María Luisa Bombal 1910-1980
Chilean novella and short story writer.
Hailed by José Donoso as “the first contemporary Chilean novelist” and Carlos Fuentes as “the mother of us all,” María Luisa Bombal is credited for altering the form and substance of Chilean letters, which prior to 1935 was overtly realistic, masculine, and regional. Although she wrote only two novellas and a handful of stories, Bombal's avant-garde works have won consistent praise for their narrative experimentation, complex poetic imagery, and psychologically convincing characters. Even so, criticism of Bombal's oeuvre has been slight. This has been attributed to a number of causes, including her unwillingness to adopt the popular literary methods of her day, her modest output, and her preoccupation with themes centering around women during a time and in a place where such themes were not in vogue.
Born into a privileged family in Viña del Mar, Chile, Bombal moved to Paris at the age of twelve where she attended Nôtre Dame de L'Assomption and La Brùyere before graduating from La Sorbonne with a degree in French literature. In Paris her intellectual development coincided with the rise of the avant-garde movement, an exciting period in the arts marked by experimentation and innovation. Shortly after returning to Chile in 1931, Bombal moved to Buenos Aires where she soon became acquainted with such literary figures as Victoria Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda. The 1930s were productive years for Bombal; she published two novellas and wrote stories for Ocampo's journal Sur while lodging with Neruda and his wife. After shooting and seriously wounding her lover Eulogio Sánchez, Bombal moved to New York in 1941. There she married Count Raphael de Saint-Phalle and translated several of her works, including a significantly revised and expanded edition of La última niebla. The last years of her life were spent in Chile where she died after a brief illness.
In highly poetic works about women trapped within the constraints of a patriarchal society, Bombal fused realism with the supernatural, or fantastic, to express the displacement, isolation, frustration, and loneliness of her female protagonists. In La última niebla, for example, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage takes a lover one evening while lost in a deep mist. Because the story contains a first-person narrative and takes place in the immediate present, the lines between concrete reality and fantasy are blurred. As the story progresses, both the protagonist and the reader begin to doubt that the lover exists, revealing the complex and dismal state of the protagonist's mind. In La amortajada a dead woman reflects on past experiences and observes those who knew her from the confines of her coffin. Multiple narrators in this work—the dead woman, individuals surrounding her coffin, and an omniscient narrator who provides alternating panoramic and closeup views of the setting—offer varying perspectives of the woman's character, lending it shape and credibility. All of Bombal's works are replete with imagery, particularly nature imagery. According to Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman, “the natural world becomes a type of magical looking glass through which these women protagonists perceive and depict their inner dramas.”
Despite early acknowledgment of Bombal's significance in Latin American literature, her fiction has incited little critical response until recently. Many scholars have focused on her craftsmanship or have sought to interpret the many images in her fiction. The majority, however, have been drawn to her depiction of the feminine experience. As Phyllis Rodríguez-Peralta has written: “The woman in her novels is caught in the confusion of her roles. She reflects present-day themes of futility and alienation and she appears as a marginal figure, an outcast like the contemporary authors' version of her. She is, therefore, far from the stereotyped woman of Latin American literature before this era, and she does not reflect the traditional Hispanic concepts of femininity. At the same time she herself offers little or no positive rebellion against her diminished humanity, and, instead, longs for the romantic role once assigned to her. She feels human estrangement, but she has nothing to substitute for the old ideals.”
**La última niebla [The House of Mist] (novella) 1935
La amortajada [The Shrouded Woman] (novella) 1938
New Islands and Other Stories (short stories) 1982
*Later editions of this work include the stories “El árbol” and “Las islas nuevas.”
SOURCE: “María Luisa Bombal: Alienation and the Poetic Image,” in Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier, University of Texas Press, 1975, pp. 15-35.
[In the following essay, Adams comments on Bombal's use of poetic imagery to express alienation in La última niebla, focusing in particular on the symbolic value of the mist in the novella.]
María Luisa Bombal's first novel, La última niebla, was published in 1935 in Buenos Aires.1 Her second novel, La amortajada, appeared in 1938. In 1947 she published The House of Mist, a novel in English based on La última niebla. These three books and a few short stories are all that she has written. In 1963 she was supposed to be working on another novel, El Canciller, which had originally been written in English in 1953 and was called The Foreign Minister.
