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Critical Essay by Laura Gutierrez Spencer
SOURCE: "Fairy Tales and Opera: The Fate of the Heroine in the Work of Sandra Cisneros," in Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 278-87.
In the essay below, Gutierrez Spencer analyzes the way Cisneros inscribes "feminine" motifs of fairy tales and librettos into her narrative art.
Within the Western narrative tradition, female characters are commonly presented within the narrow confines of polarized roles limited to either madonna or whore, villain or victim. In a similar fashion, the fate of these characters also tends to fall to extremes. Depending upon the narrative form, the female protagonist all too often finds either an early end in death or an equally premature, if metaphorical, "demise" as she conveniently disappears into a cloud of anonymity after the hero has come to the rescue and married her. In so many plots, the appropriate denouement of dramatic tension is the death of the heroine. Female characters who are adventurous, inquisitive, active, or otherwise rebel against patriarchal rules of female comportment are often killed in punishment for their disobedience. Unfortunately, the passive, pliant heroine often meets the same fate. Her death is portrayed as a valiant sacrifice for the life or comfort of the male hero. More simply stated, female protagonists, whether they are "good girls" or "bad girls" still die, in literal and metaphoric terms. Catherine Clément, in Opera, or the Undoing of Women, documents this tradition. Among the most famous operas for instance, the death toll includes "nine by knife, two of them suicides; three by fire; two who jump; two consumptives; three who drown; three poisoned; two of fright; and a few unclassifiable, thank god for them, dying without anyone knowing why or how. Still, that is just the first sorting. And with my nice clean slate in my hands, I examine all those dream names in their pigeonholes, like butterflies spread out on boards. All that is left is to write their names above them: Violetta, Mimi, Gilda, Norma, Brunhilde, Senta, Antonia, Marfa…." The misogynistic effect of these plots, of course, is not limited to the world of opera. This tendency comes from the very wellspring of literature, myth.
The most common example of myth in modern times and the form that has had the most impact upon our society is the fairy tale. Many of the tales that we tell our children before they sleep include plots in which mate heroes are rewarded for their audacity, courage, and curiosity. Demure princesses are praised for their beauty and kindness, while other female characters, like Goldilocks, are punished for their curiosity and active natures. The active female character in fairy tales is either vilified as a figure of evil or is punished for her audacity.
Throughout her work, Sandra Cisneros has critiqued the fate of the heroine in Western patriarchal literature. She accomplishes this, in part, through reference to popular fairy tales. Cisneros's first book includes a feminist analysis of the social and personal consequences for women who believe in fairy tales and wait for Prince Charming to fulfill their existence. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws attention to the messages that fairy tales impart to females about the roles they should play, or not play, in life. This book contains glimpses of the lives of various women and the social, cultural, and economic forces that have entrapped them in stultifying circumstances. Although individual stories in The House on Mango Street include examinations of prejudice, poverty, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexism, one of the central themes of the book is that the women of Mango Street have been limited in the opportunities available to them to develop their own agendas and talents. This repression serves to subordinate these women's lives to husband and home. The theme of limitation and restriction is represented by many images of trapped women. In these stories women lean out of windows, stand in doorways, stare at the seams between ceiling and walls, and envy other women who "throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys."
The stories in The House on Mango Street that take the form of revisionist fairy tales feature characteristic elements of the classic children's stories but are set within a different context and have more specific outcomes for the female characters. They oppose the traditional marriage to the hero and "happily-ever-after" conclusion. Cisneros's version of these fables reveal the truer-to-life consequences for women who are socialized to live their lives waiting for the happy ending. The stories "Rafaela Who Drinks Papaya and Coconut Juice on Tuesdays" and "The Family of Little Feet" allude respectively to "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella." Cisneros's heroines are young girls and women in the housing projects of Chicago. They do not live happily ever after. Beautiful Rafaela, for instance, is locked in her own house by a jealous husband. She "leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's. On the corner there is music from the bar and Rafaela wishes she could go there and dance before she gets old." In "The Family of Little Feet" the little-girl protagonist and her friends are given a bag of used high-heeled shoes. The girls try on heels for the first time in their life and marvel at how the shoes make their legs look beautiful and long. They walk, dance, and strut around the neighborhood until they realize the power of the shoes. On this sojourn, the girls become the objects of leering glances, an angry rebuke, and the offer of a dollar for a kiss from a drunken bum. As if by magic, the shoes have drawn unwanted attention to the budding sexuality of the young girls. As opposed to the blushing Cinderella whose symbol of salvation is a shoe, these young heroines learn that high-heeled shoes "are dangerous." They learn that the power their sexuality holds in attracting attention from males often has negative consequences.
