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Upon close analysis of four representatives of Fantastic Literature, it is clear that the roles of the female characters are diverse, distinct and often times unique. It is also interesting to view these characters and arrive at certain conclusions based on the gender of the writer. In these short stories each female character has a particular psyche and characteristics that vary from author to author. Interestingly, The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré is the only story that offers a critical social and feminist approach to the female characters. Zoé Jiménez Corretjer in the book, El Fantástico Femenino en España y América has said, “La literatura fantástica escrita por mujeres, es entonces, otro acto transgresor. No sólo en el aspecto de mujer como escritora se enfrenta contra esquemas patriarcales, sino como escritora de una realidad que escapa los límites de la lógica, apropiándose de las figuras fantásticas para utilizarlos como instrumento feminista”. In Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia the entire story seems to evolve around the character of Ligeia. The narrator immediately begins to speak of his love and obsession with Ligeia and has a glorified, idealistic ethereal view of her. He goes into every detail of her physical description. He begins the story by stating that he cannot remember certain details about Ligeia such as what her family name was or surprisingly where and how he met her. Yet he says, “There is one dear topic, however, on which my memory faileth me not. It is the person of Ligeia. In stature she was tall, somewhat slender, and in her latter days even emaciated. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the quiet ease of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall…I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead--it was faultless—how cold indeed that word when applied to majesty divine! The skin rivaling the purest ivory, the commanding
breadth and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples, and then the rave-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturallycurling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, “Hyacinthine;” II looked at the delicate outlines of the nose—and nowhere but in the graceful medallions of the Hebrews had I beheld similar perfection… I regarded the sweet mouth. Here was indeed the triumph of all things heavenly—the magnificent turn of the short upper lip—the soft, voluptuous repose of the under—the dimples which sported, and the colour which spoke—the teeth glancing back… (Poe 706)”. This detailed description can be categorized as obsessive and neurotic. He cannot remember under what circumstances they met yet he describes her physical appearance in minute detail. She is portrayed as being from another world instead of being a human being. It’s as if she is an angelic or spiritual being who forever walks on air. He continues his corporal description of her and to him her most outstanding features were her eyes. “For eyes we have no models in the remotely antique… They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad (Poe 706)”. All of her descriptions are exaggerated and embellished and the narrator mentions specific traits that she has from different cultures and he does this to create an exotic woman who does not reflect the established canons of beauty. For example, she is described as being delicate and extremely white, yet she has jet black hair and eyes and this does not conform to the traditional concept of beauty. Although the narrator also includes a view of Ligeia’s personality, she remains an aloof, distant character who is presented only through the narrator’s descriptions. In this sense Ligeia is controlled and manipulated by the narrator. He chooses what the reader will learn about her and he wants to form the reader’s perception of her. The narrator retains complete power over her character and seems to exist only for the egotistical, emotional and inspirational needs of the narrator. Even the description of her character
that he includes doesn’t reveal Ligeia—the woman. “…the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low, musical language, made their way into my heart by paces…(Poe 704)”. The only aspect of her personality is the emphasis on the strength of her will and she has will enough to resist and rebel against death. She seems to have such a strong and determined will that she seems to take possession of the Lady Rowena’s body and come back to her beloved. The reader must ask oneself if it’s actually Ligeia who has the strong will to defy death or in reality the narrator who exists in a world of opium and madness. Perhaps it’s more the narrator’s obsessive will that cannot accept the death of his beloved wife and muse and is driven to the point of destroying his new wife in the psychotic desire to resurrect his idealized Ligeia. The reader views an element of the fantastic or uncanny in the doubt or hesitation that occurs at the end of the story. Is Ligeia’s resurrection from the dead, a supernatural event or a hallucination by a man demented from grief, excessive use of opium or both? The other female character that appears in the story is the Lady Rowena. Again the narrator is in complete control and in her case is hateful and demeaning towards her. He dismisses her entirely and renders her generic and common. Again, he is in control of the view the readers might have and the reader is never allowed to enter into the thoughts of the female characters. In conclusion, although the reader is provided extensive descriptions of Ligeia and brief descriptions of Lady Rowena, both characters lack depth and any outstanding personal traits are absent. The narrator retains control and can be considered almost
