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Critical Essay by Patricia Hart
SOURCE: "Magic Feminism in Isabel Allende's The Stories of Eva Luna," in Multicultural Literatures through Feminist/Poststructuralist Lenses, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1993, pp. 103-36.
In the essay below, Hart examines what she terms "feminocentric magic realism" in The Stories of Eva Luna, focusing on Allende's handling of such issues as prostitution and rape.
Magic used to show the reader what equality between the sexes should be is a key technique employed by Isabel Allende in The Stories of Eva Luna. In the long tradition of magic realism in Latin American letters, the point has never been to hold up an exact mirror to reality, but rather to reflect deeper truths about human nature, sociopolitical conditions, and mortality through what on the surface often appear flamboyant, contradictory, or impossible events. That is exactly what Allende does in this book with such major feminist concerns as prostitution, child abuse, and rape. Reality is transformed to force us to recognize truths about these subjects we may previously have ignored.
A lot of critics of Isabel Allende's first book, The House of the Spirits, seized on her blending of magic, hyperbole, and realism to insist that the book was a shallow rip-off of Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, not perceiving her vast fundamental differences from the Nobel laureate, or that most of the superficial similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude were ironic, even parodic. Such an evaluation reveals ignorance of the broad tradition of magic realism in Latin American fiction, assuming that García Márquez invented and patented the family saga or the mingling of the real, the hyperbolic, and the impossible. It also ignores the monolithic machismo that the tradition supposes. For example, any beginning student of Latin American literature knows that Alejo Carpentier's 1953 work, The Lost Steps, was a landmark mixture of the marvelous and the real, and reveres it as a hauntingly written masterpiece about the search for cultural identity by the male inhabitants of a continent. But most readers in the nineties also realize that its plot, in which the protagonist finds and loses a paradise largely defined by the fact that the women are unliberated short-order cooks, riverbank laundresses, and sex slaves, is also a sexist crock. We loved Vargas Llosa's The Green House and laughed out loud at Pantaleón and the Visitors, but we knew at the same time that this frivolity had little to do with the real-life miseries of prostitution. We venerate García Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch and One Hundred Years of Solitude, but before Love in the Time of Cholera we sometimes find his women incomprehensible monuments of masochism, inscrutable aliens from another planet. What better solution can there be to all of this than to make room on the shelf alongside the masters of the Latin American "Boom" for the works of Isabel Allende, a writer who, as T. S. Eliot might have observed, is often at her most original when her individual talents are at work in the business of bending tradition to fit herself!
The central purpose of my 1989 book, Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende, was to show that the function of magic in the Chilean's first three novels was so specific to the events that she describes (specifically, the coup that ended the presidency and life of Salvador Allende, and its aftermath) that it is absurd to accuse her of imitating García Márquez in general or One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular. Other critics have reached similar conclusions. For example, Juan Manuel Marcos has written eloquently that calling Allende an ape of García Márquez is like calling Cervantes a plagiarist of the chivalric tradition, and that Don Quixote is not a pale imitation of Amadís, but his parodic gravedigger ("Isabel viendo llover en Barataria"). Other critics, such as Gabriela Mora and Beth Miller, suggest that it is more appropriate to speak of the influence of Elena Garro on García Márquez.
Moreover, it is no surprise that Allende would have similarities to male authors in her continent's tradition. Writes Jean Franco in Plotting Women: "Women writers … who attempted to plot women as protagonists … could not but confront the fact that national identity was essentially masculine identity." In Narrative Magic I demonstrated that the way magic surfaces in the pre-coup period of The House of the Spirits coincides with a historical repression of women, and that in fact magic and superstition may be read there as a metaphor for female passivity, personified in the character of Clara. Thus in the early part of the novel, magic (whether in the context of religion, voodoo, or pseudoscience) can truly be said to be the opiate of the people, especially the female people. After the brutality of the coup, magic in the form of parlor tricks disappears completely from The House of the Spirits, and what surfaces instead is a generation of brave, active women, symbolized by Alba, women who are determined to make the happiness they do not find.
In Of Love and Shadows (1984) there were very few magically real touches, most having to do with the character of Evangelina Ranquileo, a young woman who daily falls into a sort of epileptic trance that apparently has curative powers for those around her. Once more this very magic leads to Evangelina's brutal death, a death that symbolizes the torture and murder of a whole class of meek, defenseless victims. Evangelina's "magic" and passivity are again contrasted with the hard-headed logic of the modern woman, represented by Irene Beltrán.
In Allende's third book, Eva Luna (1987), actual magic events are even harder to come by; still, the hyperbolic attitude toward nature and certain marvelous touches (notably the discovery of a fabulous "universal material" that can be molded to resemble any substance, which is, in fact, as much a metaphor for the transformation of matter through art as a literally "unnatural" phenomenon) make it fit into a category that I have invented for the works of Isabel Allende, but into which other works could surely fit: magic feminism. Reduced to simple terms, for me, magic feminism is feminocentric magic realism. Drawing from the work done on magic realism by Angel Flores, Luis Leal, Amaryll Beatrice Chanady, and many others, I spend thirty-seven pages in my book forging a definition of feminocentric magic realism, or magic feminism, demonstrating that it exists in other authors besides Allende, but that it has tended to be overshadowed in critical attention by the totally androcentic magic realism of authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others. For our purposes here, it will be enough for me to synthesize the conclusions I reached. Magic feminism occurs in works in which real and impossible (or wildly improbable) events are juxtaposed, when this juxtaposition is narrated matter-of-factly, and when the telling of the apparently impossible events leads to the understanding of deeper truths that hold outside of the text. In addition, conventional notions of time, place, matter, identity, or logical cause and effect are often challenged. The result of reading this may very well be to change the reader's perceptions of what reality is or should be. When these processes occur in a feminocentric work, a work centered on women, their status, and their condition, we may speak of magic feminism.
The feminocentricity of The Stories of Eva Luna is evident in many ways, beginning literally with the female narrator, Eva, who is at the center. The twenty-three stories of this collection are all narrated by the picaresque heroine of Allende's novel, Eva Luna; thus, Eva's voice is the unifying thread, and what she can have experienced or been told is the limiting factor. These are stories we heard about in the novel, but never listened to, and they present broadly Eva's view of her world. Like a rogue in the best tradition of the Spanish pícaro, Eva has run the gamut of her society from top to bottom, and in the tales she relates its three most powerful groups are represented—the Catholic church, the army, and the landed gentry—as are the poor, the alienated, and the defenseless—sheepherders on the pampas, dispossessed Indians, Jewish immigrants, circus performers, prostitutes, housewives, and children.
