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

by Joyce Carol Oates
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

“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.

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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: “I wanted to steal but not to buy.” A status seeker like the mother, the father is equally oblivious to the girl’s needs. He is off reading a paper at a medical convention in Los Angeles at the moment the daughter is arrested for shoplifting. The father would agree with the ironic, impersonal note sent home from school, that though the girl made off with a copy of Pageant Magazine for no reason and swiped a roll of Lifesavers, she was “in no need of saving her life.” The parents’ evasion of responsibility leads them to conclude that their daughter’s problems are attributable solely to “a slight physiological modification known only to a gynecologist.” The girl hardly remembers her brother, who has been sent to a preparatory school in Maine.

Further notes establish that the atmosphere of affluence that intoxicates her parents nauseates and suffocates the girl. The neighborhood is heavy with conspicuous symbols of upper-middle-class success, yet its rigidly conformist social patterns leave no room for individuality or spontaneous...

(The entire section contains 729 words.)

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