“I must try to find a nest in this outlandish place,” declares Mrs. Copperfield in Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies (1943). Bowles’s short-story characters are often engaged in the same search, seeking shelter for their confused emotions or some structure to guide their offbeat lives that does not rely on societal codes they have rejected: that women must marry, be mothers, be monogamous, stay home, or be polite in male company.
Bowles’s stories have a biting wit and can be comic, although a tragic view of life is central to her vision. Most of her characters live outside society’s mainstream and seem to suffer for it. Their quirks are riveting and comical, although their yearnings are common enough. Misfits looking for human contact, they often find themselves unable to forge new relationships and unable to protect the precarious ones they have. Sometimes they nurture their own isolation; sometimes they become trapped by it. Often their intelligence reveals social hypocrisy; at other times, they are thematically united in their choice to be independent, most notably from men.
Bowles’s observations about human relationships can seem disarming in their directness and deeply puzzling at the same time. Most difficult of all, perhaps, is the fact that Bowles makes no moral judgments about her characters’ appetites and predicaments. A fat rich widow lures men and boys into ferocious sex; an unmarried sister prefers to leave home and lapse into madness rather than accept the domestic company of her sisters; a lonely tourist wanders through a foreign city uncertain what she is seeking. The traditional female roles of mother, nurturer, gentle seductress, reassuring lover, and friend are not present. Bowles’s women are hungry nomads, late-life call girls, escapees from repressive marriages trapped in a world of one-night stands—in lives they have chosen. Whether it is tragic or liberating, they have their autonomy, and Bowles typically describes their self-possession without making judgmental asides.