Cisneros's portrayals of fairy-tale heroines are revisionist only in the sense that she applies a feminist analysis to the underlying messages that fairy tales convey to women. In drawing attention to how male domination, denial of personal ambition, lack of education, abuse, and low expectations affect women's lives, Cisneros attacks the weak heroine of the fairy tale who is "unable to act independently or self-assertively; she relies on external agents for rescue; she restricts her ambitions to hearth and nursery." By revealing the concrete effects of waiting for someone to keep us "on a silver string," the author reveals the other side of the fate of the fairy-tale heroine.
Sandra Cisneros's use of operatic themes dates also to The House on Mango Street. Here, in a manner similar to her use of fairy tales, the author calls attention to the misogyny of patriarchal literature by way of reference to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In a vignette entitled "A Smart Cookie," the protagonist's mother laments her own lack of education and the life it might have brought her: "I could've been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She can fix a T.V." In this quote, the mother's knowledge of opera serves as confirmation of her intelligence. However, as the story continues, it becomes evident that the author has featured the protagonist of Puccini's opera in the story to represent the patriarchal archetype of feminine virtue and sacrifice. The narrator talks about her mother, saying, "Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head." The mother in "A Smart Cookie" has seen through the sentimentalization of the heroine's sacrifice. The lives of her sisters and comadres serve as evidence of the foolishness of relegating the direction of one's life to another. The mother's disgust with Butterfly's sacrifice mirrors the disgust she feels over her own self-destruction: "Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then." Again, Cisneros reveals the danger for women of being more concerned with the opinions and impressions of others and allowing these concerns to dominate one's life. The mother does not perceive poverty but a lack of internal authority to be the source of her loss.
Even though the stories in The House on Mango Street fail to rewrite the tragic fate of the heroine, there is a foreshadowing of the desire to do so. For instance, in the story "Beautiful and Cruel," the narrator claims as a role mode! a type of woman that she has seen in the movies. This woman is free, powerful, beautiful, and defiant:
In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.
I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.
The narrator's gesture of defiance, leaving the table "like a man," signifies that she refuses to become a domesticated female. The heroine that Cisneros has created in this story will not self-destruct, nor will she give up control of her life. In the operatic realm, this character is most easily identified as Carmen. According to Catherine Clément's analysis of the ill-fated heroines of opera, the most feminist of these is "Carmen the Gypsy, Carmen the damned." Carmen indeed is an operatic manifestation of Cisneros's "one with red, red lips," for Carmen "drives the men crazy and laughs them all away." Carmen, like the Medusa, the Sphinx, and the Minotaur, is a figure of paradox. The mere fact that she is a woman who acts like a man proves it, for within the symbolic order, the male occupies a position of active supremacy over the passivity of the female. To oppose that order is to invite disaster. Yet, what else could Carmen do? What Cisneros does not mention in "Beautiful and Cruel" is that according to the patriarchal literary tradition, the powerful and defiant female figure is inevitably punished for her audacity. That is why Clément refers to her as "Carmen the damned." The hierarchical structure upon which patriarchal societies are based cannot allow this carnivalesque figure to upset the social apple cart in which men are allowed more power and choices than women. According to Elisabeth Bronfen, the death of the female protagonist functions to eliminate a threat to the patriarchal order: "Countless examples could be given to illustrate how the death of a woman helps to regenerate the order of society, to eliminate destructive forces or serves to reaggregate the protagonist into her or his community." The defiant Carmen must be suppressed or die, and since she will never give her power away, she is killed.
