Kiss of the Spider Woman

by Manuel Puig

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Places Discussed

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*Argentina. South American country in which the prison cell holding Valentin and Molina is located. Argentina is a poor country swarming with crime and revolutionaries (like Valentin) who are trying to make the country a better place for all. Near the end of the novel, Molina and Valentin feel safer in the prison than in the outside world.

Tropical island

Tropical island. Valentin dreams of this unnamed island at the end of the novel. The island is an amalgam of the various film scenes that Molina has described. A woman appears to him in this dream, weaving webs out of her own body. This woman represents Molina and his storytelling abilities. His attraction toward this figure is emblematic of Molina and Valentin’s romantic feelings toward each other.


*France. Two films that Molina recalls take place in France. The first film, the apparently fictional Her Real Glory, is set in Paris in 1942. In the romantic setting of Paris, the two lovers of the film parallel Molina and Valentin. They too are opposites fighting against a common enemy—the Argentine prison system. Even though it is wartime, the scenes Molina describes are romanticized. The cabaret where Leni works, the German officer’s apartment, the final scene of the film in the German Pantheon—all are larger than life. The other film, about a race car driver, is more brutal, and Molina tells it because it reflects Valentin’s feelings for antigovernment forces.

*New York City

*New York City. The city that Molina describes in this film is taken from the original version of the horror film Cat People, which was made in 1942. While Molina does not describe the cityscape at all, the details he offers about other aspects of the city make it come alive for Valentin and the reader. New York City is worlds away from the small prison cell Molina and Valentin occupy both physically and culturally; Irene, a character in the film, is free to go to the zoo, the doctor, or anywhere else she pleases; Molina and Valentin are not. If Argentina is a damp prison with little hope, then New York City is the exact opposite: various, sensual, and alive.

Caribbean island

Caribbean island. Another film that Molina recollects, this time about zombies, takes place on a Caribbean island. The atmosphere of the island reflects the setting of the prison in its isolation.


*Mexico. Another film that Molina recounts is set on the coast of Mexico. Even though the film is described in romantic terms, the heroine feels like a prisoner, reflecting the fact that a person can feel like a prisoner where ever he or she is. The heroine, who wears a costume, reflects Molina; like the woman hiding behind the mask, Molina, being homosexual, appears to the world as a male while he feels like a woman.

Historical Context

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Argentina: History
The process of colonization of Argentina by Spain began in the sixteenth century and developed through the nineteenth century. Before the coming of the Europeans, the area now known as Argentina was populated by approximately 300,000 Indians. The colonization of the area was accomplished in part through the efforts of Catholic missionaries. The drive for national independence began in the early nineteenth century. Argentine independence from Spanish rule was first declared in 1816, although the country did not achieve a stable internal unity until 1880.

The first time an Argentine president was chosen by a popular vote (rather than by appointment of the previous president) was in 1916. The period from 1916 to 1930 in Argentina is referred to as the era...

(This entire section contains 516 words.)

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of the "radical regime," followed from 1930 to 1943 by a "conservative" rule. A military coup in 1943 eventually led to the election of Juan Peron as president of Argentina in 1946. Peron had become a popular politician among working class Argentines for his support of unions and of various social welfare efforts. Peron was reelected in 1951, after which he developed a more conservative political agenda. His wife, Evita Peron, a powerful political figure in her own right, died in 1952, as a result of which his popularity was diminished. In 1955, Peron was overthrown in a military coup, and from 1955 to 1958, Argentina was run by a military dictatorship. A series of elected presidents were followed by a coup in 1966 by Peron supporters. However, there were coups in 1970 and in 1971, and Peron himself was not reelected president until 1973. Peron had turned against leftists at this point in favor of an oppressive right-wing leadership. When Peron died in 1974, he was succeeded as president by his widow, Martinez de Peron, who continued Peron's staunchly rightwing policies until 1976, when she was overthrown in a coup.

The period in Argentine history which followed, called the "dirty war," was characterized by the rule of a military junta, and the violent subjugation of thousands of people through execution, imprisonment, or the notorious "disappearances" carried out by the government. A change in leadership in the early 1980s resulted in a more democratic rule in Argentina, during which there was some attempt at convicting those responsible for the excessive political repression carried out in the 1970s.

Hollywood Cinema
Puig is known for his fascination with classic Hollywood cinema, which began at an early age, and his fiction frequently makes reference to old movies and their role in the lives of provincial Argentine people. The period in film history known as the Classic Hollywood era can be dated roughly from the birth of sound cinema in 1927 through the 1950s and early 1960s. Kiss of the Spider Woman, for instance, begins with Molina's description of the classic film Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur in 1942. A remake of Cat People was released in 1982, directed by Paul Schrader. Puig has also made reference to such B-quality horror films as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), also directed by Tourneur. Puig's first novel focuses on the classic movie star Rita Hayworth (1918-1987), a glamorous Hollywood icon known for such films as Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948).

