Chatwin's Swiss Woman

Sarah Groothuis '08 English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Chatwin makes one of his many unexplained visits to the locals of Patagonia to a Swiss woman living just outside Rio Pico. He describes the woman's cabin in great detail in a style more closely resembling that of a novelist than a travel writer. The inclusion of such extreme details about this visit even serves to discredit Chatwin's honesty about his visit to Patagonia. After his attention is captured by elaborately painted curtains Chatwin is distracted by the woman's other artistic displays. His eyes wonder around the cabin.

She had carved little wooden faces of angels, painted them with rosy cheeks and set them round the cornice. On the wall was a small picture in oils, a sunny landscape cleft by a black gulch. At the bottom were skulls and bones and, above, hung a rickety bridge. Halfway across stood a little girl with a white frightened face and red hair streaming in the wind. She was tottering to fall but a golden angel hovered above and offered her his hand.

'I like this painting,' she said. It is my guardian angel. My Angel, who has always saved me.'

A copy of the Pale Bride lay open on the music stand of the piano. Black gaps yawned where the ivory had come off. I noticed that not all her fingernails were painted. Some were red. Some she had left blank. Perhaps she did not have enough nail-paint to complete both hands (62-63).

It could be argued that Chatwin included this section in his travel narrative because it hints at the priorities and economic state of European's living in Patagonia. However, if an outline of culture were Chatwin's only motivation, he wouldn't need nearly as many examples as he includes in his narrative. Just as Chatwin's motivation for writing this passage is unclear, so is the legitimacy of its details.


1. While speaking of the Swiss woman's son, Chatwin says "He wore chequered shirts and a red handkerchief at the neck, but when relaxed, his face collapsed in Nordic sadness" (62). Does Chatwin's use of shirts instead of shirt imply that he saw the son more than once, even though his visit with the Swiss woman seemed very short otherwise? Is his use of the plural form indicative of a one-time observation or a characterization in a novel? Does it matter?

2. Why does Chatwin include this section about the Swiss woman? Does it offer anything to the book as a whole other than another effort to place Chatwin in the Patagonian scene?

3. At the beginning of the section on page 61 Chatwin mentions that the his host had been baking when he arrived, commenting that her "blood-red nails were cracked and chipped." He waits until page 63 to comment on the woman's nail polish again, hinting that she simply ran out of polish, or couldn't afford more. Does Chatwin's observation seem out of place, or too planned out in its inclusion? Why would Chatwin end the section this way, by circling back to the beginning?

4. Why would Chatwin make the theme of obvious sadness and loss in this section stronger than the subtle insinuations of others?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 6 Novembr 2007