Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 618 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.