Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda Critical Essays

Introduction

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda 1814-1873

(Born Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda; also wrote under the pseudonym “La Peregrina”) Cuban novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

A prolific writer, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda is remembered for her controversial and progressive beliefs, best embodied in her anti-slavery novel Sab (1841). Avellaneda established a reputation early in her career as a talented writer whose unconventional behavior was as well-known as her works. During her lifetime Avellaneda enjoyed literary and commercial success in several genres, including poetry, drama, novels, short stories, and essays. But in part because her work examined inequalities of gender, as well as that of race and class, Avellaneda also experienced harsh criticism from her male peers. Despite these difficulties, Avellaneda continued to write about issues of interest and importance to women, creating a substantial body of work considered important for its abolitionist and feminist ideology.

Biographical Information

Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was born on March 23, 1814 in Puerto Príncipe (modern day Camagüey) in central Cuba. Her parents, Francisca de Arteaga y Bentancourt and the Spanish naval officer Manuel Gómez de Avellaneda, were relatively wealthy, and Avellaneda enjoyed a privileged upbringing which included a strong literary education. When she was nine, Avellaneda's father died, and her mother quickly married a Spanish army officer. The family relocated to Spain soon afterwards, in part due to her stepfather's anxieties about potential slave uprisings. They eventually settled in Seville, where Avellaneda enjoyed the intellectual and cultural atmosphere. During her time in Seville Avellaneda met Ignacio de Cepeda, to whom she would write love letters during the next fifteen years despite her involvement in numerous other affairs. Avellaneda also became involved in Seville's literary circles and her first play, Leoncia (1840), was produced there. Eager to experience a more extensive literary scene, Avellaneda moved to Madrid. There she published her first novel, Sab, and the first edition of her collected poems, Poesías (1841; Poetry). These early successes were followed by many others, and Avellaneda achieved both acceptance within a predominantly masculine world and economic success, even though her writings critiqued women's traditional roles and representations. Avellaneda's positions on these issues were also reflected in her own life. She advocated open relationships, was ambivalent about marriage, and had several love affairs. Her involvement with the poet Gabriel García Tassara in 1844 ended after she become pregnant. Her daughter Brenhilde died in infancy in 1845. Avellaneda married Pedro Sabatar in 1846, but he died four months later. In 1853, after continued literary success, Avellaneda applied for membership in the Royal Spanish Academy, a literary coterie supported by the Spanish government. Although she had many supporters within the Academy, Avellaneda's petition was denied because of her gender, a decision that was probably influenced by her unconventional conduct. Avellaneda married Colonel Domingo Verdugo in 1855, and his 1859 transfer to Cuba led Avellaneda to return to her homeland. There she was crowned with gold laurel leaves in recognition for her contributions to Cuban national literature, though Spain continued to claim her as one of their literary figures. While in Cuba, Avellaneda continued to write. She also founded Album Cubano (1860; The Cuban Album), a woman's magazine. After Verdugo's death, Avellaneda left Cuba and visited the United States and parts of Europe before returning to Spain in 1867. During the last years of her life she focused primarily on her Obras (1869; The Complete Works), excluding from it some of her earlier and more controversial works. Avellaneda died in 1873 of diabetes and was buried in Seville.

Major Works

Although she published and produced many works, Avellaneda is remembered mainly for those which most strongly and directly address the conditions of women. In particular, her earliest works established Avellaneda's reputation as a writer interested in examining social issues that affected women and other alienated or oppressed groups. Her first novel, Sab, was considered scandalous because of its abolitionist stance. It also critiques the institution of marriage, with clear parallels made between the state of the slave Sab and that of Carlota, his mistress. Avellaneda's next novel, Dos mujeres (1842; Two Women) also criticizes the state of marriage for women in its sympathetic portrayal of adultery. Many of Avellaneda's plays, including La hija de las flores (1852; The Daughter of the Flowers), La Adventurera (1853; The Adventuress), and Oráculos de Talía (1855; Oracles of Thalia), feature strong female characters and women in unconventional theatrical roles. Avellaneda's interest in writing for and about women's rights continued throughout her life. In her magazine Album Cubano, Avellaneda published the essay “La Mujer” (1860; “Woman”), which examined women's roles in religion, history, government, and the intellectual sphere. Overall, Avellaneda's work reveals a consistent interest in the condition of women that is exemplified not only in Sab but present in the writings in Poesías and Obras.

Critical Reception

Avellaneda's reputation as a radical writer and a feminist largely derives from the reaction to her two earliest novels, Sab and Dos mujeres. The former's abolitionist content and critique of marriage was considered subversive by many, while the latter's challenge to the benefits of marriage was no less controversial. Both novels were published in Spain but were banned from sale in Cuba. The controversy surrounding these books helped generate interest in Avellaneda's writings among her contemporaries, with reactions ranging from the laudatory to the highly negative. Those sympathetic to Avellaneda's interests found her work compelling, while others found her work scandalous. In general, however, Avellaneda was considered a literary figure whose stance on women's issues was reflected in her own life. Although she was denied membership in the Royal Spanish Academy and some of her works were considered failures because of her didacticism, Avellaneda enjoyed enough success to earn a living from her writing. She was a popular figure in Cuba and Spain, and both countries claim her as part of their national literary heritage. As anti-slavery sentiments and the feminist movement grew, Avellaneda's reputation as an important liberal writer increased.

Much of the scholarship on Avellaneda has been in Spanish. More recently, however, critics writing in English have begun to examine Avellaneda's literary output. Hugh Harter's examination of Avellaneda's work provides a useful introduction to the themes in her writings as present in her two earliest novels. Other critics are interested in Sab for its intersections of abolitionism and feminism. These critics, including Susan Kirkpatrick and Beth Miller, explore Avellaneda's work as a nineteenth-century feminist. Sandra Meyer and Frederick Kluck contextualize Avellaneda's writing with feminist and abolitionist movements worldwide, as in their comparison between George Sand's Indiana and Sab. This critical avenue is representative of the focus on Sab as Avellaneda's most important work. Thomas Ward and Janet Gold develop different aspects of Avellaneda's depiction of the feminine in Sab. Other scholars have examined how Avellaneda's feminism and controversial beliefs changed over the course of her career. Beth Miller and Alan Devermond claim that Avellaneda's revisions of the sonnet “A Washington” illustrate her political development and are representative of a change in focus by contemporary Latin American authors. Librada Hernández examines three of Avellaneda's plays and argues their representations are subversive to the social order. Nina M. Scott considers the author's feminism in a recent essay. Combined, these scholars demonstrate an interest in the same issues as Avellaneda herself: equality and liberty measured against oppression and alienation.