Monday, December 27, 2010

Bridges and Dolls in the Stories of Rosario Ferre

Gender Performances of Disillusionment and Defeat


In the stories of Rosario Ferre, the perspective and experience of women are portrayed with the motif of dolls, while the best dreams of men are symbolized by building bridges.  Dolls are inanimate objects, intended only to be beautiful ornaments, and Ferre uses them to represent the lives of upper class women in Puerto Rico.  Though dolls may seem to be static or permanent, the economic conditions of Puerto Rico are certainly not in Ferre’s stories.  There are cycles of boom and bust in the sugar cane industry.  “The Youngest Doll” presents the experience of one family of the sugar cane aristocracy, while “The Glass Box” is a story of the men in a family of dreamers told over four generations.  In the motifs of dolls and bridges, gender becomes an increasingly fatalistic performance, and an angry reckoning is unavoidable at the end of the economic cycles that crush human dreams along the way. 
The sugar cane fields form the background as the aunt makes the many dolls for her nine nieces in “The Youngest Doll.”  Economic cycles are the norm in these stories.  The wealth built of the sugar cane industry, which was dependent on slave labor, is vulnerable.  The Puerto Rican aristocracy is on the verge of extinction in “The Youngest Doll”: “In those days, the family was nearly ruined; they lived surrounded by a past that was breaking up around them with the same impassive musicality with which the crystal chandelier crumbled on the frayed embroidered linen cloth of the dining room table.”(12)  The livelihood of the family comes from the land, and nature is not to be forgotten.  The animal world is symbolized by the prawn that bites, and then becomes embedded in, the leg of the aunt.  The wound is said to smell sweet at times, like the sugar produced by the family’s dying industry.  The world of nature is not quite dominated, but instead lurks just inside the body of a woman, a festering reality that everyone would rather avoid. 
The horrific injury takes the aunt out of commission as a potential wife, and she helps her sisters with the care of the nine daughters.  From her vantage point on the sidelines, the aunt appears to see the plight of women with a greater clarity than those who are directly involved in the rights of courtship, marriage, and raising a family.  This detachment and objectivity is never expressed by the aunt, or any other woman in the story.  The only evidence for her awareness is the creepy dolls that she makes so prolifically.  For the nine nieces, the aunt makes a doll for each year of their lives.  The size of the doll changes with the growth of the girls, and the details of the laborious doll making process are chilling in their subtle details: “Then she would make the a wax mask of the child’s face, covering it with plaster on both sides, like a living face sheathed in two dead ones.”(3)  Being inanimate and being dead are pretty much the same thing as the aunt chronicles the childhood of nine females with the doll making.  The ending in marriage is always the same for the young women who are all given their last doll at the wedding.  The dolls should know their enemy, even if the nieces don’t.  The eyes of the dolls were placed in the stream for a few days “…so that they would recognize the slightest stirring of the prawn’s antennae.”(3)
            The understanding that women are being used by men is explicit in “The Youngest Doll.”  When the doctor’s son, who is also studying medicine, comes to the house on a professional visit, he inspects the famous wound of the doll maker: “The young man lifted the starched ruffle of the aunt’s skirt and looked intently at the huge ulcer which oozed a perfumed sperm from the tip of its greenish scales.”(4)  The son knows immediately that his father could have healed this woman long ago.  The wound was made by an animal, but it was maintained, secretly, by a man whose sworn vocation is to heal those in physical distress.  His son, the one who marries the last niece, is certainly no better than the father, and the aunt gives her niece the traditional last doll filled with honey.  For the first time, the aunt uses diamonds as eyes for the doll.
