Rosario Ferré Essay - Ferré, Rosario (Short Story Criticism)

Ferré, Rosario (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Rosario Ferré 1939-

See also Rosario Ferre Contemporary Literary Criticism.

One of the first overtly feminist writers from Puerto Rico, Ferré is known for writing fiction, poetry, and essays that critique traditional Puerto Rican culture. Often considered a magical realist for the ways in which she fractures time, shifts points of view, and uses surrealist imagery, Ferré draws attention to how women have been depicted in Western myths of femininity, often focusing on the relationships between gender and class, in particular the privileged class. Her first collection of short stories, Papales de Pandora (The Youngest Doll), criticizes historical representations of women as dolls and other figures who exist primarily for the gratification of male desire. However, Ferré's stories do more than merely describe women's subordinate social and cultural positions; they also underscore the possibility and necessity for transformation.

Biographical Information

Rosario Ferré was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the daughter of financier and future governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Ferré, and Lorenza Ramirez Ferré. The same year that she was born her mother's brother died in a plane crash, a loss that haunted Ferré's early childhood. Because she was preoccupied with mourning for her brother, Lorenza Ferré could not provide much joy for her daughter. When the family hired a nanny, Gilda Ventura, to take care of Rosario, her life changed. As happy as Lorenza Ferré was sad, Gilda introduced Roasario to the world of myth and fairytales where, though terrible things happened, the heroes and heroines escaped unharmed. Ferré frequently uses myths and fairytales as narrative foundations from which to examine sociopolitical issues. She published her own stories and edited those of others in Zona de carga y descarga, a literary journal she helped found in 1972. While a Master's candidate in Spanish literature at the University of Puerto Rico in the early 1970s, Ferré further developed her knowledge of literature and Puerto Rican history under the mentorship of Hispanic American scholars Mario Vargas Llosa and Angel Rama. In 1976 Ferré published her first collection of short stories, The Youngest Doll, for which she won an award from Ateneo Puertorriqueno, the prestigious Puerto Rican cultural institution. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1986.

Major Works

In stories that center on the interweavings of race, class, gender, and sexuality in Puerto Rico, Ferré merges Puerto Rican folktales and Western myths to explore the multiple causes for how the island's past affects its present. Her primary concern is Puerto Rican women, who historically have been tied to ideas of passivity and domesticity. In "La muñeca menor" ("The Youngest Doll"), for example, Ferré overturns common feminine stereotypes, while showing their relationship to the socio-economic structure of Puerto Rico. The image of the doll in this story recurs in many Ferré stories as a symbol of idealized femininity. Ferré, however, demonstrates how this very image has helped to limit women's progress, detailing the ways in which class expectations undergird gender roles. As Carmen S. Rivera noted, "Ferré seems to warn her readers that when a woman's voice and sexuality is confined and 'gagged' by male oppression, she begins to rot and smell as decomposed flesh beneath the ever passive beauty of her porcelain face." In the controversial story "When Women Love Men" Ferré examines the partnership between a repressed, privileged widow and a black prostitute, both named Isabel, who loved the same man and received equal shares of his property after his death. The story concerns miscegenation in Puerto Rico, changes in the island's social structure, and the multiple sexual identities of women. Ultimately, according to Ferré, it "is a story which points to specific social problems: the frigidity of women of the higher social class as well as the sexual exploitation of prostitutes are both a consequence of an unjust social hegemony in the hands of men."

Critical Reception

The initial response to Ferré's short fiction was one of shock and rage. Copies of her sexually charged story "When Women Love Men" were publically burned at its first publication in 1972. Even so, with the translation of her works into English and the increasing popularity of Latin American women's fiction, Ferré's reputation in the United States is growing. Her use of metafictional devices, such as multiple narrators, and her reworkings of myth and fairytale put her squarely in the school of "magical realist" writers, with one difference: in addition to changing the stereotypes of women in literature, Ferré wants to change how women are seen in life as well.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

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

Las dos Venecias (short stories and poetry) 1990

Sweet Diamond Dust and Other Stories (short stories) 1996

Other Major Works

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) 1986

El árbol y sus sombras [essays] 1989

El coloquio de las perras (essays) 1990

The House on the Lagoon (novel) 1995

Eccentric Neighborhoods (novel) 1998

Criticism

Diana L. Velez (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Power and the Text: Rebellion in Rosario Ferré's Papales de Pandora," in The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 70-80.

