Madrese Feminism Essay

Ariana Grande is fed up with how society treats women and their relationships. According to The Sun, Grande commented on rumors that she’s dating One Direction’s Niall Horan by saying, “I’m tired of needing to be linked to a guy, I’m not Big Sean’s ex, I’m not Niall’s new possible girl. I’m Ariana Grande.”

After the interview began gaining traction online, however, Grande used her vast social media presence to comment on the way people discuss her personal life and what being a woman means in 2015.

“Being ’empowered’… is not the same as being a ‘bitch’…” Grande wrote. “HAVING SOMETHING TO SAY… is not the same as HAVING A BAD ATTITUDE. What I meant when I said what I said about not being Sean’s ex is that I am tired of living in a world where women are mostly referred to as a man’s past, present, or future PROPERTY / POSSESSION. I… do not. belong. to anyone. but myself. and neither do you.”

Grande went on to note that she comes from a long line of feminists (she cited her aunt as being the first Italian-American female president of the National Press Club), and called out the double-standard of how the sex lives of men and women are treated in daily life.

“If a woman has a lot of sex (or any sex for that matter)… she’s a ‘slut.’ If a man has sex…. HE’S. A. STUD. A BOSSSSSS. a KING… If a woman even TALKS about sex openly… she is shamed!” Grande wrote.

Acknowledging that misogyny is still present, Grande added that she “can’t wait to live in a world where people are not valued by who they’re dating / married to / attached to, having sex with (or not) / seen with…. but by their values as an individual.”

The piece closes with a quote from Gloria Steinem: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. She will need her sisterhood.”

After posting the essay, Grande added a post-script on Twitter. “Y’all being the ‘sisterhood’ mentioned at the end,” she wrote. “Love u.”

SOURCE: Lindsay, Claire. “Re-Reading the Romance: Genre and Gender in Isabel Allende's ‘Niña perversa’.” Romance Studies 19, no. 2 (December 2001): 135-47.

[In the following essay, Lindsay provides a socio-psychoanalytic reading of “Niña perversa” in order to examine Allende's use of romantic conventions in her fiction.]

In an entry on ‘Bestsellers’ in the Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, Deborah Shaw outlines a by now common criticism of the Chilean author Isabel Allende: ‘Her novels depend on the exploitation of the romantic myth for their power to move and intrigue her readership. Romantic love, as in most women's best sellers, is where ultimate happiness and fulfilment are to be found’.1 Much of the current criticism of Allende's work hinges on this premise that the author exploits the romance genre in her best-selling novels such as La casa de los espíritus (1982) and Eva Luna (1988). Indeed, critics have also drawn attention to this factor in her 1990 collection of short stories, Cuentos de Eva Luna. Jacoba Koene, for example, reports that: ‘Isabel Allende ha declarado en una entrevista que su idea principal al escribir los cuentos de Eva Luna era redactar una serie de historias de amor, “they're all love stories, in different ways”’.2 Susana de Carvalho also draws attention to the element of romance in the Cuentos [Cuentos de Eva Luna], noting that the initial title, before publication in 1990, had been Cuentos de amor de Eva Luna: ‘As the original title of the collection indicates,’ she writes, ‘they are love stories’.3 This well-documented ‘exploitation’ of romance has subsequently led to what Verónica Cortínez calls ‘el estigma de Allende’:4 in other words, a widely accepted notion that the Chilean author's work, as Nuala Finnegan succinctly puts it, is nothing more than ‘crude, sentimental pulp’.5 However, as Finnegan points out in her recent article exploring the ‘feminism’ of Allende's La casa de los espíritus, detailed reading reveals that there is much more to the ‘meticulously crafted’ fiction of this author who, perhaps uniquely amongst contemporary Latin American novelists, occupies ‘the often considered mutually exclusive spaces of popular romantic fiction and the hallowed space of the politically engaged experimental novels so beloved of critics of the “Boom” and “post-Boom”’.6 In this article, therefore, I would like to take issue with critical assertions such as Shaw's, which tend neatly to classify Allende's work, and undertake a re-evaluation of the use of romance in the story ‘Niña perversa’ from the collection Cuentos de Eva Luna. This story is in some ways an anti-ghost story of sorts, where fantasy becomes ‘reality’ for the protagonists involved. In addition to this analysis of Allende's fiction, my aim is also to contribute to the more general debate in literary studies surrounding the romance genre. It is with this debate that I begin my discussion, before undertaking closer textual analysis of Allende's story in a later part of this article.

