a journal in comparative literature

Category: 2020

The Well Behaved Rarely Make History

Margaret Paz is a first year graduate student in Comparative & World Literature at San Francisco State University and is interested in gender, science and sexuality in the Middle Ages. She has a bachelor’s degree in Classical Languages and Literatures from the Classics Department at UC Davis and a master’s degree in History specializing in medieval history from San Francisco State University. Currently she works at the History Department at San Francisco State as an administration assistant and works with faculty and students in the department to maintain department functionality. Her primary academic interest is the connections of science, law and culture in shaping gender and sexuality in the high and late Middle Ages through homoeroticism and aberrant behavior. She wants to show a different narrative than the traditional medieval conceptions of a rigid system of laws and codes and show how subaltern or minority narratives show a more rounded image of the Middle Ages.


This project endeavors to explore the cultural conceptions of gender though crossdressing using the ideas of performative gender and morality through sodomy laws constructed during the Middle Ages. The three figures under exploration are that of Silence from the Roman de Silence, Ulrich von Lichtenstein a figure that may have been inspiration for a character within Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, and John/Eleanor Rykener, a 14th century cross dressing prostitute. This analysis of gender and moral society will be done through a case study of how the idealistic notions of gender and abnormality by the three cases under scrutiny were contrasted by medieval conceptions of masculinity, sodomy and sexuality. Silence and Ulrich are examples of an idealistic form of hyper masculinity, that overcomes the act of sodomy and persecution due to being exempla of the male gendered body. Rykener, however, fell into the category of abnormality due to his unique nature as both a prostitute and crossdresser. This idea of cultural normality is built off a notion of masculinity and performative gender within medieval society that was deemed acceptable by the community and helped create a standard for femininity, masculinity and sexuality.

The Well Behaved Rarely Make History: A Case Study of Cross-Dressing in Regard to Sodomy Laws and Gender Constructions in the High and Late Middle Ages

This project endeavors to explore the cultural conceptions of gender, through cross-dressing, the ideas of performative gender and morality, and through sodomy, constructed during the Middle Ages. The three figures under exploration are Silence, from the Roman de Silence, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, a figure that may have been the inspiration for a character within Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, and John Rykener, a 14th-century cross-dressing prostitute. This analysis of gender and moral society will be achieved through case studies of how the idealistic notions of gender and abnormality, by the three cases under scrutiny, contrast with medieval conceptions of masculinity, sodomy, and sexuality. Sodomy acts as a regulator of the church to help consolidate gender expression and sexuality in the cultural sphere, looking to regulate the definitions of the body. By transgressing the cultural boundary in an acceptable way, the structure of sodomy, reaffirms a type of negotiation in the cultural sphere of the Middle Ages. Silence and Ulrich are examples of an idealistic form of hyper-masculinity, which overcomes the act of sodomy and persecution due to being exempla of the male-gendered body. Rykener, in contrast, falls into a category of abnormality due to his unique nature as both a sex worker and cross-dresser. With each case study, there should be a notion of an acceptable form of sexuality and gender normativity, but also a contrast as to what was considered abnormal and against religious and cultural norms. The idea of cultural normality within medieval society was therefore created through a notion of masculinity and performative gender that was deemed acceptable by the social order and helped create a standard for femininity, masculinity, and sexuality.

Up to the 14th century, gender was constructed through culturally held sentiments of masculinity, femininity, and religion, which became the basis of biological understanding of the body; Karras explains this reasoning through her work that brings to light that masculinity needed further contraction to create a male identity. Cultural structure during the Middle Ages, due to ambiguous bodily understanding was difficult to regulate and showcase how the church attempted to control abnormal bodies. To make an argument for performative gender, the case studies within this paper will try to establish medieval sexuality as a culturally constructed concept, created through ecclesiastical and social normativity. Then, the argument will move into the invention and ambiguity of sodomy laws and, finally, interact by looking at one literary figure, one heroic figure, and one obscure example of a crossdresser in their profession as a prostitute as cross-dressing helps show that these laws and sexual identities were constructed in a way that allowed more freedom, creating acceptability to their actions to remain part of the society they navigated. The cross-dressers in this case study were not typically punished if they did not fall too far away from the ambiguous nature of the laws and were correctable to what was considered the natural state.

Moreoever, in looking at Medieval gender constructions, one can start with the argument that the differences in the sexes was not as profound as later renaissance science states. As argued by Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Bodies and Gender from Greeks to Freud, that during the progression of gender construction through a biological understanding, that there is a one-sex and two-sex model. The Middle Ages used the one-sex model, which meant that female and male gendered bodies were all the same, but some physical differences as well as women are just another variation or a “broken” version of the male form, as “the female body was less hot, less perfect…and hence a less potent model of the canonical body” (Laqueur 34-35). Men were considered hot, and women were cold. Therefore, women were still considered subservient to men, being the cold and wet variation of them, and other aspects of life defined what it meant to be female. Men would, therefore, represent the better, opposite aspect of women, as they were said to run hot from childhood onward, but never became cold out of the prime of life as old men. As such, men were never able to become cold like women and always represented a balanced opposition to women. Gender was not so much the physical, but preconceived notions of the way the body worked, naturally. The temperatures of the body created differences in behaviors, while imbalances led to illnesses, so gender needed to be thought of as more than a scientific construction built on biology. With that, gender needed to be constructed around more than a physical body—it needed a constructed and acceptable function within society to create a hierarchy. As women were just another variation of men, there needed to be set cultural constructs and behaviors that would help to define normative gender roles.

Looking at gender as a one-sex model allows for performative gender to come into play and create behavioral boundaries for gender. Performative gender describes behavioral functions within society that help to construct how gender roles are defined. Ruth Karras built one of the most persuasive arguments for what it meant to be male in her work, From Boys to Men. Karras presents the fluidity of masculinity through knighthood, university, and workshops in the late Middle Ages, as she argues there was no set definition for the word itself or the act of being masculine. Karras appears to have the purpose of redefining the ideas of masculinity that were constructed during the Middle Ages and displaying the competitive nature of this fluid identity of masculinity. This idea of competition establishes, “points of transition, what constituted the jump to manhood and how medieval society marked it” (From Boys to Men 3). She argues that there is a dichotomy within the male that was either hyper-feminine (other) or hyper-masculine (patriarchal archetype), and males had gender and an identity based on these ideas for readers to interpret. They also contended with no standard masculine model but were pressured by class, status, and individual competition to move away from what was deemed feminine.

To do this, Karras begins in male childhood and moves into specific fields that men could partake in due to their gender. She begins with a look into boyhood and works her way into three separate case studies of masculinity. The formation of gender normativity for this argument will be based heavily on her ideas of masculinity. Karras moves from childhood into knighthood, showing the competitive nature within the class, creating relationships with other men; describing the usage of females as a currency was one way to construct the masculine form. Karras then moves into the university students, who would deny the animal-like behavior of the newcomers and show masculinity through intellectual competition, as opposed to swordplay. The university students also placed their sexual frustrations and desires on the females— especially? sex workers, who serve as apertures for sexual and gender exploration. To conclude her argument, Karras’s third case study is that of the urban craftsman, who attained a level of survivability through owning his trade’s workshop, also providing for his wife and family. The goal was to become a master craftsman and leave behind the childishness of apprenticeship, serving as a more masculine male who has achieved the status of master, as, “Their dependence did not make them feminine, but they could not achieve full adult civic masculinity, so they might turn to other means, including violence, to demonstrate their manhood” (From Boys to Men 110). All three cases include the woman as an intermediary of the way masculinity is formed, as she plays a role as an outlet or part of the formation of masculinity. A man had to conform to societally gendered constructions to confirm their masculinity. Karras is using postmodern discourse and seems to be disputing the idea that gender formation was built around the physical body, but then built upon this notion, including that of the formations of separate ways to be male, or performative gender as a definition for the masculine.

All of these forms contain the woman as a middle marker for men competing, in each case, to become what is deemed masculine, yet her role is still considered separate from the power associated with the male formation of masculinity or challenging it. “Women as signs and as stand-ins, mediated relations between men” (From Boys to Men 25). Therefore, as Karras argues, masculinity is also looked at as an ideological, social construction, over the construction of the masculine form— as a biological structure alone—and included a formation period as well as different outlets of masculinity that appear to shift with cultural changes in the Middle Ages. Therefore, masculinity was about denying the femininity within, and it became a competition of sorts between the young men themselves, in what it meant to be considered a man within the later Middle Ages.

However, there is less of a functioning construction for women. As the subservient form of men, women were either one of two types, Mary—good chaste, and Christian and Eve— indulgent and disobedient. These two figures served as a moral and gendered role model for women. Women were bargaining chips within the three important constructions of gender for men. However, while there are other constructions for women, the idea of chastity and virtue remains the same in each form. Qualities such as virginity could be reformatted through performative gender, where the women had the capability of “reformulating the self as virginal” (Salih 5), meaning that the female body also contended with the reformulation of gender constructions, yet there was still natural order. The idea of performative gender means that women enacted their gender norms for their specific moment in time, whether they were to have children or act as the bartering tools for male masculinity (Salih 31). The fluidity of ideological structures means gender itself is a fluid moving idea; it changes as society changes and understands the behavioral aspects of their bodies.

Moreover, sodomy versus Procreative gender roles comes into opposition as the church tries to regulate this fluidity in gender. In The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Mark Jordan conceptualizes the origins of the term, Sodomy, in Christian doctrine. As Jordan states, “Medieval theologians invented sodomy …and the category was built with material from earlier texts” (1). It was usually placed on acts that were deemed anti-Christian or on an opponent of the church, such as Islam, which Jordan remarks helped set a standard for the antagonist to the church. Sodomy was meant to function “…to disentangle the retellings …from the ambivalent relations of Iberian Christianity to the same-sex love it thought was preached and practiced by Islam.” (Jordan 10). The church literature paints Islamic figures as sodomites in order to create sodomy as an opponent to Christianity and morally wrong.

Sodomy went through historical phases, changing forms from blasphemia and luxuria to finally sodomia, becoming the primary definition for the acts of sexual indulgence. It is always ambiguous, and acts of sodomy never get described. As sodomy was an “enormous digression on the sin against nature,” it was indicative of indulgent sex, homoerotic vices and, through the works of Thomas Aquinas, was even comparable to rape and incest (Jordan 94). The church father, through Jordan’s argument, demonstrates, “the anxiety that Sodomy is not repulsive—that it is immensely attractive” (107). The fear of sexual desire and duplication of acts of sodomy keeps the works ambiguous surrounding acts of sodomy, in order to control any ideas of replicating acts of sodomy. Even the penitential literature never claims what constitutes sodomy other than that it is unnatural; not one act is given a definition, leaving the definition up to interpretation. The only aspect of the crime of sodomy described by church definitions is that sodomy is an act against God and consequently must be stopped.

Therefore, Sodomy was never really defined—just illustrated through tales of martyrs and ambiguous laws to ensure there was no replication of the acts themselves. This idea of not defining sodomy allows for some flexibility in the idea of medieval sexuality and how the body could be perceived. As such, due to this fluidity and laws not being defined, Cross-dressing was done quite prolifically during the Middle Ages and gave birth to chivalric romances, saints, heroes, and prostitutes. Sodomy laws could not regulate these types of performative acts due to their very nature and the ambiguity of the sodomy laws. Cross-dressing was therefore in a middle ground between acceptability and denunciation due to the conflicting ideas of sodomy laws and constructed sexuality.

To show this tension between sodomy laws and performative gender, Le Roman de Silence, dated to the early 13th century, features a character who, throughout the work, dresses in opposition to their natural gendered body. It tells the story of the Duke of Cador, who only has a daughter, when the king of England makes a law that women cannot inherit from their fathers or become heiresses. In order to get around this law, the Duke raises his daughter as a boy for their entire life, so they inherit his kingdom. Cador names them Silence. Silence, therefore, has to become a male, not by choice, but because of how they were raised. This idea of raising a child according to one’s desires brings tension between two opposing forces, nature and nurture. Silence then has to perform appropriately even though another character has attempted to prevent this performative male role from the very beginning of her story. Nature, who is a character first seen at the birth of Silence, comes and blesses the child with extreme beauty. This extreme beauty meant Silence, from appearance, would be very hard to masquerade in their in male guise.  Though the parents nonetheless announce that they had a boy and have the child perform how they wish them to as a male, in order to hide their beauty and take attention away from feminine aspects.

Le Roman de Silence provides an excellent example of gender roles during the middle ages. Le Roman de Silence not only deals with gender but, again, this idea of the medieval body. Silence as a character is a good insight into gender and sexuality due to their fluidity as male, female, and a neutral force. The character is troubled by the acts of living as a woman as well as the fact that they were raised as a man, yet, the character performs accordingly, dependent on the guise they have donned at that moment. Silence’s transgender appearance in the romance makes them an interesting character, in that they break away from the normality of medieval church constructions of procreative gender, yet, they are still captured by it. Silence has a fluidity in their guises and therefore, cannot be beholden to sodomy laws that would have been in place. Silence’s body and actions allow for them to conform to the performative gender standards of the gender they are currently using within the work; in essence, they can become both male and female depending on the situation at hand.

Moving forward, Silence is raised as a man to inherit what was left to them, but they are not a male, and if they were female, they would not be able to inherit at all. Silence struggles throughout the book about whether she is female or male, and is always on the cusp of not having a real identity. In order to inherit, Silence must be a man, even if biologically they are female, they must perform as a male within their cultural sphere, “when the child was old enough to realize he was a girl” (Le Roman de Silence 2439-2440). Silence was very much aware of the physical aspects of their body, yet, has to continue to perform. It can be said that the body, physically, is not the aspect that creates the gender, because Silence is always in between both genders and it is not their physical body in turmoil but, their mind. In the end, Nature wins, and Silence goes back to being a woman and inheriting, which is a bit unsatisfying, but there is no space “between genders” in medieval culture, and biological reproduction is typically the resolution to these issues. The issues with defining gender can also be due to the fact that there is no set definition of gender, as nature and nurture debate sexuality at the very first lines of the play, allowing Silence to cross gendered boundaries (Hotchkiss 9). The author uses a neutral variation of this name when they talk of Silence—male pronouns when Silence is doing masculine feats, and female when Silence is acting as a woman should. They are the perfect knight, besting the men at all the knightly games, which solidifies their guise as a male. The author has a great interest in the proper place of gender within the hierarchical system concerning gender during the Middle Ages.

The interest in Gender is shown through the foreshadowing that Silence will not remain as a man when Nature comments, “They have insulted me…by acting as if the work of Nurture were superior to mine!” (Le Roman de Silence 2266-2268). Nature clearly will win in the end, as even when nurtured to be a man, Silence is physically a woman and can see this in their body, which would eventually change their mind into that of a woman. That the mind can be nurtured in a way to change mannerism, and not the body, shows gender as a performative act instead of a biological one. This idea of nurturing is an aspect of performative gender, and the actions are deemed acceptable by society in order to create constructions of gender. Le Roman de Silence is also unsettling to the ideals of governance in the Middle Ages, and to gender, as Silence cannot be a father or give birth to children in their male form. Nature’s creation of Silence is thwarted by Cador, who gives his child a neutral name and a masculine upbringing, and, therefore, goes against Nature’s wish to create the most beautiful girl. Cador creates a male out of his child in order to preserve his line and, therefore, ‘silences’ an aspect of his family—his daughter’s real gender. Silence’s body is therefore subject to the social contractions of inheritance and patriarchy, yet they cannot inherit unless their physical body is that of a man nor could they make children unless they were to live as a woman again.

The author is clearly showing gender roles, especially through the character of Silence, taking care to use proper pronouns when describing characters’ actions, including Silence when they perform their gendered roles. We see this especially with Eufeme, the wife of King Evan. Heldris had a great interest in performative acts of gender that were deemed either acceptable or denounceable within society. Eufeme is a straight caricature of everything a woman should not be. She speaks her mind, has a sexual drive, and presents this Eve dichotomy as a warning to women, reading the romance, not to be this type of lady. She contrasts greatly with Euphemia, Silence’s mother, who is obedient, chaste, and loving to her husband. Eufemia is a warning to what performative gender does not allow, as, “A woman’s role is to keep silent. So, help me god, I think a mute can tell what women are good for.” (6399-6402). This idea of an archetype to gender goes further still, because descriptions of Eufeme also present that she is, “always quick to think of something clever in such circumstances. She is much quicker at finding ways to harm a man than at thinking up something beneficial” (5014-5016). The author is very much telling us what gender roles need to be regarded by these two main characters. There is danger in not conforming to the idea of constructed gender; a woman has her place, as does a man, within this society. Silence, however, does not conform to either construction, in the sense that they are neither construction. They choose when to perform as one or the other construction, dependent on whom they have to display at the moment.

The king needed help to catch Merlin, since only a woman could catch him. Nature wins over nurture with Silence, as a woman, and they can catch Merlin. “Not for a hundred thousand pounds sterling would the king ever have wanted Silence to come back. Moreover, now he was furious with Merlin because Merlin had said he would never be taken except by a woman’s trick.” (6174-6179). Overall, Silence is both the perfect male and the perfect female. As a man, Silence performed knightly duties, fought, and performed perfectly, as the male heir to their father. Silence was nurtured into this role, however, and does have conflicts; they are aware she is Silence; if any knight knew “that a tender, soft, faint-hearted woman…” had outperformed him as a male, and knocked him down, “he would have been ashamed” (5157-5161).  Silence’s inner conflict is in their name. They may not speak about their turmoil but must do as they are told. They play the role of the boy their parents wanted, with the same nature as a woman listening to their parents to go into a marriage. Silence is, in a sense, the perfect female and male depicted in one body, outperforming everyone by being a knight and by capturing Merlin. Silence is a neutral force that must be the proper girl listening to their parents and the proper knight as she is      portraying a man.

How Silence succeeds in being an acceptable body, without performing procreative sexual duties, this is the narrative that was meant to be shown to the societal majority. Nature will always beat out nurture, which allows gender to be performative. In the end, Silence is overall a correctable threat. How this is done is through Silence outperforming the men and needed to be corrected and, in the end, they do become a woman again publicly. This public visage is partially explained by the idea that, ” although the transvestite may seem to challenge traditional definitions of social roles according to anatomy, at the end of her/his story the cross-dressed heroine is always integrated into an aristocratic society whose stability is maintained through marriage and reproduction” (McCracken).  What Silence does is more important than who they are physically, as the author portrays Silence as both a hyper-masculine male and, then, a proper feminine figure. Silence is then able to present both roles. The author appears to be making a statement about the roles women and men played—that these roles must be in their proper function in order to sustain order, and gender must abide by the hierarchical order of medieval society, being that women do womanly things, and men do manly things. Therefore, gendered behavior must be based on the body given to the individual by biological gender and defined behaviorally.

Thinking about behavior brings us to the next case study. Ulrich von Lichtenstein (1200-1275) was a member of the ministerialis class, or serfs raised to hold high positions of power, even if they were servants. He was a poet, a writer, and an unbeatable knight, having been knighted by his lord later in his life. Overall, Ulrich is not considered obscure, his fame being played into his knighthood over his identity as a cross-dresser.He was a prolific knight, even possibly gracing Chaucer’s work in the Knights Tale as one of the figures within the work.Ulrich’s work as a writer and poet makes him stand out, as Ulrich wrote works for free nobles, other ministerialis, and knights, to follow a genuinely chivalric life.He lived up to the idea of the knight impressing the lady and his work the Frauendienst,which is his autobiographical outlook on chivalric knighthood and masculine values.

The most intriguing part of this work is his Venusfahrt,which is the moment he documents his struggles to court a lady with whom he has fallen in love. It stands out as an obscure occurrence within medieval literature in the fact that Ulrich himself performs this stunt wearing female clothing and acting feminine. As stated by scholar Vern Bullough, cross-dressing among men could be seen as acceptable under certain circumstances, when there was an illusion of the female and when the male in drag was performing a function that society wanted and desired but would not allow women to do (240). he fact that Ulrich is a knight separates him from femininity and allows him continued denial of the feminine. As stated by James Schultz, who draws from Michel Foucault and the theory of scientia sexualis and the history of homosexuality, Ulrich is still within a heteronormative bubble by performing to impress a lady (“Parzival, Courtly Love, and the History of Sexuality” 32). Schultz states that heteronormative realities have created a discourse when dealing with the concept of sexuality and the Middle Ages. Ulrich is performing and not addressing his sexual orientation, therefore he is staying within normative societal functions of sexuality.

Moving forward in this event of the Venusfahrt, Ulrich went along the countryside after he fell in love with the lady he serviced and, in order to gain her favor, he dressed as Venus and challenged men to joust with him. Ulrich reiterated his desire: “I was so full of joy to know my undertaking to please her so” (cited in Frankki, line 470). However, he falls in love with another lady during one mass and is stricken very closely with love sicknesses but forces his eyes away to direct his gaze back to the first lady for whom he has dressed like Venus. This could be his way of avoiding lovesickness as well, for he is aware of his joy for pleasing the woman versus the knight within the knight’s tale that states, “And in his behavior, he acted not only as if he had the lover’s sickness of Eros, but rather like madness sprung from melancholy in the cell of imagination in his brain” (Chaucer 1379). By staying focused on his singular love interest, Ulrich avoids the sodomy act of adultery or indulging in his quest to please his lady and, therefore, avoids illness or condemnation.

Within The Knight’s Tale, the Knight is physically ill from being away from the object of his love, and his focus is so farfetched he has lost sight of his desires and is solely focused on the lady, yet, Ulrich is also making his Venus “journey” for his pleasure. The imbalance of bile from being unable to see one’s love had such an adverse effect that, “The intellect that dwelt in his sick and sore heart began to wane just as the heartfelt death” (2810). Very early on, Ulrich states that he is well and happy to saunter around, as the women do, on his own accord, as he can joust and choose to perform acts to please her and he is aware that even in a thousand years he may never attain her (Arbor 148).

As a knight and as a man, this was a pleasant journey for him to undertake to please the women to whom he had devoted his affections. For twenty-nine days he rode along from Bohemia, Carinthia, Friuli, Lombardy, and Styria, adorned in luxurious clothing and jewelry as the lady Venus or the goddess of love. Ulrich states, “My bowing and my turning took a long time. I was walking merrily the way women do (943-944).” He worked to gain the favor of his lady and was said to have broken 307 spears, meaning he won that many jousts, and he gives gold rings to everyone that honorably jousted with him. He had attended mass as the lady Venus and even had women following him who were either aware or not that Venus was a man in disguise. It all goes back to the roles a man can play—knight, student or guild master—as Karras points out. Also, the very placement of the journey as Venus shows Ulrich’s emphasis on the idea that, Most important for the current study is the Venusfahrt’s unique portrayal of a topic only rarely discussed in the European Middle Ages, the practice of male transvestism” (Frankki 3). Ulrich emphasizes this is by the fact that the journey was the most well-documented part within the journey, showing Ulrich felt this journey was the most important to impress his lady, at the cost of defying his gender, yet still performing by normal masculine values. 

         Ulrich is, in essence, humiliating the other men because after they lost, they had to submit to his guise of Venus, as performative gendered standards would still hail him more masculine for winning his jousts. He was making them submit to a woman in a sense, as she defeated them in battle. He is, in essence, still more a man than they are by trying to gain the love of his lady as a knight. Being Venus adds more to the image of a knight, as “Queen Venus provides a mock parallel to the lady on the pedestal, for her presence not only inspires the knights to battle at her feet, when she is seated on the balcony, she has the power to stop the fight when it is inconvenient for her” (Dussere 303). Even so, Ulrich outperformed the other men, and after this, he paraded around as an even manlier figure of King Arthur, before returning back to his wife and lands as a representation of chivalry. He did this all through honorable combat without changing how masculine perceptions of knights did battle and kept to the safe gender role a man should have. Moreover, as Ulrich writes, she did what any noblewoman does, she keeps her virtue and spurns his affections and has him do even more deeds such as mutilation and other acts of valor     . He avoids the idea of deviance since,the process of acculturation follows a binary organization of male/female which requires coordination of genitalia and body and which excludes any third term as ‘deviant,’ as a contradiction of a ‘natural’ system” (McCracken 2).

Therefore, unlike Silence, Ulrich was not a correctable threat but, rather, a very extended look at a hyper-masculine example that wore feminine clothing, though many were either quite aware he was male or were not aware at all. Even with the argumentation that femininity restricts men more than women because they are becoming secondary sex, Ulrich is not restricted by this code, as he is performing no adultery or indulgent sexual acts but, instead, performing the normative role as a knight (Hotchkiss 9). He did this satirically and, therefore, no one batted an eye,—not the church and no other vassals and lords. His aberrant dressed appearance was meant to emphasize his masculine identity and reaffirm that even while altered, he was still an ideal masculine example. Ulrich performed acceptable cultural acts of masculinity, even in his guise of Venus, and did not perform sexual acts, which kept him safe in his role as a male. Both Silence and Ulrich protected their gendered form by either confirming or returning to their natural state, or as Karras notes, “identified people by behavior rather than by desire or orientation” (Common Women 12). What this does is create ambiguity that allows fluidity and this, in turn, translates to the idea of sodomy that would try to regulate these interactions. However, ambiguity creates room for the law not to know how to handle figures that do not conform to a standard.

The next figure presented is a sex worker, a profession that St. Augustine called a necessary evil. Prostitutes were compared to sewers, something disgusting but necessary, to help the society stay clean as a whole. Karras argues even the sanctioning of brothels by officials did not condone the improper actions of the women who were involved. What can also be argued and is quite acceptable is that, the “line between a respectable woman and a whore was a vague one” (Common Women 88). The prostitute, as Karras argues, provided a way to protect women from male sexual advances by being a wall between good women and indulgent sex.  Prostitutes already crossed the line by being an antithesis to Christianity as a profession of indulgent sex, yet they are considered a necessary profession for the protection of the community.

The only record of John/Eleanor Rykener is their inquisitorial arrest record; they were arrested in December of 1349 in London. Little is known of their life, and they have remained an enigma of gender studies that sits as an odd case. Rykener was a cross-dressing prostitute also known as Eleanor. They were questioned on two separate offenses, prostitution and sodomy. Rykener worked as an embroideress and a prostitute to make their living, and when they were arrested in December, they were caught still wearing their dress and performing fellatio. The record stated, “brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. Moreover, the Aldermen of the City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener, calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing” (Boyd and Karras 111).      The record first must demonstrate that John was calling himself Eleanor and that this was the state in which he was brought in. The record must also note that the one brought in, on questioning, is not female but draws special attention to the fact he is male. Next, they bring up his crime as sodomy and prostitution as, first and foremost, they must establish an ambiguous vice to bring him in on sodomy charges, such as  Rykner was “…found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice” (Boyd and Karras 105). The usage of vice over fellatio remains with medieval standard records on sodomy, as the acts cannot be described to ensure there is no replication of said acts.

As Karras states, Rykener was already on ambiguous grounds as, even with normative professions as women, the marker of a whore was present to be placed upon them. She iterates that, “the equation of laundress and whore was made. Both the prostitute and the laundress had some connection with filth, but laundresses most likely acquired a reputation for prostitution because they were among the few women who frequently came and went from all-male households” (Common Women 54). For Rykener, being an embroideress was a different job option, for if he visited males while in this profession there was still a likelihood that he would be considered a whore. Also, his need to work after the Black Death situated him in a woman’s profession, placing him on a strange ground of needing an income while being around other women who may have indulged in prostitution to offset their lack of monetary gain. This stigma was more accusatory than the cross-dressing nature, yet, there were no charges of sodomy brought on by prostitution itself. The most significant interest, however, is paid to his cross-dressing and not to the prostitution, as “Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act” (105).

During his interrogation, we learn a great deal about his sex life, where he prostituted himself to men and woman, including priests and nuns. He states that he first cross-dressed while in a needlework apprenticeship since, after the bubonic plague, it was quite common for boys to do this style of work. The record states that a woman, Anna, who inquisitors kindly call a whore, taught him this detestable act. What is interesting about this record is that, very much throughout the report, the inquisition tries to establish who taught him how to cross-dress, from accusing the servant of Thomas Blount to placing blame in Elizabeth Brodner. The record states, “[He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Brondner first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust. This places her with those men in their beds at night without a light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her” (111). This establishes the relation of Alice and Elizabeth as possible prostitutes, but again notes John may have misbehaved, though they also mention his behavior is  offset by the fact he was cross-dressing.

The inquisitor repeatedly situates John as a cross-dresser to show that he is going against performative gender standards and committing lewd acts, as a case of sodomy, which would not fully understand sexual orientation and for which it would be easier to relegate a punishment. John, however, is ambiguous in all regards. If John were merely a male prostitute, he would not be charged, as this profession was not fully denounceable and somewhat acceptable as a necessary evil within society. In his masqueraded form, John possibly performed normative procreative acts, which the records do not discuss, leaving out whether he was penetrating or penetrated, which makes it hard to draw a verdict against his behavior. As noted by Cordelia Beattie, “it is noticeable that, according to the record, the men had sex with him, whereas he had sex with the women” (156). Scholars also working on gender in the Middle Ages argue that, due to his relations with a male rector, there were motivations behind his prostitution, that he could have possibly blackmailed an enemy or be used as blackmail for having sex with him. Rykener could still be performing as Silence had, that they were performing according to the role they were in at that moment and therefore committing no sodomy acts as defined by the non-procreative definition. 

The record remains as ambiguous as it starts, as it tries more to situate Rykener’s accomplices in teaching him how to dress as a woman, than it does to determine with whom he was having sex. He even admits to readily accommodating priests because they paid him better than other clients. Furthermore, “Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others” (Boyd and Karras 112). But, the record talks more of his escapades dressing as a woman than of his shameful sex acts. Someone society deemed acceptable, such as priests and nuns, took indulgent pleasure and committed sodomy by the very definition. One can argue this is not argued further within the record because it would draw attention to the very backers of the inquisition and formation of sodomy laws and that is the church.

