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Three— Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s
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Three—
Women, State, and Family in Latin American Literature of the 1920s

Francine Masiello

Latin America in the 1920s faced a menacing crisis of modernization. Beset with the problems of nation building and rapid urbanization, its leading critics and intellectuals sought to rationalize these dramatic changes occurring in society by generating a theoretical construct to explain new American ideas. Conservatives and liberals alike studied the merits of progress and the price the more established social classes would have to pay for the growth of the modern city. Creative writers also participated in the quest for self-definition, responding to the modernization program in three different registers.

In the first instance, a highly patriotic literature defended state ideology. Faced with the question of representing Latin America to its readers, or better, of creating a social subject resistant to modern realities, conservative authors of the 1920s tried to preserve the authority of tradition. Writing of this kind was informed by a desire to protect the status quo and reiterated the symbols and ideas that enforced the rights of those in power. These authors strove to create a myth of an organically unified America, in which the civilizing leadership of the elders might bring order and harmony to the nation.

In the second instance, a more skeptical band of writers challenged the validity of the emerging state, but far from looking to the past as a model of successful nation building, they emphasized fragmentation and disruption as key features of modern times. Doubt was cast on the possibility of forming any enduring project of state organization. While some responded to this perception of disorder with nihilism and despair, others reveled in what was seen as the chaos of modernity. From this latter group, a host of new writers emerged to carry the banner of avant-garde aestheticism. Not to be confused with members of the European cultural movements of the time, writers of the Latin American avant-garde incorporated selected elements of their national or regional conditions in their works while looking to contemporary Spain or


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France for novelty of literary form. Modernity, with all of its force, was celebrated by these youthful authors, who rushed to the innovation of form and ideas as a way to break from the elders; thus, they staged a generational rebellion against audience, tradition, and institutions.

Finally, a highly politicized, left-wing political program emerged in the 1920s to provide an alternative to bourgeois politics and literatures. Rooted in the new social movements that emerged with urban growth, social realist literature took as its focus of study the plight of marginals in society.

While these diverse literary experiences may be defined in part as a challenge to aesthetic modernismo , the turn-of-the-century movement identified with the poet Rubén Darío, Latin American writing of the 1920s exhibited a rich complexity of expression, incorporating the radical impulses of the experimental avant-garde while also addressing the crisis of modernity that beset the nations of the Southern Hemisphere. Writers demonstrated a range of interests extending from political reformism (of both left- and right-wing tendencies) to a fervent defense of the autonomy of the work of art.

Among these possibilities, a feminine literary discourse emerged, assessing both aesthetic and nationalist projects to forge a different system of writing. As such, women's literature of the 1920s provided a new framework for the reception and interpretation of masculine symbols of identity. It also offered terms for rereading the deployment of power. For this realization it depended upon the strategies of disruption produced by the avant-garde, but it also came into obvious debate with the nationalist tendencies of Latin American literature as if to reevaluate the programs of the modern state from a distinctively female perspective.

The Politics of Womanhood

The status of women in the early twentieth century may be analyzed in the context of political programs for national reform and modernization. Rapid economic growth was matched by a vast migration to the capital cities; at the same time, the unionization of labor created suspicion and fear among Latin America's ruling classes.[1]

Through this period of massive social upheaval, when anarchism threatened the state and democratic impulses shook the foundations of the oligarchy, women became at once subjects and pawns of the emerging texts of resistance. Indeed, in cities such as Buenos Aires, whose population was radically transformed by these events, working women—and foreigners especially—were suspected of destroying the basis of modern society. In particular, these working women of the early twentieth century were singled out for their affiliations with anarchist movements and were accused of subversive activity. Not only did women in Buenos Aires establish their own anarchist newspapers but they also spoke freely against the repressive struc-


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tures of the family and the authoritarian-paternalist model of government.[2] In addition, they freely questioned the juridic rights of women in civil society and investigated the strictures of marriage as a barrier to women's progress. Women's sexuality and free control over their bodies were of deep concern to these anarchists as they sought to protect females from public and domestic abuse.[3] Accordingly, in much of the literature and propaganda pamphlets, even the prostitute is depicted as a martyr of the new age.[4]

Aside from the declarations found in pamphlets of the time, women were quite active in organized strikes and acts of sabotage. One historian notes that women in lower-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires organized the largest strike in Argentina before the decade of the 1920s.[5] This strike, perpetrated by women tenants who demanded rent stabilization in poor neighborhoods, represented one of the most successful grass-roots urban movements of modern times.

Meanwhile, in a less strident tone and usually at variance with anarchist platforms, socialist parties argued for equal rights for women, universal suffrage, reform of the civic codes, and better education for all.[6] Feminist unions, journals, and international symposia devoted to improving the legal status of women were common in the first two decades of the twentieth century.[7] Women in Cuba demanded legalized divorce; Pan-Americanists sought union among the women of the Americas; Argentine socialist feminists demanded a reformed civic code granting rights of emancipation to women.[8] Clearly, a significant number of Latin American women had much to gain by identifying with these feminist movements.

