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A Doll’s House

Rachel Ingalls’s unhappy homemakers

In the Act by Rachel Ingalls. New Directions, 64 pages. 2023 [1987].

At the time of her death in 2019, Rachel Ingalls was, according to loved ones, at last starting to delight in her embrace by the literary world. “She was so happy,” her sister, Sarah Daughn, told the New York Times; it was as if Ingalls finally “felt she was getting to say everything she wanted to say.” The author and painter Hugh Fleetwood likened her to Violetta in the final scene of Ingalls’s favorite opera, La Traviata: “She seemed to be not merely happy, but . . . reborn.”

That her life began to blossom in the wake of a terminal diagnosis (Ingalls died of myeloma, a cancer of the blood) is a peculiar narrative turn, not least because it’s a fate she might have bestowed on one of her female characters. Overlooked or underloved women—mainly wives and mothers, quietly asphyxiating beneath the bell jar of feminine acculturation—form the emotional nucleus of many of her stories. What typically follows is an uncanny disturbance: the arrival of a monstrous creature or event, tossing the sedate lives of unremarkably unhappy heterosexuals into utter chaos. While such disorder provisionally lifts Ingalls’s heroines into a liberatory space, their outcome is rarely utopian. Don’t be surprised when the bodies start piling up.

Reviews of her work often open by remarking on its neglected status in the canon: Ingalls is a hidden gem, an author of “lost” classics,” the “best writer you don’t know.” It’s true I wasn’t familiar with the breadth of her oeuvre until recently; the books have a tendency to pass in and out of print, with some near impossible to find. Ingalls’s best known text, Mrs. Caliban—the story of an affair between a housewife and a six-foot-seven frog-man named Larry—was reissued by New Directions in 2017, a month before the premiere of Guillermo del Toro’s fish-on-woman romance, The Shape of Water. Though Ingalls didn’t participate in the plagiarism pile-on of del Toro at the time, the dovetailing of their releases brought the author briefly back into the glare of cultural celebrity.

Don’t be surprised when the bodies start piling up.

A new edition of Binstead’s Safari—a travelogue tracking a miserably married couple through East Africa, and Ingalls’s sole full-length novel—followed in 2019. Hodgepodge collections of her stories and novellas appear now and again, accompanied by glowing introductions from illustrious contemporary authors—Rivka Galchen, Daniel Handler, Patricia Lockwood—imploring readers to remember her. But Ingalls has remained, despite her better angels, a cult figure.

She herself wasn’t especially intent on canonicity: “I’ve never given much thought to my place among contemporary writers, nor about readers,” she told Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket), “I write because it’s a compulsion.” She was drawn almost exclusively to the novella, writing stories, as she conceded, of “odd, unsaleable length.” That her books didn’t sell, possibly as a result of her chosen form, seemed also not to bother her: “So many people keep asking why I don’t write a novel. Well, all that business with the subplots . . . you have to know how to make that larger idea work without dissipating the original notion or ruining the shape.” Tolstoy couldn’t hack it, she feared. War and Peace?—“what a mess. And Anna Karenina should be two separate books.” She tried her hand at poems first, but poets, she allowed, “are born . . . [they] think like Einstein.” Her violently slim fictions, once they’d come, demonstrate an economizing, almost dramaturgical structure, which jives with the fact that Ingalls’s literary “idols” were Shakespeare, Ibsen, Euripides.

Because of her relative reclusiveness, the biographical furnishings of Ingalls’s story are spare. She was born in 1940, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Daniel Henry Holmes Ingalls, a scholar of Sanskrit at Harvard, and Phyllis Ingalls (née Day), who was what then would have been called a “homemaker.” Postwar Boston was a city in decline, but the Cambridge of Rachel’s childhood nevertheless held a glimmer of the fantastical worlds she came later to conjure in her fiction. The fifties saw the relocation of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to Cambridge, as well as the establishment, by the end of the decade, of an artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT. Her brother Daniel would go on to Harvard, like their father, and then Stanford, after which he became a renowned computer scientist and a pioneer of the programming language Smalltalk.