Like the James Joyce of Dubliners, Allende builds each of these stories to a moment of epiphany, and like the Edith Wharton of Roman Fever, she poises her characters on the brink of social change, so that they often seem to be struggling with one foot in the nineteenth century and one in the twentieth. Says Susan Lyman-Whitney, "Let other writers chronicle the small details—Allende describes the central moments in her characters' lives. It is in these central moments that Allende's magic feminism is most apparent.
Some readers will be surprised that I am extending my discussion of magic feminism to include [The Stories of Eva Luna], as they may point out that miracles or literally magic events occur in only a few stories. Hyperbole and a sense of marvel extend to many more, however, and even more important than that, I will show how probability, logic, and cause and effect are systematically contraverted in order to change our perceptions of reality with regard to key feminist issues. Here are no flying saltcellars and no clairvoyant housewives. Instead, we have a female narrator, Eva, who selects, bends, and warps events in order to portray life not as it is, but as it could be if men and women loved each other and themselves better.
To demonstrate more clearly what I mean by magic realism used to highlight feminist concerns, it will be useful to isolate two specific issues, prostitution and rape, and show how they are dealt with by Allende in these stories, and how reality is bent and distorted in order to make the dimensions of the problems clear to us and to suggest some survival techniques.
If we begin with prostitution, we see at once that although Allende's work grows out of the Latin American narrative tradition and shows an awareness of the Boom authors, its feminist focus differentiates it sharply from that of her male predecessors. In stark contrast to the recurring male fantasy of the hooker with the heart of gold so beloved of Vargas Llosa and others, Allende treats prostitution with emotional reality. Her transformations of reality—the "magic" to which I alluded earlier—serve to highlight a contrasting female point of view on the subject, a point of view notoriously unexpressed in the frivolous treatment of this subject by male authors.
"Toad's Mouth" is the first story in the collection that deals with prostitution. In it, a lone woman, Hermelinda, sells herself to sheepherders on the cold southern plains, inventing erotic games to alleviate their boredom. In the one alluded to in the title, a man who succeeds in tossing a coin that lodges in her vagina from a distance of four paces earns two hours alone with her. With this crude parody of the Cinderella myth, Allende is not out to prove that she can be as raunchy and insensitive as her male counterparts, but to expose the fairytale brainwashing. The "perfect fit" that in Cinderella is coyly expressed as shoe size here is rendered literally. In the fairy tale, the prince offers a palace, riches, and station; Cinderella, her virtue and her beauty. Here the equation is noted in vigorous shorthand—the woman offers sex and the man money.
The negative impact of fairy tales on the education of young girls is now widely recognized, and few embody this negative impact more clearly than the Cinderella story. In The Cinderella Complex, Colette Dowling argues that it represents "personal, psychological dependency—the deep wish to be taken care of by others," and that this wish "is the chief force holding women down today." She defines the problem thus:
I call this "The Cinderella Complex"—a network of largely repressed attitudes and fears that keeps women in a kind of half-light, retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity. Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives.
Allende's description of the coin toss by the drunken Asturian Pablo is parodic in the highest degree of the arrival of the shining prince charming:
Pablo squinted, exhaled a deep breath, and after a second or two of absolute concentration, tossed his coin. Everyone watched as it formed a perfect arc and entered cleanly in the slot. A salvo of applause and envious whistles celebrated the feat. Nonchalantly, the smuggler hitched up his pants, took three steps forward, seized Hermelinda's hand and pulled her to her feet, prepared to prove in his two hours that she could not do without him.
This merciless skewering of works like Vargas Llosa's Green House or Pantaleón and the Visitors makes clear that the idealization of prostitution is clearly a male fantasy, not a female reality. When Hermelinda emerges after these sexual Olympics with "a new expression in her eyes and a satisfied swish to her memorable rump," the surface message is that Hermelinda had been lost and Pablo "saved" her. Yet how are we to take that seriously when concrete objects in the story itself move us to doubt the authenticity of such salvation? Dowling explores women's attraction to this dubious kind of redemption:
The wish to be saved. We may not always recognize it … but it exists within us all, emerging when we least expect it, permeating our dreams, dampening our ambitions. It's possible that a woman's wish to be saved goes back to the days of cave living, when man's greater physical strength was needed to protect mothers and children from the wild. But such a wish is no longer appropriate or constructive. We do not need to be saved.
Hermelinda is happy-go-lucky and economically secure as the story begins, and, in fact, the ending further perverts the notion of her being saved by her prince, as actually it is she who turns over her savings to Pablo at the end, not vice versa! But if Hermelinda does not really need to be saved by the Asturian, then what is the point of this story? The title sets us back on the track of a more interesting interpretation. "Toad's Mouth" is the name for a popular game of skill in the Hispanic world—Allende calls it boca de sapo, but it also frequently appears as la rana. Her decision to use the male word toad (for any larger and more grotesque amphibian of the Bufonidae family known popularly for their propensity to bloat up) instead of the female word frog (a smaller and to some minds less repulsive creature) emphasizes the parodic possibilities of the story. In this game there is a table with a representation of a frog or toad with an open mouth, into which players toss small coins, pebbles, or other tokens as a test of dexterity. By using Hermelinda's sex organs as the game table, Allende pointedly indicates that the sex act is not an expression of love but rather a game of skill for many men. An inanimate game is magically transformed into human flesh to make the reader see literally how women are degraded when sex becomes sport. Moreover, the game reveals an almost pathological gynophobia in its inevitable association of the grotesque swelling of the toad with pregnancy. At the story's end, the transformation from an animate to an inanimate game is reversed, again to cruel comic ends:
The dismay occasioned by Hermelinda's departure was so great that to divert the workmen, the management of Sheepbreeders, Ltd. … had an enormous open-mouthed ceramic toad imported from London so the drovers could refine their skill in coin tossing, but before a general indifference, [this toy] ended up on the superintendent's terrace, where as dusk falls the English still play with [it] to combat their boredom.
Through the use of subtle "magic" transformations—the game from inanimate to animate and back to inanimate—and the parodic use of fairy-tale structure, Allende has thus used magic feminism to unravel several male myths about prostitution.
In the other four stories in the collection in which prostitution figures, the refusal to accept male glamorizing of the profession is even more clear.