Because of feminist activities in turn-of-the-century Latin America, women were often perceived as straying from the family unit. In a society where the family was equated with the national good, women who left the private sphere and moved into the public domain were often considered saboteurs of the unified household, promoting activities that undermined larger state interests.[9] In addition, they often came to be equated with the tendencies of anarchism itself. As such, their presence in the modern nation-state posed some contradiction. After all, women were necessary for the pronatalist policies of the state; their work outside the home was often necessary for the economic survival of the working-class family; and their public engagements as teachers or supervisors of beneficent groups generally received official support.[10] In spite of these positive factors, the feminine was often regarded with suspicion by intellectuals in Latin America.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there was considerable popular and scientific concern for the monitoring of women's bodies. This concern is evident in the contents of the penny dreadfuls and the women's weekly magazines, in the hygiene manuals designed for women, and in the almost xenophobic emphasis on keeping immigrant women from the nationalist domain. The hygiene movement, for example, which was generated by a con-


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cern among men for their safety from venereal diseases, encouraged women to look after their bodies to safeguard their reproductive functions and maintain a code of cleanliness.[11] The many hygiene manuals by Latin America's most prominent publishers read more like pornography than like any form of advice for women.[12] Similarly, the women's magazines issued warnings to women to maintain their bodies clean from disease and to ensconce themselves in the safety of the family.[13] These texts suggest, interestingly enough, a series of double discourses in competition for the attention of women: insofar as they advise a female audience, they are also designed to keep those readers in their place. The woman's body became embarrassingly public, less through her own volition than through the schemes of those in authority.

These popular lessons for women were accompanied by pseudoscientific discourses; even the weekly magazines published clinical diagnoses of love or positivistic analyses of erotic relationships. Caras y Caretas, Plus Ultra , and the Almanaque Hispanoamericano in this period provided many such explorations of eros. At the same time, certain intellectuals of the Centennial period in Latin American history attempted to organize a theory of the feminine in order to preserve the integrity of the nation. In 1910, for example, José Ingenieros delivered a series of lectures on the topic of love (later assembled in a volume titled Tratado del amor ), a psychologizing attempt to distinguish passion from marital obligations and commitment. He denounced the restraints that marriage imposes upon individual freedom and sensuality; indeed, he asserted, insofar as it generates a concern for legal order, propriety, and convenience, marriage appears to threaten the very possibility of romantic love.[14] Ironically, Ingenieros went on to argue, it is love that spurs marriage in the first place; therefore, he urged men to be wary of entering in legal contracts with women. Love and marriage were to be regarded as separate matters; the first was a question of instinct, the second a matter of household management and ultimately of the continued efficiency of the state apparatus. Restraint in love was thereby advised for those preoccupied with matters of organization and progress; in the interest of moral affirmation and domestic peace, love and marriage were to be kept apart.

A concern for the efficiency of the family also informed the pedagogical programs of the Argentine school system. Thus, in the introduction to his multivolumed La literatura argentina , Ricardo Rojas denounced the impoverished values of the modern nuclear family and its failure to meet the needs of children.[15] He insisted, therefore, on the usefulness of public institutional education, which clearly would wrench children from the hands of their ill-trained parents and compensate for the ignorance evident in the home. The real paterfamilias was to be found in the academy. Rojas had in mind a retraining of Argentine children born to immigrant families, but his message pointed to the shortcomings of mothers in general. Unable to adapt to a symbolic mode of thinking, women, Rojas argued, should at least be given a


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minimum of training in order to equip them for responsibilities in the home.[16]

These efforts were part of a state program to enforce homogeneity on the various social projects upon which modern women had embarked. At a time of ebullient multiplicity in mass cultural practices, the state tried to impose and retain hierarchical order over its subjects; in a period when the feminine was equated with the unmanageable, women became the specific target of such disciplinary action.

This programmatic endeavor to exercise control over women is seen in creative literary endeavors as well, where it was largely held that the advancement of nationalist interests constituted a moral mission. Manuel Gálvez, for example, in an essay of 1912, described Argentine nationalism as coextensive with a moral mandate. Referring in particular to the impact of this ideology on creative production of the period, he explained:

Yo veo, que la producción literaria argentina va a entrar en una nueva era. He hablado del nacionalismo. Esta tendencia va a dominarlo todo. Ella será el motor que nos mantenga en perpetua acción, la impulsadora y transformadora de nuestra poesía, la creadora de nuestros ideales. Pronto los escritores argentinos han de ser leídos en todas las naciones de habla española; tal sucederá cuando nuestro predominio se establezca y consolide en la América española y cuando sobre toda ella se extienda gigantescamente nuestro gobierno moral.[17]

[I see that Argentine literary production is about to enter a new age. I'm speaking about nationalism. This tendency will dominate everything. It will be the motor that keeps us in perpetual action, the generator and transformer of our poetry, the creator of our ideals. Soon Argentine writers will be read in all Spanish-speaking nations; this will happen when our predominance is recognized and consolidated in Spanish America and when our moral governance looms gigantically over the continent.]

Gálvez was correct in anticipating a rise in nationalist sentiment, which was destined to be carried over into the social programs and literary texts of the time. In addition, this discourse on nationalism was clearly marked by considerations of gender, prompting some curious disquisitions by men of both left- and right-wing persuasions.