Allende herself first became engaged in the polemic surrounding the romance genre at an earlier juncture of her career when, as a journalist, she spent some time translating romantic love stories for a living. The author maintains that she intensely disliked the characters in these stories, the women on the one hand for being weak and ‘stupid’, the men on the other, because they were ‘macho’ and ‘always got away with everything’. She claims:

So I changed the ending […]. And for a while no one noticed. But after some time the readers wouldn't buy that. They hated it, because they wanted the predictable ending, where they know from the very first page what was going to happen—no surprises. And you have to be respectful with that. They want safe literature. Or a safe story, let's say. Because that's not literature.7

Given Allende's dismissal of conventional romance here—‘that's not literature’—it may seem somewhat ironic that years later she should turn to using the romance genre in her fiction. However, while it may seem in the above quotation that Allende is colluding with the general devaluation or contempt for popular art, it is worth pointing out that she appears to be referring to the conventional romances (that is, before she changed their endings) as stories rather than literature, and not her own versions of them.

Indeed, in many other interviews, Allende has consistently affirmed the value and function of her subsequent use of romance in her fiction, in terms such as the following:

Estoy dispuesta a desafiar el discurso literario masculino, que teme cualquier asomo de sentimentalismo como una subversión en el orden sagrado de la razón y del buen gusto. No pienso eludir los sentimientos, aunque para ello tenga que ir del brazo con la cursilería.8

What is significant here is that Allende presents emotion and sentimentality as a forthright, ‘feminine’ challenge to what she calls masculine literary discourse.9 Clearly, Allende does not regard her own fiction of this kind as being inferior as ‘literature’ to the ‘high-brow’ writing of ‘reason’ and ‘good taste’ of her predominantly male counterparts. Indeed, she even goes on to blame the restrictive character of literary genres (or straight-jackets as she calls them) and their scrupulous reinforcement by critics for contributing to the destruction of ‘literature’ itself (and implicitly to the devaluation of her own popular work):

Si tu escribes una novela que no cabe en esas fórmulas, te la meten de todos modos dentro de una camisa de fuerza para que funcionen los parámetros propuestos. Aquí están destruyendo la literatura.10

Allende's comments are significant on two counts. First, her assertion of the merits of the romance genre challenges the values of the predominantly patriarchal literary establishment which, as Finnegan pointed out, cherishes above all novels of the politically-engaged experimental type. Second, Allende makes a cogent point about the ‘flexibility’ of genre and the restrictive attempts made by critics to ‘pigeonhole’ her work into particular categories, a point to which I will return later in this article. Effectively, therefore, Allende's comments call for a reassessment of the values of the literary canon and market both in terms of the romance and, more generally, in terms of genre.

In this respect, Allende concurs with the work of many feminist scholars who have reappropriated the romance as a genre for scholarly research and study. For example, in her now classic book Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature, Janice Radway comments that the romance is never simply a love story but

[It] is also an exploration of the meaning of patriarchy for women. As a result, it is concerned with the fact that men possess and regularly exercise power over them in all sorts of circumstances. By picturing the heroine in relative positions of weakness, romances are not necessarily endorsing her situation, but examining an all-too-common state of affairs in order to display possible strategies for coping with it.11

Radway goes on to point out that many writers and readers of romances interpret these stories as chronicles of female triumph as they provide a utopian vision of female individuality.12 However, Radway's study does not entirely ignore the traditionalism of the romance either and she does acknowledge that feminism may have difficulties with ‘a literary form whose ultimate message […] is that “pleasure for women is men”’.13 This point is explored further by Tania Modleski who, in her analysis of women and popular culture, observes of the romance genre:

If their writers are no longer apologizing for their activity, women critics are more than ever uncomfortable with these narratives. Such discomfort is, to a certain extent, justified, but what is most striking is that it too seems to manifest a defensiveness which has not been felt through […] feminist critics seem to be strenuously disassociating themselves from the seductiveness of the feminine texts.14

