Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

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“A Distant Episode” reflects a tragic circumstance that goes beyond mere ironic reversal. The obvious, uncomplicated irony in the story is that the Professor, the educated, “civilized” observer, goes among the Moroccans to survey the variations of their dialects and, while he is at it, to pick up a camel-udder box or two; instead, the Professor—whose tongue and whole being are brutally violated by the Reguibat—becomes the victim of a cruel twist of circumstances that turn him into the observed species.

After reading this story, a tale of terror alongside which the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor pale in comparison, one is compelled to ask, why must one whose only real flaw seems to be poor judgment suffer such cruel consequences? Although no explicit explanation is offered, Paul Bowles implies that the Professor is guilty of a certain unconscious arrogance, a presumptuousness that is dangerous in a harshly absurd world.

Evidently, the Professor thinks that because he is an educated man and a linguist by profession, he has the right to practice his profession anywhere. This merely wrongheaded thinking results in consequences outrageously humiliating and cruel. However, who ever said that life was fair? Or that justice measures out equally? Or that going to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk merely because it is a routine business is going to guarantee one a safe return home?

Bowles does not give the Professor a proper name because he represents Everyman; he is an Everyman who does not realize that the contingencies of life combined with one’s conscious actions will not be denied their due. For every planned conscious intention one conceives, good or bad, there is a Reguiba lurking in the darkness nearby, waiting to become a part of it and metamorphose its victim into doing its will, which indeed will be done if the right combination of circumstances fall into the intruder’s favor. Civilization, personified in the Professor, is simply no match for mindless, free-roaming evil, personified in the Reguibat, who move only in the darkness of night and like night itself are collectively “a cloud across the face of the sun.”

The desolate landscape where this “distant episode” takes place is an appropriate setting for such a drama. However, Bowles’s North African locale can be seen in its larger metaphorical sense as the centerpiece setting for similar, if less cruel, episodes that take place daily all over the world, episodes that go mostly unnoticed. Who knows when, because of one’s little misjudgments, the “Reguibat” may not turn up in the desert of one’s own life?