Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In The Moths, and Other Stories, Helena Maria Viramontes has collected eight short stories that focus on the lives of Latin American women who are oppressed by the gendered expectations of a variety of institutions—patriarchal families, the Catholic church, totalitarian governments—and who seek to resist those institutions and their teachings. Viramontes also examines cultural responses to women’s reproductive function as well as women’s efforts to gain control of their bodies. Her stories are windows through which the reader has a glimpse into the inner lives of female characters struggling with their environments and themselves.

The stories are arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, moving through the life stages of women from adolescence to old age. The first two stories—“The Moths” and “Growing”—look at the strict expectations imposed upon Mexican American girls at the onset of menses and at the ways in which wedges are driven between young women and their mothers and sisters within patriarchal families. “Birthday” traces the thoughts of a young woman who is undergoing an abortion, a practical and ethical dilemma that, for Catholic women, has special problems. Issues of marriage and adultery are explored in “The Broken Web.” “The Long Reconciliation” addresses the roles of poverty and economic and sexual exploitation in the disintegration of marriages. Viramontes casts her political net beyond southern...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

The Moths and Other Stories Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Viramontes’ first book, The Moths, and Other Stories contributes to a growing body of work by women of color in general and by Chicana/Latina writers in particular. Contemporary Chicana writers Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chavez have also made use of the short story genre in, respectively, The House on Mango Street (1986) and Last of the Menu Girls (1986). Whereas these two fine collections focus on the childhood and young adulthood of Mexican American females, Viramontes’ work extends the analysis into other life stages, as does Cisneros’ later collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). Viramontes tends to take risks with style and to work toward an encompassing (and pessimistic) analysis of linguistic and cultural ideology.

The text’s focus on style of communication as integral to subject matter echoes efforts, such as those of Virginia Woolf, to find a style of writing that is suitable for women’s expression. Viramontes’ fictional critique of the intersections of oppressive systems bears a close resemblance to nonfiction cultural critiques written by Cherrie Moraga in Loving in the War Years (1983) and Gloria Anzaldua in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). These and other Latina writers contribute a crucial perspective on women’s roles in North America, a perspective that has heretofore been largely silent within mainstream culture.

Viramontes, Moraga, and Cisneros, among others, relate the difficulty of becoming writers in a culture that does not value women’s artistic production, particularly when that production contributes little to strained economic conditions. The fact that these women have persevered and have produced works such as The Moths, and Other Stories is testimony to their talent and determination.

The Moths and Other Stories Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Alarcon, Norma. “Making Familia from Scratch: Split Subjectivities in the Work of Helena Maria Viramontes and Cherrie Moraga.” The Americas Review 15 (1987): 147-159. In this critical essay, Alarcon connects the self-sacrificing woman of Mexican and Chicano Catholicism to the split identities of females in Moraga’s and Viramontes’ work.

Anzaldua, Gloria, ed. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation Books, 1990. This anthology of personal narratives, critical essays, poetry, and short stories picks up where This Bridge Called My Back (1981) left off. Like the earlier collection, this one provides incisive cultural critiques by women of color.

Franklet, Duane. “Social Language: Bakhtin and Viramontes.” The Americas Review 17 (Summer, 1989): 110-114. Franklet details the way in which Viramontes uses a variety of language systems to illustrate the difficulty of meaningful communication for her characters.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria, and Helena Maria Viramontes, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988. One of several volumes of critical essays on Chicana literature and literary theory, Chicana Creativity offers several complex, interdisciplinary articles.

Horno-Delgado, Asuncion, et al., eds. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. This anthology of essays includes Viramontes’ essay “‘Nopalitos’: The Making of Fiction,” in which she discusses her own commitment to writing as a means of speaking and fighting for women and children.

Moraga, Cherrie. Loving in the War Years. Boston: South End Press, 1983. Moraga’s text, written prior to The Moths, and Other Stories, shares similar thematic and stylistic concerns. Loving in the War Years is a collection of essays and poetry that examines the role of Chicano culture in shaping the lives and imaginations of Chicana writers.