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Physical Focus: A Look at T.C. Boyle's "Carnal Knowledge"

Updated on March 27, 2014

Background on "Carnal Knowledge"

"Carnal Knowledge" is a short story about how a man, Jim, changes his life for something crazy and totally out of his element to be with a girl. At. first, he seems to pretend to be interested in this girls, Alena, loopy vegan ways, but instead of listening he seems to be paying closer attention to her female counter parts. Jim is blinded by this illusion that he doesn't even notice what he is getting into. Here is a woman who is very passionate about her work, and Jim is making somewhat of an effort to understand why she pickets and takes a stand for animal rights; however, he is solely focused on the physical. All he thinks about when looking at her is getting her into bed. It's almost as if every time Jim looks into Alena's hypnotic eyes he gets put into a trance and he will do anything. Now this hold does get broken when Alena leaves to goo save bears with some other guy and doesn't want Jim to come. He is driving back home on the highway and notices a sign while sitting inn traffic that reads, "Lodging, Food, & Gas". Just then something clicks and he realizes it's all "just meat".

(Was first published in Playboy in 1990)

Flesh to Flesh

Do women have some unconscious seductive spell or do men just tend to focus solely on the physical? When I thought of this question what came to mind was a scene from a movie "Hitch." In this scene a gossip columnist in a bar is being hit on by this guy; while the guy spits out these pathetic lines about her mysterious eyes and luscious lips, he is unaware that the woman is blowing him off and he just can't take a hint. The guy is too busy trying to undress the columnist piece by piece with his mind and receive false premonitions of sexual fantasies. This kind of thing happens all the time to women and it's getting old. Women want to meet a man who is real, honest, and actually interested in what they have to say. Not a man who changes his whole universe just to get a peak at what we are hiding under our clothes. T.C. Boyle shows what the woman/man interaction is all about in his story "Carnal Knowledge". Being too focused on the physical causes Jim to be tricked by beauty, while losing sight of his own thoughtless life.

Jim does certain things when with Alena that are out of character such as, calling off work or saying he hates meat. Jim doesn't seem like he wants to call off work, but once he looks into Alena's alluring eyes he decides to "go along with it". Then in the very beginning when he describes all the different kinds of meat he likes he mentions an ad in a magazine "that showed the veal calves penned up in their own waste, limbs atrophied and veins so pumped full of antibiotics they couldn't control their bowel," but when he takes a date out to eat he "could never resist the veal scallopini". When with Alena, Jim acts like he stands tall for animal rights, but here we see that he doesn't seem to care. He will eat the meat regardless of how it's slaughtered before cooked.

Because Jim is only focused on Alena's body he becomes blinded at times. While protesting Jim gets into character, and begins shouting "Murderer!" and "Torturer! Nazi!" without even thinking about what he is doing. Then all of a sudden he gets cold cocked: "The first blow seemed to drop from above, a shell lobbed from deep within enemy territory; others came at me like a windmill churning in a storm...then things got a bit hazy". Jim's the type that would never have entered a picket line or stood up for something important. So seeing him take a blow for animal rights is out of character. This proves that he was playing a role when with Alena, and wasn't being himself because he didn't know who that person was. So he took on the role of others protesting in the crowd.

T.C. Boyle


Jim is being tricked by the beauty of a woman to fall head over heels in love, or what he thinks is love. When they first meet on the beach Jim is only focused on Alena's beauty. In their opening scene Alena's dog pisses on Jim and once he notices Alena he forgets about getting pissed on: "I don't want to mythologize...or clutter the scene with allusions to Aphrodite rising from the waves..., but she was a pretty impressive sight. Bare-legged, fluid, as tall and uncompromising as her Nordic ancestors, and dressed in a Gore-Tex bikini and hooded sweatshirt unzipped to the waist......Piss-spattered and stupefied, I could only gape up at her". Jim has become completely mesmerized at the mere sight of Alena, comparing her beauty to that of Aphrodite, which proves how much he is consumed by the physical. He even notices the exact designer bikini she wears and how far her hoodie is unzipped showing off hints of what she hides under her clothes. Then further in the story we see more evidence of Jim being focused on her body and possibly even thinking about having his way with her: "I was moved even more by the sight of her bending over the box in her Gore-Tex bikini; I clung to the edge of the chair as if it were a plunging roller coaster". Here Jim is sizing her up almost as if she were a piece of meat that he was about to devour. Then the image of a plunging roller coaster seems like someone coming off of a sexual high.