Ruth Karras believed Rykener was just like any other prostitute, creating a living and making money where they could when their profession did not pay enough, while others argue that he was a way to blackmail men. Either one knew that Rykner, in his female form, was male, or they fell prey to the act of sodomy, which was to accuse his sexual partner and threaten them, such as, “and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife of a certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him” (Boyd and Karras111). In the end, though, we never know if he was charged for his crimes; prostituting skirts a fine line of acceptance while still retaining the aspect of immorality. Rykener, therefore, already sits on ambiguous grounds as a prostitute, but his cross-dressed, meaning he took a cultural aspect of society and twisted it to charge Rykener with sodomy.  As stated earlier, the record is only interested in establishing Elizabeth and Alice as his accomplices, and placing Rykener in the form of a man dressed a woman, as opposed to with whom he was having sex. They also illuminate his actions, such as an instance where Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’s. When Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife of a certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back” (Boyd and Karras 111), focusing again on the gowns as opposed to the fact that the rector committed sodomy through indulgent sex. Remaining more interested in his cross-dressing, the court still skirts the line of ambiguity by making his acts in repeatable and not describing them, while using their interest in his cross-dressing as a means to show an action that they deemed unacceptable to society as a whole.

 Historians have dealt with Rykener by having him show as an example for medieval sexuality’s inability to form a solid definition of gender, and as a way to show that finding a punishment for cases of sodomy and gender was complicated since there were no strict laws against it.Rykener performed the procreative act with women, though it was indulgent, while he committed sodomy or same-sex desire with men.They were both male and female having two separate identities and a prostitute in both, leaving him in a vacuum between normative versus abnormal gendered behavior.He is an example of the medieval incapability to structure firm gender boundaries by either science or culture; the need for ambiguity leaves Rykener in a place of near safety, and freedom of the expression of abnormal sexual desire.

There was a safety for male abnormal sexual behavior, as opposed to that of women. Silence needed correction and Ulrich did not. For Rykener, they did not have to face punishment either for prostitution that was already morally a gray subject, nor for sodomy that did not have a clear definition.Sodomy could not accomplish its desired function, which was to regulate sexuality, due to its very nature and the idea of performative gender as an offset to biological gender to help define hierarchical roles.In the end, medieval gender was so ambiguous, undefinable, and faulty, that there was a level of freedom, dependent on the categorized gendered role an individual performed.


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Boyd, David Lorenzo and Ruth Mazo Karras, “`Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London.” Premodern Sexualities, edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero. Routledge, 1996, pp. 99-116.

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The Poetics of Nationhood and Empire

Turni Chakrabarti is a PhD candidate in the English Department at The George Washington University. Her dissertation is on disruptive widowhood in Bengali and British novels written during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, world literatures in English, the modern Bengali novel, gender and feminist theory, and comparative literature.


This paper argues that Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” show two distinct ways in which anxieties about British empire-building were articulated in the long eighteenth century. British poetry had always been invested in the political, but most literary historians agree that it was in the seventeenth century when poets began actively participating in political discourse. The rise of two-party politics in the seventeenth century had a tremendous impact on the lives and careers of British poets. Party affiliations could shape or destroy literary careers. It was not surprising, therefore, to see poets beginning to increasingly participate in contemporary political debates. The intensity of political commentary and engagement only increased in the eighteenth century, when the poets began to grapple with ideas of national identity and empire. Gray used the image of the vain, narcissistic, and luxury-obsessed woman in order to domesticate the imperial ideal and deflect the responsibility of the growth of mercantile capitalism. This also allowed for the articulation of the possibility of the prevention of moral, national, imperial, and civilizational decline. Barbauld, on the other hand, also used gendered formulations to show how the eventual fall and ruinous end of all nations, empires, and civilizations cannot be averted.

The Poetics of Nationhood and Empire: An Analysis of Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”

This paper argues that Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” show two distinct ways in which anxieties about British empire-building were articulated in the long eighteenth century (often seen as beginning from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and ending with the Battle of Waterloo in1815, and sometimes extending to the 1830s). While British poetry had always been invested in the political the seventeenth century saw poets actively participating in contemporary political debates. The rise of two-party politics had a tremendous impact on the lives and careers of British poets. Christine Gerrard notes that party politics, along with a sense of “dynastic uncertainty, shaped the lives of writers born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Wars” (7). Party affiliations could shape or destroy literary careers, and the various conflicts between the royalist Tories and the parliamentary Whigs featured prominently in contemporary poetry. The lapse of the Licensing Act of 1679 was followed by the proliferation of poetry of various kinds, including odes, satires, ballads, and panegyrics because, while e” (Gerrard 7). Poetry of the time was characterized by its satirical tone and its “immersion in the topical present” (Sitter 1). The intensity of political commentary and engagement only increased in the eighteenth century, when the poets began to grapple with ideas of national identity and empire. Gray and Barbauld both participate in this coalescing of the poetic and the political in “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” and “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” in two distinct ways that reveal their own positions.

Historians have pointed toward the 1707 Act of Union as a watershed moment for the creation and consolidation of the idea of Britishness. Linda Colley, in Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707 – 1837, argues that it was during this particular moment in history when there was a development of both the “language of Britishness and widespread through never uncontested or exclusive belief that the unit called Britain constituted…an umbrella, a shelter under which various groupings and identities could plausibly and advantageously congregate (xi-xii). She further claims that Great Britain, therefore, “became a workmanlike nation of sorts, albeit one that encompassed other, smaller nations” (xii). Colley further claims that Britain was “an invention forged above all by war,” and that Britain was only able to define itself in opposition to three specific identities:

They defined themselves as Protestants struggling for survival against the world’s foremost Catholic power. They defined themselves against the French as they imagined them to be, superstitious, militarist, decadent, and unfree. And increasingly as the wars went on, they defined themselves in contrast to the colonial peoples they conquered, people who were manifestly alien in terms of culture, religion, and colour. (Colley 5)

The 1707 Act of Union, consequently, was able to create a fertile ground for the establishment of Britain as a Protestant nation, containing within itself “distinctive Scottish, Welsh, and Irish allegiances,” and stand in opposition to Catholic France (Gerrard 8). Even as there were these attempts for the consolidation of national identity, the Whig/Tory divide under Queen Anne’s reign sharpened over issues of war, religion, and dynastic politics. Poetry written by eighteenth century poets was greatly impacted by these contradictions, and examining these fault lines has been generative, especially in the context of postcolonial studies. For example, Suvir Kaul, in Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century claims that “the formulaic or innovative ways in which poets were able to mobilize a rhetoric of (national) collectivity in their poetry only by repressing vital cultural, social, and economic contradictions” (9). Excavating some of these fascinating internal conflicts and debates allows us to get a sense of how British Empire imagined itself, and how the construction of the idea of Great Britain was influenced by poetry. Both Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), through their poetry, participated in and commented upon this national and imperial mythmaking process. It is interesting to see how both poets make use of gendered language, albeit in two very distinct ways, in “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” (1748) and “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) in order to make their shed light upon their concerns about Great Britain and its imperial power.

This use of gendered language to comment upon political issues in poetry was not limited to Gray and Barbauld, but was a significant feature of eighteen century British poetry. The political and the poetic often powerfully coalesced, and poems about national identity and empire proliferated in the literary landscape. Poetry of this period was accepted as not just “…a viable and even vital way of intervening in, and molding, public discourse” (Kaul Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 8).  The literary sphere had to develop innovative ways to describe the “the coming to global power of a puissant Britain, divinely ordained inheritor of the imperial and civilizational traditions of classical Europe” (Kaul 1-2). The poetry being written in the long eighteenth century, therefore, was the poetry of contemporary globalization, and the poets used language that was both triumphant and as well marked by a sense of anxiety. In fact, Kaul argues that the history of “English poetry in the long eighteenth century is best written as a history of poets’ attempts to endow the nation with literary, cultural, and iconic capital adequate to its burgeoning status as a global power (Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 18). One significant way in which poets in that era attempted to make sense of the rapidly increasing power of the British Empire was by comparing it to the empires of the past, and looking at the lessons that may be learnt from their eventual decay and downfall. As Francesco Crocco notes in his book Literature and the Growth of British Nationalism, this kind of imperial anxiety had “classical roots” and centered on the argument that “the sumptuary rewards of empire are corrosive luxuries that come at the high cost of impaired virtue and curtailed liberties” (The Influence of Romantic Poetry and Bardic Criticism 126). He notes that this rhetoric of anxiety may be traced back to the writings of Sallust, a Roman historian who argued that “the Roman Republic’s thirst for riches and glory led to the dictatorship of Sulla and eventually to the loss of republican freedoms under the dictatorship of the Caesars” (126). The declining empire was an extremely significant motif in the British cultural imagination in the long eighteenth century, and images of the ruins of previous empires continued to appear in poetry as well as prose. Numerous prose writings such as An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain (1721) by Bishop George Berkeley and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1776) focused on this trope of luxury and its role in national and imperial ruin. The idea of the eventual decay and degeneration of imperial powers was, as usual, linked with images of moral decline, usually resulting from greed, corruption, and an excessive desire for luxury. The excessive desire for luxurious goods was often portrayed as being gendered. Commodities such as rich silks and other textiles, porcelain, hand-painted wallpaper, perfumes, (which were procured through international trade and from the colonies) were linked not to colonial expansion and the rise mercantile capitalism, but to feminine vanity and moral dissipation.

            Poets in the eighteenth century were preoccupied with the ideas of moral and imperial decline resulting from greed and moral, political, and economic corruption. Christine Gerrard notes that Thomas Gray, “though a supporter of Pitt, a grandson of a wealthy East India merchant, and born into a Whig elite, remained reticent about “trade.” In this he shared the ambivalence, even hostility, of Oliver Goldsmith, for whom “Trade’s unfeeling train” was the source of national ruin” (19). Goldsmith’s 1770 poem, “The Deserted Village,” is invested in showing how the unchecked obsession with economic growth leads to the eventual decline of rural prosperity. A sense of profound loss pervades “The Deserted Village,” and the poem links “commercial prosperity with national corruption and the insidious growth of “luxury” (Gerrard 19). “The Deserted Village” was written precisely to comment on the negative consequences of the enclosure system, and its critique of the obsession with luxury is explicit. However, poems that were ostensibly about other topics were also often saturated with critical images and allusions to this sense of decay and degeneration. Concerns with the growing power of the British Empire and its effect on the moral character of the citizens of Great Britain pervaded the poetic imagination, and these themes appeared even in poems which were seemingly about different issues. Kaul notes that even certain these “continuities of images, themes, and worldviews” often extended into and structured private, occasional poems, turning these poems into “palimpsestic records of in the influence of empire on the poetic imagination” (Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire 223). A major impulse amongst poets writing in this time period was to link these ideas about luxury and its role in the eventual moral decay of national character with the image of the vain luxury-obsessed woman, and “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” by Thomas Gray is one such poem.

Composed in the year 1747 at Horace Walpole’s request, “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,” while formulated as a mock-heroic animal fable, perpetuates a gendered narrative about the imperial impulse. Laura Brown, in her book Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth Century Literature, examines how authors such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, among others, connected female luxury and capitalism in various ways. The targets of such formulations were rich women with access to luxury goods sourced from the colonies. She writes that mercantile capitalism itself, “with all its attractions as well as its ambiguous consequences, is attributed to women, whose marginality allows them to serve, in the writings of celebrants and satirists alike, as a perfect proxy or scapegoat” (119).  She further asserts that “female adornment becomes the main cultural emblem of commodity fetishism” (119). In his essay, “Why Selima Drowns: Thomas Gray and the Domestication of the Imperial Ideal,” Suvir Kaul builds upon Brown’s argument and to show how such a gendered depiction of greed was used to justify and legitimize the need for British overseas trade (225). This was done by implying that the reason for colonial mercantile expansion was the unending greed of luxury-obsessed British women. In fact, he notes that the “negative representations of “femaleness” and the female desires function as ideological surrogates for the playing out of the more anxious scenarios of imperial desire” (224). Gray’s poem, too, reinforces the idea that women were reckless, amoral, unthinking, and vain consumers of luxury goods. Such a portrayal enables this process of ideological surrogacy.

            By structuring “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” as a mock-heroic animal fable, Gray is able to use humor to disguise his perpetuation of the negative and gendered discourse about women’s role in the imperial impulse. Kaul notes that while Thomas Gray “was no jingoist… he was certainly part of the burgeoning, occasionally anxious, more usually bullish public scenario of British Empire that was materializing throughout the eighteenth century” (229). For Thomas Gray’s literary contemporaries, history had provided proof that moral laxity ultimately became the cause of imperial and civilizational decline, especially as shown by the fall of the Roman Empire. There was also a sense of hope that emerged from his engagement with history – many believed that the eventual fall of the nation and the empire could be avoided if lessons were learnt. Kaul asserts that it was this “predictive capacity that gave such theories of history a particular and partisan urgency in the eighteenth century” (228). The moral criticism in the “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” emerges from this very impulse of wanting to learn from the mistakes made by historical empires. However, the poem is also invested in displacing the blame for decay and degeneration onto the figure of the woman by reformulating the message in the form of an allegorical satire.

            From the very beginning of the poem, Selima the cat is styled as a vain and narcissistic woman who is on the brink of destruction but does not know it: “Demurest of the tabby kind, / The pensive Selima reclined, / Gazed on the lake below” (Gray 4-6). The poem introduces a number of easily recognizable tropes about female vanity by using words like “demurest” and “pensive.” Selima is clearly gazing at her own reflection, and that establishes her as a narcissistic figure. Gray goes on to describe Selima in humorous detail:

Her conscious tail her joy declared;

The fair round face, the snowy beard,

The velvet of her paws,

Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,

Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,

She saw; and purred applause. (7-12)

She is again likened to a beautiful woman who is aware of her beauty – “Her conscious tail her joy declared… She saw, and purred applause.” Images of decadent luxury are also introduced through her description. Like a well-adorned eighteenth century woman, Selima owes her beauty to the riches brought in via commercial enterprise. The colonial and imperial undertones are clear, and they only become stronger as the poem continues.

As Selima continues to gaze at her own reflection, she is distracted by something shiny in the tub. The images of luxury continue to appear – Selima is attracted by a hidden “golden gleam” amidst the “richest purple.” This sets the stage for her eventual downfall and demise. The stylistic choices made by Gray allow his poem to become part of the tradition of the systematic rewriting of masculine anxieties about the growth of mercantile capitalism into tales of the depravity of women. Kaul notes that even though the “potential awkwardness of such a rewriting is dissolved into heavily stylized textual play,” ideologically, the poem succeeds in doing what it aims to do” (“Why Selima Drowns” 229). This rewriting happens skillfully, as seen in the lines quoted below:

The hapless nymph with wonder saw:

A whisker first and then a claw,

With many an ardent wish,

She stretched in vain to reach the prize.

What female heart can gold despise?

What cat’s averse to fish? (19-24)

The last two lines of the stanza make the act of displacement clear. This act of displacement serves a two-fold purpose. Not only does it reinforce patriarchal normative codes about the behavior for women, it also creates a reductive and misleading narrative about the need for imperial expansion. Women are chided for being vain, greedy, and materialistic, and their desires are linked directly to the growth of mercantile capitalism. All this, being masked in humor and narrated as an animal fable, makes it all the more powerful.

            The next stanza describes Selima’s fall into the goldfish bowl, and Gray effectively makes use of the conventions of the mock-epic to make an important and normative ideological point. Selima is referred to as a “presumptuous maid” who is unable to gauge her own limits and makes a fatal mistake: “(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled) / The slippery verge her feet beguiled, / She tumbled headlong in” (28-30). Kaul argues that “the mock-heroic deploys an easily recognizable ethically normative discourse (Selima is a “Presumptuous maid” who tempts “Malignant fate”) even as the genre subverts, through an incongruous misapplication, the ponderous weight of such discourse” (“Why Selima Drowns” 228). The last stanza, quoted below, reinforces this moral formulation:

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,

Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,

And be with caution bold.

Not all that tempts your wandering eyes

And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;

Nor all that glisters, gold. (37-42).

The poem ends with this morally prescriptive message that again establishes the greed for luxury as a feminine failing. Thomas Gray was working within a tradition of anti-feminist formulations about mercantile capitalism, and earlier poems such as “The Rape of the Lock” (1714) by Alexander Pope helped in the establishment of this tradition.  Belinda in “The Rape of the Lock” is a beautiful and narcissistic woman whose dressing table is filled with symbols of the feminine obsession with luxurious goods:

Unnumber’d treasures ope at once, and here 

The various off’rings of the world appear; 

From each she nicely culls with curious toil, 

And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil. 

This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks, 

And all Arabia breathes from yonder box. 

The tortoise here and elephant unite, 

Transform’d to combs, the speckled and the white. (Pope 129-136)

In the first canto, Pope paints a picture of Belinda’s failings by describing in detail the “unnumber’d treasures” and the “glittering spoil” that she needs to adorn herself with in order to satisfy her vanity. Gems from India, ivory and tortoise-shell combs, letters from admirers, and the Bible all lie together on her dressing table: “Here files of pins extend their shining rows, / Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux” (137-138). By describing these objects as haphazardly lying together, Pope is able to create an image of moral dissipation. The colonies are reduced to the luxury goods that provide women like Belinda. Images of imperial excess and female vanity come together in a satirical tone, and the shifting of the burden and blame is complete (though indirect). Belinda becomes a symbol for the dangers that can arise from moral dissipation and an excessive focus upon the collection and enjoyment of luxurious goods. This is significant because this not just a comment on female vanity, but is a reflection of the anxieties surrounding imperial expansion.

Poems such as “The Rape of the Lock” and “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes,” perform an important function – they serve as texts of warning. Suvir Kaul writes that poems like these are able to “deflect, or reinflect, general arguments against “luxury” and moral corruption by retelling these arguments as tales of errant female figures [where]…social anxieties are focused-displaced onto, and contained by, a thematically appropriate negative construction of the female; (“Why Selima Drowns” 225) The anxiety surrounding the moral decline of the British people leading to the eventual political and historical decline of the British Empire, therefore, appears both implicitly and explicitly in the different forms of poetry being written in the long eighteenth century. The anxiety arising from the internal contradictions, conflicts, and fault lines pervades the poetic imagination. The iconography of moral, national, and imperial decline persisted in the British cultural imagination all through the long eighteenth century. While the iconography remained compelling and continued to reappear in various poetical works, the way in which it was formulated underwent many major changes. Examining the way in which the narrative of imperial and civilizational collapse appears in Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem” allows for tracing of these changes.

            Written during the peak of the Napoleonic campaigns, Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” uses the image of imperial and civilizational decline to participate in the contemporary public debates about the war. Anne K. Mellor, in her book, Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830, makes a number of interesting claims about the gendered divisions in the literary landscape. She writes that the long eighteenth century saw the establishment of the figure of the poetess who possessed feminine “music of her own” (69). The figure of the poetess was guided by certain conventions, including

The insistence on the primacy of love and the domestic affections to a woman’s happiness, the rejection or condemnation of poetic fame, the embracing of Edmund Burke’s aesthetic of “the beautiful” as the goal for female literary desire, and the acceptance of the doctrine of the separate spheres. (Mellor 70)

Barbauld, like Charlotte Smith and Hannah More, belonged to a group of female poets who rejected the conventions of the “poetess” in order to write about socio-cultural, political, and economic issues of the day. Female poets wrote extensively about war, but were expected to limit their poetic explorations to a lamentation of war-time losses, while also reinforcing the need to fight for the honor and glory of the nation (Behrendt 6-7). Behrendt goes on to note that this sentimental pro-war approach, teeming with nationalist pride, when taken by many female poets such as Maria de Fleury, Barbara Hoole, and Isabella Lickbarrow, was praised by contemporary critics. On the other hand, “women’s more overtly oppositional voices and poems often incurred the conservative moral and political establishment’s wrath” (9). Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” being a clearly anti-war poem, met with wrath and was deemed “treacherous” and “unfilial” (Behrendt 9).

Numerous literary historians have looked into what may have influenced Barbauld’s prophetic visions about the fate of the British Empire, and many of them now agree that Barbauld critiques the idea of imperial power itself. While Goldsmith and Gray had a sense of optimism about the possibility of learning from past mistakes and suitably modifying national character to prevent civilizational decline, Barbauld seems to imply that both national and civilizational decline is always inevitable. In “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” she begins by invoking the image of death and national failure: “To the stern call still Britain bends her ear, / Feeds the fierce strife, the alternate hope and fear; / Bravely, though vainly, dares to strive with Fate…” (3-5). Barbauld’s skeptical view of the success of nations may be gauged by her opinion about other emerging nation-states. William McCarthy finds that this skepticism about nationalism and empire made her take an inevitably “more accurate” view of the United States of America: “Will they be wise by our experience, peaceable, moderate, virtuous? No: they will be learned by our learning, but not wise by our experience. Each country, as each man, must buy his own experience”” (54).

The skepticism briefly referenced by McCarthy becomes the focus of Jessie Reeder’s article “A World Without “Dependent Kings”: “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” and the Forms of Informal Empire.” She notes that at the time Anna Barbauld was composing “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” “Latin America was beginning to revolt against Spain, creating a flurry of transatlantic activity” (561-562). The Latin American revolution, according to Reeder, participated in the reorganization of the Atlantic network in two major ways: “it shifted control of the Americas from Spain to Britain, and it made way for informal empire to step out of the shadow of territorial colonialism as a unique and perhaps even more effective means of overseas dominance” (562). Reeder argues that “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” is interested in using current geopolitical occurrences as conduits for envisioning the future (and the end of) the British Empire:

The poem’s infamous final line precisely encapsulates the paradoxical tension between freedom and subjugation that was circulating within new discussions of informal empire: “Thy world, Columbus, shall be free.” This line ascribes ownership of Latin America to the peninsular empire – “Thy world, Columbus” – while simultaneously asserting liberty from it – “shall be free.” The words “thy” and “free,” bookending the phrase, figure the duality of Latin America as both a possession of, and a rejection of, Europe. (581)

By moving between the present and the future, Barbauld is able to situate herself as a prophetic voice and a visionary. Barbauld’s poetic project in “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” is three-fold. She aims “to describe the dismal state of affairs in 1811, to identify what went wrong, and finally to explore what will happen after Britain loses its status as a seat of civilization” (Favretti 99). The poem uses the present to bring into the focus the “very nature of history and its inevitable structures…[and Barbauld] becomes both historian and historiographer” (Reeder 569).

“Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” uses national history to critique short-sighted nationalism, and warns that pride comes before a fall:

So sing thy flatterers; but, Britain, know,
Thou who hast shared the guilt must share the woe.
Nor distant is the hour; low murmurs spread,
And whispered fears, creating what they dread;
Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here (45-49)

Barbauld’s warning about ruin resulting from excessive pride and greed is also gendered, but in a very different way. Favretti argues that she “uses the tone of the morally responsible woman of the house to further the classical notion of virtue in a constant battle with corruption” (103). The poem questions the need for Britain’s war with France, and Barbauld makes a gendered distinction about war when she uses the images of famine and disease to talk about military activity. The masculinist need for military violence and cruelty is portrayed as leading to the withering away of feminine Nature:

Bounteous in vain, with frantic man at strife,
Glad Nature pours the meansthe joys of life;
In vain with orange blossoms scents the gale,
The hills with olives clothes, with corn the vale; (11-14)

Even as feminine Nature works hard to create a fruitful and fecund country, masculine War makes all this effort pointless. While the poem is specifically about the Napoleonic campaigns, it presents a prophecy that is both ahistorical and rooted in history. It is about the impending apocalypse that no nation-state, empire, or civilization can escape. Her nuanced understanding of the horrors of war becomes clear in the following lines:

The sword, not sickle, reaps the harvest now,
And where the Soldier gleans the scant supply,
The helpless Peasant but retires to die; 
No laws his hut from licensed outrage shield,
And war’s least horror is the ensanguined field. (18-22)

Barbauld announces the end of British imperial progress – “thy Midas dream is o’er; / The golden tide of commerce leaves thy shore” (Barbauld 61-62). Even as Barbauld lists all the noteworthy poetical and philosophical achievements of the British nation-state (she mentions Shakespeare and Newton, among others), she envisions a moment in history where the ruins of the British Empire will be looked at by tourists from other countries, and “England, the seat of arts, be only known / By the gray ruin and the mouldering stone” (123-124). She describes how transatlantic tourists will one day walk the streets of London, “Where through each vein spontaneous plenty flowed, / Where Wealth enjoyed, and Charity bestowed,” and look at its faded glory (167-168).

Mellor asserts that for Barbauld, it is the failure to preserve “Liberty” that leads to the fall of the British Empire:

Wherever the “Spirit” of liberty walks, “the human brute awakes … thinks … reasons … feels finer wants” and cultivates with Nature’s blessings “the flowers of Genius and of Art”… But when freedom is sacrificed to the demands of war or commerce, then the “Genius” of liberty “forsakes the favoured shore,” “empires fall to dust … and wasted realms enfeebled despots sway. (Mellor 79)

Mellor, in her analysis of “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” seeks to excavate Barbauld’s political opinions and show how Barbauld’s radicalism influenced her understanding of imperial decline. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest and Economic Crisis by E. J. Clery also seeks to recuperate the legacy of Barbauld’s political thought and bring attention to the important role she played in contemporary economic, social, and political conversations.  This book sets out to dismantle the myth that Barbauld’s career was destroyed by John Wilson Croker’s negative review. Clery notes that Croker’s review did not end Barbauld’s career; in fact, she continued to write and publish till her death. Furthermore, he suggests that the poem was a calculated and specific attack on pro-war conservatives, and the fact that it served its immediate purpose is proven by the negative reaction to it. He argues that the poem was “…not a lone cry of despair, but was part of a collective anti-war movement…[led by a] large, informal but well-organized body of protesters” (231). He notes that since the poem was “written in protest against an economic crisis worsened by the government war policy and was opposed specifically to the system of trade blockades known as the ‘Orders in Council’” and that the review was written by one of the most prominent government defenders of the policy, the review itself may be seen as “the best evidence we have that Anna Letitia Barbauld’s tactic of satirical subversion hit its mark” (228). Clery establishes Barbauld as a prominent and influential public intellectual and Eighteen Hundred and Eleven as a specific political attack on pro-war conservatives such as Croker. By moving away from a sentimental and domestic approach to war (as was expected of female poets), and by reversing the gendered formulation of the imperial impulse through the framing mercantile greed as masculine, Barbauld is able to make a pointed political statement about not only the futility of war but also its socio-economic and cultural ramifications.

As we have seen, British poets writing in the long eighteenth century found various ways of incorporating their anxieties about their national identity and their role as a global power into their work, and they often made use of gendered language to comment upon these issues. Gray (and Pope) used the image of the vain, narcissistic, and luxury-obsessed woman in order to domesticate the imperial ideal and deflect the responsibility of the growth of mercantile capitalism. Barbauld, on the other hand, also used gendered formulations, but in order to highlight how the eventual fall and ruinous end of all nations, empires, and civilizations cannot be averted. This gendered reversal in “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” allowed Barbauld to restore the idea of the feminine as being bountiful, fecund, and life-affirming (as opposed to being the source of moral decay and degeneration). Moreover, by moving away from a limited formulation that scapegoated individual women as unthinking consumers of colonial goods, she was able to establish a more politically and historically astute understanding of the growth and the dangers of mercantile capitalism and aggressive imperialism. Reading these poems together allows us to interrogate the ways in which the feminine has been portrayed in British poetry, and how these gendered notions affected the rhetoric around nation and empire-building.

Works Cited

Barbauld, Anne Letitia. “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, A Poem.” UPenn Digital Library. digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barbauld/1811/1811.html. Accessed 16 December 2018.

Behrendt, Stephen C. “Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writing in the Romantic Period, edited by Devoney Looser, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 1–15.

Brown, Laura. Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth Century Literature. Cornell University Press, 1993. Google Books. Accessed 15 December 2018.

Clery, E.J. Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest and Economic Crisis. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707 – 1837. Yale University Press, 1992.

Crocco, Francesco. Literature and the Growth of British Nationalism: The Influence of Romantic Poetry and Bardic Criticism. McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014.

Favretti, Maggie. “The Politics of Vision: Anna Barbauld’s ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’.” Women’s Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain. Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, pp. 99-110.

Gerrard, Christine. “Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party.” A Companion to Eigheenth-Century Poetry. Blackwell Publishing, 2006, pp. 7-22.

Gray, Thomas. “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes.” Thomas Gray Archive. www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=odfc. Accessed 6 May 2020.

Kaul, Suvir. Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century. University Press of Virginia, 2000. Print.

—. “Why Selima Drowns: Thomas Gray and the Domestication of the Imperial Ideal.” PMLA Vol. 105, No. 2. (March 1990), pp. 223-232. PDF File.

McCarthy, William. “How Dissent made Anna Letitia Barbauld, and what she made of Dissent.” Religious Dissent and the Aikin – Barbauld Circle 1740-1860 Eds. Felicity James and Ian Inkster. Cambridge University Press, 2012. PDF File.

Mellor, Anne K. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830. Indiana University Press, 2000. PDF File.

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/ poems/44906/the-rape-of-the-lock-canto-1. Accessed 5 May 2020.

Reeder, Jessie. “A World Without “Dependent Kings”: “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” and the Forms of Informal Empire.” Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 53, No. 4 (2014), pp. 561-590. PDF File.

Sitter, John. The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth Century Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2001. PDF File.

Metaphor, Melancholia, and Soft Resistance in Judith Herzberg’s Common Language Poetry

Emma van Meyeren is a graduate student of Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is interested in feminist, queer and decolonial studies of prose and poetry. She graduated from the Liberal Arts and Sciences program at Utrecht University and spent a semester studying feminist and black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Currently she is working on an analysis of water metaphors in the work of Astrid H. Roemer, forthcoming in the Routledge publication “Women and Water in Global Literature.”


Metaphor’s most famous critic, Susan Sontag, argued that the metaphorization of illnesses strips them from their real and serious meanings and transforms them into moral judgments. “Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one” (62), she writes in Illness as Metaphor. Some language doesn’t benefit from its abstraction into a metaphor because it conceals dominant ideologies in deceptive and effective ways. Through similar encounters with the entanglements of language and ideology, modern poets have experimented widely with plain, common and everyday language. This essay will consider how the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg resists the exploitation of trauma with common language poetry by analyzing the relationships of concrete language with metaphor and melancholia. In turn, creating a poetics of soft resistance that shows the magic of the mundane and vice versa.

Metaphor, Melancholia, and Soft Resistance in Judith Herzberg’s Common Language Poetry

1. Judith Herzberg and Parlandism

           In 1963, at the age of 29, Judith Herzberg published her first collection of poetry, Zeepost. Over her decades spanning career she published over fifteen different poetry collections and several plays. She won almost every Dutch literary price and her verse can be found in public spaces around the Netherlands, such as on the facade of the Amsterdam Academy of the Arts.

