A description of a woman
August 6, 2011 3:32 PM   Subscribe

My question is from " Mrs.Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" by Dahl. How did he try to characterize Mrs.Bixby by writing,"Mrs. Bixby was a big vigorous woman with a wet mouth."? Strong,active and healthy woman having a moist mouth with saliva? It seems a bit strange to me...could you describe your Mrs.Bixby?
posted by mizukko to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read the story but I would assume he mentioned "wet" to mean "excessively / noticeably wet." Like, grossly wet.
posted by jessicapierce at 3:56 PM on August 6, 2011

I believe he is using "wet mouth" as an excessive version of "moist lips," which would actually sound attractive. If he said "small, delicate girl with moist lips," she might seem an ideal of young womanhood but Dahl says Mrs. Bixby appears excessive in her size and vigor and her entire wet mouth makes her very nearly repulsive compared to his unspoken ideal.
posted by Anitanola at 4:02 PM on August 6, 2011

"Big" and "vigorous" are also insults in Dahl-speak. He means to suggest that Mrs. Bixby is grossly physical and grossly present, plus she can't or won't regulate her physicality (the mouth). The mouth probably also stands in for some kind of vague sexual slur, too - she is too physical, hence too sexual, which is made all the worse by her size and vigor. (Dahl is a misogynist writer who makes CS Lewis look like a rank amateur).
posted by Frowner at 4:18 PM on August 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

This is a description whose meaning would not necessarily be clear to native English speakers. Interpreting it (is it a positive or negative description?) depends on context.

"big and vigorous" are terms that suggest she is not a demure, petite, quiet woman. Some possible shades of meaning: A woman who is bustling, moving forcefully around, telling other people what to do? Possibly fat? Possibly attractively plump? Possibly athletic and does outdoor activities like horse riding, dog training, etc? She might be bossy and demanding, but she also gets things done -- she is forceful, not easily stopped.

"a wet mouth" is an unusual description. I would take it to mean either that her lips look wet when her mouth is closed (which could mean either that she uses shiny lip gloss? or that she is sentimental? or that she is licking her lips often?), or that she makes unappealing wet sounds when she talks.

I looked up an online version of the story, and there are two versions posted - one version replaces this sentence with "Mrs. Bixby was a woman who was full of life."

As you read the story, think about whether the author wants us to like Mrs Bixby, or to feel as if she is an unsympathetic character.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on August 6, 2011

He uses a similar description in a few other stories for older, vulgar, gross women. (Dahl's critics have pointed out that many of his descriptions come off a bit misogynistic.) He had a real thing about mouths. Have you read "Georgy Porgy"? A vicar gets kissed by a pushy older woman and envisions her giant mouth coming at him:

"...and the mouth kept getting larger and larger, and then all at once it was right on top of me, huge and wet and cavernous, and the next second--I was inside it."

(Then there's this whole weird hallucination bit where he's in her mouth and hanging onto her epiglottis, etc. Gross.)

I think there are some more examples in other stories, but I can't be bothered to go through them all now. I just think Dahl had a thing about women with big, flappy lips.

(Interestingly, he did use a similar characterisation of the bad giants in the first draft of The BFG, but his editors there got him to change it on the basis that it seemed rather racist.)
posted by web-goddess at 4:19 PM on August 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

@LobsterMitten - I wouldn't take any online versions as gospel, given that they're illegal (and probably transcriptions).

I've just looked it up in a couple of the various volumes I've got it in, and it's "big vigorous woman with a wet mouth" in all of them.

(For those that don't know, I made this.)
posted by web-goddess at 4:22 PM on August 6, 2011

I think Anitanola (and, on preview, everyone else) is right about it being a deliberately excessive version of "moist lips", though I'm not quite sure if she's being set up in contrast to an unspoken ideal. I think the wet mouth also does two other things, in terms of the story (which I read years ago, but heard being read--beautifully, by Charles Dance--on the radio just recently). First, if moist lips are a symbol of attractiveness, the wet mouth is much more obviously a sexual symbol, and Mrs Bixby is a big, vigorous woman who at the start of the story is also having a big, vigorous affair with the Colonel. Second, Mrs Bixby's other main character trait in the story (and what brings her down) is greed--a watering mouth is a sign of greed for food, but I think it's setting off a little warning about Mrs Bixby's greed for money. It's certainly a misogynistic little flourish.

