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...
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