María Luisa Bombal was chosen for this study because her treatment of alienation and loss of self seen in La última niebla represents two fundamental possibilities of the theme. She shows alienation, as a human experience, arising from personal, internal forces. Cedomil Goić states: “The world exposed in La última niebla has as its only base the personal existence of a woman reflectively turned upon her own destiny. This novel is distinguished by its personal structure.”2 This evaluation is not completely accurate. Although the personal element is predominant, there are social conditions, secondary in nature, that are important in terms of alienation. These will be examined later.
Bombal's literary treatment of the theme is its other fundamental possibility; the mode of presentation, development, and structure is poetic. Amado Alonso in his introduction to La última niebla emphasizes this: “The natural and direct form of narration is due, if I am not mistaken, to the sure knowledge of having a poetic concept to present … ”3 Thus the nature and function of the imagery will be central to an examination of alienation and loss of self. It will be seen that concrete entities are used to symbolize and give poetic value to the alienated state. In addition, literary or thematic devices serve to distance the reader from the material, again creating a poetic experience of alienation.
Amado Alonso and Cedomil Goić both consider the date of publication of La última niebla, 1935, to be important because it marks a change in Chilean literature. Novelists up to then had been writing under the influence of naturalism, but around 1935 literature in Chile began to reflect surrealism and other contemporary movements of world literature. Goić says: “When María Luisa Bombal begins to write, she does so completely within the system of preferences of the new sensibility. She belongs to a younger generation than the surrealists; she moves with comfort and surety of means within the new rules imposed on the contemporary novel.”4
Although the emotional states described in La última niebla are of great complexity and artfully constructed, the overall emotional trajectory of the protagonist is quite simple; starting from an unhappy marriage, the protagonist moves away from the real world into herself, through a process of increasing fantasy, and then is forced to retreat from this created world to face the realities of aging and emotional barrenness. Her interior movement is the focus of the novel.
However, there are exterior social dimensions that, although they never come into the foreground, provide a hidden influence that tends to push all Bombal's women into themselves, giving them a feeling, frequently not expressed, of lack of control over their lives. The position of women in the society described in her novels is the most outstanding of these forces, in that it makes marriage the central issue of their lives. On the emotional level, the most important one within Bombal's works, this position gives men the power of choice as opposed to women's relative helplessness, turning men into an external alienating force. This is one of the meanings of the complaint in La amortajada: “Why, why is the nature of woman such that a man always has to be the center of her life?”5
Near the beginning of La última niebla, this social function of man—as the one with the power to choose and, consequently, to make woman feel a lack of control over her life—is emphasized. On their wedding night the husband asks:
“Why did we marry?”
“To marry,” I answer.
Daniel gives a small laugh.
“Do you know that you've been lucky in marrying me?”
“Yes, I know,” I reply, overcome with weariness.
“Would you have liked being a shriveled old maid, who sews for the poor of the hacienda?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“That's the fate awaiting your sisters … ” (P. 42)
In direct opposition to the cultural background implied in this dialogue is the other important male-female relationship of the book, that between the woman narrator and her fantasized lover. It is characterized by a total lack of social or cultural context. The central element is that the narrator is desired as a woman, for herself and for her body. “Once nude, I remain seated on the edge of the bed. He moves away and contemplates me. Under his attentive glance I throw my head backwards, and this gesture fills me with intimate well-being. I hold my arms behind my neck, crossing and uncrossing my legs, and each movement brings me an intense and complete pleasure, as if, at last, my arms, my legs, and my neck had a reason for being. Even if this enjoyment were the only purpose of love, I would consider myself well rewarded” (pp. 59-60).
Thus Bombal shows woman's position in society to be a force that causes alienation. This opinion is reinforced by another man-woman relation that is of less importance than the two already mentioned but causes the narrator's first emotional crisis. Her first encounter with passion in reality occurs when she surprises Regina and her lover embracing. This is a relationship that breaks all social rules, of course, and the aspect of scandal is stressed toward the end of the novel by the tragic results of the union. But the protagonist is driven to desperation by the realization that the love she desires exists outside social boundaries.
The achievement of extramarital love in Bombal's world involves the destruction of self, either physically, in the case of Regina, or mentally through escape into fantasy, in the case of the narrator in La última niebla.
Because of the existence of a social dimension, manipulated by the author through contrast and implication, Margaret Campbell's definition of a general theme in Bombal's works is somewhat inaccurate. She states, “In general the theme seems to consist of two parts: unrequited love and an attempt to deal with the situation.”6 However, Campbell's article does not examine or recognize that aforementioned social background. A better and broader statement of the theme would be that it is woman and love. This allows for the existence of the different types of love that are present in Bombal's works. If unrequited love were taken to be the main theme, it would be impossible to understand a story like “Islas nuevas,” which is structured around the contrast between a sudden erotic passion and a shifting background of many kinds of love—the love of a man for his dead wife, of a mother for her son, and of father and son.
