Themes and Meanings

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

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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.

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 reaches a house, however, there are other women, women who show her to a room—a comforting if unfamiliar equivalent of the cave she is about to abandon in her waking, conscious life.

The themes of generational and sexual antagonism are repeated and reinforced in the story’s final scene: The old woman claims not to recognize the old man sitting on the stone, and her son accuses her of lying. However reassuring her dream may be in an ultimate sense, it has not negated the difficult facts of her existence.

“The Scorpion” may be read straightforwardly, as the story of an aged woman whose son has at long last returned home with the unwelcome news that she is no longer capable of living by herself. At this level, the woman’s dream represents her coming to terms with a disorienting and frightening situation: She literally swallows her fears. At another level, the woman sets off on a far more significant journey, from the end of life to death—symbolized by the disquieting episode with the scorpion—to life again. Read with this meaning in mind, “The Scorpion” is no longer horrifying but deeply moving.