Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Madison Smartt Bell’s
“The Naked Lady”

Read the story here or here.
Hungarian female nude by unknown photographer

“The Naked Lady” features a method of writing using non-standard English. This essay focuses on how Madison Smartt Bell creates his engaging and colorful characters through the language and dialect they use.

The first sentence alerts us that this nameless semi-literate narrator is telling us a story about his friend Monroe. We know right away that the narrator doesn’t speak standard English. In that first sentence he shows that his shortened words aren’t going to be cluttered with apostrophes either. Twice he uses “maken” and since the word is spelled like it sounds, readers catch on quickly to his way of speaking. That first sentence (which also serves as the first paragraph) sets up our expectations that this story will be something out of the ordinary.

The nameless narrator uses interesting words throughout. He repeats “sculture” and uses several other non-standard words–“draggen” (for dragging), “nothen” (for nothing), “clamb” (for climbed),””liven” (for living), “thew” (for threw), throwin (for throwing), “aint” (for ain’t) and so on.

Notice how he uses two different spellings for “thew” (threw) and “throwin” (throwing) and at first I wondered if he’d made a mistake. I’m now convinced he did not. It would be confusing if he wrote the latter word like the former (or as in “maken”) where it would appear as “thowen” and the reader likely wouldn’t get that with ease. Instead, Bell chose a clearer spelling in “throwin.” The deviation is for good reason—to keep the reading easily understood.

Bell also uses hyperbole effectively to enliven the nameless character’s speech.. My extended family comes from the hills of eastern Kentucky and “hyperbole” is often our middle names. Bell’s exaggeration is just right (to my ear) where the narrator says about the rats “You could hit one of these rats square with a twenty-two and he would go off with it in him and just get meaner.”

Colorful metaphors are another characteristic of “holler” talk Bell puts to effective use. By using his particular spelling method, Bell’s characters can be viewed as southern U.S. or even almost any other place in the U.S. where non-standard English is used.

Here are some of the phrases Bell uses to great effect to make his characters memorable:

On Monroe’s going to college: “… and it made him crazy for a while like it has done to many a one.”

“… and everbody we known come over.”

“… I never saw nothin to match em for bold.” (on the rats)

About where the rat has gone: “… He off somewhere now plotten your doom.”

I notice Bell uses “more’n” (for “more than”) and that doesn’t follow the spelling pattern.  But upon closer look, Bell’s in control of what he’s doing because to spell it “moren,” without the apostrophe, wouldn’t be as easily understood.

This writer obviously knows what he’s doing, and that’s probably why he was inducted into the Southern Writer’s Hall of Fame.

The point of view is that of both first person narrator as minor character and first person narrator as “innocent eye” (or unreliable narrator).  He has no name and he’s telling this story that’s mostly about Monroe and their escapades together. Monroe certainly bears watching.

The story begins telling us about something that “happened before Monroe started making the heads, while he was still maken the naked ladies.” So the story hints that it will be about what happened to make Monroe change his “scultures” from naked ladies to heads. And that’s just what it does, so the story’s early promise is fulfilled in the end. We learn about the change in Monroe’s art.

We learn a lot about these characters, too. Crazy Monroe went to college (which made him crazy), and he “lost his head” (so to speak) over “a little old bit of a thing” who “talked like she had bugs in her mouth” and who was “nothen but trouble.” The narrator says he himself “never would of messed with her.” Monroe’s pick-up line leaves much to be desired as when he says to the girl in the bar “Hey there Juicy Fruit… come on over here and get somethin real good.” That’s when this “big old hairy thing came out from the back” and the fight started. The man “come all the way up from Atlanta just to beat somebody to death and I didnt think he would care if it was Monroe.”

The narrator himself never went to college (so maybe we can assume he’s not crazy like Monroe?). Both he and Monroe do plenty of drinking and gambling. They are clearly not pillars of their communities. They live with trash and rats all over their home, which is an empty mill where Monroe does his “scultures” and where they live and party and shoot the rats together.

Throughout the story (or should that be “thew-out”?) Monroe is chasing the women. But a turning point comes with the fight that broke out with the “big old hairy thing” up from Atlanta” to beat somebody to death.”

The narrator was angry at Monroe over that trouble and stuck a sawed-off 4-10 shotgun to his ribs to emphasize to Monroe that even though Monroe might want to die, he, the narrator, does not. Monroe says he doesn’t want to die so the narrator removes the shotgun from Monroe’s ribs. He tells Monroe to make himself feel better by making some more naked lady scultures.

But things change because now Monroe is doing heads of himself and of the narrator. Monroe’s head “looked like it was thinkin about all the foolish things Monroe had got up to in his life so far.” The narrator’s head “was so real it even looked like it had a hangover. Ugly too but that aint Monroe’s fault.”

With these male heads that don’t talk back to him and don’t start asking him for things as the naked ladies did, Monroe arrives in the world of earning a living through his art. “He is makin money with it now.” Monroe switches the type of sculptures he does, and then to tie up the loose ends of the story, the narrator tells us how they finally solved their rat problem.

Their living conditions haven’t improved much, except for Monroe’s earning money from his art and except for the rat-eating snake. The story ends just fine and we’re left with the feeling that these two awful and wonderfully colorful characters are living as irresponsible and wild as they’ve always lived.

I also read this story as a twist to the Pygmalion stories (where someone “improves” someone else through a sculpture). It can also be read as a version of a Narcissus story where Narcissus becomes fascinated with his own image (and in this case the image of his sidekick). Monroe turns from women’s bodies as art to their own heads as art (the subject of the newer “scultures”.)

These are just a few of the highlights of this delightfully humorous and outrageous story.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Madison Smartt Bell: Madison Smartt Bell is an American novelist perhaps best known for his trilogy on Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Rebellion, All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused, published between 1995 and 2004.

Image: Hungarien by an unknown photographer. Titled in pencil recto in an unknown hand. From a group of gravures comprised of poses of nude women from around the world. Circa 1900. Public domain.