Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

The Moths, and Other Stories, Helena María Viramontes’s first short-story collection, contains eight tales and an introduction by Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano. Two of the stories, “The Moths” and “The Cariboo Café,” have been reprinted in a number of anthologies of twentieth century American literature. In the introduction the collection, Yarbo-Bejarano notes that, although Viramontes addresses the problems of racial prejudice and economic struggles, the emphasis is on the cultural and social values that shape these women. She also suggests that most of stories involve the conflict between the female character and the man who represents an oppressive authority figure.

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Viramontes’s writing is often characterized by shifting points of view and by fractured narratives that abruptly break off and sometimes leave readers confused. Her imagery, however, including a great deal of religious metaphor, is often poetic and occasionally merges into Magical Realism.

The short stories in The Moths, and Other Stories are noteworthy for raising crucial issues, especially in the growing and changing Latino and Latina communities. The girls and women in Viramontes’s stories try to find their own identities in spite of oppressive institutions, especially the family and the Catholic Church, which proscribe their actions and dreams. Young women make the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood among family members who do not understand them and who therefore restrict their personal growth. Older women, both those trapped in marriage and those free but isolated and lonely, struggle to carve out meaning in their lives. Also, the stories often end violently. While Viramontes focuses on gender, she also understands how social and cultural values other than those concerning gender roles also mold women’s lives. Viramontes’s approach is feminist, one that explicitly addresses class and ethnic consciousness as well.

Furthermore, the stories are “border” stories in several ways. First, her characters inhabit the space between regions, that is, between the United States and Latin America. Second, her characters are young women moving between stages in human life, middle-aged women living in limbo between marriage and selfhood, and elderly women caught in the realm of isolation between society and death.

“The Moths,” one of Viramontes’s most celebrated stories, focuses on an adolescent girl’s search for identity. The girl is estranged from the strict codes of her patriarchal family. She finds herself by rejecting her family’s harsh values and by assuming responsibility for her grandmother and easing her death. The religious demands of the family are replaced by the folk-religious imagery of the grandmother’s death scene, where Mexican legend is blended into traditional religious rituals: In the last scene of the story, small gray moths emerge from the grandmother’s soul through her mouth (an image from Mexican folklore) as her granddaughter holds her in the bathtub.

As is so often the case in Viramontes’s fiction, powerful and complex imagery underscores the theme of this story. Beneath the image of the girl and her grandmother in the tub, for example, lies the outline of Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” the famous statue of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ after the Crucifixion—an image of grief, death, and transfiguration. The bath in “The Moths” has become both a place of last rites and a place for a kind of baptism. The scene evokes both the sense of someone dying and the sense of someone being born—the girl appears to be giving birth to herself. By the end of the story, the girl has given birth to her new identity.

A similar family configuration is created in “The Cariboo Café,” where an immigrant woman and then a café owner try to find their respective dead sons in the two lost children. Here, however, Viramontes evokes the workings of oppression and repression not through the family and Church but through governments in multiple countries. In the end, it is governmental policy that destroys any family. The folk imagery is present here in the La Llorona figure of Mexican legend, the weeping woman wandering in search of her lost children. “Neighbors” also finds its final resolution in violence, including the violent taking of another son. In this story as well, both the female and male characters live in isolation from society. The tragic violence of “The Long Reconciliation,” too, is tempered by religious images and the music of a carousel.

Viramontes became a key figure in the emergence of Latina literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The Moths, and Other Stories, her first collection of short fiction, has firmly established in the literature her themes and her often poetic and powerful expression of them.

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