Faber & Faber, 2014
To relate the story of the husband whose wife becomes a fox is not only to fabulate, but to create a metaphor for a modern relationship in a world in which “[t]he woods are temporary and the city is rapacious.” Sarah Hall’s award-winning short story Mrs Fox draws on fairy tales of transmogrification (a term the husband picks up in researching his wife’s condition): the Norwegian tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, the Italian tale “The She-Bear”, and the English tale “Catskin”. Yet it reverses the narrative trajectory we have come to expect from these tales: rather than hastening the formation of an unlikely relationship, the shapeshifting sets in motion the dissolution of something already-established.
This trajectory is conveyed from a comfortable distance, where the space between the narrative voice and the world of the husband and wife is large enough to fill an entirely separate narrative (perhaps something novel-length). We learn her name—Sophia—as an afterthought to a description of items (including “a small purple ball”) contained within her purse. At times it feels as though we are observing their tale unfold from behind the thick woods opening onto the leafy cover of the heath where they go walking—a precarious place, neither wilderness nor civilisation, that is about to be given over to the bulldozers.
Equally large is the space between the husband and his understanding of his wife. In her human form, she seems to share little with him other than sex (“The trick is to remain slightly detached”); as a vixen, she reluctantly permits him to carry her back to their home, and only then vocalising her dissatisfaction at his attempts to cloister her. This is because, we are told, “[s]omething in her childhood has made her withheld.” In the same moment, we learn that “[t]he one who loves less is loved more.” While this certainly seems to be the defining clause of their relationship while they are both in human form, once the balance slips—”All vestiges shed”—everything becomes determined by his inability to let her go.
Eventually, the husband makes a decision along the lines of the popular adage “if you love something, set it free…” He opens himself to an ultimate lesson in second chances: a return is never a return to an initial state. Seasons pass. She appears to him on the heath, tentatively leading him to “an opening, a gash between stones and earth. Her den”, revealing her clutch of newborn cubs, the product of their pre-transmogrified intimacy. He has learned his lesson: they are wild and he must live apart from them. As a human, he can serve as their protector against the encroachment of the bulldozers, signifying suburbia: “He understands his duty.”
And yet, this is not a fable in the tradition of Aesop; it cannot be reduced to a simple tale about the environmental impact of humankind, a tale in which the fox is only a moralising device and the human as father-protector signals the story’s close. Sarah Hall’s narrative is more adept. By the end of the story, the husband has “given up looking for meaning”, even though he is marked by the feeling of a proleptic loss of the fox, his “unbelonging wife”. The reader, however, haunted by those final words—”unbelonging wife”—must not abandon the search for meaning. For has the wife ever belonged? Consider this passage from the period when the husband keeps her as his pet:
[S]he looks up at him, her brows steepling, haughty, unsatisfied. Part of his brain will not translate what she wants: that she must have it raw. Her eyes flicker after birds in the garden. Even trapped behind glass, she calculates. The metrics of the hunt.
One begins to wonder whether the husband has ever properly observed and understood his wife. Like the toast she leaves mostly uneaten in the prelude to her transformation, whatever he has offered her has only been a miscommunication, albeit one on both sides. When the husband attributes his wife’s transformation to “an act of will“—another misprision—she is no longer able to correct him.
And this is the attraction of Sarah Hall’s story: it brings the personal and the magical together in a reverberant way. Hall uses the outrageousness of the shapeshifting metaphor to explore something quite personal—by which I do not mean biographical, but particular and private. The personal moment of the disintegration of the couple’s relationship is interpenetrated by the metaphor of the mysterious woman as fox. Together, the moment and metaphor transform the difficulty the husband has in knowing the wife (for Sophia’s thoughts, motivations, and experiences are as impenetrable in fox form as when she was simply a woman), enlarging it into a not-so-simple fable about the perils of the failure of understanding that neither effaces nor overshadows the personal, the magical. We are left with the impression that one is never simply a woman—at least not in modern fiction—and never simply a vixen, especially not in Mrs Fox.
Laura Ludtke  is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is Managing Editor at the Oxonian Review.