Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

While suburban Southern California might seem like an unlikely setting for a Shakespearean retelling or a Gothic romance, Rachel Ingalls effectively shows that the humdrum routine of modern life is just as apt for inspiring fantastic romances as Elizabethan or Georgian England.

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Certainly the name "Caliban" as well as the idea of a supernaturally endowed creature are directly drawn from The Tempest, while the trope of an innocent-but-homicidal-monster owes its greatest debt to Frankenstein. The effectiveness of Ingalls's novel lies precisely in its lack of pure fidelity to any one model. The unfulfilled Mrs. Caliban can also be compared to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, as they both seek fulfillment outside the stifling confines of their everyday lives.

Larry, the froggishly-monstrous apparition with whom Dorothy falls in love, does not physically resemble Shakespeare's Caliban, but temperamentally, Larry's character owes much of his inspiration to the Bard's infamous enslaved native. Lashing out in anger at those who harm him (and remaining a prisoner of his own physique), Larry is similar to Caliban in his capacity for extreme physical violence.

Yet in Ingalls's novel, it is Dorothy—not the creature—who is named Caliban. Her unfulfilled relationship with her unfaithful, emotionally stunted husband might be considered a kind of enslavement similar to the one Shakespeare presents as tethering Caliban to the island. Another aspect of the novel with possible roots in Shakespeare's play is the character of Sandra (perhaps equated to The Tempest's Miranda, Propero's daughter), who is a teenager lured into a sexual relationship by an adult man—in The Tempest, Caliban is accused of the attempted rape of Miranda.

While the comparisons to Shelley's creature are most obvious, Larry—or "Aquarius the Monsterman"—has no actual creator. Rather than being assembled from human body parts, Larry was apparently an organically-whole creature. He is discovered, imprisoned, and studied by the scientists at the oceanographic institute. Thus, Ingalls highlights the malicious implications of modern scientific research activities on sentient subjects (implicitly making a connection to nineteenth-century grave-robbing through the Frankenstein connection).

In the end, love matters, but it cannot solve everything; Dorothy and Larry are just too different, and their union does not last.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

Mrs. Caliban, a short and deceptively simple novel about an ordinary American housewife, becomes more and more disturbing as it progresses. For one thing, the novel’s plot becomes increasingly farfetched. Dorothy not only has a love affair with Larry, an escaped sea-monster, but because of that love affair she is indirectly responsible as well for the deaths of several people whose lives are intimately connected to hers—including her husband. These plot complications neatly combine the grotesque elements of a sensational tabloid headline—something like “California Housewife Takes Alien Lover”—with the melodramatic coincidences of a soap opera. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that these complications merely emphasize, by contrast, the emptiness and banality of Dorothy’s everyday life.

The novel begins on a typical morning. As Fred leaves for work, Dorothy fetches his newspaper, reminds him to take his umbrella, and sees him safely out the door—but she does not kiss him goodbye, because she has not done so in years. While Dorothy does the breakfast dishes, she listens to the radio, hearing a news bulletin about a sea-monster that has escaped from the Oceanographic Research Institute. Later, she shops at the supermarket, where she finds her friend Estelle doing the same thing. That night, while Dorothy prepares dinner, the sea-monster appears in her kitchen.

Dorothy makes friends with Larry, feeds him, and hides him in the guest room; the next morning, they become lovers. He tells her about the ocean and about the abuses he suffered at the Institute, and they make love in every room of the house. Dorothy feels like a teenager again. She and Larry soon develop a companionable routine: During the day, he keeps her company and helps her with housework; at night, after Fred has gone to bed, they go for a walk or a swim and she gives him driving lessons.

Although Dorothy is ecstatically happy with Larry, her relationships with her friend and her husband become complicated. After Estelle sees both of her lovers with other women, she starts drinking heavily. Estelle also complains to Dorothy about her daughter, Sandra, who she says is sleeping with an older man and one of her own former lovers. Fred confesses to Dorothy that he is having another affair and that the woman has threatened to tell her. Fred and Dorothy spend a rare evening together, and even make love for the first time in years, but she suspects that he will not end the affair.

