In Mark Twain’s classic American novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist, young Huck, is last seen preparing to “light out for the territories.” This story of Huck, poised on the brink of manhood, prepared to test his character and forge his identity on the frontier has become a master narrative for the American coming-of-age plot. Oates’s “How I Contemplated” employs the elements of the coming-of-age story, but does so in an ironic, subversive fashion. At the heart of Oates’s story is a female protagonist whose “adventures” represent regression rather than progress and whose experiences will not arrange themselves into the coherent pattern that the genre requires.
In the American coming-of-age tale, the hero— usually male—must leave the familiar landscape and civilizing influences of city or town life in order to test himself against nature. Even if he doesn’t plan to light out for the territories permanently, like Huck, he must make at least a temporary excursion into a hostile or indifferent nature. In “How I Contemplated”, however, Oates’s female protagonist heads in what appears to be the opposite direction. In Oates’s subversive use of the coming-of-age conventions, the city takes the place of the wilderness. The girl leaves behind the lush, green lawns of Bloomfield Hills and Baldwin Country Day School and encounters the city as “wilderness.” Ironically, the civilized territory she leaves behind carries an Indian name, Sioux Drive. To her the city’s topography is alien, and its inhabitants predatory and sinister. The narrator describes Detroit as a place beset by hazards and warnings: “small warnings of frost, soot warnings, traffic warnings, hazardous lake conditions for small craft and swimmers, restless Negro gangs, restless cloud formations, restless temperatures aching to fall out the very bottom of the thermometer or shoot up over the top and boil everything over in red mercury.” In comparison, on Sioux Drive,
“There is no weather.” These “territories” are no place to try to find yourself. As Clarita says to the narrator, “I never can figure out why girls like you bum around down here. What are you looking for anyway?”
What the narrator is looking for, like all protagonists in coming-of-age stories, is her self. What she finds instead is the wreckage of someone else who has tried to make the same pilgrimage, Simon, “who is said to have come from a home not much different” from her own on Sioux Drive. Simon is the subversive form of the mentor figure that is common to coming-of-age narratives. He had been down the same path before and is capable of acting as her guide, but in Gates’s dark version of the genre he offers the very opposite of safe passage. He even acknowledges his role as failed guide when he says, “Once I was Huckleberry Finn, … but now I am Roderick Usher.” By using the literary analogy to describe his decline and fall, Simon assures the narrator that they do come from the same world of good schools and good families. But the specifics of the comparison itself, spell out how far he has fallen from his original ambitions. Huck escapes an abusive father and overcomes all manner of obstacles, without losing his moral bearings, on the way to independence and manhood somewhere on the frontier (the “territories”). Roderick Usher (from Edgar Allan Poe’s,’ The Fall of the House of Usher”), on the other hand, is born into wealth and privilege, but descends into madness, addiction, and depravity and becomes so fearful and frail that he cannot leave the house. Whereas Huck’s romanticism propels him outward and upward, Roderick’s sends him inward and downward. Simon’s search for identity and the frontier have become a primitive struggle just to survive. But the narrator remains powerfully attracted to her wayward mentor, and in probably the only heroic gesture he’s capable of, Simon saves her by turning her in, ironically sending her back to the safety of the “Indian territory” on Sioux Drive. Another characteristic of coming-of-age narratives is the epiphany, or overwhelming moment of realization. Although many features of “How I Contemplated” lead readers to believe that the narrator is poised and ready for an epiphany, Gates leaves the matter very much in doubt. Even the short title implies that the narrator has experienced a powerful moment of self-realization, contemplation leading to a decision. The long title is even more explicit, promising to deliver “A Revelation of the Meaning of Life” and “A Happy Ending.” By advertising these dramatic elements in the title, Dates is trying to call attention to the artificiality of the genre, pointing out how in real life our experiences do not conform so neatly to dramatic structures. The story’s experimental notebook form also underscores this point as the narrator appears to layout all the elements she has learned belong in a story, and then struggles—unsuccessfully— to arrange her experiences into those categories.
Nevertheless, “How I Contemplated” does contain an ironic version of the moment of profound awareness found in classic narratives in the genre. The narrator experiences an epiphany, but it is a false one that leaves her with more questions and blank spaces than she had before. The false epiphany occurs “that night in the lavatory when everything was changed.” Notice the passive construction in that sentence and how it relieves her from any responsibility or agency. She does not bring about change, nor does she acknowledge experiencing any essential change herself. Instead, it’s everything else that changes, she says. What happens in the lavatory that changes everything is that she is badly beaten by two of the other girls in detention. Turning points in coming-of-age narratives usually demand that protagonists act, that they imprint themselves on their circumstances, that they do something heroic. In this case, however, the narrator is robbed of all control and is viciously acted upon; she is the victim rather than the hero of her circumstances. Despite this inversion of the conventions of the coming-of-age story, however, the narrator in “How I Contemplated” does have the opportunity to use her experience as victim of assault to learn something. In other words, genuine self-revelation is available to her. But it appears that she’s not capable of such self-reflection. Writing about “That Night” after nearly a year of twice-weekly visits to her psychiatrist later she still exclaims, “Why is she beaten up? Why do they pound her, why such hatred?” She doesn’t have the courage to contemplate her identity in terms that would come close to explaining why Princess and Star would want revenge on her. She turns away from the revelation—painful though it is—that the beating offers her.
Because the narrator rejects, or is not prepared for, the lessons that her experiences in “the wilderness” have to offer her, she is destined to return unchanged to the safety of “civilization. By contrast, Huck, at the end of Twain’s novel, has completely outgrown the possibility of “civilized” life with his Aunt Sally and knows he must seek challenges and opportunities on the frontier. Gates’s narrator, however, returns to the insulating environment of her parents’ house and swears that “never will she reconcile four o’clock in the morning in Detroit with eight o’clock breakfasts in Bloomfield Hills.” Whatever dissatisfaction, restlessness, or desire drove her to Detroit and into Simon’s arms has evaporated or is repressed.” / will never leave home, this is my home, I love everything here, I am in love with everything here,” she says again and again.
If the narrator’s breathless affirmations in the story’s final section (titled “EVENTS”) are any indication, then her journey has been as much a regression as a coming-of-age. If her objective had been to escape her parents’ suffocating protectiveness, then she has absolutely failed. Like a child, she “burst[s] into tears and hysteria” and is “convulsed in Father’s arms.” The house appears to her as “like a doll’s house.” Readers no doubt share her joy at a safe return from such self-destructive behavior, but wonder if this is the “happy ending” they have been promised. Although it is possible to interpret her emotional return home as the beginning of her ability to accept herself and her parents’ love. Oates’s ending is ambivalent. The narrator describes herself in the last section as “saddened and converted.” It makes perfect sense that she is saddened given what she has endured, but “converted” is more difficult to interpret. She may mean that she now prefers to see the world the way her parents do, satisfied to live their comfortable lives pretending that unpleasantness and injustice do not exist. She may also be suggesting that her weeks with Simon, whom she still fears and desires, have changed her permanently in ways that she has not revealed in these notes. She herself seems unsure, wondering as she sees her reflection distorted in the toaster, “is that my face?”.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.