Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman
I am a sucker for feral children stories. I really am totally fascinated by the question of children raised by animals, how there’s an age after which a human unexposed to language can never learn it, how humans actually can, if raised in the wild, walk on four legs and move almost as stealthily as animals.
That’s what drew me to Savage Girl initially, but that’s not what made me enjoy it. Despite the title, Bronwyn — the titular character — is not actually a feral child. She’s a child who was taken by Comanches as a toddler, who then ended up living with two jaguars and almost dying before being picked up and put in a sideshow.
The entire book is narrated by Hugo Delegate, the oldest son in a wealthy family that has adopted Bronwyn. The premise is that Hugo’s father, Freddie, will settle once and for all the question of nature versus nurture by presenting Bronwyn, a supposedly feral child, in 1890s New York society and passing her off as a debutante. Meanwhile, every man Bronwyn even looks at sideways is being murdered, possibly by Hugo, who has a rather disturbing tendency to not recall where he is or what he was doing at any given time.
But those facts are just trimmings on this Jungian thriller. I have never read a book that was so steeped in Jungian psychology that minor details were almost literally beside the point. Bronwyn’s backstory seems to be a slight homage to Ayla of Jean Auel’s The Children of Earth series, big cats and different cultures and all. But just as Ayla is an Earth Mother archetype, Bronwyn is the perfect Jungian anima archetype — the wild inside all of us that we both recognize and at the same time find captivating, the other half seldom acknowledged but that we’re always seeking.
Many times, Hugo seems confused about who Bronwyn should be to him, how they should frame their relationship. Early on, they are competitors for the Delegates’ affections; later, it’s clear they are attracted to one another, even as they are legally brother and sister; even later, a tormented Hugo (who believes himself to be going crazy), says “I am she and she is me,” putting into words what everyone already knows — Hugo and Bronwyn are brother and sister, lover and beloved, anima and animus, two halves of the same thing.
While that’s pretty twisted from a modern social standpoint, it makes perfect sense mythologically and psychologically — the ancient gods, after all, are lovers and siblings and representatives of parts of the human psyche. The relationship between Hugo and Bronwyn is genius, allowing readers to explore an interesting love story while others more attuned to a psychological reading will be absolutely gripped, compelled to finish the story and discover how the two resolve their issues.
The question about who keeps murdering Bronwyn’s lovers — Bronwyn herself or Hugo — is, finally, not one that needs to even be resolved. It’s both of them, or neither of them, depending on how you read the ending. A Jungian “shadow” figure is introduced who must be vanquished before the story is complete, just as Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, argues must happen for a truly heroic story.
Campbell’s theory, by the way, is that every story can essentially be described in the same way, as a heroic epic of sorts that is a metaphor for human self-actualization. Whether the hero succeeds or not, he must find the woman who is the “goddess,” the anima, the embodiment of the parts of the collective unconscious not expressed in one’s personality. For Hugo, a sickly debonair socialite, of course his would be an incredibly mentally and physically strong woman who looks on society as a game that ultimately doesn’t matter.
By teaming up, Hugo and Bronwyn confront the shadow figure and win — but only together, and they need to discover that the shadow they’re facing could have been either of them, and in fact is, on a deep psychological level. Bronwyn makes it clear that she will only be with him if he “comes to [her] as a man,” and only by joining with her and defeating the demons of his own mind can he fully enter a satisfying relationship with her.
I am, quite frankly, amazed that what I thought was going to be a very simple, somewhat cheesy, feral child Pygmalion story turned out to be unpackable in this way. If you haven’t read this story yet, and I haven’t spoiled it too badly for you, please do — I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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