            Her poetry has been categorized as ‘parlandistic’ (Reitsma 274), a poetic genre named after the French verb ‘parler’ meaning ‘to speak’. According to the Dutch lexicon of literary terms the parlandistic approach is known for the desire to create an “understandable style” that is created by everyday, plain language. Moreover, parlandistic poetry is generally “suspicious of pretty words or strongly metaphoric use of language known as ‘experimental’ poetry” (Parlandopoëzie, parlandisme). Parlandists instead prefer to use realistic and concrete language. In Herzberg’s poetry, the use of plain language often results in short poems with narrow sentences, that are created through a slow and precise process, about which she said: “I once saved the drafts of one poem. About one kilogram in paper, I think” (Het maken 41).

            Herzberg’s father, Abel Herzberg, is the author of Tweestromenland, a diary that chronicles his experiences in the concentration camps during the Second World War. Judith says she has never been able to finish it, “it makes me too angry, to read what has happened.” (VPRO Marathoninterview). While references to her Jewish identity and the trauma of the Second World War can surely be found in her work, most of her poetry is distinctly devoid of direct references to such personal experiences or its political implications. This does not mean her poetry lacks an introspective sensibility. Her style can feel deeply personal and intimate. By zooming in on small details and everyday occurrences she creates a unique mix of the mundane and the magical, such as in the following poem, taken from her debut:

            THE FULL LIFE

                        Should we

                        she said


                        in a large bed

                        in a hotel-


                        go lie down

                        with pajamas

                        on and

                        ask the servant

                        to bring

                        cake? (Zeepost, 1963).                                                                             

            Beginning with her first publication, one of Herzberg’s preferred forms is to divide the words of a single sentence over several lines, creating a short concise poem. ‘The full life’ is an example of the way she creates harmony through the sentence divided over several lines, in this case forming a question. Spaces like ‘room’ and actions like ‘lying down’ are carefully considered in such lines. Their images can present themselves independently. The poem could have been an ordinary sentence in a novel, but finds completely new meanings in this form, by radically zooming into detail. It is unbelievable at times how such few words can open so many worlds in the imagination. Herzberg’s later poems are almost indistinguishable from her early work (Wetzel 197), as themes, concerns and forms continue to return. Although a consistent style runs the risk of becoming formulaic she avoids expectations, cliché’s and formulas, to develop a distinct voice that continues to surprise.

2. Metaphor and Concrete Language

           Indeed, much of Herzberg’s approach is characterized exactly by an aversion of formulating an overarching poetics. She is known for refusing to put her general attitude towards poetry into words (Burger 244). A good example of this can be found in the notes she published of a poetry writing course she taught between 1976 and 1977 in The Hague, titled Het maken van gedichten en het praten daarover [The making of poems and speaking about it]. While generally ambivalent about the possibility of teaching poetry, she is genuinely intrigued by the varying motivations of her students to join. An interesting reflection that speaks to her wider attitude on poetry happens when she is critical of a student that uses ‘Auschwitz’ in one of their poems. She writes: “I ask her to write the poem again but instead of using Auschwitz using a very exact description of what she tried to summarize with that word. I’m not sure what I should do and I try to be very careful in explaining to her that I find these words “too easy”, however difficult the meaning of the word is” (12).

            While Herzberg is generally against expressing an overarching view on poetry, she is very outspoken about this specific example. It seems that Herzberg, in a similar way to Sontag, recognizes a word that we would not necessarily consider a metaphor, through its metaphoric effect. Auschwitz, in Herzberg’s reflection, is a word that summarizes, while in order to convey the seriousness of what it summarizes, it deserves a more exact, more direct wording. What is already felt through Herzberg’s poetic sensibility is in such reflections also made explicit: the refusal to use certain forms of political language, in Herzberg’s poetry, should not be mistaken for a desire to write apolitically. In fact, her poetry is highly political exactly because it refuses to use summarizing language such as the metaphor.

            Metaphor, in this context, is not limited by language we instantly recognize as metaphoric. The instant and formulaic language created by cliché’s like birds as symbols of freedom, heat predicting desire and lions standing in for strength, are only the tip of the iceberg of the domain of the metaphor. With wrong intentions and unskillful placement any word can be a suspect of metaphor. In her notes on the poetry workshop Herzberg reflects on her drive to continue to find words that can defy this, and the role plain language plays in her search:

Often I have doubts about the use of the workshop. I wonder why looking for the right word, for the word that comes closest to the intention, is useful. Suddenly I know very sure that it is useful, and I also know why the concentration of the students moves me so much: it is an homage to the world, to reality, it is a way to become intimate with that reality. Even if poems don’t succeed in doing that, or don’t work in other ways, they are still attempts at “working on” an effort I find worthwhile. How do we distance ourselves as much as possible from the cliché’s that obstruct our view? (44)

The concrete and common language of her poetry is thus by no means an impersonal style or concerned only with small or everyday topics. Rather, Herzberg’s language shows that any concern, big or small, can be accessed and described through the everyday. Which in turn shows that the everyday itself is complicated and political. She questions deeply the dichotomies between personal and political, between abstract and concrete, between the everyday and the extraordinary.

3. Deceptive Simplicity

            ALMOST NEVER

                        Almost never you see a bird in the sky

                        changing its mind, swing, back.

                                                                                                From: Dagrest (1984)

Take for instance the poem “Almost never.” The observation about birds never suddenly turning is seemingly simple. Critics have described this simplicity as deceptive (de Conick 550, de Boer 10). However, such a claim might take the general deceptive power of all language for granted. Rather than suspecting Herzberg’s common language of having hidden layers of meaning, her poetry sets the terms for a general suspicion of the capacity of language to have a singular and clear meaning. It questions the opportunity of any form of language to express meaning directly and transparently.

            Poems like “Almost never” gently propose the possibility of several meanings. Gently, because the poem can also be read and enjoyed at face value. It is not forceful about its complexity. Indeed, the motions of birds in itself are worthy of humble observation and description. At the same time, there is more happening in this tiny poem than just an observation. The title of the collection Dagrest [Dayrest] comes from Sigmund Freud’s work on Tagesreste. Tagesreste are the memories that come back in every dream about the “experiences of the day that has just ended”. Freud believes those recent memories, the “leftovers” of the day, are of essential influence on the subconscious wishes that formulate dreams. They create subconscious desires, are activated by the residue of the day and always remain unfulfilled in the dream. This gives them an especially big psychological intensity. Even if they are relatively irrelevant frustrations, according to Freud their innocent impulse can trigger more deeply hidden desires and disappointments. Building a plain language collection of poetry on such a theory instantly shows that it is not uncalled for to dig deeper when we encounter something as innocent as an observation of birds.

            “Almost never’”allows us, gently, to think about flocks and individualism. About free will and directions. About flying, floating, tilting and keeping course. And about returning, coming home, either finished and accomplished or not at all. Simultaneously, none of these associations allow a singular allegorical reading of the original observation. If the poem represents hidden desires or deeper meanings, it rather portrays the general feeling of such desires than any desire in particular. If the everyday, concrete and common observations of Herzberg’s poetry are understood as the tagesreste, the residue of the experience, then it is up to the reader to figure out which subconscious desires they trigger, rather than figuring out what the subconscious desires of the poet might be.

            This is not to say that there is not any possibility of reading Herzberg’s poetry autobiographically. Indeed, the author is not dead and Herzberg’s experiences with second-generation trauma can be read into her work. It is not a pretension of absence of such realities that cleared most explicit references to these traumas from her poetry. It is rather the abundance of them that gave way to this style. As Herzberg explains in an interview: “My mind is almost always occupied with the war and fear. My aversion of generalizations, generalization, generals, masses, ceremonies, ideology, probably has something to do with that. I can never forget the fear, and I think that’s a stupid preoccupation, that I would love to get rid of” (Burger 245). Maybe her poetry is dedicated to the common and the concrete exactly because her mind is preoccupied by the exceptional and the abstract. In any case, the two are shown to be in complex and intimate relationships with each other, not as hierarchical or as a solution to each other, but as each other’s necessary companions on the road to observation and interpretation.

4. Metaphor and Melancholia

           In her study of Dutch women poets and the literary system, Maaike Meijer interprets allegorical readings of Herzberg’s poetry as readings that “put a halt to [the poems] meaning” (88). Instead of simplifying the meanings of Herzberg’s poetry in this way, she argues that Herzberg “complifies” meaning: a neologism she introduces to describe the opposite of simplification. Meijer calls for a reading of her poetry that resists interpretation through the deduction of a singular, hidden meaning. Instead she proposes a reading that allows multiple meanings provided by continued contemplation so that the poem is “not abstracted into an ‘idea’ but keeps its images in full tension. So the poem is not frozen into a ‘thought’ but instead “heated up and pulled out of the realm of the normal” (94).

            The common language of Herzberg’s poetry thus demands to be read in a straightforward manner. If it stays clear of any obvious metaphors then this might highlight how a replacement of meaning can cause a reduction of meaning. In Herzberg’s poetry, reduction is made impossible. In that sense, despite her own wariness of such grand statements, her poetry does seem to take an ethical position towards her personal trauma and the political ramifications of both past and present forms of anti-Semitism. Even beyond the obvious observation that not describing such personal and political issues might be a comment on the inability to put them into words, more specifically the non-metaphoric everyday language resists the reduction of meanings into meaning. Take one of her most recent works:


                        the unwillingness

                        to make

                        a fist

                        unites. (Vormen van gekte, 2019).

            Exactly because the boundary between metaphoric and non-metaphoric language is unstable, Herzberg’s common language poetry benefits of extreme concreteness. In this poem from her most recent collection Vormen van gekte an allegorical reading would associate fists with violence and order. However, due to the very concrete style, bound in the present and singular tense, the poem still manages to steer away from complete allegorization. Its specificity demands a literal reading, one that keeps metaphorization at bay.

           The concreteness of Herzberg’s language is not only characterized by everyday objects and observations, they are equally created through a temporality that binds the language to the “now”. They are observations that would never reveal their origins in memory, instead always described as something that is observed in the moment. In his study on the origins of German tragic drama, Walter Benjamin describes the relationship between symbols and allegory through similar temporal terms. His analysis of metaphorical language is concerned with how “the mystical instant becomes the ‘now’ of contemporary actuality” (183). In turn, he describes how the gaze of melancholy drives life out of allegories, how through melancholy the allegory is “quite incapable of emanating any meaning or significance on its own” (183). Benjamin describes a relationship between metaphorization and melancholia that takes the deadening effect of metaphor as serious as Sontag did. Not only are cliché metaphors unable to let complex meanings flow, they also give far too much power away from the language towards the reader. It seems that language that resists allegory doesn’t just resist its simplification but resists a more comprehensive form of power. Concreteness becomes a matter of language’s independence. It sets the writing free.

            By sticking to current observations and staying away from (overt) memory, Herzberg’s poems are grounded in the present. In an interview, Herzberg said that “writing about the past had always been my father’s task: it was his terrain. Knowing that someone else was taking care of the past, I could occupy myself with different things” (de Boer 9) Herzberg’s plain language is incredibly loyal to the now. It refuses to be stuck in metaphoric language, rejecting a melancholic gaze.

5. A Poetics of Soft Resistance

           This is not to say there is no affective relation to the future or past in Herzberg’s poetry. Even if the poems are dedicated to the present—when they speak about such common and detailed issues as cake and pajamas, flying birds and fists—her clever and brave observations about these details of everyday life makes both the writer and the reader an active observant.

           As Herzberg’s commitment to the now has been illustrated by her non-metaphorical and non-melancholic language, and her commitment to the reader is described through her aversion of explicit personal or political references, her poetry can be understood as resisting the exploitation of personal or shared trauma as a way to assert the severity and reality of systematic pain and oppression by insisting on concrete observations. By sticking to those details that can be observed and described.

           There is no hiding in the thickness of a metaphorical abstraction, the spaces of Herzberg’s poetry are minimalistic and offer no place for cover. In that sense, the concreteness might obstruct interpretation in general. If, like Susan Sontag, we understand interpretation to be “based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content” (Against Interpretation 10), then Herzberg expands on details so we are forced to continuously encounter this problem. We remain at its edges.

           A reading that limits to the content of the poems would find them to be innocent and aloof. It cannot be denied that the ordinary and sweet observations of everyday life that abound in Herzberg’s work are not explicit about her attitude to the political realm of her life and work. It would be too easy to claim that Herzberg defies such expectations entirely through her dedication to the non-metaphoric. Although her bright use of language does question such expectations, and surely creates space to consider common, soft and sweet occurrences as heavily defiant of social or political norms.

            Instead, I would propose to approach the relationship between her poetry and the political in a similar paradoxical way as her approach to metaphor. Instead of seeing her language as specifically suspicious of direct meaning, all language is incapable of meaning one thing. Likewise, instead of approaching the common, concrete and everyday as specifically aloof or apolitical, all ideas and observations are both political and personal, magical and mundane. After four decades of thinking with and through that paradox, Herzberg has created a unique, soft poetics of resistance.  

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. London: Verso Books, 2009.

Burger, Peter en Jaap de Jong. “Een afkeer van generalisaties en generaals. Een interview met Judith Herzberg.” Literatuur, vol. 3, 1986, pp. 243-248.

De Boer, Nico. “Alles via een omweg: Vrienden en collega’s over leven en werk van Judith Herzberg.” Awater, vol. 6, 2007, pp. 8-11.

De Coninck. “Over de troost van pessimisme.” Tirade, vol. 24, 1980, pp. 549-570.

Freud, Sigmund. De droomduiding. Trans. W. Oranje. Amsterdam: Boom Uitgeverij, 1999.

Herzberg, Judith. Dagrest. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij van Oorschot, 1984

Herzberg, Judith. Het maken van gedichten en het praten daarover. Den Haag: Uitgeverij BZZToH, 1977.

Herzberg, Judith. VPRO Marathon interview. Published 29 December 2012. <https://www.vpro.nl/speel~POMS_VPRO_197498~judith-herzberg-uur-1-vpro-marathoninterview~.html>

Herzberg, Judith. Vormen van gekte. Amsterdam: De Harmonie, 2019.

Herzberg, Judith. Zeepost. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij van Oorschot, 1963.

“Parlandopoëzie, parlandisme.” Lexicon van literaire termen. 2013. <http://www.litterm.co.za/index.php/lemmas/33-p/1103-parlandopoezie-parlandisme>

Meijer, Maaike. “De ontwrichting van Judith Herzberg.” De lust tot lezen: Nederlandse dichteressen en het literaire systeem. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Sara, 1988, pp. 78-102.

Reitsma, Anneke. “Medeplichtigheid aan het leven: Nieuwe poezie van Judith Herzberg.” Ons Erfdeel, vol. 40, 1997, pp. 274-276.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin, 2009.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. London: Penguin, 1988.

Wetzel, René. “Over enkele motieven in de poezie van Judith Herzberg.” Literatuur, vol. 4,

1987, pp. 197-204. Print.

Exile and Belonging in Alvarez and Pineau

Laura Williamson gained her undergraduate degree in French and Hispanic Studies from Queen Mary, University of London in 2003. She then taught French and Spanish at secondary school level in the U.K. before moving to California in summer 2018 and embarking on the Comparative and World Literature master’s program at San Francisco State University. She works with world literatures in English, in addition to Francophone and Hispanic literary traditions, and she is particularly drawn to post-colonial prose fiction. Her research interests include literature of migration and diaspora, as well as trauma, memory and healing. She is currently researching Caribbean migration narratives.  


In their respective semi-autobiographical novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and L’Exil selon Julia, the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez and the French Guadeloupean writer Gisèle Pineau both explore the themes of cultural hybridity, the pain of exile, and the search for a sense of belonging through their characters’ experiences of immigration to the United States and France from their homelands of the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe, respectively. In this paper, I examine the extent to which the two novelists subscribe to a “myth of return” and present the idea that a return to one’s cultural roots is the cure-all for a migrant’s sense of displacement. Focusing on the narrative voice and structure of the novels, I compare the representation of the difference generational voices portrayed by the two writers, as well as the presentation of their characters’ experiences of exile and quest for a sense of identity. In addition, I explore Pineau’s examination of the enduring colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe and show how it is portrayed as central to her characters’ inability to integrate into French society. Ultimately, Alvarez presents an ambiguous and nuanced picture of the return to the homeland as the remedy for her characters’ sense of displacement, which is in turn reflected in her circular narrative. In contrast, it is the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe in Pineau’s novel which determines the direction of her narrative and, therefore, her utopian portrayal of the myth of return at the end of her text, highlighting the lasting legacies of colonization on displaced populations.

Exile and Belonging in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Gisèle Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia

In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) the Dominican-American writer, Julia Alvarez, tells the story of the García family, who in 1960, (in similar circumstances to the author herself), are forced to move from their home in the Dominican Republic to the United States to escape the Trujillo dictatorship; through this depiction she considers the issue of discrimination, the difficulty of assimilation, the pain of exile and the search for a sense of belonging. Gisèle Pineau, the French-born writer of Guadeloupean origin explores the same themes as Alvarez in her semi-autobiographical novel, L’Exil selon Julia (Exile according to Julia) (1996). The narrator, a young girl living with her Guadeloupean family in Paris, endures racism and exclusion from French society due to the color of her skin. Pineau examines the themes of exile and belonging through the character of Julia, the narrator’s grandmother, who emigrates from Guadeloupe to live with the family in Paris, offering the narrator a connection to her cultural roots in her quest for a sense of identity. Both Alvarez and Pineau, who are themselves second-generation immigrants, offer us textualizations of the immigrant experience¹ from the perspectives of the different generations of the families in their novels. Both novels also illustrate the deep cultural divide between France and Guadeloupe, and the Dominican Republic and the United States, respectively exploring the sense of alienation and cultural hybridity that this engenders in the protagonists.

When comparing the two texts, I use the following questions taken from Susan Ireland’s and Patrice J. Proulx’s introduction to Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France to focus my analysis: “Given the fact that [these] immigrant writers are dealing with multiple and conflicting sites of home, is a reconciliation with their origins possible or even desirable?”;  “Do they subscribe to a myth of return?”; and  “How do they position themselves in relation to notions such as assimilation, integration and the right to difference?” (3). Through comparison of these two novels, I will posit that Alvarez’ and Pineau’s fundamental message is the following: exile from one’s homeland causes a rupture in one’s sense of identity, producing a profound sense of loss and trauma. I will also demonstrate to what extent the two writers subscribe to a myth of return – how their differing choices of narrative voices and structures have a bearing on how possible they believe it is to heal from this trauma of exile through a return to one’s cultural roots. In addition, I will explore the contrasting portrayals of France and United States as countries of exile in the novels, examining, in particular, the colonial discourse explored in Pineau’s novel.

In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez narrates the story from the point of view of the four García sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofía – as well as their parents, Laura and Carlos, and the various chapters have subheading which, as Silvio Sirius indicates,  “reveal whom the chapters are about, and (…) don’t always coincide with the narrative point of view ” (22).  This structural choice, creating chapters focused on the various sisters’ and parents’ experiences of exile, allows Alvarez to detail how exile and the subsequent quest for identity affects the characters differently, highlighting the generational difference between the girls and their parents. Overall, though, the voice of the third sister, Yolanda, dominates as her point of view occupies five of the fifteen chapters, and the novel both begins and ends with her story, suggesting hers is the principal perspective. I will explore these various perspectives, focusing on Yolanda’s voice in order to examine Alvarez’s message about exile and return to one’s homeland. In addition, as Silvio Sirius also reveals, Alvarez plays with various narrative voices in the novel, skipping between first-person narrator, third-person omniscient and third-person limited narrator throughout the novel; and we will see the influence this has on the message of her text.

In terms of how the structure of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents presents the theme of belonging, it is also important to note the chronology of the novel. The events in the novel are told in reverse chronological order and the narrative is split into three parts: in Part 1, set between 1989 and 1972, we are presented with the sisters’ lives as young adults in the U.S. and their experiences in college as they negotiate American culture; Part 2, set between 1960 and 1970, traces their adolescent years growing up in the U.S. with frequent trips back to see their family in the Dominican Republic; and Part 3, set between 1960 and 1956, details their comfortable childhood on the island as wealthy Dominicans, and their traumatic departure when their father’s life is in danger from the Trujillo regime. The opening chapter is told through a limited third-person narrator recounting Yolanda’s return to the island as an adult in a quest to reconnect with her cultural roots and find a place where she feels at home. As she spends time with the strong women in her Dominican family, the narrator gives us insight into Yolanda’s desires for a sense of belonging: “Let this turn out to be my home, Yolanda wishes” (11). From the beginning, therefore, Alvarez’s narrator communicates a sense of loss and rootlessness caused by exile, coupled with a desire to return home.

In his study of contemporary immigrant fiction in America, David Cowart remarks that one of the general features of fiction in this category is that “[t]he immigrant must deal with prejudice and homesickness but eventually becomes empowered by a new American identity” (7). This is certainly the case for the four young García sisters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. After moving to New York, they initially feel a deep sense of loss and terrible homesickness for the island of their childhood. On the anniversary of their first year in the States, for example, the eldest daughter Carla thinks to herself, just before the candle is blown out on the flan baked to mark the occasion, “What do you wish for on the first celebration of the day you lost everything?” (Alvarez 150). She yearns for “the lush grasses and thick-limbed, wine-laden trees around the compound back home” (151), comparing them favorably to the “little green squares around each look-alike house” in the Long Island neighborhood where they now live, which seem “more like carpeting that had to be kept clean than yards to play in” (151). The sisters also endure racist abuse: they are called “dirty spics” and are told to go back where they have come from by classmates and neighbors alike; they have stones thrown at them at school; and they are ridiculed for their accents. Initially, therefore, they feel that they do not belong in this new country. However, even though they yearn to go back to the Dominican Republic in their first few years in New York, they also quickly start to assimilate to life in America, although this is by no means a smooth process. They start to embrace liberal American teenage culture and reject the more traditional, restrictive upbringing they encounter on trips back to the island: “we began to develop a taste of the American teenage good life, and soon, Island was old hat, man. Island was the hair-and-nails crowd, chaperones and icky boys with all their macho strutting […]. By the end of a couple of years away from home, we had more than adjusted” (108-109). They portray America as “home of the brave and land of the free” to their “over-chaperoned girl cousins” (113-114) and assimilate to the extent that when the youngest, Fifi, is sent back to live on the island to curb her dangerous American ways (after she is caught with a bag of pot in her room), her return to the Dominican Republic is seen by the others as an “exile” (117). And then when she subsequently adopts island fashions and gets a macho, controlling boyfriend, her sisters are concerned she is “caving into family pressure and regressing into some nice third-world girl” (118). Therefore, the Dominican culture is generally portrayed disdainfully as sexist, conservative, and repressive by the Americanized teenage sisters, who have gained a greater sense of freedom and equality from their experience of living in a more liberal society.

However, the girls’ feelings towards their homeland are complex. When Fifi gets into trouble for being out unchaperoned with her island boyfriend, their mother exclaims to their aunt Carmen that if the girls cannot behave she will stop sending them to the island in the holidays. Their aunt’s dismay at this news and her show of love for them, reignites their feelings of connection to the island:

We look at each other and then drop our gaze to hide our confusion. We are free at last, but here, just at the moment the gate swings open, and we can fly the coop, Tía Carmen’s love revives our old homesickness. It’s like this monkey experiment Carla read about in her clinical psych class. These baby monkeys were kept in a cage so long, they wouldn’t come out when the doors were finally open. Instead they stayed inside and poked their arms through the bars for their food, just out of reach. (131)

The girls’ relationship with their homeland is complicated: they feel a profound sense of inner conflict, torn between a deep psychological attachment to the island of their childhood and at the same time finding life there restrictive. Despite feeling trapped by conservative Dominican culture, like monkeys kept in cages, they are (partially at least) conditioned to their environment and therefore the thought of leaving it constitutes a painful act of separation and trauma. It is this sense of inner conflict, this cultural hybridity, portrayed in terms of a psychological trauma, which defines them as immigrants, as people living between two places and two cultures.

In contrast, the father, as a representative of the older generation, maintains a closer connection to his homeland, only learning to speak English poorly, continuing to read Dominican newspapers, and expecting his daughters to adhere to traditional Dominican values. The mother’s relationship to the homeland is more ambiguous, however, as although she agrees her daughters should conduct themselves like good Dominican girls, she herself starts to break free from the patriarchal definition of her role as a housewife and mother, taking classes to prepare her for a career, and improving her English skills. As the narrator writes of Mami, “Recently, she had begun spreading her wings, […] dreaming of a bigger-than-family-size life for herself. She still did lip service to the old ways, while herself nibbling away at forbidden fruit” (116). So, even though Mami is a member of the older generation, her position as a woman, and her desire to take advantage of the greater equality, freedom, and independence afforded women in 1970’s American society, encourages her to assimilate more fully than her husband. The reference to forbidden fruit in this extract, which alludes to Eve’s eating of the apple in the garden of Eden, further underlines how Mami’s new-found independence goes against the narrow role assigned to women by the Catholic church in her homeland and suggests that, in the view of those with conservative Catholic values, like Eve’s eating of the apple, her behavior could have dangerous consequences.

Despite the García family’s partial assimilation into U.S. society, their experience of exile from their homeland is still portrayed as traumatic in the novel. The second sister Sandi is marked forever by a sense of loss caused by their exile. For example, when leaving the island, she is told to choose one toy to take with her, and, as the third-person narrator explains,

It was strange how when held up to the absolute phrase – the one toy I really want – nothing quite filled the whole that was opening wide inside Sandi. […] Nothing would quite fill that need, even years after, not the pretty woman she would surprise herself by becoming, not the prizes for her schoolwork and scholarships […], not the men that held her close and almost convinced her when their mouths came down hard on her lips that this, this was what Sandi had been missing. (215)

Sandi, like Yolanda, experiences a prolonged feeling of bereavement due to departure from their homeland. However, Yolanda is the only one of the four García girls who shows a strong desire to return to the Dominican Republic. Although her visit to the island as an adult in the first chapter is meant to be a holiday, the narrative strongly conveys the sense that this is a homecoming. During Yolanda’s road trip across the island, for instance, as she stops to look out on a view over the foothills, she secretly decides she might stay, and we learn, “[t]his is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never” (12). Here, through the character of Yolanda, Alvarez explores the concept of the “myth of return”; the idea that it is only through a return to one’s homeland and one’s cultural roots that one feels a sense of belonging and completeness. 

The novel shows how Yolanda’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic partially stems from the difficulties she encounters assimilating in the United States due to her feeling of otherness, as well as her conflicted feelings surrounding US and Dominican cultures.  She recounts her first uncomfortable experience at college where she feels like one of the “foreign students” (88), “profoundly out of place”, and like “an intruder on the sanctuary of English majors” (89), despite having lived in the U.S. for at least ten years and possessing ““accentless” English” (100). And her first relationship with an American boy, Rudy, is complicated by her traditional Dominican upbringing, which means that she is naïve about sex, fears losing her virginity, and expects “the guy [to do] all the courting and seeking out” (100). As she states, “I saw what a cold, lonely life awaited me in this country. I would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles” (99).  We discover through the course of the novel that Yolanda’s marriage fails because, as she says in her own words, her American husband, John, and her “just didn’t speak the same language” (81), a phrase which highlights the cultural divide between them. And we learn that after leaving her husband she has a nervous breakdown and is checked into a private clinic by her parents where she fantasizes that the doctor will “save her body-slash-mind-slash-soul by taking all the slashes out, making her one whole Yolanda” (80). Her double Dominican-American identity means she feels misunderstood and alienated from her American peers but at the same time her exile from the Dominican Republic and her subsequent Americanization severs her from her cultural roots. She is split between two cultures and two identities, with no sense of fully belonging to either, which leads her to experience a violent fracturing of her personality. In the novel, this fracture is characterized as a deep psychological trauma leading to a mental breakdown.

However, as the novel is told in reverse chronological order, it is not until the final chapter that it becomes clear that Yolanda’s exile from her homeland is at the root of her trauma. She remembers an incident during her childhood on the island when she took a kitten away from its mother despite being told by a visiting stranger that, “To take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live” (285). She cannot stop the kitten from meowing and in a moment of panic and hatred at the “accusing sound of its meow” (288), she throws it out of the window. She never finds out what becomes of the kitten – we presume it dies – but that night and for many years afterwards, she is haunted by the specter of the mother cat searching for her missing young. As the end of the novel states in Yolanda’s adult voice:

I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia. There are still times I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing, lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing at some violation that lies at the center of my art. (290)

As Cowart explains (46), the helpless kitten and the mourning mother cat, represent a symbol of the trauma of Yolanda’s expatriation from the Dominican Republic, an exile from which she never recovers, and which leaves deep psychological scars. This return to Yolanda’s point of view at the end of the novel, gives the narrative a sense of circularity and Alvarez’s choice of a first-person narrator allows us a greater sense of intimacy with her protagonist’s emotional journey. In addition, by both beginning and ending the novel with Yolanda’s story about the trauma of exile, it highlights this as the central message of the text.

Nevertheless, when examining Yolanda’s return to the island in the first chapter, we see that as well as communicating her sense of homecoming, Alvarez also stresses her difference and “otherness” compared to the native Dominicans. For example, when she sees her cousins for the first time they chorus “Here she comes, Miss America!”, and she struggles to converse with them in her rusty Spanish. Used to being independent, she also insists on travelling across the island alone by car, a thing, she is told, women do not do there. As Ibis Gomez-Vega observes, “she has been too influenced by her assimilation into North American society to fit within the more conservative Dominican culture. She has become an “other”, an outsider who has learned to see Dominicans and, by extension, herself through the distorting lens of her foreign upbringing” (85). This distorting foreign lens is evident in her fear that she will be raped by the two local men who stop to help her when her car breaks down. As Cowart indicates, the final image of the chapter, serves to emphasize further her “otherness”. As Yolanda heads off from a roadside cantina in her mended car, she sees the old Palmolive poster that she has noticed earlier in which a “creamy blond woman luxuriates under a refreshing shower, her head thrown back in seeming ecstasy, her mouth open in a wordless cry” (Alvarez 15). By paralleling Yolanda with the woman in the poster, Alvarez seems to be suggesting that she is out of place in the Dominican Republic, like the poster which is an “outlandish emblem of North American consumer desire” (Cowart, 46). However, I disagree with Cowart’s analysis that “[Yolanda] will never fit in again” (46) because in the final sentence of the chapter in which Yolanda is looking at the poster of the woman again, the narrator states, “her mouth [is] still opened as if she is calling someone over a great distance” (23). For me, this symbolizes Yolanda’s attempt to call out to and reconnect with her former Dominican self, despite years of exile. Although we never find out if Yolanda does indeed return permanently to the island, the image of the chapter projects a faint sense of hope for her future. Alvarez seems to be suggesting that only by returning to one’s homeland and cultural roots can the trauma of exile be healed, and a full sense of belonging achieved. Therefore, in answer to the questions posited in the introduction, Alvarez does seem to be subscribing to a myth of return, and although she is ambiguous about whether a full reconnection with one’s origins is possible, this is clearly what Yolanda desires. However, it is the final image in Alvarez’s novel – the image of Yolanda being forever haunted by the ghost cat, the specter symbolizing the violation of her exile – which speaks the most powerfully and which points to the central message of the text. By choosing to end the novel on this negative and haunting image, Alvarez highlights the permanent pain and sense of displaced identity that can result from exile.

