Study Guide

¡Yo!

by Julia Alvarez

¡Yo! Analysis

¡Yo! (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Families and friends of story-tellers face a major hazard: details of their lives that the story-tellers know will likely turn up eventually as part of their published work. Such is the fate of Yolanda Garcia’s parents, three sisters, assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, countless friends, and assorted associates.

Sixteen of these people, each in a separate vignette, reveal Yolanda as they know her. Each vignette can stand alone, but the sum of them constitutes a tightly-constructed novel in which Julia Alvarez, with consummate skill, in writing that frequently dazzles, creates a protagonist who never tells her own story, yet one who comes to life vibrantly through the miscellany of impressions and observations that people make about her.

Alvarez’s narrative technique, reminiscent of that used effectively by Rolando Hinojosa in DEAR RAFE (1985) and BECKY AND HER FRIENDS (1990), is a model of expertly presented point-of-view. From the combination of sixteen vignettes, which average about twenty pages in length, emerges a carefully constructed well-rounded protagonist.

The major appeared in Alvarez’s first novel, HOW THE GARCIA— GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS (1991), will be familiar to readers of her work. The political memories of her more recent novel, IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES (1995), a stinging commentary on the despotic regime of the Dominican Republic’s strongman dictator, Rafael Trure than novelist Yolanda Garcia. It is a novel about the pitfalls of being creative, the effects of tyrannical political bureaucracies upon citizens, differences in human perception of people, family interactions, immigration, homosexuality, AIDS, marriage, divorce, and the life and career of Julia Alvarez herself, as is suggested by the author’s choice of title, a shortened form of Yolanda and the Spanish word for “I.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIX, February, 1997, p. 110.

Booklist. XCIII, September 15, 1996, p. 180.

Chicago Tribune. January 26 1997, XIV, p. 2.

Hispanic. X, March, 1997, p. 68.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 124.

Los Angeles Times. March 23, 1997, p. E1.

Ms. VII, March, 1997, p. 82.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 9, 1997, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, December 16, 1996, p. 38.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Summer, 1997, p. 95.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, January 19, 1997, p. 9.

¡Yo! (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What readers learn about Yolanda García, the protagonist of this novel, they glean through sixteen discrete sections, all of which directly concern Yolanda. Many of these sections are interconnected. People who have known Yolanda reveal facets of her personality as they relate their encounters with her. From their revelations emerges a well-developed and complex portrayal of a multifaceted creative artist.

The arrangement of the separate portions, each about twenty pages long, is vital to the cohesiveness of the book. Although any of the sections might be read meaningfully as separate entities, it is their placement that justifies identifying the book as a novel rather than a collection of character sketches or short stories.

Yolanda is permitted to tell her own story only in the dialogue she has with the characters of each section, identified by such designations as “The Sisters,” “The Mother,” “The Caretakers,” “The Maid’s Daughter,” and “The Third Husband.” The result is a carefully structured novel from which the protagonist emerges as one of the best developed protagonists in recent literature. Alvarez’s structure, perfect for the telling of her highly autobiographical tale, allows for the presentation of a central character more complex and diverse than she would have seemed had any other method of presentation been used.

The clue to the novel’s autobiographical nature lurks in the title itself. Yo is both a shortened form of Yolanda and the Spanish word for “I.” Readers, however, must be cautioned to remember that ¡Yo! is a work of fiction and cannot be read as an autobiography presumed to be accurate in all of its details.

Each of the sketches in this novel, along with presenting one or more characters as they interact with Yo, deals with some global theme. A political current relating to the despotic dictatorship of strongman Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic underlies many of the individual sketches, in which Alvarez also deals with such broad and compelling matters as political oppression, spousal abuse, homosexuality, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), poverty and exploitation in the Third World, the problems faced by immigrants trying to reestablish themselves in alien cultures, and the effects of the creative temperament on those whose lives intersect with the life of an artist.

Alvarez has already dealt chillingly with the Trujillo regime in her novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1995). She returns to this theme, although somewhat less stridently, in ¡Yo!. She also presented the García family in some detail in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991).

The first section of ¡Yo!, called “Prologue,” consists of one sketch, “The Sisters.” It, like each sketch in the book, is identified with a descriptor, in this case “fiction.” Other sections have such descriptors as “nonfiction,” “poetry,” “revelation,” “confrontation,” “characterization,” and “tone,” suggesting that Alvarez, a professor who was teaching writing at Middlebury College in Vermont when she wrote this book, perhaps composed along with her students, producing a sketch for each week of a sixteen-week semester, each sketch reflecting some major aspect of composition and contributing to an overall piece of creative writing, in this case a compelling novel.

The prologue is central to the novel as a whole. Yolanda García’s sisters are uneasy about the liberties their sister takes in her writing with bits of private information she possesses about members of the family. They are concerned, as is Yolanda’s mother in the first sketch in part 1, with what they regard as a violation of their privacy by a sister and daughter who, as the novel continues, is shown to be a natural storyteller but whose stories have sometimes created threatening situations.

The very last sketch, “The Father,” touches on this subject as Carlos García, a member of the Dominican underground during the early years of his marriage, recalls how Yolanda, as a small child in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, placed the family in grave danger. Watching a movie with the family’s neighbor General Molino, she boasted that her father—living in a dictatorial society where the possession of firearms by civilians was strictly banned—had a bigger gun that the one carried by the cowboy in the film.

This sketch is particularly telling because it contains the veiled suggestion that Molino took some...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)