How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again Summary (Joyce Carol Oates)

Joyce Carol Oates


(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘How I Contemplated the World From the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again’’ was first published in magazine form in 1969 and then collected in her 1970 volume of short stories called The Wheel of Love. Its sarcastic rendering of upper-middle-class suburban life is not only an accurate critique of that aspect of American life, it is also a true rendering of the adolescent world view that rings as true today as it did when the story was written.

The story’s experimental form seemed lifeless to some early critics, but has proven to have given the story literary staying power. The full title, ‘‘Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending . . . ,’’ invites readers to compare the prediction for a happy ending with the story the narrator tells at the end. Given her gift for sarcasm, is she telling the truth when she claims to ‘‘love everything’’ once she’s returned to the safety, if sterile, of her parents’ large suburban home? In the case of ‘‘How I Contemplated,’’ ambiguity and incompleteness in the narrative add to rather than detract from the story’s richness.


(Short Stories for Students)

In a partial and disorganized set of notes for an essay for her English class at a private school, a sixteenyear- old girl tells the story of a set of events that lead her to a house of correction and to an opportunity to contemplate her life and begin over again. Though the details are not presented in chronological order, the full story does emerge upon careful reading.

At fifteen years old, the narrator, the child of wealthy parents in one of Detroit’s most affluent suburbs, escalates her habits of stealing and vandalizing by shoplifting a pair of gloves from an ‘‘excellent’’ department store and gets caught. Her parents react by hushing everything up and smoothing it over, and she never gets whatever attention she was craving. Her mother just wants to know why ‘‘if she wanted gloves, why didn’t you say so?’’. The narrator thinks, ‘‘I wanted to steal, but not to buy,’’ but she doesn’t tell her mother. Consequently, her next act of rebellion is even more drastic. She walks out of school and runs away to downtown Detroit, where she is so out of place that she doesn’t even know what a pawn shop is for. Alone, vulnerable, and still desperate for the affection her chilly parents deny her, she is easy prey for Clarita, a prostitute, and her pimp, Simon, a drug addict. After an unspecified period of prostitution and abuse, the narrator is eventually picked up by the police and turned over to a juvenile facility. There she...

(The entire section is 447 words.)