In "The Proper Respect," Abigail McGovern "knew how to make the most of the only commodity she possessed, and by the time she was twenty-five, she had a handful of diamonds sewed into the hem of her petticoat." The former prostitute leaves the profession much as Hermelinda of "Toad's Mouth" did, for a macho swaggerer who promises protection and respectability, and once more, in contrast to the Cinderella story, the prostitute hands her earnings over to the "prince," not the other way around. Domingo Toro is a bootlegger and arms trafficker turned exploitative businessman, and together he and Abigail become sycophantic embracers of bourgeois values in their attempt to climb socially. Once again, the Cinderella myth is perverted here. Unlike Garry Marshall's recent film retelling of the story Pretty Woman, in which the young prostitute discovers that society deems it perfectly all right to sell your sexual and emotional favors if you do it to just one man, and that if you only show this restraint you can mingle easily with the upper crust (and maybe even get your GED out of it!), Abigail McGovern is permanently hardened and deformed by her early activities: "She was a practical person totally devoid of romantic notions, and if once there had been a seed of tenderness in her, the years she had spent on her back had destroyed it." Allende, who for all her magic touches is much more of a realist than director Marshall, knows that the moneyed classes strenuously resist intrusion from the lower ranks. In order to demonstrate this. Allende once again resorts to a plot device that is hyperbolic, grandiose, wildly uncommon, if not entirely impossible, Abigail and Domingo finally buy acceptance by staging her kidnapping by a "terrorist" gang, and then pretending to ransom her back with an "impossible" sum of money: "People wildly exaggerated the figure, crediting to him a payment much greater than any man would have given for his wife, least of all his." It is this imaginary excess, the reverse "Ransom of Red Chief," this fantasy payment of an impossible sum of money that at last buys the Toro-McGoverns' access to the inner sanctum of high society. The impossible or unreal event—here, the payment that is much spoken of, though it never took place—is the touch Allende employs to make us see more clearly the perversity of the bourgeois mores enveloped in the Cinderella myth. The myth itself, in which a poor but virtuous young girl finds an economic solution to her life through attracting a prince, is revealed as nothing more than selective prostitution.
In "Simple María," Allende explodes a different male myth, that popular staple of pornography and novels by male authors of the Boom, that many prostitutes are drawn into selling their bodies not through economic desperation but through vocation, or, to put it bluntly, because they just can't get enough sex. This "happy hooker" myth may be exploited for gain by females who take advantage of males' wish to believe it (and Xaviera Hollander's "literary" success is a clear example of this), but it is certainly male writers who have propagated the notion in the mainstream of Hispanic fiction. For example, the young boys emotionally crippled by war and the subsequent fascist dictatorship in Spaniard Juan Marsé's 1973 novel Site dicen que caí (If They Tell You I Have Fallen) either invent or glamorize a puta roja (red whore), whose motives they explain by simply calling her una viciosa (a pervert). In Men in Love: Men's Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love Over Rage, Nancy Friday suggests that this exaggeration of the prostitute's ecstasy is just an expedient that masks hidden homosexual desires in the men who want to sleep with a woman whose profession marks her by definition as a sexual partner shared with other men: "The prostitute was used [by certain men] merely as a conduit to communicate emotions to one another that they'd become violent to hear named aloud." This exaggeration of the prostitute's supposed ecstasy, whether a mask for latent homosexuality or not, has at its base a belief that prostitutes are that mythical creature, the nymphomaniac.
Contemporary psychologists do not even like to use the word "nymphomaniac," finding that it is pejorative and meaningless. As Annette G. Godow asks in Human Sexuality, "At what point does an individual's sexual desire become excessive?" Herant A. Katchadourian and Donald T. Lunde in The Fundamentals of Human Sexuality go on to observe that the notion of the oversexed female, or nymphomaniac, was maintained long after its male equivalent, the satyr, had fallen from common usage. Moreover, they say that the concept was used in the early nineteenth century in Europe and the United States as a pretext for mutilative female circumcision (called declitorization) in treatment for "masturbation and nymphomania." Because the term is "extremely imprecise and [carries] negative connotations," Godow recommends scrapping not only it but also the concept it has so long represented: "It is unfortunate that in this culture individuals, especially females, who have a high sex drive are encouraged to perceive themselves as having a serious problem." Contemporary psychologists view as a problem not a person's degree of sex drive but behavior that may be dangerous or counterproductive. Says Godow: "An individual may engage in high levels of sexual activity because other areas of life are lacking in satisfaction, but this is probably better defined as a problem in living than as specifically a sexual problem." Choosing to sell sex, then, is clearly a "life problem" more than a problem of being someone's notion of "oversexed." In "Simple María," Isabel Allende once more uses hyperbole and the bending of conventional logic to bring about a magical epiphany in us—the reevaluation of that popular icon, the prostitute as nymphomaniac.
In the first place, María is a psychological rarity. The story begins with the flat statement, "Simple María believed in love." With this assertion, Allende makes clear that she is pre-paring the ultimate portrait of the "hooker with the heart of gold." In her discussion of stereotypes of females in literature in Thinking About Women, Mary Ellman writes that the image of prostitutes as "cooperative and uncritical women" is now so generalized as to be the norm rather than the exception:
The whore has recently been revived as a special variety of Formlessness. Her old sentimental value—the heart of gold the rude true ore—is modified. Her goodness now is not a surprise or a discovery, contrary to her occupation; it is her occupation.
So it is with Simple María. A prostitute with "refined features and manner" who believes in love is an anomaly from the start, but Allende takes care to endow her with hyperbolic stature through "the legend that had been created around her." María's fame is based on her ability to submerge her clients "in the whirlpool of sincere passion," and "even if briefly, to sell the illusion of love." But this woman who sells simulated ecstasy is hardly held up as an example of healthy passion. Quite the contrary, her condition is presented as the result of two traumatic shocks in her past: a locomotive that struck her at age twelve and the death of her young son from a falling trunk lid. The undermining of the popular male erotic fantasy is cleverly achieved, then. It is not, Allende shows us, that the figure of a truly "happy hooker" is an impossibility; it is only as unlikely as being struck by a train and surviving just to be brutalized by a malevolent sea trunk. What is more, the figure of María makes clear that male-authored fictional portraits of "insatiable" prostitutes are often thinly disguised panic at the female capacity for multiple sexual experience. Allende underlines this when she says of María's first erotic adventure, "Dazed, María discovered her own potential; she dried her tears, and asked for more."
In Images of Women in Literature, Mary Ann Fergusen asserts that this capacity arouses more fear than admiration in some men: "By the curious workings of masculine logic, a woman's unlimited capacity for sexual performance—documented by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson—is seen not as admirable but as frightening." Fear is indeed the response that Simple María evokes in her first lover, the Greek:
The Greek … was incapable of valuing the gift this woman offered to him. [He] longed to escape from the moist, tumid, inflamed woman with the face of a child who called him incessantly, convinced that the widow he had seduced on the high seas had become a perverse spider who would devour him like a defenseless fly in the tumult of their bed. In vain he sought alleviation for his threatened virility….
María discovers this "potential," and the Greek feels "threatened virility" in the face of it. What has seemed at least a hyperbolic case of "nymphomania" is in reality more like a metaphor for a frightened male reaction to female sexual capacity.