[In the following essay, Vélez details the narrative structure of Ferré's story "Sleeping Beauty" to demonstrate how the protagonist undermines patriarchal authority, a recurring theme in Ferré's short fiction.]

Rosario Ferré is a Puerto Rican feminist who has published a considerable number of essays, short stories, and newspaper articles. At present she lives in the United States and is working on a novel. "Sleeping Beauty" ("La Bella Durmienta"), the short story whose narrative structure I will discuss here, appears in a collection of short stories entitled Papeles de Pandora, which I have translated as Pandora's Sisters.1 The broadest questions I shall address concerning this text are: what are its narrative strategies, and how and to what extent do these strategies lend themselves to a subversion of patriarchal norms? In particular, I shall examine the "pastiche" form in an attempt to understand why it seems so well suited for this subversion. Explaining the ideological effectiveness of the pastiche will lead me subsequently to focus attention on the orders of representation found in the text: what extrinsic texts are present, how are they rewritten or transformed in the narrative, and how does this rewriting contribute to a feminist vision?

The traditional realist text, the "readerly" text in Barthesian terms, tells its story by putting the reader in the passive position of a trusting listener who accepts—or rejects—the authority of the narrator, but who has no other role in the text.2 This type of writing is incompatible with a feminist world view on two counts. First, like all voices of authority, the narrator of a traditional realist text—and not just of one with an omniscient narrator—uses linguistic representations the underlying values of which remain unquestioned. As feminists, we know that the very words used to construct social reality are suspect in themselves. The women's movement, in what I would call its second phase, has shown that words themselves cannot be trusted, precisely because they are based on a long history of female oppression. The words we use are infused with patriarchal values. The recent focus on the power of naming, or of defining, points to a multiplicity, rather than a univocality, of terms. It points to a decentering of signifiers. The slashes between Mary Daly's words are but one superficial indicator of this awareness.3 Narrative univocality, therefore, is incompatible with a truly feminist vision because a univocal discourse forces judgments in which the reader has no choice. With an omniscient narrator, the reader's power is reduced because the narrative voice has privileged information about psychic worlds whose meanings are reduced by the closed text to one acceptable "reading."

A fragmented, open text, on the other hand, consists of a multiplicity of voices. The reader's access to a multiplicity of readings is thereby extended; the tension, inherent discord, and multivocality of the text are preserved. Rather than a smooth, uninterrupted narrative flow, we have a series of narrative blocks without a center: a pastiche. The position of the reader—indeed, her role—is different here. She is forced to make decisions in order to construct the story for herself; she has to use her critical faculties in conjunction with the building blocks provided by the author in order to "write" her own text.

Particularly in Latin American fiction, of course, this is not a new narrative strategy. Julio Cortázar's Rayuela is among the first texts to require an active reading that at least gives readers a choice.4 Yet, it is ironic that Cortázar uses the categories lector-macho and lector-hembra in order to describe active and passive readers respectively, especially so since Ferré's novelty lies in the particular way in which she allows us to gain insights into female mutedness in society.5 The contrast between the din of the voice of patriarchy, even in the speech acts of women found in the text, and the muffled cry of the protagonist is made possible by a narrative strategy that provides access to both: the loud patriarchal voice, as well as the female protagonist's muted voice. Thus, the reader hops back and forth between authenticity and inauthenticity and, in so doing, sees patriarchy at work in its construction of the female. Ferré does not discard the omniscient narrator as a voice, but she does decenter it; by making it one voice among several, she reduces its power.

