Rosario Ferré Essay - Critical Essays

Ferré, Rosario (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Rosario Ferré 1942–-

Puerto Rican short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Ferré's work through 1998.

Recognized as one of contemporary Puerto Rico's most important writers, Ferré is generally credited with launching the feminist movement in the U.S. commonwealth following the publication of her first book, Papeles de Pandora (1976; The Youngest Doll). Her extensive and diverse body of work, ranging from short stories, novels, and poetry to critical essays and translations, consistently engages the stereotypical feminine myths of western culture and reinterprets the traditionally passive and subordinate status of women in Puerto Rican society; for this Ferré has been the focus of considerable controversy. Influenced by the feminist vision of French novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Ferré has created aggressive, politically astute, and defiant personae who challenge and subvert the patriarchal norms of society yet embrace—indeed, celebrate—a distinctly feminine sensibility. Often compared stylistically to Chilean writer Isabel Allende, Ferré has incorporated techniques of magic realism including fragmented time sequences and multiple narrators and has interspersed elements of fantasy or myth in her feminist translations of ordinary Puerto Rican life. Although Latin American readers nearly unanimously acknowledge Ferré as their region's foremost femme de lettres, she has struggled to achieve similar recognition from an English-speaking audience, despite her award-nominated original English-language publication, The House on the Lagoon (1995), and a number of self-translations into English of her other works.

Biographical Information

Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico—a city long considered the island's southern capital—to Luis A. Ferré, an engineer who served as the island's governor from 1968 to 1972, and Lorneza Ramirez Ferré, the daughter of a family who owned sugarcane plantations. Her parents' marriage reflects the cultural changes that occurred in Puerto Rico during the first half of the twentieth century, as industrial concerns transformed the former agrarian economy and society; this phenomenon has inspired many of her stories. Ferré mainly attended Catholic schools for girls, except during her primary education, which she completed at a Jesuit school for boys. At this time Ferré's African nanny introduced her to the classical mythology and indigenous folktales that inform her narratives. After graduating from high school, Ferré briefly attended an American college to study English literature but abandoned it in 1960 to marry Benigno Trigo, a merchant with whom she had three children and later divorced, soon after her mother's death. By the early 1970s, Ferré resumed her studies at the University of Puerto Rico as a master's candidate in Spanish literature. There, she joined the cause of Puerto Rican independence, which defied her father's political agenda, and studied with magical realism writers Mario Vargas Llosa and Angel Rama, who both encouraged her literary ambitions. Meanwhile, Ferré founded and directed Zona de carga de descarga (1971–76), a controversial literary journal that also contained inflammatory but nonpartisan political articles. As a forum for new Puerto Rican writers, the journal also launched Ferré's literary career, debuting several of the stories that later appeared in her first collection, The Youngest Doll, which she published from her new residence in Mexico. A diverse body of writings followed in rapid succession, most notably the feminist criticism Sitio a Eros (1980) and the poetry collection Fábulas de la garza desangrada (1982). During the 1980s Ferré moved to the United States, where she earned a doctorate degree in Latin American literature from the University of Maryland in 1986. That year Ferré also published her first novel, Maldito amor (Sweet Diamond Dust). Upon completion of her graduate studies, she held a professorship at Georgetown University and lectured throughout the country until 1990, when she returned to Puerto Rico. Since then, Ferré has continued to break new ground in Puerto Rican letters by addressing themes traditionally thought taboo and translating several of her own works into English. Distinguished as her first work originally written in English, The House on the Lagoon received a nomination for the prestigious National Book Award in 1996. Within two years Ferré also published another original English-language volume, the memoir Eccentric Neighborhoods (1998).

