“Three Girls” – A short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Brushes with greatness

David Letterman used to have a segment on his show where he went into the audience and did quick interviews with “ordinary people” who had had a fleeting encounter with a celebrity. If I recall correctly, when the audience member finished relating his story, Dave would then read his show’s “writer’s embellishments” which added some more (comical, of course) flavor to the story. It was a popular segment (though not on the same level as his “stupid human tricks” -naturally!) and one of my favorites.

(Hoosier native David Letterman in 2011)


The Joyce Carol Oates short story, Three Girls, from her great collection “I Am no One You Know” documents a brush with greatness that two young, college-age girls experienced. Told in a sort of flashback format and in the second person as one girl is years later recalling the story to the other, it was a compact and thought-provoking story.

The two girls – not named in the story – are in New York City at “Strand Used Books” at Broadway and Twelfth. And who should they see in the poetry section? None other than Marilyn Monroe! The famous actress is dressed down – almost like a man in a long overcoat – an obvious attempt to avoid recognition and the accompanying harassment that is so often the price of fame. The two girls are described by the one telling the story, who says, “we were not ’conventional’ females. In fact, we shared male contempt for the merely ’conventional’ female.” Until they meet Monroe in the store, they would have assumed that she was one of those “conventional females,” but as they watch her browse and peruse several books they begin to realize that she is not unlike them. “Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a READER. One of those who READS. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul.”

(note: found the photo below at http://www.sandradanby.com/famous-people-reading-marilyn-monroe/)


The two girls clumsily watch the star while trying to look like they’re not watching her. They begin to feel protective of Monroe, who has found at least a momentary anonymity in this bookstore which is a favorite haunt of theirs. Seeing the actress in a new light, they feel pity for her burden of fame. I particularly liked the following passage: “And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe’s wish. To be like us. for it was impossible, of course. for anyone could have told Marilyn Monroe, even two young girl-poets, that it was too late for her in history. Already, at age thirty (we could calculate afterward that this was her age) “Marilyn Monroe” had entered history, and there was no escape from it. Her films, her photos. Her face, her figure, her name. To enter history is to be abducted spiritually, with no way back.”

(below: author Joyce Carol Oates)


A great short story, only about ten pages, but like almost all of Oates’ work that I’ve encountered, it did not disappoint. It had the added bonus in that this tale was missing that “dark element” that is prevalent in much of her fiction.


I have found the “I Am No One You Know” collection to be a great group of stories and have posted about several of them before. (The Mutants, Cumberland Breakdown, and In Hiding to name a few) What are your favorite works by Joyce Carol Oates? Have you had a “brush with greatness” you’d like to share with the citizens of Bibliophilopolis?

(Below: actress Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits {her final film})