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

Joyce Carol Oates

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On the one hand, the girl’s notes are an indictment of the soulless materialism of her parents, which stifles the girl’s emotional and artistic growth. On the other hand, the notes are, like the art of fiction itself, a gesture of liberation, of purgation and self-discovery. Clearly, this is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, albeit a girl who must take to the streets to search for life-affirming experience to fill the void she feels. So uncertain is the girl’s sense of personal identity that she is “a secret” to herself—one more stranger in the sea of bewildering events and faces whose connections and meanings she records and hopes to understand.

In the sterile, suburban utopia of the parents, people are viewed as possessions, adornments, or attachments, valued not for their human qualities but for their ability to function harmoniously in the community’s regulated social machinery. The door to the girl’s home has a brass knocker “never knocked,” and even the weather is described as “planted and performing.” In this plasticized environment, people experience “ecstasy” not in relation to one another but in response to a smooth bathtub of bubbly pink water, a man’s trouser pockets filled with coins, keys, dust, and peanuts, or income tax returns.

It is her quest for a more honest and spontaneous way of being that takes the narrator into the violent world of Simon and Clarita. The narrator must make herself...

(The entire section is 540 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Love is the engine that drives all of the girl’s behavior in ‘‘How I Contemplated.’’ She may be misguided, self-destructive, and immature, but the narrator’s actions all derive from her desire to be loved. Despite their generosity, the girl’s parents seem unable to give her the attention and unguarded affection that she craves. She describes her mother as icy, distant, and artfully constructed and her father as powerful, distracted, and unavailable. As we learn through several references in the story, the narrator’s older brother, away at college, engages in the same desperate attention-getting behaviors.

In the narrator’s eyes, the mother possesses an other-wordly charm and poise that she feels she can neither live up to nor puncture. Her mother is ‘‘a lady . . . self-conscious and unreal.’’ She has ‘‘hair like blown-up gold and finer than gold, hair and fingers and body of inestimable grace.’’ She is, above all, too busy and too self-absorbed to pay attention when her daughter is caught stealing from the ‘‘excellent’’ store. The mother’s awkward and ineffective way of showing affection for her daughter is to buy her things in the hope that she will transform herself from an awkward, sullen teenager to a polished artifact like herself. The narrator recalls shopping with her mother, listening to her urging ‘‘why don’t you want this, try this on, take this with you to the fitting room, take this also, what’s wrong with you, what can I do for you, why are you so strange . . .?’’ The narrator wants to tell her mother that she ‘‘wanted to steal but not to buy,’’ but decides not to.

The narrator’s father is described not so much in terms of his appearance (like the mother is), but rather in terms of what he does; he is defined by his actions. The narrator’s father’s reaction to problems is to fix them. He handles his daughter’s shoplifting episode in the same clinical, pragmatic manner that he uses to treat patients. He gets in touch with the store owner and makes the problem go away. He is completely blind to the fact that his daughter’s behavior is a cry for his attention, not his expertise. The narrator recalls poignantly that her father is out of town at a medical convention when she was arrested in the department...

(The entire section is 951 words.)