(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The most unsettling aspect of Mrs. Caliban is its tone. Beneath the bland, matter-of-fact descriptions of Dorothy’s daily chores, her trips to supermarkets and fashion shows, her home, and her “nice safe kitchen” is a vision of utter bleakness. Dorothy’s traditionally passive role in a patriarchal society is certainly part of her despair. She compares herself to a laboratory rat and a mechanical figure, and she moves through a world peopled by seemingly robotic salesgirls and mannequins shaped like women. Ingalls’ description of one such mannequin suggests Dorothy’s feelings about herself: “But the dummy was nothing; the dress was everything. There had been no face painted on the blank head.” Despite this sense of her own helpless passivity, Dorothy cannot grasp her situation in feminist terms. When she tries to tell Larry about the exploitation of women, she becomes confused and has to give up.

Dorothy’s overwhelming despair results, more specifically, from her apparent failure in the traditional feminine roles of wife and mother. She has never recovered from either Scotty’s death or the miscarriage that she suffered soon after; she fantasizes about becoming pregnant again, or even stealing a baby. After her little dog, Bingo, is run over by a car, she tells Fred that everything that she touches dies, and then cries for weeks until Fred gives up trying to console her. Dorothy is starved for love and physical affection; Fred has refused to have sex with her for years, even though he has had affairs with other women.

It is no wonder, then, that Larry, the marvelous sea-monster, seems to be the answer to Dorothy’s dreams. She compares him to a child, and she delights in feeding him, dressing him, and teaching him. At the same time, Larry is a tender, powerful, and passionate lover who will make love to her as many times as she wishes.

To some extent, Larry seems to be a surrogate figure for Dorothy’s husband; indeed, he disappears immediately after Fred dies. In a particularly unsettling scene at the end of the novel, a woman who sees Dorothy regularly visiting her husband’s grave asks her what his name was. Dorothy is not sure what to answer: “‘Fred,’ she said, and...

(The entire section is 916 words.)