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

Joyce Carol Oates

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.