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“High Lonesome” a Book by Joyce Carol Oates


In almost every environment, there exist mentally ill or physically impaired individuals. Cases of maltreatment to such people have continually been evident within societies but no one is watchful to such situations. On the other hand, people have always had wrong perceptions that riches are capable of making such people happy. This paper seeks to explore two stories from Joyce Carol Oates’ “High Lonesome” portraying similar themes.

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The two stories in this paper include “Life after High School 1990s” and “The Lost Brother”. The stories portray almost similar incidences where two characters are mentally ill. Despite coming from strong backgrounds with capabilities of providing a healthy environment, the characters face alienation and in both cases, they are alienated. Due to the social norms around their environments, people have perceptions that the main characters namely Zachary and Hayden should have same social characteristics just as other people. It is very common that human psychological nature must differ in several perspectives and the level of thinking equally varies. Forcing the natural way of human being is normally a difficult thing, considering the differences in creation and the variance in people’s intelligence. The things considered normal by both Zachary and Hayden are far much disgusting to other people, especially most of whom are their age mates, and this aspect makes them unable to understand the right way on how things should be.

First story: Life after School

The story revolves around two adolescents who secretly admired and somehow loved each other. Zachary Graff, the son of the famous Dr. Graff, is the main character who is desperately in love with Barbara Burhman, popularly nicknamed as Sunny. Zachary’s interest in a relationship with the beautiful queen Sunny started some years back, when he was actually 12 years of age. The boy yearned to be in relationship with the girl for almost every part of his life. However, Sunny did not show much interest in the relationship, with most of her friends disappointed in her frequent engagement with Zachary sometimes within the school. Despite the frequent frustration from the alienation by friends, sarcasm by Sunny’s colleagues, he did not feel any disappointments. His only friend, Tobias continued encouraging him to not to lose morale in the relationship. It was only after Zachary committing suicide because of love denial by Sunny that she realised how much the boy was in love with him.

Chosen passages

The most touching passage is about the suicidal case of Zachary. In the pursuit of struggling for Sunny’s love, the young boy, Zachary takes away his life leaving a letter of perfect evidence of suicide. That night, Zachary travelled from his father’s house to visit Sunny who lived some few miles from him. Before this, Zachary made tireless efforts to engage in a relationship with Sunny. In addition, he sent several proposals and sought different opportunities to win this love. Sunny is in dilemma, not because she does not like Zachary, but her greatest worry is about the perception held by most of her friends about the boy. In her story, Sunny prays, “Please help Zachary not to be in love with me. Please help me not to be cruel. Have mercy on us both O God” (Oates 75). It is clear that Sunny does not want to disappoint Zachary, but due to the social class associated with Sunny, there is no way out.

The night of his visit to Sunny’s home, Sunny could not agree to go with him. However, Zachary was mentally ill and this had affected part of his life. The writer notes that he was of good physical presence, but mentally unbalanced. This night was a night of failing love as Zachary persuasions failed to capture Sunny’s attention into falling in love. The writer notes that it was the last moment in her lifetime that Sunny saw Zachary alive. “It would be the last time Sunny Burhman saw Zachary Graff alive” (Oates 100). Zachary took away his life the same night he went to visit Sunny. The writer reveals that Zachary committed suicide because Sunny, the beauty queen, had refused his engagement ring and rejected his love. Zachary was deeply frustrated and tired of the relationship that never worked for him knowing well that he was not wrong anywhere; moreover, he did not disappoint Sunny. However, Sunny under the influence of many friends could not accept the love affair.

Second story: The Lost Brother

The story tells about a mentally delayed Hayden Buttrick, who offers his sister a dead rabbit as a form of gift, hoping that she will probably like it. However, Carole the sister to Hayden rejects the unpleasant gift since for several times she hoped that his brothers would give her reasonable gifts including some money. Hayden feels disappointed that his unique nature is unacceptable by everybody especially his own family. His father and the mother as well dislike that behaviour and his father starts developing a negative attitude towards the boy. His own father quickly develops a negative opinion of him, and “…soon became exasperated by the older boy who began to be labelled as ‘difficult,’ ‘uncooperative’ – ‘anti-social’” (Oates 98). This family’s attitude became clear to the public and especially Hayden’s teachers, and this useless perception drives the entire society. Hayden suffers expulsion from the Harvard University, which makes him a street boy who is frequently mistreated, beaten with no clear reasons, and finally arrested by the Cambridge police with allegations of causing public havoc and was taken to a psychiatric institution for mental examination.

