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

Joyce Carol Oates


(Short Stories for Students)

Love is the engine that drives all of the girl’s behavior in ‘‘How I Contemplated.’’ She may be misguided, self-destructive, and immature, but the narrator’s actions all derive from her desire to be loved. Despite their generosity, the girl’s parents seem unable to give her the attention and unguarded affection that she craves. She describes her mother as icy, distant, and artfully constructed and her father as powerful, distracted, and unavailable. As we learn through several references in the story, the narrator’s older brother, away at college, engages in the same desperate attention-getting behaviors.

In the narrator’s eyes, the mother possesses an other-wordly charm and poise that she feels she can neither live up to nor puncture. Her mother is ‘‘a lady . . . self-conscious and unreal.’’ She has ‘‘hair like blown-up gold and finer than gold, hair and fingers and body of inestimable grace.’’ She is, above all, too busy and too self-absorbed to pay attention when her daughter is caught stealing from the ‘‘excellent’’ store. The mother’s awkward and ineffective way of showing affection for her daughter is to buy her things in the hope that she will transform herself from an awkward, sullen teenager to a polished artifact like herself. The narrator recalls shopping with her mother, listening to her urging ‘‘why don’t you want this, try this on, take this with you to the fitting room, take this also, what’s wrong with you, what can I do for you, why are you so strange . . .?’’ The narrator wants to tell her mother that she ‘‘wanted to steal but not to buy,’’ but decides not to.

The narrator’s father is described not so much in terms of his appearance (like the mother is), but rather in terms of what he does; he is defined by his actions. The narrator’s father’s reaction to problems is to fix them. He handles his daughter’s shoplifting episode in the same clinical, pragmatic manner that he uses to treat patients. He gets in touch with the store owner and makes the problem go away. He is completely blind to the fact that his daughter’s behavior is a cry for his attention, not his expertise. The narrator recalls poignantly that her father is out of town at a medical convention when she was arrested in the department...

(The entire section is 951 words.)