More possibly supernatural activity occurs when María decides that her life has gone on long enough and that it is time for her to die. From the making of this categorical decision until her wake begins, only a few hours elapse. If we take the matter-of-fact narration of this event literally, we must conclude that her willing her own death is at least marvelously inexplicable in medical terms. Such control over life and death abounds in García Márquez, from Eréndira's grandmother, who is so hard to kill, to the Mamá Grande, who is still powerful from the grave. However, the text offers another possible explanation: "Someone suggested that she might have swallowed poison." Such ambiguity between the rational and the supernatural explanation for an odd event is an earmark of fantastic fiction, not magic realism, and links Allende to a vast separate set of predecessors such as Poe, Maupassant, Mary Shelley, and many others. Thus, whether you read this story as hyperbolic realism, magic feminism, or, possibly, fantastic feminism, the result is the same: the deconstruction of a glowing popular canard that hides an ugly reality with regard to prostitution, namely, that prostitutes are aberrant women with insatiable capacities for sex. Actually, the myth is wrong on both counts, Allende's story argues. A capacity for multiple sexual activity is not aberrant in women, but inherently natural (though often underdeveloped), and the selling of sex relies on another, much less romantic truism about female sexuality as opposed to the male's: women can have intercourse whether they are aroused or not. Thus real-life prostitution is more likely to take advantage of female apathy than a mythical "nymphomania." Says Fergusen:
Once again "anatomy is destiny." Because women are capable of sexual intercourse without being aroused, using them against their will is possible and therefore justifiable: like Mt. Everest, women are climbed simply because they are there…. Male fantasy adds to the stereotype the characteristic of willingness: the famous heroines of pornography, such as Fanny Hill and the mysterious O, are so conditioned to pleasing that they share in or even exult in their own exploitation and thus invite brutality.
Allende's María, enthusiastic, not apathetic, and in control rather than controlled, is on closer examination not an imaginary male sexual fantasy but a contravention of a series of popular myths. Our vision of this reality has been unsettled and redefined by the author's "magic feminism."
In "Walimai," the grotesque reality of sex for sale is even more clearly dealt with. Unlike García Márquez's Eréndira, who services infinite hordes of men and emerges unscathed and triumphant, in this story a young Indian woman, tied by her ankle to satisfy endless rubber workers in the jungle, finds only degradation and death.
Even the horrendous scenes from "Eréndira" are stylized and unreal compared to this, and although humiliation and pain seemed to roll off the Colombian's heroine like water, here the psychological wounding is lethal. Consider this stark description that Walimai gives on first seeing the prostitute:
She lay naked on her straw mat, tied by one ankle to a chain staked in the ground, sluggish, as if she had breathed in the "yopo" of the acacia; she had the smell of sick dogs and she was wet with the dew of all the men who had covered her before me.
Here is no scene of artificial convention that can be run away from with luminous red footprints in surreal sand. The suffering Allende imagines here is so intense that no psychological defense mechanism short of death will allow the young woman to escape from her psychic wounds. Once more Allende contrives a fascinating mixture of stark realism and magic. The descriptions of the young prostitute and of miseries among the rubber workers is realistic, but it is given a marvelous flavor by the point of view of the thrice-removed narrator, captured Indian warrior Walimai (of course, Allende is really telling the story, but she uses the convention that Eva is narrating it. Eva, in turn, "pretends" that this story is told by Walimai). Walimai views the white man's acts as inexplicable and tells us, "I stayed only to see whether I could learn anything, but from the beginning I knew I would return to my people. Nothing can hold a warrior against his will." When Walimai sees the young prostitute and recognizes her as a member of the Ila tribe who begs for death as a release from her suffering, he poisons her with a knife dipped in curare. The rest of the story is clearly magically real, as it is the narration of the warrior's transporting of the woman's soul inside his body—"our body," as he now calls it—to her final resting place, far from the makeshift brothel where he killed her. Once more, the literally impossible event (the sharing of one body by two souls) brings us to a profound psychological truth: the burden to the souls of honorable men that the existence of prostitution imposes.
Marriage that can become prostitution is candidly discussed in "The Gold of Tomás Vargas." In it, Vargas is a miserly old skinflint who beats his wife, Antonia Sierra, denies her any of his legendary hidden hoard of gold for the management of the household, and compounds her suffering when he impregnates young Concha Díaz and brings her home to live with the family. But the maneuver backfires as Antonia and Concha sympathize with each other and unite to stop his physical abuse. Later, when Vargas loses heavily while gambling and tries to dig up his hoard to pay off, the gold has disappeared—as does Vargas himself! The death of a welsher at cards is considered right and just in the community: "In Agua Santa they could tolerate a man who mistreated his family, a man who was lazy and a troublemaker, who never paid back money he borrowed, but gambling debts were sacred."
In cards, a man who doesn't pay up gets death in the end. But the real winner is not the Lieutenant who was deprived of his winnings. He gains nothing but a nebulous sense of satisfaction. By contrast, Vargas's two "wives" are freed from his tyranny: "The two women lived on together, happy to help each other in bringing up their children and in the many vicissitudes of life." There is also the suggestion that they are the very ones who dug up the hidden gold, as on his death, they become suddenly prosperous:
Not long after the burial they bought hens, rabbits, and pigs: they rode the bus to the city and returned with clothes for all the family. That year they repaired the house with new lumber, they added two rooms, they painted the house blue, they installed a gas stove, and they began a cookery business in their home. Every noon they went out with all their children to deliver meals … and so they made their way out of poverty and started off down the road to prosperity.
In the eyes of the town, Vargas has been killed for refusing to pay a gambling debt. Reading between the lines here, however, we can see that he has also been punished for not paying the debt for sex and services he owed Antonia and Concha. If a man will diminish marriage to the level of sex for sale, the text suggests, then he must pay up or pay the consequences.
This discussion of prostitution has demonstrated that Allende consistently uses the hyperbolic or the magic to contravert stereotypes that have been given wide circulation by her own male contemporaries in Latin America. Literally magic events such as Pablo's hypnotic gaze and infallible aim in "Toad's Mouth," María's willing her own death in "Simple María," or Walimai's sharing of his body with another soul, are joined to hyperbole (the ransom paid or not for Abigail McGovern in "The Proper Respect," Simple María's legendary sexual prowess, or the mysterious disappearance of the famous fortune in "The Gold of Tomás Vargas") are all used to condemn prostitution in either its legal or illegal forms. But the most clearly feminist "magic" element of all is the way Allende manipulates these stories to achieve a perilous happy ending so rare in real life as to create a marvelous feeling of unreality in the reader as we encounter them here. Justice is done, clients are gentlemanly for the most part, and the occasional abuser is punished. Prostitutes alternately rise to high society, win the unadulterated respect of the whole neighborhood, ride off into the sunset with Prince Charming, enjoy unending climaxes, evade the domination of pimps, and escape degradation completely to a magic land of tropical birds and flowers. Ultimately, this preponderance of sparing the prostitutes from pain is not proof of a naïve view of the world's oldest profession but evidence that author Allende is a merciful goddess who chooses to stay the punishment of her fictional children whenever she feels sure the reader gets the point (and the characters have already suffered enough). When taken together, these events make clear that the text leans if not frankly toward supernatural impossibility, then certainly toward improbability. Here, improbability is one more tool in Isabel Allende's magic feminism for exploding male-supported stereotypes.