godlike in his manipulation of these women. In reality the entire short story evolves around the narrator’s thoughts, feelings and desires. In Buried Statues by Antonio Benitez Rojo, the female characters are presented in a very different manner from Poe in Ligeia. The idealized, ethereal woman is substituted with a variety of female characters living in a strange and harsh environment. These women are never idealized or venerated but have been forced to survive in an environment that previously was a patriarchal system. This is evident when they continue to follow the rules, which they referred to as the Code of the dead grandfather. “This document that defined each person’s responsibilities and listed all the duties and punishments, we simply call the Code, and it had been signed by his three daughters and their husbands back when my grandfather was alive. The patriarchal commandments were set down in the Code…” (Benitez188). The women are now forced to make decisions and apparently the family has isolated itself from the outside world and the year 1963 is mentioned, we can assume that the Cuban Revolution has occurred and the family has chosen to remain isolated on their dilapidated mansion. The first female character that appears is the narrator who is a sixteen year old girl who spends her days with her younger sister Honorata and Aurelio, her cousin. Although she is a fairly mature young girl her actions change from childlike to actions of an adult at intervals. She seems to posses a mature personality but her actions reflect a lack of experience with men and life in general. She has been isolated from the world for so long that they have grown up with no experience and references to make decisions. There actions often reflect absurd and strange behavior that can be attributed to their isolated almost claustrophobic existence.
Honorata, her younger sister is innocent and childlike, yet sometimes her actions also reflect an absurdity and strangeness. An example of this is when she witnesses Aurelio rape her older sister and although she is a little shaken with the incident, mentions it later as a way of forcing her sister to go hunting butterflies. She threatens to tell the mother what she has witnessed unless they accompany her in her butterfly hunting; in such a nonchalant manner, that the reader is left with the impression that perhaps the rape never occurred. The other female characters in the story are pathetic and weak. The narrator’s mother is a drunk who perpetually remains in her state of stupor while trying to go through the motions of her daily chores. “Mother, who got terribly nervous when she wasn’t ‘under the influence’, would put her hand on her head to signal one of her migraines and burst into tears and then threaten, sobbing, to desert the house, yield up to the enemy her part of the joint ownership of the property”(Benitez 187). Her sister, Aunt Esther was a fearful woman who constantly had a Rosary in her had and was heard to be constantly praying. There is a third sister who is almost missed by the reader but upon careful re-reading it’s clear that something terrible occurred because the narrator refers to her as the sister that came between her Mother and Aunt Esther. “Not that don Jorge didn’t belong to the family—after all, he was Aurelio’s father; he had married the sister who came between Mother and Aunt Esther, the sister whose name nobody spoke any more”(Benitez 188). The two male figures are completely different from each other. Jorge is a quiet, peaceful man who prefers to avoid conflicts and will not intervene in the women’s arguments and differences. Don Jorge is a bland, passive character whose only show of
emotion is at the end when he’s described as crying after the disappearance of Aurelio. Aurelio is apparently the only virile male figure left on the estate and it’s clear that the aunts have nightly encounters with him and they give him special attentions and extra food in exchange for what seems to be sexual favors. They all keep violent and morbid relationship amongst themselves. The most enigmatic female figure is the girl who appears with a man at the family’s doorstep. She immediately captures everyone’s attention as being a special angel-like creature. She acts strangely and Aurelio is captivated by her presence. It is ultimately her arrival that signals the end or perhaps the beginning of a new way of life. At the end, again the elements of the fantastic are apparent and the reader must formulate