Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.
She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.
The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.
No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899
A stifling story. A couple on honeymoon in Panama. On honeymoon, though it isn;t long before the woman cheats on her husband, who buys a monkey, “a little horror like that,” as she calls it, to haunt their honeymoon, because by looking at it, he says, “I’d be reminded of how stupid I was ever to get upset.” The monkey sums up her hatred of all things wild, the jungle and the trip included. They’re not a good match: “I’m crazy too, U know,” she tells him. “But I wish there were some way I could just once feel that my giving in meant anything to you. I wish you knew how to be gracious about it.” He doesn’t. He’s self-absorbed, self-conscious, as his occasional dips into the self-referential notebook he keeps tell us. He blames her for “always being disillusioned and going around wondering how mankind can be so bestial.” He blames her: “You can never enter into the spirit of s thing, can you?”
There are frequent condescending lines throughout, about the natives, who are all faceless, nameless, crudely drawn, servants both to the honeymooners and to Bowles’s story: “with fewer teeth missing they would be a handsome people.” Is this the best he can find to say about them? And he blames the wife for wondering how mankind can be bestial? Worse, he goes Jules Verne on the natives, comparing them to animals, even monkeys: About an employee on board (possibly the man she’d end up cheating on him with) Bowles writes: “he gave an impression of purely animal force, his broad, somewhat simian face was handsome…” There are also a couple of passages about the man’s childhood, which haunts him: “… the strangeness of his dreams persuaded him that at last he had turned the corner, that the dark place had finally been left behind, that he was out of hearing,” but the mere look of a common object “and the accustomed feeling of infinite futility and sadness would recur.”
She likes to booze with whisky. She disappears. He eventually finds her asleep half naked with another man. He packs up, leaves, boards a train. He thinks he sees her rushing toward him, but the train is whistling off.
Jeffrey Meyers in the Spring 2011 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review begins his essay, “The Oddest Couple: Paul and Jane Bowles” with three paragraphs that explain much of the 13-page “Call at Corazon”—the husband’s anxiety about his childhood, the husband’s need for a monkey, the wife’s boozing and eventual fling on board the boat as the couple was honeymooning:
The strange marriage of Paul and Jane Bowles, two extraordinarily eccentric characters, exemplified the change in mores from the Edwardian to the modern era and anticipated many of the sexual practices that became common after the social revolution of the 1960s. Both bisexual writers, with wildly different personalities, often separated but closely bound to each other, preferred to have sex with their own kind. Far from hiding their homosexuality, marriage allowed them to express it. The mysterious question of what held them together, as they encouraged each other’s work but became rivals in fiction, fascinated and baffled their friends.
Paul Bowles (1910–1999), born in New York and raised on Long Island, was the son of a cruel, tyrannical father, a frustrated would-be violinist who became a dentist. While still in his teens Paul published poems in the French avant-garde magazine transition. He left the University of Virginia after one semester, lived in Paris, studied composition with Aaron Copland, and met Gertrude Stein and many other writers. Always nomadic, in his twenties he traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and Central America and composed concert works as well as incidental music for ballet, theater, and film.
Jane Auer (1917–1973) was born to an affluent New York family and moved to Long Island when she was ten years
old. Her father died three years later; and in 1931, while at a girls’ school in Massachusetts, she broke her leg in a serious riding accident. In the early 1930s she was treated in a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis of the knee. After returning to New York in 1937, she met Paul and impulsively invited herself to join him and his Dutch friends on their trip to Mexico. But she hated the primitive country and, soon after arriving, flew straight back to America—not a promising start for their future travels together. Paul and Jane had a certain amount in common. Both were only children, grew up on Long Island, had lived in Europe, and were fluent in French. They did not want to have children, who would interfere with their work and their travels, were essentially homosexual, and felt free to pursue their own sexual interests. In 1938 they surprised all their friends by getting married.
As to the story, Meyers summarizes it this way:
Paul’s story “Call at Corazón” (1947), like Jane’s Two Serious Ladies, is based on their rather awful 1938 honeymoon in Panama. These works show how a husband and wife portray different views of the same miserable experience. (Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald had also done this in Save Me the Waltz and Tender is the Night.) Paul did seem to take cruel delight in dragging Jane into the jungle. As he wrote Gertrude Stein, “I am married to a girl who hates nature, and so we are here with volcanoes, earthquakes and monkeys.”
Corazón de Jesús is a real island port off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Though corazón is the most frequently recurring word in Spanish love songs, in Paul’s story, the woman’s heart does not answer the call. The unnamed wife constantly complains and is more irritating than “amusing.” She hates the cramped cabins on the stinking ships (Paul always traveled with an enormous amount of luggage), the intrusive cockroaches who share their quarters, and the destructive pet monkey (a symbol of primitive unreason) who tears out the pages of his book. She also fears the sick-making food, biting insects, torrid heat, poisonous snakes, and tropical diseases. He complains that she refuses to enter into the adventurous spirit of their travels; when he tries to be caustic, she tells him he’s boring.
The husband can’t sleep when the alcoholic wife is prowling around at night: “he began to feel pangs of anxiety as to where she might be. . . . The comfort of her presence was lacking, and there was also the fear of being awakened by her return.” He gets up, searches for her, and finds her on deck next to a strange man, asleep and half-naked after having had sex with him. The husband then returns to the cabin, packs his bags, leaves the boat, and boards the train that’s waiting near the dock. As the train departs, “he thought he saw a figure in white running among the dogs and children toward the station, but the train started up as he watched, and the street was lost to view.” The exasperated but coldly efficient husband takes revenge by abandoning his wife, who suddenly needs him, to an uncertain fate in the jungly port.