” Ariah Burnaby was a logical woman. She would become, through the years, a woman who expected the worst, to relieve herself of the anxiety of hope. She would become a woman of calm, fatalistic principles, anticipating her life with the equanimity of a weather forecaster. She would risk (she supposed she knew this, for at her most neurotic she remained an intelligent woman) driving her husband from her by her expectation that he would one day ‘vanish’ from her life. ” (164)
In 1950, after a disastrous honeymoon night, Ariah Erskine’s young, latently homosexual husband, a young minister, throws himself into the roaring waters of Niagara Falls. Knowing his shame and desperation of his act would outlive him, Gilbert Erskine sees the shifting walls of fog and mist as the promise for the expiation of his sin, which he never discloses to his bride, who is not only older, but is arranged to marry him by the parents. After the loss of her husband, other than feeling hurt, humiliated, and shameful, Ariah acquires such pathological fear that she would never find real love.
Love isn’t less a force in life than gravity, is it? You can’t see ‘gravity’ either. But love is chancy. It’s a roll of the dice. (143)
During her seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for Gilbert’s body to be found, at her side is confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby, who is unexpectedly drawn to her. Although Dirk’s friends never accept her as worthy of him, and his mother disinherits him for the marriage, Ariah and Dirk’s bondage is a perfect existence. Their rapturous happiness is shadowed only by Ariah’s illogical, morbid conviction over the years that Dirk will leave her and their three children someday.
Since her father’s death, she’d become less predictable, less stable; though seeming hardly to have mourned the man, and airily dismissing Dirk’s commiseration, yet Ariah had been deeply affected, Dirk knew. And her mother’s widowhood and loneliness must have weighed upon her, too. Dirk knew he should retreat, cautiously. Or stand wordless beside her. As consolation. Whatever a husband was, is. Whatever that mute mysterious bond between them. (244)
Despite Oates’s obsessive gothic sensibilities, the prevailing allusion to the Lady in the Black, and magical realism, the novel is about love and family. Ariah’s unreasonable fear becomes self-fulfilling when her increasingly unstable behavior, combined with Dirk’s obsessed but chaste involvement with Nina Olshaker, a young mother who enlists his help in alerting the city politicians to the pestilential conditions in the area later known to be Love Canal, opens a chasm in their marriage. The loss of the lawsuit renders Dirk almost bankrupt, and during a severe thunderstorm, his car skids off the road and plunges into the river. While Ariah denies her children any knowledge and memory of their father, they share a willful self-destructiveness born of a sense of shame. Growing up fatherless, cut off from the paternal branch. As each investigates their father’s past, Dirk’s legal campaign against collusive local power resurfaces.
The Falls is about love and how it is spoiled. It’s the story of a man’s unselfish humanism and idealism against his his spouse’s inward-looking isolationism. Dirk’s murky past is pieced together in fragments as his grown-up children sort through literature. While there are compelling shorter fictions embedded in this book, Oates’s handling of transitions is uneasy, as between Ariah’s cursed honeymoon and Dirk’s battling with big business against the odds. Oates should have focused on Dirk Burnaby’s human cause and how his being a crusading idealist, a hero “tragically ahead of his time” takes a toll on his marriage—one in which a traumatic woman who cultivates woundedness and a husband who devotes his life to idealism and public cause. Maybe Ariah never hates her husband, she just hates the loss.
481 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/
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