Men of fiercely nationalistic convictions and even those who argued for a democratic alternative used the image of the feminine to defend their respective programs of action. In the 1920s, two prominent literary journals in Spanish America offered noteworthy cases of left- and right-wing discourses that exploited the image of women. Promoting a specifically nationalist discourse, Inicial (1923–1926), an Argentine periodical supported by intellectuals of literary culture, defended a return to traditional values and an unambiguous defense of the state. In the prefatory statement of this review, the editors of Inicial declared war on subversives, advocating serious reprisals


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against those who threatened the state with modern liberal ideals. As part of this denunciation, Inicial specifically protested

contra las aspiraciones, sentimentales y romantizantes, con que los fuertes engañan a los débiles y los débiles se consuelan de su impotencia; . . . contra los apologistas del sufragio universal, del parlamentarismo y la democracia de nuestros días . . . contra los afeminados de espíritu que ponen en verso el gemido de las damiselas y hacen ensueños sobre la ciudad futura; en fin, contra todo lo que hay, en arte, en politica, de engaño, de impotencia y de feminidad.[18]

[against the aspirations, both sentimental and romantic, with which the strong deceive the weak and the weak console themselves with their impotence; . . . against the apologists for universal suffrage, for parliamentarianism, and democracy in our time . . . against the effeminate of spirit who put in verse the cry of ladies and build dreams about the city of the future; in short, against all [traces] in art, [and] in politics, of deception, impotence, and femininity.]

Here, the editors draw unabashed comparisons between acts of national perfidy and feminine behavior; the traitors of the nation are clearly aligned with women. Thus, in this highly gendered text, a masculinist discourse upholds virtue and patriotism while the vile elements of society are singularly debased to the sphere of the feminine. It follows then that the feminine is a threat to the stability of the state; universal suffrage, modernization, and revolutionary ideals form part of a program of subversion.

The identification of the feminine with an oppositional consciousness in Latin America is broadly suggested in the decade of the 1920s and is evident even in the texts of progressive advocates. For example, the Revista de Avance (1927–1930), a Cuban literary magazine whose editors included some members of the newly founded Cuban Communist Party, represents the most radical avant-garde achievement in Latin America in the period and offers a paradigmatic evaluation of feminist practice within a nationalist context. Praising the work of the Alianza Nacional Feminista, a suffragist group active in Cuba in the 1920s, the Revista de Avance links feminism with democratic process, as the following citation reveals:

Un grupo de nuestras mujeres, oficialmente constituido bajo el rótulo de "Alianza Nacional Feminista," se dispone a la conquista del voto en los precisos momentos en que nuestros hombres comienzan a prescindir de él como de una molestia ciudadana sin objeto. Esta falange de mujeres puede significar una oportuna reserva de fuerzas para nuestra diezmada democracia. Cuando los hombres, usurpadores de un exclusivismo democrático esencialmente anti-democrático, más aún, antihumano, nos sentimos ganados por la desilusión y lloramos un poco boabdilescamente [sic] los principios que no supimos defender, las mujeres, menos escépticas, menos maliciadas en las manos de la politiquería al uso, más henchidas de fe en los destinos del pueblo, acuden a cubrir la vanguardia y afirman enfaticamente su fe en los ideales de la democracia.[19]


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[A group of our women, officially constituted under the rubric of "National Feminist Alliance," is getting ready to win the vote at the very moment in which our men begin to set it aside as a purposeless citizen's nuisance. This phalanx of women can represent an opportune reserve of strength for our weakened democracy. When as men, usurpers of a democratic exclusionary practice that is essentially antidemocratic, and even more, antihuman, we feel beaten by disillusion and we cry somewhat foolishly over principles that we did not know how to defend, women—less skeptical, less apprehensive in the face of common politics, more filled with faith in the destiny of their people—run to the vanguard position and emphatically affirm their faith in democratic ideals.]

Following a course of resistance to state authoritarianism, the Revista de Avance relied upon the image of the feminine to organize a program of opposition. Here feminine practice is perceived as a behavior available to all progressive individuals to compensate for the abusive political projects traditionally embraced by Cuban men. Less cynical and less corrupt, women, in the eyes of the editors of Revista de Avance , have the potential to introduce a genuinely democratic reform in society.

It is interesting, at the same time, to contemplate the uses of women in Cuban projects of modernization. In this period, women lobbied actively for divorce legislation and claimed a voice in congressional proceedings to demand suffrage and equal compensation.[20] But their demands were not necessarily perceived as unsound or without basis in reason; rather, the feminist activity of these years provided an example of civic engagement from which society as a whole might benefit. Thus, if in the parlance of the right women were situated among the adversaries who threatened the stability of official institutions, in the rhetoric of the left the feminine was equated with democracy and the possibility of reform. Undoubtedly, women played an important symbolic and active role in civil society of the 1910s and 1920s.

Like the texts of political movements, with their heated polemic about the merits of nationalist programs, positioning the feminine within a discourse of opposition, literary texts of the 1920s aligned women in counterpoint to the state; concomitantly, the family was perceived as a unit in hopeless disarray. This is consonant with a long history in Latin American letters, where traditionally the role of women and the family had been cast in debate with nationalist interests.

