Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
Judith Ortiz Cofer’s The Line of the Sun focuses mainly on the two sides of a dichotomy that struggle against each other yet finally synthesize to become greater than the sum of the two parts. The dichotomy consists of the traditional modes of behavior and thinking embodied by life in Puerto Rico, aspects of which are often religiously repressive and carry their own dangers, in opposition to the established traditions of the mainland, which tend to absorb the island culture without a trace.
The side of tradition is represented in the surreal atmosphere and mythic characters portrayed in the first part of the novel. Gusmán, a romantic figure caught amid the lushness of the tropics and fervid, often smothering, religious beliefs, reflects the characteristics of an epic hero within his small world of Salud. Legendary in his wildness, he becomes determined to protect what he sees as the purest form of womanhood in the person of Rosa by saving her from the evil gossips who discredit her because of her moral unconventionality, representing the banishment of freedom for women because of cultural rules. Although Gusmán is incapable of becoming Rosa’s savior, he suffers for years and never gives up his goal. Eventually, back on the island, he succeeds in resurrecting her ideal in the form of her daughter (at least as it is recounted to the reader by Marisol), thus overcoming the social forces that contrived to defeat him and Rosa, illustrating his ability to transform his native culture as he finally learns to live in it.
Further unfolding of island culture and social atmosphere comes through the figure of Ramona. A young virgin preparing for future motherhood, she is subject to the traditional rules, feelings, and powers of the past. The older sister of Gusmán, Carmelo, and Luz, Ramona is given the role of caretaker and mother’s helper early in life. The duties of that role keep her mostly inside the house protected under Mamá Cielo’s stern guidance, thus contributing to her difficulties when she is later exiled to a land and people about which she knows nothing. She remains a symbol of the power of island tradition throughout the novel.
Rafael, who is seen as the “Archangel Rafael” by Ramona, chooses the Navy as his form of exile after the death of his alcoholic father and becomes the symbol of assimilation. Rafael must flee the suffering and hopelessness he sees on the island and become the protective angel. He, unlike the others who try to relive their traditions in New York, is very successful in seeking assimilation into American society and comes to represent its power in the last half of the novel.
When the locale changes to the city of Paterson, New Jersey, the second side of the dichotomy begins to exert its power. El Building, a symbolic island in the midst of the American middle-class sea, allows Ramona only to parody her role of the past, while Rafael continues to pressure his family to isolate themselves from the other immigrants by means of affluent dress and behavior, and to move to the suburbs, exiling Marisol from both cultures.
Gusmán is the connection between the cultures represented by Ramona and Rafael. Marisol is caught in the restrictions of both worlds until Gusmán becomes her hero by affirming her feelings and her movement into the adult world with the gift of a crucifix pendant, her first adult present. He helps Marisol to look objectively at the life around her, and he listens with interest to her interpretations of that life.
Gusmán’s retelling of the story of his arrival and the severe conditions he overcame illustrates his ability to live successfully on both sides of the dichotomy. Always the rogue, he continues to be unconventional in his behavior on both sides, yet he demonstrates his kindness and self-sacrificing character to all through his heroic action in El Building to save Marisol’s younger brother. Ironically, the spiritist ritual of the past set up by Ramona to strengthen tradition has destroyed the remains of her past, and because of Ramona’s entrenchment in it, and because of her fragility and inability to communicate in English, she is left helpless. Rafael is away on duty, ineffectively lost in the immense sea of American culture; therefore, Gusmán, like Marisol after him, is the link, the savior and hope for the future.
The destruction of El Building erases the presence of island culture in Marisol’s life, but the dichotomy, happily, does not melt into the American side. Marisol’s relationship with Gusmán and the sensitivity she has gained by understanding her heredity demonstrate that the mythic and romantic qualities of Puerto Rican culture will balance with her future growth, in her writing as well as her heart.
From the beginning of the novel, Ortiz Cofer makes it clear that Marisol, the absent first-person narrator, is converting the hearsay of memory into her prose. Later, as she becomes a presence in the story, she is drawing from childhood and adolescent memory as well as imagination. This use of point of view reveals the interpretation involved in telling the tale, emphasizing the subjectivity and fluctuation of truth in a changing world that is to be enjoyed, as Marisol indicates with the final scenario.
Judith Ortiz Cofer’s novel reflects the powerful drama that is inherent in the mingling of cultures. She provides insight and hope for those who are participating in this process by clarifying the strength of the human spirit in its inevitable role of bringing people together, reaching beyond the stifling boundaries of the past.