The second major feminist concern I would isolate in these stories is rape and other forms of violence against women. In her treatment of the theme of rape, it is even more clear that Allende uses the plot device of a wildly improbably outcome to devastate certain sexist myths.
One of the most common and damaging societal misconceptions about rape is that women actually want to be raped—that "no" really means "maybe" or even "yes." Mary Ann Fergusen points to male writers such as Norman Mailer who have extended the damaging myth that "women might as well relax and enjoy rape." On the "rape fantasy" from both the male and female viewpoint, Nancy Friday, after several years of collecting and studying accounts of both male and female sexual fantasies writes [in Men in Love]:
Rape or force may be the most popular theme in female fantasy (though I've yet to meet a woman who wouldn't run a mile from a real rapist), but men's fantasies of overpowering women against their will are the exception. A closer reading will usually reveal that the woman is a volunteer or has given her consent first.
A common rationalization in a rape fantasy, then, is that the woman raped actually offered consent. The rationalization extends to men who actually carry out rapes, according to A. Nicholas Groth in Men Who Rape: "Frequently the power rapist denies that the sexual encounter was forcible. He needs to believe that the victim wanted and enjoyed it." Indeed, society as a whole often subscribes to this devastating myth. Groth continues:
One of the most persistent myths about rape is that the victim in some way was party to the offense: she was seductive or provocative and "only got what she asked for."… Issues of provocation are really ridiculous when one realizes that the victims of rapists include males as well as females, and occupy all age categories from infancy to old age. Places of assault have varied…. There is no place, season, or time of day in which a rape has never occurred, nor any specific type of person to whom it has never happened.
In spite of this, many victims themselves are confused about their right to say no. Write Margaret T. Gordon and Stephanie Riger in The Female Fear, "If … a woman … is forced, others may think that although she resisted she 'really wanted it,' that she 'asked for it,' or that somehow it was 'her own fault.'" Considering this, on the surface it is initially all the more difficult to understand that in this collection there are two stories in which rape is transformed from a crime of violence into a preamble to love. In both "The Judge's Wife" and "Revenge," we find a rapist who falls in love with his victims, a love that, even more startlingly, the victims return. In each case, this passion costs the rapist his life. This double occurrence may very well be the most unbelievable event Allende has ever described, much harder to believe than Clara del Valle's playing the piano with the lid down or the peripatetic Indian mummies Blanca encounters.
For a rapist to be punished is rare enough, experts tell us. According to Susan Brownmiller in her landmark 1975 book Against Our Will, "clearance," or the arrest of the offender, is statistically much lower with rape than with murder or aggravated assault. Only petty theft has a lower arrest rate. Beyond this, Brownmiller asserts that a conservative estimate is that only one in five rapes is even reported. But for two rapists' lives to be ruined because of remorse in a culture that regards rape with a great deal of tolerance sounds rarer than an orchid rain or an insomnia plague! This fact of plotting alone deviates far enough from normal cause and effect for us to place the text in the realm of the unreal. Can these be feminist texts? Some feminists spend a lot of time debating what feminist fiction should be. Should it denounce existing problems (often portraying women as weak victims), or would it do better to show us role models (often portraying superwomen whose exploits leave us intimidated and depressed)? Should it hold up a mirror to reality? But mirroring alone may not insure objectivity; women readers and writers have been strongly influenced by thousands of years of male writers and critics suggesting where to put the mirror. I think that feminist fiction can and should do anything it wants to, and that a movement that offers women choices in their lives should produce fiction of dizzying variety by women of different races, classes, nations, and ideologies. Because of this I believe that Allende's examination of rape, though vastly different from the treatment the subject receives in most North American feminist writers, is an important addition to the feminist canon, perhaps even more so because of her unusual outlook.
In "The Judge's Wife," a touch of magic realism begins the story: Nicolás Vidal is an outlaw with a curse hanging over him. The first line of the story reads, "Nicolás Vidal had always known that a woman would cost him his life." The clairvoyant proprietress of the general store (and clairvoyants are inevitably feminine in Allende's work) confirms the prophecy of the midwife at his birth (on noting that he had four nipples) that a woman would bring about his death. In order to avoid the curse, Vidal, like Laius, takes steps that instead of protecting him actually help to cause his downfall.
Vidal is the illegitimate son of a prostitute, Juana la Triste, and an unknown father, and was born in the town's bordello. Thus this story provides a bridge between the previous discussion of prostitution and rape—namely, that the degradation of women through prostitution transmits a rapist mentality to the children of sex for sale. "He had no business in this world," the text tells us, "and his mother knew it." In fact, Vidal's life is nearly over before it begins: "She had tried to tear him from her womb by means of herbs, candle stubs, lye douches, and other brutal methods, but the tiny creature had stubbornly hung on." As in the previously discussed stories where prostitution figures, these crude attempts at self-abortion do anything but glamorize the profession. Vidal's subsequent sexual liaisons are with other women in the profession of his mother, "limiting himself to hasty encounters aimed at outwitting loneliness." Because of his outcast status, Vidal becomes an outlaw and soon leads a violent gang of desperadoes blamed for all the misdeeds in the region. His archenemy, Judge Hidalgo, uses a hideous scheme to try to capture him:
The only bait he had been able to think of was Juana la Triste…. The Judge collected Juana from the whorehouse where she was scrubbing floors and cleaning latrines for want of clients willing to pay for her miserable services, and threw her into a made-to-measure cage he then placed in the very center of the Plaza de Armas, with a jug of water as her only comfort.
"When her water runs out, she'll begin to scream. Then her son will come, and I will be waiting with soldiers," said the Judge.
Vidal outwits the Judge by outlasting him. He simply counts on the Judge's giving in before his mother dies. "We'll see who has more balls, the Judge or me," Vidal says, unperturbed. Eventually the Judge's wife, Casilda, a wraithlike creature who is described much like Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits as "blurred ectoplasm," intervenes, and Juana la Triste is released. But even here Allende emphasizes the dehumanization through which her status in the town as prostitute leads her to a violent death:
The following day … Juana la Triste … hanged herself on a lamppost of the whorehouse where she had spent her life, because she could not bear the shame of having been abandoned by her son in that cage in the center of the Plaza de Armas.
