READING ELIZABETH BOWEN’S “THE JUNGLE”

by Esmé Hogeveen

This month, for some literary escapism to help us weather winter’s final sigh, we are reading a story called “The Jungle” by Elizabeth Bowen, available in podcast form thanks to The Guardian’s short story reading series.

As noted in last week’s introduction, Bowen depicts a very particular sociocultural moment in Britain between WWI and WWII. “The Jungle,” however, isn’t so much about a real time and place as an imagined one. Set in the English countryside, the titular Jungle, be it a patch of woods or an overgrown forest, is a place which symbolizes both freedom and constraint for the story’s two heroines, Rachel and Elise. The Jungle offers the girls a blank slate of sorts, where they can consider their innermost fears and desires, two things which become revealed as increasingly entwined as the story progresses. As the narrator describes it, “[Rachel] had felt a funny lurch in her imagination as she entered the Jungle, everything in it tumbled together, then shook apart again, a little altered in their relations to each other, a little changed” (231).

This month’s interview occurred through a mixture of Skype and email correspondence with Gabrielle Willms. I was struck by Willm’s description of the quotidian yet hyper particular nature of teenage best-friendship. She also brings up several interesting points about the way in which secrecy, dreams, desire, and death factor into coming-of-age, and the way in which self-projection factors into friendship.

Thanks for reading!

ABOUT GABRIELLE WILLMS:

OCCUPATION: Youth Fusion Elementary Coordinator in Waskaganish, Quebec. (I play sports, make crafts, bake, and do science experiments with a bunch of lil’uns).

FAVOURITE CHILDHOOD BOOK: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. (I had nearly forgotten about this book! Something to search for next time I’m home.)

FAVOURITE PLACE TO READ: An exceptionally comfy chair, preferably near a crackling fire.

AUTHOR YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT BECAUSE SHE/HE IS REALLY GREAT: hmm, do people know about Paul Bowles? The Sheltering Sky is such a compelling read!

 

Esmé: This is the first time a podcast has been featured on Reading Alone Together. How do think listening to Tessa Hadley read influenced your interpretation of “The Jungle”?

Gabrielle: The subtleties of a reader’s voice can have such a strong effect on the overall mood of a story. I found Tessa Hadley’s theatrical tone both delightful and slightly distracting. It took me a moment to adjust to her melodramatic style, but I came to embrace how appropriate it was for the story and its protagonist. I appreciated Hadley’s timing and sensibility—plus her accent was great (definitely not something I would have conjured up, at least not believably, in my own mind).

E: How does Elise operate as a pragmatic foil to Rachel’s daydreamer persona?

G: At first I felt that the masculine/feminine, physical/intellectual divide was overly emphasized. Over the course of the story, however, I noticed Bowen complicating this binary in interesting ways. Elise expresses herself through impulsive, physical action, which contrastingly reveals Rachel’s more imaginative and analytical relationship to the world. For example, when Elise climbs the apple tree without hesitation, Rachel undermines Elise’s free spirited approach with sarcasm.

Whereas Rachel imbues the Jungle with a sinister allure that hints at her own underlying sexual and violent desires, Elise sees it more practically as a secluded place to use for whatever illicit purposes strike her fancy. Elise seeks a physical location to explore her budding maturity away from adult eyes—a place where she can do things, like smoke and make campfires. Meanwhile, Rachel is looking for somewhere that triggers “a funny lurch in her imagination,” a place that allows for an exploration of yearnings, fear and strange new pleasures (231). The Jungle is a liberating space for both girls, but in very different ways.

E: The motif of a woman’s inert arm, lying out from beneath the brambles, first appears in Rachel’s nightmares, but becomes physically manifest near the end of the story when Rachel discovers Elise sleeping in the Jungle. Do you think Rachel’s horror at seeing Elise’s arm reveals that Rachel’s dreams are less about death and more about the fear of finding another body inhabiting the sacred, private space of the Jungle?

G: The arm is such a strange, unsettling presence in the story! Yes, I think that Rachel’s fear stems from a mixture of things which have all become entangled in the space of the Jungle. She simultaneously fears and desires the discovery of this unspecified Other character in the brambles. On one hand, this presence would upset Rachel’s imaginative relationship with the Jungle, but it would also help her to realize the exhilarating, though possibly disturbing, potential it represents. Rachel appears to be on the precipice of a revelation concerning her developing identity; she is both seeking the moment of realization and deeply afraid of its consequences.

Isn’t it crazy, in Rachel’s dream, when she is horrified by the dead presence and then realizes that “she had committed that murder herself” (232)? Right as Rachel is having this realization, Elise comes up and touches Rachel “so queerly” (237). I think there is a conflation of violent and sexual impulses associated with passion in “The Jungle,” and that the Jungle is a place where this tension can be explored by the girls themselves. I think this quotation also gestures towards the significance of Rachel being haunted by an arm, a body part associated with a physical presence and the capacity for touch, an action which prompts an immediate bodily reaction.

E: Describing the period before Rachel and Elise become friends, Bowen writes, “At this time Rachel was fourteen; she had no best friend at the moment, there was an interim” (231-232). Do you think Bowen represents something true about teenage friendship?

G: What a great line! A best friend seems absolutely mandatory at that age. I love how the role itself doesn’t so much evolve; it’s just a matter of finding someone who can fill the niche at the particular time.

