READING ALONE TOGETHER: PART THREE

This time next week, GUTS will post the third instalment of Reading Alone Together, a short story reading series led by Esmé Hogeveen, an English student living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Over the next few months, friends, strangers, teachers, artists, thinkers, and hopefully, one day, maybe even you, will contribute to a discussion on a selection of short stories.

by Esmé Hogeveen

For next week’s instalment of Reading Alone Together, I will be speaking to Gabrielle Willms about “The Jungle,” by Elizabeth Bowen. This story is available as a podcast via The Guardian.

Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899 and died in London in 1973; her writing reflects post-Victorian tensions among the upper-middle class. As noted in the Guardian podcast, some critics contend that Bowen’s decreasing popularity towards the end of the twentieth century is due to the specificity of Bowen’s subject—a portion of society whose identity changed, and to some extent disappeared entirely, over the course of her life.

Nowadays, some readers may recognize Bowen as the author of The Last September, a novel that inspired the critically acclaimed film of the same name. However, unlike The Last September and much of Bowen’s other work—which captures the cultural and political tensions of the early twentieth century—“The Jungle” (first published in 1929) focuses simply upon the relationship between two teenage girls, whose intimacies and struggles come across as universal.

The first time I listened to “The Jungle,” it reminded me of early twentieth-century English children’s stories—the fantastical, but slightly prim, tone of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis) and Five Children and It (E. Nesbit). However, upon further consideration, Bowen’s voice in “The Jungle” began to remind me less of a children’s story and more of one of Bowen’s younger contemporaries, Scottish author Muriel Spark. Like Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “The Jungle” may be about teenage girls, but its themes are resolutely mature, and therein lies its literary savour.

Bowen represents the bizarre cocktail of sweetness, altruism, and rage that simmers beneath an adolescent girl’s calm exterior. The acutely non-moralizing presentation of her protagonist, Rachel gives the reader freedom of interpretation. Like the location described in the story’s title—which, whether it be an empty wooded lot or a large British forest, is certainly no tropical location—“The Jungle” is definitely much more than meets the eye.

As you listen and/or read “The Jungle,” I encourage you to consider the following questions:

  • Which character do you find more compelling: Rachel or Elise? Why?
  • How are Rachel’s and Elise’s relationships toward the jungle different and/or similar? How do their differing experiences effect the reader’s interpretation of the jungle?
  • Is the girls’ relationship erotically charged in a way that positions Rachel and Elise in conventional female and male roles?
  • What roles do the two secondary friend characters, Joyce Fellows and Charity, play in the story? (And are their roles as one-dimensional as their didactic names would seem to suggest?)
  • How do you envision the future of Rachel and Elise’s relationship?

**If you would like a PDF text version of “The Jungle,” please send an email to esmehogeveeen (at) gmail (dot) com.

 

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