Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1276
A poet has the gift not only for recording the inner life of the individual but also for recording and shaping the aspirations of a people for liberty and a homeland. Camila lauds her mother, Salome, for speaking out against tyranny; however, throughout the sections of the novel in Salome's voice, Alvarez develops a character who speaks out not only against tyranny but also for personal passion and the power of love, speaking out of the pain of emotional and sexual betrayal that she had previously endured in silence. Salome, although torn between her duty to bring about the birth of la patria on the one hand and her duty and her devotion to her children on the other, finds some resolution of these twin claims when she realizes that state politics and sexual politics are intimately connected. How can a country liberate itself if it enslaves its female residents? How can a homeland be proclaimed if the women lack the freedom and the means to be as free with their emotional and sexual lives as the men? Thus, Salome devotes herself passionately to educating the young ladies who come to the school she creates in her home. And she writes to stir her readers to noble actions despite the repression that Salome, and later Camila, operates under. In fact, Camila, in her role as college professor and guardian of her mother's legacy, has had "All her life . . . to think first of her words' effect on the important roles her father and brothers and uncles and cousins were playing in the world." Thus, "it is a mystery how the heart gets free," just as it is a mystery how the homeland gets free.
On the other hand, poetry is centering and clarifying, and it provides connections to important values. The poet is at her best when she has the power to say "what we all feel and don't have the courage to speak." Finally, it is the language, the words, that create "who we are." The real revolution, as Camila muses, can be won "only by the imagination," only through "the struggle to see and the struggle to love the flawed thing we see—what other struggle is there?" Thus, in the characters of Salome and Camila, Alvarez strongly connects a number of themes and social issues: literacy, language, poetry, seeing, revolution, and la patria. Only in the struggle to see, to create, to find and know the words, and to teach the words—only in this continuing, ongoing struggle—can la patria, a true homeland, ever be created. As the final scene in the novel makes clear, one must make the attempt again and again and again until one gets it right.
The parallel, or second, family theme occurs throughout Alvarez's four novels and addresses the serious and consequential social issue of institutionalized male sexual infidelity. Offered as the "custom of the country," the practice of a man's creating and keeping a second and perhaps even a third family is portrayed and attacked as a practice by men to demonstrate their virility and, perhaps, their economic prowess as well. Such arrangements apparently have been and continue to be widespread in Latin America. Alvarez attacks the practice not only by showing its effects on the women and children involved but also by suggesting a connection between such sexual tyranny and political tyranny. When Salome learns that her husband Pancho (Francisco Henriquez) has created another family while studying medicine in Paris, she is furious and has nothing more to do with him until very near the end of her life when she has sex with him and gives birth to Camila. Alvarez portrays the many consequences of such arrangements, some harsh and long lasting, both economic and psychological, some apparently benign (the presence of many women in a family to take care of children and other domestic duties). In one section narrated from the point of view of Salome, she recalls a time when a fifteen-year-old girl came to her door. She had been thrown out on the street by her family because she was pregnant by a man who refused to acknowledge his responsibility and who goes on to marry another girl from a "fine family—with no seeming consequences to be paid." Thinking of the girl causes Salome to remember her own father's second family. "Why was it all right for a man to satisfy his passion, but for a woman to do so was as good as signing her death warrant? There was another revolution to be fought to be truly free."
The parallel family theme is clearly a serious criticism of the fact of male dominance in Dominican society, but while the response of women in each of Alvarez's novels varies, that of both Gregoria and later her daughter Salome is swift and sure. When Gregoria learns from her "sharpeyed, straight-talking older sister, Ana" that Nicolas "has started a whole other family and set up a whole other woman in her own house," she packs up her two girls, Salome and Ramona, and their belongings, moves out, and lives apart from Nicolas for four years. It is only years later when Ramona and Salome bury their father and meet their counterparts at the funeral, his other children, that they learn why their mother had left their father. The complex and tangled nature of such dual families and their sexual relationships is complicated further by their frequently involving interracial alliances and a good deal of cultural racism. Salome points out that if her mother had not already been pregnant with Ramona, "the Urenas might have had a long talk with their son Nicolas in which they might have pointed out that though Gregoria herself was pale enough, and though she spoke of her grandpapa from the Canary Islands, all you had to do was look over her shoulder at her grandmother and draw your own conclusions." Nicolas was flamboyant, a lawyer and a poet. The poem that Salome and Ramona later compose to their father expresses a guilt common to children of desertion or divorce as they wonder whether his running off was somehow their fault. Thus the broken hearts lead to a broken family, which leads to a broken nation, and the patriarchy versus the quiet revolution of the women is played out. It is played out not only in the marriage of Salome's parents, Gregoria and Nicolas, but also later in her own marriage to Pancho.
A major theme in Alvarez's work is the rejection of the macho tradition of male domination and the assertion of gender equality and responsibility. She recognizes that the issue is complex because the cultural traditions of gender and class-based sexual behaviors are deeply engrained in both the women as well as in the men in the traditional and Catholic society of the Dominican Republic. Because sex is, on one level, an important part of marriage and is only to be engaged in within the sanctity of marriage, the pressures to conform to cultural expectations by marrying and enduring are enormous. However, because Dominican men have traditionally maintained extramarital liaisons, many women have been kept in abused and subjected states. Alvarez celebrates the courage of both Gregoria and Salome in their reactions to their husbands' infidelity but connects the facts and the consequences of it to the larger issues of la patria. Furthermore, Alvarez is able to explore the tension between the intense desire of her female characters for love and security, and a feminist opposition to the traditional and hypocritical male view of protecting the virginity of their daughters while engaging in their own illicit affairs.