By the sixties, technological futurism would begin to permeate the American cultural imaginary. In a moment when the unrelenting drudgery of housework—what Marguerite Duras diagnosed as a “balancing act over death”—might be dispensed with by the push of a button, the American housewife, a category that included Ingalls’s mother, seemed on the eve of obsolescence. As it happened, the techno-utopian visions of the era were unmoved by the prospect of radically recalibrating gendered, raced, and classed divisions of labor. Even for white, middle-class women, the outer limits of this novel universe were chiefly outlined by the escalating automation of their domestic appliances. In Disney’s Monsanto-sponsored House of the Future (1957), a suburban housewife exclaims, “Just imagine! I’d be getting dinner in this kitchen!” Meanwhile, in the 1962 premiere of The Jetsons, the family matriarch, Jane (“his wife!”), moans that “housework gets me down!” After rejecting a series of sexy, expensive, European models, she commissions frumpy, sassy, lovable Rosey as her live-in robot maid.

But before the triumph of space-age aesthetics, Ingalls’s earliest loves were the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the soaps and joke programs on the radio, and “Saturday morning movie shows.” The Fresh Pond Drive-In and the Brattle Theater were opened in 1951 and 1953, respectively. It’s possible these spaces were where she first discovered her passion for Hollywood B-horror flicks. The Incredible Shrinking Man was, she confided, her favorite, “although naturally The Creature from the Black Lagoon is also close to my heart.” As she would later tease out in her fictions, the animating threat of these films was, firstly, an erotic one—the fear of a queer planet. The creature terrifies not solely by virtue of its difference but because of the possibility that such difference is contagious, signaling a hazard to the romantic and sexual integrity of the young couple. (Of course, the “so-called monster,” Ingalls remarked, “was always more exciting than the drippy husband or fiancée.”)

The creeping proximity of an eroticized other—not to mention sex that might crash through the guardrails of the marriage plot—exposed the normative American family’s perilous permeability. Sex is duplicative, yes, but it is also a kind of interpenetrative dissolving agent, capable of disturbing the reproductive guarantees of marriage—even, eventually, the very unity of the body politic. This is the secret thrill at the heart of Mrs. Caliban: Dorothy ventures that she and Larry might breed a humanoid race, producing a hybrid child who could become, having been born on American soil, the leader of the nation. In inverting the prevailing cultural anxieties of her youth—miscegenation and desegregation among them—Ingalls refashioned the precariousness of (white) familial life as an aperture in which radical visions of the future were made quite literally conceivable. In the reflecting pool of the uncanny, the inert, unsexed, and grief-stricken women of her stories discover a space for self-making, as well as the possibility of communion with unfamiliar, more emancipated worlds.

Ingalls, it turned out, also longed for a less conventional existence. At seventeen, she dropped out of high school and journeyed to Germany, where she spent two years learning the language and auditing university classes. She returned to the States for a period, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1964, where she may have crossed paths with another of twentieth-century literature’s great female speculators, Margaret Atwood. In the summer of 1964, Ingalls traveled to London on the occasion of Shakespeare’s quadricentennial. She would remain in the northern part of the city until her death, but what we know of her life from that point on we must cull mainly from her work. Ingalls rarely spoke to the press, even after Mrs. Caliban was a surprise inclusion on the British Book Marketing Council’s list of the twenty best postwar American novels. She never married or had children. After her death, friends speculated about whether she’d had lovers at all: “I don’t think she wanted anybody to control her,” an old fling remarked. “She lived in her own world.”

In the reflecting pool of the uncanny, the inert, unsexed, and grief-stricken women of her stories discover a space for self-making.