Literary Style

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This novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country, but clearly refers to the political climate of Puig's native Argentina during the period of its history known as the "dirty war." During the 1970s, Argentina was ruled by a military junta, which exercised extreme measures of political repression against its citizens. Thousands of people were killed, imprisoned, or "disappeared" during this time at the hands of the government for their alleged political activities. The fictional character of Valentin is clearly representative of such government action against Argentine citizens. Valentin is a political activist who has been tortured and imprisoned for his revolutionary activities. Jonathan Tittler has pointed out the significance of the fictional character of Valentin to the realities of Argentine politics during the 1970s, when the novel was written. Tittler asserts, "With legitimate movements of opposition banished and forced to move underground, it was not uncommon for educated, sensible young people to associate with guerrilla bands and, indeed, to carry out acts of sabotage or subversion against the government. When caught, these political enemies of the State were of course frequently treated with little regard for civil rights or due process." The character of Valentin is, therefore, "a plausible example of the measures many people of conscience were driven to take under the extremely repressive conditions reigning in Puig's homeland at the time."

Puig is known for his experimental narrative style, which combines dialogue, letters, official reports, and even footnotes into a composite story without a traditional narrative voice. Critics have noted that this narrative style causes the reader to more actively participate in the narrative process, for he or she must do the work of filling in the blanks left by what is left out of the story.

Puig's novel consists of a very limited number of principal characters, namely Molina and Valentin, as well as Marta. However, each character represents not just an individual, but a social and political crosssection of the population. Thus, the character of Valentin represents the young political radicals active in revolutionary activities in Argentina during the 1970s; Molina represents not just one homosexual, but the condition of homosexuals in general in Latin American culture. Puig uses characters, therefore, as a means of exploring specific social issues of concern to him, particularly homosexual rights and political activism. Furthermore, certain characters represent a particular social strata in Argentine society; Marta, for instance, represents, especially for Valentin, the privileged sector of society against which Marxist revolutionaries struggle. The fact that Valentin is unable to reconcile his personal desires with his political ideals functions as a commentary on the part of Puig about the internal struggles faced by revolutionary activists in general. Likewise, the fact that Molina, although clearly a member of an oppressed segment of society, is unable to conceptualize his sexual orientation as a political issue functions as a commentary on the part of Puig regarding the need of homosexuals to engage in political struggle for their rights.

Literary Heritage
Latin American literature is most often distinguished by its use of magical realism. Magical realism is a literary style that addresses social concerns but masks them in a veil of magical or fantastical symbolism. Magical realism can be seen in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is considered a pioneer of this style, and in the works of other writers such as Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borrges, and Carlos Fuentes. These writers were all a part of the Boom period in the 1960s, when Latin American literature was reaching worldwide attention and praise.

Manuel Puig is considered one of the most prominent of the Latin American Post-Boom authors. Puig's writings are noted by their experimental narrative style and nonconventional forms, which stem from his interest in popular culture and early work in films and screenwriting. Although Puig has helped usher in a new era in Latin American literature that blends literary and nonliterary forms, his works still hold those elements that have distinguished this culture for decades. Puig's works are not only concerned with creating a new fiction that challenges conventional notions of literature and art, but are also expressing social and cultural criticisms. In his critically acclaimed Kiss of the Spider Woman, Puig addresses the issues of Marxist political philosophy and its influence on the public and political arenas within this society, and in particular, on the citizens who question their place within it. One can also find threads of magical realism within his novel as both of the main characters engage in acts of fantasy and escapism.

Literary Techniques

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In a manner which has become a trademark of his style, Puig replaces third person narration in Kiss of the Spider Woman with narrative parataxis: the juxtaposition of often diverse kinds of text. The story mainly unfolds through a dialogue between the two characters, as it shifts from discussions of prison life and the inconveniences of diarrhea to relations of highly imaginative movie plots. These film sequences take up as much as one third of the novel and demonstrate Puig's unique talent for verbally recreating cinematic images and for incorporating popular media into his novels. While Puig seems to draw a contrast between the unrealistic screen dramas and life in the cell, he actually uses the film scenes to comment on the action of the novel as they encode what is going on between the two characters. Whereas the film sequences provide a metaphoric commentary on the text, a further reflection is seen in the very clinical footnotes Puig inserts detailing various theories on homosexuality. The plot develops sandwiched between the scientific jargon of these notes and the romantic conventions of film. Similarly, there is a radical disjuncture in the narrative shift from the developing intimacy between the two men to an official and minutely detailed document on Molina's activities following his release, with its dehumanizing references to him as "the subject." Thus, diverse modes of discourse are represented in the novel together with their very different ways of reflecting upon reality.

