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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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

Rather than presenting her story by means of a smoothly unfolding plot in which actions mount spirally to a climax and then unwind to a denouement, Joyce Carol Oates here juxtaposes a series of emotionally charged vignettes, impressions reminiscent of picture slides.

These vignettes are filtered through the narrator’s confused, half-formed artistic consciousness; she does not yet comprehend the logical connections, the cause-and-effect relationships, of the events she relates. That she writes “Nothing” under the heading “People and Circumstances Contributing to this Delinquency” suggests her present inability to digest and interpret the painful flux of experience. The key to the story’s style, then, is the fact that the girl’s fragmentary notes are a rough draft. The finished product should give coherence to her jumbled experiences and lead to understanding of her predicament. Ultimately, with emotional distance and greater artistic awareness, she will see what the careful reader sees—that these impressions are an indictment of the obsessive materialism of her parents. She will gain greater control over her art, but her artistic perception of experience is already evident here, in such unconscious devices as the repeated association of the color pink with her plush but corrupt surroundings, in the metaphorical use of weather to suggest emotional states, and in references to sexual abuse and incest that symbolically link her father to Simon.

For now, it is enough to get these hostile impressions on paper as a purging of fears and uncertainties. The glut of uninterpreted physical detail, the detached, impersonal, third-person point of view (she refers to herself always as “the girl”), the choppy sentences and objective observations, all combine to convey the narrator’s numbness of spirit, the aftermath of trauma. Conveyed, too, is the isolation of the girl’s inner self—separated for a while from the outside world and from that battered external self who appears to her as a stranger. To heal this split between the perceiving self and the self perceived is an essential quest of the story.

Historical Context

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Urban Decay
The late 1960s and early 1970s in America was a period marked by huge and permanent economic and demographic changes. Particularly hard hit by these sweeping changes were many of the country’s large industrial cities. Detroit became synonymous with urban decay and what soon came to be known as ‘‘white flight.’’ As the narrator describes it, Detroit is ‘‘a large famous city that is a symbol for large famous American cities.’’

The trends had begun much earlier. In the years immediately following the end of World War II, veterans and their families enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and the high birth rate now known as the baby boom. As a consequence these families began to leave the inner cities for newly created suburbs and housing developments. This exodus from what had been thriving mixed-use neighborhoods in large cities set off a chain reaction that reached a crisis in the late 1960s and that continues to reverberate today. As families with at least modest means abandon urban neighborhoods, only those too poor to move remain. The poorer residents are unable to support the surrounding businesses and they in turn must move outward to the suburbs to be closer to their customers. Thus, the inner city loses the tax base that commercial property provides, further depleting the resources and degrading the services for the remaining residents. Public schools struggle to meet children’s needs and to attract qualified teachers. Naturally, major employers soon find the suburbs more attractive and abandon the city’s core as well. One of the most insidious aspects of this demographic shift is the racial segregation that it causes. The population that moves out to the suburbs is primarily white, while those that stay in the city are primarily people of color. Thus the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity is reinforced and unequal and segregated school systems grow up within miles of each other.

Racial Tension and Violence
Not surprisingly, the demographic configurations and the economic and social disparities involved of major United States cities resulted in escalating tensions between the races. In the summers of 1967 and 1968 race riots erupted in major cities across the country. In several instances, the National Guard was called upon to restore order. These riots were sparked by a number of causes and found ample kindling in the deteriorating and minority- dominated inner cities. The civil rights movement in the south had awakened black radicalism in northern cities as well, and black power movements such as the Black Panthers gained considerable popular support among minorities and inspired fear and terror in most white people. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968 initiated widespread protest, some of which became violent. In the summer of 1967 forty-three people were killed in race riots in the streets of Detroit. The images of this kind of violence further deterred white people from living or shopping in—or even driving through—the inner cities.

Women’s Lib
The women’s movement of the 1960s sought to liberate the suburban housewife. Almost exclusively a white, middle-class movement, women’s lib, as this phase of feminism was known, exposed the myth of the happy consumer housewife and implored women to seek fulfillment in other areas of their lives. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 and the best-seller book of 1964, was the manifesto. In the words of New Yorker writer Daphne Merkin in a recent review of Freidan’s biography, the book addressed ‘‘an amorphous malaise that afflicted college-educated American women, who smothered their children with attention, had unrealistic expectations of their husbands, and then sought to assuage their sense of quiet desperation by downing pills or having joyless extramarital affairs.’’ Of course, many housewives and mothers resisted the radicalizing temptations and stuck firmly to the ideals they had inherited from their mothers. In the language of the movement, those who did so did not want to raise their consciousness and confront their dissatisfactions with their traditional, if comfortable, lives. One group, however, who would have found the rhetoric of women’s lib impossible to ignore, is the daughters of these women. Young women rebelled against their mothers’ examples, unsure of what they would become, but certain never to fall into the confinement of the unfulfilled housewife.