Dorothy’s relationship with Larry changes too. When he hot-wires a car and drives around by himself, she realizes that she can no longer control him. One night when he does this, he is taunted by a group of teenagers, whom he kills in retaliation. Dorothy is afraid that the hunt for Larry will now intensify, and she is even more distressed when she learns that Estelle’s son Joey was one of the teenagers.

These various subplots collide in the novel’s climax when Dorothy and Larry, on one of their evenings out, come upon Fred making love with Sandra. Dorothy is doubly horrified because she realizes that Fred was the former lover whom Estelle had described. She rushes back to the car and drives off, with Fred in pursuit; during the ensuing chase, Fred’s car crashes into another car and he and Sandra die instantly. At the scene of the accident, Dorothy tells Larry that he should leave and that she will meet him later at the beach.

When the narrative ends, Dorothy is completely alone. Fred is dead; she and Estelle are no longer friends; and, even though Dorothy drives to the beach every night, Larry never returns.

Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Mrs. Caliban, which originally sold only five hundred copies in the United States, had little impact at the time of its initial publication. In 1986, however—only four years later—the British Book Marketing Council named Mrs. Caliban one of the twenty greatest American novels published since the end of World War II. On both sides of the Atlantic, readers began to peruse Ingalls’ novel; and American critics, in particular, began to publish scholarly essays on its meaning. Mrs. Caliban has not yet been discussed adequately, however, in the context of either contemporary feminist theory or the history of women’s literature.

This is unfortunate, because Ingalls’ novel addresses many important women’s issues: the problems that women face in a traditional marriage in patriarchal society, the thankless nature of “women’s work” in such a marriage, the plight of a childless woman in a society that values her more for her reproductive capacity than for anything else, the repression of women’s anger, and the nature of women’s sexuality. What is even more interesting is that while Ingalls addresses such issues, she does not do so directly—either polemically or allegorically—but only through gentle, suggestive, and psychologically resonant fantasy.

This indirectness makes Mrs. Caliban quite different even from those other fictions by female authors that it most resembles. Ingalls’ novel—with its themes of architectural enclosures, hidden monstrosities, and women’s sexual fears and desires— belongs solidly to the tradition of the female gothic, as represented by such classic works as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). More precisely, Mrs. Caliban belongs to a more recent tradition of postmodernist feminist reworkings of gothic narrative conventions, such as Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (1976) and Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983). Yet Ingalls’ novel is less blatantly parodic and less overtly feminist than either Atwood’s or Weldon’s.

Indeed, the work that Mrs. Caliban most resembles may be the very first tale to rework familiar gothic conventions in the context of twentieth century feminism: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1901). In its delicacy, its insight into the heroine’s psychology, and its underlying horror, Mrs. Caliban may be equaled only by Gilman’s story. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” after its initial publication, was little read until it was rediscovered and reprinted in 1973; Mrs. Caliban only had to wait four years before being rediscovered and reprinted. Now that Ingalls’ novel, too, is widely read, it may become as influential a work of women’s literature as Gilman’s classic feminist tale.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

Beatty, Jack. “Discovery of the Month.” Atlantic 257 (April, 1986): 16-18. An enthusiastic review essay that traces the novel’s publishing history and its belated discovery by American readers.

Cowart, David. “Fantasy and Reality in Mrs. Caliban.” Critique 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1989): 77-83. This uneven but useful essay draws connections between Mrs. Caliban and movies, soap operas, and a host of other texts, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1929), John Fowles’s The Collector (1963), Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Cowart also argues persuasively that Larry is not real but is instead a psychological projection that reveals the extent of Dorothy’s desperation.

McCall, William W. “A Note on Mrs. Caliban.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 18, no. 3 (May, 1988): 4-6. In this brief but cogent note, McCall argues that imagining Larry is Dorothy’s initial misguided response to her fraudulent society; after Larry’s disappearance, however, she develops an inner strength.

Upton, Lee. “Mourning Monsters: Deception and Transformation in Rachel Ingalls’s Fiction.” Critique 33, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 53-61. Upton’s essay compares Mrs. Caliban to Ingalls’ subsequent novel, Binstead’s Safari (1983). Upton argues that these novels—both about women who become obsessed with male fantasy figures—illustrate the dangers of isolation, secrecy, and deception. According to Upton’s reading of Mrs. Caliban, then, Dorothy becomes a moral monster at the novel’s end.

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