Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Appropriately enough for a story entitled “The Scorpion,” the old woman’s encounter with a scorpion in her dream constitutes the work’s key episode. Although Paul Bowles makes it clear that this episode is part of a dream, the image of the creature’s passage into the woman’s mouth and down her throat is so horrifying that the reader may fail to appreciate the dreamlike, symbolic nature of the rest of the story.

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Bowles’s characters are unnamed and minimally described; they are referred to only as an “old woman,” “one of her sons,” and an “old man.” In fact, they have little more personality than the scorpion itself. The setting is not specified, although one or two clues within the story, and knowledge of Bowles’s travels and other writings, suggest that it may be set in Central America.

The old woman lives in a tiny, damp cave—a fairy-tale setting that symbolically suggests the individual psyche and the womb. Her son plans to take her on a journey of three days, a symbolically significant period of time traditionally used to indicate the passage from death to life, as in the story of Christ’s Crucifixion and rebirth. Her guide will be her son, to whom she once gave the gift of life, and who will now lead her on an equally significant journey. As her dream further suggests, she will be reborn as a little girl.

Other themes concern sexual and generational antagonism, although these also are so understated that one is scarcely aware of them. The old woman often had had to argue with her sons to fetch wood for her oven, and she is clearly happy that she no longer has to share her food with them. In fact, she is not sure which son has come to visit her and looks for an identifying deformity of his hand. She is displeased that his shadow darkens her cave, and only her dream softens her attitude toward him. Significantly, the men she encounters in the street in her dream, who she thinks may be her sons, are unable to communicate with her. Once she...

(The entire section contains 554 words.)

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