The unexpressed resentment of women simmers, and then boils, below the surface of human society; it is the internal wound of the story that is never treated.  The marriage of the last niece is the chilling climax of the building resentment, and the niece is directly portrayed as an ornament for her husband.  She might as well be inanimate: “Each day he made his wife sit out on the balcony, so that passersby would be sure to see that he had married into society.”(5)  The son of the doctor prospers, and the niece is the reason for the success of his medical practice.  The niece is used as an object, just as the aunt’s wound was used to put the son through his medical training: “As the years passed the doctor became a millionaire.  He had slowly acquired the whole town as his clientele, people who didn’t mind paying exorbitant fees in order to see a genuine member of the extinct sugarcane aristocracy up close.”(6)  At the end of the story, the young doctor sells the diamond eyes on the doll for profit.  Though his wife may have no life, no real existence, she believes that her husband has no soul.  Or rather, his soul is made of paper since money is the only thing that matters to him.  When the doll filled with honey--the weight of the sugar industry’s history inside--disappears, the equation of the doll with the woman’s life is explicit.  The woman becomes the doll; the doll becomes the woman.  They are one.  She has no heart beat anymore, just a “distant swish of water.”(6)  In the empty sockets, the doctor sees the antennas of countless prawns, a frenzy of anger underneath the surface.  The unexpressed anger is alive and unwell.  All of the forms of enslavement to build wealth are indicted in the squirming animal anger ready to burst the inanimate female form of a doll. 
In “The Glass Box,” the story of a family is told from the male perspective, but the disillusionment and explosive anger at the end matches the resentment of “The Youngest Doll.”  There is a similar building awareness of being used, but for men it takes four generations instead of just one to come to a sense of defeat and disillusionment.  The men in “The Glass Box” have dreams—dreams of changing the world with the power of industrialization.  Beginning with the Frenchman Albert, the great-grandfather of the narrator, the men in this family are at the cutting edge of history and technology.  They are ready to make their dreams of the future come true.  Albert has a vision of an interconnected world with a plan for the Panama Canal, along with a dream of a great drawbridge that he would build for the world: “But if Ferdinand dreamed of digging a channel in the virgin continent which would be the geographic feat of the century, Albert had dreamed of building the most beautiful bridge in the world, a bridge which would open and close its arches like alligators making love.”(23)  Like his great-grandfather, the narrator believes that he too is chosen for a great event in human history: “I’ve always trusted my dreams because I know that behind them lies the door to immortality.”(23)  The family of “The Glass Box” doesn’t have dreams of wealth and exploitation.  But others do, and the engineer dreamers are used up like the women in “The Youngest Doll.”  By the end of “The Glass Box,” the narrator has turned the family’s engineering background into an apparent act of destruction. 
The narrator refers to people looking for him as he begins the story of his male ancestors.  The bridges that Albert and his descendants will build are symbolic of their manhood and a collective optimism about human nature.  In each son who becomes a father, that hope in humanity seems grossly misplaced.  After his patron’s company fails, Albert goes to Cuba where he marries at a time of political unrest.  Despite his engineering knowledge, Albert is clueless about the world around him in Cuba.  His wife Ileana’s family is fighting against the Spaniards in the Cuban Revolution, but Albert is oblivious that he is living amongst revolutionaries.  Political problems constantly interfere with the big dreams of the family; this pattern becomes the fact of their existence, not the exception.  Albert loses his savings to an unscrupulous attorney in France, and he dies inside a refrigerator that he built.  Industrialization indirectly and directly takes the lives of the next two generations as well.  Jacobito died jumping off a building after watching parachutists, and Juan Jacabo and his wife perish in a plane crash.
            Even when the engineering knowledge is lost by tragedy, it surfaces again in the blood of Albert’s descendants.  They are not revolutionaries or natural capitalists; they are engineers and dreamers, even if they haven’t formally studied.  Albert’s son Jacobito falls in love with machinery, even in its most primitive form in Cuba:  “Jacobito was never impressed by the family’s heroic deeds.  He was more interested in the colorful fairs and marketplaces of Matanzas, where he would gaze for hours on the betting wheels of the snow-cone vendors, on the grinding wheels of the knife and scissor sharpeners, on the horse-betting wheels, and on the huge, multicolored blinking Ferris wheel, on which he could never ride because he was too poor.”(25)  Once again, the tools of industrialization make Jacobito poised to change the world as the family moves from Cuba to Puerto Rico.  He is now safe from the Spaniards, and seemingly safe from the political machinations which have used his family’s dreams for their own ends. 