Modleski goes on therefore to condemn any elementary separation of ‘high’ and ‘mass’ art ‘because it makes contempt for mass art a politically progressive attitude’.15 She makes a further very valid point, in my view, which is that the ‘enormous and continuing popularity’ of these ‘feminine’ narratives ‘suggests that they speak to very real problems and tensions in women's lives’.16

More recent feminist studies of the romance have taken issue with Modleski and Radway particularly for ignoring socio-historical concerns and therefore implying that the romance possesses ‘a universal use-value’17 for all women. As Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey point out in their collection of essays, Romance Revisited, while the romance's continued success as a cultural institution might seem to depend on its ability to change, it is nonetheless precisely because of this ability to change that it is a narrative that is ‘under pressure and […] also “in process”’.18 Consequently, in her essay in the collection, Stevi Jackson advocates a conceptualization of the romance in, not only psychological, but also socio-cultural terms. She argues for the development of ‘analyses of love as a culturally constructed emotion and [an exploration of] linkages to specific social orderings of intimate relationships’,19 observations which will become central to my later analysis of Allende's story. Romance, Jackson points out, is experienced in different ways by men and women across different cultures.20

Scholars in the field of Latin American literature, however, have drawn rather bleak conclusions in their consideration of the novela rosa. For example, Debra Castillo criticizes the traditionalism of the genre and the fact that it ‘does not challenge the sorts of conventional assumptions about male-female relations’. Accordingly, she reads the triumph of love in these stories as purely ‘evanescent, limited to a single moment of the man's acknowledgement of the power of love’.21 She claims, therefore, that this triumph

can endure for the reader only in the formulaic repetition of this single, paradigmatic moment of love declared and accepted. The narrative of romance, then, is not about happiness achieved but about happiness frustrated or deferred, and it would not be an exaggeration to say, paradoxically, that the romance narrative is premised on lack (of happiness, of love, of the right now). Once the woman receives acknowledgement of her man's love, the narrative ends with what we could call […] the death of love.22

Similarly, Jean Franco in her discussion of several Latin American women writers of ‘art romance’, such as Angeles Mastretta, Laura Esquivel and Allende herself, notes that their success as best-sellers has come at a price. Indeed, Franco expresses certain reservations about Allende's now global reach, especially that her success ‘seems to put “quality” writing too readily at the service of formulas that have always acted as female pacifiers—heterosexual romance combined with seigneurial goodwill toward the subaltern classes’.23 Franco observes a growing divergence between best-selling writers such as Allende and those writers who comprise what she calls the neo-avantgarde. She describes how the latter, including writers such as Diamela Eltit and Tununa Mercado, have advocated a ‘refractory aesthetic’ that ‘undermine[s] the values of the market place and bring[s] to crisis older structures’.24 This new aesthetic is one that is rooted in marginalization and that displaces the male-centred national allegory: ‘What these [neo-avantgarde] women writers show us is that “nation” and “community” cannot be rethought without first exposing the limits of a system in which gender has been implicated in social control’.25 Franco adds that this aesthetic proposes not so much a new feminine position in confrontation with a dominant patriarchy but rather looks to unsettle the stance that supports gender power/knowledge as masculine.

Many feminist scholars have thus become frustrated with the limitations of the romance, as did Allende in her own early experience of the genre. Indeed, there appears to be some evidence of the critical ‘discomfort’ regarding the romance on the part of a number of feminist scholars here, as outlined in an earlier quotation by Tania Modleski. However, it is Pearce and Stacey's emphasis on the romance as a narrative ‘in process’ that, in my view, makes continued study of the genre almost imperative.26 As Terry Threadgold, following Bakhtin, points out, ‘Genre is not […] something that pre-exists texts but something that texts constantly and continually reconstitute’.27 In addition, as Nuala Finnegan observes, given that Allende has become ‘essential reading for anybody interested in Latin America [in the twentieth century]’,28 the continued analysis of her particular brand of ‘woman-centred fiction’29 is also of enduring value. It is with these points in mind, together with the conceptual frameworks regarding the romance mentioned above, that I now turn to a discussion of Allende's collection and, in particular, the story ‘Niña perversa’.