his or her own conclusions. Did the girl and Aurelio jump over the wall and join society after the Cuban Revolution or was Aurelio enticed by the beautiful and angel-like girl who in reality was a butterfly waiting to liberate and free him? In Juan José Areola’s Cuento de horror we have another example of female characters developed from the perspective of the male writer. Since Cuento de horror is an extremely short story it’s necessary to analyze it almost word by word. Here is a case similar to Edgar Allan Poe of an obsessive, destructive love. The narrator says, “La mujer que amé se ha convertido en fantasma. Yo soy el lugar de sus apariciones” (Arreola). It’s clear that he no longer loves the woman because of the verb “amé” is in the past tense. He also says that she has turned into a ghost or phantasm but this can also mean that she is part of the past so she appears as a shadow or a ghost of what was once before. He also says that he is the place or locale of her apparitions. This could be taken literally and the reader can conclude that he is possessed by her ghost or spirit. It can also
be interpreted to mean that her spirit, soul or the memory of her resides within him; in his mind. The narrator seems to be at the mercy of this woman where she is in control and he merely a puppet for her desires. It is a truly a truly fantastic story since the story is open to varied interpretations including the possibility of dealing with a spirit of ghost or the possibility that the narrator is emotionally unstable and traumatized by a frustrated love. The Youngest Doll by Rosario Ferré is another short story which can be categorized in the Fantastic Literature genre and deals with important female characters and feminist views not present in Ligeia, Buried Statues or Cuento de horror. The central or main character in the story is the maiden aunt, a woman who has spent her life secluded in her home because of an accident she had when she was young. As a young woman she used to go bathing in the river and one day while swimming she was bitten in the calf by an animal. She later found out that she had been bitten by an angry river prawn. Since the doctor who saw her said that nothing could be done, she remained in the house never to leave it again. “She had been very beautiful, but the prawn under the long, gauzy folds of her skirt stripped her of all vanity. She locked herself up in the house, refusing to see any suitors” (Ferré 2). She dedicated her time to raising her sister’s children and they loved her very dearly. As they grew up she had the habit of making dolls that looked like each girl and by the time they were young women she had made more than a hundred dolls. The maiden aunt’s only true motivation in life was the confectioning of the dolls for her nieces. She took great pangs to complete the details of the dolls and each one was made to the height and details of each girl. Since the aunt loved the girls so much it could be said that a completion of a doll was equivalent to creating or giving birth and since she
knew she had been cheated out of any possibility of having biological children because of the prawn, these dolls were her offspring. Even the description of how she received and prepared the materials for their confection was detailed and at times gruesome and could be compared to the creation of Frankenstein. The description is so vivid that it’s as if she were a surgeon performing a delicate operation. “Then she would make a wax mask of the child’s face, covering it with plaster on both sides, like a living face sheathed in two dead ones. Then she would draw out endless flaxen thread of melted wax through pinpoint on her chin. The porcelain of the hands and face was always translucent; it had an ivory tint to it that formed a great contrast with the curdled whiteness of the bisque faces. For the body, the aunt would always send out to the garden for twenty glossy gourds. She would hold them in one hand and, with an expert twist of her knife, would slice them up and lean them against the railing of the balcony, so that the sun and wind would dry up the cottony guano brains out. After a few days, she would scrape off the dried stuff with a teaspoon and, with infinite patience, feed it into the doll’s mouth. The only items the aunt would agree to use in the birth of a doll that were not made by her with whatever materials came to her from the land, were the glass eyeballs” ( Ferré 3). As the girls began to marry the maiden aunt would make a special doll for them. These dolls were made to reflect their faces and bodies to the last detail. The only difference was that the hands and faces of the wedding doll looked less transparent than the other dolls she had made. But the greatest difference was the fact that the wedding doll was never stuffed with cotton but was filled with honey. Every time the aunt would give them their doll, she would say, “Here is your Easter Sunday” (Ferré 4). What she was announcing to them was the fact that each doll represented the opportunity of freedom for them and if the need arise; they would understand how the dolls could give them their freedom.