Chosen passages

The story of the lost brother is an emotional driving story. The most amusing part is when Carole feels no importance of riches and turns back to his brother after several years of rejection. Bearing in mind that she was the one who caused her brother’s suffering, she regretted most. Even on the fact that the sister pretends to be innocent, she still has a feeling of concern for his brother. However, the brother does not like the millions of cash presented to him in favour of his sister’s love. He rejects any form of assortments offered to him by the sister and remains firm. In fact, to show that he is not of wealthy liking, he decides to terminate the communication between him and his sister. Even after much struggles to win his brothers love, Carole could not. This aspect demonstrates how the two had different interests and nothing whatsoever could actually change what Hayden wanted in life.

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The boy’s dreams come to a halt, with the sister’s vision of having a happy, wealthy family becoming a reality. However, Carole felt that she was definitely right by ignoring his brother’s gift, knowing very well that the only thing that could make her happy was money. She addressed a letter with millions of cash to his brothers expressing her sincere concern and love, thinking that move could be the only reconciler. His brother recalls the rejection he underwent and refuses to concur with his sister and refuses any attempts of their communication. Carole is in disbelief that her brother no longer feels the family relationship. In fact she plays innocent, “but why? Does he hate me?” (Oates, 93).The gift of money becomes useless to Hayden since he does not feel any preciousness in the cash. Carole continues dreaming of a happy family and her brother’s comeback, but her bother to her brother continued annoying him.

Common themes in the stories

The two stories demonstrate the theme of wealthy and social affiliation. In the first story (life after school) reveals this theme through Zachary’s personality, which demonstrated his interest of winning Sunny’s heart using an expensive ring with gold and diamond components. However, Sunny does not feel anything or any value for the glittering gold and diamond ring. “The ring was 24-karat gold and the diamond was small, but distinctive” (Oates 60). Zachary believes that precious things can win the heart of the girl only to realise that it had little influence on the relationship. On the other hand, the story of the lost brother reveals the same theme. Hayden feels frustrated that the entire family and the society do not feel any importance of his unique nature of the things he prefers as gifts. His own sister values financial assortments than ordinary things that may probably make someone feel happy. After rejecting her brother’s gift of dead rabbit, she offers her brother millions of cash to win his love, which in contrary makes his brother more annoyed and angry. This reveals that riches are not the only things that can make people happy.

Another theme is the value for human feelings. Human beings have emotions and the feelings only end when someone dies. Both stories have scenarios that portray human mental fitness. The story of life after school portrays the character of Sunny’s fellow students who constantly despised the behaviour of Zachary, who mentally ill. The mental disability of Zachary was a factor in winning the love of Sunny. However, Sunny has some feeling towards the boy, but unwilling to express her love because of the external influence from friends. The same aspect is eminent in the story of the lost brother, where the sister does not feel anything for his brother Hayden, who is mentally unwell. His own family including the mother and the father portrays negative opinion on Hayden’s character and finally the entire society despises this behaviour. Carole finally realises the mistakes she made, but assumes that she is innocent and becomes emotional when the brother does not respond to her letters.


Mental problems are of common human nature and people should not despise such situations. The two stories portray societal ignorance on mentally affected individuals. The book portrays real life situations that have led others to live in frustrations. Were it not for his mental imbalance, Zachary would not have committed suicide. On the other hand, were it not for his mental issues, Hayden could not have separated with his family. Mental problems affecting the two boys made their families seen less concerned with their whereabouts, making them live lives full of sorrow, disappointments, frustrations, and a feeling of alienation. However, feelings are the most fundamental aspects in human beings. The two boys despite undergoing several disappointments, they have emotions in them. In most cases, people ignore emotions of mentally sick retarded individuals in the society. Unless people undergo similar situations of mental problems, several of us will never understand what it feels to be in such conditions.

Works Cited

Oates, Carol. High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006. New York: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.

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