As I illustrated at the beginning of this article, critics such as Susana de Carvalho and Jacoba Koene claim that love and romance are at the centre of each of the stories of the collection Cuentos de Eva Luna. Carvalho claims, for example, that all action is consequent to that emotion: ‘In fact, completely irrational love accounts for most of the stories’ plots', she claims.30 I would argue, however, that in many stories of the collection romantic love is really only of secondary importance. For example, in ‘Con todo el respeto debido’, the main concern is with social class and the attempts of the nouveau riche Toro-McGoverns to gain access to the inner sanctum of high society. Similarly, in ‘Vida interminable’ the romantic love of the aged couple acts as a vehicle for the story's main theme of euthanasia.

Furthermore, even when romance is a central concern in certain stories it appears that Allende is no longer bound by the conventional generic constraints that dogged her earlier translations of romances. Indeed, in her article, Jacoba Koene writes that ‘en [Cuentos de Eva Luna] tenemos más que una simple transmisión de historias de amor […] estos relatos son intrínsecamente una parodia del género tradicional de historias sentimentales’.31 While Koene restricts her analysis to the story ‘Tosca’, many other stories in the volume also subvert the traditional conventions of the romance without recourse to parody. As I shall argue in the remainder of this article, the story ‘Niña perversa’ is a significant case in point.

‘Niña perversa’ charts the rite of passage of a young girl, Elena Mejías, growing up in a pensión run by her mother. Elena is a somewhat anaemic, unattractive young girl as the opening lines of the story suggest:

A los once años Elena Mejías era todavía una cachorra desnutrida, con la piel sin brillo de los niños solitarios, la boca con algunos huecos por una dentición tardía, el pelo color de ratón y un esqueleto visible que parecía demasiado contundente para su tamaño y amenazaba con salirse en las rodillas y en los codos.32

When she is not at school, Elena helps her mother with chores around the boarding house, which include going to the market, filling up the water tank and spying on the guests in a ghost-like manner: ‘se esfumaba entre las sombras de los cuartos […] y aparecía de súbito, como si acabara de retornar de una dimensión invisible’ (24). Her mother runs a tight ship, insisting that guests abide by the rules of the house which, we learn, are ‘más parecidas a las de un seminario de curas que a las de un hotel’ (24). One day, however, the arrival of an unconventional visitor and singer by profession, Juan José Bernal (‘El Ruiseñor’), changes the routine of the house forever. Elena takes an immediate and intense dislike to the man (‘sintió odio por ese hombre’, 26) and thinks her mother has taken leave of her senses to accept such a guest who cannot even afford to pay the rent. Nevertheless, from the moment Bernal arrives, Elena begins to note significant changes in her mother's behaviour: she smiles more than she used to and develops a sudden penchant for wearing perfume and make-up. One evening, Bernal gets out his guitar and performs to the patrona and her guests. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, his seductive strumming and singing enchant them all, including Elena, and inspire them to get up and dance. We are told that, ‘Desde esa noche Elena vio a Bernal con ojos nuevos’ (27). From then on, the young girl begins a growing fascination with, and desire for, Bernal. This involves her sneaking into his room while he is at work, lying on his bed and kissing his mirror, until she discovers that he is having an affair with her mother. At this point, Elena becomes determined to ‘win him over’ herself. One afternoon, she manoeuvres things so that she comes home from school early whilst her mother is out shopping and Bernal is dozing on his bed. She goes into his room, lies by his side and when she begins to touch and caress him, Bernal, apparently in the belief that it is her mother, pulls Elena on top of him and begins to make love to her. Only when he realizes how light she is (‘al sentir la fragilidad extrema de ese esqueleto de pájaro’, 32) does he finally wake up (or come to his senses), open his eyes and cast her to the floor, calling her ‘¡Perversa, Niña perversa!’ (32). The text closes with an epilogue which takes up the story more than ten years later. By this time Bernal and the mother have married, Elena has left home, gone through university and is working in a bank. One day she decides to go home for the first time since she left all those years before, to present her fiancé, ‘que llevaba un siglo rogándole que se casara con él’ (33). During the intervening years, we learn that Bernal has become slowly more and more obsessed with the memory of the young Elena and on her homecoming declares himself to her:

le dijo que todo había sido una terrible equivocación, que esa mañana él estaba dormido y no supo lo que hizo, que nunca quiso lanzarla al suelo ni llamarla así, que tuviera compasión y lo perdonara, a ver si así él lograba recuperar la cordura, porque en esos años el ardiente antojo por ella lo había acosado sin descanso, quemándole la snagre y corrompiéndole el espíritu.


