Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791
Rachel Ingalls has been recognized, especially in England, as an important American writer. Her stories and novels, in the fabulist tradition, have gained much critical attention. Born in 1940, Ingalls was reared in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At seventeen, she left high school and spent two years in Germany, spending the second...
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Rachel Ingalls has been recognized, especially in England, as an important American writer. Her stories and novels, in the fabulist tradition, have gained much critical attention. Born in 1940, Ingalls was reared in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At seventeen, she left high school and spent two years in Germany, spending the second year auditing courses at several German universities. Upon returning to the United States, she enrolled at Radcliffe College and majored in English. In 1964, she settled in England. Her literary career began with the publication of Theft, a collection of stories, in 1970, the title story being a symbolic tale of tyranny and injustice. In 1971, The Man Who Was Left Behind won the First Novel Award given by Great Britain’s Author’s Club. A high point of her career came in 1986, when her novel Mrs. Caliban was chosen by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the top twenty postwar American novels, placing her work alongside that of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.
Ingalls has been called a fabulist writer, and though the label is justified, the themes of her tales make them very much adult fables. Often, Ingalls’s stories and novels focus on failed relationships, the difficulty for women of finding satisfying ways of life, and the granting to her heroines of only brief moments of redemption from a stifling existence. These themes are especially clear in Mrs. Caliban and Binstead’s Safari. In both books, the heroine is at first trapped in a loveless marriage; then, especially in the fantastic section of the story, the heroine is liberated from her stunted existence by an affair with a mysterious being. The acclaimed Mrs. Caliban, for example, starts with the protagonist, Dorothy, living her routine existence in a dull, unhappy marriage—making meals, shopping, listening to the radio. These details support a point that critics make about Ingalls sometimes establishing the “reality” of her characters’ situation before introducing the fantastic element. This point is illustrated in Mrs. Caliban, as the ordinary gives rise to the extraordinary when Dorothy hears on the radio of an escape of a giant amphibian. Similar to the situation in Binstead’s Safari, Dorothy’s affair with the mysterious creature gives short-lived emotional depth and meaning to her life. In Binstead’s Safari, as critics have noted, female empowerment is also an issue. Even before her affair with a legendary hunter, Millie, the protagonist, has started to change from a drab, inhibited woman who settles for taking a secondary role in her unhappy marriage to an independent and forthright woman. This empowerment is furthered by her affair with the mysterious Henry Lewis, who may have the ability to turn himself into a lion. Thus, one sees that the emotional metamorphosis of the heroine as she has a relationship with someone with fantastic qualities is one of Ingalls’s concerns.
Moreover, Binstead’s Safari has another interesting thematic characteristic. The African safari setting and the description of hunting are not merely Hemingwayesque; in fact, the novel seems to be an inversion of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” As in the Hemingway story, in Ingalls’s novel an unhappily married couple go on safari, and the wife has an affair with a prestigious hunter. Interestingly, in the light of Hemingway’s story of male empowerment on the safari, it is the female in Ingalls’s story who is noticeably empowered, and although she dies, as does Francis Macomber, she has gained in self-esteem and independence before death. Moreover, as in Hemingway’s story, the accompanying spouse feels uncomfortable with the other’s transformation. In both stories, the authors emphasize estrangement in intimate relationships, hostility among intimates, and misunderstandings. These qualities have been noted not only in the two aforementioned works by Ingalls but also in her novella I See a Long Journey. Yet it should be pointed out that although Ingalls and Hemingway share many themes, Ingalls expresses her fabulist interests and interweaves the extraordinary into her tales.
The critical reception of Ingalls’s work has been very positive. Critics have praised her concise use of language, her poignant writing about unfulfilled relationships and desires, and her ability to make the fantastic seem real. Readers may smile at her turns of plot, but they never laugh unbelievingly. Moreover, Ingalls has been called a master of the novella form and the inventor of a kind of gothic minimalism. Critics also point to the originality of Ingalls’s plots, one example being “Blessed Art Thou” (in the collection I See a Long Journey), about a monk who is allegedly impregnated by the angel Gabriel. For these reasons, Ingalls’s ability to incorporate the supernatural as a major means of examining human relationships has gained much admiration.