Oates was born in Lockport, New York to Carolina Oates, a homemaker, and Frederic Oates, a tool and die designer. She was raised Catholic but is now an atheist. Oates grew up in the working-class farming community of Millersport, New York, and characterized hers as "a happy, close-knit and unextraordinary family for our time, place and economic status". Her paternal grandmother, Blanche Woodside, lived with the family and was "very close" to Joyce. After Blanche's death, Joyce learned that Blanche's father had killed himself and Blanche had subsequently concealed herJewish heritage; Oates eventually drew on aspects of her grandmother's life in writing the 2007 novel The Gravedigger's Daughter. A brother, Fred Junior, was born in 1943, and a sister, Lynn Ann, who is severely autistic, was born in 1956.
At the beginning of her education, Oates attended the same one-room school her mother attended as a child. She became interested in reading at an early age, and remembers Blanche's gift ofLewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight!" In her early teens, she devoured the writing of William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë, whose "influences remain very deep". Oates began writing at the age of 14, when Blanche gave her a typewriter. Oates later transferred to several bigger, suburban schools, and graduated from Williamsville South High School in 1956, where she worked for her high school newspaper. She was the first in her family to complete high school.
Oates won a scholarship to attend Syracuse University, where she joined Phi Mu. Oates found Syracuse "a very exciting place academically and intellectually", and trained herself by "writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them." It was not until this point that Oates began reading the work of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, though, she noted, "these influences are still quite strong, pervasive." At the age of nineteen, she won the "college short story" contest sponsored by Mademoiselle. Oates graduated Syracuse as valedictorian in 1960, and received her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1961.