The story "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta" appears in the collection by Sandra Cisneros entitled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. This story at first reading is notable because of one salient and surprising element: the heroine does not die. Not only is she not punished for her freewheeling ways, but she flourishes and thrives. In this incongruous tale, the active, independent, and defiant woman is the one who "lives happily ever after." Upon closer examination, the reader discovers the subtext of this story. This is a revision of Carmen. The first clue Cisneros allows the reader is the title: "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta." The author gives an adulatory nickname to her protagonist, changes the context of the story from Spain to Texas, and calls the work an "operetta," a small opera.
In the first paragraph of the story Cisneros makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Spanish heritage of the original Carmen: "She likes to say she's 'Spanish,' but she's from Laredo like the rest of us—or 'Lardo,' as we call it. Her name is Berriozábal. Carmen." On one level, the narrator appears to be ridiculing this character, who, like many Mexican Americans, attempts to "whitewash" herself by ignoring her Indian heritage and eschewing the word "Mexican" in exchange for "Spanish." On another level, of course, Cisneros is associating her protagonist with the operatic figure.
The narrator continues with a description of the protagonist. Her most salient physical trait is her large breasts: "big chichis, I mean big." Carmen's other characteristic trait is her independent nature. "Carmen was a take-it-or-leave-it type of woman. If you don't like it, there's the door. Like that. She was something." While in some ways Cisneros's heroine is a quintessential feminist, unlike many authors, Cisneros avoids an idealization of her heroine. The narrator describes her as "not smart. I mean, she didn't know enough to get her teeth cleaned every year, or to buy herself a duplex." Although the protagonist is portrayed as a woman of limited attributes, this does not detract from her status as a heroine worthy of a happy end.
Cisneros's plot mirrors the opera in many ways. At the beginning of the Prosper Merimée plot, Carmen has taken as her lover a brigadier named Don José. The Chicana Carmen becomes involved with a corporal at Fort Sam Houston named José Arrambide. The Spanish Don José is engaged to a sweet young thing named Micaela who is waiting for him to marry her. In Cisneros's version, José's high school sweetheart "sold nachos at the mall, still waiting for him to come back to Harlingen, marry her, and buy that three-piece bedroom set on layaway." In the figure of Micaela, both plots include a reference to the classic fairy-tale heroine, the demure and passive one who waits for her prince to take charge of her life. She is often used in literature as the virtuous foil of the lecherous, adventurous "witches and bitches." According to Karen Rowe's analysis of fairy-tale figures, "Because cleverness, will-power, and manipulative skill are allied with vanity, shrewishness, and ugliness, and because of their gruesome fates, odious females hardly recommend themselves as models for young readers. And because they surround alternative roles as life-long maidens or fiendish stepmothers with opprobrium, romantic tales effectively sabotage female assertiveness." Another Micaela-like figure in opera is Alfredo's sister in La Traviata. This virginal character provides the motivation for the courtesan's sacrifice of her own happiness, in order that the other woman may make a financially and socially profitable marriage. Carmen, however, makes no sacrifice and fearlessly confronts her announced fate.
Again, according to Merrimée's story, Carmen entices Don José to abandon the army and join a group of smugglers, then leaves him for a toreador named Escamillo. Cisneros, on the other hand, has Carmen leave José for an ambitious Texas senator named Camilo Escamilla. In both stories, the besotted José is overcome with rejection and the realization that he has no control over Carmen. The opera ends as José confronts Carmen outside the bullring. Carmen defiantly proclaims her love for Escamillo before she is stabbed to death by her former lover. The violent death of the rebellious heroine is deemed as necessary in a symbolic system where the existence of a free and enterprising female is viewed as seditious and damaging to the social order. This tendency is as common, Rowe observes, in mythic tales as much as opera libretti: "By punishing exhibitions of feminine force, tales admonish, moreover, that any disruptive nonconformity will result in annihilation or social ostracism." While Western literature provides few examples of the rebellious feminine, these characters are necessarily punished in order to serve as an example to potential Carmens.
