“Beautiful Joe” is “only half-formed”. He is attractive to the Narrator because he has some of the characteristics of an animal – surly, unresponsive, unable to communicate his feelings using Language, other than grunts and occasional swearing. What we would call the ‘strong, silent type’, the Narrator sees as being that much closer to Nature. His inability to use Language is actually the key, as it means he has still the chance to develop his own. He appears in a sense to be ‘open-minded’, not forcing his beliefs on anybody else.
By trade, Joe is a potter, working on an Adult Education programme. He works with his hands to produce objects made from earth, which can’t be an accident. He would be useful in a survival situation. His hands are also “dependable but not sensitive” according to Anna, which should give us a good first impression about him.
When the Narrator is looking at him, it is mostly to try to puzzle him out:
Joe is swaying back and forth, rocking, which may mean he’s happy. (34)
We learn quickly that the Narrator is not interested in him as a ‘love match’. For her, he is there strictly because he is useful, and their lack of sexual interaction can usefully be contrasted with that of Anna and David, whose sex life is reasonably active. Nevertheless, she sums him up:
“Leave her alone,” Joe said, swinging his legs, bored or excited, it was impossible to tell. (129)
…Joe is still off in the place inside himself where he spends most of his time… (38-9)
His back is hairier than most men’s, a warm texture, it’s like teddy-bear fur… he’s good in bed, better than the one before; he’s moody but he’s not much bother, we split the rent and he doesn’t talk much… (35-6)
In all her observations of Joe, therefore, the Narrator displays little besides an unhealthy detachment. From the modal verb “may”, and the determiners “most” and “much”, we get an impression of her lack of firmness in looking at Joe. The same effect is achieved in the various suspensions of syntax – as though the Narrator’s view of Joe is compiled on the spot. It takes her a short while to get to the point about him.
Her tone tends to be a little patronising, as if she were regarding a pet being tamed by its owner. But she underestimates Joe, who has the urges of ordinary men – and thus succumbs to the lure of Anna later in the book.
“Joe told me she won’t put out for him anymore,” Anna said, still looking at me. Joe didn’t say anything; he was eating a potato. (148)
This moment takes place in the aftermath of Joe’s and Anna’s infidelity, and David’s failure to seduce the Narrator. There is a telling contrast between the character of Anna and Joe here: Anna’s tone is controlling and bitchy; Joe, with his sexuality recently satisfied, is communing with that earthiest vegetable, the potato.
To the students
2. The Techniques
Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
Language as theme
Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
5. The Other Characters
6. Wider Reading