Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

“Exile,” rich with watery images of beaches and divers, is about learning how to swim; simultaneously, and more important, the poem threads the liquid images throughout the narrative of the persona’s immigration memories to create a natural comparison of the immigrant experience with that of swimmers learning to brave the deep pools of their new environment. Swimming is the perfect metaphor for the hastily departed immigrants who dive into an idealized America to discover, with some surprise, their own vulnerability and a keen sense of loss.

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This juxtaposition of dramatically different expectation and reality heightens the poem’s sense of unease. The beachwear-clad family in the department store window marks a sharp line between the privileged, successful upper-class American (who can afford to shop at Macy’s) and the almost mirror inversion of the out-of-place persona and her Papi. (They are never named; they represent universal immigrant experiences of exile.) Readers sense that they are swimming against the current, but the persona has been told by her uncles, “What a good time she’ll have learning to swim!” This prediction, and her own admission that she “had already swum ahead,” seems to foreshadow the rapid assimilation of the persona, like most children, into a new culture; but the portrayal of the artificial pursuits of the window people leads to the conclusion that her old culture offered a more tranquil, a more natural immersion. The exile experience of the persona, as for many immigrant children, thus represents a tremendous loss of culture.

This idea of loss is reinforced by the final images of the poem, which convey an implicit juxtaposition of the persona and her father to the “two swimmers looking down” into the quiet waters surrounding their homeland, ready to plunge, “eager, afraid.” This current of longing, plus the comment that the swimmers’ faces reveal that they are “not yet sure of the outcome,” reflects the precarious position that the persona and her father, and many immigrants before and since, have faced.

Julia Alvarez’s poem “Exile” leaves one feeling submerged, like the newly arrived family, through the many water images she employs. Stanza 5’s almost baptismal description of the persona’s dreamy descent into the “deep waters,” arms out “like Jesus’ on His cross,” also contains the mysterious, supernatural realism of magical levitation that occurs on “that night,” the night of the family’s departure. The poem provides a powerful picture of an inevitable clash of cultures, from the sustaining values of the old ways to the shallow capitalistic pursuits of the new, and the reader may come away feeling plunged into this uncertain pool of adjustment.

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