Catherine Clément has made an intriguing analysis of how Georges Bizet's score musically represents the conflict between the unfettered feminine versus the hierarchical rigidity of the patriarchal order. She identifies Bizet's use of tonality as a technique of representing the patriarchal social order in which the masculine has dominion over the feminine. Within this context, the term "tonality" refers to music written in a key according to the paradigm of a seven-tone scale. In its linear quality and the rigidity with which the tonal scale differentiates between notes considered harmonious and dissonant in each key, tonality could be said to correspond to the oppositional qualities of symbolic texts.
As Julia Kristeva has emphasized, in Western thought the "symbolic" is based upon the definition of elements of reality by means of restriction. These elements, then, are oriented according to mutual opposition, a system of opposition hierarchically organized in such a manner that good occupies a position superior to evil, light to dark, and male to female. It might be argued that the importance of the symbolic in patriarchal society is to maintain this hierarchical paradigm. The "semiotic" modality, on the other hand, is perceived to be seditious in its ignorance of phallocentric paradigms and traditions. It does not operate upon an epistemology of opposition and heirarchy. One of the primary characteristics of the semiotic modality is the figure of paradox. In its unification of disparate entities, the figure of paradox by definition defies the oppositional structure of the symbolic. The unclassifiable nature of paradox is, at the very least, threatening to the rational order of the symbolic, represented by mythic figures of opposition such as the male hero and the passive heroine. When paradox does enter into the realm of myth it is considered to be disruptive, even evil. In Western mythology at least, when a male hero confronts a figure of paradox, the hero inevitably prevails. This pattern is evident when one notes that in classical mythology Theseus slew the Minotaur and defeated an army of Amazons, Perseus beheaded the Medusa, and Hercules took the golden girdle of Ares from Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons.
According to Clément, Bizet's use of chromaticism serves to challenge the supremacy of the tonal scale just as the semiotic modality challenges the patriarchal authority of the symbolic. Chromaticism, which came into common use in Western music during the end of the Romantic period, was used to stretch and blur the authoritative and restrictive quality of tonal music. Clément describes chromaticism as "the sultry, slippery, seductive female who taunts and entraps, who needs to be brought back under tonal domination and absorbed." The correlations between tonality and the symbolic order compared to those of chromaticism and the semiotic are remarkable. Within the domains of language and music, these modalities serve, respectively, to sustain and repudiate patriarchal epistemologies.
Within the text-score of Carmen we can see that chromaticism serves to disrupt a strict sense of tonality, just as the heroine diverts José from his militaristic discipline: as Clément remarks, "Carmen makes her first appearance with the slippery descent of her 'Habanera' and it is her harmonic promiscuity—whichthreatens to undermine Don José's drive for absolute tonal closure at the conclusion of the opera—that finally renders her death musically necessary." The predominance of the symbolic over the semiotic is made manifest by the defeat of the paradoxical figure of the active woman. Although Bizet's opera includes one of the most powerful of operatic heroines, her demise is as ignominious and inevitable as the rest. The Amazon is conquered again.
In her "Texas Operetta," Sandra Cisneros acknowledges the literary tradition that punishes audacious heroines, yet she chooses to defy that tradition by rewriting millennia of literary history. Instead of imposing a finite conclusion upon the reader, Cisneros offers three possible endings from which to choose. The elective nature of the conclusion is created by the testimonial form of the narration: "According to who you talk to, you hear different." The first conclusion is similar to that of the opera in that José attacks Carmen with a knife: "José's friends say he left his initials across those famous chichis with a knife." The violence of this ending is mitigated by the skeptical attitude of the narrator: "but that sure sounds like talk, don't it?"
The second conclusion focuses on the male protagonist's pain: "I heard he went AWOL. Became a bullfighter in Matamoros, just so he could die like a man." The figure of Escamillo is alluded to with the reference to bullfighting. The expressed desire to "die like a man" represents the deleterious effect that Carmen's strength has upon the masculinity of the hero. This version of the conclusion turns the narrative violence of self-destructive tendencies toward the male figure. Of course, this particular twist is quite rare in the operatic tradition, as women in opera are forever dying for, or because of, men. This option is provided in the following sentence: "Somebody else said she's the one who wants to die."
The first two conclusions provided in "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta" fall into the register of the symbolic, under which only one of two opposing forces can prevail. Hélène Cixous deems it inappropriate for feminists to follow this traditional "rational" system in their writing. She observes: "Opposition, hierarchizing exchange, the struggle for mastery which can end only in at least one death (one master-one slave, or two nonmasters = two dead)—all that comes from a period in time governed by phallocentric values." In an effort to provide a literary space where resolution is not based upon unilateral annihilation, Cisneros provides another possible conclusion. Despite the discretionary quality presented by the inclusion of alternate endings, Cisneros uses the voice of the female narrator to give authority to the last and most felicitous conclusion. The narrator begins by denying the veracity of the first two denouements: "Don't you believe it. She ran off with King Kong Cárdenas, a professional wrestler from Crystal City and a sweetie. I know her cousin Lerma, and we saw her just last week at the Floore Country Store in Helotes. Hell, she bought us a beer, two-stepped and twirled away to 'Hey Baby Qué Pasó.'" Cisneros refuses to allow the suppression of the rebellious, chromatic feminine. This Carmen not only is not punished, but continues upon her adventurous path, finding love with a nurturing, masculine partner. The Tex-Mex hit "Hey Baby Qué Pasó" includes the only reference to the fate of José in this last version of "La Fabulosa"'s conclusion. The lyrics include the phrases: "Hey Baby, ¿qué pasó? / Porque me tienes el loco / No me dejes de ese modo." Cisneros uses this musical reference to create the background for Carmen's joyous exit from the story. Instead of the righteous and apocalyptic climax created by Bizet for the death of the heroine, the Chicana author employs a joyous polka by the Texas Tornados, appropriate for triumphant Carmen. In spite of the celebratory quality of the song, one can hear the echoes of José's incredulity in the chorus: "Hey baby, ¿qué pasó?" Sandra Cisneros is indeed skillful in utilizing long-established literary traditions for revolutionary purposes. Her versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel turn the classic versions inside-out to disclose the real consequences for women of patriarchal socialization. Within her stories, Cisneros reveals the metaphoric death of the fairy-tale heroine. Although the princesses of the classic fairy tales supposedly go on to live "happily ever after," we never hear of their lives or paths of growth after the nuptials to the handsome prince. Cisneros picks up the tale and tells the real fate of the heroine who lives in patriarchy.
Within the operatic tradition there is no need to uncover the propensity for misogyny. On the contrary, scenes of women murdered at the hands of men or who commit suicide on behalf of men number among the most glorified moments in opera. In one salient characteristic, however, opera differs from the fairy tale. In the classic children's stories, the sweet, pliant princesses are rewarded by marriage to the prince, while the only active characters, witches and wicked stepmothers, are vilified and often punished with gruesome deaths. Opera libretti, on the other hand, tend to punish with remarkable regularity the passive heroine as well as the active, rebellious one. Sandra Cisneros defies this tradition in opera and other narrative forms by recreating the powerful female figure of Carmen and allowing her to live and thrive. Just as she retells the fairy tale in a more realistic light, Cisneros changes the context of the opera Carmen from nineteenth-century Seville to modern-day Texas. However, by altering the standard denouement of the tragedy in a way that contradicts the patriarchal necessity of opposition and the ultimate domination of the male, Cisneros dismisses the tradition of eliminating the paradoxical figure of a powerful woman. Through her revisions of fairy tales and Carmen, Sandra Cisneros's works demonstrate how literature can challenge deeply inculcated values and change the ways in which we perceive the world. Consequently, she tells stories that shake the roots of a literary tradition as old as the fairy tale.
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