The very name of the plaza, Plaza de Armas (Arms Plaza), emphasizes the male codifying and sanctifying of violence accepted by the community at the expense of an innocent woman. Vidal, who would not rescue his mother, now determines to avenge her: "He … had not a single happy memory of his childhood; this, however, was not a question of sentiment, it was a matter of honor. No man can tolerate such an offense." Vidal sets out after the Judge, intending to kill him, but the Judge and his family have left town for the seaside. On their way Judge Hidalgo has a heart attack at the wheel and the family car careens off the road. Knowing that Vidal will soon arrive bent on revenge, Casilda hides the children in a nearby cave and prepares to gain time and thus save her children by offering herself as a rape victim to Vidal and his band. When Vidal arrives, however, he is alone, and just as in the rape fantasy of a male aggressor, there is a kind of consent given by Casilda:
For several seconds they took each other's measure in silence, calculating the other's strength, estimating their own tenacity, and accepting the fact they were facing a formidable adversary. Nicolás Vidal put away his revolver, and Casilda smiled.
In their work Understanding the Rape Victim, Sedelle Katz and Mary Ann Mazur write that "active resistance on the part of the victim has been part of the criterion of rape since humankind's earliest records." Male custodians of the law have exacted from women physical proof (generally consisting of bruises and wounds), that she did not consent to the rape. As recently as 1972, New York State Assemblyman Joseph F. Lisa stated flatly to Redbook magazine:
When the defiled female says, "That is the gentleman who raped me," we need corroboration. If her jaw is broken, for example, that is proof of force. Otherwise, how do we know she was raped? The difference between rape and romance is a very thin line.
It is only in recent years that "the courts sometimes take into account other means of coercion into submission, such as intimidation with a weapon and verbal threats which render a victim helpless to resist."
But what this male-invented test for consent ignores is that resisting a rape may cost a woman her life. Carolyn J. Hursch in The Trouble With Rape recounts a case study of a man who raped and murdered nine women:
When asked what he would do now if he were free and started to rape a woman who tried to physically resist him, he immediately answered that he would kill her. His history bears this out. He raped many women over a period of time and enjoyed hearing them plead with him, cry, moan, and curse him. But if they attempted to get away or to physically fight with him in any way, something snapped inside him and the women ended up strangled. He did not consciously decide to kill them; it just happened as though he were programmed to do it.
All of these examples are taken from North American sources on the crime of rape because they were much more readily available. This does not mean, however, that the societal pressure on the Latina is less great. To the contrary, María del Drago speaks to Ms. magazine about "twin macho assumptions of Latin culture" that make it even more difficult for a Latina to report or prove rape, "that a woman belongs to a man; and that a woman dishonored by belonging to more than one man is herself at fault, as sinful as Eve."
In fact, these harmful stereotypes seem to have existed in any time or place about which we have information. Sources as varied as the Bible (see Deuteronomy 22:13-29, for example) and the Tablets of Ebla, covering a period from 2400 to 2250 B.C., portray men as demanding from the dawn of civilization that rape victims offer up sacrifices ranging from broken bones to their very lives in order to prove that they did not consent. Therefore, it is probably more appropriate than was initially apparent for Allende to set her story in a gray area of consent that deserves fictional as well as legal scrutiny.
At the outset, Casilda is coerced by her dramatic need to save the lives of her children. She is threatened by a dangerous criminal, a man who is larger and stronger than she and who carries a gun while she is unarmed. However, when he lays the gun aside and Casilda smiles, Allende asks us to remember that consent is a heart-wrenchingly terrible issue that cannot be seen in black and white terms. Such an examination of the nuances of rape is very brave on Allende's part. Nevertheless, the scene that follows is for me one of the most uncomfortable ones in all of Allende's fiction. What begins as a rape turns into a seduction, and the line is now blurred between Casilda as victim and Casilda as courtesan or prostitute, who pays with sex for her life and the lives of her children:
The Judge's wife earned every instant of the next hours. She employed all the seductive tricks recorded since the dawn of human knowledge, and improvised others out of her need to gratify the man's every dream. She not only played on his body like a skilled performer, strumming every chord in the pursuit of pleasure, she also called upon the wiles of her own refinement.
Few North American women writers would have dared or cared to attempt a scene like this, and it is this very fearlessness in Allende that makes her constantly challenge what is acceptable to write about and what is not. Here, the would-be rapist finds himself enamored of his victim:
With every minute the guardias were riding closer and closer, and, with them, the wall of the firing squad: but he was also closer, ever closer, to this stupendous woman, and he gladly traded the guardias and the wall for the gifts she was offering him.
The just-widowed Casida's feelings are also given uncomfortable descriptions that seem to come straight from the pages of a male-authored porno novel:
Casilda was a modest and shy woman; she had been married to an austere old man who had never seen her naked. She did not forget for one instant throughout that memorable afternoon that her objective was to gain time, but at some point she let herself go, marveling at her own sensuality, and somehow grateful to Vidal.
How close this scene is to the male rape fantasies described by Nancy Friday in Men in Love! What begins as rape ends up with the victim grateful to the rapist: "Even in the grimmest S & M fantasy … pain and humiliation of the woman … are means toward an end: forcing her to admit to transports of sexual joy she has never known before." If Allende had ended the story here, that would have been her right, although many of us would have had very serious objections. But the "magical" transformation of yet another fairy tale (the male sexual fantasy of rape as a means of overcoming the hangups of uptight females in order to give them "what they really want") is made clear by the price the rapist pays in the end for his actions—death. The story ends not with Vidal reformed, transformed into a charming prince, and married to Casilda, but with the bandit facing a firing squad. In reality, the story, which appears to cater to a male fantasy, surprises us at the end by satisfying two deep and all-but-impossible female fantasies with regard to rapists: first, that they should feel remorse, concern, or other emotions for their victims, and second, that their punishment should be as severe as anything the society permits. In this case, by administering the death penalty to her sex offender, Allende casts great doubt on whether the story should be read at face value. Moreover, the reader, whose first reaction might be to think that Allende has confused rape with a crime of passion instead of a crime of violence, would do well to re-read, and to notice that the motive for the rape is actually clearly expressed as revenge against Vidal's enemy, Judge Hidalgo. On this closer reading we see that the violent desire for power and revenge leads up to the sex crime. The often-expressed feminist fantasy of death for rapists is fulfilled at the end of this text, and therefore the fantasy structure of everything that has gone before is called into question. On the literal level, the cause and effect of a rapist falling in love with his victim (and eliciting her gratitude) are unbelievable, grotesque. But by killing Vidal at the end, Allende pulls at a thread of the story that causes the whole cloth to unravel. Allende's magic feminism thus deconstructs a rape myth that is as old as the world itself.