Pineau’s novel, L’Exil selon Julia, is also set in the 1960’s, and as Ireland and Proulx outline, immigration into France at that time correlated with the country’s colonial past: “the representation of immigrants in the mainstream press [remained] strongly influenced by the old hierarchical relationship between colonizer and colonized” (2) and through these immigrants “the colonial relationship [was] relived and rewritten” (2). So, although Guadeloupe is a former colony turned overseas region of France, and the Guadeloupean characters in Pineau’s novel are effectively French, we see this colonial heritage playing out in the storyline. Like in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, the different generations of characters in L’Exil selon Julia have different relationships with the homeland – Guadeloupe – and country of migration – France – and so contrasting experiences of exile. However, what differs in L’Exil selon Julia is that the themes of exile, displacement, alienation and identity are all mediated through and influenced by the colonial/post-colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe.

The effect of this colonial relationship can be seen most evidently in the narrator’s parents, Daisy and Maréchal, who having grown up in colonial Guadeloupe, have been indoctrinated with the belief of France’s cultural superiority and the island’s inferiority. As H. Adlai Murdoch indicates, “Beyond ethnicity, […], Imperial European nations – and France in particular – were founded on the principal of inalterable cultural superiority over their colonial subjects, and the mastery of the national language became the primordial sign of the sense of division that produced colonial hierarchy and difference” (130). Maréchal, who is proud of having fought for the motherland in the Second World War, wins Daisy over thanks to his excellent French, and after marrying they decide to move to France in 1950, the land of opportunity compared to what they view as their inferior island, with its uncultivated, Creole-speaking inhabitants. Once in France, they and their Caribbean friends try to instill these values in their children, saying,

Enfants! Rien, il n’y a rien de bon pour vous au Pays […]. Antan, ce fut une terre d’esclavage qui ne porte plus rien de bon. Ne demandez pas après ce temps passé ! Profitez de la France ! Profitez de votre chance de grandir ici-là ! Au Pays, la marmaille parle patois. Profitez pour apprendre le français de France … Combien de Nègres vous envient, vous n’en avez pas idée (28).

(Children ! There is nothing, absolutely nothing good for you Back Home […] Long ago it was a land of slavery which no longer has anything good in it. Don’t ask about the past! Take advantage of France! Take advantage of the luck you have to be growing up here! Back home, children speak patois. Take the opportunity to learn French French… You have no idea how many blacks envy you.) (Wilson 16) ²

Pineau shows here how the Guadeloupeans of Daisy and Maréchal’s generation have internalized the French colonizer’s teachings that patois is inferior to “le français de France” (28) [“French French” (Wilson 16)] and they clutch onto knowledge of the language as the key to their assimilation into French culture. Here, we also become privy to the shameful way in which slavery was regarded by Guadeloupeans and the fact that those who had travelled to the motherland rejected Guadeloupean culture, considering themselves superior to the islanders who had remained back home.

            However, through her narrative structure, Pineau comments on and shed more light on her characters’ feelings. Although the novel is narrated in the first-person from the perspective of one of Daisy and Maréchal’s daughters (whose name we never learn), at times this narrative voice seems to be that of a child and at other times it adopts a more mature viewpoint and appears to be her adult self, looking back at her childhood. On other occasions, the narrative voice appears to be an all-knowing omniscient narrator who, with the use of free indirect speech, inhabits the voices of the various characters, bringing them to life. Returning to the above quote about the French values that the adults are trying to instill in their children, the young narrator sees through the adults’ bravado to reveal their true feelings of love and attachment to their homeland, noting that “Ils énuméraient les laideurs comme pour se rassurer […]. Tous les atours de France […] ne dessouchaient pas l’amour de leur Guadeloupe” (They list all the ugly things about it as if to reassure themselves […]. All the fine things that France has to offer cannot uproot the love for their Guadeloupe”; 29; Wilson 17). And she notices that when the women are talking late in the evening they sometimes let slip “des couplets sur les îles lointaines où elles ont grandi” (“nostalgic couplets about the faraway islands where they grew up”; 14; Wilson 5). Like the García sisters in Alvarez’s novel then, the adults in L’Exil selon Julia have mixed emotions about their homeland, but here their feelings derive from the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe. As the narrator remarks, their love for their country is ambivalent and tinged with resentment, “comme un amour de jeunesse qu’on n’arrive pas à oublier même s’il n’a pas donné de fruits” (“like a love from one’s youth that one cannot manage to forget even though it bore no fruit”; 28; Wilson 17). They have internalized the colonial message of France’s superiority and thus feel resentful towards their homeland for not giving them the opportunities that they desire, and for forcing them to migrate. But at the same time, theirs is a chosen exile, likened positively by them to a “renaissance” (rebirth) in the novel, even if it has not lived up to their expectations. We see how Maréchal and his Caribbean colleagues in the army, as good colonial subjects, feel a religious devotion to the motherland: “L’esprit d’une fidelité quasi mystique les a menés, autrefois, en temps de guerre, à des actions héroïques indélébiles en leur mémoire. L’armée est leur credo, la France et ses et caetera de colonies leur univers” (“A spirit of almost mystical loyalty led them, in former times, to perform heroic deeds, etched indelibly in their memory. The army is their credo, France and her et cetera of colonies, their world”; 12; Wilson 4). By narrating this in the daughter’s voice, Pineau indirectly questions the wisdom of their devotion to the motherland, and her use of the word “mystique” shows that it is based on dubious foundations. The delivering of this information second hand through the daughter’s voice shows how they have been indoctrinated into believing France’s “credo” of superiority. However, now they are starting to doubt whether this devotion has been worth their sacrifice; as the narrator observes, “Ils font des tresses de l’oubli qui allonge ses raciness dans le semblant du bien-être […] Et puis, ils couchent à plat le doute qui se révèle toujours en eux, pareil aux mauvaises herbes d’un chemin déserté.” (“They plait the sorrow that spreads its roots into their pretense at well-being […]. They quell the doubts that keep springing up in them like weeds along a deserted path”; 12; Wilson 4). Their suppressed realization that France has not rewarded them for this devotion, but instead, as we discover, keeps them as marginalized subjects, is tinged with sorrow. Pineau’s choice to portray this sorrow and doubt with the metaphor of a weed contrasts strongly with the grandmother’s enthusiastic references to the Guadeloupean plants and flowers in her garden which she uses as food and medicine, forming a strong part of her cultural identity and representing for her a tie to her homeland. The pain of living in France is therefore depicted as an insidious, life-sapping weed, whereas Guadeloupean culture is illustrated with life-giving plants.

Whilst Daisy and Maréchal’s experience of voluntary departure from their homeland is portrayed as mainly positive with undertones of sadness, Pineau, like Alvarez, also explores the traumatic effects of enforced exile through the character of Julia, the narrator’s grandmother. More commonly referred to as Man Ya, she is taken from Guadeloupe against her own wishes by her son Maréchal in order to protect her from her abusive husband, Asdrubal. Pineau’s portrayal of Julia’s terrible suffering due to this forced expatriation is not disguised in metaphor like Yolanda’s in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; instead, her anguish is much more explicitly linked to her exile, and we witness her pining for her homeland, husband and garden. Her painful yearning is powerfully depicted by the narrator as a wound which Man Ya treats by telling the grandchildren stories of Guadeloupe, trying to recreate Caribbean dishes with French ingredients, and retreating into her memories. She cannot stand the cold weather in France, developing aches and pains which the doctor labels rheumatism and arthritis but which the narrator calls “maladie de l’exil” (“the infirmity of exile”; 129; Wilson 96).  And she eventually succumbs to a deep depression which only disappears when she returns to Guadeloupe. In characterizing Man Ya’s reaction to exile as an illness for which the only cure is repatriation and a reconnection with her culture, we see the way in which Pineau subscribes to a myth of return. By the end of the novel, not only Man Ya wants to return to Guadeloupe but Maréchal and Daisy do too. Maréchal’s view of the motherland is tainted when, in 1969, his savior, President de Gaulle, resigns; and likewise, Daisy becomes disillusioned with France after seeing the racist treatment her children endure at the hands of the French:

Là-Bas, il lui a fallu essuyer tant de larmes d’enfants, raconter des histoires, expliquer, apaiser … Elle ne peut oublier ce qu’ils ont enduré.

Retournez en Afrique!


Sales Négros!

Allez manger des bananes dans votre case en paille ! (209)

(Over There, she has had to wipe away so many children’s tears, tell stories, explain, calm … She cannot forget what they endured.

Go back to Africa!


Dirty niggers!

Go and eat bananas in your straw hut!) (Wilson, 158)

We see then, that the myth of return in L’Exil selon Julia is directly connected to the racist, colonial discourse in France and the feelings of rejection that the Guadeloupean characters experience, as well as a deep longing for their homeland.

Furthermore, through Man Ya’s character, Pineau explores the themes of identity, alienation, and racism in relation to this colonial discourse. As Mary Jo Muratore observes, whilst in France Man Ya “remains wholly Guadeloupean” (8), refusing to assimilate and rejecting all things French, just as France rejects her for being a black: she complains about the French seasons, insists on hanging the clothes on branches as she did back at home, and refuses to learn French, speaking to the grandchildren in Creole. She feels unwelcome and out of place in France, and we witness the prejudice directed at her by the French people who tell her, “Retourne dans ton pays! Retourne …” (“Go back to where you come from! Go back …””; 128; Wilson 95). Although comically, narrated, Pineau shows French people’s racist treatment of Man Ya when she picks up the children from school wearing Maréchal’s old military overcoat and kepi to ward off the rain. The villagers are suspicious of this black woman who cannot explain herself in their language, and she is arrested for desecrating the French army uniform. The implication is that the locals are offended by the vision of someone with black skin wearing this symbol of military and national pride, but the irony is that the uniform belongs to her son, who is also black, and who wore it whilst fighting for France. To highlight Man Ya’s alienation and exclusion from French society, Pineau draws a parallel between Man Ya’s time in France and the colonial relationship between Guadeloupe and France. For example, the language of slavery is used to describe her arrival in the country : “Elle débarque tout juste en terre d’exil et cinq encablures de chaînes viennent d’être ajoutées à son existence” (“She is barely debarking in a land of exile and five cable lengths of chains have just been added to her existence”; 38; Wilson 23)). And during her stay with the family she teaches the children about the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Their unsuccessful attempt to teach her to read and write French could also be seen to symbolize the French colonial “mission civilisatrice” (“civilizing mission”; Murdoch 129; my translation). These details lead us to conclude that Man Ya’s marginalization in French society is a direct hangover of the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe. She has a strong sense of her Guadeloupean identity and does not want to assimilate but nor would it be possible even if she tried.

In her refusal to integrate into French society, Man Ya’s character could be paralleled with the García girls’ father in Alvarez’s novel. However, their determination to stick to the culture of their homelands produces different results in the two novels. The father’s adherence to his patriarchal Dominican values is viewed by his daughters as old-fashioned and restrictive, and, although the girls experience difficulties assimilating in the U.S., ultimately (with the exception of Yolanda) they decide to remain there and make it their home. In contrast, Man Ya’s steadfast attachment to her Guadeloupean identity is depicted positively by the young narrator, as her grandmother provides her with a link to her cultural roots and a sense of belonging which “transforms her life” (The University of Virginia Press, 20 Dec. 2018). Despite having been born in France, the narrator in L’Exil selon Julia is alienated from French society due to the color of her skin and the colonial prejudices this engenders in her peers. Pineau describes in detail the difficulties she encounters in assimilating due to the discrimination and racist abuse that she encounters, and references to racist episodes occupya much greater part of the narrative and are portrayed as more extreme than in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. In fact, the novel shockingly starts with the protagonist recounting a list of the racial slurs directed at her and her family:

The position of these words at the beginning of the text underscores the extent to which racism defines the narrator’s immigrant experience as a young Guadeloupean girl in France.  (The fact that she remains nameless is significant and could be interpreted as meaning that she symbolizes all displaced Guadeloupeans enduring this prejudice.) We also witness how the discrimination she suffers at school is characterized by the racial stereotypes passed down from colonial times: when she climbs a rope quickly in gym class one of her classmates says, “C’est normal, ils grimpent aux arbes dans leur pays!” (“That’s normal; they climb trees in their country!”; 149; Wilson 111); and, in another class, she is punished by her teacher, who, disliking her for her skin color, forces her to sit under the desk “Comme un chien à la niche.” (152) (“Like a dog in a kennel” (113)). The racist objectification experienced by the protagonist both from her peers and superiors reminds us of Franz Fanon’s words written in Black Skin, White Masks in 1952 in which he describes the psychologically harmful effects of racism and dehumanization on colonized peoples:

“Dirty nigger!” Or simply, “Look, a Negro!” I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.

Sealed into that crushing objecthood, …” (82)

Although Pineau’s narrator is describing her life in France in the late 1960’s, the situation is very similar to that experienced by Fanon in early fifties, post Second World War colonial France. Although this is nearly twenty years later, the narrator is racially objectified and treated as inferior. Unable to assimilate into French society she is left marginalized and excluded. Like the García sisters in the U.S., she feels different from her white peers and a “feeling of being Other” shapes her life (Murdoch 135), but unlike them she has no way to integrate.

Pineau, like Alvarez, explores her narrator’s intangible sense of identity and belonging in the country of her birth. The narrator lacks a sense of who she is, and she defines this, like Yolanda in the  Alvarez novel, as a feeling of loss. She is “convinced there is some lost key capable of locking the secrets of a hidden self” (Muratore 4): “J’ai longtemps gardé le sentiment d’avoir perdu quelque chose: une formule qui perçait jadis les geôles, un breuvage souverain délivrant la connaissance, une mémoire, des mots, des images. J’ai nourri en moi cette perte, pesant comme un deuil, manqué sans définition.” (“For a long time I have had the feeling of having lost something: a formula that once upon a time would unlock jails, a sovereign potion that would release knowledge, a memory, words, images. I have nourished within me this loss, weighing me down like a bereavement, an indefinable emptiness”; 20; Wilson 10). This sense of bereavement leaves her with a gnawing hunger for knowledge about her cultural heritage with which her parents, subscribed to the colonial discourse of French superiority and Guadeloupean inferiority, are unable to provide her. It is through the stories that Man Ya’s recounts in Creole about her garden, and the history and folklore of Guadeloupe, that the narrator starts build up a cultural identity of which she has hitherto been deprived. As Mary Jo Muratore observes, her grandmother “offers a counter-perspective towards the myth of French superiority that enables the heroine to develop a pride in heritage that she wholly lacks” (4).

The fundamental difference between Alvarez’s and Pineau’s portrayals of the immigrant experience becomes most apparent in the final section of both novels. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents leaves us with the haunting image of how Yolanda has been scarred forever by her experience of exile from her homeland, and when she returns to live in the Dominican Republic as an adult, it remains uncertain as to whether she will be able to reintegrate fully and achieve a reconciliation with her roots. On the other hand, the last three chapters of L’Exil selon Julia depict the narrator’s joyful connection with her cultural heritage when her family moves back to Guadeloupe. When Maréchal becomes disillusioned with France, he requests to be stationed in the Caribbean, and the family first move to Martinique before finally returning to Guadeloupe. A desire to return home has been driving the narrative up to this point, first with Man Ya’s yearning to go home, then with the narrator’s desire to escape alienation in France and find her Caribbean roots, and their arrival in Martinique is depicted as a homecoming (Murdoch 137). Pineau captures the narrator’s overwhelming happiness at recognizing the Creole that Man Ya has taught her and her siblings, and at the feeling that they can at last “[m]archer à l’aise parmi des gens de couleur” (“Walk at ease among people of color”; 184; Wilson 139). The author explores the idea of cultural hybridity as the children realize that with their French accents, fashion-sense and fear of insects they are more French than they had recognized. But even this is imbued with a positive tone, as they revel in the chance to improve their Creole and learn to assimilate fully in a culture which accepts them.  Whilst playing with some other children in Martinique, for example, they learn a new Creole phrase, and the narrator says, “On répète pour sentir glisser les mots créoles sur nos langues. « An nou pété! »Pour ramener au jour le parler qu’a déposé Man Ya en nous-mêmes. « An nou pété! » pour bonder de vie la sève de l’arbre qui tient nos cœurs dans ses branches” (198). (“We just repeat it to feel the Creole words sliding off our tongues. “An nou pété!” To bring back to life the language that Man Ya put in us. “An nou pété!” To fill with life the sap of the tree that holds our hearts in its branches” (Wilson, 150).) With the repetition of the Creole phrase we can literally feel the narrator’s pleasure at pronouncing these words and the connection they give her to a sense of belonging. In addition, the use of the tree metaphor connects her to Man Ya’s garden and the land of Guadeloupe, contrasting strongly with the weed metaphor used earlier in the novel to represent life-sapping France.

In stark contrast to the haunting denouement of Alvarez’s novel, the final scene of L’Exil selon Julia is an unashamedly utopic depiction of the narrator’s return to her cultural roots and an embrace of her Creole identity. The sense of coming home is firmly rooted in a connection to the land and its produce, as Man Ya, who is now fit and healthy, shows the children all the plants in her garden that she had previously taught them about. And the narrator realizes how her grandmother gave them an invaluable connection to their heritage through the Creole stories she recounted during her stay with them in France, “un pont de corde solide entre Là-Bas et le Pays” (“a solid rope bridge between Over There and Back Home”; 218; Wilson 164). The novel ends with the narrator’s joyful memory of Man Ya, who is now deceased, laughing and eating rose mangoes. Through this jubilant ending, Pineau embraces the “myth of return” and celebrates the way in which a “reconciliation with [one’s] origins” can give a displaced immigrant a sense of belonging and identity.

Although Alvarez and Pineau’s depictions of exile and the immigrant experience inevitably reflect the historical, political and cultural contexts of the countries in which their novels are based, these two authors vividly capture the lasting pain of exile, the complexities of integration, and the human necessity for a sense of belonging. Both novelists clearly subscribe to a “myth of return” through their texts. However, ultimately, Alvarez presents an ambiguous and nuanced picture of the return to the homeland as the remedy for her characters’ sense of displacement, which is, in turn, reflected by her circular narrative. Her haunting, more negative conclusion suggests that Yolanda’s wounds of exile may never be fully cured, even after returning to the Dominican Republic. In contrast, it is the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe in Pineau’s novel which determines the direction of her narrative and, therefore, her euphoric and utopian portrayal of the myth of return at the end of her text. Man Ya and the narrator’s return to Guadeloupe is presented as the cure-all for their sense of alienation and displacement in France. It is not possible to extrapolate from these two novels and assume that they represent the general experience of Dominican immigrants in the United States, or Guadeloupeans in France. However, we can conclude from Pineau’s numerous references to the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe, that the more racially hostile post-colonial environment in 1960’s France has a profound effect on her characters’ ability to integrate, causing them to feel a greater sense of exclusion and therefore a more powerful attachment to their Guadeloupean roots.  A comparison of these novels therefore highlights the lasting legacies of colonization and serves to reveal the importance of a person’s ability to assimilate and be accepted in the country in which they are living in order to feel a sense of belonging.


  1. It is important to point out that as Guadeloupe is an oversees department of France, the characters in Pineau’s novel are not strictly-speaking immigrants in France; they are in fact French citizens with the same rights and privileges as those living in the Metropole. However, as Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx state, “members of the second generation, as well as workers from the French Antilles […] are still referred to as immigrants, in what could be considered a complicit attempt to keep them marginalized” (2). Since they are treated as immigrants, and for ease of comparison with the characters in Alvarez’s novel, I will refer to the characters in Pineau’s novel as immigrants in this essay.
  2. All bracketed English translations of L’Exil selon Julia come from Betty Wilson’s translation, Exile according to Julia. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited section under Pineau.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.

Cowart, David. Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America. Cornell University Press, 2006.

“Exile: According to Julia.” The University of Virginia Press, 20 Dec. 2018. https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/1596

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, Pluto Press, 2008.

Gomez-Vega, Ibis. “Hating the self in the “Other” or How Yolanda Learns to See Her Own Kind in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.Intertexts – Literature Resource Centre, vol. 3, no. 1, 1999, pp. 85-96.

Ireland, Susan, and Patrice J. Proulx. “Introduction.” Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France. Edited by Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp.1-4.

Martinez, Yolanda, P. “Spanish-American Caribbean Literature.” Encyclopedia of Hispanic-American Literature. Edited by Luz Elena Ramirez, Facts on File, Inc., 2008, pp.327-328.

Muratore, Mary Jo. “Emancipating Narratives: The Diasporic Struggle Reframed in Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia.Francofonia, no. 51, 2006, pp. 3–14.  www.jstor.org/stable/43016396 .

Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Negotiating the Metropole: Patterns of Exile and Cultural Survival in Gisèle Pineau and Suzanne Dracius-Pinalie.” Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France. Edited by Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp.129-139.

Pineau, Gisèle. L’Exil selon Julia. Éditions Stock, 1996.

—————. Exile: According to Julia. Translated by Betty Wilson, University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez : A Critical Companion. Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sfsu/detail.action?docID=3000486.

Learning to Sleep in New Places

KC Barrientos is a PhD student in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures and a Kellogg Institute Doctoral Student Affiliate at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a BA and MA in Hispanic Literature and Latin American & Caribbean Studies (LACS), summa cum laude, from the University at Albany in New York. Her research centers on decolonial studies, bodies of color, and cultural space in Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latino literature of modern and contemporary eras. She also analyzes the depiction of human rights violations and spatial invasion of indigenous communities in Central American literature. Above all, KC is interested in how the poetry of these regions collectively paints the assertion of cultural identities in the midst of a postcolonial world. When she is not occupied with her academic pursuits, KC also writes her own fiction and poetry, and plays, sings, and composes music.


            The conceptualization of transculturation in Latinx literatures often centers on bilingualism. In this vein, Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz captures the trauma of the pressure for the Latinx to translate their language, space and experience to survive in the U.S.  Díaz’s short stories “Negocios (Business)” (2009) and “Invierno (Winter)” (2012) connect language to space and, by extension, to transculturation. In my analysis of the protagonist Dominican family, who struggle to learn English to escape physical and emotional isolation in New Jersey, I draw on the theoretical groundwork of Fernando Ortíz that frames transculturation as the product of cultures in contact. I place Ortíz in dialogue with Homi K. Bhabha’s reading of culture as an intangible space, and Henri Lefebvre’s exposition of cultural, mental-linguistic space as imbricated with geographic locus to form social space. Vis-à-vis this map between Ortiz, Bhabha and Lefebvre, I postulate that Yunior, the protagonist of “Invierno,” and his father Ramón, the protagonist of “Negocios,” occupy a third and other social space distinct from the Latin American and Anglo-American cultures that bracket them. I conclude that physical spaces such as the family apartment and the oceanside in these stories function as markers for Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, or third-as-other social spaces for Yunior’s family. In light of this argument, I conclude that Díaz advances a social commentary on the predicament of those Latinx immigrants like Yunior and Ramón who are suspended in their otherness.

Keywords: transculturation, social space, third space, otherness, bilingualism, translation, Caribbean diaspora, Dominican-American literature

“Learning to Sleep in New Places”: Language, Third Space and Other in “Negocios” and “Invierno” by Junot Díaz


            The semi-autobiographical fiction of Dominican-American author and professor Junot Díaz is marked by a duality of language and space in every childhood memory spent between the rural stretches of the Dominican Republic and the working-class barrios of New Jersey. Scholars of U.S. Latinx literature have underscored Díaz’s narrative language as one that “testifies to the presence of these dual locations; his creative work is marked by a creolized vernacular, equal parts urban and island slang, that moves seamlessly between English and Spanish” (Hanna, Harford Vegas and Saldívar 2). In particular, Díaz’s short story anthologies, Drown (1996) and This Is How You Lose Her (2012), utilize the links between language and geographical space to capture the ambivalence of cultural identity of his self-named protagonist, Yunior. Throughout the pieces, Yunior awaits his father in the United States for nine years, clinging to the promise that his father will bring the rest of the family from the Dominican Republic to his new household in New Jersey to fulfill their dreams of education and socioeconomic advancement. Each geographical locus is marked by language in these stories, thus illustrating how the ties between language and space—ties between Spanish and the Dominican Republic, English and New Jersey—define where one culture’s borders come in jarring contact with the other. In this vein, I examine two specific short stories from Díaz’s anthologies, “Negocios” from the first and “Invierno” from the latter, and I argue that the interplay of language, space and culture illustrates how Yunior stands at the center of a process of transculturation that relegates him to a third space in the in-between, separate and Other from the spaces of the island or the United States.

            Bilingual narration and code-switching between characters in dialogue commonly appear in the U.S. Latinx canon and mirror the complex internal conflicts of growing up between cultures and countries. The unnamed protagonist of Achy Obejas’ “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” (1994), for example, demonstrates these cultural nuances in the intergenerational encounters between her and her Cuban family. Through code-switching, she demonstrates when and how she defines her transcultural identity in contrast to that of her first-generation immigrant parents. Argentinian-born polygot Sylvia Molloy points out that bilingualism comes with stigmas, for a bilingual person can be easily imagined as a cultural no-man’s-land or an Other figure in constant demand of translation for those around her (Molloy 30-31). Less poignancy and more positivity toward bilingualism, meanwhile, can be found in the Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa, who has become renowned for her writing on the construction of an identity between borders. “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate,” writes Anzaldúa, “my tongue will be illegitimate” (Anzaldúa 39-40). It is precisely this societal problematization of transcultural and bilingual identities that Junot Díaz appears to challenge in “Negocios” (1996) and “Invierno” (2012) and that I analyze in-depth in this essay.

            “Negocios” and “Invierno” can be treated as companion pieces telling the tale of a Dominican family separated by borders. Yunior’s father, Ramón, emigrates to the United States in search of stable employment and, in the process of wandering throughout various states, settles down with another woman named Nilda. Meanwhile, his first wife Virta and their two sons, Yunior and Rafa, await his return for nine years back on the island. “Negocios” takes on the unenviable task of walking readers through Ramón’s emotional and psychological process leading up to his infidelity. Notably, despite his search for permanence—in employment, housing and relationships—he finds himself all too often trekking across state borders after being let go from one job after another. His transience, it seems, becomes an impetus for Ramón to teach himself English, which will eventually lend him an advantage in securing a more long-term position at a Reynolds Aluminum factory. In terms of chronology, “Aguantando,” another story from the same anthology as “Negocios,” functions as the mirror piece to the latter work because it details those same painful nine years from Yunior’s perspective growing up on the island. I argue, however, that “Invierno” is just as worthy of a comparative analysis alongside “Negocios,” because it takes place in the aftermath of Ramón finally returning to bring his first family back with him to New Jersey, and subsequently portrays how Yunior, Rafa and Virta combat the various levels of trauma of their inability to translate themselves into the new language, space and culture around them. This theme of translation, together with the narrative device of bilingualism, creates key parallels between the two stories in their depiction of transculturation, third spaces, and Othering.

            In both “Negocios” and “Invierno,” Díaz portrays the ubiquitous pressure on the Latinx immigrant to translate himself—his language, his space and his culture—and illustrates how physical spaces become defined by a particular language for the characters in order to function as safe, home-like spaces or spaces of translation and foreignness. In both stories, Díaz simultaneously introduces a third type of space where the characters wander literally and figuratively, as a vivid metaphor for their suspension in between spaces, languages and cultures. Drawing on Fernando Ortíz’s definition of transculturation, which has been foundational in transcultural studies, I argue that this third space is the space of transculturation, where translation gives way to the production a new, different and Other cultural identity for Yunior. Gustavo Pérez-Firmat dubs this space “life on the hyphen” (Pérez-Firmat 3), or in the case of Díaz’s stories, an existence between the ‘Dominican’ and the ‘American’ in the phrase ‘Dominican-American.’ For characters like Yunior who are part of the “one-and-a-half generation,” born outside the States but immigrants to the continent in their formative years (Pérez-Firmat 4, Rumbaut 61), the interstitiality of their identity is difficult to encapsulate between definite borders. Homi K. Bhabha makes a similar point about culture being conceivable as an intangible space (Bhabha 6-7), and Henri Lefebvre expounds on that conception of cultural (or social) space as an imbrication of the mental-linguistic and the geographical (Lefebvre 11). Building upon this theoretical framework, I further analyze the narrator’s tone in “Negocios” and “Invierno” as one of pragmatism, wherein the translation of geographical spaces does not entail translation of culture and social spaces. Transculturation, therefore, from the viewpoint of the two texts, is not a process of integration or easy adaptation, but rather of Othering or third-as-othering for the immigrant child.

Theoretical Framework of Analysis

            The conceptualization of a third space tied to the production of an intercultural identity fundamentally hearkens back to Fernando Ortíz’s proposal of the term transculturation. The Cuban essayist and thinker wrote in 1940:

I have chosen the word transculturation to express the highly varied phenomena that have come about in Cuba as a result of the extremely complex transmutations of culture that have taken place here, and without a knowledge of which it is impossible to understand the evolution of the Cuban folk, either in the economic or in the institutional, legal, ethical, religious, artistic, linguistic, psychological, sexual or other aspects of its life. (Ortíz 98)

Though born of a more local analysis of the Cuban subcultures that sprung up from points of contact between indigenous, African and Spanish descendants, Ortíz’s term has gained certain universality when referring to any production of identity from contact between cultures. It is important to note that the term transculturation was birthed in response and in opposition to the then-popularized notion of acculturation, which was problematic for Ortíz because it “did not take into account issues such as power, control, inequality, whether the transference [of culture] was unidirectional, or if one culture was thought of as ‘inferior’ to another” (Davies 149). Transculturation, on the other hand, does. This distinction is key when we consider how languages, as cornerstones of culture, are naturally relegated to hierarchies of prestige. Sylvia Molloy, for example, criticizes how status was automatically and ironically afforded to English over Spanish in her bilingual school in Spanish-speaking Argentina (Molloy 18). Similarly, in “Negocios” and “Invierno” (and in the rest of Díaz’s anthologies), Díaz underscores how the English language—and hence the Anglo-American culture—takes precedence over one’s own Spanish-speaking roots for the benefit of socioeconomic advancement, social acceptance and psychological survival. It begs the question, then, whether Díaz is portraying acculturation or transculturation. I believe that the focus of Díaz’s lens on the imbalanced power dynamics of space, language and culture in Ramón and Yunior’s world in these two stories would point to a complex and honest reading of the protagonists’ search for an authentic identity. Hence, the narrator is addressing not the ingenuous conceptualization of acculturation, but rather the implied Otherness of transculturation.