Elizabeth Kuznesof and Robert Oppenheimer have noted that alliances between family and state power were characteristic of nineteenth-century nationalism in Latin America.[21] Indeed, theorists of family and state relations have often drawn an equivalence between the two.[22] Max Horkheimer, for example, has observed that the clear imperative of the bourgeois family was to enforce a sense of duty among all of its members to the father; by extension, the blind obedience to the patriarch would be continued in the individual's unquestioned submission to the state.[23]

Latin American literary texts of the nineteenth century give a different


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interpretation of the family, picturing it as headed toward irreversible destruction when managed by an irrational father, a metaphor for state authority. In this condition, the woman saves her family by taking charge of the household; in the process, she becomes a figure of opposition to the state. One can observe, beginning in the post-Independence period, a clear interest in the feminine figure in this kind of adversarial role; this occurred especially at moments when the dissolution of the family in literature was read as a challenge to political regimes.

Argentine literary history is especially rich in examples of this image of the feminine, particularly in the nineteenth century, when liberal men of letters voiced their opposition to the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas and used his daughter, Manuela, to show the fragmentation of the family qua state (see Mary Louise Pratt's essay, this volume).[24] Manuela thus became the protagonist of a variety of liberal literary texts, from ballads and short stories to seminal novels in the Latin American tradition, in which often she was made a figure of resistance, showing moral indignation in response to the actions of the Argentine strongman. This example takes us beyond Christopher Lasch's definition of the family as a "haven in a heartless world," for in nineteenth-century representations we see that the repressive family, as a microcosm for the state, often exhausts itself due to the efforts of women.[25] Thus, in much Argentine literature of the post-Independence period, woman offers the possibility of an oppositional consciousness while men are forced into silence; yet she also suggests the decay of the patriarchal family whose control she manages to elude.

The creative literature of the 1920s and 1920s confirms this perception of women as adversaries of nationalist interests. In this period, however, female characters lack the heroic fortitude to challenge the injustice of tyranny; clearly, they are not recommended for public service, nor do they serve the interests of democratic reform. Rather, they are revealed as sinister agents of subversion. Their behavior is informed by irrationality and misguided eros, so that the only solution for them is found in a controlled domesticity. Thus, in the conservative texts of the early twentieth century, women are cautioned against excess and eliminated from the public realm; they are then returned to the domestic sphere, where they are supervised by a benevolent spouse.

The naturalist novel, which survived in Latin America well into the decade of the 1920s, reinforced these paradigms of domesticity. In this kind of fiction, women were representative of the forces of disruption, or often were identified with the uncivilized land insofar as both are objects of masculine conquest and domination. In Gálvez's first novel, La maestra normal (1914), inspired by the Centennial celebration of 1910 and by the influential presence of the normal-school movement in Argentine life, he represented woman as a victim of evil ideologies.[26] Here, in a broad critique of the educational policies of the normal-school teachers, Gálvez attacked the lay school


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system for its challenge to religion, tradition, and the unified family, and he demonstrated the system's failure particularly in reference to provincial women. The fall of Raselda, the protagonist of La maestra normal , is attributed, by Gálvez's logic, to the ideologies of liberalism in which she was formed. Had she been under the tutelage of her parents with appropriate discipline and guidance, she would not have fallen prey to corruption or lost her sense of virtue.

In this scheme of things, women bear no responsibility for the larger questions of ideology and institutions, nor should they be allowed access to untested ideas. Accordingly, women like Raselda had no business in the education of youth. Furthermore, in this novel, with its abundant erotic passages and explicitly detailed abortion, all images converge on a single objective: the monitoring of women in civil society. The body of woman is to be controlled at any cost in a period of social decadence, for unattended she succumbs to the barbarous extremes of undisciplined sensuality. In the literatures of nationalist and avant-garde tendencies, women are often presented as subverting family harmony. Since domestic peace is a goal lust and desire must be contained. But Gálvez's novel is also about the dangerous intersection of public and private spheres, for when women escape the domestic realm and enter the public workplace they show a marked incapacity for making rational decisions. Raselda, the heroine, suffers in love and work because she cannot properly separate these antagonistic realms, and she lacks sufficient clarity to separate work and passion. Finally, she is expelled from civil society and condemned to solitude. Far from consolidating a nationalist project, the woman was used in Centennial texts to show disruption and chaos, while she indicated the cause for the failure of any program of social reform.

In short, in an age when women were considered antagonistic to national interests, it was common to exercise control over them, suppressing their passions unsparingly. Control was then reasserted in literature by the representation of a unified household. Within this context, men were to fulfill the role of paterfamilias, imparting wisdom and rule to their flock, while women were destined to serve as housekeepers, devoted to domestic labor and motherhood; but this plan always met with resistance. In the organization of family roles in fiction of the realist, mundonovista mode, the feminine was thus identified as the center of contradiction. Accordingly, in the great sagas of the South American frontier, the theme of civilization versus barbarism—the dichotomy that sums up the thinking of writers and statesmen who tried to understand Latin America from the time of the mid-nineteenth century—women were equated with barbarism, which had to be curbed by men of reason. It is also important to observe the absence of any great matriarch or woman of intuitive magic in these novels: there is no Ursula Buendía, in the manner of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's fiction, no character equivalent of La


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Maga in Julio Cortázar's Rayuela . Instead, the women in the novels written by men of the 1920s were depicted as uncontrollable and often evil, inclined to wanton aggression or irrational, perilous endeavors. The women in these novels had two courses available to them: either they accepted the domestic calling and resigned themselves to a life of subservience or they found themselves eliminated from the scene of narration. Such is the case in adventure novels like Ricardo Güiraldes's Don Segundo Sombra (1926), where the bonding among men constitutes the only civilizing influence on the community at large, and in Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Bárbara (1929) where the protagonist is banished from the novel and only her innocent daughter survives, through alliance with the civilized master.