Another external aspect seen in La última niebla and most of the other works of Bombal is the contrast between town and country. It is probably most important in La amortajada, but it also plays a decisive role in La última niebla. This contrast is really one of a series of external elements used by the author to symbolize interior states, but in addition it has a structural function. Emotionally, the city represents lack of isolation and the presence of human contact (this is not true in House of Mist) and the country isolation and withdrawal. The protagonist creates her lover in the city. Returning to the country, she begins a long process of withdrawal and fantasy that leads to a state of total alienation. The abrupt return to reality and the acceptance of a barren life occurs in the city. Thus the major spatial movement of the novel involves elements that symbolize parallel emotional movement.
Amado Alonso considers the use of external elements to be a characteristic of Bombal's art, giving it its special poetic quality. “No descriptive note represents mere information or, even less, a documentation of the objective; instead each one is an element of interior life” (p. 20). He refers to the “structural role of the accessory,” saying: “The evident and admirable unity of tone in this short novel arises because the author has used material according to poetic need and not according to literary convention: as elements of architecture, not as themes of an exercise … ” (pp. 15-16).
An example of the structural role of the accessory is seen at the beginning of the novel when what at first glance seems to be an insignificant detail is really that which provides access to the most hidden parts of the narrator's character. When the narrator surprises Regina and her lover, “two shadows suddenly separate, one from another, with such little skill that the half undone hair of Regina remains hanging from the buttons of the coat of a stranger. Surprised, I look at them” (p. 46). She has, as already mentioned, come face to face with the possibility of passion. But the element that leads her to desperation is the hair caught between two lovers. Its immediate function is, of course, to symbolize the love between the two, but it starts a process of self-examination that terminates with a full realization on the reader's part of the narrator's mental and emotional condition.
The protagonist's first thought is a comparison between herself and Regina: “I think of the too-tight braid that gracelessly crowns my head” (p. 47). The hair symbolizes different emotional lives. Both Goić and Amado Alonso point out the parallelism between Regina and the narrator. Alonso's description is “Regina, a passionate life lived and real; she, a passionate life dreamed and imagined” (p. 19). However, this parallel is still at the level of external character comparison. The next level of revelation in the novel, still based on the external element of hair, is a vision of the depths of the narrator's being. “In front of the mirror in my room, I undo my hair, also dark. There was a time when I wore it loose, almost touching my shoulders. Very straight, tightly drawn at my temples, it shined like glowing silk. My coiffure seemed to me, then, an unruly bonnet that, I'm sure, would have been pleasing to Regina's lover. Since then my husband has made me gather together my extravagant locks, because in everything I should force myself to imitate his first wife, his first wife, who, according to him, was a perfect woman” (p. 47).
She continues the comparison with Regina, showing how in the past they were equal, her hair as free as Regina's. The next step is the central reality of her emotional life. Her hair—and thus her life—is a form forced upon her by her husband to imitate his dead wife, an imitation she can never successfully carry out because the husband considers the first wife to have been perfect.
Bombal is telling the reader that the narrator has allowed herself to be destroyed, that she has allowed her body to become the imitation of another body, and that her function as a woman is not to be herself but to be another. The presentation of this state of total alienation from the self is arrived at through the use of a single external element—hair.
In the context of the book the hair incident, with all it reveals, is bracketed by two scenes that directly concern the body-self relation. The first is of great importance both structurally and emotionally. In it the major integrating element of the book, the mist, appears for the first time.
This first scene is the one in which the protagonist sees a child in its coffin. It is the first time she has seen a dead person. The physical contrast between a dead and a live body is emphasized; movement is opposed to imprisoned rigidity. After the initial external contrast, other reactions are successively more internal, as in the hair scene. First is a description of the dead girl's face as empty of all feeling. The visual impact of the body suggests a word—silence—to the narrator. “Silence, a great silence, a silence of years, of centuries, a dreadful silence that begins to grow in the room and in my head” (p. 44). The terror of the connotations of the word causes her to flee, but outside she finds more silence and a countryside covered with mist. The mist destroys physical reality. “I avoid silhouettes of trees so ecstatic, so vague, that I stretch out my hand to convince myself that they really exist” (p. 45).
She personifies the mist, and, because of its destruction of external reality, she feels that it is attacking her and her reality. “I exist, I exist—I shout—and I'm beautiful and happy! Yes. Happy! Happiness is nothing more than having a young, slim, and agile body” (p. 45).
