What I'm Going to Do, I Think Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, is an absorbing character study of two newlyweds, each of whom is originally drawn to the other as opposites proverbially attract. Chris Van Eenanam, the protagonist, is a listless mathematics graduate student, an unhappy agnostic preoccupied with his unsure footing in the world. Put simply, he lacks vocation or a consuming vision of what he should do with his life. The novel’s title thus accentuates his self-doubt and indecision, echoing something Chris’s father once said in observing his accident-prone son: “What I’m going to do, I think, is get a new kid.” Ellen Strohe, his pregnant bride, is a tortured young woman, dominated by overbearing grandparents who raised her after her parents’ accidental death. Neither she nor Chris can abide her grandparents’ interference and meddling.

Little action takes place “live” before the reader, as Woiwode’s psychological realism deploys compacted action and flashbacks and the patterned repetition of certain incidents to carry the reader along as effortlessly as might a conventionally chronological narrative. The reader learns “what happens,” primarily as events filter through the conversations and consciousness of Chris and Ellen during their extended honeymoon at her grandparents’ cabin near Lake Michigan. This tantalizing use of personal perception and vaguely unreliable memory has become a trademark of Woiwode’s characterization. It permits him wide latitude in choosing when and how to reveal his characters’ motivations and responses to the events that shape their lives.

In their retreat from the decisions that Chris chooses not to...

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What I'm Going to Do, I Think Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because the author’s emphasis is mainly on what happens within his characters, particularly within Chris and Ellen, the external action is compact, told partly through flashbacks and cyclical repetition of certain facts or incidents. Toward the end of his undergraduate days in Madison, Wisconsin, while at a party, Chris meets Ellen, whom he finds intelligent, disturbed, withdrawn, and deeply affecting. Beginning turbulently and evoking mixed feelings, the relationship continues for three years, including a one-year hiatus, which Ellen spends on her own in New York, partially influenced by her grandparents’ disapproval of Chris, whom they have met in the couple’s inspection visit at the Strohes’ labyrinthine seventeen-room villa in Milwaukee. At the end of this period, moved by what is still a mixture of not altogether consistent deep feelings and by Ellen’s premarital pregnancy, the couple decide to wed, call several churches in Madison, and finally convince a sympathetic young Presbyterian minister (who is not told about Ellen’s as yet undetectable condition) to perform a quick ceremony.

After a second, even more disastrous visit at Ellen’s grandparents’ place to break the matrimonial news, the couple honeymoon at the Strohes’ lodge in Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Most of the novel takes place there, as the couple continue to grapple with their innermost feelings and beliefs, each other, their new marital state, and their...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

What I'm Going to Do, I Think Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Nelson, Shirley. “Stewards of the Imagination: Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller.” Christian Century 112 (January 25, 1995): 82-85. Nelson interviews Hansen, Woiwode, and Miller, focusing on the role of religion in their works, as well as readers’ reactions to their novels.

Scheick, William J. “Memory in Larry Woiwode’s Novels.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1985): 29-40. Scheick discusses the importance of memory in three of Woiwode’s novels, What I’m Going to Do, I Think (1969), Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975), and Poppa John (1981). He identifies two types of memories, those that make a character feel guilt and long for death and those that develop a sense of connection to one’s family. The ability to order these allows Woiwode’s characters to achieve a balance between them.

Woiwode, Larry. “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell.” Renascence 44 (1991): 3-16. Woiwode discusses the problem of being considered merely a regional writer because he writes about the Midwest. He says that all writers must write about some place, and only geographical chauvinism makes one place better than another. The author also asserts that the main duty of a Christian writer is to write the truth, which means to write about a place in precise detail.

Woiwode, Larry. “Where the Buffalo Roam: An Interview with Larry Woiwode.” Interview by Rick Watson. North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Fall, 1996): 154-166. A revealing interview about Woiwode’s homecoming and the effect it has had on his writing.