Ultimately, all the girls got married and the youngest girl was courted by the son of the doctor who had visited the maiden aunt for years and observed the progress of the growth of the grotesque prawn inhabiting her leg. When the doctor brought his son to the house and he examined the maiden he told his father that this could have been cured from the very beginning. The older doctor sardonically tells him, “That’s true, “his father answered, “but I just wanted you to come and see the prawn that has been paying for your education these twenty years” (Ferré 4). The young doctor finally marries the youngest niece and the maiden aunt takes even greater care in the creation of her wedding doll. There is a hint that the young doctor isn’t all he makes out to be when he is described in the following manner, “He would always show up for the visit wearing a pair of brightly polished shoes, a starched collar, and an ostentatious tiepin of extravagant poor taste”(Ferré 5). The niece decides to marry the young doctor and it seems rather absurd when she says, “She made up her mind to marry him because she was deathly curious to find out what dolphin flesh was like” (Ferré 5). The niece’s reason for marrying the young doctor may seem strange and illogical but it’s important to recognize the fact that she had been raised in an aristocratic home where women were kept isolated from the world and had limited experiences and knowledge. The idea of seeing dolphin flesh is symbolic of seeing the world and when she says that she was deathly curious it is also symbolic of the longing and desire to experience life in general. The final doll that the aunt created for her youngest niece had more detail than any of the other dolls and was considered her best creation. The doll’s descriptions seem strange, haunting and almost grotesque. “On her wedding day, as she was about to leave
the house, the youngest was surprised to find that the doll the aunt had given her as a wedding present was warm. As she slipped her arm around her waist, she examined her attentively, but quickly forgot about it, so amazed was she at the excellence of the craft. The doll’s face and hands were made of the most delicate Mikado porcelain, and in her half-open and slightly sad smile she recognized her full set of baby teeth. There was also another notable detail: the aunt had embedded her diamond eardrops in the doll’s pupils” (Ferré 5). The youngest niece marries the doctor’s son and takes the girl to live far away from her family. With time, the young doctor began to show his true character and at one point discovers the diamond eardrops that the aunt had embedded in the doll and removed them to buy an expensive watch. The young girl realizes that he is cruel and selfish. “Each day he made his wife sit out on the balcony, so that passersby would be sure to see that he had married into society. Motionless inside her cubicle of heat, the youngest began to suspect that it wasn’t just her husband’s silhouette that was made of paper, but his soul as well. One day he pried out the doll’s eyes with the tip of the scalpel and pawned them for a fancy gold pocket watch with a long, embossed chain. From then on the doll remained seated as always on the lid of the grand piano, but with her gaze modestly lowered”( Ferré 5). This atrocious act was an act of violence, cruelty and disfigurement. The aunt had probably given her the diamond earrings for an emergency, since it had become obvious that the young doctor was just as cruel as his father. When it says that the doll sat with her gaze modestly lowered, it refers to the youngest niece who has been abused emotionally and spiritually by her husband.
