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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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

When The Wheel of Love was published in 1970, Joyce Carol Oates was already an established writer of fiction and poetry. What was still open to debate was whether she was a serious ‘‘literary’’ writer or just a popular one. As she has often pointed out in interviews, this argument is based on the sexist premise that such a prolific female writer must have aspired to popularity instead of art. The stories in Wheel of Love continued to divide critical opinion, but in the decades since, several of them, including ‘‘How I Contemplated,’’ have taken their place among the best of American short fiction.

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Gilman noted that in some of the stories Oates created ‘‘a verbal excitement, a sense of language used not for the expression of previously attained insights or perceptions but for new imaginative reality.’’ Reviewer James A. Avant of the Library Journal singled out ‘‘How I Contemplated’’ as one of the stories that demonstrated Oates’s ‘‘striking expansions of the limits of fiction.’’ Avant also goes on to concede that ‘‘One must really go ahead and call her, at the outrageous age of 32, a great writer.’’ On the other hand, Gilman also concludes that Oates’s stories are full of ‘‘a great deal of ‘expressive’ rumination about feeling [which] is accompanied by very little feeling itself.’’ Similarly, critic R. E. Long wrote in the Saturday Review that the book is ‘‘full of cleverness and nimble invention, but it lacks the sense of a deep involvement with life.’’

Oates, who has written scores of stories for magazines, said in an interview with Robert Phillips for the Paris Review, that if she’s ‘‘serious about a story,’’ she’ll ‘‘preserve it in book form.’’ Otherwise she ‘‘intends it to be forgotten.’’ Since the early reviews of The Wheel of Love, some of the stories in the collection, including ‘‘How I Contemplated,’’ in the collection have become staples of American literature anthologies. Although somewhat over-shadowed by another story about adolescence in the volume, ‘‘Where are your Going, Where Have You Been?’’, ‘‘How I Contemplated’’ has continued to invite critical readings due to its innovative form and its portrayal of adolescent subjectivity.

Critical responses to the stories in Wheel of Love are typical of reactions to Oates work throughout her long and amazingly prolific career. In the first decades of her career she was often dismissed as just a ‘‘woman’’ writer, not a serious (male) writer. At the same time, however, she faced harsh criticism for writing about violent subjects that were considered off limits to female writers. Ironically, feminist critics who began the project in the 1970s of reconsidering and resuscitating American women writers never really gave Oates the attention she deserved. This has to do with Oates long-standing refusal to be identified as (just) a woman writer. In the words of noted feminist scholar and fellow Princeton professor Elaine Showalter, ‘‘feminist critics have sometimes taken Oates’s insistence that the imagination has no gender as a denial of her social identity as a woman writer, . . . Oates’s sense of herself as what she calls a ‘(woman) writer’ has intensified during the 1980s. In the last two decades, Showalter claims, Oates has added a new dimension to her writing, ‘‘an exchange with . . . [a] complex female literary heritage.’’

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Essays and Criticism