At the El Phoenix Foundry, the family rises from the ashes.  Jacobito begins as a machinist, helping to build the Catherine wheels of the sugar mills.  He becomes a successful industrialist, and he returns to the old dream of building bridges, this time in Puerto Rico.  His own house becomes a modern marvel of technology, and Jacobito drives the first Model T on the island.  It is Jacobito who builds the black box, about which there is very little detail in the story, even at the end.  The narrator doesn’t know much more about the box than the reader:  “As a child, I used to think about all these things, whenever I sat enthralled, listening to my grandfather’s stories.  He always told his stories in front of a curious black box he had made in Cuba to counter the nostalgia of exile.”(29)  The glass box held an unanswered secret, the collected wisdom of men with dreams to change the world through technology.
With Juan Jacabo, the narrator’s father, the family takes a break from engineering and turns to politics.  It is the only realistic way to build bridges in the industrial world.  Engineers are just the servants of politicians.  Like Albert, his grandfather, Juan Jacabo has a beautiful dream of a bridge: “My bridge joined the world into a single nation where there was no war or hunger or poverty.”(30).  The political debate in Puerto Rico is about the question of statehood or independence, and Juan Jacabo concentrates on the elimination of poverty as the key to realizing his dream for all humanity.  He has messianic visions of Puerto Rico as a utopia in Latin America: “The island would be the first place on earth where Latin American faith in the values of the spirit would blend with Anglo-Saxon respect for the law, faith in democracy, and technological progress.”(30)  But the present is true to the past, not a utopian future.  Juan Jacabo’s dream is doomed to failure, and other Latin American nations believe that Puerto Rico has sold out to North America, to the Americans.  In disillusionment, Juan Jacabo turns from politics back to his factories, and he loses his fortune by trying to help the less fortunate.  By holding on to the elimination of poverty as his dream bridge, the engineering family is reduced to ashes again.  The poor often dine at the home of the narrator, and the glass box comes alive mysteriously in those moments: “We would then set the table for twelve and go to the slums in search of our dinner guests.  When we came back, the dwellers of the glass box would have suddenly come to life.”(32)  The table set for twelve references the disciples of Jesus gathered in the modern home of a man who imagines a world without poverty, the Social Gospel as a reality.   
The narrator too gets an engineering degree, but his wisdom goes far beyond his industrial training.  His family is now bankrupt, and an auction of all family heirlooms is taking place.  The exploiters and vultures are picking over the capitalist carrion of another family with big dreams.  The disillusionment of the generations has reached its peak.  The narrator finally gets the whole picture, the inexorable cycles that will break every human dream: “By now I am well versed in the rhythm of production and depreciation of factories; I am what you might call completely assimilated into the environment.”(33-34)  By removing the glass box from the auction, a detonator is depressed which will presumably blow the home of Juan Jacabo sky high: “I feel I must hurry; I haven’t much time left.  My bridge will be the last one ever to be built by my family: it will be at once beautiful and frightening.”(34)
The men of Rosario Ferre stories don’t suffer silently when they come to the same conclusion as the women.  The slow burn of the doll with prawns swimming in her eyes is contrasted with the power of dynamite at a moment of insight, the full assimilation of family experience.  Even before the explosion, the narrator knows that his actions will have consequences: “Today, however, I’ve made up my mind to find out the secret of the box.”(34)  Dynamite is a tool of an engineer, but what happens when the engineer’s dreams have been destroyed?  In both “The Youngest Doll and “The Glass Box,” the truth will not be hidden forever.  When the best dreams of men and the wounds of womanhood have been fully exploited, the memory of the experience remains somewhere, no matter how deeply it is buried.  An explosion in a city is not an isolated event.  It is a bridge to the past, and the truth will always out in the art of Rosario Ferre.  Politicians of every nation would be wise to look for the swimming prawns under the surface, to listen for the mighty explosion, and to one day eliminate the problems that defeat both men and women.  Men are more than inanimate objects of ornamentation in “The Glass Box,” but they are still just tools of inhumane historical forces.  Their dreams result in a disillusionment and anger that matches the experience of women in “The Youngest Doll.”  The emotional anarchy of both stories demands retribution for all of the crimes committed in the name of industrial progress.  When it comes to pass, this reckoning will be at once beautiful and frightening.

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