Major Works

Emotionally expressive and usually satirical, Ferré's work exhibits both diversity and versatility in theme and genre. The themes of her short stories, poems, critical essays, and novels range from the plight of Puerto Rican women, usually upper-class, to the island's colonial status. Ferré's writings consistently illustrate the limited roles women play in Puerto Rican society and imagine different possibilities to achieve a new female identity. Combining elements of indigenous and European folk tales, her early writings highlight such feminist themes as the relationship among gender, race, and class, traditional literary representations of women, and the oppression of women in patriarchal cultures and their usually poignant struggle against it. The figure of a doll is a recurring motif in the stories of The Youngest Doll and represents not only women's struggles against and anger at the patriarchal system but also the concept of idealized femininity. The collection's first story, “La muneca menor,” upsets the stereotype that values women for their social prestige as wives. Housebound after a river prawn bit her, a maiden aunt of elite landowners makes life-sized, honey-filled dolls in the image of her nieces, which she presents on their wedding days, including the youngest, who marries the prosperous doctor caring for her aunt. Overwhelmed by the status of his wife, the doctor insists that she permanently sit on the balcony of their home, on display for the community to envy; the wife gradually becomes a doll. At the moment the doctor finally notices that his wife had stopped breathing, she opens her eyes and releases frenzied prawns. In “Amalia” a girl confuses her identity with that of a doll and later melts in a hot garden when she leaves her bourgeois home. In “Marina and the Lion” a bored socialite hosts a costume party, at which she disguises herself as a doll in a cellophane-wrapped box. After emerging to play an involved game of dressing and undressing that illustrates the social impositions upon women, she realizes by the end of the story that only death holds the freedom she wants. “The Sleeping Beauty” draws upon elements of the children's fairy tale and tells in a series of letters of a conspiracy between a wealthy father and a Catholic nun that destroys his daughter's ambition to become a ballerina after he arranges her marriage to a young aristocrat. The fourteen critical feminist essays in Sitio a Eros offer a series of sociohistorical retrospectives on a diverse range of women writers from Mary Shelley, George Sand, and Virginia Woolf to Anais Nin, Lillian Hellman, and Sylvia Plath. Most notable among the essays in this book is the frequently anthologized “La Cocina de las escritura” (“The Writer's Kitchen”), which involves an extended metaphor of writing as cooking. This essay presents Ferré's personal motivations for writing fiction, recounting the evolution of her first story, a history of profanity in women's writing, and her answer to whether “feminine” writing exists. The poems of Fábulas de la garza desangrada elaborate upon women's roles in society by rewriting the stories of such mythical, biblical, and literary figures as Medusa, Helen of Troy, Ariadne, Daphne, Mary Magdalene, and Desdemona. A parody of the once popular “land genre,” Ferré's first novel, Sweet Diamond Dust, outlines Puerto Rican twentieth-century history from the perspectives of four influential rich women who live through important periods of the island's change. Similarly, the semi-autobiographical novel The House on the Lagoon traces the relationship between a wealthy husband and his wife, who bicker with increasing frequency about politics, social attitudes, and the family history she is writing, which includes stories about her spouse and in-laws. An African servant also plays a role within the family dynamic. With multiple narrators and mythic effects, the novel, like Ferré's other works, underscores the link between knowledge and power, interweaving themes of race, class, gender, and sexuality to uncover the ways the past shapes the present and affects self-identity.

Critical Reception

Commentators have often used such terms as thought-provoking, controversial, and groundbreaking to describe Ferré's literary accomplishment within and influential contributions to Puerto Rican literature. The original stories and poems of the critically acclaimed The Youngest Doll are generally credited with introducing and inspiring a new range of literary possibilities for Puerto Rican women writers to explore, most notably Ferré's feminist vision for the island and the techniques of magic realism. Similarly evincing her influence on world literature, a number of her critical essays, as well as many of her stories, have appeared in Latin American literary and feminist anthologies, while Ferré's themes also have broadly attracted the interest of postcolonial theorists. Although Spanish-speaking audiences have enthusiastically greeted each Ferré publication, including those translated from English into Spanish, the feminist writer lacks a similar popularity among English-speaking readers, despite the glowing accolades from those who have read her works—both in translation and several original English versions. Many American reviewers and scholars of Hispanic literature praise Ferré for the brilliance of her formal versatility, the craftsmanship of her magic realist narratives, and the intensity of her feminist thought. They lament, however, Ferré's relative neglect by the English-speaking public, despite her own award-nominated achievements within the English language and a growing interest in Latina fiction worldwide. “From beginning to end,” observes Patricia Hart, “whether she is conceiving stories, translating them or providing commentary, Rosario Ferré shines, and it is high time for English-speaking readers to bask in her light.”

Principal Works

Papeles de Pandora [The Youngest Doll] (short stories and poetry) 1976

Sitio a Eros: trece ensayos literarios (essays) 1980

Fábulas de la garza desangrada (poetry) 1982

El acomador: una lectura fantástica de Felisberto Hernández (criticism) 1986

Maldito amor [Sweet Diamond Dust] (novel and stories) 1986

El árbol y sus sombras (essays) 1989

El coloquio de las perras (essays) 1990

Las dos Venecias (short stories and poetry) 1992

Memorias de Ponce: Autobiografia de Luis A. Ferré [translator]...

