Jane Bowles’s short stories deal with personal relationships between characters who behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways. The stories contain an undercurrent of fear or foreboding, the cause of which is only sometimes revealed. Characters leave their usual environments and must then cope with new, often hostile ones. Portrayals of women predominate; family relationships—especially mothers and daughters, and sisters—form the core of ever-shifting narratives of emotional betrayal and psychological trauma. Despite the serious and even grim nature of the stories, they are also filled with humor and tenderness. Bowles’s wit shines through in amusing dialogues (or, more often, monologues) and comic juxtapositions of characters’ reactions to their situations. The settings for the stories are places Bowles knew from her travels: Central America, North Africa, and the northeast United States.
“A Guatemalan Idyll”
“A Guatemalan Idyll” and “A Day in the Open” were Bowles’s first published stories. They were originally conceived as part of her novel, Two Serious Ladies, but at the advice of her husband, Paul, these pieces were edited from the novel and published separately. “A Guatemalan Idyll” interweaves several plots. In one, an unnamed male traveler, in Guatemala on business, has an affair with Señora Ramirez, who is staying at the same pension. In another plot, Lilina Ramirez, her younger daughter, buys a snake from some boys on the street and then later lets it loose in the middle of town, where it is squashed by a bus. Accompanying Lilina at this moment is Enrique, a young boy whose head is bandaged as the result of falling on a rusty nail. Later in the story, Señora Ramirez takes a walk out of town, toward a volcano in the distance, and falls asleep in a little kiosk near a convent. A boy wakes her and then she seduces him. Consuelo Ramirez (Lilina’s older sister) and Señorita Córdoba (a beautiful and well-bred young lady) are both secretly in love with the American traveler. The story ends with the traveler’s departure.
The juxtaposition of these several plots, together with the strange events and their symbolic details, forms a richly compelling and multilayered narrative. The opposing tensions of sin and pleasure, guilt and justification, and remorse and indifference are common to Bowles’s fiction. Another subplot involves Señora Ramirez’s corset, which—like Lilina’s snake and the half-ruined convent—symbolizes the oppression of religion, with its doctrine of original sin. Ultimately, the title of the story is ironic: What appears on the surface to be a pleasant vacation in the country for the various characters turns out to be fraught with guilt, disgust, and a lack of emotional tenderness.
“A Day in the Open” can be read as a companion piece to “A Guatemalan Idyll.” Señor Ramirez, whose wife and two daughters are staying at a pension in a small town, hires two prostitutes to accompany him and a business associate on a picnic out in the country. Inez, one of the prostitutes, is straightforward and businesslike, more concerned with the financial aspects of their transaction. In contrast, her colleague, Julia, who is physically more delicate and suffering from an undiagnosed pain in her side, expresses genuine tenderness and love for Señor Ramirez. Alfredo, the business associate, remains aloof throughout the story, more interested in the numbers in a ledger than in the naked women at the picnic. Toward the end of the story, Señor Ramirez proves his physical strength by carrying Julia toward a waterfall (which, like the volcano in Señora Ramirez’s landscape, seems to symbolize dangerous passion). He suddenly slips and drops Julia, who cuts her head on the rocks. They all leave the picnic site abruptly, Julia with her profusely bleeding head bandaged in a shawl.
A condensed and less complex version of “A Guatemalan Idyll,” “A Day in the Open” deals similarly with sin and its effects: here, Julia’s injury. The four characters suggest several combinations of opposites (strength and weakness, vitality and disinterest, cunning and stupidity), yet Bowles manages to transcend their being mere abstractions by giving them humane qualities, too. This story, like much of Bowles’s work, casts the landscape in a vaguely sinister light, delightful in its natural beauty but also threatening in its power for destruction.
The physical setting of “Camp Cataract” involves such a contrast: The camp is located near a spectacular waterfall, which turns out to be the site of a character’s death at the end of the story. Harriet, a self-described nature lover, has gone to Camp Cataract for her nerves. She enjoys being there and away from home, where she lives with her sister Sadie, who like Harriet is not...
(The entire section is 1996 words.)
Bowles, Jane 1917–
An American novelist, short story writer, and playwright, Ms. Bowles has lived in Morocco since 1952. Her strange and cheerless fictions explore the patterns of love and loss, comedy and terror. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
In Jane Bowles all women characters become parallels to each other. Everything is dialogue, but nothing advances by dialogue, there is no natural exchange of experiences, only a mystified scratching by the characters themselves on the impenetrable surface of each other's personalities. This inability to get below the surface is a mark of the cartoon-like queerness of the women as central characters. They live in the world by not understanding it. And the unwillingness to dig for any "deeper" reality is the mark of Jane Bowles herself, who always worked with dialogue as if she were a Restoration dramatist fascinated not by the "hardness" of her characters but by their naturally closed-off state….
These are serious ladies, perhaps because the world is so plainly not serious that only the unconscious virtue of certain women can give it dignity. They are first and last untouched souls, oddities, privacies, as the women in Gertrude Stein's Three Lives are nothing but "characters." Although Jane Bowles's women are closer to women than to men, they do not identify with anybody at all. They are like all remarkable children in literature: provisional guests in this world. Things happen to them without modifying them—that is the comedy of Two Serious Ladies. They just pass through the world. And such is the form of their "seriousness," their unbreakable singularity, their sweet dim inexpressiveness, their obviously privileged position, that they turn the "world" into an inconsequential background to themselves, a series of farcically tenuous stage sets—islands, country estates, tropic bordellos. These are cities not on any map, streets that do not lead into each other, islands that are unaccountable. The prevailing strangeness and unconnectedness of these women makes each of them a presence that just bulks over everything else. As there is no real transaction between them, so there is no action….
Mrs. Bowles conceived of her fiction as an ironic extension of the old insistence, in women's fiction, that woman is the heart of a heartless world. The world in her altogether dry, vaguely jeering pages becomes even more heartless than one could have imagined it. It is literally deaf, dumb, uncomprehending, made up of characters and situations which do not flow together in the slightest, which never interact. It is a world composed somehow of silence. Since women are the point of it, it dramatizes the heroine as farcically a force, the woman who to her own mind is so original that her personality is the only weight in the story, its dominating indecipherable presence. Woman is the idiosyncrasy around which this bizarre existence is composed.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (© 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 175-78.