This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.
PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE
If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)
In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”
In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.
There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.
Even the storyworld seems alive to Ottaline:
The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.
This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.
The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”
Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far to anything. Someone had to come for her. There was not even the solace of television, for old Red dominated the controls, always choosing Westerns, calling out to the film horses in his broken voice, “Buck him off, kick his brains out!”
We naturally settle on Ottaline as the main character of this story, even though it’s really about an entire family. She’s the last to be introduced for starters, and there’s a certain power which comes with being the ultimate.
There aren’t many women in the Close Range collection — Annie Proulx was mainly writing about men at this time. Ottaline is the third and most hard-working child of this ranch family — in true fairytale style the last of three (usually sons) is rewarded. But first she is put through the mill:
Most of the women depicted by Proulx […] have low self-esteem and very few illusions about life, being used to isolation, abuse, heavy drinking, cheating, domestic violence, taboos, and unwanted pregancies. […] However, Proulx’s stories also bring to the foreground a few strong-willed women getting out of marriages gone sour, suggesting that if you can’t leave Wyoming, you can always leave an ill-suited husband. […] Ottaline’s mother also provides an example of resistance as she warns her father in law: “Keep your dirty old prong from my girls or I’ll pour boilin water on it.”
— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans
Ottaline’s problem is that she is heavy set and for both self-driven and culturally-driven reasons this puts her on the sidelines as far as the marriage market is concerned. This body weight acts in a modern story as a disfigurement or magic spell might in a fairytale — Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are unconscious; Cinderella and the heroine of Beauty and the Beast are poor (but their beauty eventually redeems them); Rapunzel is hidden away; witches are old and ugly. There’s always some reason in a fairytale why women can’t just go forth and find a man if they want one. Ottaline’s weight is presented as a kind of grotesque, represented in other narratives by gargoyles and chimeras. The grotesque is a feature of gothic literature.
As miserable Ottaline turns for company to her scanner, which allows her to capture disjointed bits of other people’s cell phone conversations, her eavesdropping similarly may point to Annie Proulx’s ventriloquist tales. As the writer explains, she herself is “a good eavesdropper,” who likes to “listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats,” to “catch fragments of conversations and fill in the blanks. Indeed, her highly heteroglossic short stories feed on recuperated sociolects, myths, and discourses in a way that brings her readers to reflect upon the polyphony and intertextuality worked into her texts, and wonder at the artful recycling in her poetic yet violent and crude stories.
Annie Proulx doesn’t even want fairytale happy endings for her female characters and this has been foreshadowed earlier with Ottaline’s treatment of the tractor.
While crafting female characters nearly systematically doomed to a tragic downfall, Proulx deconstructs traditional fairy tales so as to pinpoint the noxious power of the Prince Charming and happy ending archetypes. Indeed, many of her short narratives may read as subversive rewriting of old folktales and fairy tales, showing awareness of the potency of storytelling. […] Like Ottaline conversing with the enamored talking tractor, Proulx’s fiction implies that one should be wary of false expectations inherited from stories passed on to little girls: “‘Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty old toad sleep in her shoe and in the morning the toad’s a good-looking dude making omelettes?'” The ironic, self-referential metalepsis draws attention to the patrimony of fairy tales and folktales which Proulx’s stories often tap into.
Metalepsis = a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. This is an example metalepsis because the reader knows how things go in fairytales — the girl isn’t meant to expect a handsome prince. She’s meant to be disgusted by the frog and be utterly surprised later.
So Ottaline doesn’t want a fairytale romance. What does she want? Satisfying sex (not with the off-again, on-again farmhand), and a stable life.
Her only chance seemed the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man, Hal Bloom, tall legs like chopsticks, T-shirt emblazoned Aggressive by Nature, Cowboy by Choice. He worked for Aladdin in short bursts between rodeo roping, could not often be pried off his horse (for he cherished a vision of himself as an 1870s cowboy just in from an Oregon cattle drive). Ottaline had gone with him down into the willow a dozen times, to the damp soil and nests of stinging nettles, where he pulled a pale condom over his small, hard penis and crawled silently into her. His warm neck smelled of soap and horse.
Being a woman, she’s liable to be turfed out at some point if the handling of the farm turns to her wayward brother.
The natural order of society stands in Ottaline’s way. Patrimony, societal (and internalised) rejection of her heft. But these things don’t make for interesting opponents in a fleshed out narrative.
