Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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 entire section is 440 words.)