            The map I have drawn thus far connecting third spaces, transculturation and linguistic hierarchies recalls the considerable breadth of already existing theoretical discussion on cultural production and space. Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) revisits “the borderline work of culture” from a spatial point of view: that is, conceptualizing the space of culture not only as a physical locus (the tangible earth, sea and air of one’s locality) but also as an intangible one. “[This new conceptualization] creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural transition,” he writes; “Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present” (Bhabha 7). It seems that what Bhabha dubs the “borderline work of culture” could be conveniently re-articulated in terms of Ortíz’s transculturation. Like Ortíz, Bhabha frames the “‘in-between’ space” of a socially alienated community such as Latinx immigrants in terms of a “hybrid cultural space” and the result of a “migrant act of survival” (7). Bhabha later refers to this migrant process of survival as becoming, which Ylce Irizarry in turn summarizes economically as “an immediate cultural space, between a past and future cultural space” (Irizarry 90). Just as Ortíz’s proposal of the term transculturation developed in response to and criticism of acculturation, so does Bhabha’s notion of becoming tread into the territory of new cultures and new spaces birthed from antecedent cultures in contact. In this way, Bhabha’s understanding of culture as intangible, mutant and unfixed is useful in the present analysis of “Negocios” and “Invierno” which seeks to read both physical space and language as tied to non-physical, (trans)cultural space.

            In a similar vein to Bhabha, Henri Lefebvre asserts in his 1974 book The Production of Space (La production de l’espace) that physical (natural) space and abstract (mental-linguistic-literary) space collapse into what he calls social space. It is here that the force of hegemony fundamentally shifts the flow and dynamic between cultures in contact, much in the same way that Ortíz recognized that postcolonialism colors the power hierarchies between languages and cultures. In his book, Lefebvre asks the following questions which echo Ortíz and Bhabha:

Is it conceivable that the exercise of hegemony might leave space untouched? Could space be nothing more than the passive locus of social relations, the milieu in which their combination takes on body, or the aggregate of the procedures employed in their removal? The answer must be no… [H]egemony makes use of [space]…on the basis of an underlying logic and with the help of knowledge and technical expertise, of a ‘system.’ (Lefebvre 11)

In other words, Lefebvre reads every social space (geographical locus imbricated with mental-linguistic space) as the unconscious yet powerful tool used by postcolonialism to further cement the hierarchies of race, class, ethnicity and language that it has already produced. Put even more simply, immigrants like Yunior’s family and the various U.S. Latinx generations they represent are confronted with both physical (geographical) barriers and social barriers, like the hierarchies of language and culture that place their Spanish tongue and Latin American identity near the bottom of the society in the new space they attempt to occupy. Such hierarchies, Lefebvre argues, are so systemic as to be insidious, because hegemony is a constant element of power dynamics between cultures and spaces.

            Critically, Edward Soja conceptualizes Lefebvre’s idea of hegemonic social space as the creation of Others in a “third space”—or, as Soja himself terms it, “Thirding-as-Othering” (Soja 61). According to Soja, this third space is that which is in between and beyond the two social spaces of cultures in contact. I would add that this third space is occupied by first-, second-, and one-and-a-half-generation immigrants alike, who are all haunted by the social space of their homeland (such as the Dominican Republic in the case of Yunior’s family) and confronted with the new social space that demands translation (the United States and, with it, Anglo-American culture). It is critical to note that what results from the contact of these two social spaces is not just an “in-between space” (Bhabha 211), but also a “third space” (Majkowska 115), that is, something new and discrete from the first two. Soja points out that third space both draws from and resists “binarized categories” (Soja 60). His reading of Lefebvre and his proposal of the term third space, therefore, ties in with Ortíz’s and Bhabha’s understanding of transculturation as much more than a simple hybrid or result of acculturation. Third space bears both aspects of the other two spaces and characteristics of a new space in and of itself. In Ortizian terms, this assertion can be translated into a third culture bearing aspects from the other two cultures in contact while demonstrating characteristics of a new and separate culture altogether. Indeed, while it is tempting to declare that bilingual and transcultural figures like Ramón in “Negocios” and Yunior in “Invierno” are stuck in a state of in-betweenness, they are in fact in a separate and third space entirely. Moreover, they are Othered, and herein lies the paradox between finding one’s own authenticity and problematizing the process of calling an Othered identity authentic in the first place.

            In relation to this point, Soja postulates that it is through one’s state of Otherness in the third space that one is able to speak uniquely and authentically. He describes “Thirding-as-Othering” as a “critical ‘other-than’ choice that speaks and critiques through its otherness” (61). The overall tone of “Negocios” and “Invierno” and Díaz’s work in general seems to align less with Soja’s optimism toward the agency found in transculturation, and instead echoes Lefebvre’s criticism of how social space constructs and reinforces hegemonic hierarchies. Nonetheless, it is productive to read “Negocios” and “Invierno” through the multi-lensed analytical framework I have described that is inspired by Ortíz, Bhabha, Lefebvre and Soja, and thereby conclude whether or not Ramón and Yunior find their selfhood in their Otherness in the United States. As I will posit in the following scene-by-scene analysis of the two short stories, Yunior and Ramón indeed find their selfhood at the end of their respective narratives, but in palpably tentative terms and in clear recognition of the fact that they are rejected by the Anglo-American social space in the United States for their Otherness. Whether they are empowered, oppressed or simply paralyzed by the uniqueness of their Othered identity remains to be seen.

Language, Third Space and Othering in “Negocios” and “Invierno”

            True to the philosophical model of analysis melded from Ortíz, Bhabha, Lefebvre and Soja, physical space fuses with and reflects cultural-linguistic space in Díaz’s “Negocios” and “Invierno.” “Negocios” is characterized by a circular spatial narrative because it begins and ends in the Dominican Republic, first with Ramón leaving the island for the United States and then returning to the reluctant family. In between these two moments Ramón traverses one space after another. After landing in Miami, he struggles to find steady employment, befriends fellow Latino immigrant laborers his age, is urged by his new acquaintance Eulalio to learn English in order to survive, and wanders northward until he reaches New Jersey and settles into a new job, life and relationship there. The most significant of these spaces that Ramón orbits are the apartment he shares with three other Latinos; the bars that he frequents with and without Eulalio to practice his English with strangers; the ride through Delaware in the federal marshals’ car where Ramón forcibly minimizes his Spanish accent for fear of racist repercussions; and his return south to the island to retrieve the family he left behind. Together, these spaces function as the most manifest spaces of translation, transculturation and Otherness in “Negocios.”

Ramón’s first encounter with his roommate Eulalio in Miami is marked both by his unease at the latter’s arrogance, and by the necessity of diplomacy for companionship. This tension reflects the same necessity that drives immigrants like Ramón to recognize their Otherness in America and reluctantly translate themselves into their new social space. Yunior, the narrator, describes Ramón and Eulalio’s first meeting thus:

Eulalio was the third apartment-mate. He had the largest room to himself and owned the rusted-out Duster that brought them to work every morning. He’d been in the States close to two years and when he met Papi [Ramón] he spoke to him in English. When Papi didn’t answer, Eulalio switched to Spanish.

You’re going to have to practice if you expect to get anywhere. How much English do you know?

 None, Papi said after a moment.

Eulalio shook his head. Papi met Eulalio last and liked him least. (Díaz, Drown 84)

The two men’s first meeting takes place in Ramón’s first flatshare in Miami, where he could reasonably expect his Latino roommates to all converse easily in Spanish. It is therefore significant and jarring to Ramón’s character that Eulalio first addresses him in English. Ironically, it is an indication of social boundaries and hierarchies where ordinarily there should be none. What Ramón unconsciously envisioned as his safe space where he can speak Spanish like the rest of his flatmates instead turns into a forced scene of translation. It is only natural, therefore, that Ramón avoids Eulalio specifically on his outings to bars where he wishes to meet strangers with whom he will practice his English, “away from Eulalio’s gleeful criticisms” (84). The narrator implies that if Ramón cannot stay at home without being ridiculed by Eulalio for his broken English, then the former would rather enter into another space of translation where his interlocutors are actually Anglophone speakers and not “transplanted Latinos” (84) who subscribe so faithfully to the power dynamic of English over Spanish that they shoot him unfriendly grimaces. Interestingly, characters such as Eulalio, who yet occupy a third space and are therefore Othered from American society, seem to foist their Otherness off onto newcomers like Ramón, in a never-ending replication of the hegemonic chain of social spaces pointed out by Lefebvre.

During Ramón’s moments of solitude in the Miami apartment, he likewise practices English, but not to achieve the acculturation and transplanted arrogance that he so sharply criticizes in Eulalio and the Latina women of the neighborhood.  The narrator implies that Ramón practices English to himself as a means of forgetting what he left behind:

At the apartment, he’d lie down on his mattress… He abstained from thoughts of home, from thoughts of his two bellicose sons and the wife he had nicknamed Melao. He told himself, Think only of today and tomorrow. Whenever he felt weak, he’d take from under the couch the road map he bought at a gas station and trace his fingers up the coast, enunciating the city names slowly, trying to copy the awful crunch of sounds that was English. The northern coast of our island was visible on the bottom right-hand corner of the map. (Díaz, Drown 84)

Ramón’s goal in learning English is apparently to aid in his movement forward, upward, northward through the States. The scene tastes of irony, because even in these moments where he flinches at reminders of his responsibility to Virta, Rafa and Yunior, the very map that becomes his comfort still bears the outline of the Dominican Republic. It is a potent scene in which the narrator establishes first space (the island), second space (the United States) and third space (the meandering path through unnamed states to the North). Yet simultaneously, Ramón is haunted by the ubiquity of the first space in his past while he attempts to translate himself into the second space. Thinking that English fluency is his key to self-translation, Ramón instead pushes himself to occupy a third space in which he is a loner both literally and figuratively—about to embark on a journey northward on his own with no guide or connections.

            Ramón’s physical and geographical transience following his stint in Miami reflects his uncertain venture into a third space of language and culture in the States. As he is walking through Delaware, he is picked up federal marshals on the highway, and Ramón feels compelled to accept their offer of a ride to avoid suspicion since his visa expired and he is now in the country illegally (Díaz, Drown 86). In order to further sell his image as a long-term resident who is innocent of overstaying his visa, Ramón responds to the marshals monosyllabically and forces down his Dominican accent. Thus, whenever the “two sleepy blancos” pose a question, Ramón answers with “Jes,” and “carefully omit[s] the Nueva and the Yol” when he explains that he is headed for New York (Díaz 86). Ramón finally seals the story and earns the marshals’ trust by agreeing with their assumption that he is a traveling musician—a harmless bard compared to the arrested murderer they have riding in the back. Once again the interplay of language, accents and geography in this scene illustrate Ramón’s uneasy place in a third space and his daily struggle to translate himself into different acceptable versions to the white Americans when he passes through their social space. First, the bilingual narrator’s choice to call the marshals “blancos” just like he dubs other white characters “gringos” throughout the story establishes the significance of the social and cultural barrier that still exists between them and Ramón. Secondly, while the narrator always spelled Ramón’s lines correctly in previous scenes—regardless of whether Ramón’s actual dialogue was in English or was in Spanish but translated to English for the benefit of the reader—here the same narrator phonetically writes out Ramón’s accent to immediately highlight his difference, his linguistic Otherness from the white marshals and the murderer. And finally, the narrator emphasizes just how important a role language serves in this chapter of Ramón’s life, where his skill at translating his accent and his image can either land him in jail or give him a free ticket up north to a better job and housing. At the same time that Ramón exists in a third space as the clear Other in this scene in the marshal’s car—for he is the only mobile character that both enters and exits the vehicle—Ramón is also acting as his own agent of translation so that he can give off the appearance of acculturation rather than uneasy and Othered transculturation.

            After Ramón lands a job in New York and begins a new relationship with Nilda, the narrator yet reminds the reader of how the first space—the Dominican Republic and the family that Ramón abandoned on the island—still haunts the man. Not only is he barraged by letters from Virta reporting tragedies in Yunior and Rafa’s health and school life (Díaz, Drown 92); he also feels compelled to return to the island and see his first family again, despite all his philandering tendencies (93). The day that Ramón lands back in the Dominican Republic is characterized once more by the different language in the environment. The narrator states:

Seeing the country he’d been born in, seeing his people in charge of everything, he was unprepared for it. The air whooshed out of his lungs. For nearly four years he’d not spoken his Spanish loudly in front of the Northamericans [sic] and now he was hearing it bellowed and flung from every mouth.

His pores opened, dousing him as he hadn’t been doused in years. (94)

The first line of the excerpt above confirms the existence of hegemonic social spaces in North America where Ramón has now spent years at the bottom of society. Ramón is therefore taken aback by seeing the hierarchy of Anglo America over Latin America inverted or even non-existent in the streets of the Dominican Republic. The physical and almost spiritual awakening that the narrator then describes in Ramón is a reaction to hearing Spanish being spoken so freely around him, not like a secret crime or source of shame, but as an open manifestation of culture and identity. Ramón has returned full circle to the space where he was born and where he should feel free. The bitter irony of the situation is that he is not even at liberty to move through the town the way he would have in the past in a heartbeat to visit his first family. Beleaguered by guilt and sudden hesitation, Ramón lingers in distant barrios and never ends up returning to Virta and the boys until another five years later. And in that time between his first return to the island and his final one, Ramón begins “smuggling himself out of Nilda’s life” (Díaz, Drown 97) physically and emotionally, until he has abandoned her and the space she represents entirely and flown “back south” (97) to the first space where it all began.

            Ramón’s final conversations with Nilda, his new children and his business partner Jo-Jo are in Spanish, in a circular way that mimics how his interactions with his first family in the Dominican Republic and his first contacts in Miami were in Spanish at the opening of the story. Even the passing detail that he mistakenly calls one of his new sons “Yunior” seems to foreshadow Ramón’s inevitable, if not troubled and dysfunctional, return to his first family and his first space. Even while living in the second space, Ramón is haunted by the inescapable pull of his first culture, a narrative phenomenon that is both “elliptical” and “pervasive[ly] metaphorical” (Torres-Saillant 135). Ramón as a transcultural figure, while creating and occupying a third space, is not and can never be comfortable with his Otherness in the United States so long as he feels the weight of his psychological isolation from that which is familiar to him; he will therefore always return to some symbol of his first space. Thus, while bringing his old family with him to New Jersey may result in discord and abuse, Ramón yet hopefully—perhaps selfishly—sees this gesture as a solution to his failed self-translation into North American society and his empty substitute relationship with Nilda. The role of Díaz’s narrator throughout “Negocios” is to portray precisely this elliptical and futile—yet genuine—pursuit by a transcultural figure of the comfort of his first space.

            If the narrative tenor of “Negocios” is clearly defined by Ramón’s perceptions of the ties between language and mental-geographical space around him, then “Invierno” is even further illustrative of the Othering process of Yunior’s entry into third space. The latter story takes place almost exclusively in the confined space of Ramón’s apartment where he holds Virta, Rafa and Yunior virtually hostage. This space is at once their physical and psychological prison, and a haven from the harsh northern winter and the strange-sounding gringos outside. Two additional spaces serve key roles in “Invierno”: the field outside the apartment where Yunior meets his young white neighbors Eric and Elaine, and the open oceanside space where Yunior, Rafa and Virta venture at the end of the story in a gesture of rebellion against Ramón and in search of their selfhood. The first two spaces named here, much like those visited by Ramón in “Negocios,” function as scenes of translation between the characters’ Dominicanness and the Americanness of their surroundings. In contrast, the last space represents a possibility of mobility between cultural spheres for these characters, wherein they feel reprieve from the near-constant pressure to self-translate and instead seek little indications of their freedom and selfhood as best they can in the unfamiliar setting around them. Together, these three physical loci in “Invierno” reinforce my reading of Díaz’s work as a recognition of the complexity of (re)building a cultural identity in a foreign space out of necessity.

            In much the same way that Eulalio lords his relative mastery of English over Ramón when the latter first arrives in Miami, so does Ramón hold his family’s language barriers over their heads to confine them inside the apartment. Yunior attempts to explore outside the apartment in the opening scene, only to be wrenched by the ear down onto the couch by his irate father. The boy narrates, “He did not look happy. ‘You’ll go out when I say you’re ready,’ [Papi said]” (This Is How You Lose Her 123). Yunior remains frozen on the couch—stunned at his father’s domineering side that he has never seen before, and perhaps only now beginning to realize just how different life is about to become compared to his vibrant existence in the open spaces of Santo Domingo, as described in the preceding stories in Díaz’s anthology. Also noteworthy in this encounter is the juxtaposition of the heated dialogue with the impressionistic audio-visual of the news on the television in the background. “I didn’t move,” says Yunior; “On the TV the newscasters were making small, flat noises at each other. They were repeating one word over and over. Later when I went to school I would learn that the word they were saying was Vietnam” (123). While on one hand, the inclusion of this detail neatly establishes the timeline of the story, the overarching narrative function of the undecipherable US news is also to highlight the language barriers that imprison Yunior and his family even from a device so innocuous as a TV. The scenes that follow are marked by the same inertia and intangible force imprisonment: for days Yunior and Rafa are snowed in, seated motionless on the couch while trying—and failing—to pick up fluent English from US television programs at Virta’s behest. The one key that can release the boys and their mother from their snowbound prison, both physically and metaphorically, is at this point so unattainable as to acquire a flavor of trauma that continues to color the remaining scenes in the story.

            In the same way that their lack of knowledge in English prevents Virta, Rafa and Yunior from moving between physical spaces, so does it also bar them from even moving forward toward any meaningful tasks. “We mostly sat in front of the TV or stared out at the snow those first days. Mami cleaned everything about ten times and made us some damn elaborate lunches. We were all bored speechless,” Yunior recalls (This Is How You Lose Her 123). The trauma of their inability to self-translate has even rendered the family speechless. Later dialogues between them revolve almost exclusively around learning English, leaving the apartment, seeking friends on the outside and daring to reminisce fragments of their happier life in the Dominican Republic. Ironically, Virta’s unsuccessful attempts at English become yet another tool with which Ramón can exert his control over her and her space. Her hopeful repetition of English words over dinner devolves into her humiliation by her own husband:

I can’t understand a word you’re saying, he said finally. It’s best if I take care of the English.

How do you expect me to learn?

You don’t have to learn, he said. Besides, the average woman can’t learn English.

It’s a difficult language to master, he said, first in Spanish and then in English. (124)

The reference to bilingual dialogue at the end of the exchange above is oblique yet significant. Given the complex turns of phrase preceding the final line, one could assume that the majority of the dinnertime dialogue takes place in Spanish. This realization necessitates the question: why would Ramón feel the need to close the conversation by repeating his point in English? In this instance, language functions as control, in all senses of the hegemony of social spaces pinpointed by Lefebvre: gendered, racial and geographical. Ramón asserts his machismo by dismissing English as something only easily acquired by men. And in the same damaging gesture, he flaunts how he is the only family member to have become (to borrow Bhabha’s words), to have gained some modicum of mobility between the social space of his ignorant immigrant family and the social space of the gringo world. Ramón is, for all intents and purposes, the Eulalio of this very scene with his family. Othered and relegated to a third space by the gringos, he yet exploits his English fluency to alienate his wife and sons, to remind them of how they are stuck in the first space and have not become. Like Eulalio, he unconsciously and abusively replicates the hegemonic hierarchy of languages and social spaces over his own family.

            In contrast to the ennui, imprisonment and psychological abuse symbolized by apartment, the field that Yunior and Rafa glimpse from the window where white children play and build snowmen represents a fantastical illusion of the possibility of acceptance outside—in the second space. After the first time the white children, Eric and Elaine, wave at the two boys, Yunior notes Rafa’s sudden desire to stay in the States. “Rafa…didn’t want to go,” Yunior tells himself; “he liked the TV and the toilet and already saw himself with the girl in apartment four” (131). Yunior himself approaches Eric and Elaine first with the same hope of acceptance. Here in this first dialogue between the Dominican characters and the American ones, it is clear that Yunior’s long sentences are actually spoken in Spanish while Eric and Elaine’s confused responses are in English. The narrative itself transmits the entire exchange on paper in English—an interesting aesthetic choice on Díaz’s part that serves to highlight a jarring instance of code-switching the moment Yunior returns to the apartment:

The gringo children watched me from a distance and then walked away.     Wait, I said, but then an Oldsmobile pulled into the next lot, its tires muddy and thick with snow…

Rafa was sprawled in front of the TV [inside].

Hijo de la gran puta, I said, sitting down. (Díaz 133-34; emphasis added)

The field where Yunior shares his first of numerous encounters with the friendly gringo children retains its dream-like quality in that we almost feel as though Yunior was able to translate himself monolingually to Eric and Elaine. As soon as they leave, however, Yunior is thrust back into his personal reality that he is still incarcerated in the apartment, both by the absence of friends outside and his own inability to translate himself to make meaningful connections elsewhere. Physical space and cultural-linguistic space converge once more to remind Yunior of his isolation and his Otherness, at a point in his young life where he cannot yet understand that his transcultural nature has become his own social space.

            As Virta is likewise lured by a natural human thirst for freedom to leave the apartment when Ramón is not home, the narrator takes this opportunity to introduce the final key locus, the oceanside. Throughout the story, Yunior and Rafa occasionally hear their mother opening the front door and disappearing somewhere unnamed in the dead of the night. In the last scene of the story, when Ramón is stranded elsewhere overnight by an oncoming blizzard, the boys finally follow their mother out and accompany her across the Westminster strip to the oceanside. The joy of the three characters is palpable, for here at last is a space where they are relieved of the pressure to translate themselves to the gringo or prove themselves to Ramón as worthy of freedom. Notably, the dialogue in this scene is the only one between Virta, Yunior and Rafa where there is no mention of learning English, and where Virta offers her sons a genuine smile. But the portion of the scene that speaks most profoundly is the one where no one speaks at all:

We went down to the edge of the apartments and looked out over the landfill, a misshapen, shadowy mound that abutted the Raritan. Rubbish fires burned all over it like sores and the dump trucks and bulldozers slept quietly and reverently at its base…

We even saw the ocean, up there at the top of Westminster, like the blade of a long, curved knife. Mami was crying but we pretended not to notice. We threw snowballs at the sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp. (Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her 145)

This is the first, longest and most detailed description of an open space in the story, and it is with these words that the narrator draws the tale to a close. True to his style of allowing readers a fleeting taste of complex human emotions, the author juxtaposes the boys’ giddiness at their newfound freedom with Yunior’s personal pain as an older version of him looks back on the same memory (145). Similarly, the “rubbish fires” scattered around the bay “like sores” and the metaphorization of the ocean as “a long, curved knife” remind the reader that the characters’ triumph at being able to escape the apartment for a night cannot belie the fact that they are geographically trapped in another world where the Anglo-American culture clashes with and asserts itself over their own. On a small scale, the space of the snow-dusted oceanside offers hope and a degree of beauty; but in the grander scheme of things, the vastness of the ocean is another reminder of how inaccessible the family’s homeland is from across the water, and how they cannot escape forever the pressure of having to translate themselves into a new social space for survival. The pain of their Otherness, then, pursues Yunior and his brother and mother, even into this third space that simultaneously and paradoxically blankets them from the memories and pressures of the other spaces they have occupied.


            Some nights after the family’s move to New Jersey in “Invierno,” Yunior recalls, “I dreamed of home, that we’d never left. I woke up, my throat aching, hot with fever… Learning to sleep in new places was an ability you were supposed to lose as you grew older, but I never had it” (135). “Learning to sleep in new places,” indeed, is an apt way to put into words the transcultural figure’s dilemma of spatial and social mobility. It is a vivid illustration of how some part of the immigrant’s or immigrant child’s personhood may still be left behind in the first space and how, even generations after the first contact between cultures, Latinx populations can still feel the alienation of the third space they live in while integrated into North American society. In this vein, Cuban-American writer Achy Obejas remarks in her 2009 interview with Junot Díaz:

Traditionally, the immigrant comes to the United States and breaks the relationship with his native land, in one way or another. His native land remains a place of nostalgia, dreams, illusions. But there is a new generation that maintains its relationship with the native land. People come and go, like you and me—you belong to the Dominican Republic just as I do to Cuba, without belonging. (Obejas 44)

By rephrasing Obejas’s point in the language of my analysis thus far, one could say that Yunior’s family, but particularly Yunior and Ramón, belong to their first space in the Dominican Republic at the same time that they no longer belong. Marisel Moreno reads this predicament of the Latinx immigrant as the type of fluidity of identity that defines the Dominican diaspora. In her analysis of “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie,” another story from Drown told by an older Yunior, Moreno posits: “Yunior’s obsession with masking and unmasking…illustrates that Dominicanness is being redefined as a result of migration… In the end, Yunior’s personal struggle can be said to mirror the processes that Dominicans in the United States are undergoing in their negotiation and reconfiguration of identities in the diaspora” (Moreno 115). It is obvious in “Invierno” that Yunior, in his youth, does not yet know how to navigate these nuances of his identity in the face of his immigration to the States. Similarly, Ramón in “Negocios” starts out just as naive and lost as his son when he arrives in Miami, only to become the English-speaking transient between social spaces that switches on and off different aspects of his linguistic-cultural identity to survive in the white world—in the marshals’ car—and then later uses his newfound linguistic prestige to Other his own family.

            The parallel spatial and linguistic metaphors in “Negocios” and “Invierno” construct a potent and critical lens on the relationship between transculturation and social alienation for the U.S. Latinx community. In both stories, Junot Díaz juxtaposes each geographical locus with linguistic parameters to trace the characters’ movement between cultures. Safe spaces like Ramón’s and Yunior’s apartments become scenes of humiliation by older Latino immigrants and pressure to translate oneself to English and Anglo-American culture. The bars in Miami and the field in New Jersey where Eric and Elaine play both symbolize illusions of acceptance into the second space, the gringo world. And the later moments in both stories, where Ramón wanders the winding highways northward, and Virta and her sons meander for a moment of bittersweet freedom through the detritus by the oceanside, represent the characters’ inevitable entry point into the third space of transculturation and Thirding-as-Othering. In both “Negocios” and “Invierno,” the Spanish-speaking social spaces are relegated to the lower rungs in the cultural hierarchy of the immigrant experience. The characters of both generations fail to translate themselves to their gringo interlocutors in a meaningful or lasting way—Ramón with the marshals, Yunior with the white children. These characters, therefore, exist in a constant state of fluidity, of belonging without belonging, of Otherness without successful self-translation. Díaz passes no value judgment on whose fault this failure could be attributed to, but rather focuses his bilingual narrative lens on these complex truths and difficult realities that so often characterize his work. And if Yunior expresses bitterness at the fact that he may never acquire the skill of “learning to sleep in new places,” then this is simply another metaphor for the narrator’s pragmatic view that transculturation is not the seamless merging of social spaces, but rather a cyclical passage of survival from one space to another as the immigrant figure seeks to escape his isolation in his Third-as-Othered space but always comes back to the comfort of it.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 2007.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Davies, Catherine. “Fernando Ortíz’s Transculturation: the Postcolonial Intellectual and the Politics of Cultural Representation.” Postcolonial Perspectives on the Cultures of Latin America and Lusophone Africa, edited by Robin Fiddian. Liverpool Scholarship Online, 2013, pp. 141-68.

Díaz, Junot. “Invierno.” This Is How You Lose Her. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, pp. 121-45.

—. “Negocios.” Drown. Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 80-98.

Hanna, Monica, Jennifer Hartford Vegas and José David Saldívar. “Introduction: Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination from Island to Empire.” In Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 1-30.

Irizarry, Ylce. “Making It Home: A New Ethics of Immigration in Dominican Literature.” Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement, edited by Vanessa Pérez. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 89-104.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell Publishing, 1991.

Majkowska, Karolina. “‘Neither Here Nor There.’ The Experience of Borderless Nation in Contemporary Dominican-American Literature.” Colloquia Humanistica, vol. 6, 2017, pp. 113-24.

Molloy, Sylvia. Vivir entre lenguas. Eterna Cadencia Editora, 2016.

Obejas, Achy. “A Conversation with Junot Díaz.” Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, p. 45.

Ortíz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Translated by Harriet de Onís. Duke University Press, 1995.

Pérez-Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Rumbaut, Rubén G. “The Agony of Exile: A Study of the Migration and Adaptation of Indochinese Refugee Adults and Children.” Refugee Children: Theory, Research, and Services, edited by Frederick l. Ahearn, Jr. and Jean L. Athey. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 53-91.

Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “Artistry, Ancestry, and Americanness in the Works of Junot Díaz.” Junot Díaz and the Decolonial Imagination. Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 115-144.

Narrating Their Paths

Francisco Fuentes Antrás graduated from the Autónoma University of Madrid with a Bachelors in English Studies and holds a Master’s degree in Hispanic and Comparative Literature from the University of Kent in England. Currently, he works as a Spanish language professor in the European University of Madrid and he has just concluded his PhD thesis in the field of comparative literary studies in the Autónoma University. More specifically, his research interests focus on the depiction of resistant alternative voices, such as refugees or political dissidents, in the global literary fiction and from a transnational perspective. Recently, the attainment of an Erasmus + scholarship has allowed him for a three months stay in Cape Town (South Africa), where he has collaborated with some departments at the University of Cape Town to explore the concepts of resistance, immigration, racial issues, borders, and the transcultural connections in the short narrative of the 21st century.


