Why Won’t They Come Back? A Self Reflection in Mrs. Caliban

The novel by Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban, focuses intently on the trauma of loving somebody and having to come to terms with their betrayal. It’s a tragedy of Shakespearian likeness, as evidenced by the title; “Caliban” is a character in The Tempest. He is a half-monster, and often is depicted as a fish man. Mrs. Caliban brought to mind my own grapplings with loneliness, and its inherent futility.

Mrs. Caliban suggests that it is a very human experience to lose everything. Perhaps Dorothy could have done something different. It is true that if she had not housed Larry, Joey wouldn’t have been killed, and she wouldn’t have discovered Fred’s infidelity with Sandra, and all of them could have been alive. But, truly, what life was she living? Her best friend had cheated on her with her husband, and now the husband was a pedophile and sleeping with the friend’s sixteen year old daughter. Her past, too, is a testament to her loneliness, and her internal monologue that she is responsible for it. Her children died, something that is said to be fatal for a marriage as well. On the subject, a man who lost his child at birth says, “The feeling of isolation is more devastating if you feel you are alone in a marriage after the loss of a child.” (De Leon). What is important to the theme of the book is not that she recovered after her children’s deaths, it’s that she didn’t recover at all. She carries that blame with her, enough that it affects her mind.

Dorothy hallucinates several times in the beginning of the novel, hinting that she could be an unreliable narrator. She first heard the news about Larry on the same radio she heard her “special broadcasts” on, and she was never around to see him kill anyone, or even to see him encounter another person. Even if she was hallucinating things, to have your life crumble like that, where the people you held closest betrayed you and left you, one way or another, there’s no fixing that kind of pain. I wouldn’t say that anyone’s ever betrayed me that grievously, but I do have expectations for friends. I expect that they don’t treat me poorly, and if they do, I usually prefer to not stay friends. Well, I don’t make too many friends, so this kind of thing can lead to diminishing returns, as it will. There was a point at which I had no one. Several, actually. And it makes doing anything a whole lot harder. Dorothy has a moment where she explains why this is hard, “Then she tried to explain to Larry that “all this” wasn’t much good without another person to share it with.” (Ingalls 46). Sharing something with somebody is a sacred thing. It’s a part of you that you give away, and you get back a part of them in return. Ingalls illustrates this very well in Mrs. Caliban, where Dorothy shares her world with Larry, and he gives it meaning.

An important part of the plot involves the fact that Dorothy really doesn’t know much about what’s going on in her loved ones’ lives or, more importantly, what they actually think of her. She knows the basic gist: Estelle sleeps around, her daughter is seeing an older man, her husband is acting strange and probably cheating, etc. She does not know that all of them would betray her, specifically. What does this mean for Larry? If we indulge the idea that he is not a hallucination, she seems to think that she loves Larry, and that she would keep him around forever. Would he even feel the same way towards her? There’s this exchange between them:

“But would you go to a different female if you couldn’t get the one you wanted?” 

“Of course.” 

“And would you be as happy with her as you would have been with the first one?” 

“I don’t know. It is important?”

(Ingalls 45). He doesn’t even really seem to understand why he would love her, let alone express that he appreciates her, wants to stay on land with her, or that he wants her specifically.

There is a glaring question of the novel that changes the plot: whether or not Larry was real, or a figment of Dorothy’s imagination. When we look at it from the lens of human experience with loneliness, does it even matter? As we are told again and again in the closing chapter, “He never came.” If he was real, he had to make the conscious decision to leave her. If he wasn’t real, then he was never there to begin with. Both result in her being alone. And that’s the worst part about losing people, and about discovering that someone was not who you thought they were. You begin to feel a little crazy. How much of it was their manipulation, and how much of it was your own willful disbelief? Did you imagine their kindness? Did you imagine their friendship? Their love? It doesn’t really matter whether he was real or not, because Dorothy will never get that closure.

In the end, we see that it is futile. She is alone, with no husband, no Larry, no Estelle. It is the ultimate realization of her⁠ (our⁠) fear, of exactly what Estelle had reminded her: “But you destroy everything around you.” (Ingalls 65). When you see this pattern, it’s impossible not to think it. When people leave, even if you had nothing to do with their actions, you cannot help but blame yourself. Is it not our burden to bear? Who else would even take the blame? Everyone else left. No one is coming back.

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