Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jane Bowles’s stories often focus on women who are loners. Some are steel-willed and independent; those who are not await whatever force will spring them from marriage, domesticity, or the boredom of middle-class life. Bowles’s characters are quirky, even disturbing, in ways she devised to challenge stereotypical notions of what women are or should be in the twentieth century. Some of her women are conservative (to the extent that they ape socially acceptable ideologies of their class); others are radical in their behavior and distinctly amoral.

Often their lives seem ordinary at first. These “ordinary” women, however, become candidates for testing social codes of behavior. Many are middle-aged, unmarried women who travel or live alone. Often a character will seek intimacy but will for some reason find herself unable to tolerate emotional proximity to anyone. Bowles’s unconventional characters roam outside the mainstream toward uncharted territories, underworlds, and strange affairs.

“Plain Pleasures,” the title piece in this slim volume of stories, is about an affair between a man and a woman that never gets off the ground. Mrs. Perry, a middle-aged widow living in a run-down New England apartment house, meets her neighbor John Drake in the backyard during a cookout. Having offered to share her potato-bake with this “equally reserved” man, she embarrasses him by asking, “Don’t you think that plain pleasures are closer to the heart of God?” Their fragile conversation survives long enough for him to invite Mrs. Perry to dinner at the restaurant the next evening. It is her first invitation in years.

Dinner with Mr. Drake does not go well. The more intimacy the shy man musters, the more unreasonable and inimical she becomes toward him. Finally, she leaves the table angrily, stumbles upstairs to a bedroom, and falls asleep, distraught and tipsy. In the morning, she awakens undressed, presumably having been raped by the restaurant owner, who followed her upstairs. Downstairs, she looks for the table she and Drake had occupied the night before but cannot recognize it. Oddly, this anonymity and the violation she has endured make her feel great tenderness for her neighbor: “‘John Drake,’ she whispered. ‘My sweet John Drake.’”

“Everything Is Nice” was originally a nonfiction travel piece called “East Side: North Africa” that Bowles wrote for Mademoiselle. The fictionalized version recounts a Western woman’s visit to a Moslem woman’s home in a small seaside town in Morocco. Perhaps seeking friendship, the visitor finds her efforts thwarted by a cultural chasm. Her notions of family and female independence clash with the Moslem women’s beliefs. The matriarch of the house offers the guest tea and inedible cookies. The women quiz her relentlessly. Why is she not living in her own country? Where is her mother? “Why don’t you go and sit with your mother in her own house?” they scold her. She resists trying to explain. From porcupines to husbands to...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jane Bowles may be best known for her short fiction, and many consider it her most successful work. Plain Pleasures consists of six stories and a short skit. Three of the stories were originally published in 1946, 1949, and 1957 in Harper’s Bazarr and Vogue. The stories “A Guatemalan Idyll” and “A Day in the Open” were originally part of her novel Two Serious Ladies. A play, In the Summer House (first performed in 1953), and a few other fictional pieces and fragments since collected in My Sister’s Hand in Mine (1978) make up the balance of her small but influential canon.

The novelist Alan Sillitoe called Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies “a landmark in contemporary literature,” and the poet John Ashbery hailed her in a review of The Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1966) as “one of the finest modern writers of fiction, in any language.” Yet her work, as Ashbery and other critics suggest, stands outside the mainstream of contemporary American literature. She is indeed “a neglected genius,” as she was called in an early review of The Collected Works. Aside from the previously mentioned critical acclaim, her work did not receive much attention in the decades following its publication.

The novelist and essayist Francine du Plessix Gray believes that the mainstream reading public has resisted Jane Bowles’s redefinition of female freedom. Bowles, Gray has written, is “one of the twentieth century novelists who have written most poignantly about modern women’s independence from men,” placing her work alongside that of Colette, Kate Chopin, Doris Lessing, and Jean Rhys. Moreover, in exploring her vision “of women who are truly independent from men—spiritual, nomadic, asexual women”—she creates a cast of complex heroines who are mysterious and disturbing. Their worlds separate them from the mainstream, and their preoccupations with sin and salvation do not allow readers to place them easily alongside the predictably “female”—that is, romantic—heroines of Western literary tradition.

Since the publication of Bowles’s biography in 1981 and that of her collected letters in 1985, her work has become better known. The number of critical essays published since 1985 suggests that her work will continue to gain attention. In 1993, her play In the Summer House was revived at New York City’s Lincoln Center on Broadway, giving her work the kind of exposure that will gain her a permanent place in the American literary canon.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bassett, Mark T. “Imagination, Control, and Betrayal in Jane Bowles’ ‘A Stick of Green Candy.’” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Winter, 1987): 25-29. Bassett studies the story in terms of possible influences the desert environment might have had on Bowles while she finished it. He suggests that the story pits the order and control exerted by the childhood imagination against the chaos and uncertainty of the real world, or adult society.

Bowles, Jane. Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970. Edited by Millicent Dillon. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1985. Jane Bowles’s letters constitute the most complete record of her struggles with her work, her fear of writer’s block, and her obsession with words and exactness of expression. The letters paint a picture of her travels, relationships, and final illness. Essential reading for an understanding of one whose life and work were so closely related.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. New York: Princeton University Press, 1989. Dillon revises her thinking on Bowles’s inability to complete her later work. Her uncompleted fragments were not from writer’s block, but from an impulse to express herself in a fragmented style that reflected her sense of experience. Discusses the story “Camp Cataract.”

Dillon, Millicent. A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981. Dillon’s biography is meticulously researched and passionately written. Includes thorough discussion of the genesis of Bowles’s stories and other writings. Contains a chronology, a bibliography, an index, and notes.

Gray, Francine du Plessix. “Jane Bowles Reconsidered.” In Adam and Eve and the City: Selected Nonfiction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. A short, useful introduction to Bowles’s work, mostly through discussion of her novel Two Serious Ladies. Gray considers the theme of women’s independence central to Bowles’s fiction. She compares Bowles’s work with the work of other twentieth century novelists, especially Jean Rhys.

Roditi, Edouard. “The Fiction of Jane Bowles as a Form of Self-Exorcism.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 12 (Summer, 1992): 182-194. Roditi speculates that Jane Bowles relieved herself of her own insanity by giving it to her characters. When Paul Bowles took her to Tangier, however, away from suburban America, she became disoriented, collapsed into insanity, and died. An interesting premise by a friend and literary acquaintance of the Bowleses.