We could also speculate on the contrast with her (she thinks!) dry and boring husband, who incidentally is a dentist (more mouth). But that might be pushing it.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:23 PM on August 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I thought it meant she spit when she talked.
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:29 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Think of someone who eats with their mouth agape, with soft wet smacks. Think of someone who speaks so carelessly as to poorly control the spittle gathering at the corners of her mouth. Think of an overlarge, bloated tongue continuously moistening thin lips. It's certainly meant to be unseemly; uncontrolled, undisciplined, without self-awareness.
posted by davejay at 7:25 PM on August 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you for answering my question.

About "a wet mouth",one website dictionary says,1.someone who gets overly excited about something 2 youngster 3 after performing oral sex on a woman ...so I imagined vaguely that she would be grossly talkative. No one tells so.Now I don't think my idea is correct.Thank you.

To Lobster mitten.When she is sentimental,is"she has a wet mouth" a common expression? And could you give me an example of" unappealing wet sounds "?

There are many symbolic meanigs and it's interesting to figure out Dahl's intention behind the words now.
I can't simply interpret them literally anymore.

Thank you everybody.
posted by mizukko at 9:24 PM on August 6, 2011

>When she is sentimental,is"she has a wet mouth" a common expression? And could you give me an example of" unappealing wet sounds "?

"She has a wet mouth" is definitely NOT a common expression - that's why we are coming up with a wide range of possible meanings! I think the sentence you've chosen is a difficult one to interpret with precision even for native speakers, because there is not an obvious idiom that he's referring to. We are relying on some context about Dahl and about the story to arrive at these interpretations.

I said "sentimental" because that was one meaning of "wet" used in the early part of the 20th century; the expression was (The expression said that a person was "wet" or a "sap", not that they had a "wet mouth". I don't think wet is used in that sense today. I just thought there might possibly be a link there; it was a guess.) Also if someone has "wet eyes" or "her eyes were wet" it suggests they have come almost to tears -- and if they often have wet eyes, it's because they are sentimental, easily moved to tears.

"Unappealing wet sounds" -- I was thinking about someone who talks in a way that includes extra mouth noises. For an example here's a video about how to reduce mouth noise when recording audio with a microphone - around 0:27 the man makes some example wet mouth noises. (This video is about noises that a microphone picks up, but imagine a person who made those kinds of noises loud enough that you could hear them during normal speech! Sort of unappealing.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:35 PM on August 6, 2011

I wouldn't take any online versions as gospel, given that they're illegal (and probably transcriptions).

Yes - the one I was looking at was a site for English as a second language learners! I wonder if they changed that sentence exactly because students were having trouble with the original sentence.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:43 PM on August 6, 2011

It is an odd description, by the way, and strikes me as typical of Dahl's idiosyncratic style. What it conveys to me is a person who licks her lips a great deal, whose mouth is open more often than not so that you can see the wetness inside, and this goes on with the idea of a person who is big (tall and also probably fat or at least big-boned and fleshy) and vigorous (I would take this as suggesting someone loud and active more so than strong and healthy, though all these would be appropriate connotations). As others have noted I'd think there are suggestions of excessive, perhaps gross physicality and perhaps implicit sexual aggressiveness.

A "wet mouth" isn't a common or well-defined idiom in English.
posted by nanojath at 7:42 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dahl is a misogynist writer who makes CS Lewis look like a rank amateur

That's too simple for a complicated man. At the very least, let us note that he was also a as much a misanthrope. Neither women nor men get a pass just for being women or men.

Moreover, he could be quite sympathetic for adult female characters. Think Miss Honey in Matilda, or the grandmother in the witches. Or, more minorly, Charlie's relatives in the Charlie Bucket books.

He wrote grotesques because that's what fantastic and comic writers do. Physical exaggeration is everything in that kind of work, especially when writing for children. The real target for his darts, however, is the characters' bad behavior, and this whether they are fat or not.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:34 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's a combination of answers from web-goddess, IndigoJones and davejay. Lo, those many years ago in high school, I wrote my Senior Thesis on "Lip Imagery as the Key to Personality in Roald Dahl's Short Stories", and yes, this is his way of evoking a more visceral reaction to a character from the reader. Though I don't remember all the other examples I padded that paper with, I do remember that I chose that subject because it's low-hanging fruit. In many of his short stories, especially in Taste, this is how he can tell you a lot about a character, and tell you how you should feel about this character, by using attributes like this.

For the record, this Mrs. Bixby is by far more attractive than I ever imagined her.
posted by peagood at 12:07 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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