A Rare Bird: Sexual Repression in “Rara Avis”

[an analysis by Nicole Sundstrom]

In T.C. Boyle’s short story “Rara Avis,” Boyle commands the craft of perspective to explore parental relationships and sexual repression through the symbol of a rare bird. It all begins when a strange bird appears on the roof of a local furniture store. Throughout the story, Boyle uses the rare bird to symbolize a woman and, on a more visceral level, the narrator’s own sexual repression. The twelve year old boy narrator provides a unique take on the events of the story, specifically because of the details he notices. Not only does he characterize the bird as feminine, he seems to notice almost exclusively the sexual aspects in the crowd of people that forms to watch the bird. For example, he notices “a girl in a college sweater … leaning against the fender of a convertible while her boyfriend pressed himself against her.” More importantly as it relates to both the sexual and parental themes, he notices his father “standing close to Mrs. Schlecta and whispering something in her ear.” He then goes on to mention that “her lips were wet.” The first element one might notice is that he observes his father, as most twelve year old boys do, as a role model.

The narrator even goes on to delve into a memory of his father. A moment that shaped his character. It was a moment when he felt he grew up, recalling a night where he had set fire to a house. He remembered standing beside his father and how the “odor of armpit and crotch and secret hair, the semantic animal scent of him that had always repelled [him]” no longer repelled him but comforted him in a way. This comes after his involvement in setting the house on fire, a house he had previously escaped to and hung out with friends, girls and porn. Another interesting note is when something is sexual, the narrator refers to it as “secret”—specifically his father’s “secret hair” and the bird’s “secret” wound, which is an allusion to a woman’s anatomy as described by the narrator. This corroborates the idea that the narrator is repressing his sexual feelings. Furthermore, when he goes to confession and the priest asks him if he masturbates, he lies and says “no,” immediately feeling ashamed.

How the narrator perceives the bird in feminine ways is significant as well. He describes its feathers like a skirt or petticoat, with “long legs naked and exposed.” In many instances, he seems to sexualize the bird. The most vivid description comes at the end when the bird injury is discovered: “Secret, raw, red, and wet, the wound flashed just above the juncture of the legs.” When the narrator goes on to try and kill the rare bird, this supports the idea that it is a symbolic manifestation of his sexual repression. The narrator even describes the bird as “a coil of possibility,” a possibility that he is not entirely comfortable facing, considering his father’s own extramarital sexual involvement and the guilt he feels during confession. It becomes clear that the narrator is experiencing a deep confusion regarding how and what exactly he should be feeling. Because of this forced repression and confusion of his newfound sexual desires, the narrator is the first to throw a stone at the bird. He describes how he wanted the bird to move “desperately … more than anything [he’d] ever wanted.”

In the end, it is clear that the narrator is not comfortable with his feelings towards women and sex, so his solution is to lash out violently and repress those confused feelings. The parental undertone to this is the fact that his father does not set an adequate or healthy example for him as a masculine role model. In other words, the narrator is left with no direction in terms of dealing with him new feelings. The most remarkable aspect of T.C. Boyle’s writing is the fact that every moment in the story is loaded. Many passages hold multiple connotations and meanings, all relating to common themes such as parental relationships, feminine imagery, and sexual repression. This aspect would not be as effective in this particular short story without the masterful use of perspective.

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