What Did Karen Fowler See?
Please read What I Didn't See by Karen Joy Fowler.
I don't know how "What I Didn't See" works for other people, but this, I think, is how it works for me.
The story is a deliberate homage to James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," as the title advertises. This gives us a pretty good hint that the story will, in some way, be about gender and how our prejudices and preconceptions blind us to reality. In the Tiptree story, men tend not to see the mousy women: these women live quietly in the corners of the world, a separate species. The women mate periodically with someone they see as having "good genes," which is where the "species" argument gets a little strange, because men and these women can produce viable offspring. Rather than detracting from the story, I think this strengthens one of Tiptree's points: these women have become invisible not because of what they are, but because of how the outside world does, or doesn't, perceive them.
In Karen Joy Fowler's story, the POV character is a woman, an immediate shift from the Tiptree model that indicates that Fowler has something further to say.
Both women in the Fowler story are being “used” by the men, not for their own brains and talent but for their symbolic value. The narrator has a job (helping her husband with his nets and bugs) but Beverly, the other woman, doesn’t – she’s along because Merion Cowper is between wives. That is to say, she is the most recent discardable female in his life. But note what the women are along for:
"If one of the girls should bring down a large male," [Archer] said, "it will seem as exciting as shooting a cow. No man will cross a continent merely to do something a pair of girls has already done."
He never did ask us, because that wasn't his way. He just raised it as our Christian duty and then left us to worry it over in our minds.
The women are being brought along because of their stereotypical value. That’s all. The narrator’s work with her husband is incidental. Although Archer wanted her presence, he asked her husband to bring her along: he din't invite her in her own right.
Archer's basic premise is ridiculous. He objects to the typification of the gorillas as savage and dangerous brutes, seeing them as gentle vegetarians. He objects to hunting them, and believes that if they are shown not worthy of attention from big game hunters, they will be left alone. The best way, his logic goes, to lessen their worth as targets is to show that even women can bring them down.To protect the gorilla's gentleness, it is important to exploit that gentleness.
We, of course, know that he is right about gorillas, but Fowler has already told us that we need to see the story in terms of 1928. So, essentially, we have stereotypical women being used to counter a stereotype of the gorillas, and it’s interesting that while Archer objects to the second stereotype, he has no problem with, and perhaps no consciousness of, the first.
But that evening Eddie was most excited about a small jumping spider, which seemed not to spin her own web, but to lurk instead in the web of another. She had no beautiful markings; when he'd first seen one, he'd thought she was a bit of dirt blown into the silken strands. Then she grew legs and, as we watched, stalked and killed the web's owner and all with a startling cunning.
This is important, because such she spends time and care on this. Think about Tiptree's mousy women, little more than bits of dirt, with no beautiful markings, blown into the strands of the world. Spiders will recur in this story.
Beverly and Merion quarrel, and so she flirts with Wilmet. In the very next scene, the narrator has what some of us recognize as a menopausal hot-flash. So we know that Beverly is young, and in the heat of the sexual game, while the narrator is entering the years of infertility: her heat is the opposite of the younger woman's. Just a little later, the meaning for this becomes more obvious when we learn that “The [native] woman carried away from the village had been menstruating.” Ripeness is all.
In the scene in the church graveyard, we see Merion clearly: he’s emphatically, almost stereotypically, male: “meaty and needing a shave, but handsome enough when cleaned up. He swung his arms when he walked so he took up more space than he needed.” He is the one who warns about menstruation, and mentions that the narrator is “a solid, sensible, mature woman.”
A woman unlikely to inflame the passions of jungle apes was what I heard. Even in my prime I'd never been the sort of woman poems are written about, but this seemed to place me low indeed. An hour later I saw the humor in it, and Eddie surely laughed at me quickly enough when I confessed it, but at the time I was sincerely insulted. How sensible, how mature was that?