Her father keeps her locked up in the rural equivalent of a castle:
It is implied that her father, only too happy that one of his two daughters should fill in for the son who has deserted the ranch, treacherously keeps her from going to town to get a job and fires Hal Bloom, “the semiliterate, off-again, on-again hired man” whom desperate Ottaline, in spite of her obvious lack of attraction to him, had perceived as her “only chance” to ever get away from the family ranch.
We have the farmhand who is an example of a man she could easily end up with — someone who coerces her into unsatisfying sex and who has no prospects.
Then we have the ‘monster’ (in the Courage The Cowardly Dog sense) who arrives suddenly from outside this established community — here it comes in the form of a talking tractor, though I read this tractor as Ottaline’s own awakening, perhaps provoked by her hobby of listening in on other people’s conversations on her scanner.
Ottaline has an anti-plan in this ironic, subversive story. She will plant herself right where she is, thanks. There is a narrative reason for her heft. She is grounded to this land. Instead, when things happen to go her way, it’s luck. If she had any hand in things at all, it’s because she learned to put her foot down and not accept any crap from ‘the tractor’ (ie. men who treat her badly).
Luck is the thing. Proulx introduces the stochastic nature of things in the very first paragraph, a paragraph which looks at first glance like a simple description of setting:
The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon.
Ottaline’s plan thus far has been to shun feminine skills in favour of masculine ones, hoping to stay on the farm I guess:
With a physique approaching the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank,” grotesquely obese Ottaline in “The Bunchgrass Edge Of The World” quickly shuns feminine attires and house chores, opting instead for ranch work with her father, “manure-caked roper boots” and “big jeans”. As a result, she is tragically even more cut off from the rest of the world.
Ottaline’s internal battle with the patriarchy takes place astride the tractor:
Ottaline turns out to be one of Proulx’s subversive tools, as her rebellion against the wannabe prince turns the tables on gender stereotypes. Indeed, the scene in which Ottaline fixes the tractor contains innuendos pointing to the implicit subtext of sexual empowerment:
She had bought a can of penetrating oil with her and began to squirt it on studs, bolts and screws, to rap on the rested colts with a heavy wrench.
“You make a wrong move I might hurt you.”
“You know what? I was you I’d lay back and enjoy it.” Something Hal Bloom had said.
Ottaline is brought to her knees in terms of bad fortune when her father gets her to bring a buyer in for the cattle.
The ‘twist’ (revelation) for the reader comes when the cattle buyer’s son comes instead. There’s an instant connection (a ‘love at first sight’ fairytale trope?) and Ottaline marries the son, thereby keeping the cattle.
What’s the revelation? Luck can turn on a dime, but in both directions.
It turned the other way for Aladdin, who is killed instantly in his new plane.
They ‘plant’ (bury) Aladdin on the farm and Ottaline runs the ranch with her new husband.
Like Charles Perrault did with his fairytales, Annie Proulx offers an extra bit to make sure the reader gets the point of the telling. Though unlike in those misogynistic, didactic tales, Proulx has a much less romanticised view on life:
That was it: stand around long enough you’d get to sit down.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
“Tits Up In A Ditch” is another story by Annie Proulx conveying a deep disregard for fairy-tale romance. It starts a bit like a fairy tale but events for Dakotah turn tragic.
There are also strong parallels with “The Mud Below”:
Ottaline grows up on her parents’ ranch, “adrift on the high plain” where “the wind isolate[s] them from the rest of the world.” As she starts having conversations with an amorous talking John Deere tractor, the story suggests that pathetic Ottaline has gradually been driven insane, out of line, by the “raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh”: “Ottaline was dissolving. It was too far for anything. Someone had to come for her.” For some of Proulx’s characters, marriage is definitely presented as the least worse off option, the only way to rise from “the mud below” as one of the short story titles has it.
Tractors must be a very real worry to farmers. Here in Australia, some groups are wanting the law to change around four-wheeler use in children. In fiction, too the tractor or farm vehicle is quite regularly used as a means of death. Reese Witherspoon’s debut film featured a death by tractor.
John Cheever wrote a magical realist story about someone listening in on other people’s conversations — “The Enormous Radio” — though this lead to a family’s downfall, not to a woman’s awakening.
Ottaline reminds me a little of Aunt Beryl from Katherine Mansfield’s best-known short stories (“Prelude”, “At The Bay”), but she really describes any unmarried woman from late 19th, early 20th century literature, enjoying fantasies in her own bedroom but due to failure in finding a marriage partner, can never become a fully-fledged member of society.
“The Bunchgrass End Of The World” reminded me at times of a documentary I watched once about men who fall in love, romantically and sexually, with cars. Because I’d seen that, I wondered if that’s where the story was going.