"Sleeping Beauty" features a rebellious protagonist to whom we as readers have access only by means of a distored lens: a series of discourses external to the protagonist whose patriarchal norms represent the interests and self-images of the Puerto Rican ruling class.6 The norms that inhere in these discourses are varied and multiform, but they share one function: to limit and to define the female protagonist by presenting her to the reader as the "seen," the object of another subject's gaze. The reader is not expected to trust these discourses, but rather, to use her critical faculties in constructing the text so as to produce a multiplicity of possible readings. In perceiving these different points of view, the reader receives only a partially constructed image of the woman dancer whose story is told by the narrative. The partial, incomplete nature of discourse in this text thus is highlighted by the use of multiple narrative structures to undermine the validity of any one message. Fictive artifacts—magazine articles, letters, gossip columns, shower invitations—are the narrative blocks of the story structured as pastiche. Through these structures, an overarching Romantic mythology, characteristic of the world of ballet, is allowed to inform the text in a self-critical and self-referential way.

There is a tension in the story between two definitions of power: power as control over another, who then becomes an object; and power to create, to perform. The voices of the father, husband, and Mater represent patriarchal power in its various manifestations. Each tries to limit and to define the dancer by appropriating her into their own "texts." Yet, on their part, the dancer's internal monologues are figures for movement itself, fluid discourses that are full of ambiguity. One set of discourses, then, represents dominance over another, while the other set represents an impulse toward creative expression for its own sake. Yet this does not mean that such expression is created ex nihilo, for the dancer, like all women, is forced to use culturally received texts in order to construct her inner world. The text subsists, therefore, in an interplay between these various sets of discourses, or forces, as the dancer "moves" in order both to define and to describe herself over and against the restrictive social norms that would oppress her.

The title, "Sleeping Beauty," refers to a fairy tale and to the ballet of the same name. It elicits in the reader a multiplicity of texts based on an archetype: woman as passivity, woman as waiting, waiting in sleep, waiting to be awakened. Prince Charming, of course, is the active party in this Romantic myth that is buried deep in our social psyche. Sleeping Beauty is an important legend in the Romantic tradition whose charms still hold sway in the art forms of both popular and high culture. Hence, we enter Ferré's text first by means of a reference to the fictive world of charmed passivity, beauty in quasi-death. Ferré offers yet another version of the tale, but it is one in which the signs have been transposed, scattered, decentered and—to a certain degree—subverted.

Our second entry into the tale/text is provided by means of a letter; a date and a salutation, "Dear Don Felisberto," become the first of several fictive artifacts. The tradition of texts based on letters is an established one in Hispanic literature and an important one in women's writing. By initially invoking this traditional form, the author allows the reader to enter the text comfortably. Yet, in this text, the reader's position is made mobile, in contrast with the fixed positioning of the reader found in nineteenth-century fiction. As the narrative begins to shift to and among multiple discourses, we first are in the position of reading a letter; next we view the writer of the letter from the perspective of the omniscient narrator; later we see the protagonist from the point of view of a gossip columnist's text. Multiple use of fictive artifacts allows the reader this mobility, and the naive comfort we may at first experience upon reading a text that is identifiably a letter quickly disappears when we are plunged into a "writable" text. Indeed, our trust as passive readers is betrayed as the narrative structure removes the underpinnings of a realism that we anticipate.

The letter in question is addressed to the protagonist's husband and seems to be written by an unknown woman:

You will no doubt be surprised to get my letter. Though I don't know you personally, I feel that the only decent thing for me to do after seeing what is going on is to warn you. It seems your wife doesn't appreciate what you're worth, a good, handsome man and rich besides. It's enough to satisfy even the most demanding woman.

(p. 144)

The letter writer then informs Don Felisberto that his wife has been seen entering a hotel in the company of a stranger and disguised as a servant. The anonymous letter writer is merely informing him because, "You know, I'm sure, that a woman's reputation is like glass, it smudges at the lightest touch" (p. 145).

This popular Puerto Rican saying is followed by the statement, "It isn't enough for a woman to be chaste; it's more important that she appear to be" (p. 145). The Puerto Rican's exaggerated concern with the appearance of things is thus undermined. At this point, the trick that has been played on the unsuspecting reader becomes clear. An omniscient narrator enters and informs that:

She folds the letter and puts it in the envelope. Painstakingly, using her left hand, she scrawls the address with the same pencil she used for the letter. Getting up from the floor, she stretches and stands up on her toe shoes. Her black jersey leotard becomes taut, outlining her breasts and thighs. She walks to the barre and starts her daily stretching routine.