Merion doesn’t want the women to go up at all, and our narrator insists on going. It’s telling that later, when Beverly says she’ll stay behind, Merion objects because, the narrator says, “he'd sooner see Beverly taken by gorillas than by Wilmet,” the wimp he perceives to be his rival. Merion, for all his protrusive masculinity, is incapable of seeing beyond his misperceptions.
[I want to point out, here, echoes of Hemingway’s The Short, Happy Life of Francis Mccomber: Africa, hunters, guides, sexual jealously, wimps, "real men," etc.]
As Tiptree sends her characters through the Yucatecan jungle, Fowler sends hers through jungle up an African mountain, a slog tough enough so that “Soon Beverly sang out for a gorilla to come and carry her the rest of the way.”
Earlier, the narrator notices the garden around the church and says, “How often we grow a garden around our houses of worship. We march ourselves through Eden to get to God.” Now, going up the mountain, she tells us that
We saw elephant tracks, large, sunken bowls in the mud, half-filled with water. We saw glades of wild carrots and an extravagance of pink and purple orchids. Grasses in greens so delicate they seemed to be melting. I revised my notions of Eden, leaving the roses behind and choosing instead these remote forests where the gorillas lived—foggy rains, the crooked hagenia trees strung with vines, golden mosses, silver lichen; the rattle and buzz of flies and beetles; the smell of catnip as we stepped into it.
Notice how the narrator is changing, moving from the neat comforts of the church garden, to the Eden of the “forests where the gorillas lived”. This comment sets out the opposing currents of the story very clearly: civilization vs. the wild, contained Eden vs. “natural” Eden, what we believe vs. what exists.
In the Biblical Eden story, the woman willingly eats the apple and brings death into the world. Here, we have women instructed to bring death into Eden, compelled to do it by the more powerful men.
The group makes it to camp and the climate has changed: it’s cold here. The two women find a quiet pool and dip their feet and talk, This is, I think, the pivotal scene in the story and does a lot of work:
* The cold is delightful until the narrator is overcome by another hot flash. She’s in Eden, but she’s being barred from Eden, too: she can’t even enjoy the freshness. [Another echo of Hemingway’s story in: “[Beverly] might have told me Merion's former wife had been unfaithful to him. Later this seemed like something I'd once been told, but maybe only because it made sense.”]
* Note this telling exchange between the women:
"Now he seems to think the apes will leave me alone if only I don't go tempting them," she said. "Lord!"
"He says they're drawn to menstrual blood."
"Then I've got no problem. Anyway Russell says that Burunga says we'll never see them, dressed as we're dressed. Our clothes make too much noise when we walk. He told Russell we must hunt them naked. I haven't passed that on to Merion yet. I'm saving it for a special occasion."
More Eden here: temptation, nudity as part of temptation, the hunt as sex. Clearly, the women are being fitted out, by the men, as the causes of temptation in Eden: And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. Genesis 3:6
* Pay special attention to what follows:
I had no idea who Burunga was. Not the cook and not our chief guide, which were the only names I'd bothered with. I was, at least (and I do see now, how very least it is) embarrassed to learn that Beverly had done otherwise. "Are you planning to shoot an ape?" I asked. It came over me all of sudden that I wanted a particular answer, but I couldn't unearth what answer that was. [What’s going on here, I think, is that the narrator wants to know whether Beverly, the Eve-figure, the tempted temptress, the fertile one, is willing to accept the role that has been prepared for her.]
"I'm not really a killer," she said. "More a sweet-natured vegetarian. [This is a deliberate echo of Archer's typification of the gorillas.] Of the meat-eating variety. But Archer says he'll put my picture up in the museum. You know the sort of thing—rifle on shoulder, foot on body, eyes to the horizon. Wouldn't that be something to take the kiddies to?"
The narrator and Eddie have no children, another thing separating fertile Beverly from her barren, and now menopausal, sister. Not only does the narrator not have children, she cannot now have children. Archer may not know these details, but it is Beverly that he tempts with fame – something that is entirely beside the point and Beverly knows it.
* Beverly knows that she’s only a stereotype, a fact emphasized when Beverly says that Merion paid her way, and doesn’t think he’s gotten his money’s worth.