Her reaction is unexpected and, at first glance, inexplicable. The terms she uses to affirm her existence are those of physical beauty and of happiness. The confusing part of her reaction is the further definition of happiness—having a young, slim, and agile body. It could be explained as the shallow idea of a young girl, but the emotions leading to it are not shallow. Only in the light of the following scene does this definition of happiness become more meaningful. By denying her own body, by allowing it to be turned into someone else's, the narrator has become alienated from herself, both physically and emotionally. Her frantic affirmation of existence is made in the face of a strong feeling of nonexistence. The linking of a body and happiness must be seen as an unfulfilled desire since she has in reality disassociated herself from her body. What she is really saying is that if she could feel vitally related to her body she would be happy.
R. D. Laing in The Divided Self describes this condition in the section on the unembodied self. He believes that the normal sense of being alive, of feeling real, is related to the way one feels one's body to be alive and real. However, many people become detached from their bodies through stress or illness. “The body is felt more as one object among other objects in the world than as the core of the individual's own being. Instead of being the core of his true self, the body is felt as the core of a false self, which a detached, disembodied, ‘inner,’ ‘true’ self looks on with tenderness, amusement, or hatred, as the case may be.” 7
The results of disembodiment, according to Laing, are that the unembodied self cannot participate directly in any aspect of life perceived through the body. The unembodied self becomes an onlooker and observes, controls, and criticizes the body's activities.
The scene following the narrator's encounter with Regina and her lover is important, because it specifically explores the body-self relation. Faced with Regina's intensity of life, and surrounded by two husbands and Regina's lover, the narrator cannot control her inner emotions. “It seems as though they had poured fire through my veins. I go into the garden, I flee” (p. 49). The reader does not know what these emotions are, nor does he have a very good idea of what caused the emotional outbreak. The narrator only describes Regina's “intensity of life, as though she were living an hour of interior violence” (p. 48). Her reaction is to seek solitude.
After the narrator flees, the reader becomes partially aware of her internal state through a series of physical images and their connotations, which convert to interior emotions. The first of these occurs when the narrator throws herself against a tree trunk. The physical sensations are not described, but their emotional impact is. “Oh, to throw my arms around an ardent body and tumble with it, entwined, suspended forever!” (p. 49). A tactile experience becomes a longing for the physical sensations of love. Once this desire for primary physical experience of love is expressed, the woman undresses to swim and explores her own body. “I didn't realize I was so white and so beautiful. The water lengthens my features, which assume unreal proportions. I never before dared to look at my breasts, now I look at them. Small and round, they seem to be diminutive flowers suspended above the water” (p. 49).
In one sense this is a moment of discovery. She wants love, but she wants to experience it through her own body, which she looks at for the first time and surrounds with physical sensations, both real and imaginary. However, something more complex is taking place, as the imagery of the scene reveals. Although the woman is searching for and encounters primary physical sensation, her vision connected with this experience is distorted. The imagery destroys the visual dimension of the physical world.
The description of her body in the water is an example of visual distortion; its outline lengthens to unreal proportions. Her breasts seem to detach themselves from her body to float on the water. To further destroy her form, the water plants entwine themselves about her body in a human caress.
Visual distortion is not limited to this scene. It is the dominant mode of vision in the book and is directly related to the central structural element of the work, the mist. The title of the novel indicates the importance that Bombal attached to the mist in relation to the entire work.
Amado Alonso discusses the function of mist, calling it a leitmotiv and saying, “But the constant poetic function of the mist is that of being the formal element in which the protagonist lives, engulfed” (p. 24). Cedomil Goić extends Alonso's concept: “Though one can conceive that the function of the mist is that of being the formal element of the dream, as does Amado Alonso, it really is much more than that and, as a point of narrative construction, definitely something else. We should not, in general, rely on the common conception of the dream atmosphere as something vague or nebulous. Dreams are sharp and clear. That which is shadowy is the border between dream and wakefulness.”8
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SOURCE: “Social Denunciation in the Language of “El Arbol” [The Tree] by María Luisa Bombal,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. IV, No. 9, Fall-Winter, 1976, pp. 70-6.
[In the following essay, which was translated from Spanish by Ellen Wilkerson, Valdivieso explores the symbolic value of the tree in Bombal's short story.]
Among Chile's outstanding women writers, Maria Luisa Bombal is perhaps the most complex and permanent figure. Born in Viña del Mar, Chile, she studied at the Sorbonne, returned to Chile, and then settled in Buenos Aires. Her first stories, “Las islas nuevas” [“The New Islands”], and “El arbol” [“The Tree”], were...
