What I'm Going to Do, I Think Summary
by Larry Woiwode

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What I'm Going to Do, I Think Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, is an absorbing character study of two newlyweds, each of whom is originally drawn to the other as opposites proverbially attract. Chris Van Eenanam, the protagonist, is a listless mathematics graduate student, an unhappy agnostic preoccupied with his unsure footing in the world. Put simply, he lacks vocation or a consuming vision of what he should do with his life. The novel’s title thus accentuates his self-doubt and indecision, echoing something Chris’s father once said in observing his accident-prone son: “What I’m going to do, I think, is get a new kid.” Ellen Strohe, his pregnant bride, is a tortured young woman, dominated by overbearing grandparents who raised her after her parents’ accidental death. Neither she nor Chris can abide her grandparents’ interference and meddling.

Little action takes place “live” before the reader, as Woiwode’s psychological realism deploys compacted action and flashbacks and the patterned repetition of certain incidents to carry the reader along as effortlessly as might a conventionally chronological narrative. The reader learns “what happens,” primarily as events filter through the conversations and consciousness of Chris and Ellen during their extended honeymoon at her grandparents’ cabin near Lake Michigan. This tantalizing use of personal perception and vaguely unreliable memory has become a trademark of Woiwode’s characterization. It permits him wide latitude in choosing when and how to reveal his characters’ motivations and responses to the events that shape their lives.

In their retreat from the decisions that Chris chooses not to face, the couple, now intimate, now isolated, confront a grim modern world that has lost its faith in a supreme being fully in control of the created universe. This loss is exemplified most dramatically in the lives of Chris and Ellen as they try to sort out the meaning of affection and fidelity in their new relationship as husband and wife and as potential parents. Ellen’s pregnancy is, at first, a sign of a beneficent nature’s approval of their union, but later, as each has a premonition of their unborn child’s stillborn delivery, it becomes a symbol of an ambivalent world’s indifference to their marriage and its apparent fruitlessness.

In the absence of a compensatory faith even in humankind (a secondary faith arguably derived from faith in God), Chris and Ellen come to realize that they have lost their ability to navigate a hostile world with a lasting, meaningful relationship. The “student revolutions” of the 1960’s had promised social enlightenment and unadorned love, a secure replacement for the tottering scaffold of religious faith and civic duty that undergirded their parents’ generation. They discover, however, that neither science, as represented in Chris’s mathematics pursuits, nor nature, as a metaphor for the modern world’s hostility to metaphysical certainty, can fill the vacuum left by a waning faith in God or humankind. Such a committed faith, whose incessant call is to fidelity and perseverance, cannot survive without passion or understanding in the perplexity of the young married couple’s inexperience in living.

In a suspenseful epilogue that closes the novel with an explanation of what has happened to them in the seven years following their marriage, Chris and Ellen return to their honeymoon cabin. Chris retrieves the rifle that he has not touched in many years, and, as the action builds toward what will apparently be his suicide, he repeats to himself the beginning of a letter (perhaps a suicide note) that he could not complete. “Dear El, my wife. You’re the only person I’ve ever been able to talk to and this is something I can’t say. . . . ”

As he makes his way to the lake, he fires a round of ammunition into a plastic bleach container half-buried in the sand. In the novel’s enigmatic final lines, Chris fires “the last round from his waist, sending the bullet out over the open lake.” This curious ending seems intended by Woiwode to announce Chris’s end of indecision, a recognition that his life can have transcendent meaning only in embracing fully his marriage commitment to Ellen.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because the author’s emphasis is mainly on what happens within his characters, particularly within Chris and Ellen, the external action is compact, told partly through flashbacks and cyclical repetition of certain facts or incidents. Toward the end of his undergraduate days in Madison, Wisconsin, while at a party, Chris meets Ellen, whom he finds intelligent, disturbed, withdrawn, and deeply affecting. Beginning turbulently and evoking mixed feelings, the relationship continues for three years, including a one-year hiatus, which Ellen spends on her own in New York, partially influenced by her grandparents’ disapproval of Chris, whom they have met in the couple’s inspection visit at the Strohes’ labyrinthine seventeen-room villa in Milwaukee. At the end of this period, moved by what is still a mixture of not altogether consistent deep feelings and by Ellen’s premarital pregnancy, the couple decide to wed, call several churches in Madison, and finally convince a sympathetic young Presbyterian minister (who is not told about Ellen’s as yet undetectable condition) to perform a quick ceremony.

After a second, even more disastrous visit at Ellen’s grandparents’ place to break the matrimonial news, the couple honeymoon at the Strohes’ lodge in Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Most of the novel takes place there, as the couple continue to grapple with their innermost feelings and beliefs, each other, their new marital state, and their impending parenthood (including thoughts of abortion). Along with working hard to repair and restore the lodge and its grounds, the couple also explore their environs and learn about their closest neighbors, the Clausens—especially through Orin’s inconsiderate treatment of Chris in the extended, nightmarish account of the hay baling on the Clausens’ farm.

Toward the end of their stay at the lodge, while outside pursuing their separate activities, separately but simultaneously Chris and Ellen have a vision or premonition that they will have a son who dies at birth. In a brief one-page “coda,” this event is verified, the child’s death symbolizing the couple’s troubled beginnings and mixed feelings about the pregnancy, Chris’s ever-increasing psychological and spiritual anguish from lack of certainty about self and values, and his identity-suicide (revealed in the coda) in having given up the study of mathematics (a true aspiring of his spirit to attain the Ph.D.) to settle for an accounting job (earthbound and pedestrian).

The concluding epilogue recounts the couple’s return to the lodge seven years later, in 1971, for a month-long vacation, focusing on Chris’s flirtation with suicide by drowning in the lake; a tense moment when Chris seems to contemplate shooting Ellen’s ailing old dog, Winston, to end the latter’s misery; and the final emptying of his omnipresent .22 caliber rifle into a discarded plastic milk container—with one last, enigmatic shot fired out into the lake, probably symbolizing Chris’s frustrated outreach for attainment of self-knowledge, certainty, and self-satisfaction.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Nelson, Shirley. “Stewards of the Imagination: Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller.” Christian Century 112 (January 25, 1995): 82-85. Nelson interviews Hansen, Woiwode, and Miller, focusing on the role of religion in their works, as well as readers’ reactions to their novels.

Scheick, William J. “Memory in Larry Woiwode’s Novels.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1985): 29-40. Scheick discusses the importance of memory in three of Woiwode’s novels, What I’m Going to Do, I Think (1969), Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975), and Poppa John (1981). He identifies two types of memories, those that make a character feel guilt and long for death and those that develop a sense of connection to one’s family. The ability to order these allows Woiwode’s characters to achieve a balance between them.

Woiwode, Larry. “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell.” Renascence 44 (1991): 3-16. Woiwode discusses the problem of being considered merely a regional writer because he writes about the Midwest. He says that all writers must write about some place, and only geographical chauvinism makes one place better than another. The author also asserts that the main duty of a Christian writer is to write the truth, which means to write about a place in precise detail.

Woiwode, Larry. “Where the Buffalo Roam: An Interview with Larry Woiwode.” Interview by Rick Watson. North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Fall, 1996): 154-166. A revealing interview about Woiwode’s homecoming and the effect it has had on his writing.