When he finally admits his obsessive desire to the now grown-up Elena at the end of the story, she is completely nonplussed for she no longer retains any memory of that afternoon long ago.

Whilst ‘Niña perversa’ is clearly not an entirely conventional love story, it does contain certain very significant elements that are typical of the traditional romance.33 Primarily, it is the story of a woman (or a young girl here) discovering her sexuality. While there is no element of actual courtship, there is a strong, sensual evocation of Elena's feelings of desire for Bernal (how it feels to be the subject rather than the object of the romance in this case), as in the following passage:

Lo observaba de lejos, a hurtadillas, y así fue descubriendo aquello que antes no supo percibir, sus hombros, su cuello ancho y fuerte, la curva sensual de sus labios gruesos […] Le entró un deseo insoportable de aproximarse a él para enterrar su cara en su pecho moreno, escuchar la vibración del aire en sus pulmones y el ruido de su corazón, aspirar su olor …


And, similarly, when she discovers the relationship between Bernal and her mother, ‘sintió que un golpe de sudor la bañaba entera, no podía respirar, su corazón era un pájaro asustado entre las costillas, le picaban las manos y los pies, la sangre pujando por reventarle los dedos’ (29). There is the vital form of conflict that keeps the ‘lovers’ apart that is characteristic of romance plots, first in Elena's own dislike and distrust of Bernal and then, more significantly, in the obstacle of his relationship with her mother. Elena's desire for him is not immediate, of course, but is sparked off only by his performance on that pivotal evening on the patio playing the guitar and singing boleros, an archetypal scenario suggesting the romantic serenade. Elena herself displays the qualities of independence, intelligence and self-sufficiency characteristic of the romantic heroine according to Radway's taxonomy: her relationship with her mother appears to be little more than that of patrona and criada (‘se hablaban poco’, 24), so that she is left to take care of herself as she is growing up. Furthermore, rather then being put off by the discovery of her mother's love affair, the young girl hatches a plan to get Bernal for herself. When Bernal, years later, finally admits his need for or obsession with her, her qualities of character are clearly not compromised for, not only is Elena engaged to another man but, more significantly, she declares she has no recollection of that afternoon. There is ultimately a quiet sense of her triumph at the close of the story. Whilst Elena has matured, moved on from the past and now looks to the future with her new fiancé, Bernal is portrayed as a somewhat pathetic, aging Lothario, living in the past.

On one level, there is clearly a possible Oedipal reading of the ‘romance’ in Allende's story. The arrival of Bernal (the ‘father’) and the physical encounter with Elena effectively contribute to the splitting up of the dyadic mother-child relationship that had existed during their many years alone together in the pensión and, according to Lacan's revision of Freudian theory, ‘allow’ Elena to take her place in the Symbolic Order.34 On this level, then, Allende's story of romance does indeed appear to be what Radway called ‘an exploration of the meaning of patriarchy for women’.35 However, I would argue that a purely Lacanian reading of the Oedipal crisis in ‘Niña perversa’ is somewhat incomplete, if not regressive. Stevi Jackson's critique of the Freudian version of the construction of female sexuality provides an altogether different perspective for the reading of Allende's story.36 Jackson argues that rather than seeing psychosexual development as contingent upon biological determinants, as Freud's theory asserts, and, indeed, in seeing Lacan's revision of Freud in purely symbolic terms, ‘alternatively we might postulate a process of learning through social interaction whereby the sexual is assimilated into the individual's self-concept’.37 According to Jackson, psychosexual development is contingent on the content of social learning, as she describes: ‘The feminine mode of expression would then be explained as the outcome of a particular form of learning rather than the repression of some quantifiable sexual energy’.38 Significantly, Jackson's approach takes into account the involvement of sociocultural influences in the development of the child's sexuality rather than simply biological mechanisms, just as her evaluation of the romance genre, as I mentioned earlier, is as a culturally constructed phenomenon, linked to specific social relationships.