Her personal sovereignty stood in stark contrast to the coupling dramas of her fictions. Though best remembered for her incursions into the otherworldly, Ingalls’s faculties reach their zenith in her unsparing dissections of domestic disenchantment. Though the stories almost invariably unravel in encounters with frog-men, pregnant monks, plagues, angels, lion cults, and sexbots, they begin quietly, in a minor key. A woman who’s lost her son, a pregnancy, and her Jack Russell terrier hears a voice on the kitchen radio, saying, “Don’t worry . . . you’ll have another baby all right.” The wife of an indifferent academic journeys with him to London, where they make love for “the first time in many months.” She has “an idea that at last things were going to be all right,” but the cold light of morning reveals that “nothing had changed.” An adult education center shuts down, leaving a lonely mother abandoned to the dull dailiness of her emptied nest.

Initiation into the heterosexual contract necessitates a process of de-subjectification, at least if you are a woman. “I was dead on my feet for years,” Millie Binstead tells her husband Stan. “You did a real all-out demolition job on me.” The worst of it is, once he’s stopped paying Millie any mind at all, she’s poisoned by his disinterest in her: “When you quit, I started doing your job for you,” she tells him. To be monstrous is one sort of tragedy, but to be shorn of one’s self is death-in-life, a horror beyond belief. Not to say it’s only Ingalls’s women who are subjected to such dissolutions. As the couples of her fictions intimate, behind every marriage hovers a silent specter: the people you might have become, the other lives you might have lived, and all that’s left unsaid between you—the cruelties, desires, and resentments choked down or surrendered so a union might sustain its pulse.

In an Ingalls story, marriage is, in the main, a dreary, decades-long negotiation of mutual misery. Severance is too exhausting a fantasy to be considered at all. As Mrs. Caliban’s Dorothy tells a friend, she knew it was the end when her husband insisted on single beds, but “she didn’t have the strength to do anything about it . . . I think we’re too unhappy to get a divorce.” Husbands are workaholics and inveterate cheaters. Motherhood is a thankless racket. No fact is more certain than that a housewife is an incredibly dangerous thing to be.

Ingalls’s 1987 novella In the Act, recently reissued by New Directions, opens on Helen, a depressive hausfrau whose life is in disarray. Her days are without direction, her marriage is sexually and emotionally extinct, and her sons, at their own insistence, have left for boarding school. Now that her night classes have ceased, her husband Edgar demands she vacate their house so he can tinker in his secret attic laboratory in solitude. Ordered to inhabit this gilded cage by a world that entraps a certain class of women in privatized domesticity, Helen is now being evicted from it by a man who no longer desires her. What’s she supposed to do, she asks him, walk “around the block five thousand times?” Her objections are immaterial. Edgar doesn’t listen to her; he hasn’t for years. Already he’s assumed the “special tone” he takes for “winning arguments by making other people hysterical.”

In the mornings she reads her letters while he reads the paper, “withdrawing his attention from it for only a few seconds to tell her that she hadn’t cut all the segments entirely free in his grapefruit.” Though she hadn’t thought to send her boys away, Helen feels, now, an unexpected relief in their absence. After all, if they’d been around, it would only have meant “two more grapefruits she wouldn’t be able to get right.” Helen’s resigned herself to the recursiveness of patriarchy: she believes her sons would become mirrors of Edgar, indoctrinated into the same misogynistic system, longing for “someone menial to provide services to them. And then they could spend their lives playing.” The sociopolitical inequities undergirding the nuclear family are self-replicating—this, Ingalls seems to lament, may well be the central function of straight familial life. In Helen’s malaise, I cannot help but hear echoes of Betty Friedan’s famous diagnosis of the American housewife’s “problem with no name”: “When a woman tries to put the problem into words, she often merely describes the daily life she leads.” But where, in this “recital of comfortable domestic detail” had her “strange feeling of desperation” begun to congeal?