Another case where Jim becomes blinded by Alena's feminine charm is near the end of the story, but shortly after the blinding he wakes up: "She was wearing a pair of too-tight jeans and an oversized sweater with nothing underneath it. I slipped my hand inside the sweater and found something to hold on to. She laughed, but she pushed herself up and crossed the room to stare out the occluded window". Here Jim takes things into his own hands and makes a move on Alena. She's flattered, but pulls away. He knows something is up and feels her drifting from him. Then further on Jim becomes more aware of how he has been tricked into falling in love when Alena says "we're the plague on this planet" meaning that their love is the plague. The a look appears: "She gave me a look that let me know it didn't matter, that she was already gone, that her agenda, at least for the moment, didn't include me". Here Jim has become aware for the first time in the story. He finally sees Alena in her true light and the vale has finally been lifted.

On the ride home Jim comes to terms with what has happened and goes back to being the meat eater he has always been. Something in his head clicks and he realizes "it's only meat". This proves that he was only attracted to the physical and that he didn't know much of his identity in the first place. If he had a strong sense of who he was as a man, then the allure of a beautiful body would never have caused him to become a man he is not. I think that Jim was falling in love, but it was a false love. He was falling for something he could never be and Alena saw that, but he couldn't.


Defining Carnal Knowledge

Here are a few different definitions of Carnal Knowledge, but it all pretty much comes down to sexual encounters.

  • "Carnal Knowledge is an archaic euphemism for sexual intercourse" (
  • "from Latin carnalis for "fleshly:" sexual intercourse between a male and female in which there is at least some slight penetration of the woman's vagina by the man's penis. It is legally significant in that it is a necessary legal characteristic or element of rape,child molestation, or consensual sexual relations with a girl below the age of consent ("statutory rape"). Age of consent varies from 14 to 18, depending upon the state." (
  • "sexual intercourse —usu. used of acts involving a female child, the precise legal interpretation varying with different jurisdictions" (

So in the end is you change your whole element all for a pretty face you will be left with a broken heart and disappointment. Jim never truly knew who he was and that's why he was so easily influenced by Alena. He was entranced with infatuation and never realized that he was changing who he was for a girl he thought he loved. When you don't have a sense of your own identity you have a tendency to inhabit those around you and become like them. I feel many people who are insecure with who they are do this as a way to fit in or find someone to love and who will love them. Jim changed his whole world for this woman and she walked away. She was able to see that he wasn't who she wanted to be with and possibly she saw through his facade. He became an animal activist almost overnight when really he was a lazy, shallow person who never thought much of anything.

Interview with T.C. Boyle

Interesting interview with the author T.C. Boyle about his novel The Women. I thought this was an interesting insight to the man who writes such interesting and provocative stories and novels.



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    • RobinReenters profile image

      Robin Carretti 

      2 years ago from Hightstown

      A very deep engaging read perhaps too deep for people of the beginning of their sexuality to their peak I enjoyed thanks

    • fpherj48 profile image


      3 years ago from Carson City

      Well....tripping over my own fingers this evening! I chose to follow you and left a fan mail comment, in which I mistakenly refer to "Boyle" as Doyle....sorry about that! Oops! :)

    • fpherj48 profile image


      3 years ago from Carson City

      Starting from the bottom up, Brittany, I like the quote by T.C. and as a writer, agree completely. The interview was interesting and has taunted me to read more about this prolific author.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article based on the premise of "Carnal Knowledge," a great novel, if memory serves me at the moment. It's been many years and hundreds of books ago.

      I'm glad I happened upon this work of yours. Very nicely done.

      Peace, Paula


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