Kiss of the Spider Woman

by Manuel Puig

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Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser in Argentina, is growing discontented with the frivolous life he leads with his friends; he wants a lifelong partner. He becomes friends with a heterosexual waiter named Gabriel, who is married, but he knows the relationship will not lead to a romantic attachment. When he is convicted on charges of corrupting a minor, he is sentenced to eight years in prison without the possibility of parole.

Valentín is a journalism student in love with Marta, a beautiful and well-educated member of the upper class in Argentina. He is also secretly a member of the underground movement that seeks to overthrow the corrupt and oppressive military regime of the country. When he tells Marta of his involvement, she forces him to choose between her and the movement. Even though he loves Marta, he feels he has a responsibility to stand up to injustice, and he leaves her. In the movement, he has another girlfriend, named Lidia.

Valentín is never as deeply involved as many who are in the political rebellion, but he agrees to help Dr. Americo escape the country by giving him his own passport. Americo is one of the oldest living members of an earlier movement for true democracy. At the airport after making the exchange, Valentín is arrested. He is put in Molina’s cell.

At first, Valentín despises Molina. He thinks his effeminacy is a disgusting display of irresponsibility in the face of the sacrifices his friends in the movement are willing to make. Nevertheless, he does find Molina at least entertaining. Molina’s great talent is in telling stories, especially the tales he remembers from romantic films.

The film that Molina likes the most is a story set in Paris during World War II. Leni, a French chanteuse, learns that Michelle, the cigarette girl in her club, although a member of the French underground movement against the Germans, fell in love with a German soldier, by whom she is pregnant. Perhaps to help Michelle, or perhaps because of her own growing interest, Leni decides to accept the offer of Werner, the German officer in charge of counterintelligence, and visits his chateau. Meanwhile, thugs in the French underground learn of Michelle’s betrayal and kill her. Then they seek to coerce Leni to take Michelle’s place and to obtain the map to the German arsenal. When Leni learns of the German atrocities, she agrees to help. However, Werner convinces her that the Germans are really seeking to release the masses from the control of the elite in society, and she ends up killing the head of the French underground. She is then shot and dies in Werner’s arms, singing.

Though he is entertained, Valentín denounces the film as Nazi propaganda. Molina protests that life itself is painful and must be filled with dreams. When Valentín insists, over his protests, that Molina take the larger helping of food, Molina becomes ill and goes to the infirmary. When he returns, he continues telling film stories, and the two men become closer. They continue to argue over what it means to be a man and over the possibilities for change in the world.

Molina recounts another film, this time a horror film with romantic overtones. People are becoming zombies. The beautiful heroine learns that her husband’s first wife, who is now trying to help her escape, is a zombie, too. Molina’s telling of the story is confused, and he mixes up many details.

Molina is called to see the warden, who reminds him that Molina’s mother is quite ill and that he will be released sooner if...

(This entire section contains 955 words.)

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he gets Valentín to reveal secrets about the revolutionaries. Molina goes back to the cell with several bags of wonderful food, supposedly a gift from his mother. Next it is Valentín’s turn to become sick from the prison food, which was poisoned both times, and he gets terrible diarrhea. He is mortified and amazed when Molina cleans him without complaint.

A new prisoner is brought into the cell across from them, and Valentín reveals that the new inmate is the Dr. Americo he tried to help. The warden complains that Molina is not getting enough information, so Molina suggests that he be released in the hope that Valentín, who by now likes him, will suddenly reveal more. The warden agrees.

That evening Molina tells a new story about a beautiful woman on a tropical island ensnared in a web that grows from her own body. She nurses back to health a shipwrecked man, who then sees a tear streaming down her face. The two men have an important conversation in which Molina reveals that he is in love with Valentín. Valentín, in turn, shows that he respects Molina and recognizes his kindness. On this last evening of Molina’s confinement, they have sexual relations.

The next morning, Valentín tells Molina how to contact his revolutionary friends and asks him to pass along a message. Molina is frightened, but he decides to take this bold step. On the outside, he is reunited with his friends, who call him Luisa, and with his long-suffering mother. After a few days, he contacts Lidia and a meeting is arranged. Molina is followed by the police, however, and the revolutionaries kill him when they think he betrayed them.

In prison, Valentín is once again tortured, this time so severely that he is taken to the infirmary. A sympathetic nurse gives him a large shot of morphine, and Valentín slips into a dream that combines his own memories of Marta with Molina’s memories of romantic movies.