* She gives the narrator something of great value: she acknowledges the narrator’s “luck,” her worth, by admiring the one thing that Beverly doesn’t have: love.
"You're still in love with him, aren't you?" Beverly asked. "After so many years of marriage."
I admitted as much.
Beverly shook her golden head. "Then you'd best keep with him," she told me.
Or did she? What did she say to me? I've been over the conversation so many times I no longer remember it at all.
Then you’d best keep with him. Later the narrator says that, at the time, she heard these words as a threat.
Okay, we’re coming into the home stretch here.
In camp, Beverly goes to her tent and the narrator gets dragged into playing bridge. The men talk.
There was a natural order to things, Russell said, and you could reason it out; it was simple Darwinism.
I didn't think you could reason out spiders; I didn't buy that you could reason out chimps. So I didn't listen. I played my cards and every so often a word would fall in. Male this, male that. Blah, blah, dominance. Survival of the fittest, blah, blah. Natural selection, nature red in tooth and claw. Blah and blah. There was an argument then as to whether by simple Darwinism we could expect a social arrangement of monogamous married couples or whether the males would all have harems. There were points to be made either way and I didn't care for any of those points.
Among other things, this paragraph reminds us of that earlier spider, the nondescript one that takes over the webs of others. Also of interest is the narrator's exasperation with the men, which she didn't show before her conversation with Beverly. Something in her is beginning to change.
In the course of the game, the narrator learns that a photo of her in the museum might be better than one of Beverly, because Beverly’s youth and appeal might distract from the message. Here, baldly, plainly, the men discuss the women as though women don’t even have ears. Then Wilmet, who is a fool, blames her for losing the bridge hand, and Eddie makes excuses for her – as if agreeing that she was at fault, not Wilmet. The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. The narrator is so furious that she goes into the jungle alone.
Why does she do this? What is she looking for?
She finds a spider nest of great strength, and wants to take the spider back to Eddie but can’t. “It seemed a betrayal of Eddie to let her be, but that sort of evened our score.” She has a hot flash, and she sees a gorilla. [Note, by the way, that the gorilla uses his arms as he walks -- and so did Merion in the churchyard. Another of the story's many internal echos.]
“I was determined to see it again. ... I knew I'd never have another chance; even if we did see one later the men would take it over.” [Emphasis added.] She takes off her clothes for sensible reasons, and follows the gorilla, and finds a beautiful meadow and, in it, three gorillas:
It might have been a harem. It might have been a family—a father, mother and daughter. The sun came out. One female combed the other with her hands, the two of them blinking in the sun. The male was seated in a patch of wild carrots, pulling and eating them with no particular ardor. I could see his profile and the gray in his fur. He twitched his fingers a bit, like a man listening to music. There were flowers—pink and white—in concentric circles where some pond had been and now wasn't. One lone tree. I stood and looked for a good long time.It's Eden, peaceful and beautiful. Nonetheless, she prepares to kill the male gorilla - why?
In the leather of his face I saw surprise, curiosity, caution. Something else, too. Something so human it made me feel like an old woman with no clothes on. I might have shot him just for that, but I knew it wasn't right—to kill him merely because he was more human than I anticipated.
Then the hidden kicker to the whole thing:
He thumped his chest, a rhythmic beat that made the women look to him. He showed me his teeth. Then he turned and took the women away.
Not the females. Not the other gorillas. The women.
I watched it all through the sight of my gun. I might have hit him several times—spared the women, freed the women. But I couldn't see that they wanted freeing and Eddie had told me never to shoot a gun angry. The gorillas faded from the meadow. I was cold then and I went for my clothes.
Two things, here. First, she says that even though by killing the male she would be acting as the human males want her to act, her motivation is to save the females.