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Criticism

Jean Franco (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Foreword to Papeles de Pandora: The Youngest Doll, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. ix–xiv.

[In the following essay, Franco provides a brief thematic overview of the stories in Papeles de Pandora.]

In her essay “The Writer's Kitchen,” Rosario Ferré asserts that imagination is “irreverence towards the establishment,” that it is “always subversive.” Ferré's irreverence is directed toward the class into which she was born, and beyond that to the patriarchal ties that bind the overprotected lives of upper-class women and the oppression and marginalization of working-class women of color. The heritage of slavery in Ferré's native Puerto Rico...

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Suzanne S. Hintz (review date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: A review of El coloquio de las perras, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 276.

[In the following review, Hintz addresses the principal purpose of El coloquio de las perras.]

Rosario Ferré's most recent book, El coloquio de las perras, is a collection of eight essays on the general topic of feminist literary criticism. The first essay, which lends the volume its title, is a fictional presentation of Ferré's personal opinions on feminist literary criticism. The second is a statement on the status of feminist literary criticism during the last decade. The remaining pieces are written autodiegetically as an explanation of...

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Patricia Hart (review date 6 May 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Youngest Doll, in Nation, Vol. 252, No. 17, May 6, 1991, pp. 597–8.

[In the following review, Hart compares the narrative modes of The Youngest Doll and Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek, highlighting the authors's thematic similarities.]

Defiant magic feminism challenges all our conventional notions of time, place, matter and identity in Rosario Ferré's spectacular new book, The Youngest Doll, first published in Spanish in 1976 as Papeles de Pandora and now deftly translated into English primarily by the author herself. Magic realism electro-charged with feminist awareness fuels a constellation of...

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Rosario Ferré with Donna Perry (interview date June 1991)

SOURCE: An interview with Rosario Ferré, in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1993, pp. 83–103.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in June, 1991, Ferré discusses her personal background and the nature of her writings, touching on such concerns as the advantages and difficulties of writing about the homeland she left; the role of anger and magic in her work and in Latin American literature in general; the significance of race, class, and gender as a Puerto Rican woman writer; the art of translating fiction; the relationship between autobiography and fiction; and Puerto Rican culture and politics.]

In 1974,...

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Carmen S. Rivera (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: “Porcelain Face / Rotten Flesh: The Doll in Papeles de Pandora,” in Chasqui, Vol. 23, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 95–101.

[In the following essay, Rivera discusses various uses of the doll motif in the stories and poems of Papeles de Pandora, particularly as a means of defense against patriarchal elements for female characters.]

“En esta casa las mujeres hablan cuando las gallinas mean,” says Don Julio de la Valle to his wife in Maldito amor (24). This popular saying summarizes the silent role that has been prescribed for women in Puerto Rican social, political, economic, and religious institutions. Hélène Cixous warns us that...

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Linda S. Zee (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: “Rosario Ferré's ‘La muneca menor’ and Caribbean Myth,” in Chasqui, Vol. 23, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 102–10.

[In the following essay, Zee elucidates the references and allusions to indigenous Caribbean cultural and mythological traditions in “La muneca menor.”]

There have been numerous studies of Rosario Ferré's short story “La muneca menor,” the first piece in Papeles de Pandora (1976). While many of these studies are insightful as regards both the fantastic aspects of the work and the feminist quality which underlies it, to date no examination has been made of the indigenous cultural and mythological references and allusions...

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Elena Gascón Vera (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Sitio a Eros: The Liberated Eros of Rosario Ferré,” in Reinterpreting the Spanish American Essay: Women Writers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Doris Meyer, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 197–206.

[In the following essay, a revised version of a study published originally in Spanish in Gascón Vera's Un mito nuevo: La mujer como sujeto/objeto literario (Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1992) and translated by Joy Renjilian Burgy, Gascón Vera identifies Ferré's contributions to a feminine principle of passion as primarily expressed in Sitio a Eros.]

In a 1987 essay, Puerto Rican author Rosario Ferré unambiguously states the...

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Suzanne Ruta (review date 17 September 1995)

SOURCE: “Blood of the Conquistadors,” in New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, p. 28.

[In the following review, Ruta comments on the style, structure, and characterization of The House on the Lagoon.]

