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...

(The entire section is 1246 words.)