Lindsey Pittman considers self-importance in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Mark of Satan”

          I would like to discuss how, in Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Mark of Satan,” the author crafts the main character’s sense of self worth by his continual act of placing himself as the protagonist of the story.

          From the very start, the main character, Harvey, attempts to place himself in the center of the narrative. “A woman had come to save his soul” (466). The word choice in this sentence is intentional: to Harvey, this woman had come specifically for him. And it isn’t just that she came for him, but that God sent her to him. “An angel of God sent special delivery to him.” Harvey’s sense of self worth is married to his feeling like the center of the universe.

As soon as Thelma removes the Bible from her bag and begins to get down to the business of saving his soul, Harvey’s heart sinks. Why, when this is surely what he expected? Indeed, he knows in the first sentence that the woman is here to offer him salvation. It is because he realizes that once she opens that Bible, the focus will move off of him and God will become the center of attention. He cannot pay attention to all this God-talk unless it is centered around him. When Thelma announces that God does indeed love him, a “genuine blush” darkens Harvey’s face (468). As Thelma speaks, lost in her theological fervor, Harvey begins to lose importance. The narrator says of Harvey that, normally, “the gin coursing through his veins … buoyed him up like debris riding the crest of a flood” (472). The alcohol elevates him, but only to the point of debris: something fragmented and dirty; the debris is destined to be lost among the great vastness of the flood.

Harvey looks for any chance to gain a reaction from Thelma, any chance to have her attention focused not on God, but on him. When she asks him if he has been baptized—a fairly innocuous question, considering his personal salvation is indeed the subject of the discussion in the first place—Harvey reacts with indignation. He breaks the illusion of cordiality and startles her into apologizing. “Such passion [of her apology] quickened the air between them. Flash felt a stab of excitement” (472).

When it is clear that Thelma is going to leave and that Harvey’s plan is going to fail and he is going to once again slip into obscurity, his entire sense of self importance disintegrates. “He could not believe the woman was escaping so easily. That his thing was no thing of his at all” (473).

In a desperate attempt to retain her attention, Harvey seeks to deride Thelma for her faith. He says, “You’re a joke, people like you! You’re tragic victims of ignorance and superstition! You don’t belong in the twentieth century with the rest of us! You’re the losers of the world! You can’t cope! You need salvation!” (474). Ironically, Harvey seems to have summed up his own personal problems in his attempt to insult Thelma McCord, or was it McCrae. Right after he says this, Harvey has a single  moment of clarity about Thelma: he sees “the dignity in her body, the high-held head, and the very arch of the backbone” (474). Suddenly, he is the one who is a joke, who can’t cope, who needs salvation. At this realization, he feels the fear that Thelma so bafflingly lacks. “He was screaming, terrified. He perceived that his life was of no more substance than a cicada’s shriek” (474). He claims that Satan is with him in a last attempt to gain Thelma’s attention. He begs her to save him, begs “for mercy, for help, for Christ’s love,” and for the kind of redemption that only the hero of the story can achieve (474). At the climax of the story, as she prays over him, Thelma and Harvey “were locked in ecstasy as in the most intimate of embraces in the fierce heat of the sun” (474). Harvey is only able to feel that he is worth something by making himself the protagonist of the tale and by following the hero’s journey to redemption. And it seems clear that he thinks he has achieved this redemption and achieved the status of the hero. “In a frenzy of self-abnegation he ground his bare knees in the gravel and shattered glass, deep and deeper into the pain so that he might bleed more freely, bleeding all impurity from him or at least mutilating his flesh, so that in the arid stretch of years before him that would constitute the reminder of his life he would possess a living memory of this hour, scars he might touch, read like Braille” (475). The way he scars himself in order to remember this day, this experience, for the rest of his life, implies that Harvey feels like he is at the end of his tale. It implies that he feels like the hero at the end of his epic, looking forward to a life of monotony and self-satisfied reflection of his adventure this day. He gains self worth, ultimately, by casting himself in the hero in what he would see as an epic tale.

However, how reliable is Harvey’s account of his epic? Calvino, in his lecture on Lightness, says, “As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight.” The melancholy of our hero, Harvey, is exaggerated by his neuroses, but once his sister, Gracie Shuttle, enters the scene, the reader can see that he is acting fairly ridiculous. She talks about his tendency towards “crying jags” and speaks of his hunched posture on the toilet seat as he picks glass out of his knees (475). Through her eyes, Harvey is reduced to a self-centered child. His sadness has achieved the lightness that Calvino talks about by observing him through another’s point of view. And, so, too, his constant quest for the protagonist’s spot in this story is made light and ridiculous. The shift of focus to Gracie Shuttle emphasizes that no one character can be the hero or the protagonist because every character is his or her own protagonist. Calvino says, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification” (7). And, for this story, that is certainly true: the weightiness of Harvey’s experience is all removed when we view him from his sister’s eyes. It is all a matter of point of view.

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