Within the context of ‘Niña perversa’, we see how Elena first experiences the awareness of her gender difference not as lack, as Lacanian psychoanalytic theory suggests, but rather as a somewhat unpleasant yet surprising discovery. For example, when Elena discovers her mother and Bernal making love, we learn that:

Hasta entonces la niña no había visto a un hombre desnudo y la sorprendieron las fundamentales diferencias. La naturaleza masculina le pareció brutal y le tomó un buen tiempo sobreponerse al terror y forzarse a mirar.


Furthermore, her mother's body is depicted as far more sensual and attractive in the act of lovemaking than that of Bernal. For Elena, her mother's body appears to have become transformed from its usual dull and cumbersome appearance:

Su madre se había transformado en una criatura redonda, rosada, gimiente, opulenta, una ondulante anémona del mar, puros tentáculos y ventosas, toda boca y pierna y orificios, rodando adherida al cuerpo grande de Bernal, que por contraste le pareció rígido, torpe, de movimientos espasmódicos, un trozo de madera sacudido por una ventolera inexplicable.39


Moreover, while there are several references in the story to the inevitability of Elena's fate because of her gender, they all take place in relation to her mother. During the intense period of her fascination with Bernal, for example, Elena loses her appetite and her mother, fearing the onset of puberty (‘a pesar de que Elena era a todas luces demasiado joven’, 30), sits her down to tell her about ‘la broma de haber nacido mujer’ (30). In addition, even before this, Elena appears to be subconsciously aware that she needs to acquire a certain knowledge, a certain learning, in order for her to take her ‘proper’ place in the patriarchal structure. In the same scene where she sees the lovers together, we learn that

la venció la fascinación de la escena y pudo observar con toda atención, para aprender de su made los gestos que habían logrado arrebatarle a Bernal […] Estaba segura de que esas caricias y esos susurros contenían la clave del secreto y si lograba apoderárselos, Juan José Bernal dormiría con ella en la hamaca'.

(30, my emphasis)

Furthermore, in both instances, this element of learning from her mother appears to bring mother and child closer together than ever before in the story. Significantly, in the ‘epilogue’, it appears that Elena has successfully mastered these skills when she returns home with her own army captain fiancé in tow.

The final section of the story is significant in other ways also. Whilst the main body of the tale focuses on the developing sexuality of the young girl experiencing an ‘Oedipal crisis’, divulging to the reader the protagonist's hopes and fears through focalized narrative, the much shorter epilogue changes the perspective entirely. The events of Elena's life are skipped over quickly in the first couple of lines as the narrative closes in on Bernal. We learn that in the period that has elapsed, he has refused to visit Elena, now his stepdaughter, not out of disgust but rather due to his growing and unhealthy obsession with her, as the following passage illustrates:

La imagen de la niña permaneció intacta para él, los años no la rozaron, siguió siendo la criatura lujuriosa y vencida de amor a quien él rechazó. En verdad, a medida que transcurrían los años el recuerdo de esos huesos livianos, de esa mano infantil en su vientre, de esa lengua de bebé en su boca, fue creciendo hasta convertirse en una obsesión. Cuando abrazaba el cuerpo pesado de su mujer, debía concentrarse en esas visiones, invocando meticulosamente a Elena, para despertar el impulso cada vez más difuso del placer.


Not only can he not shake off the memory of that fateful afternoon, but it seems almost to be driving him towards pedophilia: he haunts children's clothes shops and buys girls' underwear (‘para deleitarse acariciándolas y acariciándole’, 33) and even takes to loitering around schools and parks to spy on prepubescent girls who ‘le devolvían por unos momentos demasiado breves el abismo de ese jueves inolvidable’ (33). This final pathetic image of Bernal contrasts with that of the cool Elena at the end of the story, who, it seems, has come to accept pragmatically (or perhaps even master) her role in the patriarchal order.

