A Form of Love: Charles Bukowski’s ‘The Most Beautiful Woman In Town’

Bukowski narrates an outright and violently commonplace story about love, beauty and death. His language is poignant, rough-edged, direct, but it does not suffer from a lack of sentimentality and empathy radiating between the lines. The repetition of Cass’ name resonates across the corpus of the text, penetrating the reader’s memory. The rhythm of the story is as fast-paced as her downfall, murdering her whilst recreating her, the silhouette of a bitter ode, the racing heartbeat of mortality, surrender and exasperation.

Beauty is decadence, as the most beautiful woman in town is dead, reinforcing Bukowski’s dedication to her. For him, the highest form of beauty rears up from the dirty underground, unprotected and vulnerable, fighting its way up to the shattering surface and only he can see its essential origins. It is indeed ironic that beauty is always blemished by a paradox: it is both neglected and contemplated, being seen and not being seen, never in the right place, being shifted, suffering from a continuous misplacement from its onlookers. Beauty is never unattended or overseen, and yet it ends up in sheer isolation in a mirage of incompatible projections.

In Bukowski’s short story the most beautiful woman in town is the most doomed woman in town, crossing the way of ‘the ugliest man in town’. Cass is lost and vulgar, wandering indecisively, and she loves by giving herself away. Self-destructive, she always leaves a suicidal taste, a tormented note in the reader’s mouth, following her over those pages, those violent quick words describing her downfall, the bitter pace of her scarred story and the delirious effect she leaves on Bukowski’s mind and soul, a paradoxical love bite, the muse who kills herself. One of his many muses, the one he never forgets, the one with a name that stuck. Although the story is predictable, as one follows Cass and Bukowski on their feral drinking and love-making paths, the end is striking, as suicide sneaks its way into daily routines and everyday life, shattering them, and punches the reader in the stomach.

Cass is a Décadent, a figure marked by death, which is demonstrated since the beginning, as her unlimited spirit outgrows her mortal body. Her death inspires Bukowski to not forget her, to not let her go where she went, to write her down and keep her there in his memory. The weaker she becomes, the stronger his vision of her, black and white on paper. As she feels in absolutes, she is misunderstood and considered to be ‘crazy’. Cass is labelled and not truly cared for, parentally neglected and abandoned, condemned by her jealous sisters, burdened with a slippery nature, she is made of fights, wounds, ‘insanity’, scars and ‘razor marks’, but even these signs of death transform her into a representative omen of conquering beauty she feels powerless to escape from. Her pain, past and identity go unacknowledged and as she gazes into a mirror-image that looks more like what people see in her than who she really is, the only solution is to attack that unidentifiable and alienating image.

Bukowski traces her life back, their intertwinement, doing her justice, she will never rot for him. He reveals her humane texture, language, mannerisms and substance beneath. His words looked into her soul, repeating her name, Cass, over and over again. She is here and there, with him, with the reader. She constantly divulges herself, what is stirring inside of her, in the face of deifying tyranny.

The image of her beauty is established upon the first sight of her and she tries to destroy this deviating impression by rebelling against its connotations and demonstratively piercing a piece of her obvious beauty, her nose, with a hatpin to have a redirecting impact on Bukowski, to ridicule the obsession with superficialities that overshadow the conflictual nature within. This act reveals that her sufferings have made her more mature than her age suggests as she is aware of herself, her impact and others’ projections coming her way. Cass is a hurt and vulnerable heroine, therein lies her strength and tragedy, she knows the two sides of a coin: how to suffer and how to survive.

And yet, her maturity walks hand in hand with her isolation, her vision stands alone because others are blind to it and it is this inconsideration that gives birth to her self-destructiveness, the death-drive connected to her terrorising beauty she cannot shed. The fact that she can finally inflict other and deeper feelings than awe, wonder and bedazzlement in her onlookers, namely Bukowski, makes her feel powerful, human, meaningful and cared for. Through the act of hurting herself she can evoke empathy and substantial emotions, through an act of hers not through the mere sight of her; or is it hurtful to the onlooker seeing the masterpiece mutilating herself instead of maintaining, composing herself? Is an ugly woman piercing her face with a hatpin a comedy?

Cass treats her face like a liberating death-mask that embalms the stumbling survival of her character. Even the attempts to de-beautify herself by putting ‘pins with glass heads’ under her eyes, ‘wearing’ herself out with her actions and trying to kill herself which is revealed by a scar on her young throat, do not cut off the never-ending gazing at her and even maximise her beauty further. The broken bottle she uses to cut open her throat resembles her state: she is made hollow even though she is thick-skinned, yet she may be broken by external force, she is expected to be empty, an expendable thing, her life force sucked out of her, she exploits the bottle as does Bukowski. Stuck in a vicious circle, she witnesses and re-encounters the limits of love and humane admiration for her. When she succumbs to aggressive outbursts or emotional expressions of her proper self, that are unexpected, her mental state and behaviour stand stigmatised and are ridiculed as ‘dramatics’ and thereupon dismissed as something not to be taken seriously. She is beautiful, gets all the attention, so why cause a scene?

In contrast to her environment’s opportunistic beliefs and expectative codes she does not use her beauty as she considers it to be ephemeral, vile and even damaging. Bukowski is the only one making sense out of her as she is an open book if one chooses to ‘read’ her, turn her pages and not throw her away when her story gets complicated. Bukowski fears that one day she may lose herself by giving herself away to the wrong man, the wrong ingredient to her being, her unknown death sentence that may destroy her entirely without her timely awareness as she is open to ruins, including her gravestone. Bukowski does not exclude himself from the devastating men who may eventually bury her forever, this hope of not being the most effective catalyst foreshadows the ending, her presumed liberation.

Bukowski does not interpret her when he most has to, he is burdened by his sense of guilt, loss and uncertainty, speculating, drinking, holding on, but maybe he gave her something that she wanted to hold on to, to capture one authentic moment of happiness and fulfilment and then let everything go, even herself, him, forever.

When she takes her life, her sisters get a first and final satisfaction. They are indeed comforted by her suicide, a notion of peace sets in as the competition and hierarchy of attractiveness have ended. The sisters seem lifeless and are cold-hearted, numb and frustrated women who do not care, borderline devils awaiting the downfall of their own flesh and blood. Impatient vultures they remain, having formed a severed bond ostracising and differentiating Cass, excluding her violently without the attempt of hiding their bitterness, pettiness and jealousy. They are right, Cass was different, her mind free, her heart troubled, with a soul that couldn’t stomach its invisibility anymore, but since Bukowski crossed her path, the one with an insight, she may go, she may be at peace, finally, as there has been someone in her short life, as they had something, they both have been, together, and beyond beauty and ugliness there was substance.

‘The most alive woman’ he ever met never made it to twenty-one and to him she is not dead, never could she die within his penmanship.

woman in white t shirt
Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com


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