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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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

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.

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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.

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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 vulnerable to life, exposing herself to its ravages, to test her own nature in a world not protected from suffering or true ecstasy. If the emotional weather here is erratic and stormy, its turbulence is preferable to the superficial well-being of her previous life—to no weather at all. Desperate love is better than no love, and despite the filth, injustice, and brutality, the day-to-day struggle for street survival is life-affirming. In short, this is an atmosphere in which the girl can breathe (Simon, she says, “breathes gravity into me”), in which people are ready for laughter or tears, and in which, however accompanied by pain, compassion and creativity have a chance to grow.

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Still, salvation for this incipient artist is no more likely to come in Simon’s anguished, self-destructive world than in the uniform anonymity of her parents’ life. Although her emotional confusion drives her once more back into the protected world of wealth and privilege, her reference to the “movieland sun” that breaks over her doll’s house of a home and to the unfamiliar face that peers back at her from the shiny toaster shows that her crisis is far from resolved, that the role she is trying to assume is incompatible with her future artistic destiny. Suggestive of the final image and words of Dorothy in the film The Wizard of Oz (1939), the girl figuratively draws up her legs into a fetal position and vows never to leave home again. However, a healthier, more positive ending is in store. These notes are her promise to herself that, like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, she has an artist’s awareness, honesty, creativity, and active social conscience that will allow her entrance into a world of her own artistic creation.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951

Love
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 store. She also wonders, ‘‘where he was when Clarita put her hand on my arm, that wintry dark sulphurous day in Detroit.’’ It remains unclear at the conclusion of the story whether her father will ever show her the love she wants, but at least he drives her home and holds her while she sobs in his arms.

The narrator’s most desperate act in her search for love and affection is clearly her liaison with Simon and Clarita. Young and confused, the narrator seeks in Simon the physical affection that is missing in the relationships with her reserved and distant parents. What she finds instead is abusive sex and drugs and prostitution. On some level, however, Simon does fulfill some need for her. Asking herself a year later ‘‘Would I go back to Simon again? Would I lie down with him in all that filth and craziness?’’, she has to answer, ‘‘Over and over again.’’ Ironically, Simon does make one genuine gesture of affection toward the narrator. By turning her in to the authorities, as she suspects he has, he helps her by doing the very thing that both of her cold and overprotective parents had failed to do.

Class and Race Conflict
The contrast between Sioux Drive and Detroit on which the story depends points to a deep and troubling divide between white suburbia and the minority-inhabited inner city. The circumstances and inequities that created and sustain this division form the backdrop of the story (see below). The narrator’s beliefs and behaviors also express her awareness of and ambivalence toward the racial and social conflict that simmers just beneath the surface.

The narrator’s disdain for the affluent and protected world she and her parents live in is obvious in her scathing and sarcastic descriptions of life on Sioux Drive. She lists the number of rooms and architectural features of the houses in her neighborhood, on streets patrolled by ‘‘a private police force . . . in unmarked cars.’’ On a Saturday night, the watch out for ‘‘residents who are streaming in and out of houses, going to and from parties, a thousand parties.’’ Life on Sioux drive is so self-contained, so insular, she writes, that ‘‘when spring comes, its winds blow nothing to Sioux Drive, no odors of hollyhocks or forsythia, nothing Sioux Drive doesn’t already possess.’’ Like many teenagers, the narrator rebels against the lifestyle and values of her parents. In 1968, however, her rejection of her parents’ way of life has a political dimension as well. She longs to be identified with the other world, Sioux Drive’s opposite, Detroit and to be accepted by its inhabitants in order to take sides against her parents. This flawed reasoning leads her first to Simon’s false arrest and then to her stubborn posturing in the house of correction. Finally, she is forced to confront the shallowness and pointlessness of her position when she is beaten up by Princess and Dolly who ‘‘vent all the hatred of a thousand silent Detroit winters on her body.’’ After the beating, the narrator rushed back to the safety of Sioux Drive, where there are ‘‘sugar doughnuts for breakfast,’’ and where ‘‘sunlight breaks in movieland patches on the roof of our traditional contemporary home.’’ The injustices and tensions between Detroit and Sioux Drive, between black and white, remain unchanged.

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Characters