Essays and Criticism
The Symbolism Surrounding the Rebirth of Allende's Female Protagonist
Similar to the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, Isabel Allende throws her female protagonist Eliza into the darkest recesses of a sailing ship, forcing her young heroine to confront her innermost convictions. The challenge brings Eliza close to death, but she prevails and goes on to claim a new identity. Her journey, as told in Daughter of Fortune, takes her from South to North America as well as from adolescence to adulthood. It is a voyage rich in symbols of a developing woman who rebels against a confining patriarchy and then must fill the void with a new definition of self.
Allende is often referred to as the Latina proponent of feminism. Her stories are driven by women who defy the constraints that their society imposes. They are raised under the dictates of a strict patriarchy that wants to silence them, and they must find the courage to create their own voices. Eliza Sommers exemplifies a typical Allende feminist heroine as she is first molded by her adopted parent-figures, who believe that the best possible future for her is to be kept by a man. Although Daughter of Fortune ends with Eliza in love with a man, she enters that relationship as an equal partner only after she has completed a journey in which she develops self-confidence and independence.
The story begins with another subtle biblical allusion, this time to the prophet Moses, as the narrator relates the story of how Eliza, as a baby, was abandoned. The memories of that day are mixed. Eliza believes that she was lying in a soapbox, for she remembers the scent; but Rose says that she found the baby Eliza in a wicker basket, reminiscent of Moses's adoption. Although the details of her life are not significantly tied to the story of Moses, Eliza is, in her own way, a leader, demonstrating through her adventures that there is a path that women can follow which will lead to freedom.
Eliza's own oppression comes in many forms. She must first deal with Rose, who insists on dressing her in fancy clothes to impress her societal friends. Because Eliza must not dirty these expensive dresses, she is imprisoned within them, unable to romp around the house like the playful child that she is. As she grows older, she must wear a corset, a tightly strung and stiffly reinforced bodice that artificially creates a small waist and a high-rising bosom—feminine features that attract men. To encourage a so-called correct posture, Eliza is also outfitted with a metal rod that is placed down her back as she practices the piano. Although Rose herself is gladly unmarried, understanding that she is a lot freer as a single woman, she wants to raise Eliza in a way that eliminates the mistakes that she made as a young woman. She spouts feminist attitudes and enjoys her semi-independent role, but she is thrown into confusion when she takes on the role of motherhood. Eliza is named for Rose's mother, and possibly the thought of her mother makes Rose review her own life through a filter tainted by the prejudices and conditionings of an earlier generation. The result is that Rose's rebellion, which she found gratifying, is suddenly overlaid with a film of guilt. As a mother, she feels more responsible socially and therefore constrains (or attempts to constrain) Eliza's natural impulses. Upon Eliza's reaching puberty, for instance, Rose warns her that men will now be able to do with her whatever they want, suggesting that Eliza should be wary of her own sexual stirrings. Rose looks upon Eliza's menstruation as a curse, and discussions about emotions are forbidden. Just as Eliza's body is confined in rigid undergarments reinforced from time to time with unyielding metal rods, so are her heart and soul contained. The material restrictions on her body are symbolic of the encumbrances of fear and guilt placed on her emotions and on her spirit.
Fortunately for Eliza, she has Mama Fresia, who has her own limitations but who at least provides Eliza with another interpretation of reality. Mama Fresia is an earthy woman who encourages Eliza to play in the dirt, to learn the language of plants and animals, and to understand the power of her dreams. In other words, she is almost the exact opposite of Rose. She is, however, a little too concerned with superstitions and has a fear of poverty and rejection. Although she tells Eliza to trust the messages that she receives in her dreams (an outlet for the emotions), she does not approve of Eliza's fixation on the young suitor Joaquín. However, when Eliza tells her that she is pregnant, Mama Fresia attempts to help her with an abortion. Mama Fresia is not a totally independent woman, but she is an alternative to Rose, feeding Eliza's imagination with the possibility that there may be other feminine definitions to discover.
Some of these feminine definitions are also brought out through Joaquín, who arouses Eliza's sexuality. Although she has rebelled against some of the restraints placed on her by Rose and Jeremy, it is not until she meets Joaquín that she totally defies them. She sneaks out of the house and then lies to cover her tracks. She is driven with the need to explore something about herself that no one had...
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