Social Concerns

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Kiss of the Spider Woman is set almost entirely in a prison cell in a Latin-American country and consists of a dialogue between two cell mates, one jailed for homosexuality and the other for revolutionary activities. As might be expected, the novel has a strong sociopolitical context. The political regime is obviously repressive, something of a police state. The homosexual, Molina, has been set up by prison officials to get information from Valentin, the revolutionary. Molina is later released only to be tailed by the officials, who use some alarmingly sophisticated means of surveillance. Valentin is brutally tortured by the authorities in efforts to extract information from him. While these events are not the main focus of the story, they are a reminder, without precedent in Puig, of the grim political reality that is a fact of life in some Latin-American countries.

Within the context of the political system described, Puig's concern appears to be with the issue of an individual's moral responsibility for political engagement. This is not to say that the novel advocates a specific position or action. It merely presents two sides of the issue through Molina, the escapist, and Valentin, the political activist. Puig also, in his usual fashion, explores the ways in which people adapt to desperate circumstances through acts of imagination.


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Puig collaborated with director Hector Babenco in a film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. It received excellent reviews, and William Hurt won both a Cannes Film Festival Award and an Academy Award for his portrayal of Molina. The adaptation is quite faithful to the original, particularly in its use of Puig's dialogue. However, while the book with its film images seems to be a natural for adaptation, an important element is lost in translation: that is the author's virtuosity in capturing screen images in prose. The film handles this by having the character begin narrating the film but then shifting to a visual presentation. Babenco treats this quite sensitively in his depiction of a 1930sstyle movie scene, gauzy and nostalgic; but of course the mixed-media effect of the original is lost. Additionally, while the novel contains several movie stories that comment on the narrative as it progresses, the film version employs only one of these. Also missing are the different kinds of texts that Puig inserts in his narrative — the textbook style footnotes and the records of Molina's surveillance by authorities. The film lacks the subtle commentary present in Puig's trademark juxtaposition of these various elements. It is still an extremely successful adaptation of the novel. Puig also wrote a stage adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman.


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Boccia, Michael. “Versions (Con-, In-, and Per-) in Manuel Puig’s and Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Novel and Film.” Modern Fiction Studies 32, no. 3 (1986): 417-426. Discusses Puig’s fascination with film and the history of the novel’s development as it went from book to screen. Notes how the plot turns on an inversion of the relationship of the two men.

Echavarrén, Roberto. “Manuel Puig: Beyond Identity.” World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (1991): 581-585. Discusses the novel as Puig’s most radical effort at gay liberation. Surrounded by other fascinating articles celebrating the author’s life and works.

Rice-Sayre, Laura. “Domination and Desire: A Feminist-Materialist Reading of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.” In Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986. Demonstrates how the novel explores the connections among emotion, politics, and sexuality. Notes how Puig condemns society as based upon aggression and humiliation, and proposes a respect for difference.

Stavans, Ilan, ed. “Manuel Puig.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (1991): 159-259. This special edition of the journal, on the occasion of the novelist’s early death, contains interesting tributes from other writers and provocative articles that describe this novel as unique among prison literature.

Tittler, Jonathan. Manuel Puig. New York: Twayne, 1993. Provides an excellent account of the writing of the novel, summarizes its plot, and discusses critical responses to it. Situates the book among the novelist’s other works and describes it as his most complete, addressing his principal issues in the most satisfying way.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barcarisse, Pamela. Impossible Choices: The Implications of the Cultural References in the Novels of Manuel Puig. University of Calgary Press, 1993, pp. 2, 4.

Kerr, Lucille. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 113: Modern Latin American Fiction Writers, First Series. Gale, 1992, pp. 235-47.

Tittler, Jonathan. Manuel Puig, Twayne, 1993, pp. vii, viii, 1, 5, 47, 51-52, 123.

Further Reading
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Viking, 1998. A collection of short stories by the internationally renowned Argentine writer.

Martinez, Tomas Eloy. Santa Evita. Vintage, 1996. A fictional novel based on the life of the popular Argentine political figure Eva Peron.

Mitchell, Mark, ed. The Penguin Book of International Gay Fiction. Viking, 1995. A collection of short stories and selections, including a selection from Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide