60 pages 2 hours read

Joyce Carol Oates

Blonde: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide


Blonde (2000) is a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life by Joyce Carol Oates. The protagonist is referred to as Norma Jeane throughout most of the novel, as well as the Blonde Actress, Monroe, the Beggar Maid, the Fair Princess, and the Showgirl. The novel is set between 1932 and 1962.

This guide refers to the 2009 reissue publication of the novel in Kindle form by HarperCollins.

Content Warning: Sexual assault and sexualization occur frequently throughout the novel. In addition, derogatory terms for women are used, and suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, and abortion are presented.

Plot Summary

Blonde is a fictional account of the historical Norma Jeane Baker’s life. The novel begins with a prologue, set in 1962, wherein a personified death heads toward Norma Jeane Baker’s home to deliver a package. The novel then reverts back to 1932, where Norma Jeane, as a child, lives with her mother, Gladys. Gladys struggles with mental health. She never identifies Norma Jeane’s father, though she shows her a picture of a man who she says is Norma Jeane’s father. Gladys says the man will come back for them, but she privately blames Norma Jeane for his absence. One day, Gladys starts a scalding bath for Norma Jeane, and the girl goes running to neighbors for help. Her mother is taken away, naked on a stretcher after trying to burn down her home with herself in it. She is confined to a mental-health-care facility for life. 

Norma Jeane goes to an orphanage, where she is exposed to Christian Science. Gladys refuses to give up her parental rights and allow adoption. Eventually, Norma Jeane goes into the foster-care system under the care of Elsie and Warren Pirig. She is happy there, but when Elsie notices Warren’s attraction to the 15-year-old girl, she decides to marry Norma Jeane off. Elsie arranges for Norma Jeane to meet Bucky Glazer, and three weeks later, the two are married. However, Bucky is intoxicated on the wedding day, terrifying Norma Jeane. The couple are happy at first, but Norma Jeane’s neediness pushes him away. Bucky begins photographing her nude, showing the pictures to his friends. He leaves for war, and Norma Jeane starts working at a factory.

At the factory, a man named Otto photographs her. She begins a modeling career, posing sexually. Eventually, Bucky sees these photos, as well as other men from Norma Jeane’s past. One day when she really needs money, she agrees to pose nude. Otto sells the nude photos.

Norma Jeane begins a film career and wants to be taken seriously as an actress. She gets her first role after visiting the Aviary of Mr. Z, a bigwig in the business. After a sexual encounter with the Mr. Z, she gets a part without auditioning. Unlike other actors who play parts, Norma Jeane inhabits her characters. At times, she believes she is her characters.

She has many romantic and sexual relationships. First, she is part of the Gemini love triangle with Cass Chaplin and Eddy G. The three are happy together, but Norma Jeane feels like an outsider. She knows she is significant because she is the woman in the relationship, but this is also what sets her apart. She becomes pregnant, but she aborts the pregnancy despite mixed feelings. She then enters into a relationship with a man called the Ex-Athlete. Their relationship is defined by jealousy, as she is growing more famous. The relationship is also violent, and he appears to have a detective track her after they divorce. Her final marriage is with the Playwright. They meet when she is pursuing a stage career, though he is married; he eventually leaves his wife for Norma Jeane. The new couple is happily in love, and they conceive a child. However, Norma Jeane has an accident and loses the baby. This marks the beginning of the end of their marriage.

During the course of the text, Norma Jeane develops a substance-use disorder. The studio doctor keeps her on drugs, but she begins seeing more doctors, none of whom know about each other, to secure more drugs. Norma Jeane’s last relationship is with President Kennedy. Norma Jeane and President Kennedy engage in demeaning sex, and she is drugged and raped by one of his men. She is later summoned to sing “Happy Birthday” to the President. Later, she is chloroformed by the President’s men, and an abortion is performed on her. The abortion sequence is surreal, and it is unclear if it is a dream or reality. Later, a man known as the Sharpshooter is sent to kill Norma Jeane with drugs, either because of her involvement with the President or because of her ties to communists. The novel ends as she sees a picture of her father smiling at her as she dies.