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Jolene: A Life
Submitted by Jane Hale (profile)

Title and Author: "Jolene: A Life" by E. L. Doctorow. (The New Yorker. Dec. 23 and 30, 2002: 102-113.)
Genre: Short story
Class type: Co-ed, ages 18-25

Doctorow recounts the difficult life of a girl named Jolene who marries at 15 to get out of her latest foster home. For the next ten years, she lives through adulterous affairs, the suicide of a spouse, commitment to a psychiatric hospital, multiple bad marriages to losers and abusers, occasional prostitution, a series of menial jobs along with a few good ones, a brush with the mob, and being accused of kidnapping her own baby and subsequently losing him. She is a talented artist who develops her talent for drawing throughout the story almost despite herself, yet at the end, she dreams only of becoming a famous movie star so she can be reunited with her child.

I used this story on the first night of class, along with T. C. Boyle's Greasy Lake. Students received the stories in the mail two weeks before class started and were asked to read them before the first night. Since I had a co-ed class, I wanted to balance the heavily male flavor of Greasy Lake with an equally complex tale of female experience with violence and bad choices. Students understood the story and responded positively to it. They decided that Jolene made all kinds of bad choices in her life, and that the problems she had were mainly her own fault. However, they didn't make the connection between her unrealistic dream at the end and her past failures until I pointed it out to them.

Suggested discussion questions:

--Can you describe Jolene?
--Is Jolene brave? Foolish? Smart?
--What does she want?
--Does she change, learn, grow over the course of the story?
--Does she make poor choices?
--What does art mean to her? How does it weave as a theme throughout the story?
--Is there something in your life like Jolene's art, something of your own that keeps popping up and stays, no matter what?
--Why does Jolene go from one man to another? Does she have other choices? Are any of the men she lives with good to her?
--On page 110, Doctorow writes that Jolene looks "hard." What does that mean? How does a person get that way?
--On page 110, when Sal is killed, Jolene's "life changes, as lightning strikes, and in an instant what was is not what is." Have you ever had such a moment, when your life changed suddenly, as if lightning struck it?
--On page 111, Doctorow writes that Jolene "liked the way she felt" on her own. She had "come of age." So why doesn't she stay in this good spot in her life? Why does she get involved with Brad? Did you know from the beginning that he was bad news? How?
--Is Jolene a victim or a victor or both?
--At the shelter for battered women, Jolene had been told "it happens once, that's it, you leave" (p. 112). Do you agree with this advice? Why didn't Jolene take it?
--Why is her baby so important to Jolene?
--What do you think lies in store next for Jolene?

Writing prompts:

Since I used this on the first night of class, with another story, I asked:

--Which of tonight's stories did you enjoy most?
--What kind of stories would you like to read in the course? Do you have any titles to suggest?

Student responses:

Half liked Jolene and half preferred Greasy Lake. Here are some comments from those who voted for Jolene:

--"This story reminded me of some of the ups and downs I went through growing up - how I realize I shouldn't rely on others to be happy or to wait for that one moment that you thought was good and in the end you regret it."
--"It was fast-moving. She made mistakes and poor choices but she had lots of spirit and never gave up...I liked how she moved all over the country and met so many different people."
--"I could relate to some of the choices she made. Also it didn't really leave off with a sense of needing more."

Additional writing prompts:

--Pretend you are Jolene. Write a letter to "Dear Abby" asking for advice. Write Abby's response, too.
--Write the next chapter of Jolene's life.

Connected course reading: This story connects well with T. C. Boyle's Greasy Lake, Jhumpa Lahiri's Sexy, Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing, or Joyce Carol Oates's Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?


The Paris Review

Meet the Writer with E. L. Doctorow on the Barnes and Noble website.

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