How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again Summary

Joyce Carol Oates


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Like a number of Joyce Carol Oates’s titles, both short stories such as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and novels such as Foxfire, “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” describes a troubled teenage girl. Subtitled “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 . . . ,” the story nervously straddles this double focus: On one hand, an outline for a composition any teenager might write for English class, the story also unfolds as a vivid descent into a violent world of sex and drugs.

The form of the story seems to contradict its content. Each of the numbered paragraphs in this prose outline comes under one of twelve major sections: “I Events,” “II Characters,” and so on, but this apparent attempt to order reality quickly breaks down as the content of the essay reveals itself: A sixteen-year-old girl has been caught stealing gloves from an expensive suburban Detroit store, and her shoplifting is only a hint of deeper problems. Later, the girl takes a bus to inner-city Detroit, where for two weeks she lives with a thirty-five-year-old drug addict named Simon and his prostitute girlfriend, Clarita. When Simon tires of the girl, he passes her to friends and finally to the police, where she is savagely beaten by two girls in a lavatory of...

(The entire section is 511 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life over Again” probes the case of a young girl from a “good” family who turns to crime. The opening lines of the story perfectly identify its content: “Notes for an essay for an English class at Baldwin County Day School; poking around in debris; disgust and curiosity; a revelation of the meaning of life; a happy ending.” The narrator uses the occasion of a school essay to examine the psychological “debris” of her recent life—the emotional turbulence and confusion that led to a stay in the Detroit House of Correction.

The narrator’s search for the meaning of her delinquency begins as she mentally revisits Branden’s, the large and luxurious department store where she was arrested for shoplifting. The store’s plushness and material glitter serve as an immediate symbol of the comfortable, insulated, middle-class existence of her parents against which the narrator rebels. With no logical transition, the girl’s notes move readers from the store’s interior to the parents’ sumptuous home (with “a small library”), where the astounded parents confront her for stealing a pair of gloves. The narrator knows that “there is a connection” between her bridge-playing mother and her physician father (doctor of the slightly ill), and between them and the manager of the store, his doctor, her brother, and the family’s maid. She knows that her “salvation” is bound up in these relationships, but their meaning is a painful blur.

The narrator’s next notes highlight the tragic alienation between daughter and family. The mother wonders why her daughter is “so strange”; perpetually in motion, she has no clue to the girl’s inner life, her secret obsession:...

(The entire section is 729 words.)