Monday, April 22, 2024

Book Note: Mrs. Caliban

Ingalls, Rachel. Mrs. Caliban. 1983. New York: New Directions, 2017.

I can't recall precisely how this book came to my attention, but it's likely to have been in a list of Shakespeare-related fiction. But the title was irresistible—Mrs. Caliban promises much—and I gave it a try.

In terms of the Shakespearean content, I was disappointed. But the novel itself is intriguing. I teach a course called "Humor Lit." and this would fit right in. Simon Critchley, who wrote a very approachable book entitled On Humor, would have much to say about the disquieting, disorienting humor of Mrs. Caliban.

The novel tells the story of Mrs. Dorothy [No Last Name Given], a woman living a somewhat stereotypical suburban life in the 1960s or 1970s. In her grief over her son's recent death and her own even-more-recent miscarriage, in her bewilderment and pain at an affair she suspects her husband of carrying on, and in her boredom with her routine existance, she starts to go off the rails a bit. She seems to hear voices coming from the radio—voices that are directed at her personally but that no one else can hear.

Among these are some strange news alerts about the escape of the subject of a scientific study—a huge, amphibious monster called "Aquarius the Monsterman." But these reports seems to be accurate (as far as they go). It's left ambiguous whether we're moving further into our protagnoist's delusions or if the novel is presenting this as reality.

Either way, that's where we find the most direct connection to Shakespeare. Aquarius comes into Dorothy's kitchen while she's preparing a meal for her husband and his guests. We'll pick up there:

Dorothy protects Larry—in fact, they almost immediately start a romantic (in every sense of the word) relationship. I think this is where the title comes into play. Although many on-line sources assume that Dorothy's married name is Mrs. Dorothy Caliban, the word "Caliban" appears nowhere in the novel. She's never referred to as Mrs. [Anything]—just as Dorothy. But her allegiances are clearly wholly with Larry from the beginning of their romantic relationship. 

In The Tempest, Caliban makes a point of one thing he has learned from Prospero since Prospero usurped him (as Caliban thinks) as rule of the island: "You taught me language" (I.ii.363). But he also mentions the use he intends to put to that acquired skill: "And my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse" (I.iii.363–64).

Larry was also taught human speech, but with a pedagogy that is unlikely to receive PTA approval:

There's nothing more particularly Tempest-like in the rest of the novel. Dorothy is unhappy in her marriage to a man whom she suspects of having an affair and who is extremely inattentive, but she falls in love with Larry, a being somewhat like Caliban from Shakespeare's play. But even without more extensive ties to Shakespeare, the novel is well worth reading.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest