How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970

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by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970

"How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again" is typical of Joyce Carol Oates's fiction in its devastating portrait of the sterility of suburban life and the horrifying brutality of urban America. It is atypical in the unusual narrative technique used to convey these ideas.

The story is told by the principal character, whose name we never learn (she calls herself "the girl"). It consists of notes she is recording for an essay to be written for an English course at the private school she attends. The notes focus on her experiences during the past year, when she was 15 years old. The narrator, therefore, is an adolescent reflecting upon the "debris" of her recent life to fulfill a school writing assignment. As the details of her experiences are revealed in blunt and laconic fashion, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the pathos of the story she will write and the tragedy of the life she has lived.

As a writer the girl is obviously an amateur. Her title (the story's title) is too long, awkward, and confusing. Her notes are packaged in simplistic categories incongruously arranged. She makes numerous false starts. She places trivia next to significant detail. As the real author, however, Oates is flawless, placing herself in the mind of a deeply disturbed juvenile unwittingly revealing the sources of conflict in her life. The reader's challenge is to sift through the welter of incoherent details in order to see connections, causes, and motivational factors the girl herself unconsciously denies or fails to understand.

We learn that this "innocently experienced" girl comes from a wealthy family living in a fashionable suburb of Detroit. She has everything money can buy. What she does not have is love. Her father is a physician "of the slightly sick," but he prefers to spend his time playing squash and golf, dining at his country club, and cavorting with medical cronies at conventions. Her socialite mother fills her time with cultural events and club activities. They make time for their passions by shuffling their children off to private schools and summer camps.

The girl's response is to become a kleptomaniac. As early as age eight, she has been stealing things she neither needs nor wants—a copy of Pageant Magazine, a package of Tums. She steals to be noticed and to be caught. When apprehended, she hopes for attention from her parents. Instead, they use their influence to have the charge of shoplifting dropped and try to buy her compliance with behavior less embarrassing to them. "If you wanted gloves, why didn't you say so? Why didn't you ask for them?" her mother chastises her.

Equally disturbing is the girl's total absorption in herself, also the result of her parents' neglect. She has learned one lesson well from them—self-centeredness. This is evident in her consciousness of her physical appearance, but it is especially revealed in her ignorance of the larger world around her. The year is 1968—the year of the turning point of the war in Vietnam with the launching of the Tet Offensive, of President Lyndon Johnson's decision not to run for reelection, of the assassination of Martin Luther King, of the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, of serious antiwar and civil rights demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Chicago, of an acerbic presidential campaign—one of the most turbulent years in U.S. history. In the category for notes on world events, the girl writes one word—"Nothing."

The girl is twice victimized, first by her parents and then, Oates implies, by the American society of the 1960s. A child of an increasingly permissive age with mottoes like "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" and "Make love, not war," she runs away from home. She ends up in Detroit, where she is brutally exploited by Simon and Clarita, who force her into prostitution to support their drug habit. Apprehended on a number of charges, she mistakenly believes that in jail she has achieved a refuge from the streets as well as the security and discipline her parents never gave her. "I won't go home. I want to stay here," she says. But she changes her mind after being mercilessly beaten in the lavatory by two other inmates.

Released from a hospital, she returns to her parents' home, where she exhibits the trauma of her recent experiences in the bizarre attachments she has formed. She has developed an obsessive preoccupation with Raymond Forrest, the man who decided not to prosecute her for shoplifting. In the confused state of her feelings, he has assumed the role of surrogate father—generous, benevolent, caring, and even omnipotent ("this man who is my salvation"). He is one of two characters she lists in her notes that she will be "forever entwined with." The other is the grotesque and repulsive addict Simon. The extent of her emotional deprivation is underscored by her affection for the man who raped her, shared her with his male friends, and introduced her to streetwalking. She calls him her "dear friend," and when she poses the question "Would I go back to Simon again? Would I lie down with him in all that filth and craziness?" she replies, "Over and over again."

In her fixation on Simon the girl has reshaped reality to filter out the pain and humiliation of the experience. In the last of her new attachments—to objects in her parents' house such as chandeliers, carpets, the toaster, and faucets—she makes one final adjustment to reality as she frantically seeks "a happy ending" for her story. Unable to rely on the affection of her parents, she follows their example and fixes her emotions on things. "I love everything here. I am in love with everything here," she desperately asserts. A line from one of Simon's poems, "There is no reality only dreams," crosses her mind as she prepares to transform her notes into a finished essay with a happy ending. The observant reader infers from these same notes a more realistic future of woe and anguish for the girl.

—Joseph Flibbert

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How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970

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How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again by Joyce Carol Oates, 1970