Jane Bowles Bowles, Jane - Essay

Jane Auer

Bowles, Jane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.