Finally, the avant-garde literatures, as an independent activity of the 1920s, also broached the debate on women with overt hostility. In general, practitioners of the avant-garde insisted on a culture of masculinity; forceful, isolating, arrogant, the search for power that informed this movement was abusive of women. This is true of the Argentine Oliverio Girondo, who describes women's bodies as fragmented limbs or objects to be contemplated by the tourist-poet, and of the Chilean Vicente Huidobro, whose ironic prose poems express an extravagant violence against women.[27] Not unlike modernists such as Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Ezra Pound, these Latin American writers engaged in a brutal yet gratuitous subjugation of women, so that the exertion of power over subalterns almost seemed synonymous with the institutionalization of modernism itself.[28] This attitude was also shown consistently in the abundant little magazines of the period, in the many jokes and limericks that served as gestures of male camaraderie, and in the anonymous doggerel that celebrated a bonding among men to the exclusion of women.[29] The few women writers present in these circles were recognized in their roles as literary doyennes, companions of the major author, or occasionally eccentric artists and poets whose works were sometimes included in minor spaces of the little reviews. Clearly, in this lively confraternity of men of the 1920s there was little space for women.

Literary Women

Artistic and intellectual production by women of this period repudiates these perceptions and gives evidence of transforming the tradition of nationalist literature. In the prose fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, a new social body was produced in which women refused their status as "other" and challenged their domestic assignments. As such, this literature initiated a reevaluation of traditionally perceived gender roles while it situated women's activity in opposition to authority. Its goal, then, was to produce an autonomous female subject, one that escapes the deadening effects of a repressive nationalist discourse, and one in which woman resists her status as an object within the


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abstract rhetorical programs of men. Literature of this kind provided a clear alternative to avant-garde movements in Latin America and to the masculinist discourse they produced; it challenged the dominant voices of experimental authors such as Girondo and Huidobro. It also answered the nationalist program contained in the mundonovista novels, in which heroes of near-epic stature laid claim to the vast American terrain.

As the salient examples of this kind of modern sensibility in Latin American women writers dating from the 1920s, María Luisa Bombal, Norah Lange, and Teresa de la Parra subverted patriarchal discourse and the ruling logic of traditional writing. Intrinsic to their project, lived experience guides the premises of their narrative fiction. As itinerant intellectuals who embarked upon the traditional grand tour and traveled frequently between Europe and America in search of a better life, these women participated in the life common to Latin American vanguardistas . De la Parra, for example, left her native Venezuela to study and travel in Europe and sustained active transcontinental communication with writers such as Gabriela Mistral. Lange, the "damisela" of the Argentine avant-garde, wife of Oliverio Girondo, friend of the cosmopolitan circle known as the "Florida Street poets," was born into special privilege in Europe before moving to Latin America. Throughout her lifetime, she engaged in dialogue with international elites. Also a writer uprooted, Bombal was, like Lange, privileged. She left her native Chile and spent many of the vanguard years in Argentina and in Europe, where she became an intimate friend of Lange and other women writers.

Together, the fiction of these women reflects the constant displacement or homelessness of the female intellectual, as much as it voices an opposition to the masculinist avant-garde programs. What we see, then, are women who used their status as exiles to resist the containment of an encroaching nationalist rhetoric. They refused the unifying discourse that maintains the female body in place, limiting woman to reproductive functions or domestic labor. Indeed, almost as a correlative of the anarchist activities described earlier, women writers engaged in a series of deconstructive challenges in which discourses were multiplied and the sites of meaning released from their compartmentalized frames, no longer anchored by male prerogatives in the literary or social domain.

Accordingly, in the writings of these women, narrative situation, structure, and the position of character disregard the masculine attention to birthright, inheritance, and linear order and clearly repudiate the nationalist program. Multiple voices participate in the structuring of fiction, until finally characters find themselves dismissing any identity as unified subjects. In order to sustain this rebellion, feminine heroines, first of all, repudiate any fixed point of origin. Female migration, travel, and orphanhood or abandonment thus provide the motivation for women's fiction of the 1920s. Alone or on the road in search of adventure, the new heroine renounces family and


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starts life anew. Like their authors, who traveled extensively between Europe and America, the female protagonists of Latin American avant-garde fiction use homelessness to their advantage and finally unleash themselves from domestic constraints by refusing any heterosexual commitments.

