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

Joyce Carol Oates

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

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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.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 142 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Although the narrator seems genuinely frightened by the beating she received and seems happy to be home, do you think she is sorry for her other offenses? Has she taken responsibility for her stealing and vandalism? What do you predict for the remainder of her teenage years?

What do you think is attractive about Simon? Why does she say she would go back to him ‘‘over and over again.’’?

What did the city of Detroit look like in 1968? Write a description of the scene the narrator would have encountered when she got off the bus?

Could this story be written today? How would it be different? Is this story of teenage rebellion and isolation universal, or is it a story of the 1960s?

(The entire section is 123 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘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.

(The entire section is 61 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Dubliners (1914; rpt. 1949) by James Joyce is a collection of short stories that has become one of the classics of the coming-of-age genre. Joyce’s protagonists struggle to find their identities and learn the meaning of life in vividly depicted Catholic neighborhoods of Dublin.

‘‘Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?’’ by Joyce Carol Oates is the companion story to ‘‘How I Contemplated’’ in which a young girl’s sexual awakening occurs against a backdrop of potential violence.

This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolfe is the successful college professor and writer’s memoir of his childhood in an unstable family in a working-class town in the Northwest. The book, which was made into a film starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo De Caprio, is notable because the point of view never wavers from the child’s perspective.

(The entire section is 138 words.)