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Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Daly, Brenda O. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Literary Style

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Fragmentary Structure
Even many years after the story’s publication, the structure of ‘‘How I Contemplated’’ is still striking and somewhat unsettling to readers. The experimental form Oates uses is fragmentary and full of gaps. Instead of writing the story of an affluent young girl’s temporary descent into a life on the streets and in a house of corrections, she gives readers only the girl’s own notes for an essay that she may or may not ever write.

What appears to be an orderly outline in twelve sections is really a random and partial arrangement of information recollected a year after the events. In the words of critic Sue Simpson Park, the sections are ‘‘repetitive, disjointed, and dispersive . . . indicative of the state of mind of the sixteen-year-old protagonist, confused, questioning, attempting to make sense of the senseless, to impose order upon the chaos.’’ Although the complete title removes any doubt the reader may have about whether the story has a ‘‘happy ending,’’ (she is writing a paper for a private school and has declared that she began her life over again), readers still have to piece together the narrative and read between the lines. One of the most significant gaps appears in the section titled ‘‘People & Circumstances Contributing to This Delinquency.’’ Under this heading is only the word, ‘‘nothing,’’ which suggests to the reader not that there are no contributing factors, but that the young narrator cannot see them or doesn’t want to talk about them. In other words, the absence of reasons prompts readers to speculate and to supply reasons of their own to explain the girl’s behavior.

The sixteen-year-old girl who composes these notes for an essay is what is known as an unreliable narrator. She’s the only one who tells the story, but the version she offers is limited and possibly altered by her narrow point of view. The narrator’s unreliability takes several forms. First, she is only sixteen and thus has the adolescent’s limited and selfcentered view of the world. In addition, only a year has passed since the events and she has not had sufficient time to gain perspective on what has happened. In fact, it seems like these notes for the essay represent a preliminary attempt (other than her visits to the psychiatrist) to organize her experience into a coherent pattern. Second, narrative features like blank spaces for names, series of questions ( ‘‘A pretty girl? An ugly girl?’’) and missing details cast doubt on her credibility. These missing details are especially noticeable because on other occasions she proves herself capable of remarkable candor and keen observation. For example, she’s willing to admit to the other petty crimes she committed before getting caught shoplifting and she’s able to render a nuanced and vibrant portrait of suburban life, complete with such vivid details as the car heavy enough ’’ to split a squirrel’s body in two equal parts.’’

The device of the unreliable narrator enhances the story’s effect. It would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect a sixteen-year-old to render a complete and objective account of such a traumatic set of events. The sketchy, uncertain and sometime evasive narrative structure is typical of an adolescent’s (especially a troubled one’s) world view and contributes to the story’s authenticity and power. Finally, the narrator’s unreliability makes the openended and ambiguous ending possible. It’s impossible to be certain if she is being sincere when she claims that she will ‘‘never leave home,’’ and that she is ‘‘in love with everything here.’’

Media Adaptations

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‘‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,’’ the companion story to ‘‘How I Contemplated,’’ was adapted as a film, Smooth Talk, directed by Joyce Chopra and starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, and Mary Kay Place. It was originally produced in 1985 for the ‘‘American Playhouse Series’’ on the Public Broadcasting System and is available from Live Home Video and Vestron Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Avant, James A. Interview, in The Library Journal, September 1, 1970.

Gilman, Richard. Review of The Wheel of Love, in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1970, p. 4.

Long, R. E. Review of The Wheel of Love, in The Saturday Review, October 24, 1970.

Phillips, Robert. Interview, in The Paris Review, Fall, 1978, pp. 199-206.

Showalter, Elaine. ‘‘My Friend, Joyce Carol Oates: An Intimate Portrait,’’ in Ms. Magazine, March, 1986, pp. 44-50.

Further Reading
Creighton, Joanne. Joyce Carol Oates, TUSAS, Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1979. Like all volumes in this series, this book provides an overview of the author’s life and work to date. It also contains a thorough and easy to use bibliography.

Milazzo, Lee, ed. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, 1989. A collection of interviews from 1969-1988, the book provides insight into the life and work of a dedicated and prolific writer.

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Critical Essays


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