In recent years, many scholars have pointed at the power of fictional literature to shape individualities that aim at being independent from “the deadening forces of society, whether they come in the form of political ideologies, social pressures, or rampant consumerism” (Lewis 2008: 664). In this context, Rafael Rojas and Frederick W. Mayer also highlight the political role of literature .While the former claims that “literature produces subjectivities, cultural and political citizenships” (Rojas 2006: 420, my translation), the latter acknowledges that “fictional narratives can be as powerful as non-fiction in establishing ideological interests” and that “engrossed by a powerful fictional narrative we accept its premises and its meaning” (Mayer 2014: 92).

In this article, I look at how Carrazana’s “Grafomanía” and Adichie’ s “Jumping Monkey Hills” function as narrative spaces where both authors can project literary voices who, despite being inserted in a hostile context where the governmental and the imperialist powers exert ideological control, find their way to express themselves by using fictional writing. In this regard, they manage to construct their own subjectivities in relation to their places of origin (Cuba and Africa respectively), which are redefined according to their own personal perceptions. Their fictional writings provide them with the necessary self-confidence to speak up over external forces of control and lead them to an act of resistance against the unique political discourse that tries to spread its narration as the only “plausible” one and rejects the heterogeneity of insights that these two stories precisely enhance.

Narrating Their Paths: Fictional Writing as Political Resistance in Lien Carrazana’s “Grafomanía” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Jumping Monkey Hill”

In recent years, scholars have pointed at the power of fiction in shaping individualities, that is, the internal expression of a human who aims at being independent from “the deadening forces of society, whether they come in the form of political ideologies, social pressures, or rampant consumerism” (Lewis 664).  Along these lines, Tess Lewis echoes Kundera’s words when claiming that fiction is “an essential shaper of our moral imagination” and “indispensable to our … defense of rights” (Lewis 655). He adds that for individuals to have rights, they need to construct their individuality first, mentioning the European arts (particularly literature) as the main promoters of the construction of the self. In fact, it is through them that the individual learns how to be inquisitive about their inner emotions and those truths that differ from their own (Lewis 655). In this context, Rafael Rojas and Frederick W. Mayer also explore the political role of literature. While the former claims that “literature produces subjectivities, cultural and political citizenships” (Rojas 420, my translation), the latter acknowledges that “fictional narratives can be as powerful as non-fiction in establishing ideological interests” and that “engrossed by a powerful fictional narrative we accept its premises and its meaning” (Mayer 92).

Even though some scholars have remarked that the potential of fictional literature cannot just be used in favor of the underprivileged individual, words and story-telling have also been understood as important devices for control and repression. In the TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asserts that “like our economic and political worlds, stories are defined by … how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told” (Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”). According to her, their relevance lies in the fact that “they are very dependent on power” and defines power as “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definite story of that person” (Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”). More specifically, in the introduction to the online anthology where Lien Carrazana’s short story “Grafomanía” (2013) is included, the Cuban writer Pardo Lazo addresses the nation-state as “the Supreme Narrator” (Pardo Lazo 2013, my translation).

In this article, I will be exploring the ways in which the short stories Carrazana’s “Grafomanía” (2013) and Adichie’s “Jumping Monkey Hills” (2009) focus on fiction and its potential to influence reality. More specifically, Following Rafael Rojas’ understanding of literature as a promoter of subjectivities and Lewis’ study of fiction as “an essential shaper of our moral imagination” and “indispensable to our conception and defense of rights” (Lewis 2008: 655), I argue that both authors project their subjectivities on the narrative voices that they create in order to foster their own point of view over that of the Revolutionary Cuban State in Carrazana’s story and the Imperialist ideology that Edward epitomizes in Adichie’s narrative. Therefore, while “Grafomanía” narrates the last days of a Cuban girl in La Habana previous to the attainment of the passport that will allow her to leave the country, Adichie’s story depicts the thoughts and feelings that a Nigerian woman, Ujunwa, experiences in the African Writers Conference held by an arrogant and sexist Englishman, Edward Campbell, who believes himself in the right to tell the African attendees what a real African story is. My analysis leads me to believe that both Ujunwa and the narrative voice in Carrazana’s story use fiction to build a territorial and identity-based subjectivity that represents them more faithfully over that imposed by the Revolutionary Cuban government and Western imperialism respectively. Based  on the idea that the negotiation of a subcultural and alternative identity within a hegemonic order requires winning “a space … to mark out and appropriate territory” (Clarke et al. 1976: 45),  that “identities themselves, our self-definitions, are inherently territorial” (Agnew 2008: 179), and that “the meanings given to a place … become a central part of the identity of the people experiencing them” (Rose 1995: 88), I argue that Ujunwa and the Cuban narrator construct their own fictional spaces from where they can trigger the re-thinking of their identity. Likewise, they can establish a counter-discourse that resists ideological entrapment and proves that the hegemonic narratives that oppress them are just one point of view among many others. For this purpose, both Carrazana and Adichie support themselves in the metafictional character of the narrative to provide their writings with a shocking and evocative realism, while breaking the borders between fiction and reality and alluding to some elements that they themselves and the narrators have in common. 

A relevant aspect is that fictional narrative constitutes a core theme in these stories, for both characters attend events where literature plays a central role. In “Grafomanía,” the narrator goes to a book fair celebrated in La Habana, and the author provides continuous reference to literature (specifically fiction) in sentences such as “I assault the pages with my grafomanía, I prostitute the sleep in wakefulness and I take it to those jailed letters”” (2013, my translation), or “seeing many Cubas through different eyes is just a subtle trap in this game of fictions” (Carrazana 2013, my translation[1]). At the same time, the narrative voice highlights the metafictional character of the story when uttering lines such as “but I know that to open the eyes and cry will be part of the process of imagining it all” (Carrazana 2013) and “you are right, writing is pointless, it is a repetition of what was already done with the mind” (2013).

In fact, in “Grafomanía”, the metafictional character of the narrative demolishes the line between fiction and reality, thus giving a strong relevance to fiction. When the female narrative voice claims that she “does not want to live a fictional life, or to buy fictional food with fictional money in a fictional shop” (Carrazana 2013) not only is the fictional character of the story highlighted, but she also alludes to the association between the Revolutionary Cuba and fiction itself. I argue that this connection reduces the Revolutionary ideology to a mere narrative product of the nation-state, “the Supreme narrator” (Pardo Lazo 2013, my translation) that, due to this fictional perspective, loses its totalitarian character and is consequently stripped of its authority.

The fictional character in Carrazana’s short story is equally and ironically reinforced by the following sentence at the end of the narrative: “the facts and the characters in this story are fictional, any similarity with reality is just pure coincidence” (Carrazana 2013). Following W. Mayer’s idea that “fictional narratives can be as powerful as non-fiction in establishing ideological interests” (Mayer 2014: 92), the inclusion of this final explanatory note at the end of the story stresses the story as fictional, which can be viewed as the author’s attempt to take distance from the political unique version in order to rewrite her own Cuba and gain authority.

As in “Grafomanía,” metafiction is significantly used as a literary weapon in Adichie’s “Jumping Monkey Hill,” presenting fiction as a central theme from the beginning of the story, when the readers are told that Ujunwa participates in the African Writers Conference and that the attendees “are expected to produce one story for possible publication in the Oratory” (Adichie 2009: 99). Ujunwa’s pieces of writing are included within the narrative, and it is through literature that other African attendees and Ujunwa share their personal experiences of Africa,  using literature to depict their own realities.  The Senagalese writes about her coming out as a lesbian, the Tanzanian about the killings in the Congo, and Ujunwa about the tough situation women go through in Nigeria due to a strong patriarchal society. However, in the eyes of the English organizer, only the Tanzanian’s story is really African, because he thinks that “homosexual stories of this sort weren’t reflective of Africa” (2009: 108) and that “women are never victims in that sort of crude way … in Nigeria” (2009: 113).

As in “Grafomanía” (2013), the oppressive authoritarian power in “Jumping Monkey Hills” (2009) is related to fiction, as both the Senegalese’s and Ujunwa’ stories, which are depicted as real experiences, are wrongly regarded as not truly African by Edward, epitomized by the English organizer. Ujunwa defies the imposition of Western beliefs when at the end of the story she reveals that her fictional story is true, thus contradicting the British organizer’s point of view. In this sense, it is noteworthy that Ujunwa does not only use fiction to shape her own voice as an African woman, but also as a humorous weapon to indirectly combat racism and Western prejudices about Africa. When Isabel, the organizer’s wife, tells her that due to her “exquisite bone structure” she had to come from Nigerian royal stock, Ujunwa wonders if “Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London” (Adichie 2009: 99), and instead of rejecting her royal origins she decides to humor her and make up a whole fictional story about her lineage.

The power of fiction plays a central role in the debate around the question both Ujunwa and the narrator in “Grafomanía” have to face all along throughout the story: does their writing work as an effective device for attacking political control? The narrative voice in Carrazana’s story addresses this question more explicitly through the sentence “you are right, writing is pointless, it is the repetition of what was done with the mind … Wouldn´t it be better to leave it all to imagination and to life?” (Carrazana 2013). Thus, by means of the narrative voice, Carrazana seems to echo the question that the famous Cuban writer Cabrera Infante presents in his work Mea Cuba (1994): “Is it worth it to write in exile?” (Cabrera Infante 1994: 480). Infante answers it positively when claiming “of course nothing so kills a writer than to stop writing” (1994: 480), and so does the narrator in “Grafomanía”, who although refers to the act of writing as “lettered jails” (Carrazana 2013), she also understands literature as a potential liberating tool for the self when claiming that “I am responsible of my own life, the life that no one wrote for me” (2013). 

Similarly, in Adichie’s story, fiction is depicted as a therapy when the Tanzanian tells the main character that “all fiction was therapy, some sort of therapy, no matter what anybody said” (Adichie 2009: 103).  In addition, Ujunwa writes in her story about how the main character, Chioma (who we eventually get to know that it is the literary version of Ujunwa, who at the same time is the literary version of the author), celebrates the fact that her father introduced her to literature. The understanding of fiction as necessary and important for the self-development of an individual cannot only be perceived in Ujunwa’s story. It is likewise proved in  the narrative, since the wrong reading that the British organizer tries to impose on Ujunwa’s piece of writing finally encourages her to speak up.

No less importantly, both stories can be approached as autobiographical pieces of writing. In “Grafomanía,” a strong connection between the female narrator and Carrazana can be established, as the author herself reveals in an interview[2]. This connection can be identified in the continuous allusion to Cuba, the reference to the narrator’s Chinese grandfather, her passion towards literature, depicted in sentences such as “I assault the pages with my grafomania” (Carrazana 2013) or “I buy a book. A book of sonnets” (2013), and her desire of leaving the country expressed at the very end of the story, when she says that “tomorrow I will achieve my freedom contained in a passport” (2013).

Indeed, Carrazana claims that she finds it difficult to return to Cuba due to her political opinions. The Cuban author asserts that, although the reasons she left Cuba in 2007 were more experiential and visceral than political, she also moved abroad not to be punished by the Cuban government, since she felt that her intellectual development was leading her to an oppositional stance (Carrazana, Personal Interview 2015). Moreover, she claims that her decision of leaving Cuba turned out decisive in her career as a writer, as despite having arranged the publication of her book with an editor in Cuba, such editor contacted her while being already in Madrid and gave her a final reason why her literary project could not be eventually published: “you do not live in Cuba anymore” (Carrazana, Personal Interview 2015, my translation). At this moment, she knew that she was “a different type of Cuban,” subject to “the diaspora of identity, the abduction of the national spirit” (Rojas 2006: 32, my translation) and to the marginalization the Cuban government imposes on the opponents of Castroism since 1958, as well as on those who stay beyond the Cuban national limits (Rojas 2006; Staniland 2014). Nowadays, the reason that hinders her from returning to Cuba is her public and blunt opposition to the Castro’s Revolutionary regime in numerous writings included in her blog La China fuera de la Caja, and her participation in the oppositional journal to the Cuban government Diario de Cuba and in the online anthology Nuevarrativa cubana (2013). This literary initiative was led by the also political refugee Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo and contains a collection of short stories whose aim was the recognition and visibility of the literature from Cuban exile authors around the world.

In a similar fashion, “Jumping Monkey Hills” may also have a strong autobiographical character, as Adichie herself  has hinted in some interviews:

For me the story is about the larger question of who determines what an African story is. You have this workshop of African writers; it’s completely organized by the British, then this person (referring to the organizer) who has his own ideas… imposes them on these young impressionable people. I remember feeling helpless. (“The Interview: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”)

The sentence “I remember feeling helpless” seems to reveal that the writer has experience a similar situation. Indeed, there are some interesting similarities between the author and the main character. As Ujunwa, Adichie is a Nigerian author who has attended workshops of African writers in South Africa and whose writings have always challenged the Western attempt to impose its own views on Africa. Therefore, both narratives invite an autobiographical interpretation, bringing fiction and reality closer by establishing bonds between the narrative voices and themselves. The two authors strengthen the connection of literature and reality, which contributes to the enhancement of their fiction as a democratic tool that challenges hegemonic political and social powers.

Building on the theories can conceive of fiction as a promoter of subjectivities and as a potential political device (Rojas 2006; Lewis 2008), I highlight the projection of fictional literary voices in these stories, in which individual developing selves build their own voice to show the power of fiction when it comes to questioning certain authorities. On the one hand, both the Nigerian character in “Jumping Monkey Hills” and the narrator in “Grafomanía” employ it to speak up and, on the other hand, to allude to the fictional characters’ sources of constraint and to remark that the oppressive hegemonic narratives are just one point of view among many other. Thus, the metafictional character of Carrazana’s and Adichie’s narratives allows them create a shocking and evocative realism that blurs the borders between fiction and reality, shedding light to those elements that the narrative voices and the authors have in common. 

Given that identities, in order to be strongly defined and empowered, need a spatiality that allows subjects to develop (Sack 1986; Rose 1995), I argue that in both stories fiction is used to create a territorial subjectivity from where the literary voices can express themselves freely, and the question of place acquires a relevant role in the characters’ quest for speaking up. Thus, both the narrator in Carrazana’s short story and Ujunwa use their fictional writing to describe the spaces that they occupy from their point of view. The former depicts a claustrophobic and melancholic Cuba through sentences such as “I go out. Behind these four walls I cannot breathe” (Carrazana 2013), “warm tears […] letting themselves drip with the vanished dreams” (2013), or “the Nation remained immobile as an asleep tortoise on the Caribbean sea” (2013). In a similar fashion, the narrative voice in Adichie’s story addresses Jumping Monkey Hill as “the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart about taking pictures of lizards and then return home mostly unaware that there were more black people that red capped lizards in South Africa” (Adichie 2009: 95). In this respect, fictional literature allows both authors to project their subjectivities by means of the narrative voices that they construct and, thereby, they offer a personal perspective of La Habana and South Africa resort that differs from that which the Cuban government and Western imperialism impose on these places. 

Thus, the resort and La Habana are equally depicted as isolated and tedious spaces: the former is described as “a dull and known Habana” (Carrazana 2013), while the latter is described as a flippant place that is not representative of the real South Africa. From the first lines of the narratives, the narrators stress both settings, and their reference is continuous: “…as now that you look at me sitting in this armchair […] the window is open to a dull and known Habana” (Carrazana 2013), “the chandelier of the main dining room of Jumping Monkey Hill hung so low” (Adichie 2009: 101), “how other guests at Jumping Monkey Hill (…) looked at the participant suspiciously” (2009: 108), and the eighteen direct allusions to Cuba and its capital throughout “Grafomanía”, such as “La Habana”, “this island”, “the embankment”, or “the Nation asleep on the Caribbean sea.”

Therefore, both authors give relevance to the settings of the stories through the narrative voices. They highlight the importance of space in identity formation and imply the existence of “many Cubas and Africas” to distance themselves from the unique version imposed by the Cuban State and Western imperialism. In this regard, the narrative voice in “Grafomanía” claims that “many Cubas exist” (Carrazana 2013), and when in “Jumping Monkey Hills” Edward says that homosexual stories are not representative of Africa, Ujunwa answers back by asking “which Africa?” (2009: 108).  Following Rafael Rojas’ understanding of literature as a promoter of a subjectivity (2006: 420),I believe that both Ujunwa and the Cuban narrator, respectively, deploy their fictional writing as a device for the construction of their own subjectivities in relation to their places of origin, which oppose the Imperialist and Cuban Revolutionary hegemonic ideologies and enhance the redefinition of theses settings according to their own personal perspectives.

As previously mentioned, the narratives invite the postulation of an autobiographical subject who I believe leads the reader to the direct association of both authors with Cuba and Africa. Given that, as Rojas puts it, “the exile[d] Cubans are spatial exiles” and subject to “the diaspora of identity and the kidnapping of their national spirit” by the Cuban Revolutionary government (Rojas 2006: 32, my translation), I claim that the narrator’s inclusion in the Cuba that the author creates challenges the Cuban government and reaffirms her identity as Cuban despite her political opposition to it. In other words, Carrazana’s fictional narrative allows her to establish an association between herself (a diasporic author) and the female narrator located in La Habana through the continuous demolition of the border that divides fiction and reality in her writing. This literary technique leads to the destruction of the Cuban / exile dichotomy that, according to Emma Staniland and Rafael Rojas, has been supported by the Cuban government since 1958 (Rojas 2006; Staniland 2014).

By doing so, the Cuban author echoes other Cuban writers in exile, such as Cabrera Infante or Herberto Padilla, who already fed the Martinian myth of a “portable homeland” (Rojas 2006: 42, my translation) by means of the “appropriation” of the island in their fiction to contradict the totalitarian belief that only one Cuba exists and it is located within the national borders. In the case of Alberto Padilla, he demolishes the line that separates Cuba from the exile in the verses “I live in Cuba /I have always lived in Cuba. Those years of wandering/ around the world everyone has talked so much about / are just lies and falsifications” (Padilla, my translation). These verses underline the nexus between the author and his country while reaffirming his Cuban nationality in spite of being an antirevolucionario exiled in the United States. Rojas also underlines Cabrera Infante’s opposition to the imposition of a unique version of the Cuban history in favor of the revolucionarios, and points at the personal descriptions of the Habana of the fifties in Tres Tristes Tigres (1965) and La Habana para un infante difunto (1979) as an act of resistance to that only version (Rojas 2006). In the same way, Carrazana gives shape to a territorial subjectivity by means of her literature. “Grafomanía” can be approached as a piece of writing that reflects upon the power of fiction (and imagination) to highlight a certain vision of a place, in this case, of La Habana, and to remark the existence of many (subjective) Cubas.

Similarly, the narrator in “Jumping Monkey Hill” has to face Edwards’ attempt to impose his own version of Africa on her and the rest of the attendees. This battle takes place in fiction at a metafictional level, since these conflicting relations of power are exposed by the pieces of literature that the African attendees write. When the Senegalese woman reads her homosexual story, she is told that “homosexual stories of this sort weren´t reflective of Africa” (2009: 108). Influenced by this comment, Ujunwa doubts about writing her story according to Edward’s parameters or according to what she has experienced and felt as an African: “she sat there for a long time, moving the mouse from side to side, trying to decide whether to name her character something common, like Chioma, or something exotic, like Ibari” (Adichie 2009: 100). Indeed, this sentence shows to what extent the attendees feel the pressure of pleasing Edward’s prejudices about the African continent. Ujunwa knows that, by including exotic names, her story will be more successful in the eyes of the organizer. Sometimes some of the African attendees, in their desire to be liked by Edward, behave according to how the Imperialist vision of Africa dictates they should behave, both in their writings and outside of them. For instance, only Ujunwa refuses to eat ostrich when Edward urges everyone to do it as it is “an African staple” (101), and the only story that achieves the organizer’s approval is the Tanzanian’s, because its plot fits with Edwards’ expectations:  the killings in the Congo from the point of view of a “man full of prurient violence” (Adichie 2009: 109).

Adichie also reflects upon the existence of “many Africas” through Ujunwa’s questions and thoughts. She mocks Edwards’ stereotypical and fictional idea of the continent along the narrative, and she finally decides to write about her own personal experience in Nigeria, despite lacking those elements that are believed to be truly African. As in “Grafomanía”, here too there is an explicit parallelism between Ujunwa (the character) and Adichie (the author) that leads the reader to believe that the Africa represented in Ujunwa’s story, although presumably fictional, has a huge component of realism, and thus constitutes a valid version of Africa in detriment of Edwards’ statements. As a consequence, this fiction reveals a Cuba and an Africa that are portrayed as the products of an individual literary voice that allows Carrazana and Adichie to create their own “portable homelands” (Rojas 2006: 42, my translation), a fictional universe from where geographical borders are weakened, as shown in the sentences “we go out dressed as if we were in Europe and these ones were not our only elegant coats” (Carrazana 2013), and “the white South African woman was from Durban, while the black man came from Johannesburg. The Tanzanian man came from Arusha…” (Adichie 2009: 97). When it comes to “Grafomanía” (2013), this globalism undermines the line that separates Cuba from the exile, and the narrator’s vision of the city as dull and poor is imposed over the State apparatus’ positive vision. In regards to “Jumping Monkey Hill”, the enhancement of the African heterogeneity is achieved through the depiction of different accents, races, and points of view in the story. 

Nevertheless, the relation between the literary voices and fiction is ambivalent since, although it is employed to give relevance to their thoughts and ideologies, it also serves their source of oppression, for it is presented as a tool that authoritarian powers use to impose “a unique narration.” When the narrative voice in “Grafomanía” claims that “the embankment draws lines around her ideas” (Carrazana 2013), she addresses her lack of freedom in the island and the feeling of imprisonment that she experiences. She compares herself with “an unbreakable doll” and adds “pick me, do what you want with me, indoctrinate me, provide me with a destiny, with a death, with an ideology…that was written on my forehead from the beginning” (2013). Thus, to denounce the Cuban regime, Carrazana uses a powerful metaphor in which the narrative voice acts as a tenor, the doll as a vehicle, and the ground constitutes their lack of free will, since both are puppets of the State. The verb “written” alludes to fiction and connects it to the Cuban government, while the words “indoctrinate me” and “provide me” point at the political elite as the cause of her affliction.

The parallelism between Edward and the Cuban Revolutionary Regime finds its basis in the fact that both use fiction to impose their own subjectivity, which translates itself into an attempt to maintain the immutability and subordination of the main characters. Edward can be approached as the epitome of the Western imperialist thinking, in the sense that he represents the narrow-minded and tyrannical nature of it. In fact, he dictates what is good and bad and acts as a critic all along the story. For instance, he decides what piece of writing is going to be published and is constantly giving feedback according to his own beliefs and parameters. It is by adopting the position of the publisher that he represses his guests and exerts his power:

Then Edward spoke. The writing was certainly ambitious, but the story itself begged the question “so what?” There was something terribly passé about it when one considered all the other things happening in Zimbabwe under the horrible Mugabe. Ujunwa stared at Edward. What did he mean by “passé”? How could a story so true be passé? But she did not ask what Edward meant and the Kenyan did not ask and the Ugandan did not ask and all the Zimbabwean did was shove her dreadlocks away from her face, cowries thinking. Everyone else remained silent (Adichie 107).

Accordingly, the narrative voice offers a negative portrayal of the relationship between the British organizer and Ujunwa. Firstly, the former patronizes the latter with sexist comments and attitudes that are explicitly addressed at several points in the narrative: “at first, Ujunwa tried not to notice that Edward often stared at her body” (106), “his eyes were never on his face but lower” (106), “‘would you like me to stand up for you, Edward?’ ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me’, he said” (106). Secondly, Ujunwa does not feel comfortable with the organizer’s tendency towards an authoritarian attitude, metaphorically portrayed through the smoke coming from Edward’s pipe in sentences such as “the smoke from Edward’s pipe hung over the room” (107), and its disturbing effect on some of the attendees, as shown in “the smell of his pipe was nauseating and he had to decide which he liked to smoke…” (112), which symbolizes how his influence reaches everyone’s mind.

However, even though fiction serves the Cuban State and Edward (epitomizing the Empire) when it comes to imposing their ideological dogmas, both the narrative voice in “Grafomanía” and Ujunwa eventually find the way to use it for their own benefit. Thus,  at the end of Carrazana’s story, the narrative voice inclines herself towards Cabrera Infante’s notion of literature as necessary since, through the sentence “I sit with the laptop: there is no better place than yourself” (Carrazana 2013), she seems to suggest that literature is her refuge, and that it functions as a liberating tool to create a place for herself away from the territorial exclusion that the Cuban government imposes on the Cuban diaspora (Rojas 2006). In this regard, the end of the story constitutes an ode in favor of the individual:

My eyes stare at my mirror’s self for a moment. I look at myself wanting to go deeper, to penetrate my own center. Going back to my own self. I leave the bathroom. I sat in front of my computer: “there is no better place than yourself” (Carrazana 2013).

In the last paragraph, she continues describing her triumph over “the fiction of the State” and advances the attainment of a passport that will allow her to leave Cuba and pursue her freedom:

Tomorrow the umbilical cord that ties me to this armchair, and to this fiction, my words’ death, will be cut. Tomorrow I will have my freedom in a passport and my grandfather’s smile drawn on my mouth. Because tomorrow, my love, today’s time will be finished. (Carrazana 2013, my translation).

In the same way, Ujunwa’s victory over Edward and what he represents results from her decision of raising her voice. When at the end of the story, Edward, after listening to her piece of writing, claims that “the whole thing is implausible” (114) and that her story is “not a story for real people” (114) since “Nigeria has women in high positions” (113), she blurts out and contradicts the organizer, revealing that it is her own story and she herself has suffered from sexism:

He was watching her, and it was the victory in his eyes that made her stand up and start to laugh (…) “A real story for real people?” she said, with her eyes on Edward’s face. “The only thing I didn´t add in the story is that after I left my coworker and walked out of the alaji’s house, I got into the Jeep and insisted that the driver take me home because I knew it was the last time I would be riding in it” (Adichie 114).

To conclude, I have argued that the two narratives allow Carrazana and Adichie to the construction of literary voices who, despite being inserted in a hostile context where the governmental and the imperialist powers exert control and set ideological boundaries, find their way to express themselves by using fictional writing. In this regard, they manage to construct their own subjectivities in relation to their places of origin, which are redefined according to their own personal perceptions. Their fictional writings provide them with the necessary self-confidence to speak up over external forces of control and lead them to an act of resistance against the unique political discourse that tries to spread its narration as the only “plausible” one and rejects the heterogeneity of insights that these two stories precisely enhance.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “Jumping Monkey Hills.” In The Thing Around Your Neck, edited by C. Ngozi Adichie. London: Fourth Estate, 2009, pp. 95-114.

Adichie, C. Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.

Agnew, J. “Borders on the mind: re-framing border thinking.” Ethnics & Global Politics, vol. 1, no.4, 2008, pp. 175-191. Taylor&Francis Online, doi.org/10.3402/egp.v1i4.1892.

Cabrera Infante, G. Mea Cuba. England: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Cabrera Infante, G. Tres Tristes Tigres. 3rd edition. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2011.

Cabrera Infante, G. La Habana para un infante difunto. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2001.

Carrazana Lau, Lien. “Grafomanía.” Nuevarrativa Cubana, edited by Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo, Sampsonia Way, 2013. www.sampsoniaway.org/literary-voices/2013/09/20/grafomania-por-lien-carrazana-lau. Accessed 23 Nov. 2016.

Carrazana Lau, Lien. Personal Interview. 29 Jul. 2015.

Carrazana Lau, Lien. La China fuera de la Caja, lachinafueradelacaja.wordpress.com/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Clarke, J., Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts. “Subcultures, cultures and class: A theoretical overview.” In Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. London: Hutchinson, 1976, pp.9-75. Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, http://sgpwe.izt.uam.mx/pages/egt/Cursos/SeminarioTNC/ResistanceThroughRituals.pdf

Lewis, Tess. “Literature as Resistance.” The Hudson Review, vol. 60, no. 4, 2008, pp. 655-664. 

Mayer, F. W. Narrative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Padilla, Alberto. “Siempre he vivido en Cuba.” Fuera de Juego. Literatura.us, www.literatura.us/padilla/fuera.html. Accessed 02 Jan. 2019.

Pardo Lazo, O.L. “Generación Cero: Nuevarrativa en la Literatura Cubana e-mergente.” Sampsonia Way, 29 Jul. 2013.  www.sampsoniaway.org/features/2013/07/29/generacion-cero-nuevarrativa-en-la-literatura-cubana-e-mergente/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2018.

Rojas, R. Tumbas sin sosiego: Revolución, disidencia y exilio del intelectual cubano. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2006.

Rose, Gillian. “Place and Identity: A Sense ofPplace.” A Place in the World?, edited by Doreen Massey and Pat Jess. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 87-132.

Staniland, Emma. “Fighting the Opposition: Lack and Excess in Cuban and Cuban- American Narratives of Selfhood.” Comparative American Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, 2014, pp. 190-204. Taylor & Francis Online, doi.org/10.1179/1477570014Z.00000000083.

[1] My translation. All subsequent quotes from Lien Carrazana’s “Grafomanía” are my own translation.

[2] I conducted an interview with her in Madrid in 2015.

An Ongoing Revelation: Endings and Poetics of Missingness in the Novels of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez

Ryan Carroll is a graduating senior at The George Washington University studying English and Linguistics. His research interests include global modernism, literary theory, digital humanities, and literary phenomenology. Most recently, he finished work on his Honors thesis, “Feathery and Evanescent, Clamped with Bolts of Iron: Contradiction and Sacramental Reading in the Novels of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez,” which studies the stylistic form of Woolf and García Márquez’s fiction in order to develop a theory of literature that draws from the Catholic concept of the sacramental. Previously, he has been published in the University of Maryland’s Paper Shell Review and the Madison Journal of Literary Criticism, and has been accepted to present at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association and Northeast Modern Language Association conferences. In the future, he hopes to continue his research into a phenomenology of literature, with an eye towards metanarrativity and mediation in twentieth-century fiction.


Fundamental to any novel is finality—a narrative may consume hundreds of pages, but, ultimately, it must conclude. Yet, at the same time, they continue to compel our attention, staying alive in our minds and imaginations. In this paper, I study novelistic endings with an eye toward two particularly notable Global Modernists, Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez. Analyzing the poetics of García Márquez’s and Woolf’s novelistic endings, I argue that they may direct us to what I call the simultaneous finality and eternality that undergird textual interpretation. In one way, their novels call attention to their own terminality, to the material finitude of reading and the constant missingness that is entailed by finishing a novel; and, in another way, the novels’ language concludes their narratives in states of perpetuality and flux, thus directing the reader to the way in which their stories will perpetuallyunfold in the text, to the way that their missingness only calls for further engagement with the text. Furthermore, drawing from the theoretical work of D.A. Miller and Wolfgang Iser and the framework of the sacramental, I argue that dialectic of missingness and re-interpretation serves to consecrate a text with spirit, to animate it with vitality and life—a kind of sacramental embodiment of meaning that grows in interpretation. Ultimately, I argue, Woolf and García Márquez reveal the novel as an entity of both missingness and vitality, a finite entity that constitutes singular meanings and an infinite experience that offers an ongoing revelation of meaning.

