Historical Context

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Chile is a long narrow country that runs along the western coast of South America. The Andes mountain range runs the length of the inland border. It was originally inhabited by Araucanian natives, but was colonized by the Spanish in 1550. Unlike many South American countries, Chile does not have abundant deposits of gold or silver ore, and for this reason its growth as a colony was slow. It does, however, have great stores of iron, copper, and nitrates. During the Industrial Revolution that swept the world in the nineteenth century, these elements became crucial for manufacturing. Especially influential was Chile's nitrates, which were essential in fertilizers that became increasingly valuable as countries all over the world moved from farm economies to urban industrial societies, and for the manufacture of explosives. Chile became a rich country by the dawn of the twentieth century from nitrate production.

The country's greatest problem was that its nitrate wealth was not evenly distributed. The country's wealth was in the hands of a small proportion of people. As the economy grew, the cities grew at a tremendous rate, too fast to control, and they ended up breeding slums. The government looked after the interests of the wealthy: starting in 1891, Chile was a Parliamentary Republic, with the parliament appointing the president and his cabinet. The parliament was elected, but the elections were controlled by wealthy business people.

Labor organizations started to gain in popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century, advocating socialist and anarchist policies that would take wealth from the rich and put it in the hands of the common people. In cities and in the nitrate and copper mines in the north, where Mistral grew up, unions encouraged workers to fight against their employers to increase their financial positions and working conditions. Because the government was, essentially, an arm of the owners of industry, government forces were used to fight the workers. One particularly stirring episode in the struggle for labor reform was a massacre at the miners' camp at Iquique in 1907, where government troops killed striking workers. Economic tensions became even more strained during the following decade when, during World War I from 1914 to 1918, the world's usage of nitrates dwindled. Even worse was the fact that during the war Germany developed synthetic nitrates for its explosives, which devastated the Chilean economy.

In the 1920s, when "Fear" was written, the government of Chile was changing. In 1920, Arturo Alessandri was made president, in an attempt to keep the people from rebelling and taking over the government. While the Parliament had appointed Alessandri to be a moderate and to look after their own interests, he turned out to be a true reformist once in office. He was popular with the people, but he had trouble getting any measures passed by Parliament, and therefore the country sank into deeper financial trouble during his presidency. In 1924, Alessandri went past the legislators and straight to the people who elected them, and with the people's support he was able to have his reform legislation passed. This caused a coup by military right-wingers, who took control of the government in September of 1924. The reformists had enough power by then to perform a second coup in January of 1925, and a new constitution was drawn up that gave more power to the common people but that also compromised with the wealthy landowners to assure their cooperation. This constitution served the country until the early 1970s, when Salvador Allende became the first president elected with a Marxist agenda in a non-Communist country. Three years into...

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Allende's administration, he was ousted by a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, with American support. Pinochet ruled the country for almost twenty years and had himself declared a Senator for Life.

Literary Style

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Even in its original Spanish, "Fear" follows no strict rhyming or rhythmic pattern. This is appropriate because the speaker of the poem, sleeping on a straw mattress and worrying that her daughter will one day be too good to associate with her, is a simple woman and would naturally not have a voice that is too polished or refined. Still, there are sections that follow rhythmic structures, which has more to do with displaying the poet's skill than the character's personality. This poem is predominantly, but loosely, iambic, which means that the rhythm that occurs most frequently is the iamb. An iamb is a combination of one unstressed syllable with one stressed syllable. A line like ‘‘and nev-er fly a-gain to my straw bed" starts out iambic before losing the pattern at the end; the line "and when night came no lon-ger’’ is iambic with one extra syllable at the end. The quantity of iambs in this poem gives it something like an iambic structure, but it would not entirely be correct to say that the poem has a definite rhythm. There is also a strong presence of the ‘‘Cretic foot,’’ which follows a pattern of stressed-unstressed-stressed. The line that appears with variations at the beginning and end of each stanza has two Cretic feet: ‘‘I don't want / them to make.’’ There are definite rhythmic patterns in "Fear," but they do not add up to an overall rhythmic design.