A few months later the husband noticed that the doll was missing and he asked about her whereabouts since he wanted to sell the porcelain hands and face. Here again he wanted to take her apart and disfigure her. She then tells him that the ants had eaten the doll because of the honey and had probably taken the porcelain underground to their tunnels. Since the husband is so mistrustful and cunning, he digs the ground around the house but finds nothing. The years passed and the doctor became a millionaire because of the youngest aristocratic links. The youngest continued to sit on the porch, looking on in the distance but with lowered eyelids. The doctor who continued aging noticed that his wife retained her porcelain skin. One night he decided to watch her as she slept and noticed her chest wasn’t moving. The story ends, “He gently placed his stethoscope over her heart and heard a distant swish of water. Then the doll lifted her eyelids, and out of the empty sockets of her eyes came the frenzied antennae of all those prawns” (Ferré 6). This truly is a fantastic story which contains elements of the supernatural and uncanny. All the stories mentioned in this analysis belong in the Fantastic Literature genre and each has presented females characters in different ways. To Poe, Ligeia is idealized and placed on a pedestal and yet her character lacks depth and substance. Although she is portrayed as a strong willed woman, strong enough to overcome death, we’re not really sure if these are the ideas of only the narrator since the reader is never given the chance to know what she feels, thinks and decides. Benitez Rojo in his Buried Statue changes from this idealized ethereal world into that of a hostile world where the female characters are left alone and unprotected. Each female character does the best that she can with her circumstances and deals with their uncertain precarious world. Arreola
in his story presents a female character that is strong, forceful and overpowering or perhaps the narrator is just a weak psychotic man who can’t deal with reality. Ferré is completely different and she sends a clear message of the defiance of the female spirit when confronted with overwhelming oppression and abuse. The older doctor can represent the old customs and traditions that historically have maintained women at the mercy of a patriarchal system. The younger doctor represents the continued attempt to oppress and control women, but in the youngest niece there is hope. She no longer has to endure the oppression that her aunt had to endure at the hand of a man. With the use of the doll, that her aunt provides, the youngest deceives and escapes the control and abuse of her husband. Although these works all deal with female characters, they each present a unique view of women and their complexities. Each author develops and presents his or her female characters in different settings and circumstances. In the development or lack of development of the characters, distinct ideas about how the author views women are apparent. Definitely, Fantastic Literature has included excellent female characters and it will continue to do so especially with the continued emergence of exceptional writers whose focus is the female spirit.
Arreola, Juan José. Cuento de horror. San Juan. Biblioteca Digital Cuidad Seva Online. http://www.ciudadseva.com/textos/cuentos/esp/arreola/horror.htm.
Benitez Rojo, Antonio. Buried Statues. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories. Brown and Wickham. New York: Oxford U P 1999. 187-199.
Ferré, Rosario. “The Youngest Doll.” Papeles de Pandora: The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 1-6.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Ligeia. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Bayam. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003. 704-714.
Arreola, Juan José. Cuento de horror. San Juan. Biblioteca Digital Cuidad Seva Online. http://www.ciudadseva.com/textos/cuentos/esp/arreola/horror.htm. Barrenechea, Ana María. “Ensayo de una tipología de la literatura fantástica”. Textos Hispanoamericanos. Caracas 1978. Benitez Rojo, Antonio. Buried Statues. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories. Brown and Wickham. New York: Oxford U P 1999. 187-199. Ciplijauskaité, Biruté. La novela femenina contemporánea (1970-1985): Hacia una Tipología de la narración en primera persona. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1988. Davies, Catherine. “Beastly Women and Underdogs: The Short Fiction of Doris Alonso” Women Writers in Twentieth Century Spain and Spanish America. New York: Edwin Mellon Press. 1993. DuBrin, Andrew J. Women in Transition. Springfield: Charles C. Publisher, 1972. “Entrevista con Antonio Benítez Rojo.” Literate World Online. 7 Dec. 2004. http://www.literateworld.com/spanish/2002/escritormes/june/w01/escritormes.html. Ferré, Rosario. “The Youngest Doll.” Papeles de Pandora: The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 1-6. Friedman, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,1974. Jiménez Corretjer, Zoé. El Fantástico Femenino en España y América. Rio Piedras: Editorial UPR, 2001. “Juan José Arreola: Reflexiones.” Amsterdam Sur. Online.1985. Httpp://www.desk.nl/~sur/arreola1.html. Paletta, Viviana, and Javier Sáez de Ibarra, eds. Cuentos de damas fantásticas. Madrid: Páginas de Espuma, 2002.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Ligeia. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Bayam. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003. 704-714.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Introducción a la literatura fantástica, Buenos Aires: Editorial Tiempo Contemporáneo, 1972.
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