Even many years after the story’s publication, the structure of “How I Contemplated” is still striking and somewhat unsettling to readers. The experimental form Gates uses is fragmentary and full of gaps. Instead of writing the story of an affluent young girl’s temporary descent into a life on the streets and in a house of corrections, she gives readers only the girl’s own notes for an essay that she may or may not ever write.
What appears to be an orderly outline in twelve sections is really a random and partial arrangement of information recollected a year after the events. In the words of critic Sue Simpson Park, the sections are “repetitive, disjointed, and dispersive … indicative of the state of mind of the sixteen-year-old protagonist, confused, questioning, attempting to make sense of the senseless, to impose order upon the chaos.” Although the complete title removes any doubt the reader may have about whether the story has a “happy ending,” (she is writing a paper for a private school and has declared that she began her life over again), readers still have to piece together the narrative and read between the lines. One of the most significant gaps appears in the section titled “People & Circumstances Contributing to This Delinquency.” Under this heading is only the word, “nothing,” which suggests to the reader not that there are no contributing factors, but that the young narrator cannot see them or doesn’t want to talk about them. In other words, the absence of reasons prompts readers to speculate and to supply reasons of their own to explain the girl’s behavior.
The sixteen-year-old girl who composes these notes for an essay is what is known as an unreliable narrator. She’s the only one who tells the story, but the version she offers is limited and possibly altered by her narrow point of view. The narrator’s unreliability takes several forms. First, she is only sixteen and thus has the adolescent’s limited and self-centered view of the world. In addition, only a year has passed since the events and she has not had sufficient time to gain perspective on what has happened. In fact, it seems like these notes for the essay represent a preliminary attempt (other than her visits to the psychiatrist) to organize her experience into a coherent pattern. Second, narrative features like blank spaces for names, series of questions ( “A pretty girl? An ugly girl?”) and missing details cast doubt on her credibility. These missing details are especially noticeable because on other occasions she proves herself capable of remarkable candor and keen observation. For example, she’s willing to admit to the other petty crimes she committed before getting caught shoplifting and she’s able to render a nuanced and vibrant portrait of suburban life, complete with such vivid details as the car heavy enough ” to split a squirrel’s body in two equal parts.”
The device of the unreliable narrator enhances the story’s effect. It would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect a sixteen-year-old to render a complete and objective account of such a traumatic set of events. The sketchy, uncertain and sometime evasive narrative structure is typical of an adolescent’s (especially a troubled one’s) world view and contributes to the story’s authenticity and power. Finally, the narrator’s unreliability makes the open-ended and ambiguous ending possible. It’s impossible to be certain if she is being sincere when she claims that she will “never leave home,” and that she is “in love with everything here.”
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.