Allal

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"Allal"
Author Paul Bowles
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Gothic Literature
Publisher Rolling Stone
Media type Print (magazine)
Publication date July 27, 1977

"Allal" is a short story written by American writer, composer, and world traveler Paul Bowles. This story was first published in Rolling Stone Magazine on January 27, 1977 and since has been included in many compilation short story books. "Allal" is about an outcast boy and his fascination with a pet snake that eventually leads to his very unusual death. This short story contains many Gothic Fiction themes such as loneliness, human attraction to one's own atavistic natures and the uncanny.

Summary[edit]

The story "Allal" is told through a third-person, omniscient narrative style. In the beginning we learn about the main character, Allal. The narrator describes the boy and his upbringing so far. He was born to a 14 year old mother who quickly left him months after giving birth. He grew up alone and without any real parents. He was regarded through the community as a “son of sin”. As he began working and living in the town he began forming a dislike, even hatred for the people there. They would tease him and treat him very poorly. He finally earned enough money to rent a house just outside of town where he could isolate himself from the people who emotionally tormented him.

Although this was not an ideal life for Allal he lived this way for quite some time till one day he had an encounter with a man carrying a sack of snakes.   This man, who caught snakes and then sold them, had dropped his sack and lost a few snakes right in the middle of town.  Allal helped the man recapture the snakes that had gotten away and befriended the man.  The townspeople did not appreciate the old man bringing the poisonous snakes into town so they kicked him out.  Allal, who knew what it felt like to be rejected by the townspeople, offered him a place to stay for the night.
As they sat inside for the night talking, Allal came increasingly interested in the snakes inside the bag.  He convinced the man to let the snakes out so he could see them again.  He became entranced by a reddish-gold snake, watching its every move.  He decided at that moment he must have this snake and proceeded to formulate a plan to acquire it.  As the old man slept, Allal enticed the snake with milk into a folded up blanket and then went and hid it outside.  The next day the old man was in a frenzy looking for his lost snake, but to no avail, was unable to find it and eventually left Allal’s house en route to another town.
Allal worked at his job all day, distracted by the thought of the snake.  Finally after work, he decided it was time to let the snake out once again.  He poured some milk in a bowl and began drumming on the table.  The snake appeared, drank the milk, and then went back into the blanket.  Allal loved this.  He repeated this action a few times a day.  He became very obsessed with the snake and its daily ritual.
One night after the snake was done drinking its milk Allal did not stop drumming on the table but instead calling the snake towards him.  Moments passed with no movement but then the snake suddenly made a move towards Allal.  It then began to slither across Allal’s body and then rested next to his head.   He was very calm at this moment and looked right into the snake’s eyes and felt almost one with the snake.  Soon his eyes closed and he fell asleep in this position.
The next morning Allal, feeling rather strange, realized he had traded bodies with the snake.  He continued to possess his conscience thoughts but was inside the snake’s body.   He slithered around his house and even saw himself lying inside.   As he made his way outside the house he felt a new sense of freedom.  He was no longer an ugly “son of sin”.   He was a beautiful creature that had no limits.  He now moved himself towards town, traveling in a ditch alongside the road.  As he explored the outside world in his new body, he soon encountered a man walking.  This man, along with others, began chasing him.  They did not like poisonous snakes so close to their families and children.
Allal hurriedly returned to his house.  Unfortunately the men continued the chase and saw him enter the house.   Although Allal’s human form was still lying on the floor, there was not time for Allal to transition back into it.  The men continued the pursuit, and Allal quickly recognizes that his death is imminent. Allal tries to escape but has no chance.  Still, he does get some revenge by successfully biting two of the three men that had been sent to catch him.

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Analysis[edit]

There are a few different overall themes that play significant roles in this short story. These include loneliness, human atavistic nature, and the uncanny.

Loneliness & Atavistic Nature[edit]

Allal in this story is doomed from the start. He is born under unfortunate circumstances and what makes it worse is that his mother abandons him. He is forced to live with people that are not even his parents and is labeled and ridiculed for something he was not responsible for. The townspeople treat him as an outcast. This causes Allal to become very isolated and alone. This seclusion plays a big part in the story because this loneliness is what draws Allal to the snake. He is in search of a companion, someone or something that will not judge him. A friend that will enjoy being around him. The snake is the perfect companion in Allal's mind. This snake is unwanted in the village just like himself. He can connect to the creature on a level that he has been unable to with anyone else. What makes Allal even more fascinated with this snake is the fact that it does not disappoint him. All the people in Allal’s life have been unfriendly and unreliable. The snake is very compliant, coming out of the bag for Allal everyday and listening to his commands. When the drumming stops he returns to the bag. This is unlike something Allal has ever experienced and he begins to identify with the snake. The lack of companionship, and the snake's obedient nature, is what draws him and this snake closer and closer together.

This leads to the idea that humans are attracted to their own atavistic natures. Atavistic refers to characteristics of remote ancestors or elders.".[2] People tend to relate better to things they know. Ideas and characteristics that they relate to are what they are more attracted to in other people. Allal found that the snake was mistreated by the villagers just like he was his whole life. That is why he felt so comfortable around the snake and so mesmerized by it.

The uncanny[edit]

Another element that appears often in Gothic fiction is the existence of the uncanny. The weird, odd, strange, magical, or impossible is an element in each piece of Gothic fiction. It adds the element of surprise when reading the story. It adds the thought of doubt in the reader's mind (What if that really did happen?). It creates a fear of the unknown because readers have obviously not experienced these types of things before. It keeps them guessing in every story. It not only adds excitement but also suspense, mystery, and surprise. Many Gothic stories use this tool to keep readers hooked, such as The Enormous Radio, Subsoil (short story), and "Replacements (short story)".

In "Allal", the obvious uncanny element in the story is that Allal switches bodies with the snake. One minute Allal is lying on the floor with the snake on his shoulder and chest and the next, he wakes up in the snake's body, lying next to his human form. Although this seems far-fetched, it puts an idea in the reader's head. It gives them a bizarre perspective and introduces the question "what if this happened?" Would they dare try to copy such a feat? Maybe the next time they see a snake they will hesitate - not get too close or look too deeply into its eyes for the fear of waking up a snake. Even though everyone knows this is impossible, the eeriness of it sticks with readers and stays in the back of their minds. It adds, even if only a small bit of fear and doubt into the reader's head.[citation needed]

Resources[edit]

  1. ^ Oates, Joyce Carol. (1996). Gothic Tales. Penguin Group. 
  2. ^ Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atavistic. 7/28/09. 

See also[edit]

Other Pieces of Writing from Paul Bowles[edit]