“By the River” Summary: Joyce Carol Oates Short Story

By the River Summary Joyce Carol Oates Short Story
“By the River” Summary

“By the River” is a short story by Joyce Carol Oates that appeared in her 1972 collection Marriages and Infidelities and was also selected for the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. It’s about a young woman who’s just returned home after running away with a man in the city. Here’s a summary of “By the River”.

“By the River” Summary

Helen sits in the familiar waiting room at the bus station in Oriskany after being away four months in Derby. Years ago, before she was married, she and her friends would watch the people getting off the bus. She’s waiting for her father to come pick her up to go back to her old life.

She’s going home to her parents, not her husband, whom she married five years ago at seventeen. Helen feels the ticket-sellers gaze and gets up to break it, looking at herself in the mirror, which always makes her feel better. She sits down again.

The man she was with in Derby told her she was a different person now, not like the child she had been. He wanted her to divorce her husband and marry him. The thought was too much for her and she couldn’t listen.

She told her father she’d be on the three-fifteen bus and he’s fifteen minutes late. He was slow and solemn on the phone. No one here trusts the city, but she wasn’t afraid to go. She feels odd coming back.

Helen makes eye-contact with a sailor sitting nearby. She knows men well, unlike her older sister. She looks away; there’s no time for anything right now.

Helen’s father represents protection to her. He’s always helped her, though she’s too giving and trusting with people, especially men. She might be a bit nervous about how he’s going to be this time.

Helen remembers the man in Derby. He was over forty, was a book-keeper, drank too much and had an apologetic manner. He cried when she called her father. She won’t think of him here. It wasn’t her husband or little girl who drew her back home. It was her old farmhouse her father bought seventeen years ago.

Helen’s father arrives and she greets him warmly. He’s a bit slower picking up her suitcase, and he handles the steering wheel a bit oddly. She asks if Ma is mad because she didn’t come, but he says no. Her mother was always more dissatisfied with her than he was.

Her father encourages her to sleep on the way home. She leans against his shoulder but it’s not as comfortable as it should be. She remembers when they moved into the country house from the city. They were hopeful with the prospect of a new life, but there were problems with the place. It seemed shabby after a half hour.

Helen’s father swerves to avoid hitting a rabbit; he doesn’t like killing animals. She asks why Ma didn’t want to come. They drive past the house of an old family, “the money people”, as her father would refer to them. She remembers how the comment ruined a family ride once; her mother go irritated by it. Helen remembers she’d been thinking of her mother. Her thoughts run to the past a lot. When she settles in at home, she’ll decide what to do about her husband and the baby.

Her father says he didn’t want Ma to come. Helen remembers going to the movies a lot in the city and knowing she could make her man feel better when he came home. He needed her so she’s not sure why she left.

Helen will rest today and get in touch with her husband, Paul, tomorrow. He’ll take her back; he loves and understands her. Helen thinks Ma might be sick, but her father says no.

“By the River” Summary, Cont’d

Helen and her father disagree on whether she can remember when they moved to the house. He doesn’t believe she can, even when she recounts some details. He drives jerkily, and Helen worries that he’s getting old. As a child, she always thought of him when she was afraid. Her family liked her but she always ran to her father. She started to understand men by watching his reactions. Maybe she came home because of him.

Helen apologizes to him for leaving; she doesn’t know why she did it. She asks if he talked to Paul about it.

Paul came to the house almost daily for three weeks after she left, then on and off. He didn’t tell Paul she was coming home. He didn’t tell Ma either. Helen is nervous and thinks her father is ashamed of her.

They drive along the bends of the river and over a rickety wooden bridge. Helen explains that she didn’t forget her family while she was gone. She says Paul and his family are smart and her father agrees. His parents built their house for them and his mother’s nice to her. It felt different, though. Everything is always supposed to be clean and tidy, even when she’s tired with the baby.

Her father says people with money are nice and don’t complain, but Helen gives counter examples of people they know. Plus, he’s nicer than anyone.

Helen’s father stops the car although they’re miles from home. The heat makes him want to rest a minute. This isn’t like him, and Helen remembers bringing him water out in the field as a child. He looks older and his face is strangely white, like it looked when her oldest brother, Eddie, had pushed him once. She tries to revive him with talk of going home.

Her father wants to go down by the river for a minute. As they walk down, he reminisces about life. He did all the work at his father-in-laws store. Somebody else got the house when they died. They started over out here but the house was bad—the roof half rotted and the well no good. The community didn’t accept them, viewing them like the hillbillies who used to live there and owed everyone money. They were looked down on, and he prayed they would all lose what they had. He worked harder than any of them.

He breaks a branch that the fishermen have placed by the river for their poles, which kids don’t even do. Helen is concerned and thinks he’s been drinking.

He only loved Helen out of everyone because she didn’t remember the bad treatment they endured. He worked for himself and so she could have a big, new farm and nice car when she grew up. Helen says she was happy as they were and didn’t marry Paul for his money. Helen feels chilled and thinks they shouldn’t be at the river anymore. She wants to leave.

Helen’s father didn’t think about God after their early mistreatment. He felt on his own. Things gradually got better. They paid off the farm and upgraded, the others greeted them in church sometimes, Mike’s got a nice place, and he and Bill make enough on the farm. He never wanted money; when Helen called last night he tried to figure out what it was he wanted.

He asks why she ran off with that man. She explains that he loved her and was so nice. He asks why she came back, but she can’t explain. It could even be the river. They’ve come far down the river bank now.

Helen sees a familiar knife in her father’s hand. He walks up to her, puts a hand on her shoulder and plunges it into her chest up to the hilt.

He washes the knife in the river and squats down by it. He sits on the ground by her body for hours. When the sky and water begin to darken, he knows he has to figure out what to do next.

I hope this summary of “By the River” by Joyce Carol Oates was helpful.