The novella begins in medias res with a black man and white woman in a rowboat "bucking the choppy waves" as it speeds the two toward Tintern Falls. The narration of this dramatic moment, however, breaks off to recount the life of Edith Honeystone, better known as Calla, from her birth in 1890.
Calla's is "a life split in two but not in half." Rebellious and recalcitrant in her youth, both toward family and toward her in-laws and husband, George Freilicht--whom she had no desire to marry--Calla emerges from a near-death experience to begin 55 years of self-imposed confinement, mostly in a room in the Freilicht household. While the plunge over the falls leaves Calla broken in physical ways, her life is broken on the no less forceful affair with Tyrell Thompson, a black man and a water dowser, who appears one day on the Freilicht farm. The end of the affair and the trauma of hurtling over Tintern Falls mark the end of Calla's willful existence ("I do what I do, what I have done is what I wanted to do") and the beginning of her life as a docile recluse.
The book presents not one but two central mysteries. First, what could bring a pair of lovers to deliberately allow themselves to be carried over Tintern Falls? Second, what makes a woman, particularly one who seems to have an indomitable will, virtually lock herself away for more than two thirds of her life?
The novella, Oates writes in the afterword is "a difficult, even a hazardous form, neither a novel in miniature, nor a pumped-up short story," yet Oates works the form brilliantly. I Lock my Door Upon Myself is intense for the duration of its 101 pages, but it is a complete story; there is no feeling at the end of something missing or left out. Even so, Oates doesn't solve either mystery neatly or explicitly; rather, the reader is left to infer the underlying causes, much as Tyrell Thompson divined the whereabouts of water with his dowsing rod.
The considerable power of the novella rests not so much on the story or the book's structure but upon the voice Oates chose to tell it. Oates breaks numerous rules, writing sentences that cover as much as three-quarters of a page and leaving out commas or even periods in traditional places. The sprawl and verve of these sentences, however, perhaps serves to mirror Calla's unruly energy and disregard for convention. Here's an example from pages 7-8: "Calla's father was often absent (Albert Honeystone: a farmer forced by crop failures and the manipulation of grain markets wholly beyond his control or even his comprehension to sell off his forty acres of rich dark fertile Chautauqua Valley soil in multi-acre parcels until only three acres remained and then he was foreman at a sawmill upriver and then a day laborer for the county, and a drinker of hard mash cider and homemade whiskey throughout), and the Honeystone grandparents were slowed by ailments, dazed and embittered country people with their only conviction a sense of the world veering off at angles inhospitable to their interests No matter how hard you work, God damn bone-aching hard you work so in that household Calla flourished like the hardiest and most practical of weeds, burdock, sunflower taking root in any soil and once rooted impossible to extirpate, such households nourish us in ways we can't know and certainly no outsider could guess."
It is this kind of writing that carries the reader irresistibly along much as the Chautauqua River carried Calla and Tyrell Thompson over the falls.