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“Caviar” the Book by T. C. Boyle Essay

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2021


In reading this story, I wondered about the title, Caviar, until the end, when I saw that this was Nathanial’s triumph and reward. The ending, as a whole, was a metaphor for what Nathanial wanted to do to Wendy: open her up and capture her eggs. The drive down to the dock in the ’62 Rambler is a powerful phallic image culminating in the catch of the recently dead Sturgeon full of eggs, which were his and worth quite a lot of money. In a way, he has metaphorically inseminated Wendy, captured her in his net where she died, then slither up to her chin and claimed her eggs. The Caviar would also bring him a nice chunk of cash, so he is also doing much better than his father did. The story is full of metaphor, from the beginning with his father dying from PCB poisoning and then Marie’s mother being hit by a semi, and finally that Nathanial delivered spawning Striped Bass to Con Ed to replace the fish destroyed by the Nuclear Plant. Nathanial is a savior on a mission.

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In the beginning, Nathanial inherits the boat, the seine, and the Rambler, which all figure in the last scene. He is taking over his father’s business, but he does better at it because he branches out from just catching fish to sell at the market. In many ways, he is simply a good husband and a son who has outdistanced his father. He is never shown as a bad man, nor a bad husband, just a little promiscuous. However, that is understandable and forgivable at the time. If his wife had cheated, then it would have shamed him more than if he cheated, since the mores of the time frowned more on a man’s wife cheating on him than him cheating on her. It was believed that men were simply almost incapable of fidelity since their instincts were more animal.

Nathanial does not have any illusions about his class, as is evidenced when he accepts that he is not eligible as Wendy’s mate, because he is blue-collar and uneducated, even though he immediately beats up his rival anyway in a fit of anger. We might even see this as a metaphor for him rising above his station, just as he has risen above his father’s history. His father left him very little to work with, but he has obviously done better with the same tools. In fact, he got back money from the plant that created the PCBs which killed his father for delivering to them the spawning fish to replace those they destroyed. Nathanial is a misunderstood all-around savior. The doctor is symbolic of the powers that are destroying his environment. Nathanial is the simple man of the earth and water who brings salvation in the form of new life in the spawning Striped Bass. He then delivers sperm for the insemination of the surrogate. (Whether or not they are used is immaterial.) We even have a description of him imagining his wife impregnating the surrogate with a syringe filled with his ejaculate. This image makes Marie also the father of the child and reinforces Nathanial’s idea that Wendy should also be his surrogate wife.

The lady witch doctor is a powerful foreshadowing that Nathanial is going to be duped, merely because Marie wants so badly to conceive. That it is her who has a problem is actually a validation of his manhood. His ability to produce ejaculate on-demand at the clinic, without even looking at the porn he is offered, is another statement of his virility. In a way, he sees himself as a misunderstood stud.

The doctor is a well-educated con artist. The girl, Wendy, is his girlfriend, and he is possibly the father of the child. We have no way of knowing. In fact, we have no trust for this “quack”, which is a word Nathanial uses early on for the remedies that Marie tries. That he did not know he was being duped from the star is a surprise to us and to him. It is interesting that he never wants to get rid of Marie but just wants to add Wendy to his life as a surrogate wife. One can imagine where he might take this if he were allowed to do whatever he wanted. We might well have ended up with a jolly threesome. IN a way, Nathanial is reverting to caveman status, head of the pride, and would probably have no problem with keeping a harem.

Once he beats up the doctor, the whole town finds out that the child is not Wendy’s, and they all assume it was conceived in a natural way. In fact, there may be some who suspect that it is not Nathanial’s child either. However, all of this is resolved in the last scene as Nathanial triumphs overall by killing the “breeder”, which is human-sized, then slitting her up the belly to the chin and capturing 60 pounds of Caviar.


So the entire story is a metaphor for transformation and redemption. In the beginning, the father has died from industrial pollution. The payment from Con Ed allows Nathanial to reproduce, even though it is mentioned that the doctor was not needed when Nathanial seduces the willing Wendy. Nathanial saved the Striped Bass population of the river from the polluters who are killing it. Then he beats up the polluters in the form of the doctor, and finally kills the breeder and claims her valuable eggs. I don’t know how much money 60 pounds of Sturgeon roe is worth, but it is certainly a bit of redemption for Nathanial. He is locked out of his home but has killed the surrogate for both women and now he has the eggs, triumphing over his wife and Wendy at the same time. It is interesting that the fish died while he was beating on the door of his home. He is even observed by the white-collar people on their way to the picnic, a leisure activity, while he is hauling in the huge prize fish.

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