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.)