‘Order of Insects’ by William Gass: Short Story Analysis
‘Order of Insects’ appeared in William Gass’s short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country in the year 1968. The story is narrated by a housewife about her sudden fascination with bugs. The story is very deep in literary content and the descriptions of the psychological state of the woman’s mind are brought out very well. In this story, Gass shows how at first the housewife abhors bugs, and then after sighting the dead remains of bugs on her carpet in her new home, she is inspired to start reading up on bugs. The story is highly contemporary and brings out the themes of revulsion, fascination, cliched stereotypes about women, obsession, and of course, insects.
Right at the beginning of the story, the housewife shows her abhorrence to insects, especially roaches. She is an anxious and nervous woman who worries about all the mundane things in life. She also worries about roaches. She doesn’t like them in her home at all and that was the reason why she shifted from her former residence. The psychological wordplay of Gass makes the story ‘Order of Insects’ very perplexing and at the same time enchanting. The stereotype of women abhorring insects is discussed in detail here in this story. This stereotype is also vanquished by the housewife when after noticing the organized forms of the dead insects’ bodies on her carpet, she starts to read up on them. Notice in the story the change in emotions of the housewife from revulsion to affection with a large amount of awe as well. The housewife starts reading up on insects especially the insect which she affectionately calls ‘my bug’ which happens to be a sort of Periplaneta Orientalis. She finds this out in a dated French book about insects. The title of the story is indicative of how the woman when she observes the dead bodies of bugs strewn every morning on her carpet, starts to be fascinated by the bugs. She is sure that the cat of the house is responsible for the death of these bugs. The cat was often getting sick and so the housewife was certain that it was the cat who was making the mess. But Gass leaves an uncertainty there on that topic which unnerves us and creates a thrill of suspense. Gass is a very talented storyteller, a real master. It is obvious in the way he takes us on a psychological roller-coaster ride in this story ‘Order of Insects’. The housewife feels that her sudden fascination for these bugs is not as per the norm, for which woman has ever loved bugs? The woman can’t live with them and can’t kill them personally. She has nightmares about insects, even of the red ants sucked into a vacuum cleaner bag. She researches on bugs, which shows her keen interest in trying to figure out the core of an insect’s beautifully arranged form. She finds that one of the bugs was an adult while the other was called a nymph. She is shocked by the beautiful names given to the otherwise gross creatures. However, she also learns to like these organized little systems at work in an insect’s body. She collects the bodies of these bugs and stores them in typewriter ribbon tins. She is as curious and amazed about the corruption of the dead bodies of these bugs as an Egyptologist is fascinated with the corruption of their mummies in tombs. This reference is William Gass’s subtle way of bringing out the fact that the study of insects is as beautiful a topic as the study of the human dead, if not better! The woman ultimately feels that one cannot be disgusted by the beautiful order in an insect. She is highly critical of herself and has a severe inferiority complex; maybe she could even be termed to be mentally disturbed. When she shouts at her children or pulls them up for some wrongdoing, she believes she should mortify herself. She ponders too deeply on things in general, making her a highly nervous and anxious woman. She is also very anxious about these bugs. Now that her curiosity is piqued, she wants to know everything about these bugs:
- Do they come from the registers?
- Do they come from the drains?
- Do they come because of the moisture in the house?
- Do they come because of the dampness of the weather?
- Who killed them?
- Do they have souls?
She mentions in the story that she would rather have touched fire than put her hand in any dark, moist, and webby hole, even though now she is curious about bugs. She mentions many divine and theological themes in this story like:
- The dark soul of the world is dense like the being of a bug. Her references are similar to the theologian St. John of the Cross’s writings, about the darkness of souls and the dark night of the soul.
- That she sees the divine and his careful organization in her collection of parts of insects. She feels she no longer sees them as roaches but as beings with ‘gracious order, wholeness, and divinity’.
- She feels that looking at bugs is like looking at beauty and peace in the dark soul of the world.
Faith is a dark night for man, but in this very way it gives him light. – John of the Cross
- She feels like someone from Asia who is entrusted with an eastern mystery, sacred to a dreadful god.
- She feels unworthy of this task set before her to love insects; she feels like unworthy and defiled clay.
O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. -Jeremiah 18:6
These and many other theological and divine elements are mentioned indirectly and subtly in this short story. The housewife feels like an unworthy pot but the ‘Potter’, that is God or fate, knows better and is sure that it is time now for the housewife to start learning about bugs. She, therefore, studies about worms, spiders, grubs, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, bees, mosquitoes, moths, and flies. She finds the body of the caterpillar to be beautiful and delicate, and therefore, it is her favorite insect. She finds two things surprising about her newfound hobby:
- To find order in a roach.
- To find such ideas and thought processes in the mind of a woman, her mind.
Her husband and family support her hobby but when she is worrying too much, her husband consoles her. The poor man must have had to do it quite often because his wife is indeed a very strange woman. He seems to be a tolerant being. I want to draw your attention to some of the beautiful lines in the short story ‘Order of Insects’. There are two mesmerizing lines:
Is it possible to feel disgust for such order?
What do we live with that is alive that we haven’t tamed?
Indeed, when you see the organization of the physiology of an insect, it is very difficult not to like them. Yet, it is our innate nature that makes us despise them even before we try to analyze the cause of our displeasure. And whether it be an insect, animal, reptile, or human being, we prefer them tame or we remove them from the face of our world. This is because we cannot abide by their untamed nature, not even human beings. There is a mention made in the story about the preservation of bones rather than skin of the dead which is a dark symbol of the housewife’s consciousness as well as a subtle reference to bugs that have exoskeletons. Otherwise, insects don’t have bones.
It is always a pleasure to analyze a short story that has a lot of intellectual meat in it. Gass is one of those writers whom you can read on and on and never get fed up of. Indeed, he is a master storyteller. If you are interested in more book reviews, book review analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish articles, you can go ahead and check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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