as Vanderbank refuses to propose to Nanda. Neither man is comfortable with a woman who is corrupted by knowledge that might undermine his need for authority in the relationship. Nanda understands her position too late, but Judith has time to reflect on her situation, and Oates leaves the story unresolved, with Judith on a plane home with Carl but not definitively resigned to the relationship.
Image: “Warsaw” by Jakob Walter