Second, in this paragraph she refers to the females both as "the women" and as "the gorillas." So what, precisely, did she see? She’s exhausted, cold, emotionally wrought, facing decisions about life and death ... did she see female gorillas, or did she see human women? Did she see a mother and daughter, or did she see the "abducted" native woman ... and Beverly? Did she see females in need of saving, or did she see gorillas to be protected? [Note that Fowler isn't explicit about any of this: it comes to us through the tone of her narrator's thoughts and memories, through her bewilderment and anger and exhaustion. The narrator does not, yet, see any of this, she simply reports what has happened to her.]
And then, to bring her back to reality, when she comes upon Russell she says that Eddie must have been worried about her, and learns that they didn't even notice her absence in their concern about Beverly, who has disappeared. You can't get much more invisible than that, when your absence isn't even observed.
Merion says Beverly was taken by the gorillas, although they can find no sign of gorillas. The narrator is sent back to the mission along with the porters; one tries to tell her something about Beverly but disappears before she can find a translator. No trace of Beverly is ever found, not even a bracelet.
Later, much later, Eddie tells us the horrible result of Beverly's disappearance: the men remained on the mountain and killed gorillas, entire family groups, a massacre. We assume that this was Merion’s idea, the alpha male seeking revenge for the abduction – or escape – of his female, until Eddie reveals that the slaughter happened at his insistence, to draw the men’s attention away from the porters and the suspicion that one of them might have taken, or killed, Beverly – to keep the men soaked in blood until they “were all so ashamed, there would be no way to turn and accuse someone new." Essentially, he used the male sterotype to manipulate the men, just as the men used female, and primate, stereotypes to attain their own ends.
Eddie says, “They'd slaughtered the gorillas as if they were cows.” Earlier, "If one of the girls should bring down a large male," [Archer] said, "it will seem as exciting as shooting a cow. No man will cross a continent merely to do something a pair of girls has already done." The story echos itself, forward and backward, but this last slaughter is not blase: it is filled with anger and fear and bloodlust. It is, one might say, evidence of testosterone gone mad.
In modern English, the verb "to see" has two meanings: to perceive visually, and to understand. What did the narrator not see? “...the first white woman to see the wild gorillas and the one who saw nothing else—not the chains, not the beatings, not the massacre.” In addition, she didn’t "see" Beverly either, just as the men in Tiptree’s story didn’t see the mousy women. She stereotyped Beverly by function rather than by self, as did Merion or Russell or even Eddie, who engineered a slaughter of the gorillas to protect the men -- a slaughter which obliterated the fact that Beverly chose to go with the gorillas just as Tiptree’s women chose to go with the aliens. For all her beauty and attraction, Beverly was also a woman that men -- and the narrator -- didn’t see. And despite her perceptiveness and wisdom, the narrator stereotypes the men of that 1928 party just as much, perhaps, as they themselves stereotype the women.
In the end, I think, the narrator understands that.
But there are other times when I let [Beverly’s last words] in. Turn them over. Then they become, not a threat as I originally heard them, but an invitation. On those days I can pretend that she's still there in the jungle, dipping her feet, eating wild carrots, and waiting for me. I can pretend that I'll be joining her whenever I wish and just as soon as I please.
The perceived threat was that Beverly, young and attractive and fertile, could take Eddie away, if she chose. Later, I think, the narrator reinterprets the line: if you have love, stay with it. If you do not...
It's important to remember of the story's opening. Read it again:
You're never alone in the jungle. You can't see through the twist of roots and leaves and vines, the streakish, tricky light, but you've always got a sense of being seen. You make too much noise when you walk.
At the same time, you understand that you don't matter. You're small and stuck on the ground. The ghosts of paths weren't made for you. If you get bitten by a snake, it's your own damn fault, not the snake's, and if someone doesn't drag you out you'll turn to mulch just like anything else would and show up next as mold or moss, ferns, leeches, ants, millipedes, butterflies, beetles. The jungle is a jammed-alive place, which means that something is always dying there.
Eddie had this idea once that defects of character could be treated with doses of landscape: the ocean for the histrionic, mountains for the domineering, and so forth. I forget the desert, but the jungle was the place to send the self-centered.
The self-centered. The ones who do not see.