This change of focus in the last section of the story and the significant element of maternal instruction that leads to Elena's sexual maturity (albeit still within a repressive patriarchal structure), offer, in my view, a more complete reading of Allende's story. In this version, Nancy Chodorow's socio-psychoanalytic theory of the mother-daughter relationship is crucial. Chodorow focuses on the quality of parent-child relations, especially with regard to the mother, and looks at how specific identifications are fostered by parental behaviour, in particular by the mother's nurturance and the father's relative distance or absence. Chodorow maintains that the child's mental and physical experience depends initially so much upon its mother that it experiences ‘a sense of oneness with her’ and develops a self ‘only by convincing itself that it is in fact a separate being from her’.40 The mother is the person who first imposes on the child the demands of reality and so the child comes to define itself as a person through its relationship with her. This relationship becomes ‘the foundation upon which all his [sic] future relationships with love objects are based’. Originally, the child, in its dependence on her, does not recognize that the mother could have any separate interests from it and on finding that she does, cannot understand. Chodorow claims that this gives rise to an essentially ambivalent relationship where the child wishes to remain with the mother, but also ‘define(s) development in terms of growing away from her’. Therefore, according to her theory;

Mothers […] come to symbolize dependence, regression, passivity and lack of adaptation to reality. Turning from the mother […] represents independence and individuation, progress, activity and participation in the real world.41

The mother must guide the child's separation from her even though it may mean awakening her child's ambivalence to her.

In most psychoanalytic accounts, the major task of the Oedipal process appears to be to prepare the girl for heterosexual relationships and this involves an identification on the part of children with parents of their own gender: ‘This identification is clearly a learning phenomenon’, writes Chodorow. She goes on to claim that a girl's relation to her mother motivates her to look elsewhere for other kinds of relationship and, especially, ‘for the powers which a penis might bring her’. Consequently, the father becomes the most available person to help her get away from her mother. Chodorow emphasizes, however, that here the penis is placed on a metaphorical level as a symbol of power or omnipotence. A girl will want the penis for the power it symbolizes as well as the freedom it promises from her previous sense of dependence on her mother. Chodorow also describes how some theorists point to the love for the mother, ‘rather than, or in addition to, hostility toward her’ as leading directly towards this penis envy. The child finds out that her mother prefers people, like her father, who have a penis and she comes to want one in order to win her mother's love. She therefore turns to her father, ‘like a rejected lover’, seeking from him the special love she cannot get from her mother as well as a penis which will allow her to get this love: ‘she both wants her father and wants her mother too’.42 Chodorow's theory is useful here in that it describes the Oedipal situation for a girl, as much a mother-daughter phenomenon as a father-daughter concern, whilst also pointing out that the separation from the mother is not a total rejection of her nor the termination of their relationship. Chodorow maintains that it is due to the father's relative physical and emotional distance from the girl, that her attachment to him is not as intense or as exclusive as that to her mother. She concludes:

Girls cannot and do not “reject” their mother and women in favour of their father and men, but remain in a bisexual triangle throughout childhood and into puberty. They usually make a sexual resolution in favour of men and their father, but retain an internal emotional triangle.43

In Allende's story, the early dependence of Elena on her mother is apparent. The narrative describes how the young protagonist lives in a kind of mutually agreed silence with her mother in the boarding house. Elena shows no interest in going out to play in the street with other children but stays in the house amusing herself. Her mother requires her to work and carry out tasks around the pensión and in this sense thus ‘imposes on her the demands of reality’ as Chodorow puts it. Of course, the mother also lets her into the ‘broma de haber nacido mujer’ (30) when she notes the onset of puberty in her daughter. Furthermore, I would argue that Elena's attachment to Bernal, although it does take up a large part of the main narrative, is effectively transient, and certainly not as significant or ‘exclusive’ as the mother-daughter relationship. For instance, Elena's attempted seduction of Bernal does not result in the termination of the mother-daughter relationship, but instead, of her relationship with Bernal, the symbolic ‘father’. It is not even very clear whether the mother has any knowledge of the episode as the subsequent events are glossed over. Elena's being sent away to a school run by nuns, however, might be read as one of the consequences, although within the specific, Hispanic context it is not unusual. What is certain is that the mother-daughter relationship survives intact, as the mother retains contact with her daughter in later years through regular visits, while the relationship with Bernal is terminated and forgotten (at least by Elena). Moreover, the young protagonist, in turning away from her mother, gains her independence and begins to participate in the ‘real’ world outside the pensión, for example when she leaves to go to boarding school, later to university, and then the bank. Given these details, the young girl's early fascination with Bernal and her contrived ‘seduction scene’ might be interpreted as forms of penis envy engendered out of love for her mother. For Elena soon finds out, after Bernal's arrival (and, in particular, that night on the patio), that her mother has a separate interest from her and, furthermore, that it involves a preference for a penis (Bernal). Elena therefore schemes in order to obtain Bernal for herself in order to win back her mother's love, which she does successfully by the end of the story.