An Ongoing Revelation: Endings and Poetics of Missingness in the Novels of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez

Fundamental to any novelistic text, we might think, is its finality. A novel’s narrative might consume hundreds of pages, but ultimately, it must conclude, must close its narrative and depart from the readerly consciousness. And yet, at the same time, we don’t finish with the novel after we read the final word; it remains in our consciousness, animated in our intellect, affect, and imagination, continuing to pulse with some sense of life. Even when novels leave us, they also continue to call us, calling us to move back across this space of missingness to continue engaging with them. In this paper, I will endeavor to analyze this phenomenon and its manifestation in the paradigm of global modernism—namely, in the novelistic endings of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez.

More specifically, I will argue that the poetics of conclusion, the formal structure of García Márquez’s and Woolf’s endings, direct us to what I call the differentiated unity, the presence of multiple contradictions in the act of reading—in this case, the simultaneous finality and eternality that undergirds the experience of the text. In one way, García Márquez’s and Woolf’s endings call attention to the novels’ own terminality, to the material finitude of reading and the constant missingness that is entailed by the conclusion of a novel. Simultaneously, however, Garcia Marquez’s and Woolf’s novelistic language concludes their narratives in states of perpetuality and flux, directing the reader to actually experience the way in which the novel’s meaning will perpetually unfold in the text. Further, drawing from the theoretical work of Wolfgang Iser and D.A. Miller, as well as the spiritual framework of the sacramental, I will argue that Woolf’s and García Márquez’s poetics may direct us, as readers, to the way that the textual dialectic of missingness and interpretation serves to consecrate a text with spirit, to animate it with vitality and life—a kind of sacramental embodiment of meaning that grows in interpretation.

            As subjects, Woolf and García Márquez are particularly interesting figures for analysis for a number of reasons; the most immediate of which is their genealogy of influence. Though Hemmingway and Faulkner are frequently listed as García Márquez’s greatest influences, García Márquez himself cited Woolf as a major stylistic inspiration (Bell-Villada 82-83)—he was captivated by Jose Luis Borges’ translation of Woolf’s Orlando, and, while working as a reporter, used the pseudonym Séptimus, after Septimus Smith, one of the protagonists of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (Martin 122).[1] But it is not my goal here to “prove” that this influence exists (after all, if I wanted to do that, I would have finished this paper after that last sentence) nor is it my goal to determine the progeny of either writer’s style or worldview; this, I think, would be as fruitful as digging the two up and trying to ask them how they wrote their books. Rather, I see this analysis as a meaningful endeavor not just(or not only) because of the direct influence between the two, but also because their treatment of endings transcends the temporal and geographic gulf between them. And, just as their stylistic influence bridges this gap, so too does their mutual attention to contradiction and differentiated unity[2] and their mutual ability to generate these ideas within the form of their works.

            Examining endings specifically, I am especially attentive to D.A. Miller’s conception of “closure” in the novel, which locates the necessary state of tension and self-contradiction inherent to the very act of conclusion. Narrative, for Miller, is composed of the “narratable,” the “instances of disequilibrium, suspense, and general insufficiency from which a given narrative appears to arise” (Miller 252); an ending, then, ostensibly brings narratable events to a close and restores a sense of quietude. Yet, narrative poetics can never truly bring a narrative to an end, because, they are, themselves, part of the narrative—the narratable “can never generate the terms for its own arrest. These must be imported from elsewhere, from a world untouched by the conditions of narratability. Yet as soon as such a world is invoked in the novels…its authority is put into doubt by the system of narrative itself” (Miller 274). In other words, a novel can never bring itself to an end, because, by the nature of the text, any attempt to end a narrative requires language that continues the narrative. While a text is, of course, materially finite, comprised of only a certain number of words and pages, its narrative may never be fully lain to rest. It is important to note, however, that Miller studies this trend largely in “traditional” novelistic endings, endings that do not explicitly recognize the inherent contradiction of “ending” a narrative. In this analysis, I will endeavor to demonstrate the way in which Woolf’s and García Márquez’s narratives are fueled by a certain awareness of this contradiction (and attention to the materiality of endings, in a way that Miller himself does not note), and, by affirming the inherent conundrum of ending a narrative, direct us to understand and experience the way in which the novelistic narrative never truly ends, and is, indeed, vitalized and animated by its perpetuality.

            For this reason, I seek here to link Miller’s theorization of the ending with broader frameworks for understanding the novel, namely those of Iser and of the Catholic Imagination. Iser, for his part, proposes a conception of the novel in which the “literary work” is constituted in the “convergence of text and reader” (Iser 279)—the interplay between the text and reader generates the text’s own “virtual dimension,” the shifting narrative reality that exists in the reader’s mind and that “endows [the text] with its reality” (Iser 284)—or, as I might say, that which consecrates the text with vitality. Particularly crucial to this interplay is the reader’s embodied knowledge of the text: Iser argues that upon concluding a text, the text and reader have fundamentally changed one another, such that the reader encounters a new possibility for interpreting and constituting meaning. In this encounter, the reader “implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time, it is this very inexhaustibility that forces [them] to make [them] decision” (Iser 285). Thus, Iser may allow us to note, the ongoing nature of the interpretation process is the very phenomenon that perpetuates the text, that keeps it vital.

This element of vitality dovetails into the final element of my critical apparatus: sacramentality. I use this word, derived from Roman Catholic spirituality[3], to refer to an understanding of texts and other phenomena as being consecrated with spirit, actually embodying in their aesthetic and material form, incarnating and making present, the meaning that permeates them. Sacramentality also applies, further, to the relational process of textual interpretation—to interpret a text is to join in a relationship with it, constituting meaning in one moment and also offering an impression of a text’s whole gestalt meaning. I draw here from Andrew Greeley’s theory of the Catholic Imagination, which seeks to explicate the sacramental manner the Catholic conceptual framework (if not doctrine per se) conceives the world. In this framework, the stuff of reality is understood to be enchanted[4] with God’s presence—God is incarnated in all reality, and God’s infinite nature is constantly revealed within this incarnation. (Greeley 1-7).[5] Consequently, the “texts” of Catholicism, not only the Bible but also relics, icons, rituals, and, indeed, all things that exist in the world, are understood as being real, vital presences of God: they are sacraments that both embody divinity and invite individuals to join in a communion with divinity. This communion, in turn, calls one into an ongoing revelation of God’s presence both in that singular moment and in all things.

The concept of sacramentality has, in turn, been mobilized in the realm of literary[6] and philosophical theory: Terry Eagleton, for example, articulates the sacrament as a sign that “accomplishes what it signifies,” texts that “do what they proclaim, as both material acts and pieces of discourse” (Eagleton 135). Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, similarly, emphasizes both the incarnational and the relational element of sacramentality, noting that “the sacrament not only symbolizes, in sensible species,[7] an operation of Grace, but is also the real presence of God, which it causes to occupy a fragment of space and communicates to those who eat of the consecrated bread, provided that they are inwardly prepared” (Merleau-Ponty 246). Subsequently, he draws a parallel between this dynamic and the nature of sensation, the quality of the sensible to embody meaning and to engage in a mutualistic relationship with the perceiver—a differentiated unity.[8] Sacramentality, in this way, may be a valuable frame for understanding contradiction and the production of meaning in Woolf’s and García Márquez’s novels, in which the text joins with the reader to constitute local meanings and reveal global meaning. Consequently, in using the words spirit and soul here, I use soul or spirit (which I will apply interchangeably)to refer to the whole, multifarious gestalt of meaning that permeates any text, the force that animates and consecrates the text with vitality in the readerly affect, intellect, and imagination, and which is sacramentally incarnated in aesthetic form. In other words, the spirit may be understood as the animating force that gives a text life, the same force that the reader encounters in reading—and which is consecrated in the text by the interpretative process.

Ultimately, by joining Miller and Iser with the framework of sacramentality, we may find that Woolf’s and García Márquez’s novels point us to a particular understanding of textuality and interpretation in general. In the endings of their novels, in particular, García Márquez and Woolf direct our attention to the differentiated unity of finality and eternality that exists in the act of interpretation. A text, they reflect, is an object with a finite number of pages, and must necessarily end with the reading of the final page; yet, in rendering narrative “endings” that are left in a permanent sense of flux, their stories never truly end, instead persisting as perpetual artifacts, always growing in meaning as the reader continues to interpret them. García Márquez’s and Woolf’s novels speak to the way in which readers join with texts to both constitute local meanings and to engage in an ongoing revelation of a text’s whole, global meaning.

An Ongoing Revelation: Finality, Eternality, and Interpretationality in Endings

            Through the remainder of this paper, I will close read García Márquez’s and Woolf’s novelistic endings and study the differentiated unity finalityand eternality at play in their conclusions. By finality, I mean the way in which the novels draw attention to their own finitude, their conclusiveness, the fact that the reader must actually finish reading their physical form and (hopefully) draw some reading from this act. By eternality, on the other hand, I mean the way in which the novels flag the sense of permanent stasis in which they end, their final images capturing their subjects mid-action, left in a state of eternal persistence, like a photograph that preserves the ephemerality of a single moment for all of time. From these simultaneous qualities, I argue, we may be directed to understand that the sacramental text is never one that truly ends—it crystalizes a local meaning in one instant, while also giving an impression of the global, gestalt meaning of the whole text, one compounded and consecrated by each new reading.

            The quintessential model of this differentiated unity is the ending of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which García Márquez concludes the novel by locking its events into a kind of endless hermeneutical loop. At the novel’s conclusion, the last member of the Buendia family, Aureliano, discovers his wife and inbred child dead and, in a “flash of lucidity,”[9] he deciphers “as if they had been written in Spanish” (OYS 415) the encoded parchments given to his ancestors earlier in the novel by the magician Melquíades:

It was the history of his family, written by Melquíades, down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time…Melquíades had not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant…[after reading about his progeny, Aureliano] began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching the final line, however, he already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. (OYS 414-417)

Here, One Hundred Years of Solitude reckons with a number of the elements carrying throughout its entirety, namely the differentiated unity and sacramentality of its form and the sacramentality process in which the novel itself is read. The reader is called to bring attention to their own act of reading, to the fact that they become congruent with Aureliano as he reads what is (or at least resembles) the text of One Hundred Years of Solitude, albeit written by Melquíades and not García Márquez[10]: Aureliano suddenly becomes enveloped in the “century of daily episodes” that make up the text, sacramentally experiencing all that the reader has heretofore experienced in the novel. Or, more accurately, the reader and Aureliano experience all that each other has experienced. In this moment, the novel becomes a kind of Moebius strip of interpretation as we read Aureliano reading us reading Aureliano.

That is: we read the story of Aureliano reading his own story. Because García Márquez’s poetics inhabit the narrative in the past tense, we are inclined toward understanding that we are presently reading events that have already occurred and ended; simultaneously, Aureliano himself is reading the text (or something like the text) of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which we have already experienced in our reading; and, even further, we are presently reading Aureliano as he, too, is “decipher[ing] the instant that he was living…prophesying himself in the act of deciphering.” Thus, in our engagement with the text and our consequent union with Aureliano, we come to contradictorily experience events as past, present, and future, all at once, infinity folded into the finite textual space. Like a single instant preserved for eternity in a photograph: always happening, and always already having happened.

            This differentiated unity of finality and eternality reaches its apotheosis at the conclusion of the final paragraph, when the narrator remarks that Macondo would be “exiled from memory” and all the events of the parchments would be “unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more”; in other words, the story concludes, and from our perspective, reading from a “future” point, it has always been over. And yet, this assertion is contradicted by the simple fact that we are reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, and we will always be able to flip back to the first page and reread the novel’s events—and, for that matter, keep the events in our memory. Thus, while the events are over, they are recapitulated in the text; while they are “unrepeatable,” they are repeated in our reading. Is Macondo truly destroyed? Yes, but then again, we are physically reading an embodied performance, a sacrament, of the entire history of Macondo and the Buendia family, one that will always be happening, and one that will always already have happened. Thus, we find in the novel’s ending a distinct bundling, a differentiated unity, of finality and eternality, a contradiction that animates the text with a dynamism that persists beyond the moment when the reader’s eye sweeps across the last word (earth in English, and tierra in the original Spanish).

            Returning to the concept of sacramental interpretation, Solitude’s ending may allow us to contour the concept more sharply and sketch out its parameters more fully. We might see, in the first place, that in its ending, One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes a sacrament of temporalities, actually making the past, present, and future present in a single moment, a single textual form (in that way, it resonates well with Woolf’s mnemonic and temporal sacramentality in Mrs. Dalloway). An integral element of the reading process here is that the texts join together with the reader to constitute meaning, which is certainly applicable here. But what else might it say about the act of reading itself, considering its significance to this scene of the text? What might this ending say about the nature of the interpretative process beyond one singular moment of meaning?

The answer, I believe, lies in the text’s differentiated unity of finality and eternality. As the novel’s Moebius strip of interpretation directs us to understand, the act of simply completing a text does not render it an inert entity; rather, reading a text is part of an ongoing revelation of meaning, one in which the text always remains alive, offering forth new meanings on each reading that add to the whole gestalt of the text’s meaning. Indeed, as Iser recognizes, in the moment that the reader engages with the text’s multifariousness of meaning, “he implicitly acknowledges the inexhaustibility of the text; at the same time it is this very inexhaustibility that forces him to make his decision [about how to interpret the text in that moment]” (Iser 285). We may, indeed, compare this differentiated unity with Aureliano’s own act of decoding Melquíades’ parchments, when he works to “decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it,” (OYS 416) a local meaning, while simultaneously reading “a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant,” (415) the whole gestalt of the text’s meaning, which culminates in the final revelation that closes the novel (417). In turn, this meaning animates our continuing contemplation of the text, keeping it alive in our thoughts and feelings—and contours our future readings, with the ending prompting us to revise all that we knew about the text and to formulate new meaning as we fold the text’s ending over all the events that preceded it. Thus, the text remains perpetual, being animated and consecrated by our reading. We cannot simply leave Macondo to rest—through this sacramental interpretation, it remains alive, as does the text, continually compounding in the sacramental meaning that it embodies.[11]

            The same, we find, is true in the conclusion to Woolf’s Orlando. At the novel’s conclusion, Orlando, in a state of ecstasy, begins to perceive the full totality of reality, all its sacramental meanings and significances, and experiences, compressed into a single moment, a flurry of experiences from throughout her life (O 240). Then, among the still midnight she sees rising before her “a phantom castle upon earth…the great house with all its windows robed in silver,” which had neither “wall or substance,” and she relives the fateful moment in the book’s introduction when she (then he) met Queen Elizabeth. Suddenly, the ecstasy climaxes as Orlando’s husband returns from a jaunt abroad, whereupon a wild goose (echoing Orlando’s previous frustration of attempting to catch real, ecstatic meaning, which she compares to a goose flying out to see) flies over his head. The novel concludes:

“It is the goose!” Orlando cried. “The wild goose…”

            And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight. (O 240-241)

Certainly, this ending is not the same mind-bending puzzle of interpretationalityas in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it nonetheless does direct us to the same differentiated unity of finality and eternality, and the same attention to the ongoing revelation of sacramental meaning. Here, the ending to Orlando offers us not a tidy resolution for its central characters, nor an explicit statement about the “true” meaning of it all, but rather an image—an image that is final, that is complete, but also an image whose ongoing action partakes of a kind of perpetuality. Again, we may return to the photograph: simultaneously capturing a single, final instant, and extending out that instant for all time. In turn, Orlando, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, directs us in this fashion to consider our own role in the novel’s ending—can we truly say that either our reading or the novel truly ended? I am inclined to think not. Instead, we must come to understand that one reading of the novel offers one meaning, bundle of emotions and associations, while also offering an impression of its own wild goose, the whole totality of its meaning. Indeed, this duality is especially true when we consider the final line of the novel, listing the precise date of Orlando’s ecstasy—not coincidentally, the same date that Orlando, the novel, was first published. In one way, the text pins its ending to a definitive date and time, a time that is perpetually inaccessible to readers—the narrative ends on a fixed date, and nobody who has ever read Orlando, save, perhaps, for those who finished it on the day it was published, will ever be able to experience this date as the present. It is, to paraphrase Woolf, always already the past. And yet, despite this finality, the novel’s vitality persists: it is continually read and continually interpreted continuing to blaze with life—I may read the novel ninety-one years after its initial publication and still experience it as though it were, in some way, really happening. Thus, in its differentiated unity of finality and eternality, the novel directs us to the way in which its multifariousness, its fixedness-and-unfixity, allow its soul of meaning to continually consecrate the textual form.

And, to be sure, this same differentiated unity of finality and eternality exists across Woolf’s and García Márquez’s respective oeuvres. This fact is especially significant, as it elucidates the broad relevance of this sacramental model of understanding endings: while it is meaningful enough to identify the sacramental sensibility at play in Orlando and Solitude, as both of those novels explicitly address the issue of readerly interpretation, García Márquez’s and Woolf’s other novels are not so explicit in this sensibility. Thus, to highlight the differentiated unity of finality and eternality in these novels is to offer insight into the way that all of García Márquez’s and Woolf’s fiction, and, indeed, all fiction in general, may partake in the ongoing revelation of interpretation.

The General in His Labyrinth ends with the moment of Simón Bolívar’s death, a final moment suspended perpetually in a state of flux; while García Márquez notes the precise date (December 17) and time (signaled by slaves “signing the six o’clock Salve” (GL 168)), Bolívar also sees “Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflower he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated again” (GL 168). In a reiteration of the apophasis and contradiction in One Hundred Years of Solitude, we are made aware of the finality of the General’s death, the supposed impossibility of its repetition—and, simultaneously, we are also made aware that he is “dying forever,” and that, though his life is ending, we may repeat his “final brilliance of life” because we may read back over the paragraph, or the chapter, or the novel itself, recreating and re-discerning his life. Thus, we are called once more into an ongoing revelation of meaning that animates and sacramentally consecrates the text with life.

The same multivalent occurrence of finality and eternality emerges in the conclusion of To the Lighthouse, as Lily Briscoe finally completes her painting—with the text offering a glimpse at the work’s finite future life while also perpetually illuminating it before the reader. We are made to know, and to experience, that the painting “would be hung in the attics” and “destroyed,” (TL 211) but yet, among this sense of finality, we are left, too, with a sense of perpetuality; the last image of the novel depicts Lily in several temporalities at the same time: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (TL 211, emphasis mine). Here, the reader is directed, ever so subtly, to understand Lily to be both finished, forever completed with her work, but also always in motion, in some way always laying down her brush. Woolf offers a further glimpse of endlessness in the eternal flux of Lily’s painting: the novel concludes without giving a clear image of what the painting actually looks like; it is left as a specter perpetually looming over and inflecting our contemplation and reading of the text. Upon a future reading, for example, we may discern moments in which the text anticipates and hints at the painting in unexpected ways—finding new meanings in the ongoing reading process. Iser, analyzing this ongoing reading process, notes that “in a second reading familiar occurrences now tend to appear in a new light and seem to be at times corrected, at times enriched,” and that, consequently, “the reading process always involves viewing the text through a perspective that is continually on the move, linking up the different phases, and so constructing” the whole of its meaning (Iser 285). In our interpretation and experience of these seemingly new elements, we bring ourselves to a different text, one that has been altered by our interpretation, that can now constitute new local meanings even adding to the text’s gestalt and consecrating the text with life. Both Lily and Woolf have “had [their] vision[s]” in a kind of final way, but in the text’s indeterminacy, it lives on in the readerly imagination, infused with a vitality that continues to expand as we read the novel. The same thread is visible, too, in the ending to Love in the Time of Cholera. At the conclusion of the novel, Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, reunited in old age and new love, sail up and down the Magdalena River to avoid the seemingly inevitable return to the social ostracization that awaits them at home. Ultimately, they refuse to return, committing themselves to sailing the river forever and hoisting the flag of a cholera outbreak to ward off interlopers—and thus, in raising a banner synonymous with death, finality, they come to occupy a space of eternality, a kind of perpetual life. Indeed, upon this decision, the ship’s captain, identified by Fermina Daza as “their destiny,” is himself “overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits” (LC 348). Consequently, after the captain inquires of Florentino Ariza how long their trip will last, Florentino Ariza responds in an inversion of the novel’s first words (“It was inevitable” (LC 3)): “Forever” (LC 348). Here, in a moment of profound differentiated unity, we are made to experience a simultaneous state of permanent ending and perpetual life; the novel directing us to note that, even as it hurtles towards its seemingly “inevitable” conclusion, we are also departing the story in a moment of eternal flux. Certainly, we must think, it’s impossible for Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza to sail up and down the Magdalena River for all time: they must die eventually. But yet, they do sail forever, and they do not die; the text depicts no such end and no such death, after all. In this way, the novel resists the impulse to end, to put their story to a definitive rest, and instead affirms our readerly ability to vitalize the protagonists—and, by extension, the text, “forever.” Thus, we may find ourselves directed once again to the sacramentality of the interpretative process: in the novel’s differentiated unity of finality and eternality, it obliges us to take stock of the ongoing, sacramental process through which our interpretation gives life to the text. Love in the Time of Cholera does not end, but rather lives on, with its meaning, its spirit, continuing to course with life and expand as we interpret it, engaging in an ongoing revelation of the text’s gestalt meaning, and indeed, of the sacramental meaning permeating all things.

Broadly, then, we may see that the nature of the reading process is, too, sacramental, with reading functioning both to constitute local meanings and to give an impression of the whole, the global meaning of the text—and thus, consecrate the text with meaning. This is not to say that the former, the local meaning that emerges from one reading or one moment, is without value; in fact, it is the essence of sacramentality that both local and global meanings exist in differentiated unity, equally significant, equally powerful in their sacramental constitution of meaning. To return to the Catholic context from which I first drew this analogy, the Eucharistic Host (the text) is sacramental; the ritual Communion in which the Host and those who receive it (the reader) are brought together is sacramental; and, over the course of this process, there exists an ongoing revelation of God in both the local ritual and in the whole of all things. Furthermore, much like Catholicism’s ongoing revelation of God’s presence and its sanctifying effect on reality, the ongoing revelation of textual meaning imbuesthe text with a both consecrated and consecrating spirit: the act of interpretation deepens the text’s enchanted soul of meaning and animates it with vitality—leading us, in turn, to understand how the same soul of meaning brims within alltexts, all things, of the world.

Works Cited

Beckwith, Sarah. “The Sacramental Text Reconsidered.” Christianity & Literature, vol. 66, no. 3, 2017, pp. 534-540, https://doi.org/10.1177/0148333117708265, doi:10.1177/0148333117708265.

Bell-Villada, Gene. Gabriel García Márquez: The Man and His Work. University of North Carolina Press, 2010. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807895382_bell-villada, doi:10.5149/9780807895382_bell-villada.

Eagleton, Terry. The Event of Literature. Yale University Press, 2012.

García Márquez, Gabriel. The General in His Labyrinth. Vintage, New York, 2003a.

—. Love in the Time of Cholera. Vintage, New York, 2003b.

—. One Hundred Years of Solitude. HarperCollins, New York, 2005.

Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Imagination. University of California Press, 2000.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1972, pp. 279-299. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/468316, doi:10.2307/468316.

Kearney, Richard. “Eucharistic Imaginings in Proust and Woolf.” Material Spirit: Religion and Literature Intranscendent. Edited by Gregory C. Stallings, Manuel Asensi, and Carl Good. Fordham University, 2014.

Martin, Gerald. Gabriel García Márquez: A Life. Vintage, New York, 2010.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. Taylor and Francis, 2005.

Miller, D. A. “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames. Edited by Brian Richardson. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2002.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Mariner Books, New York, 2006.

—. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, New York, 2005.

[1] For that matter, Martin notes that Mrs. Dalloway’s significance to García Márquez was “such that, no doubt exaggerating, he would later attribute his entire understanding of the nature of time both in life and in fiction” to the novel (Martin 569).

[2] Here, I draw from the comparative tradition spearheaded by such figures as Gayatri Spivak and Wai-chee Dimock, which seeks to orient the discipline of comparative literature not in a purely synchronic manner that affirms existing hegemonic, Western-centric paradigms of nation-states, but that, instead, takes on a planetary focus, to question hegemonic paradigms and suggest an entwinedness of ideas across disciplines. While I will not engage in extensive historicization or cultural location for this study, I am confident that the sacramental framework, in its affirmation of texts’ power to contain multiple valences of meaning, will fit well with this comparative project.

[3] Differentiated unity operates at the very heart of Catholicism, most clearly in its understanding of the hypostatic nature of Christ: fully human, fully divine, and both, at the same time. Indeed, the phrase differentiated unity is drawn from Catholic liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, who theorizes an approach to spirituality in which opposite dimensions such as the spiritual and the material, or the transcendent and the immanent, “are [not] identified one with the other in such a way that by cultivating one of the extremes the other is ipso facto cultivated, such is that it is nothing but a reflection…But neither are they separated from the other in such a way that they could be cultivated without an intrinsic, essential, and efficacious mutual determination” (Ellacuría 276).

[4] Greeley’s word choice is significant, as it entwines the Catholic Imagination with the paradigm of the enchanted—the paradigm that holds that the supposed that the “pre-modern” ascribed a powerful spiritual dimension to the material world, to understand the “material universe,” in Eugene McCarraher’s words, “as a cosmic theater of divine vitality” (McCarraher 675). Importantly, McCarraher asserts that, contrary to the conventional paradigm, which asserts that the onset of modernity and capitalism banished enchantment from the world, the world has actually remained enchanted, infusing this sense of immanent sacramentality into the artifices capitalism—though we may return to a more holistic sense of enchantedness rooted in the love and goodness of God.

[5] Consider specifically Greeley’s assessment the Catholic analogical imagination as opposed to the Protestant dialectical imagination: while the dialectical imagination might understand a phenomenon such as human love, to be metaphoric, related to but distinct from God’s love, the Catholic Imagination views human love as analogous, in some way partaking of, God’s love (Greeley 7).

[6] Importantly, here I seek to expand the literary sacramental outward from the work of scholars such as Regina Schwartz, Sarah Beckwith, Matthew Smith, James Watson, Matthew Potts, and Kathryn Stelmach Artuso, who study sacramental or incarnational poetics vis-à-vis the emergence of the Christian sacred within the text—rather, I wish to speak to the sacramental nature of all texts, whether they contend with the sacred or not.

[7] Species refers to the external quality of the sacramental host, where the host appears and scientifically seems to be just bread and wine, when, in reality, its essence is that of Christ.

[8] As Richard Kearney notes, “it is precisely when Merleau-Ponty traces the phenomenological return all the way down to the lowest rung of experience…that he discovers the most sacramental act of communion, or what he also likes to call ‘chiasmus,’ the crossing over of ostensible contraries, the most in the least, the highest in the lowest, the first in the last, the invisible in the visible,” which allows phenomenology to surpass “traditional dualisms (body/mind, real/ideal, inner/outer, subject/object) in the name of a deeper, more primordial chiasmus where opposites traverse each other” (Kearney 14-15).

[9] We may also note that García Márquez describes Aureliano as being buried under the “crushing weight” of the collective memories of all that inhabited his house, “Wounded by the fatal lances of his own nostalgia and that of others” (OYS 414)—in other words, experiencing the sacramental totality of the house, as an embodiment of all the meaning embedded into it.

[10] Notable here, though certainly not essential, is that García Márquez did identify with and embed himself into the character of Melquíades. (Martin, García Márquez: A Life 289)

[11] One may write another paper entirely, I think, on the afterlife (or continued life) of One Hundred Years of Solitude from a cultural perspective, and the way in which this afterlife meshes with the sacramentality of the text’s existence. Solitude, in particular, evinces the way in which new local meanings are continually imprinted into a text, changing the text forever while also leaving the text, at some level, the same body. That is to say: might we not say that Solitude “ended” when its postcolonial, anti-U.S.-imperialist project became mainstream? Did it end when the novel was translated from Spanish into English for the purpose of entering the global market? Did it end when García Márquez was no longer a sufficiently hot item to hold an MLA panel about? Did it end when it became the favorite book of Bill Clinton, the epitome of U.S. neoliberalism (or when García Márquez struck up a friendship with Clinton)? Did it end with the announcement of a Netflix-produced Solitude T.V. series? To all these questions, I might say, appropriately to this thesis, yes, and no. For, even in the face of all these fundamental challenges to its nature, One Hundred Years of Solitude has remained itself—has remained, indeed, a sacrament of all the values ever impressed upon it.

“Who are these people?”: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth Flips the Colonial Script

Julie Boutwell-Peterson is a third-year PhD student at the University of South Dakota. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from Wake Forest University and a M.A. in English from Auburn University. Studying, teaching, and/or doing development work, Julie has lived and worked in England, France, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, and Senegal. Now a TA at USD, she has also taught composition and/or literature at Auburn University, the College of Coastal Georgia, and the University of Sioux Falls as well as English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Before and in between teaching jobs, Julie worked as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina and Alabama and as a freelance feature writer in Florida. Her research interests include immigrant and refugee literature as well as postcolonial and transnational theory. In November 2019, Julie presented “‘Brains Full of Unawakened Power’: Immigrants and the Ethics of a Nation in Life in the Iron Mills” at the PAMLA Conference in San Diego, California.


Like her Antiguan-American counterpart Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith tackles the themes of identity and assimilation within the confines of the British Empire. Yet unlike Kincaid, who writes from the West Indies’ outpost of the Empire in mid-20th century, Smith writes from 21st century England–from inside an Empire that has completely fallen by the time of her birth and now endures merely in memories, attitudes, and nostalgia, and, pointedly, still in the minds of immigrants from former British colonies (and their children) now living in England. While Kincaid writes with the intent to undermine, mock, and show the absurdity of the fixed negative stereotypes associated with colonized peoples, Smith, taking the baton from Kincaid and still addressing the same issues, moves the struggle for equality and respect into a new literary realm to match the new world order of mass migration and globalization.