(p. 145)

The letter writer is the "protagonist," the figure about whom the story is written.

A second letter affords Don Felisberto the hotel name, room number, and the hours of the dancer's daily trysts. Once again, the fictive letter writer refers to social norms that have been violated; this time they are those of male responsibility.

I have no way of knowing whether or not you received my other letter. If so, you couldn't have taken it seriously, as your wife continues her daily visits, always at the same time. What is the problem? Don't you love her? Why, then, did you marry her? Your duty as her husband is to accompany and protect her, to make her feel satisfied so she doesn't have to go looking for other men.

(p. 145)

The register of speech is lower class and informal. The dancer here is using a mask, the language and norms of a socially regressive code, in order to create a false impression of another character within the story. The reason for her behavior is withheld from the reader and an element of mystery is introduced.

The next voice encountered takes the form of a fictive artifact called "society page" or "woman's page." This article, understood to be written for female consumption, is a gossip column entitled "Coppella." It is a review of a dance performance. The print here switches to the form of newspaper columns. The language is gender-specific; indeed, it is a language that has been identified by the patriarchy as "female prattle." Catty, superficial, and concentrating on appearances, the gossip columnist uses what can only be described as "breathless" prose. She writes admiringly of the Beautiful People (BP's) and the Super Adorable People (SAP's) who attended last evening's performance. Ostensibly about the ballet performance, the column is actually about the jet set: their clothes, their jewels, and their women. Possessives are used when referring to women, for example, "Jorge Rubenstein y su Chiqui." The dancer's name appears for the first time only in column five of the review, when the columnist applauds Maria de los...

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Rosario Ferré (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Writer's Kitchen," translated by Diana L. Vélez, in Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors, edited by Doris Meyer, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 212-27.

[In the following essay, adapted by the author from a speech, Ferré discusses her personal motivations for writing fiction. Ferré states: "Writing is for me above all a physical knowledge, an irrefutable proof that my human formindividual and collectiveexists. But writing is also an intellectual knowledge, the discovery of a form that precedes me. It is only through pleasure that we can encode the testimony of the particular in the experience of the...

(The entire section is 6634 words.)

Rosario Ferré (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "How I Wrote 'When Women Love Men'," in Papales de Pandora: The Youngest Doll, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, pp. 147-51.

[In the brief essay that follows, Ferré details her rationale for the story "When Women Love Men." The author asserts "'When Women Love Men,' in short, is a story which points to specific social problems: the frigidity of women of the higher social class as well as the sexual exploitation of prostitutes are both a consequence of an unjust social hegemony in the hands of men."]

Anger has caused innumerable women writers to write well. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican nun, for example, would talk of her poems as fencing foils,...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)

Carmen S. Rivera (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Porcelain Face/Rotten Flesh: The Doll in Papales de Pandora," in Chasqui, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 95-101.

[In the essay below, Rivera discusses the significance of the doll motif in Ferré's short story collection Papales de Pandora, concluding that "Ferré seems to warn her readers that when a woman's voice and sexuality is confined and 'gagged' by male oppression, she begins to rot and smell as decomposed flesh beneath the ever passive beauty of her porcelain face."]

"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...

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Linda S. Zee (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Rosario Ferré's 'La muñeca menor' and Caribbean Myth," in Chasqui, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, November, 1994, pp. 102-10.

[In the following essay, Zee examines the abundant "indigenous cultural and mythological references and allusions" in Ferré's story "La muñeca menor."]

There have been numerous studies of Rosario Ferré's short story "La muñeca 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 which are...

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Kathleen M. Glenn (essay date 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.

[Below, Glenn offers an informative analysis of Ferré's short story "Sleeping Beauty," focusing in particular on the author's methods for conveying her message of social oppression and its consequences.]

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 society she satirizes in her...

(The entire section is 5647 words.)