Jessica Hagedorn Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Jessica Hagedorn Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jessica Hagedorn’s eclecticism is reflected in her prose style and literary devices, which bring together many elements. Multiple narrators, who may contradict one another, and combinations of first-person and third-person perspectives, are the norm, as are discontinuous, nonlinear plots. Interspersed are snippets of historical sources and fictitious news stories, along with transcriptions of real and invented documents. Her narrative stance is established and simultaneously modified by the regular infusion of expressions from three languages—English, Spanish, and Tagalog—and occasional linguistic forays into other languages and dialects. She also introduces profane and obscene street language into her dialogue. The result is kaleidoscopic and, as such, raises and explores two enduring philosophical questions: What is real? and How do we know that what we think is real is actually so?

Hagedorn’s themes are the interactions of colony and neocolony; the protean nature of both cultural and personal identity; the complexity of conflict and accommodation of race, class, gender, and geography; and, most prominent, the fascination of the demimonde. Her works include many supporting characters. Though some critics consider this a weakness, a kind of sideshow distraction from plot progression and thematic development and a cause of narrative loose ends, the presence of many characters is congruent with Hagedorn’s artistic vision. The many characters in her novels reflect the richness of Philippine cultural life, which is a concatenation of ethnicities, races, social classes, and genders. Her nonlinear plots may indicate her perception of human experience as a staccato, as syncopated, as improvisational, and even as destabilized.


Dogeaters is Hagedorn’s pièce de résistance. The provocative title word “dogeater,” which to Filipinos is an ethnic slur, foreshadows literal and symbolic rapacity. The setting of the novel is the dog-eat-dog world of Manila from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The novel tells of the relationship of colonizer (the United States) and neocolony (the Philippines).

The novel, not a traditional roman à clef or bildungsroman, has a developmental pattern constructed around two main parts. Part one, “Coconut Palace,” is an episodic, tonally varied group of vignettes populated principally by static, one-dimensional function characters. The impression these features create—social stagnation and fragmentation—is bolstered by intercalary chapters, mostly from a real nineteenth century account by Jean Baptiste Mallat, The Philippines (1846). The chapter also is supplemented by fictitious news stories from the nonexistent Metro Manila Daily newspaper and other sources, the most significant being an address by U.S. president William McKinley in 1898.

Part two, “The Song of Bullets,” has a consistent, fast-paced story line. Its momentum is initiated by the assassination of a Senator Avila. The structural integrity of such an imposing array of elements in her fiction has been questioned, but most critics have concluded that the components cohere in a manner similar to mathematical fractals or to mosaic, mural, and collage. Others have argued that a more unitary arrangement would undercut Hagedorn’s overarching motifs of protean personal, social, and national identity; gender fixity; and dominant/subaltern political status.

Daisy Avila, the assassinated senator’s daughter, begins as an establishment icon—she wins a beauty contest, symbolic, by accepted social norm, of ideal womanhood—and evolves, after her rape and torture by General Nicasio Ledesma, into a guerrilla fighter intent on revolution. This...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)