Dogeaters Themes

Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dogeaters is a wild ride into the underbelly of Manila society. It is also a clever tour de force that illustrates American and Spanish influence with energetic detail. One of the central themes of the novel is reality versus fantasy, and the novel poses the question of what will be revealed if pretense and deception are stripped away.

Hagedorn explodes pretense in the ruling class, bitterly satirizing the profligacy and waste of a corrupt regime. She also exposes the depravity and desperation in slum towns such as Tondo, home of Joey and Uncle. Morality on both these levels has been sacrificed, to greed in the first instance and to survival in the second. If any scenario among the many varied episodes displays human warmth and caring, it is the guerrilla contingent of Daisy and her cousin Clarita, with whom Joey finds refuge in the mountains. Removed from Manila, this community of supporters is also a long way from the aggression, deception, and depravity that are common features of city life, high and low. Joey’s wasted life thus shows the possibility of transformation and resilience in exile. Rio is also hopeful in her pragmatic exile. That she and her artist mother will succeed away from Manila is assumed.

Dreams are a central feature of the novel; together with radio serials and film plots, dreams are manifestations of the fantasies in which all the characters indulge. Joey’s dreams while he is transported to the mountains...

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Dogeaters Themes

The Evils of Colonialism

The Philippines is an Asian country that historically has been conquered by nearby Islamic nations, colonized by Spain and controlled by the United States. It has been desired and fought over because of trade, religion and its strategic location militarily. Dogeaters portrays a country trying to overcome the oppression of its colonial past. It exposes the negative effects that colonialism has had on the nation and its people. In the Philippines, colonialism has alienated the people from their culture, their history, each other and themselves. It has opened the door to corrupt leaders who exploit the people and pervert the truth.

The characters in Dogeaters are searching for their identities on a personal level as their country is simultaneously seeking to define itself. The 1950s post-colonial Philippines is a country of eighty dialects and languages. The characters’ sentences are mixtures of English, Spanish and Tagalog. The people themselves are a cultural mix of past colonizers and natives. They are Freddie Gonzagas, visitors in their own country, who believe in “dual citizenships, dual passports, as many allegiances to as many countries as possible at any one given time.” They are Rio Gonzagas who only feel at home in the “no man’s land” of airports, trying to escape the past by reconstructing the present. They are half black, half Filipino Joey Sands who must prostitute themselves to foreigners in order to survive. They are Lola Narcisas, hidden somewhere in a back room, a tiny, dark, silent grandmother listening to Tagalog soap operas. They are a country prejudiced by the ethnocentric views of people such as Father Jean Mallat whose condescending history of the Philippines appears in snippets throughout the novel or U.S. President William McKinley who tells the world the Philippines “are unfit for self-government.”

In Dogeaters, religion is an oppressor, and a tool of colonialism contributed by Spain. The Catholic church is a hypocritical institution whose only achievement is guilt. Rio and Pucha feel guilty for sneaking into movies that the Archdiocese has condemned. General Ledesma’s wife believes her ascetic life will atone for the sins her husband commits on behalf of his country and Joey feels the need to confess for his country when he witnesses Senator Avila’s assassination. Baby Alacran participates in a Catholic wedding while pregnant, a mortal sin which almost kills her grandmother. Pucha wants a divorce but must leave the country: “it is still a mortal sin here.” The extravagant, wasteful Alacrans are good Catholics because they donate huge sums of money to the Church. The First Lady invokes God on national television. She tells an American reporter that her reign is a god-given duty to perform. The final chapter is a Kundiman (prayer), a blasphemous revision of the Lord’s Prayer that criticizes the Church for its role in colonization and oppression" “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom never came,” it reads.

There is a tentative hope that the Philippines can free itself eventually from the brokenness of its colonial past. Rio, for example, accepts all levels of her mixed race. She bridges the culture gap by listening to Philippine soap operas with her grandmother, attends American movies with her cousin, and puts up with the Gonzaga and Alacran family events. As she looks back on her life, she attempts to reconstruct her history and her identity. although this frustrates her, she feels it must be done. Rio represents the balance that the author hopes Filipinos will achieve in respecting the past without repeating its mistakes. Daisy Avila survives being objectified and raped to join the movement for change. The anti-hero Joey has had a terribly abused past, like his country, but there is a chance that he might morph into a hero. What will happen to Rio, Daisy and Joey? The author has left the resolution of these storylines ambiguous on purpose, however, because she believes that this is the reality of the Philippine future. Joey can either become “a good revolutionary” or “a really awful person once again.” His epiphany, or awakening, does not necessarily guarantee that “he’s going to become a better person." The speaker in the final prayer, the Kundiman, is also vague. The author explains that “maybe it’s my voice that speaks at the end” in a prayer for her country that expresses “longing, rage, melancholy, love,” but most of all, hope.

Political Oppression

Colonialism is an evil that manifests itself on several other levels. Political oppression is one of those levels and is an additional theme in the novel. When a country does not have a clearly defined national identity because of centuries of colonization, it can leave itself wide open to corruption. Although The President and The First Lady in the novel are patterned after the real-life Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the author explains that the Marcoses are symbols: “They weren’t the only dictators we’ve ever had.” The Marcoses were around the longest, however, and were the most public, as well as the most celebrated and reviled, but they were not the only ones to take part in the “many victims, many assassins, and many political assassinations." In Dogeaters, the corrupt leaders spawn a pretentious and wasteful ruling class, so while the country has been raped, controlled and exploited by its colonial past, the national government is guilty of perpetuating the same sins against the Filipino people.

Colonialism has left the nation confused, floundering and powerless to overthrow the corrupt government that filled the vacuum left by World War II. The horrors that the characters experience on a personal level are a metaphor for political oppression. Daisy Avila, for example, is raped and tortured while the symbol of the government, General Ledesma, stands by and watches. Joey Sands and Lolita Luna are controlled and exploited by the powerful figures in their lives. Baby Alacran’s body is symbolic of her country, breaking out in mysterious diseases. The First Lady’s dream is a stream-of-conscious image of her struggle to obtain and maintain power. In her dream, she is swimming frantically towards her house which slowly becomes smaller the closer she gets. She pants and struggles to “maintain her strength and energy.” She meets various symbols of power that both reassure her of her power and status and remind her of her need to maintain it. She meets the Pope, American actress Cristina Ford and American actor George Hamilton, who asks her to dance. “I’m a woman always ready to dance,” she replies. She ends up perched on her “throne of bananas” but the perch is precariously balanced on a mountain of coconuts.

There is hope of ending political oppression just as there is hope that the Philippines will survive its post-colonial past. Senator Avila is a symbol of political opposition and even though he is assassinated in the novel like the real-life opposition Philippine senator Benigno Aquino, he...

(The entire section is 2915 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear