Analysis of T. C. Boyle’s Descent of Man

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Descent of Man” is not the first American short story to carry the title of Darwin’s controversial study of the evolutionary development of man. However, Edith Wharton’s “The Descent of Man” (1904) uses the title of Darwin’s work only to satirize a professor who betrays his scientific research by publishing fraudulent but popular scientific books in order to pay off his son’s debts. The scientist is a professor at the university in the fictional New England town of Hillbridge, which is also the setting for “Xingu” (1911) and several other stories, in which Wharton satirizes the intellectual or cultural pretensions of her day.

Boyle’s satirical story is narrated by Mr. Horne (16), whose lover, Jane Good (4, 6), a primate researcher, will leave him for a chimpanzee. “I was living,” he begins, “with a young woman who suddenly began to stink” (3). The first time he confronts her about it, she merely smiles and replies, “Occupational hazard” (3). One evening, “just after her bath (the faintest odor still lingered . . .),” he is startled to see an insect cross her belly and “bury itself in her navel.” “Louse,” she explains, “picked up” so that Konrad, her chimpanzee, “can experience a tangible gratification of his social impulses during the grooming ritual” (4). He cannot sleep and takes three Doriden (5). The next afternoon, he goes to the Primate Center to pick her up and meets an African-American janitor, who tells him about Konrad: “He can commoonicate de mos esoteric i-deas in bof ASL and Yerkish, respond to and translate English, French, German, and Chinese.” In fact, “Konrad is workin right now on a Yerkish translation ob Darwin’s De-scent o Man”; last fall, “he done undertook a Yerkish translation of Chomsky’s Language and Mind [1968] and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil [1886]” (7). “Stuff and nonsense,” the narrator replies. “No sense in feelin personally treatened . . ., mah good fellow—yo’s got to ree-lize dat he is a genius” (8).

That evening, they go out to dinner, but Jane wears her work clothes and wishes he would not insist that she bathe every night, as she is “getting tired of smelling like a coupon in a detergent box” and finds it “unnatural” and “unhealthy” (8). At the restaurant, they dine with the Primate Center director, Dr. UHwak-Lo, and his wife. The director’s wife and the narrator smile at each other, while the director and Jane discuss “the incidence of anal retention in chimps deprived of Frisbee co-ordination during the sensorimotor period” (10); during the meal of delicacies the narrator cannot identify, she tells the director about the “Yerkish epic” Konrad is “working up” (12). The following day, the narrator misses work and has to take five Doriden to fall asleep (12); when he awakes in the afternoon, he finds a note indicating that Jane is bringing Konrad home for dinner. She serves “watercress sandwiches and animal crackers as hors d’oeuvres” (13), while they watch the evening news. Konrad starts to react violently to a war story, and she translates his comments while telling the narrator not to worry, that “it’s just his daily slice of revolutionary rhetoric,” that “he’ll calm down in a minute—he likes to play Che, but he’s basically nonviolent” (14). When the narrator returns from work the next day, Jane has moved out. He feels “alone, deserted, friendless,” and he begins “to long even for the stink of her” (15). He looks for her at the Primate Center, pushes the director and his wife out of the way, but is knocked across the room by Konrad, and as Jane escapes, he can only look up “into the black eyes, teeth, fur, rock-ribbed arms” (16).

T. Coraghessan Boyle/The Guardian

Boyle’s satire includes ironic allusions to historical or contemporary figures and literary or film characters. The model for Jane Good is the British primatologist Jane Goodall (born 1934), the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees, who has observed their behavior in East Africa since the 1960s, as documented in In the Shadow of Man (1971) and many other publications. Dr. U-Hwak-Lo appears to be an anagram of Hugo van Lawick, who married Goodall in 1964 and served as her photographer. They divorced, however, in 1974, and in 1975 Goodall married Derek Bryceson (died 1980), who was the director of the national parks in Tanzania. The model for Mr. Horne may be Brian Herne, whose love affair with Goodall in 1957 foundered on his ambition to become a big game hunter (Goodall, Africa in My Blood 82). The model for Konrad is Konrad Lorenz (1903–89), whose most famous work, On Aggression (1966), studies “the fighting instinct in beast and man” (ix) and who is cited in Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man (288). The Primate Center is the one named after the American psychobiologist Robert M. Yerkes (1876–1956) in Atlanta; Goodall opposed the way chimps were studied there in captivity instead of in their natural habitat (Goodall, Beyond Innocence 218).

