Mrs. Caliban, Years Later

Aubrey Roemmich, Editor

In 1983, Rachel Ingalls released her novella “Mrs. Caliban,” a campy monster-loving story where a depressed housewife in the 50’s falls in love with a six-foot frog man. The book sounds absurd, but it is in the absurdity that Ingalls makes her most potent commentary. Her stories border on the fantastical where one can read at a surface level and still be satisfied, but a deep analysis reveals how these elements are not as fantastical as they may seem.  Ingalls’ commercial success has fluctuated over the years. Her style tends to appeal to those most interested in literary fiction, but her stories remain incredibly marketable to larger audiences.  

At its core, “Mrs. Caliban” is drawing attention to the extreme mental strain women have had to suffer under capitalistic, patriarchal societies. Our heroine, Dorothy, is stuck in a loveless marriage that lost all viability after the tragic deaths of her son and unborn child. Overwhelmed by grief, her husband Fred loses himself in work and affairs, but Dorothy is stuck at home with nothing to occupy her mind. Burdened with the domestic and emotional labor of the house, Dorothy knows that everyone blames her for the loss of her children.  

But that all changes when Aquarius, the Monster Man enters Dorothy’s kitchen. Aquarius, who prefers to go by Larry, is half man and half sea creature captured from the Gulf of Mexico and brought to a scientific institution where he escaped after suffering mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Dorothy promises to help hide Larry, and they eventually enter a love affair. She spends her days hiding Larry, visiting her only friend, and dealing with the emotional fallout of losing her children and the toll her cheating husband has taken on her.  

Upon first reading this novella, what I found most striking was the ways in which Dorothy identified with Larry and then emotionally connected with him. One would assume that Fred, her husband, is the person to whom she would be the most attached and that Dorothy would have nothing in common with a sea monster. But once Larry enters the picture, Dorothy has both a mirror and a companion.  

On page 29, Dorothy reflects on Larry’s good manners, “he was always scrupulously polite. Now that she knew of the brutal methods that had been used to ram home the Institute’s policy on polite manners, she found these little touches of good breeding in his speech as poignant as if they had been scars on his body.” In this observation there is an air of understanding. Young girls are taught manners early on. But not just normal manners, they are taught that it is their duty to be polite, submissive, and pleasant no matter what. Dorothy sees Larry’s excessive politeness and understands how it came to be. 

This moment of mirror recognition allows their relationship to grow into an emotionally fulfilling one. Dorothy acknowledges that Larry’s presence gives her purpose again. A purpose that disappeared after the death of her children and the breakdown of her marriage. She has something secret and fun. Larry converses with her and helps with housework. He asks her questions and trusts her answers.   

This novella has quickly become one of my favorite pieces of literature I have read in years. Ingalls masterfully pairs a monster story with larger social commentary. The genius of this work lies in the fact that reading it as only a monster story is not incorrect and is just as enjoyable. But the depth of her writing is never hidden and is just as easily accessibly as the fabulism of a frog man is.  

Ingalls is often revered as a “forgotten” classical author. Someone whose work is breathtakingly potent and able to withstand the test of time but seems too different in and out of public memory. Every few decades there is a revival of her work and especially of “Mrs. Caliban.” This novella does not lose its grace with time, but instead becomes an even more powerful example of all the ways our society still must grow. 


Aubrey Roemmich is a Dakota Student Section Editor. She can be reached at [email protected]