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SOURCE: “Mist, Light and the Libido: La Ultima Niebla,” in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1979, pp. 231-42.
[Here, Orlandi presents a psychological reading of Bombal's novella.]
Novels of the early twentieth century such as Alsino, El hermano asno, and Don Segundo Sombra, through their poetic and lyrical texture, together with the spiritual and psychological identification of author and character, influenced the continent's subsequent development of modern fiction. Old themes and atmospheres prevailed under new perspectives with writers no longer treating the conflict between man and his world but rather their fusion. From about...
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SOURCE: “Maria Luisa Bombal's Poetic Novels of Female Estrangement,” in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 139-55.
[In the essay below, Rodríguez-Peralta compares Bombal's two novellas, noting in particular their unique position in Hispanic literature.]
Many women writers in Latin American literature have presented a feminine world overtly concerned with emotional responses which often carefully cover underlying repressive forces. In these works, man generates the impulses and reactions in the spatial corridors structured around him, whether or not his own space is focused at the center or at a distance. Baroque profusion enabled...
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SOURCE: “‘The Shrouded Woman’: Marriage and Its Constraints in the Fiction of María Luisa Bombal,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. X, No. 20, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 21-30.
[Below, Williams investigates the theme of confinement and its effects on the women protagonists of Bombal's La última niebla, La amortajada, and “El árbol.”]
Over the past decade, most Americans have come to assume that achievement in the public domain is a variable pursuit for both men and women. At the same time that American women were affirming their right to be self-oriented and not merely other-oriented, as they have been for centuries, the Chilean novelist,...
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SOURCE: “María Luisa Bombal's Heroines: Poetic Neuroses and Artistic Symbolism,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1984, pp. 103-13.
[In the following discussion of La última niebla, La amortajada, and “El árbol,” Bente examines the “neurotic” demeanor of Bombal's woman protagonists. The critic concludes: “her literature of neuroses and frustration, illustrated through clearly defined women protagonists and executed through poetic and artistic symbolism, achieves the highest tradition of life and literature as a conveyance of the perplexities of the human condition.”]
Whether due to increasing appreciation of the short stories and...
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SOURCE: “Antithetical Mirror Images and the Poetic Imagination in the Narrative of María Luisa Bombal,” in The Lyrical Vision of María Luisa Bombal, Tamesis Books Limited, 1988, pp. 69-78.
[In the following essay, the critic discusses recurring images in Bombal's novellas and stories that serve to portray the futile state of her women protagonists.]
Imagination is a strong, restless faculty. When she shows us bright pictures, are we never to look at them, and try to reproduce them? And when she is eloquent, and speaks rapidly and urgently in our ear, are we not to write to her dictation?
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SOURCE: “The Fragile Perfection of the Shrouded Rebellion (Re-reading Passivity in María Luisa Bombal),” in Women Writers in Twentieth-Century Spain and Spanish America, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1993, pp. 27-42.
[In the following essay, Boyle discusses the significance of passivity in Bombal's women protagonists, especially in the novella La amortajada.]
Ella se había sentado en la cama, dispuesta a insultar. Pero en vano buscó las palabras hirientes que gritarle. No Sabía nada, nada. Ni siquiera insultar.
—¿Qué te pasa? ¿En qué piensas, Brígida?
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SOURCE: “Desire and Discourse in María Luisa Bombal's New Islands,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 112, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 51-63.
[In the following psychoanalytical study of Bombal's New Islands and Other Stories, Díaz addresses the theme of desire.]
What does woman want? ask the psychoanalysts. Sigmund Freud posits what seems to be a logical answer as he develops his penis envy theory. Carl Jung's spiritual rapprochement to sexuality places woman's desire in the context of opposite and complementary male and female psychic tendencies or archetypes, as seen in the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy.1 Jacques Lacan re-reads Freud in the...
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SOURCE: “Moving Beyond Gothic: The Different Reality of María Luisa Bombal,” in Tribune Books, September 10, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[In the following assessment of Bombal's English translations of La última niebla and La amortajada Mesic contends that, despite shortcomings, these works “both awake a feeling of genuine discovery, of minds and hearts not borrowed from European literature but indigenous to a New World of thought and feeling.”]
A frightened young bride dressed in black, who has heard the marriage ceremony hastily pronounced by a bored priest, is taken by her silent groom to his remote hacienda. The train stops at a station where the couple...
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