In particular, in White Teeth, Smith takes the tropes of 19th century British colonial literature as outlined by Patrick Brantlinger (i.e., the heroic English gentleman, an adventure into the exotic, the religious/economic/“moral” conversion of the native, originalism and essentialism in identity, and the English woman’s duty to propagate the race) and turns each of them on their head, playing with them, ridiculing them, so in the end, every trope is made anew with new players, new actions, new narratives, and new outcomes. Instead of directly attacking the colonial viewpoint from the outside in order to challenge its morality and validity, Smith takes the approach of rewriting (and thus redefining) the country’s narrative from within its own borders. Ultimately, Smith’s hero, Irie Jones, upsets and re-envisions the male English hero of 19th century British colonial texts, acting as the moral (and optimistic) voice of the novel as she exemplifies Homi Bhabha’s terms “hybridity” and “third space.”

“Who are these people?”:
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth Flips the Colonial Script

In her often-anthologized essay “On Seeing England for the First Time,” Jamaica Kincaid describes a memory from her childhood in Antigua prior to the country’s 1981 independence from Great Britain. Her teacher, Kincaid writes, pinned a map of England on the blackboard and announced, “This is England,” with such “authority, seriousness, and adoration” that all the students looked up, riveted (508). “It was as if she had said, ‘This is Jerusalem, the place you will go to when you die but only if you have been good’” (508). Kincaid continues, tongue in cheek, “England was a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it. The people who got to wear England were English people. They wore it well and they wore it everywhere: in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains, on all the oceans, on all the seas, in places where they were not welcome, in places they should not have been” (508). The essay describes how Kincaid, her classmates, and all of the inhabitants of her island were inculcated to admire England, but when she finally visited the country as an adult, she felt only disappointed by the bland food, miserable weather, and rude people. She also felt herself becoming newly enraged by the country’s violent and oppressive colonial history. During her visit, her thoughts returned continually to one simple question: “Who are these people who forced me to think of them all the time, who forced me to think that the world I knew was incomplete, or without substance, or did not measure up because it was not England; that I was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up because I was not English. Who were these people?” (508). It is an essential question, and the crux of it lands directly in the crosshairs of two postcolonial theorists: Patrick Brantlinger and Homi Bhabha. First, Kincaid’s question highlights an ongoing and specific anxiety of the colonized (and former colonized) peoples, which as Brantlinger points out, is succinctly summarized in J.A. Roebuck’s 1849 imperialist propaganda, The Colonies of England: “When the European comes in contact with any other type of man, that other type disappears” (qtd. in Brantlinger 858). Secondly, the question—especially in light of the vast variety of people who now call themselves “English”—takes on a different meaning when considered in light of Bhabha’s definition and analysis of the terms “hybridity” and “third space” where “hybridity” refers to the inevitable, post-colonial intermixing of cultures, languages, and races and “third space” as that location (physical or non-physical) where hybridity occurs, a place inside and/or alongside the dominant white imperialistic culture (Location of Culture 37). Kincaid’s essay (like much of her other writings) examines her desire to shake off the shackles of her childhood indoctrination of the superiority of the White Colonial English along with the false and degrading sense of self that was forced upon her by such an ideology. 

Like Kincaid, Zadie Smith, also of West Indies descent, tackles the themes of identity and assimilation, yet Smith’s way of dealing with these issues is altogether different. Kincaid, born in the West Indies in 1949 under British rule, writes from the outside, from the Caribbean outpost of the British Empire, with the intent to undermine, mock, and show the falsities of the fixed negative stereotypes associated with colonized peoples; Smith, born in London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father, writes from the inside, from the Capital of the Empire—an Empire that has completely fallen by the time of her birth, an Empire that endures chiefly in memories, attitudes, and nostalgia, and, pointedly, in the minds of immigrants from former British colonies (and their children) now living in England. Smith takes the baton from Kincaid, with whom she shares a similar heritage, and, while still addressing the same issues, moves the struggle for equality and respect into a new literary realm to match the new world order of mass migration and globalization. In other words, she fights the same fight but with different techniques, thus extending the reach, power, and insight of the former colonized. While Kincaid’s tone is bitter and angry, Smith uses irony, effacing jokes, and exaggerated mockery to explore the traditional postcolonial issues of identity, self-worth, stereotypes, and power struggles. In particular, in White Teeth, Smith takes the tropes of 19th century British colonial literature as outlined by Brantlinger (i.e., the heroic English gentleman, an adventure into the exotic, the religious/economic/”moral” conversion of the native, originalism and essentialism in identity, and the English woman’s duty to propagate the race) and turns each of them on their head by exaggerating and ridiculing them, so in the end, every trope is made anew with revised players, actions, narratives, and outcomes. In short, Smith’s novel follows the proposal of Bhabha in Nation and Narration, as described by Jeremy Scott: “The ‘minority’ will…interrogate, or at the very least problematise, the narrative of the nation, supplementing, fragmenting and subsequently renegotiating it. In the process, the very conception of the nation space will be redefined” (209). Instead of directly attacking the colonial viewpoint from the outside in order to challenge its morality and validity, Smith chooses to rewrite the country’s narrative from within its own borders. In this way, she is able to redefine both the country’s history and its potential future, laying bare the past colonial injustices while simultaneously making way for a future that embraces cultural “hybridity”—a future where Bhabha’s “third space” is both normalized and respected.

White Teeth follows the stories of three families—the Jones, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens—who all live in London in the late 1990s. The families’ lives intertwine through the relationships of their children and through their own pasts, especially those of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal who served together in World War II for the British Army. Despite all living in England, each family contains members who have come to the country by way of another; Archie’s wife is Jamaican, Samad and Alsana both immigrated from Bangladesh, and Marcus Chalfen’s Jewish family comes from Poland. The narrative jumps between generations, focusing first on the parents and later on the children. Irie Jones, the daughter of Archie and Clara, grows up with Magid and Millat, the Iqbal twins; during her early teen years, Irie falls in love with Millat only to realize he is obsessed with white “English” girls. In the end, Irie marries Joshua Chalfen, the vegan, animal-rights activist son of Marcus and Joyce.

  The best way to see how Smith’s novel overturns the tropes of colonial British literature is to examine Irie Jones’s narrative, and specifically, how her heroism upsets and re-envisions the male English hero of 19th century British colonial texts. Ultimately, Smith portrays Irie as the moral (and optimistic) voice of the novel; she is a living example of concepts that were willfully unknown in colonial times— “hybridity” and “third space.” In considering the subversive quality of Irie as hero, it is necessary to look briefly at the making of the hero type embedded in traditional colonial English literature, a hero that is, without discussion, always a “he.” Bhabha writes that in English colonial writings, both fiction and nonfiction, the English novel itself acts as a “myth of origin;” it works “as an insignia of colonial authority and a signifier of colonial desire and discipline” (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1117). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak offers this understanding of the topic: “It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English” (1086). In short, colonial literature worked to constantly reify the domination of the English in general and the English man in particular. 

Nevertheless, domination abroad could not keep the country from facing internal struggles at home. In response, Brantlinger explains during the latter part of the 19th century, colonialism took an interesting and disturbing turn: “Imperialism grew particularly racist and aggressive” as “the social class domination of both the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy” began to decline (862). A longing for an epic hero of old, a hero like King Arthur, pervaded British society and culture; “imperialism functioned as an ideological safety valve” so that growing “working-class radicalism and middle-class reformism” could essentially be ignored (862). The issues at home were deflected to a new enemy (862). John MacKenzie writes, “[I]mperial subjects offered a perfect opportunity to externalise the villain…Thus imperialism was depicted as a great struggle with dark and evil forces, in which white heroes…could triumph over black barbarism” (154). The heroes in popular literature of the time, especially in the adventure novels by G. A. Henty, H. Rider Haggard, and R. M. Ballantyne, travel to the exotic lands of the “savages” and participate in “charismatic quests and voyages that disrupt and rejuvenate” (Youngs par. 2, Brantlinger 863). This hero plays out imperialist fantasies for those at home in England while he also works to uphold the world order where the English man is always on top. In the writing of White Teeth, Smith is certainly well aware of this history of British literature. Indeed, it is this history she engages, challenges, and problematizes. It is this trope of the dashing, daring, English male hero confronting the “uncivilized” and “immoral” native Smith inverts in two ways: 1) through the establishment of Irie, a timid, but highly intelligent English-Jamaican teenager, as a hero of the novel and 2) through the stories of the white male English characters in the novel, all of whom either subvert or mock the trope of the colonial hero.

Bhabha writes the purpose of colonial discourse is “to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest” (“The Other Question” 101). If we consider White Teeth as Smith’s response to this definition of colonial discourse, then we can name Irie as the instrument of a new postcolonial (perhaps post-postcolonial), globalized discourse. In Irie, Smith creates a character who—unlike the colonized women depicted in colonial literature who were rarely shown to have independent thoughts—not only speaks for herself, but ultimately identifies herself within her mother’s lineage, and simultaneously, desires an existence outside of cultural expectations and outside of history itself (1067). Irie’s story is one of growth, but not at the expense of others; she simply seeks to find her own happiness and self-worth. Unlike the popular 19th century British colonial hero, Irie finds validation within herself, not in who or what, she can conquer. Her adventure is inward, not outward. Her final success, which she does achieve, is a slow process that starts in the subjugated identity of the colonized—a desire to look like the colonizer, but ends in the acceptance of her unique appearance as a woman of English/Jamaican descent, as well as, a new life in Jamaica where in the end her identity can begin anew. She can write her own narrative, living, acting, and being in Bhabha’s “third space” where a fixed identity is non-existent.

To see Irie’s heroism unfold, it is important to start with her insecurities. Even though Irie’s father is English, Irie carries the physical traits of her maternal grandmother’s “substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes, and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth” (221). Irie desperately desires to be thin, to look more “white,” more “English,” but, ironically—and this is exactly the type of observation of modern British life that Smith enjoys ridiculing—not to attract a white English man, but rather her childhood friend and crush, Millat Iqbal, who much to the distaste of his Bangladeshi immigrant parents, is only attracted to blonde, slender, and straight-haired “English” girls. In this, Irie is already upsetting the traditional colonial role of English women to propagate the white English race; her desire, after all, is to appear English merely to attract a dark-skinned Muslim. The continuation (or non-continuation) of the white English race is irrelevant to Irie’s desires. Toward her ultimate goal of attracting Millat, Irie waits “for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy with the sands that gather round Dunns River Falls [a popular tourist spot in Jamaica], to English Rose—oh, you know her—she’s a slender, delicate thing not made for the hot sun” (222). For the love of Millat, Irie is willing not only to reject her cultural heritage—and her genetics—but also to disregard her natural strength. She is, in essence, willing to become frail in order to be perceived as beautiful. Irie has a nightmare in which she sells her flesh, packed into Coke bottles, at a shop where Millat is the cashier. “A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change,” Smith writes. The reference to the British Empire’s colonial past is evident, and Irie, only 15 years old, is clearly already immersed in the degrading experience of her foremothers and fathers who, still living out the indoctrination from their colonial past, have, unwittingly or not, passed these feelings of inferiority on to Irie. In the dream, like that of the colonial past, in which the English furthered and participated in the slave trade, the value of a Caribbean woman is worth pences – and Irie both fears and buys into this belief. She knows that in order to be “English,” she must change who she is and how she looks. She cannot, in any case, be herself.

Realizing that losing weight does not happen quickly, Irie decides that her path to Millat’s love will have to be through her hair. She arrives at the salon “intent upon transformation, intent upon fighting her genes” (227). When asked by the hair stylist what she wants, Smith’s narrator answers for Irie: “Straight hair. Straight straight long black sleek flickable tossable shakable touchable finger-through-able wind-blowable hair. With bangs” (228). In short, Irie wants “English” hair, that is to say, “white” hair. Waiting for her turn, Irie hears a woman customer ask the hairdresser whether her hair is straight yet. In a nod to Irie’s eventual understanding of identity as something that cannot be forced from the outside, Irie notes, “There was little to say. They all came out straight or straight enough. But they also came out dead. Dry. Splintered. Stiff. All the spring gone. Like the hair of a cadaver as the moisture seeps away” (230). Even before her own attempt to change her hair, Irie seems aware of the danger of complete cultural assimilation. She seems to intrinsically know such an act can only lead to a type of death, a loss of self. For the immigrant, becoming “straight or straight enough,” i.e. becoming “more English,” is an exercise in participating in one’s death. Still, the force of even the remnants of the British Empire is strong, and Irie goes through with her plan. 

At the salon, where patrons are not considered customers, but rather “desperate wretched patients” who participate in “competition[s] of agony,” Irie’s scalp reacts poorly to the ammonia; she begins to bleed, and then blacks out. Smith writes, “She came to with her head over the sink, watching her hair, which was coming out in clumps, shimmy down the plughole” (231). Irie’s hair is ruined; her once long hair is reduced to a few inches in length. The hair stylist offers to give Irie free hair extensions and she runs down the road to another shop to pick them up. What she finds is a room where hair is hanging on display “like a collection of sacrificial scalps or hunting trophies,” a phrase clearly alluding to British colonial acts upon the colonized (233). At the counter is an Indian girl, “whose hair had been shorn haphazardly,” reluctantly selling her long hair for 25 pounds (233). It is this young woman’s hair that Irie buys. The economy surrounding the immigrant desire to “become English” thrives in unexpected places—at the expense of the poor immigrant herself. The Indian girl must cut her hair for much-needed cash to supply it to the Jamaican-English girl who wants to appear more English, and who can do so, ironically, by adding Indian hair to her head. Smith needs no commentary on the ridiculous nature of the situation. 

Upon leaving the shop with the Indian girl’s hair in a bag, Irie encounters a black woman who had come to the store for hairpins. This woman remarks to Irie, “I hate that place. But I need hairpins.” Irie responds, “I need hair.” The woman answers, “You’ve got hair” (235). Irie offers no response, but Smith’s point here is lucid: Irie already has an identity. She does not need to look like anything other than herself. The woman’s comment, “You’ve got hair,” begins Irie’s change as a character. It is also here where Irie begins to move into her role as a hero, a new hero for a new British age, where the definition of being English is increasingly broad and non-essentialist. The ironic legacy of colonialism is that instead of creating a long-lasting Empire of and for the white English, it ultimately created a home country of immense diversity; colonialism literally changed the face and hair of the English (as more white English married those of former colonial descent) to create what Bhabha calls “hybridity,” not only in appearance, but also in identity, power, and influence. (It is worth noting here—among many possible examples of this change in English society—the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a practicing Muslim who was born in London to Pakistani immigrants.) Hybridity, Bhabha is careful to point out, is not mere “cultural relativism,” but rather “a problematic of colonial representation…that reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so other ‘denied’ knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority,” and it is exactly the role Irie lives out as the new hero (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1126). Irie’s character eventually works to “estrange” and challenge the authority of the discourse (and dominance) of the 19th century British colonial narrative as well as modern-day immigrants to England who feel pressure to change their appearance to match “white” standards of beauty. 

Following the new hair extensions, Irie goes to Millat’s house to show him her new look. He is not home, however, and she ends up visiting with his cousin, Neena, and his mother, Alsana. When Alsana first sees Irie’s hair, she remarks that she looks different. “You look like a newsreader. Very nice,” Alsana says (235). In other words, Irie’s choice to change her appearance is completely understandable and acceptable. For those of Alsana’s generation – those steeped in the “superiority” of the English, Irie’s change is necessary for any woman of color who wants to be successful in England. Neena’s response is different: “Bloody hell!…You look like a freak!” (236). Maxine, Neena’s girlfriend, is softer in tone: “What have you done? You had beautiful hair, man. All curly and wild. It was gorgeous” (236). Neena then adds, “The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours” (237). These words of shock and disappointment from the young progressives (unlike the expected praise of assimilation that she received from Alsana) slowly make their way into Irie’s consciousness. After she reads aloud a letter from Magid, Millat’s twin brother, in which he comments on the need for the Bangladeshi to be “more like the English,” Irie quietly leaves Millat’s home. On the way out, she stops in the hallway, looks at herself in the mirror, and then tears out “somebody else’s hair with her bare hands” (241). With this act, Irie rejects not only the desire to appear “English,” but all the self-loathing pushed on her from the Empire’s colonial past. She is now ready to start a search for her own identity, to discover her singular personhood that exists outside the prescribed understanding of what it means to be “English.”

Like the male heroes of 19th century British colonial literature, Irie goes on a grand adventure, but fitting for Smith’s overturning of tropes, Irie’s adventure consists not of a rugged jeep ride through an exotic jungle, but a late-night bus ride through London to her Jamaican grandmother’s house. While locked in an argument with her parents over her desire to take a one-year break between high school and university, Irie discovers one night that her mother’s straight, white teeth are false. Fed up with “hypocrisies and untruths” and her family’s “gift for secret histories, stories you never get told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumor you never unraveled,” Irie decides to leave home. Smith writes, “[Irie] knew where she had to go, deep into the heart of it, where only the No. 17 would take her at this time of night, sitting on the top deck, seats decorated with puke, rumbling through forty-seven bus stops before it reached its destination. But she got there in the end” (314). Smith’s words “deep into the heart of it” mock the colonial phrase “deep into the heart of Africa.” But unlike the 19th century colonial hero, the purpose of Irie’s voyage is not to discover resources and people to exploit or to convert the natives to Christianity; it is merely to rest. She tells her grandmother, “I haven’t come to find God. I just want to do some quiet study here and get my head together” (318). In fact, while her grandmother continually tries to convert Irie to become a Jehovah’s Witness throughout her stay, Irie resolutely refuses any attempts at conversion. Irie’s heroism begins to show itself in her resoluteness not to be changed, not to be converted in the same manner as her great-grandmother, who in the early 20th century became pregnant by a British army captain (her grandmother’s father) and was then converted to the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses by a female Scottish evangelist. 

Although Irie cannot be converted, she can find peace. Ultimately, she finds it by uncovering her Jamaican heritage. She finds living in her grandmother’s home like “being cocooned, and she was as curious as everyone else to see what kind of Irie would emerge” (330). What intrigues her most is the discovery of the missing parts to her mother’s half-told secrets. The house, Smith writes, “wasn’t any kind of prison. That house was an adventure. In cupboards and neglected drawers and in grimy frames were the secrets that had been hoarded for so long” (330). The house – full of relics of the past, her past – becomes an adventure in itself. She finds pictures of her great grandmother and great grandfather in Jamaica, of her mother in a school uniform – with buck teeth, and late 19th century (real) colonial texts with titles such as In Sugar Cane Land and Dominica: Hints and Notes to Intending Settlers. She becomes enamored with the island of Jamaica, a place she comes to consider her “homeland.” Smith writes: 

[Irie] laid claim to the past…aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright…X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and see right into her. (331)

It doesn’t really matter that Irie’s attraction to Jamaica is less about reality than her imagination. For Irie’s big discovery during her adventure is that a place exists where she can be free – free of the past, the colonial past of both of her parents, on both sides – the colonizer and the colonized, free of expectations, free of a need to be someone other than who she is. She begins to see Jamaica as a place “where things spring from the soil riotously and without supervision … a place where things simply were. No fictions, no myths, no lies, no tangled webs” (332). She imagines Jamaica as “the beginningest of beginnings. Like the first morning of Eden and the day after the apocalypse. A blank page” (332). In other words, it is her conception of a “third space,” a place where she inhabits both worlds – or, if she wants, neither; ultimately, it is a place where she names who she is, a human confident in her identity as a full member of the human race.

In a conversation between Millat’s father, Samad Iqbal, and Irie, Samad laments that in moving to England, he “made a devil’s pact” as it is now impossible for him to feel like he belongs anywhere. “I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident,” Samad tells Irie (336-337). For Irie, though, this idea seems like “paradise, like freedom” (337). Indeed, what she wants most is a “land of accidents” (337). Irie’s desire here seems to be Bhabha’s idea of “hybridity” in narrative form. After all, what Irie is essentially arguing for is a land where every cultural discourse is heard and respected—where the past is let go and the present global migration movement is embraced. Bhabha writes, “What is irremediably estranging in the presence of the hybrid—in the revaluation of the symbol of national authority as the sign of colonial difference—is that the difference of cultures can no longer be identified or evaluated as objects of epistemological or moral contemplation; they are not simply there to be seen or appropriated” (“Signs Taken for Wonders” 1126). Hybridity ruptures the established hierarch, challenging the long-held colonial idea of essentialist ethnic and cultural identities and cultures. Hybridity turns a dominant white culture on its head as it creates a world where difference becomes moot precisely because essentialism is realized to be a lie (Meredith 2).

By the time Irie becomes pregnant with either Millat’s or Magid’s child—she (purposefully) is not sure which—she has emerged completely from the cocoon. Her “adventure” is achieved, her self-identity won. Usually overly polite, Irie blows up at her parents and the Iqbals for embarrassing her as they argue loudly on the bus through London. What she wants, she tells them, is simply “a peaceful existence” (426). She points out the difference between the lives of other people on the bus and the lives of immigrant families: “What a joy their lives must be. They open a door and all they’ve got behind it is a bathroom or a living room. Just neutral spaces. And not this endless maze of present rooms and past rooms and things said in them years ago and everybody’s old historical shit all over the place” (426). Irie’s new heroism seems to be yet another nod at Bhabha’s conception of the “third space,” the liminal, in-between place that comes from hybridity. Paul Meredith writes, “The third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive, and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility” (3). Toward the end of the novel, Irie has a vision where she sees a “time not far from now, when roots won’t matter anymore because they can’t because they mustn’t because they’re too long and they’re too torturous and they’re just buried too damn deep. She looks forward to it” (437). Finally, in the very end, on the last page of the book, Smith writes that Irie marries Joshua, the child of an English Catholic mother and an English father of Polish Jewish descent, and the two move to Jamaica to raise Irie’s daughter, whose father—either Millat or Magid—is forever unknown. The child “feels free as Pinocchio, a puppet clipped of paternal strings” (448). In Jamaica, Irie hopes to establish a place for her daughter that is free of the confinements of her own London childhood. She can grow in this “third space” as a child of hybridity and self-proclaimed identity. At this point, Irie’s heroism is complete. She does, in fact, continue the English race as is her job as an English woman according to 19th century colonial literature, but, of course, Irie’s child is English, Jamaican, and Bangladeshi, a pointed jab at 19th (and 20th and 21st) century English purists. 

As a final point of discussion in Smith’s dismissal (and rewriting) of the traditional hero in British literature, it is important to point out despite the long cast of characters in White Teeth, the novel contains only four main characters who are both “white” and male—Archie Jones, Marcus Chalfen, Joshua Chalfen, and Ryan Topps—and not one of them fits the profile of a typical English male hero in colonial British literature. While Brantlinger notes “[i]mperialist ideology…preserved and nurtured various conservative fantasies, chief among them the mythology of the English gentleman,” as we will see below, Smith’s main, white male characters are the exact opposite of this fantasy (861). 

Readers first meet Archie in the opening chapter of the novel when he is attempting suicide after a 30-year failed marriage to an Italian woman. His suicide is thwarted, however, by a Muslim immigrant, the owner of a halal butcher shop. In addition, while readers believe Archie has acted heroically during World War II, the end of the novel reveals that Archie lied about his actions; his heroic action never took place. In terms of family lineage, Archie is no aristocrat. He tells Samad, “I’m a Jones, you see. ‘Slike a ‘Smith.’ We’re nobody…My father used to say: ‘We’re the chaff, boy, we’re the chaff.’ Not that I’ve ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock” (84). Finally, when Archie is saved from his suicide attempt and remarries, he chooses a woman of Jamaican heritage. Here, then, is the first white male of the book—the assumed hero—who is decidedly not rich, charming, and powerful, but rather a dejected, underachiever who instead of saving others must be saved by a Muslim immigrant; he is non-aristocratic, uneducated, and, perhaps most importantly, a failed war hero. His two marriages are to non- “English” women and his one offspring is a daughter of mixed race. As far as 19th century British colonial literature goes, Archie is a disaster.

A second “white” English male in the novel is Marcus Chalfen, an innovative, highly educated scientist. While Chalfen is well-off financially and married to a white English woman, with whom he has four children, he also is problematic as an archetype within British colonial literature. After all, Chalfen is the son of Polish, Jewish immigrants. Thus, despite fitting into every other category for colonial British heroes—tall, handsome, rich, intelligent, industrious—his heritage keeps him from fulfilling this role. Smith’s overturning of expected hero traits seems especially poignant in Chalfen’s character as she mocks the ludicrous act of categorizing a man as heroic simply by his ethnicity or country of birth.

In another provocative twist, Smith creates a third white male Englishman, Ryan Topps, who instead of converting the “natives” to Anglicized Christianity ends up being converted himself to the Church of Jehovah’s Witness by Irie’s Jamaican grandmother, Hortense Bowden. Ryan never marries, thus unfulfilling his duty to propagate the English race, and instead holes up in a basement apartment with Bowden waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus. Finally, of course, there is Joshua Chalfen, Marcus Chalfen’s son, who is white, but half-Jewish, and ends up marrying Irie and moving with her to Jamaica where the two of them raise Irie’s daughter, whose father is Bangladeshi. Joshua obviously fails in his job of multiplying the “pure” “English” race.Joshua not only marries Irie, but also rejects his own English heritage and homeland, embracing instead Irie’s daughter and, presumably, any future children he and Irie might have.

It is necessary to mention one additional white male character, who albeit very minor, is vital to Smith’s overturning of 19th century colonial heroes. Archie’s boss, aptly named Kelvin Hero, tells Archie his Jamaican wife is not welcome at the company Christmas party because she is black, the other women will be jealous of her beauty, and men “don’t like it ‘cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s…you know…they don’t know what to make of that at all” (61). Kelvin is the closest match in White Teeth to the male hero of colonial British literature. He is white, of English heritage, and a company director—the intimidating boss to whom everyone defers, the proud owner of “a double row of pearly whites that owed more to expensive dentistry than to regular brushing,” and the man who, despite repeatedly telling Archie that he is not a “racialist,” is obviously a racist (60). In Kelvin’s conversation with Archie, Kelvin invokes the real-life, anti-immigrant, conservative British politician, Enoch Powell: “I’d spit on that Enoch Powell … but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he? There comes a point, a saturation point … I mean it’s like Delhi in Euston every Monday morning” (61). Smith characterizes Kelvin as the modern, updated version of the colonial, racist hero—someone who is a racist, but claims not to be, someone who alleges only to be acting rationally and in the interests of others, to make sure no one is “uncomfortable” (61). Of course, Kelvin’s comment to Archie (“wanting a bit of the other”) immediately brings to mind Bell Hooks’ essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” which frames popular, mainstream multiculturalism as a (still racist) way for whites to enlarge their (sexual) experience to be “changed utterly” by encounters with people of different races (24). Yet there is an ambivalence in this relationship, a desire for the Other, and also a fear of this desire—a desire for control and a way of seeing the Other as still an object that exists for the good of the white European. Smith imagines Kelvin as the man who would be the hero of old, but is no longer that hero; instead he is a racist, an absurd and laughable idiot. This “hero” is literally—and merely—the office jerk, a man worthy of only a few pages in a 400-plus page novel.

In discussing White Teeth as well as Smith’s other writings, Noora Katisko writes, “It is possible to see Smith’s works as ‘State of the Nation’ novels” (3). If we categorize White Teeth as a national commentary, a national reckoning, a national narrative, we can see how it works to—as Bhabha suggests will happen when hybridity takes its place in the power structure of society—reshape, rewrite, and redefine the country’s narrative and its literature. Smith’s novel acts as Bhabha’s “counter-narrative” to English colonialism; it is her recipe for the way forward, through Irie—the hero–as Bhabha’s “liminal” figure who pushes back on her historical heritage, which is composed of both colonizer and colonized, to create her own future path. Bhabha writes, “Counter narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries—both actual and conceptual—disturb those ideological maneuvers through which ‘imagined communities’ are given essentialist identities” (“DissemiNation” 300). Smith’s creation of the hero, Irie, alongside her depictions of the non-hero white males subvert the colonial British literature tropes, challenging both essentialist understandings of a nation and an individual identity as either “English” or “non-English.”

In contrast to Jamaica Kincaid, who fled her homeland, the place that indoctrinated her with the purported superiority of the English, Irie flees to Jamaica, a place she does not connect with England, the former colonizer, but rather with herself—her own individuality and her own history. Irie escapes there to raise her daughter and to love the man who does not want (or need) her to look English—the Englishman who is both Jewish and Polish, Joshua Chalfen. We must note how the colonial British hero is now completely subverted. Toward the end of White Teeth, after the twins, Magid (who, despite having grown up in Bangladesh, is obsessed with the superior ways of the English) and Millat (who addresses his obsession with American movies and Western culture by becoming a West-hating conservative Muslim fundamentalist), the narrator in White Teeth comments, “This is the other thing about immigrants (‘fugees, emigrees, travelers): they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow” (385). Like the imperialists of old and the current English nostalgia for the British Empire, the immigrants—and the children of immigrants—cannot avoid an obsession with the past, with their families’, and their nation’s place in history. This business of living in a hybrid, liminal third-space is difficult; Irie, the hero, shows it is not impossible. Ultimately, Smith’s White Teeth offers readers a glimpse into a possible future where identity is less cultural and more personal, created not from outside forces but from the internal integrity of self-worth. In other words, Smith offers readers a way forward, a path that leads certainly out of the old racist colonial tropes, but also out of postcolonial bitterness. She envisions a world that is post-postcolonial, a world where each person can create her own history—and her own identity.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-322. 

Bhabha, Homi. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1117-1131.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. 1994. Routledge Classics, 2004. 

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914. Cornell University Press, 1988. 

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks. Routledge, 1992, pp. 21-39.

Katisko, Noora. Englishness Revisited: The Construction of Hybrid National Identities in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. 2011. University of Tampere. Pro Gradu Thesis.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “On Seeing England for the First Time.” Literature: The Human Experience, 11th ed., edited by Richard Abcarian, Marvin Klotz, and Samuel Cohen. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, pp. 508-515. 

Meredith, Paul. “Hybridity in the Third Space: Rethinking Bi-cultural Politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Te Oru Rangahau Maori Research and Development Conference, 7 July 1998, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Conference Presentation. 

Said, Edward. “Introduction to Orientalism.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1066-1079.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International, 2000.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 3rd ed., edited by David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 1087-1099.

Youngs, Tim. “Echoes of Empire.” British Library: Romantics and Victorians. 15 May 2014. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/echoes-of-empire

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