“We have not given your island a single thought, and I have no information whatsoever on the place,” Teddy Roosevelt reportedly told a Puerto Rican patriot on the eve of the Spanish-American War. “I've never even known a Puerto Rican,” Stephen Sondheim protested when Leonard Bernstein asked him to collaborate on West Side Story, half a century and millions of immigrants later.

Our ignorance of the island we annexed in 1898...

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Lee Skinner (essay date October 1995)

SOURCE: “Pandora's Log: Charting the Evolving Literary Project of Rosario Ferré,” in Revista de Estudios Hispanicos, Vol. 29, No. 3, October, 1995, pp. 461–76.

[In the essay below, Skinner traces Ferré's literary development in her narrative works, focusing on her essay “La cocina de la escrita,” her short story “La muneca menor,” her novel Maldito amor, and her short story collection Las dos Venecias.]

In her essay “La cocina de la escritura,” published in 1982, Rosario Ferré describes her authorial project, her literary influences and her motivations for writing fiction. As part of this short autobiographical essay, she discusses the...

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Ilán Stavans (review date 20 November 1995)

SOURCE: “Serving Two Masters,” in Nation, Vol. 261, November 20, 1995, pp. 640–42.

[In the following review, Stavans discusses The House on the Lagoon in the context of contemporary Puerto Rican literature, highlighting its less than enthusiastic reception by English-speaking readers.]

There is a border in contemporary Puerto Rican letters that is at once mental abyss and tangible geographical gap between island and mainland, one that literature can map in astonishing detail. Remarkable books like La noche oscura del Nino Avilés, an intriguing, encyclopedic 1984 novel by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá about religious fanaticism, set in the eighteenth...

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Judith Grossman (review date February 1996)

SOURCE: “Constructing and Reconstructing,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 5, February, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review of The House on the Lagoon, Grossman discusses the plot, major characters, and underlying message of the novel, concluding that “The House on the Lagoon gives us a performance of great accomplishment and wit, and the sense of a world held in measured but deeply affectionate memory.”]

Rosario Ferré belongs in the company of those truly bilingual writers (Isak Dinesen was one such, Vladimir Nabokov another) whose irrepressible delight in the play of eloquence and style makes it seem that one language is never...

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Ellen G. Friedman (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The House on the Lagoon, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1996, p. 168.

[In the following review, Friedman unfavorably compares The House on the Lagoon with Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits.]

The House on the Lagoon is an attempt at a Puerto Rican House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's 1982 novel. Indeed, the narrator's name is Isabel. Set in Ponce and San Jose, the novel follows six generations of two families from the business aristocracy of Puerto Rico and even provides the reader with a family tree. The narrator's manuscript, which she keeps hidden, is discovered by her husband...

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Kathleen M. Glenn (essay date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Text and Countertext in Rosario Ferré's ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 207–18.

[In the following essay, Glenn concentrates on the form and structure of “Sleeping Beauty,” highlighting the function of its fragmented narrative and the play between texts and countertexts from a variety of media that inform the story.]

Rosario Ferré is one of a group of angry young Puerto Rican women authors who have seized the pen and wielded it effectively. Educated on the island and the mainland, Ferré is the daughter of a former governor of Puerto Rico and by birth a member of the upper-class, conservative...

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Ilán Stavans (review date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The House on the Lagoon, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, Summer, 1996, pp. 690–91.

[In the following review, Stavans characterizes The House on the Lagoon in the magic realism mode of Latin-American literature, but also praises Ferré's efforts to make her fictional world accessible to English-speaking readers. This essay is a slightly revised version of Stavans' review in Nation (20 November 1995).]

Up until the nineties, Rosario Ferré's career developed mainly on the Spanish-language front. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1942 and educated at Manhattanville College and the University of Maryland, where she received her...

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Mark Childress (review date 22 February 1998)

SOURCE: “Family History,” in New York Times Book Review, February 22, 1998, p. 16.

[In the following review, Childress offers qualified praise for Eccentric Neighborhoods, admiring the tone and style of the novel but faulting the characterization and the quantity of individual story lines.]

In recent years, the outpouring of Latin American fiction has come to seem a bit stale, a long-running show in which the literary heirs of Gabriel García Márquez (and even the master himself) must strain ever harder to dazzle us with magic-realist tricks. The most refreshing thing about Rosario Ferré, one of Puerto Rico's most influential writers, is that she keeps her...

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