Another possible reading of the story would be as a female rape fantasy. We remember that Nancy Friday, after years of collecting women's sexual fantasies for My Secret Garden, concluded that the rape fantasy was the most common of all: "Rape does for a woman's sexual fantasy what the first martini does for her in reality; both relieve her of responsibility and guilt." However, Friday makes it abundantly clear that indulging in the fantasy in no way means that the woman would actually enjoy being raped in real life. In the fantasy, a woman carefully selects a figure who is attractive to her. This selection in itself is a kind of "consent." Fantasies are disease-free and safe. And although it appears that the fantasy is about rape, Friday asserts that it is really about relief from guilt about sex, and that on a deeper level, the woman who fantasizes controls the rapist, not the other way around:
By making [her fantasy character] the assailant, she gets him to do what she wants him to do, while seeming to be forced to do what he wants. Both ways she wins, and all the while she's blameless, at the mercy of a force stronger than herself … getting the kind of guiltless pleasure she may be unable to face or find in reality.
A woman who enjoys controlling the variables of a "rape" fantasy centered around some object of her desire does not for a moment want to relinquish this control to a dangerous real-life rapist. Then what can we make of "The Judge's Wife" if we read it as a female rape fantasy? It follows the recipe Friday sets out very closely—the rapist is young and romantic (more so than Casilda's older husband), and he does not hurt her. She must give herself to him in the noble cause of saving her children, so there can be no guilt. All of this allows her to "let herself go, marveling at her own sensuality," and this causes her to feel "somehow grateful to Vidal." So, what if Allende really wrote this story intending it to be erotica, her version of an exciting sexual fantasy? Should we condemn her for the feminist sin of submitting to "incorrect" sexual stimuli? Although much emphasis in the feminist movement has been directed against male-authored erotica because it is felt to be degrading to women, and although some feminists also believe that same-sex erotic experiences are somehow the highest form, still a movement that wants to offer women choice and freedom of expression should be flexible enough to allow for variety. To put it simply, I don't think any of us has a right to tell Allende or her characters what they can or can't be turned on by. In this area, feminism to me means freedom for real women to feel however they want, and for fiction to express the discomforts and damages of this freedom along with the benefits.
However, I think that there is a significant factor that deconstructs the reading of the story as a female rape fantasy just as it did the male rape fantasy. This element is the death of Vidal at the end of the story. He is not just killed—he chooses death because he is unable to leave the arms of his victim. Vidal's falling in love with his victim places the story clearly in the realm of the unreal for me, and his death penalty makes me believe, even when I read the story in this light, that Allende is not reveling in a sexual fantasy but using a "magic" warping of probability to destroy damaging societal stereotypes about rape.
The rape carried out in "Revenge" is much more violent and without any pretense of consent on the part of the victim, but the punishment Allende inflicts on the perpetrator is strangely similar. "Revenge" in the original is titled, "Una venganza," and I think there the presence of the indefinite article, "a" or "one," makes clear that this particular revenge is all the more rare and anomalous.
Once more, the pretext for the rape is a feud between two men—here, the victim's father, Senator Anselmo Orellano, and Tadeo Céspedes, a soldier immersed in civil war. When Céspedes and his men attack Orellano's home in a punitive raid, all of the family's loyal servants are killed and Senator Orellano is shot in the stomach. He realizes that he will soon die, and that his enemy will rape his young daughter, Dulce Rosa, so he prepares to shoot her to save her from being raped. In the traditional terms of this rural South American setting, death is preferable to dishonor. In practical terms, considering the fierce enmity between the two men, Dulce Rosa might also reasonably prefer a quick death from a gunshot to lingering torture at the hands of Céspedes. But Allende does not permit the story to take that turn:
"It's time, daughter," the Senator said, cocking his pistol as a pool of blood formed about his feet.
"Don't kill me, Father," Dulce Rosa replied in a firm voice. "Let me live to avenge you, and myself."
Senator Anselmo Orellano studied the face of his fifteen-year-old daughter and imagined what Tadeo Céspedes would do to her, but there was unflinching fortitude in Dulce Rosa's clear eyes, and he knew she would survive and punish his executioner.
Here there is no suggestion whatsoever of consent. The crime is clearly a violent, ugly rape, and Allende describes the victim the next morning with her dress in shreds and blood "between her legs and crusted in her long hair."
Immediately, Allende challenges one pernicious stereotype about rape, namely that the victim and not the aggressor is somehow shamed: "The neighbors … begged her to go live … in another town where no one would know her story," but Rosa refuses, and instead rebuilds her house and protects herself with six fierce dogs. Instead of being destroyed by the crime of which she was a victim, Rosa becomes "a living legend" for her beauty and her parties: "At first people wondered why she was not in the sanitarium or in a straitjacket, or a novice with the Carmelite nuns, but … with time people stopped talking about the tragedy." The first transformation of a common reality is that Dulce Rosa does not allow her Latin American society to blame her or put her to one side as a disgraced victim of a sex crime. Although this may be unusual, it is certainly not impossible. One hopes it becomes more possible every day. In this regard, by creating Rosa, Allende is affirming the type of feminist fiction that offers positive role models.
Hyperbole is involved in the legends of Rosa's beauty, just as it was with La Bella Rosa in The House of the Spirits. In fact, the link between the two Rosas is very strong, as both are the daughters of Senators and both are victims of crimes committed because of their fathers. Sweet Rosa and Lovely Rosa are both innocent victims of male violence.
The supernatural is also invoked in this story in the form of telepathy. Like Clara and other female characters in The House of the Spirits, Dulce Rosa is able to "call" to others with the power of her mind. She uses this power to torment her rapist telepathically for years until he finally comes helplessly back to her:
"You have pursued me relentlessly. I have never been able to love anyone but you," he whispered in a voice hoarse with shame.
Dulce Rosa Orellano breathed a sigh of satisfaction. She had called him in her mind night and day all those years, and finally he had come.
Here Allende again uses the magically impossible telepathic torment that Dulce Rosa inflicts to bring a rapist first of all to remorse, and then to punishment. His punishment is not death in this story (although that is what Dulce Rosa had initially planned), but rather a lifetime of repenting of his misdeed.
One might expect a feminist story about rape, one titled "Revenge," to show the heroine exacting her pound of flesh when the opportunity arises, but such is not Allende's plan. Instead, when Dulce Rosa is confronted with her victimizer, she finds she no longer wants to exact revenge:
She searched deep in her own heart for the hatred she had nurtured, and could not find it … To the contrary, she felt profoundly sad. Tadeo Céspedes took her hand and softly kissed her palm, wetting it with his tears. She realized then, to her horror, that from having thought of him so long, from having savored his punishment before the fact, her emotions had made a complete circle and she had come to love him.
