Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
Violence versus Reason
The opening scene of the play contrasts two approaches toward life, one violent and the other reasoned. Violence, as depicted by the savage game of cockfighting, suggests that skill, cunning, and might will always win. Although Cheché is a cautious man when it comes to gambling, he embodies the idea that physical power will triumph if reason should fail to persuade. For example, Cheché takes Marela by force when she ignores his lurid glances and innuendo. In the end, the young woman is rendered senseless from the shock of Cheché’s assault. Moreover, when Cheché’s attempts to mechanize the factory prove unsuccessful, he takes his revenge by killing the lector, whom he blames for upholding a tradition that, in Cheché’s view, has no practical application in a modern age.
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On the other hand, Santiago and Ofelia do not want to automate the factory because the machines would displace workers. They employ reason and sound judgment when making their decisions even though they know that their decision goes against the current trend. Rather than spend money on machinery, they decide to produce a new line of cigars, which they intend to advertise widely. Furthermore, both Ofelia and Juan Julian insist upon taking a vote to decide whether Cheché’s machine will be installed at the factory. They choose a democratic process to decide an argument, and they would certainly have abided by the decision if the outcome had been different.
Ofelia and her daughters (and, later, Santiago) understand that the best way to improve the work environment at the factory is to hire a lector who will educate and inform them as he maintains a tradition rich with cultural history. Though many of the workers cannot read or write, they can quote lines from classics such as Don Quixote or Jane Eyre. Some know Shakespeare by heart. As Ofelia says, ‘‘Only a fool can fail to understand the importance of having a lector read to us while we work,’’ for the workers are educated as a result. In an interview, Cruz explains the redemptive power of culture in Anna in the Tropics when he says that the play is about ‘‘the need for culture, the need for literature. Art should be dangerous.’’
One of Conchita’s complaints about Palomo is that she cannot conduct a ‘‘civilized conversation’’ with him because he is unable to comprehend the lessons that may be learned from great works of literature. Instead of contemplating the actions of Anna’s husband from an emotional, psychological point of view, as Conchita does, Palomo focuses on the man’s wealth. Here Cruz sends up the idea that relations between the sexes would be vastly improved if they thought alike, but the point is that Palomo does not see how much his marriage resembles that of Anna and her husband. This exchange also emphasizes the transformative power of art, for Conchita now sees everything through ‘‘new eyes.’’ As a result, Conchita experiences Anna’s confusion and suffering. The broader the range of cultural knowledge, Cruz suggests, the more profound becomes the experience of human emotion.
Nature versus Machines
One of the first observations Juan Julian makes upon arriving at the factory is that there are no hills or mountains near Ybor City; the landscape is flat, creating a sky that ‘‘seems so much bigger . . . and infinite’’ than the one he knew in Cuba. Juan Julian is a man who appreciates the revitalizing power of nature, and he contemplates it at every opportunity. ‘‘I don’t really like cities,’’ he says. ‘‘In the country one has freedom.’’ He says that he feels ‘‘asphyxiated’’ when he is in the city, where buildings rob him of precious oxygen. He prefers to live in the country, where he can celebrate the ‘‘verdure of nature.’’ Juan Julian lives his life in accord with the environment surrounding him, as evidenced in a discussion with Marela, in which Juan Julian acknowledges that there are many different types of light that bring the world into focus. Later in the play, when Juan Julian enters the discussion about whether machines should be introduced at the factory, he warns against them because, he says, ‘‘The truth is that machines, cars, are keeping us from taking walks and sitting on park benches’’; that is to say, machines—and the fast pace of living they promote—prevent people from relaxing so that they may better understand their place in Nature. Ironically, machines may, in the lector’s words, prevent ‘‘[t]he very act of smoking a cigar.’’
Traditions maintain a way of life that is beneficial for those who practice them and this is especially true of an expatriate community such as the one depicted in the play. Ofelia and her daughters do everything within their power to hire a lector for the factory because they know that the workers depend upon the lector as a source of information about the world. ‘‘When I lived in Havana I don’t remember ever seeing a tobacco factory without a lector,’’ says Ofelia. Therefore, hearing a lector read while the workers toil has become for her a way of connecting the present to the past. She understands the importance of having a lector preserve a way of life that is threatened in the midst of a foreign culture.
Another tradition described in the play is the one observed when an inaugural cigar is lit and shared among smokers. This ritual involves passing the cigar through an intermediary, who facilitates communication with the gods, instead of directly to the person who is supposed to smoke. Palomo, however, deliberately insults Juan Julian by passing the cigar directly to him. The lector, as a descendent of the cacique, or chief Indian of the Tainos, performs a similar intermediary function when he reads aloud to the workers, for, explains Juan Julian, the cacique would ‘‘translate the sacred words of the deities.’’ The workers, for their part, listen quietly, receiving information.