María Luisa Bombal Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although her output is relatively small, María Luisa Bombal has been hailed as one of the most important Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Part of the reason for this high praise is that she explored the inextricable mixture of fantasy and reality called Magical Realism before its more famous practitioners, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez. The fact that she was female and wrote about the sexual liberation of women in a patriarchal culture that had long suppressed them has added to her fame in late twentieth century criticism.

Bombal more likely learned her narrative technique from the avant-garde of 1920’s France than from her Latin American countrymen, for the European gothic tradition that inspired that literary trend is much in evidence in her fiction. The women in her stories, caught in a trap created for them by males, who force them to be either submissive wives or sexual objects, yearn to escape; however, the only means they have to do so is through dreams and fantasies, as they romantically yearn for dark, mysterious men, who turn out to be phantoms, or as they embody darkly mysterious sexual creatures, primevally as much animal as human.

“The Final Mist”

A number of gothic romance conventions characterize “La última niebla” (“The Final Mist”). For example, the female protagonist marries a childhood friend who tells her he knows every inch of her body without her having to take her clothes off. Moreover, she feels she has to imitate his first wife, who, according to him, was a perfect woman before she died an untimely death, and, typical of such romances, the narrator, herself quite young, is unaware of her physicality, never having dared to look at her own breasts.

Throughout the story, a mist or fog hangs over everything, giving the external world the warm intimacy of a closed room, muffling all sound. This dreamlike real world is so permeated by the narrator’s dreams and fantasies that when a young man of almost supernatural aspect appears and kisses her she feels she has been waiting for him and must surrender to his power; her sexual encounter with the stranger is described as an ultimate romantic fantasy in a single magical and dreamlike night.

As ten years go by, in typical romantic fashion, she never sees him again, does not know where he is, but feels that it is enough to know that somewhere he exists. However, when her sister-in-law shoots herself in her lover’s house, she feels she is a “casualty” of her own invention, her life a “charade performed in shadows.” The ultimate gothic fantasy element is played out in the story when the protagonist locates the house of her dream lover, only to discover that the man who lived there was blind and died of a fall fifteen years earlier. The story ends with her envy of her sister-in-law, who may have died for love; she considers suicide, but settles for living and dying correctly, while the mist settles over everything like a “shroud.”

“The Tree”

Bombal’s best-known story is perhaps “El árbol” (“The Tree”), a self-conscious narrative manipulation of the interaction between past and present. The story begins in present tense as the...

(The entire section is 1345 words.)