At the end of her housework, Helen faces a void. Time passes. She considers calling her friend Gina to complain “about life in general” but remembers that strange noises have been emanating from Edgar’s locked room. In the cellar is a key. “If there was nothing inside that could harm her,” she thinks, “it was an insult to keep her out . . . if there was something dangerous up there, did she dare go in and find out about it?” Like the revelation of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, the inciting incident of In the Act echoes “Le Barbe Bleue,” French folklorist Charles Perrault’s gruesome 1697 fairytale of female curiosity and marital violence. What Perrault’s young bride finds in her husband’s forbidden room are the corpses of his previous wives, women he’s murdered precisely for their disobedience. “Le Barbe Bleue” is itself an update of old myths—Pandora, Psyche, the temptation of Eve in the Garden—and concludes, as Perrault’s tales all do, on a moral: “Curiosity . . . leaves deep regret . . . Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.” In women’s literature of the second half of the twentieth-century, the Bluebeard story provided rich soil for feminist revision, most famously Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” in which the bride’s infiltration is not a foolish act of trespass but a radical self-initiation into autonomous female subjectivity.

Ingalls, however, swerves elsewhere. Helen, like her literary forebears, cannot suppress an urge to enter Edgar’s locked room. Initially, the scene of discovery simulates the brutalities summoned by Perrault and Carter. As she wanders through the lab, Helen stumbles over what seem to be the parts of a dead woman. There’s a bundle on top of the sofa, which Helen

was about to pass by when she saw a hand protruding from one of the bottom folds of the sheet. She let out a gurgled shriek that scared her . . . Propped against the edge of the sofa’s armrest was a leg, from the knee down. Next to it lay an open shoe box containing fingers . . . She reached out and pulled down the edge of the sheet. It was pretty bad: a head with the face laid bare. The muscles, tendons, and other bits across the face were mainly red or pink . . . But they weren’t wet; there was no blood.

The body Helen discovers is no corpse at all, but a doll, one that “had been built to specification: his specifications . . . the swine!” This doll is blonde and blue-eyed, gussied up in a black lace bra and panties, a detail that particularly infuriates Helen, who thinks how Edgar can’t even bear waiting inside a dress shop with her. If Helen wonders why the “thing” is “so definitely nonutilitarian,” she shortly stands corrected, having accidentally jostled a switch behind the doll’s ear. Its hips begin to gyrate; it moans Edgar’s name; it teeters between baby talk and erotic obscenities; it, in short, displays its rather obvious use value to her husband as a vacuous sex slave. Helen is filled with shame, and then rage, until finally she feels the need for vengeance: “She saw herself as a lone, victimized woman beleaguered by selfish men.” Revivified by her newfound fury, Dorothy trucks the doll—whose name, thanks to Edgar, is, of course, “Dolly”—to the train station, where she stashes it in a suitcase in a large locker.

In the Act seems to contend that what men want—the furthest horizon of their erotic imaginary—is a woman unable to say no.

In Ingalls’s free-market take on Bluebeard, the fruit of female knowledge is neither damnation nor self-determination, but leverage. Dolly may expose an awful truth about Edgar (or about Helen’s marriage to him), but more crucially, Dolly becomes for Helen a glamorously posable negotiating tactic. Though Helen argues that even to think of fucking another person is a “moral lapse,” Edgar maintains that Dolly isn’t, in a technical sense, a “person” at all, and, in any case, his “main interest in life is science. Progress. Going forward into the future.” Edgar, after all, is a sort of scientist, whose “specialty was hemoglobin,” and who does “a lot of work for the police.” His deliberately vague connection to state power should immediately cue you in to Ingalls’s distaste for Edgar. Within her oeuvre, we are primed to be suspicious of this type of man, who—in his professionalization of a masculinist spirit of inquiry—embodies exploitative histories of rationalism and technological “progress.” In Mrs. Caliban, Larry’s captors and tormentors are scientific researchers who use electric shocks to teach him language and rape him to illustrate human reproduction. In Binstead’s Safari, Millie’s husband Stan is a sour, scheming academic, who views himself as a scholarly (read: colonialist) mediator between “primitive” East African folklore and Western empiricism.

Helen, infuriated but newly authoritative, demands that Edgar build her her own robotic companion in exchange for Dolly’s return. He agrees, but she’s disappointed by the outcome: Auto (short for “Automatico”) is a “namby pamby” with no chest hair and skin “like a woman’s . . . his conversation was narrow in the extreme. His sexual prowess had no subtlety, charm, surprise, or even much variety.” Helen longs for intimacy, nuance, a complicated and ongoing dialogue with a “real” man. But, as she seethes, “Men can never create; they only copy. That’s why they’re always so jealous.” Auto had been engineered as a composite, Edgar tells Helen, while Dolly, by contrast, was built as a kind of “ideal” woman. What constitutes Dolly’s ideality for Edgar is left uncertain, for we never witness the two interacting with one another.

In the Act seems to contend that what men want—the furthest horizon of their erotic imaginary—is a woman unable to say no. (Fascinatingly, in one of the novella’s subplots, a character who’d previously considered assaulting Dolly invents out of whole cloth a sexually traumatic backstory for her. Even the technologically lobotomized woman must navigate the horrors of rape culture.) In this way, the sexual politics of the story hew rather closely to those of feminism’s second wave, appearing especially conversant with the porn wars of the eighties, in which controversial figures like Andrea Dworkin argued that the ultimate patriarchal fantasy of woman positions her as a singularly rape-able mannequin. But while Ingalls’s fictions may traffic in the parleys of the consciousness-raising groups of women’s lib, Ingalls distanced herself from feminism as an organized political movement: “It’s a subject about which I feel ambiguous,” she told Daniel Handler. Despite being “incensed by institutional misogyny,” she didn’t “think that women have harder lives than men, only different.”

This ideological sensibility becomes clearer in Ingalls’s critique of consumerism. In a system designed by and for men, woman is herself envisaged as a perfectible technology. Bryan Forbes’s cinematic adaptation of The Stepford Wives renders this process visually legible through the horrifyingly blank eyes and visibly inflating breasts of Joanna Eberhart 2.0. Both Ingalls and Stepford suggest that, if the future is female, this is only to the extent that “the female” might be reengineered as a pleasing and on-demand receptacle through which heteropatriarchal blueprints of progress will be passed.

Ingalls pushes just a little further, though. While Edgar’s desires are vain, piggish, and one-dimensional, Helen’s entrepreneurial transformation in the wake of her discovery of Dolly situates her solidly on the side of capitalist extraction, making her an eager handmaiden to economic opportunism. Dismayed by Auto, Helen instead considers the “great possibilities” of commodifying Edgar’s vision as a ruthless business venture. “No emotions, no strings attached . . . it might make millions.” Women, Ingalls reminds us, are often equal and active collaborators in the recapitulation of institutional misogyny—needless to say, patriarchy’s pockets are deeper.

As sharp as this particular line of critique is, the narrative refuses neat closures, opening, instead, onto Ingalls’s usual uncertainties. In the Act ends with an orgy between its human and robot characters that devolves into violence, leaving the people gasping and baffled, with Auto and Dolly nothing but a heap of mechanical rubbish. Afterwards, there is “nothing to say. They stared as if they didn’t recognize each other . . . or any other part of the world which, until just a few moments before, had been theirs.” As with the outcomes of Mrs. Caliban and Binstead’s Safari, Ingalls positions her radical social upheavals as apocalyptic in orientation. The arrival of the sexbots engenders a kind of total disintegration—desire into chaos; scientific progress into annihilation. In a world that feels often as if it’s teetering on the brink of collapse, our invocation of “apocalypse” typically signifies an end to all things, but etymologically speaking, the term indicates a possibly generative process of disclosure: an act of revelation. Left there “among the rubble” of their previous lives, the survivors might hazard a question: Is there another way? Faced with the obliteration of life’s more insipid dailinesses, are they not poised to imagine a different world?