The novel of orphanhood is particularly interesting in the feminist context. It has been suggested frequently that family relationships and particularly the role of the father stand at the center of all activity in fiction.[30] Marthe Robert has observed that the modern novel is in fact a tale about orphans, of lost heroes in search of their parents or surrogate figures of authority.[31] In this respect, the question of the father is essentially one of absence, in which the hero or heroine sets about the task of relocating the missing parent. To put it more directly, the dead father initiates society in the novel; his true status is revealed in the trace of his absence. As such, the novel seeks to piece together fragments of reality in order to strive toward a coherent whole, a unified vision of reality in which the hero finds his destiny by reconstructing his past. The mundonovista narrative that I have described in earlier pages indeed attempts to replicate that quest for a coherent text. Fabio Cáceres, at the close of Don Segundo Sombra , learns of his true identity and brings order to his life through an identified father; Santos Luzardo eliminates Doña Bárbara and marries Marisela in the end, thus suggesting a parallel between the romance mode in fiction and the renewed possibility of an improved and civilized "family of man."

The feminine example, however, is designed to repudiate all models of authority, to unleash the heroine from the bondage of rules and the constraints of romance. Moreover, the feminist model for fiction decidedly strays from the paternal search. No longer is the father a model who asserts his symbolic authority in fiction; in fact, the daughters in these novels of orphan-hood repudiate his influence. Accordingly, the family replacements and surrogates who are sought are drawn not from hierarchical or vertical relationships but from the peers of the protagonist. In this respect, the demise of a father-child relationship calls an end to a certain kind of entrapment registered in the signifying experience; as a discursive act, it ends a clearly repressive gesture and disperses stable meanings or associations throughout the text.

Thus, a new symbolizing mode was inaugurated in fiction. Endowed with fewer stable meanings and now replete with contradictions and echoes, the texts produced in the feminized mode announce their own ambiguity. They register plural narrative voices that challenge all linearity, they insist on a self-referential vagueness, which consumes all marks of difference. As if to challenge the authority invested in a single, hierarchical bond between father and child, the feminine mode in narrative disperses all centralized power. In the modernist texts under consideration, this project has consequential importance, observable in the reformulation of female identity, in the recon-


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struction of an inherited symbolic tradition, and finally in the defiance of canonical literary order.

In the novels of Bombal, Lange, and de la Parra, nameless heroines wander about bereft of parental protection while also lacking the burden of children who might inhibit their freedom of activity. Disinherited from any family properties, they encounter a new freedom that permits them to restructure their social world along with their worlds of discourse. Their frequently described anonymity, moreover, allows them to escape the burden of official sanctions or formal institutions that might constrain their activities. But orphanhood also supplies a vantage point outside of history from which one may evaluate questions of genealogy and the laws that govern the family. Thus, if the history of the traditional family is unilinear and without disruption, in these feminist novels the heroines elect disorder. They reject the discipline of the family along with its structures of repression and choose, instead, a less clearly defined course of action. This new space, along with a revised definition of the traditional family, allows them to challenge the rule of the paterfamilias and to initiate an independent path as literary creators or artists. The "portrait of the artist" novel, so important to the modernist tradition, acquires an interesting twist in the hands of women writers, as they situate all artistic work of their heroines beyond the economic circuits of exchange. Neither compensated financially nor publicly recognized for their achievements as artists or writers, the protagonists of these feminist texts withdraw their artistic production from the exchange system controlled by men.

This is especially evident in de la Parra's novel Ifigenia , where the protagonist, orphaned in the world, attempts to make sense of her rights of inheritance.[32] Some have commented on the curious autobiographical element in de la Parra's work, insofar as it reflects the life of wandering preferred by the author, who traveled between Europe and America on countless intellectual adventures. Her contacts with other women intellectuals from Latin America, among them Gabriela Mistral and Lydia Cabrera, created a secure world of letters, nurtured by thoughtful debate and dialogue.[33] In her fictions, de la Parra reproduced the female bonding that characterized her own intellectual life. In Ifigenia , for example, the heroine, fresh from Europe, joins with other women characters in the novel to test the dominant rules that qualify male privilege. The protagonist thus abandons Paris after the death of her father and takes up a new life in America in the custody of her grandmother and other female relatives. It becomes clear that the women characters are of different persuasions, the elders representing domestic tendencies while the young protagonist, María Eugenia, struggles for her freedom. Yet the independent spirit of these women, all left without an inheritance, elevates the spirit of the novel and provides the nucleus of narrative development.


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Life without father, although his death is the source of María Eugenia's initial despair, provides the impulse for a first creative liberation. It allows her to come to terms with herself and to challenge symbolic authority in art and life; equally important, this challenge is realized through her experiments in writing, observable in her journals and acts of her imagination. These artistic impulses are made possible through her female alliances, especially in the case of the journal annotations, which are first prompted by an intimate friend.

But what, in fact, is the social status of this artistic production? The election of the epistolary tradition creates a curious effect upon the modern reader, who realizes that the letters presented are not organized for public distribution or for a market of exchanges. They are meant only for a single reading, as intimate confidences shared with another friend. Consequently, as a privatized text, a minor expression in the field of print culture, the journal survives as a document that will refuse to engage in society. In addition, this diary, which stands as a testimonial to self, provides a curious contrast to the ironically omniscient narration that introduces each chapter of the book, thus inserting hybrid readings into the novel as a whole. A halfway house between fiction and reality, the journal invites us to investigate the boundaries that separate fantasy and lived experience within the space of narration.