With this plot twist, Allende again amazes us at her daring. Like Alba in The House of the Spirits, who renounces revenge and chooses instead to love a child inside her who may be the product of rapes she suffered in prison, Dulce Rosa overcomes a hatred that has grown inside her like a cancer for many years. The transformation of this cancer of hatred into the positive emotion of love is unusual enough in my opinion for us to classify it as a "magical" change worked by the author on her character, an event even more strikingly unexpected than Rosa's telepathy. Rosa herself finds this metamorphosis of emotions ultimately too great to accept. Put simply, she can forgive Céspedes, but in the end she cannot forgive herself for failing to avenge her father.
Céspedes proposes marriage and lavish attentions "to see whether in her later years he could compensate for the harm he had done her as a young girl." Rosa initially accepts, but then is caught, like a female Hamlet, in the pull of opposing moral imperatives: "She knew she would never be able to carry out the revenge she had planned because she was in love with the assassin, but neither could she silence the Senator's ghost." The patriarchal society in which she was raised has taught Rosa that filial responsibility is sacred. But Allende tells us that as a woman, Rosa has a magical capacity for forgiveness, the same marvelous quality that Alba in The House of the Spirits possessed, the same trait Allende sees as a female-led hope for the future of her country after a nightmarish period of violence carried out by a masculine military machine. Women, from the brave mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina to the individuals who are able to reconstruct their lives with a minimum of hatred following torture, are the hope for the future.
In this story, Dulce Rosa is not ultimately able to resolve the dilemma, so she kills herself. Tadeo Céspedes discovers her body, and the event exacts a far greater revenge on him than dying at Rosa's hands would have: "He found Dulce Rosa just as she was in his dreams every night of his life, in the same bloody organza dress, and he knew he would live to be ninety and pay for his guilt with the memory of the only woman who had ever touched his heart." The "revenge" alluded to in the title has been carried out, although in an unexpected way. But below the surface, the story unravels the whole male-invented concept of rape and blood revenge. Initially the thought that Allende has presented in her book two rapists who fall in love with their victims, a love the victims moreover return, sounds grotesque, but this examination of how she presents the events has shown that she has used touches of magic, hyperbole, and authorial arbitrariness of plotting that we might well refer to as "goddess from the machine" to create unusual results that cause us to completely reevaluate the difficult and painful issues surrounding rape. Such a result is actually what critic Luis Leal calls the essential purpose of magic realism. "Magic" is not used, as in fairy tales, to create escape from day-to-day reality, but rather to help us face up to it and see it for what it is: "Lo principal no es la creación de seres o mundos imaginados, sino el descubrimiento de la misteriosa relación que existe entre el hombre y su circunstancia" ("The main thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds, but rather the discovery of the mysterious relationship that exists between man and his circumstance").
The only way Allende's magic realism, as I have described it here, varies from the end set out by Leal is that she broadens the range of "man" to specifically include "woman" as well. By giving us fully fleshed out studies of rapists, Allende is not being politically incorrect, but rather is describing a brutal reality of her South American homeland, where rape is a fact of life at which many people scarcely raise an eyebrow, especially if the victim is a poor rural woman. This is not the first time she has painted a complex portrait of a rapist. Esteban Trueba in The House of the Spirits is guilty of stranger rape of many young country women, and arguably of marital rape of Clara del Valle. By portraying him as someone that granddaughter Alba can love and forgive, Allende is not betraying her sex. Rather, she bravely helps to efface the stereotype of the rapist as only the psychopath on the dark street, and reminds us that he could be a neighbor, a friend, and a supposed pillar of the community.
In "If You Touched My Heart," Amadeo Peralta has sex with a woman of diminished mental capacity who is therefore not capable of giving her consent. Peralta, a scoundrel who has risen to community prominence, much like Esteban Trueba, then adds kidnapping and physical abuse to a statutory rape when he hides the woman away in his cellar for forty-seven years as a kind of sex slave, until at last she is discovered and he is condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison. The aging Peralta is so morally deadened and insensitive that even Allende cannot work the magic of having him feel remorse. When asked why he imprisoned his victim, he replies calmly, "Because I felt like it." Incarcerated, instead of repenting, the old man sits in his cell trying to remember why he is there:
This daily castigation must mean something, but he could not remember what. From time to time he felt something like a stab of guilt, but immediately his memory failed and images of the past evaporated in a dense mist. He did not know why he was in that tomb, and gradually he forgot the world of light and lost himself in misfortune.
In addition to including the hyperbolic descriptions of the transformations of victim Hortensia's physical decay—and it has been clearly seen already how hyperbole is a characteristic of magic realism—the story works the magic of divine retribution on the criminal. If a man has enslaved and imprisoned a woman, then he should suffer the same. Yet even as she does this, Allende undercuts the value of such Hammerabian eye-for-an-eye vengeance on men by women.
Hortensia amazingly forgives Peralta when she is released and brings him food in prison: "He almost never left me hungry," she would tell the guard in an apologetic tone." The townspeople see Hortensia as a "faltering … mad-woman," but Allende sees and credits the character's nobility. The magic of Allende's feminism is that she reveals to us that ultimately seeking revenge is a pointless male game, and that woman, or the female side of all humans, is capable of forgiveness. This forgiveness is necessary at some point to break the chain of violence/revenge/violence, in which women are so often the innocent victims.
In her fascinating study of the oral recounting of crimes by victims, Eleanor Wachs comments on how important it is for rape victims to tell their stories:
Recounting the incident rather than repressing it can be helpful in dealing with its aftermath, thus storytelling itself is a mark of survival…. By telling their stories, by ordering events and placing them in perspective, rape victims … resolve the trauma of their experience. Telling the stories becomes therapeutic.
For victims who cannot recount their own experiences, fiction gives them a communal voice. Isabel Allende's sensitivity and range on this complicated issue gives the relief of expression for readers who may have been unable to formulate this therapeutic ordering on their own.
My discussion of rape and prostitution in these stories has revealed that Allende has consistently used her magic feminism to warp conventional expectations and cause us to view these important feminist issues in a new light. The same technique is used again and again with regard to child abuse, crimes against elderly women, and other problems of aging. Still, other stories demonstrate how romantic myths about love draw women into liaisons of sad reality. My examination of those issues will be published separately, but again, the tales demonstrate clearly Allende's use of a magic feminism while proving beyond a shadow of a doubt how different her work is from that of the male authors of the Boom.
In all of these cases, Allende's recurring theme is that man, by using his superior size and power to abuse women, deforms, limits, and ultimately punishes himself. Through sleight of hand she shows us endless variations on this theme, manipulates her outcomes to contrast the world as it is with how it could be. Thus in the face of the ugly realities of prostitution and rape, Allende's most magic achievement of all is the creation in her readers of a sense of hope for the future.
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