Other elements help to give readers a sense that the author has a firm control on the ideas expressed here. Each stanza has eight lines, and each begins and ends with a variation on the same two lines. There is no set length for the individual line. They do not all have the same number of syllables, but there is not any great degree of variance, either. For instance, there are no very short or very long lines. This speaker is a person of moderation—the whole poem is about fear of change—but she is too simple to have her ideas presented in an ornate, complex pattern.

Literary Heritage When Mistral was writing "Fear" in the 1920s the Modernism movement that influenced artistic theory across the world was settling into maturity. Literary theorists use the term "modernism" to describe a wide variety of changes that came about at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is generally used to explain the backlash against literary tradition, a reaction caused by the way psychoanalysis changed the understanding of personal behavior and that Marxism changed the way that social behavior was understood. In poetry, Modernism entailed casting away traditional forms and concepts of beauty and using words that were concerned with evoking an emotional impression over those that had a beautiful sound together. Many strains of modernism, such as surrealism, imagism, and dadaism, were more concerned with striking readers with a powerful feeling than with overall logic.

In Latin American countries, literary trends generally followed European trends at the time. A unique literary theory had not been developed, and much of the literature that was read and discussed then was from Europe or the United States. For instance, when Mistral's collection Tenderness was published, there was no body of children's literature in Latin America. She had to make what she could out of the modernist sense of using direct language and out of the folktales of her native country.

In many ways, her poems in Tenderness anticipate what may be Latin America's greatest contribution to world literature, which is the magical realism movement that started in the 1960s and continues today. Magical realism, usually associated with fiction, is a joining of the serious tone of fatalism associated with Realism with supernatural occurrences that readers know do not really happen in this world. Some of the earliest and most widely read examples of this genre are Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez' 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and Argentine writer Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, from 1966. Both of these works presented elements that would be called "fantasy" in other books, treating them with dead seriousness. As Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, explained it, the tone he was trying to achieve ‘‘was based on the way grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1924: United States interest in Chile and other South American countries is limited to their production of rich ores. In Chile, the Chuquicamata copper mine and Tofo Iron Mines produce metals of greater purity than those found in North America.

Today: Chile still produces about forty percent of the world's copper, but advances in transportation have made Chile a major exporter of fish and fruit to the world market.

1924: Farmers in rural California, feeling that their water was being stolen by the government (reflected by the poem's suspicion of a monolithic ‘‘them’’), dynamited the Los Angeles aqueduct seventeen times in open rebellion.

Today: Ranchers in the western states still fight openly and sometimes violently with the government over water rights.

1924: A right-wing military coup ousts Arturo Alessandri, who had been president of Chile since 1920. Supporters of Alessandri helped him gain back the presidency the following year.

1973: General Augusto Pinochet becomes president of Chile after a coup, backed by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, helps him depose the elected president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet rules the country as a dictatorship for nearly twenty years.

Today: Pinochet, faced with trial in Spain for crimes that he committed as president, has been declared too ill to stand trial, and returned to Chile, where he has received full immunity for crimes committed in office.

1924: British author A. A. Milne publishes When We Were Very Young, his first book of poems written for his child, Christopher Robin.

Today: Milne's name will live on forever because of his Winnie-the-Pooh books, which were written for Christopher Robin. The Disney corporation holds the copyright and sells millions of dollars each year in Pooh licensed videos, toys, games, and apparel.

Media Adaptations

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Babbitt Instructional Resources produced a videocassette with accompanying teacher's guidebook and script called Gabriela Mistral: Poems of Chile, in 1999.

Mistral is one of the poets featured on the bilingual filmstrip and cassette package Twentieth Century Poetry / Poesia del Siglo Veinto from Films for the Humanities, Princeton, N. J., 1979.

Gabriela Mistral Reading Her Own Poetry is available on a vinyl record. Read in Spanish. Released in 1971 by the Library of Congress, catalog number LCM 2055-2056.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading Castro-Klaren, Sara, Sylvia Molloy, and Beatriz Sarlo, eds., Women's Writing in Latin America: An Anthology, Westview Press, 1991. The introduction to this book is interesting but complex for students; the examples included, however, offer a good variety.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide