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The Temple (Oates short story)

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"The Temple" (1996) is a third-person narrative short story by the writer Joyce Carol Oates.


COMM 260 - "The Temple" Prose Performance


The story is about a woman who constantly hears a mysterious sound that at first sounds like an animal stranded within an area outside but the stronger the noise gets the more the woman realizes it is something else. The noise is horrid to hear according to Oates, "How like baby's cry, terribly distressing to hear! and the scratching which came in spasmodic, desperate flurries, was yet more distressing, evoking an obscure horror." The more she hears this wretched noise, the more anxious she becomes to find the source. She finally sends herself on a mission, gathering her gardening tools and setting out to find where the noises are coming from.

The Temple (Oates short story) The Temple (Oates short story)

The more she digs, the closer she gets to the source, until she finds the source of the noise; a child's skull.

She removes the years of dust from the skull, not much is left of it. There is no hair to uncover and there are some teeth missing. She begins to dig deeper where she found the skull and finds numerous pieces of bone, which lead her to believe that they are missing pieces of the child's skull. She brings the skull and the rest of the bones into her house where she wraps them in a velvet cloth and promises the skeleton that she will always be here for it, she will never leave it. She lays the skeleton near her bed in human form. In the last paragraph of the story, after discussing how the skeleton is laid out, Oates says, "In this way the woman's bedroom became a secret temple. On the velvet cloth the skull and bones, unnamed, would be discovered after the woman's death, but that was a long way off."


There are two characters throughout this short story.

The first character is the woman who hears the noises in her garden and digs to find the source. The second character is the skeleton that is found by the woman and is placed in a velvet cloth and set on a mantle.

Publication history

"The Temple" was first published in the 1996 compilation of short stories called American Gothic Tales. The short stories was edited by Joyce Carol Oates and includes short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and many others.


In "The Temple," the story seems to mainly rely on the idea of dependency of an object. This story is of a woman who fights to find the scratching and screeching noises that she constantly hears. She becomes obsessed with the sounds and is determined to help it. The story begins to make the reader believe that it is her duty to discover the object that is causing all the noises, as if they are purposely occurring. When she finally sets out to find the skull, the noises become stronger and stronger. She uncovers the skull and skeleton in her garden and says to it, "I will never abandon you". There is a sense of dependency that grows on this woman when she develops her own duties for the skull and builds a responsibility for creating a memorial in her bedroom for the child. Her bedroom becomes a temple for the child where she is able to protect and look out for the skeleton that lays in a velvet cloth at an altar.

Terror and horror in "The Temple"

Often in American Gothic Literature there is a state of terror and horror within a story. Terror is the anticipation within the story while Horror is the realization. The following describes how The Temple shows Terror and Horror throughout the story. The temple builds terror by the constant screeching the constant noise that the woman hears! Terror builds inside the reader as they imagine themselves in that situation. What if this noise would not leave? The terror hits a high when she begins to dig and dig into the grounds to discover the noise. It’s almost as if the noise knows she is there and about to release her. Horror within this story is when she actually finds the young child’s skull and then multiple bones to go along with the skull. The horror in The Temple is the fact that when this child’s skeleton is found the noise stops. Terror is also built up with the anticipation of what she is going to do with the bones. Horror is then brought to life when she lays out the skeleton on a velvet cloth and puts it on an altar, swearing that it will never be alone. This becomes the temple!

Domestic Abjection – Strange within the familiar

How does The Temple portray a Gothic theme within this story? Below is an analysis on how the famous author, Alan Lloyd-Smith determines this in his book, American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction.

Lloyd-Smith uses an interpretation by Julia Kristeva of abjection. She says, "a weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me." This suggests the feeling of despair that some writers are able to create in some readers of Gothic Fiction.

A term called "jouissance" is used to describe abjection. In the story she states, "jouissance alone causes abject to exist as joys in it...violently and painfully." This suggests strangeness, a perverseness in that which causes joy. The altar in "The Temple" - the woman had to know it was creepy to keep a skeleton in her bedroom but it brought her joy to do so.

The question is why did it bring her joy, whatever it was must have overpowered the creepy factor. Was she lonely, a widow, a mother that lost a child, or just maybe mentally unstable? These types of questions add to the gothic interpretation to the story and help make the story interesting.

How Obsession Helps portray Gothic Literature

The woman develops an obsession first with the sound and subsequently with the child's skeleton. This fixation on elements that embody terror as opposed to horror serves to amplify the story's eerie atmosphere, engaging the reader and enhancing the allure of the narrative, compelling them to continue reading after finishing the story.

Irrational vs Rational and how that helps bring gothic to life in "The Temple"

Lloyd-Smith concludes that Gothic fiction emphasizes that rationality is a mask that obscures but does not eliminate the irrational.


The Temple (Oates short story) Wikipedia

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