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: 658

Clarita
A woman of indeterminate age (between twenty and thirty-five), she is an addict and a prostitute. She has ‘‘an odor of tobacco about her,’’ and has ‘‘unwashed skin, gritty toes, hair long and falling into strands, not recently washed.’’ She has been living on the streets since she was about thirteen years old.

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Dr. Coronet
Isabelle Coronet is the psychiatrist that the narrator’s parents send her to twice a week after her return from the house of corrections. The narrator describes her as ‘‘queenly,’’ but surprisingly ‘‘normal for a woman with an I.Q. of 180 and many advanced degrees.’’

Dolly
A ‘‘white girl of maybe fifteen,’’ Dolly is one of the two girls in the house of correction who beat the narrator in the bathroom.

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Father
The narrator’s father, whose name she does not provide, is a successful physician, a member of all the right clubs, a ‘‘player of squash and golf.’’ He is a prominent member of the community of Bloom- field Hills and is able to use his social connections to smooth over his children’s difficulties with the authorities, but he seems to be unable to show them the love and attention they need.

Mr. Forest
Though ‘‘not handsome,’’ Mr. Forest, the English teacher, is described by the narrator as ‘‘sweet and rodentlike.’’ It’s for his English class at Baldwin Country Day School that these ‘‘notes for an essay’’ are being written.

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Raymond Forrest
Raymond Forrest is the owner of the ‘‘excellent’’ department store from which the narrator steals the gloves. After she returns home from the hospital and the house of correction, she reads that his father has died of a heart attack and feels an impulse to send a sympathy note.

Mother
Like the father, the mother goes unnamed throughout the story. Also like the narrator’s father, the mother belongs to all the right clubs. She attends lectures and art openings and drives a ‘‘Lincoln, long and black’’ like all the other wealthy matrons on Sioux Drive. Physically, she is always stylishly and perfectly dressed, and has ‘‘hair like blown-up gold and finer than gold, hair and fingers and body of inestimable grace.’’

Narrator
Only fifteen years old when she runs away and ends up in the house of correction, the narrator, who never gives her name, is sixteen when she tries to describe her experiences in notes for an essay for her English class. She lives in her parents’ large and comfortable suburban home in the suburbs of Detroit, but her rebellious and self-destructive impulses lead her to shoplifting, prostitution, and ultimately the house of correction. She is ambivalent about her affluent background and describes her parents and all of Bloomfield Hills with scathing sarcasm. Nevertheless, her experiences with Simon and the beating she suffers at the house of correction sent her fleeing back to the protection and comfort of her parents’ wealth and privilege. She doesn’t provide many details about her own physical appearance, except that she wears her ‘‘hair loose and long and straight in suburban teen-age style, 1968.’’

Princess
As the narrator describes her, Princess is ‘‘a Negro girl of eighteen.’’ She is ‘‘shrewd and silent’’ and the narrator is fascinated by her. At first she seems to take an interest in protecting the narrator, but later she is one of the two girls who corner and beat her.

Simon
Simon is the drug addict and pimp who seduces and uses the narrator after Clarita brings her to him. He is ‘‘said to have come from a ‘‘home not much different’’ from the narrator’s, but he has descended completely into the junkie’s life of desperation and crime. Despite how badly he treats her, she craves his touch and affection. Even a year later, she confesses that she would go back to him. She also believes that Simon is the one who saved her by telling the authorities that she was a runaway.

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