Bowles, Jane Auer

views updated

BOWLES, Jane Auer

Born 22 February 1917, New York, New York; died 4 May 1973, Malaga, Spain

Daughter of Sydney and Clair Stajer Auer; married PaulBowles, 1938

After attending public schools in Long Island, Jane Bowles was tutored by a French professor in Switzerland. In 1935 she finished Le Phaeton Hypocrite, a novel in French which was never published and which has disappeared. After 1938 she and her husband lived in Central America, Europe, Mexico, and New York City. From 1947 they spent most of their time in Tangier, Morocco.

Bowles finished her only novel, Two Serious Ladies in 1941, and from 1944 to 1953 was engaged in writing and revising her only full-length play, In the Summer House, ultimately produced in New York City in 1953 by the Playwrights' Company.

Most of the short stories which constitute the remainder of Bowles's works were written during the 1940s. According to Paul Bowles, Jane became hypercritical of her writing in the 1950s. In 1957 she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage which deprived her of her ability to read and write. Her health worsened slowly, and she died in 1973, in Malaga, Spain. All of Bowles' stories are about women and their attempts at independence; male characters are seldom important, even as blocking characters. When Bowles' women characters cannot find themselves, it is other women who are holding them back. The essential Bowles plot presents a woman who sees to break away from tradition and find new adventures in the outside world, and a second woman—sister, companion, lover—who tries to keep her at home within the old habits of dependence.

In Two Serious Ladies, (1943), Christina Goering tries to earn salvation by leaving her home and her female companion to challenge the hated outside world. There she takes up with a series of increasingly menacing male strangers, the last of whom abandons her. The second serious lady is Frieda Copperfield, who leaves her husband for a prostitute named Pacifica, who ultimately forces Frieda to share her with a young man. The promiscuity, bisexuality, and sadomasochism in this novel are seldom erotic, but tend instead to illustrate the hidden horror in human relationships, most of which consist of greedy individual truth-seekers bouncing their needs off each other.

The menace inherent in human interdependence is also the subject of Bowles' play, which concerns two mother/daughter pairs. Vivian Constable rejects her mother and attaches herself to Mrs. Cuevas, whose jealous daughter Molly murders Vivian. Mrs. Cuevas abandons Molly to get married, and when Mrs. Cuevas later returns to reestablish the old dependency, Molly chooses to go off with her own husband. Mrs. Cuevas threatens to tell Mrs. Constable about the murder, but it becomes clear that Mrs. Constable doesn't really care.

It is the relationship between sisters Bowles examines in her best short story, "Camp Cataract," part of the collection Plain Pleasures (1966). Harriet leaves her sisters every year to stay at Camp Cataract, in hopes she can get used to the outside world and ultimately leave home permanently. Her sister Sadie tries to convince her that "you don't grow rich in spirit by widening your circle but by tending your own." When Sadie panics and comes after Harriet, Sadie realizes it is she who is going on that journey from home, not Harriet. Sadie is perhaps the only Bowles character who gets to the end of her search for herself, but the quest ends in her death. Rather than emerging free from her clinging sister, Harriet appears to exchange her for an aggressively dependent friend.

Bowles introduced almost the same plot in overtly lesbian form in her unfinished story "Going to Massachusetts," which appears with other fragments from Bowles's notebooks in a posthumous collection called Feminine Wiles (1976). Through her constant resetting of these pairs of warring women, Bowles presents a full picture of the female psyche and the extremes to which the personality is driven by the pressures of modern society. Her representative woman tries to realize her potential within a world that tells her to be chaste, experienced, loyal to her family, supportive of her man, and independent. Bowles describes this fragmented world and its absurd expectations in a style which is eccentric, and sometimes almost surrealistic. Characters form attachments and abandon each other rapidly and unreasonably; they speak their minds to each other with a frankness which the reader does not expect in the middle-to upper-class world that Bowles portrays. These sudden twists force the reader to share in the sense of menace and confusion that the freedom-seeking Bowles heroine feels in her relationship to the world.

Other Works:

Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1966). "A Day in the Open" in The Granta Book of the American Short Story (1992). The Collected Works of Jane Bowles: With a New Introduction (1989). "In the Summer House" in Plays by American Women, 1930-1960 (1994). My Sister's Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles (1966, reissued 1995). Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970 (1990). "Plain Pleasures" in Infinite Riches: Classic Stories by 20th-century Women Writers (1993). "Senorita Cordoba" in The Graywolf Annual Two: Short Stories by Women (1986).


Bowles, P., The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (1994). Dillon, M., "Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character" in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction (1989). Dillon, M., A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles (1981, 1998). Gentile, K. J, Speaking the Ineffable Name: The Novels of Emily Brontë, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Djuna Barnes, and Jane Bowles (dissertation, 1987). Knight, B., ed., Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of Revolution (1996). Lacey, R. K., and F. Poole, eds., Mirrors on the Maghrib: Critical Reflections on Paul and Jane Bowles and Other American Writers in Morocco (1996). Maier, J. R., Desert Songs: Western Images of Morocco and Moroccan Images of theWest (1996). Skerl, J., A Tawdry Place of Salvation: The Art of Jane Bowles (1997).

Reference Works:

World Authors 1950-1970 (1975).

Other reference:

Life (16 Dec. 1966). Mlle. (Dec. 1966). Novel (1968). SR (14 Jan. 1967).


About this article

Bowles, Jane Auer

Updated About content Print Article