It might be possible to regard Ifigenia as an unsuccessful bildungsroman if we consider María Eugenia's failure to marry as a sign of her arrested maturation.[34] But I take this as the author's refusal to engage in the consequences of linear narrative. In that way, the story stands in defiance of the common expectations of the life stories of women. Indeed, as a novel that inserts irreparable conflicts in the strategy of the bildungsroman. Ifigenia announces a resistance. In the first place, the bildungsroman is never completely realized: Ifigenia' s heroines abandon romance to pursue their own identity interests; they upset both the linear structure of narrative and the constancy of accumulation. Problems in the early sections of the novel never find resolution in the end. In addition, de la Parra's work represents an overlapping of genres. It is hardly a quest novel, for its objectives are never fully achieved. Nor is it clearly within the structure of romance, for Ifigenia collapses the programs of differing genres by refusing to supply a neat conclusion. There is a conflict between dominant discourse and the feminized discourse of the novel. Feminized novels like de la Parra's fiction are imbued with a language of refusal. Prolonged, nondiscursive pauses permeate the text; madness, silence, and nonverbal spaces offer a challenge to linearity.[35]

Similarly, other fiction works by Spanish American women of the period intersperse discursive narration with musically oriented texts; white noise permeates conversation, while gossip and banal exchanges undermine authoritative narration; a constant, irreducible mist occludes the space of narration. This kind of activity in fiction creates a timeless zone in which


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narration, sequential order, and logical association are momentarily brought to a halt. It also serves as a specific challenge to the reigning logic of bourgeois perception. In this way, feminist modernism undermines the social ideology of the 1920s without falling into the gratuitous challenges that so often mark the avant-garde experiment.

In novels of this kind, the domestic sphere is never left intact; in fact, the space of the home is subject to constant erosion. This is apparent, for example, in Bombal's La última niebla , which begins with a description of the invasive rain that leaks through the roof of the protagonist's country estate.[36] Nature erodes the home that has held the heroine captive; throughout the novel, the family is seen as an adversary of the peaceful tranquillity of nature. Indeed, in La última niebla , as in the life of the author herself, there is no desired "room of one's own"; rather, the protagonist seeks to escape the house that has inhibited her freedom. Fantasy, then, assists her in her flight from the domestic sphere. Seen in this way, Bombal's novel suggests that liberation may exist for those who can step outside the constraints of the real. Other writers have shared this view: the Argentine Raquel Adler described the fantasies of mystical experience; the novelist Sara de Etcheverts described her character's interludes away from home in images reminiscent of the futurist appeal to flight and movement.[37]

The heroine who successfully escapes from the home finds fulfillment in female bonding, a camaraderie established among women to the exclusion of the masculine sphere. Even more than the novels of de la Parra, those of Bombal emphasize this same-sex bonding as a form of freedom for women. In the novels where Bombal emphasizes marriage and heterosexual fantasy, she still insists that the only plausible relationship is the bonding between female friends. Once again, La última niebla communicates this strategy insofar as the protagonist seeks the support of her secret comrade, Regina. Because of its strength as a secondary text, this clandestine relationship manages to undermine the heterosexual dynamic of the novel. It provides the heroine a source of identity, encoded by reference to musical notation or the visual fantasy of dreamlike experiences. Moreover, this gesture toward a symbolic system that escapes linearity provides an alternative to the historically determined relations of submission and domination which the women have sustained with their husbands.

Female friendship of this kind is often the subtext of women's modernist fiction. This is noted in the prose of British and North American writers—Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf principal among them—for whom an authentically feminist version of modernism is constructed by doing away with the presence of men. Rarely celebrated by critics of literature, this feature of modernism nonetheless offers the real possibility of structural subversion in the modern novel by destroying the stability of the family unit, which often passes as a metaphor for the novel itself.


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The case of de la Parra's novel Las memorias de Mamá Blanca is interesting in this respect for, although the family described in the novel is organized by an authoritarian father, the scene of writing and the dialogue that gives the novel its structure are controlled exclusively by Mamá Blanca and the young, anonymous raconteur.[38] The spiritual affinities among the women are given special privilege in the novel in contrast to the masculine world, which invokes questions of inheritance and social prestige. In addition, a pact is established among these two women which draws connections between teller and listener, between the logic of an imagined discourse and the authority of narrative fiction in general.

It has been noted often that in Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse the real relation of value is not that of Mrs. Ramsey and her husband but that of the protagonist and Lily Briscoe, the artist, in their secret dialogue.[39] This bond between characters stirs the discursive situation to emphasize the visual mode of Lily over the linear, philosophical mode of Mr. Ramsey. The shift in emphasis from verbal to visual discourse is similarly enacted in Latin American feminist texts, which often represent the bonding among women as part of a revolt against the logic of language.