Among the items Jane takes with her when she moves out is “her Edgar Rice Burroughs collection” (15), which suggests another set of allusions to Tarzan and Jane in Burroughs’s novels Tarzan of the Apes (1914) and The Return of Tarzan (1915). Quoted on the dedication page in Descent of Man: Stories (1979), however, is the yell “Ungowa” by Johnny Weismuller in the film Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), and the allusions in Boyle’s story are to the characters in the films Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) rather than to the novels, for while Jane Porter in the novels is from Baltimore, Jane Parker in the films, like Jane Goodall, is from England. In both sources, Jane rejects her father’s younger big game hunting partner, because she falls in love with the “ape man” Tarzan.

Also quoted on the dedication page to Boyle’s collection is Franz Kafka’s “free ape,” who gives “A Report to an Academy” (The Complete Stories [1971] 250) about how, after being captured in Africa (251) by the German “Hagenbeck firm” (which pioneered in the hunting and marketing of wild animals for zoos and circuses), he found “a way out” of his cage by learning to “imitate” (ape!) his captors. He did not want “freedom” (253), for there was no way back to the jungle. Nor did he like behaving as a human (257), but “it was so easy to imitate these people” (255), and he even managed “to reach the cultural level of an average European” (258). The “free ape” opted for performing on the “variety stage” rather than remaining in captivity in a zoo (258).

Whether Kafka’s story is a satire on man as animal or on the “Jew who has allowed himself to be converted to Christianity” as “a way out” of the ghetto (Rubenstein 135), its savage (!) irony and humor clearly inspire Boyle’s “Descent of Man.” As is Josef K. in The Trial or Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, Mr. Horne is confronted at the outset with a bizarre situation with which he cannot cope, and his downfall (descent) is precipitated by his refusal to acknowledge Konrad’s intellectual abilities and sealed by his vain attempt to fight the chimpanzee physically over Jane Good, who has also opted to be a “free ape.” Boyle’s Kafkaesque satire continues in his later story “The Ape Lady in Retirement” (1989), in which Konrad reappears with Beatrice Umbo (whose name is an anagram of Gombe Stream Research Center, where Jane Goodall worked in Tanzania), “the world’s foremost authority on the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild,” who has “come home to retire in Connecticut” (194) but who cannot adjust to the “civilized” world.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “The Ape Lady in Retirement.” The Paris Review 110 (1989): 98–117.
———. “Descent of Man.” The Paris Review 69 (1977): 16–28.
Brownell, Charles F. “Marketing Wild Animals.” Leslie’s Monthly Magazine 60, no. 3 (July 1905): 287–295.
Goodall, Jane. Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters: The Early Years. Edited by Dale Peterson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
———. Beyond Innocence: An Autobiography in Letters: The Later Years. Edited by Dale Peterson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
———. In the Shadow of Man. Rev. ed. Photographs by Hugo van Lawik. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
Herne, Brian. White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris. New York: Holt, 1999.
Kafka, Franz. The Complete Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide. New York: Signet, 1998, 1,326–1,330.
Rubenstein, William C. “A Report to an Academy.” In Explain to Me Some Stories of Kafka, edited by Angel Flores, 132–137. New York: Gordian Press, 1983.
Ullery, David A. The Tarzan Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs: An Illustrated Reader’s Guide. Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland, 2001.
Wharton, Edith. “The Descent of Man.” Scribner’s Magazine 35 (1904): 313–322.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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