In the short story entitled “The Buck” written by Joyce Carol Oates, we are introduced to two quite interesting characters, namely Melanie Snyder and Wayne “Woody” Kunz. These two characters both struggle with different aspects of their personal lives; in Wayne Kunz’s case, he is in constant battle with his manhood, whereas Melanie Snyder has somewhat renounced her femininity. Her very appearance when we first see her in the story is quite strange, because she is seen dressed in her brothers’ clothes which mask her feminine side. Both of these characters in this story are representative of many persons today whose identities remain latent for a part or even all of their lives. Some are able to be reconciled to their true selves, but others are never able to fully reclaim their lives.
Oates suggests that this story “bears witness to the dark complexities of nature… especially the human nature” (131). At the very beginning, we are told of the death of a buck and the bravery of the old woman, Melanie Snyder, who tried to prevent its death. There is something quite mysterious about this old woman even at the first mention of her name. This mystery is evident in the narrator’s brief description about this woman’s past. From this description we realize that this woman is in a constant battle with her femininity. The most important piece of information that is given to the reader is that Melanie Snyder is a spinster who has dedicated the rest of her life to the preservation of the forest in which she lives. We realize as the story progresses that Melanie Snyder’s femininity is latent because of the hurt she sustained during her relationship with her fiancé.
As the story progresses, we are introduced to another character, Wayne Kunz, who we later learn is the quintessential character who will cause the turning of the tide in this novel. The narrator gives us a clear description of Wayne, from which we realize his constant battle with his manhood. The narrator refers to him as a “character,” the “kind who keeps up a constant chatting with himself, as if terrified of silence, of finally being alone” (Oates 132). It is apparent that Woody is terrified of being alone because he is afraid of what he might encounter; in this case his greatest encounter lies in finding his true self. This heavily relates to the idea that Wayne Kunz’s manhood has remained latent for a period in his life. At this point in the novel he is seeking for this buck which will represent his only salvation for reclaiming his hidden manhood.
Melanie Snyder, just like Wayne is in constant battle with her sexuality. She is described as a “plain sharp-tongued girl, [whose] eyes [are] too large and stark and intelligent in her face to be feminine…” (Oates 134). As we will soon realize, Melanie Snyder has never embraced her femininity after the abrupt ending of her relationship with her fiancé. The narrator captures this painful event, while at the same time revealing to the reader some vital information about Melanie Snyder. The narrator explains this shame as “a repudiation of the womanliness she’d tried so hard – ah, so shamefully hard! – to take on” (135). From this evidence in the story one is able to see the reason why Melanie Snyder lives in constant battle with her feminine side, and why this side of her is never seen throughout the entire story.
In contrast to Melanie Snyder’s inability to embrace in her femininity, Wayne Kunz comes face to face with a possible redemption for his manhood. This redemption lies within this buck that he is trying so desperately to obtain. It is important to note that both characters have their separate reasons for clinging to this buck. “The buck seems to mean something different to each of the two protagonists, yet both seem to be acting out some aspect of their unlived lives in relation to the creature” (Oates 131). This buck is Melanie Snyder’s link to Nature and link to a motherhood that was never meant to be. Somehow, through this buck she seems to cling to the femininity that was for so long latent in her life.
She begins to act out the role of caretaker, and redeemer for Nature, a role that is evidently the role of her latent femininity. At this point in the story, it seems as if Melanie Snyder would be released from her “masculine” way of life, and once more claim her stifled femininity. This hope is however short-lived, as we see Melanie clinging to the relics of her brothers’, as if she is desperately clinging to their masculinity. When one examines the lives of both Wayne Kunz and Melanie Snyder, it reveals that “the real ‘events’ by which Oates’ characters are motivated lie deep within the protean chaos of [their personalities]” (G. F Waller, page 4).
The chaos in this story comes to a climax when both characters come face to face. Wayne has apparently reclaimed his manhood, for he is seen with his bow uplifted and he is in hot pursuit of the buck. At this point, it seems as if while Wayne is in hot pursuit of the buck, his masculinity begins to manifest itself. At this point he is far removed from the silly-looking character who we first met at the beginning of the story.
In contrast, Melanie Snyder’s appearance still reveals how detached she is from her feminine side. She is “wearing a soiled sheepskin jacket several sizes too large for her, a relic belonging to one of her brothers; her boots are rubberized fishing boots, the castoffs of another, long-deceased brother” (Oates 135). From this description one can deduce that Melanie’s femininity is still latent and possibly even up to the very end of the story, she will not change. Her very appearance embraces this fact and hides her actual sex.
Once more we are able to see this character subduing her true self. Indeed Melanie is one character devoid of sexuality. She has embraced the very appearance of male figures, so much so that her very appearance seems quite strange. She has become the embodiment of “the typical Oates character, [who is] usually a woman, [who is] continually bombarded by sensation – fear, insecurity, a sense of formlessness from within, pursuit from without…” (G. F. Waller, page 6). Her fears and her insecurities stifle her feminine side, and are as a result of the hurt that she suffered in her relationship with her fiancé.
In spite of her façade, Wayne Kunz shouts to her, “hey lady, stand aside” (Oates 136). We realize that in spite of her large coat and boots which mock her femininity, Wayne Kunz still recognizes that this woman is no man; this ultimately shatters the façade that Melanie has worn throughout her life. Even at this point it seems if there is still hope for Melanie to embrace her femininity, there is however no change, neither in her appearance nor in her stance against Wayne Kunz, to protect the buck from his grasp. Even Woody himself changes.
At first he feels the strength of the male ego convincing him to put up a fight against this old woman who is in his way. This strength does not sustain him for long, for quite soon afterward we see “the arrow drooping, drooping useless in his fingers” (Oates 136).Although Melanie’s femininity is revealed, she remains firm with Woody, and so desperately tries to save the buck’s life. The buck for her represents so many things. It represents a possible motherhood that she might have had, and it also became her only living companion in those lonely woods.
At the very end of the story, one is able to see that Wayne Kunz has changed from the fearful character we met in the beginning. His latent masculinity is now quite evident, as he is seen walking away from his desire to hurt the old woman, and leaving the buck which represented the salvation for his masculinity. Although Wayne never obtains this buck, one can assume that he would no longer be the fearful character we first met at the start of the story.
As for Melanie Snyder, she never embraces her femininity. She dies while still clothed in her brothers’ old clothes, which is suggestive of her unwillingness to part with this masculinity that has for so long been a part of her life.
Oates uses both of these characters in her story to show their different responses to their sexuality. She shows Wayne who is struggling with his manhood, and Melanie who is in constant battle with her femininity. Oates reveals in the end however, that, like Melanie, sometimes people are never able to recover the latent side of their sexuality; on the other hand many like Wayne simply need a boost to reclaim their stifled sexuality.