The Argentine writer Lange in her novel Los dos retratos offers a useful example of this kind of narrative problem.[40] In this novel, the heroine, orphaned from her natural parents, seeks the consolation of distant aunts, who provide her with a controversial account of her inherited family history. Not having lived through these experiences, she is obliged to reconstruct family traditions through the hearsay of older relatives, who provide an element of distortion and misrepresentation to the narrative. These women guide her through a series of family portraits, so that the visual element in narrative provides an alternative to family lore. The paintings insert the possibility of a double reading in fiction and multiply the temporal markers with which we come to terms with any narrative history. Drawing a comparison between interior and exterior spaces, between framed and unlimited visions, the paintings create a double vision of reality that cannot be reduced to a single image. By extension, the heroine becomes freed from her traditional view of self as a coherent subject within history. Thus, the search for a "room of one's own"—indeed, for a space in the family—begins with a reconstitution of the domestic scenario that emphasizes the feminine impulses toward community.

Lange's literary experiments against stable forms of authority also have a peculiar structural correlative. As I argued earlier, Los dos retratos is about the reproduction of portraiture and the questioned stability of the past. The author tests the static limitations of any form of representation by invoking a hallucinatory realm, or a descriptive sphere without recourse to linear order. By this act of disruption, the portraits call a halt to the family romance in progress; paradoxically, they cancel the search for the father that might have


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motivated the fiction in the first place. In this manner, the novel simultaneously questions the symbolizing process and breaks open the cluster of meanings and images previously fixed in a unified manner.

The family, the home, and the logos of patrimonial authority are all suspect in the avant-garde fictions of Latin American women. Because these structures served to hamper their freedom rather than offer them solace, women writers used these themes and images to question traditional restrictions imposed by society. At the same time, this challenge to the legal status of the female self involved a reevaluation of conventional definitions of the body. Thus, the female body described in feminine avant-garde fiction is not a vehicle of reproduction or an object of masculine desire. Rather than representing the female body as victim of the destructive effects of patriarchy, these writers celebrated the woman's body for its independence. In fact, their protagonists are usually childless and without male companions. Their bodies, moreover, bespeak fragmentation and exuberant disorder. In short, they refuse to collaborate with the demands of the masculine imagination. Consequently, the body of woman is often presented with an attention to minute detail, such that the composite form is all but lost to the reader.

In de la Parra's Las memorias de Mamá Blanca , for example, detailed attention is given to the hair and clothing of characters in order to emphasize the contrived artificiality of women's sphere. Far from corroborating the mythical schema in which women reproduce nature, de la Parra's novel offers the feminine as an alteration of nature, a forceful transformation of the presumably untainted realm of women's beauty. In other cases, the female figures described in the fictions of the 1920s are presented as ill and lymphatic, and at physical odds with their environment. The only way in which their bodies are restored to salubrious integrity is through a successful liberation from their conventional roles with men. Even in La última niebla by Bombal, the doublings and mirror reflections of the heroine's body upon the body of her alter ego challenge the single-lens optics with which woman is traditionally regarded. The pluralized body thereby comes to represent an act of creative resistance; in its fractures or mirror reflections, it eludes a single source of identity. Consequently, in the avant-garde novels of Bombal, Lange, and Parra the female body is reclaimed as an independent presence.

Women's fiction of the 1920s is marked by these countless acts of narrative resistance as if to offer a challenge to the symbolic traditions within literary history. The domestic sphere is exploded with new possibilities for representation; symbols of the feminine are inverted, and the discursive-arrangements in narrative are restructured. In Bombal's short story "El árbol," included in La última niebla , the tree that serves as a central metaphor for the regeneration of life ceases to stand in alliance with the world of women; nature, as a traditional analogue of the feminine, is viewed here as a hostile, unsympathetic adversary. And while Bombal strives to break the


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analogy between woman and nature, she simultaneously removes her female characters from the repression of any dominant logos. In La última niebla , for example, the mist that enshrouds the protagonist bears no real relationship to any identifiable signifying system. Alternately described by critics as an invitation to a surrealist dream state and a withdrawal by the heroine from her milieu, the mist nevertheless stands as an ambiguous, undecipherable blind spot in Latin American narrative; it breaks all attempts at linearity and refuses to accommodate itself to any binary logic. Like the music, dream states, and visual discourses of the fictions mentioned earlier in this essay, the mist described by Bombal refuses a single interpretation; it inserts heterogeneity into the novel, as if to unravel the neatened fabric of any single pattern of meaning. As such, it creates a new locus for the activities of the imagination.

This ambiguity and multiplicity in fiction by women carries rich suggestions for writing. Literature by women of the 1920s provides a new definition of gender within the structure of the family; and, insofar as equivalents had been drawn previously between the family and the national good, women's literature challenges nationalist discourse as well. Put another way, the feminine in literary discourse now stands in opposition to conventional treatments of the domestic sphere and the patriotic mandate. In addition, as these writers propose new definitions of the feminine—seeking an autonomous subject relieved of the weight of tradition—they invite serious speculation about the possibility of a feminist version of modernism. Insofar as writers like Bombal, Lange, and Parra question the process of representation in fiction, they also engage in the major challenges of the avant-garde. But the feminist response goes further by responding to the assumptions of writing in the masculine tradition. Their writing opens narrative space for radically new discursive practices; by identifying alternative forms of disruption that modify the symbolic tradition in letters, women's writing thus brings into question the problematic status of gender hidden in the texts of the canonical avant-garde.


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