I think there is a strong desire to test your capacity for intimacy and control as a teenager, and that many teenage relationships function as a means of experimenting with these boundaries. Both parties can gain personal insight and gauge the limits of their power through their respective performances of friendship. Beyond strategic friendships, which Rachel seems quite familiar with, Bowen also captures the quest for the “Perfect Person,” as Rachel describes her ideal friend, someone who will genuinely understand her and who can offer a more intense and fulfilling intimacy (232). A friendship with this degree of vulnerability poses risks for personal stability, however, and we see Rachel grapple with her fear of intimacy throughout the narrative.

E: How does shame factor into the girls’ friendship?

G: Shame is always lurking at the edge of Rachel’s mind, whereas Elise is relatively oblivious to the anxiety that comes with the sharing of secrets and the unspoken possibilities of intimate friendship. To me, this highlights the self-inflicted nature of Rachel’s shame. Elise would never humiliate Rachel in the same intentional way that Charity (Rachel’s former best friend) does, but Rachel still feels ashamed of the desires that Elise and the Jungle evoke in her. Rachel’s shame taints her relationship with Elise, but it is also partly what attracts her to Elise—who is “beautifully unembarrassed”—and fails to see why anyone could be otherwise (232).

E: What did you make of the two secondary friend characters, Charity and Joyce Fellows?

G: I love how Bowen realizes these characters so fully, despite the fact that they only appear in a few passages. I feel like we’ve all encountered these types—the powerful, precocious social strategist and the remarkably bland sidekick. They represent opposite ends of the social hierarchy.

I’m intrigued by the way in which power is exerted in all the girls’ relationships. Charity’s self-aware femininity, her confident attitude towards her developing body, and her understanding of social dynamics give her a commanding presence. Interestingly, Elise’s totally opposite qualities—her masculine energy and disregard for social conventions—grant her a surprising degree of social autonomy. There is also definitely tension between Elise’s disregard for rules and Rachel’s relative attentiveness to social norms.

While Rachel and Elise both attempt to assert control in their relationship, they have such different levels of social awareness that their friendship defies a traditional power struggle. This is maybe where the strange potential of their relationship lies.

E: In a certain light, we can see the Jungle as a manifestation of the forbidden desires of sex and death. However you interpret the story, “the note of the erotic,” as Frances Platt put it in last month’s Reading Alone Together interview, is undeniably present in the girls’ relationship. To what extent do you interpret it as urgently sexual, as opposed to just a sense of developing prepubescent awareness?

G: I would say there’s more of an ambiguous development going on, rather than explicit desire. There is certainly a mutual attraction, and I think Elise’s masculine energy and physicality make this desire more pronounced. Elise acts as a catalyst for Rachel’s exploration of sexual desire, but I feel that Rachel’s attraction may stem more from what Elise represents (masculinity, physical prowess, rebelliousness) than who Elise actually is.

E: The domestic realms of the home and school lurk in the background of “The Jungle.” Do you think the Jungle can, in any way, offer Rachel, Elise, or even Joyce, a release from their heavily codified existence as young women in the 1920s?

G: Absolutely. The very word “Jungle” connotes a sense of the exotic and potentially dangerous unknown. The Jungle is a place where things are neglected and untamed, where dead cats may be found. It offers the girls a way to engage with all the mysterious promise and violence of the outside and adult world with no stipulations or social agenda, an introduction to life very unlike tennis matches and “‘boy and girl dances’” (232). When Rachel is home for the holidays, the reader sees the sheltered and controlled life her mother and sister foretell for her near-future, and the reader better understands the necessity of Rachel’s escape into the Jungle.

E: The Jungle is initially described as: “…an absolutely neglected and wild place; nobody seemed to own it, nobody came there but tramps.” References to tramps recur throughout the story. What do you make of this?

G: So much tramp talk! It’s very interesting. Rachel is obviously very intrigued by the non-sanctioned behaviours and lifestyles that are possible in the unkempt space of the Jungle. As we just discussed, she has so little control over her own life, and I think that she both abhors and romanticizes the transient, wild life that these spectral figures lead. The tramps also seem to represent male aggression and a more overt relationship between violence and sexuality. There’s a foreboding sense that Rachel’s naiveté is precarious and that she may soon have to (and in many ways, is seeking to) confront the darker aspects of adulthood, symbolized by these lurking presences.

Also, more simply, this really just reminds me of how, as a teenager, you pick up certain terms that you don’t quite understand but that have an air of rebellion and salaciousness that feels exciting. Definitely some of that going on here, I’d say.

E: What did you make of Bowen’s writing style?

G: I was a fan. Bowen does a nice job of conveying Rachel’s inner turmoil through succinct, yet telling, little details. It felt a bit voyeuristic to revisit this confusing, difficult age and to get such a clear picture of the little betrayals and regrets that plague Rachel, but I like how Bowen’s narrator doesn’t belittle the drama. All the incidents of the story hold considerable weight for our protagonist, and as a reader, I was sucked into “The Jungle’s” insular world. Man, being fifteen is awful, but it’s also thrilling!

I think Bowen’s themes of emerging sexuality and developing relationships are still relevant today. The metaphors used to develop these themes are a bit heavy-handed, for sure, but Bowen has such a knack for creating offbeat moments and conveying the unsettling atmosphere of adolescence that this didn’t bother me. At times, the story does feel dated, but I kind of enjoyed that aspect. It’s an exhilarating little foray into the 1920s and the English countryside, but somehow “The Jungle” still feels surprisingly close to home.

Page numbers referenced in this interview are taken from the version of “The Jungle” featured in theThe Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1980.

 

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