While this denouement is clearly unconventional in the context of the traditional romance, with the pair of ‘lovers’ who were the focus of the main narrative still apart at the end, on another level, it does indeed depict the female triumph typical of the genre, as mentioned by Radway. Indeed, as Dinah Birch points out, romance fiction can allow

[b]oth author and reader an imaginative participation in a different version of heterosexuality. In the conventional world of romance, women take the foremost place, and the values of femininity are seen to confront and in part defeat those of a masculine society. The heroine of romance is, as feminists have pointed out, frail and passive. Nevertheless, she emerges victorious.44

It is Birch's comments on a ‘different version of heterosexuality’, that are in my view most significant here. Certainly, at the beginning of the story Elena is depicted as a weak and passive child, ‘una cachorra desnutrida […] una niña silenciosa y tímida’ (23). And yet, Elena's sexual development is foregrounded in a way that does indeed see her ultimately emerge victorious with the so-called ‘values of femininity’. That is, the story depicts how Elena successfully negotiates her separation from her mother, and moves, with the latter's help and instruction, towards her own personal independence and sexual maturity. The attachment to Bernal, as I have argued, is an ephemeral stage in this rite of passage, which does not undermine or prejudice the primary mother-daughter relationship. Therefore, I would suggest that the story is inherently a celebration of this dyadic mother-daughter relationship over and above the Freudian/Lacanian version of the female child's entry into the Symbolic Order.45

This reading of the story also reinforces in part Pearce and Stacey's notion of the romance as a genre ‘in process’, one that is able to change and whose continued success depends largely on this very ability to change. ‘Niña perversa’ is clearly not a romance along the lines of the stories Allende used to translate for a living earlier on in her career. In this story, however, Allende has done more than simply change the ending and it is perhaps a measure of her success that she has ‘dared’ to do so. Instead, the author has created a version of the genre that is certainly unpredictable and, indeed, to use her own words, ‘not safe’, in terms of the traditional romance.46 To some extent, therefore, this interpretation also redeems the story (and indeed Allende) from the by now common accusations, such as those of Verónica Cortínez and Debra Castillo, of the author's and the romance's collusion with regressive patriarchal ideas. Instead of projecting an entirely utopian fantasy of wish-fulfilment and happiness with Bernal, as Radway claims is the function of much romance,47 I would argue that in ‘Niña perversa’, Allende sets about ‘examining an all-too-common state of affairs in order to display possible strategies for coping with it’.48 Clearly, she is not proposing an entirely new position within patriarchy in her story. After all, at the end, Elena is engaged to another man and, far from being blissfully happy, which Shaw suggests is the end result of romance in Allende's work (see note 1) the young woman is described as ‘desabrida y tímida’.49 However, I would like to suggest that this may be seen in some way as evidence of what Jean Franco calls a ‘refractory aesthetic’ which works by ‘unsettling the stance that supports gender power/knowledge as masculine’.50 In ‘Niña perversa’ Allende is clearly working within an established patriarchal Oedipal paradigm which she unsettles by foregrounding the marginal, that is figure of the young girl and the mother-daughter dyad. Moreover, it is feminine knowledge (in the form of Elena's learning from her mother) that the author uses in order to expose the limits of the Oedipal structure in which gender has been consistently implicated as a means of social control. Allende therefore may well have left herself open to criticism for exploiting the literary market and her own success by using the popular, and highly profitable medium of the romance, which Bridget Fowler calls the ‘formula of formulas’.51 However, it is surely to Allende's credit that in ‘Niña perversa’ she uses this so-called ‘feminine’, often devalued genre, not in order to endorse but rather to address and contest regressive patriarchal ideas.


  1. Deborah Shaw, ‘Bestsellers’ in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, ed. Verity Smith (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), pp. 115-16 (p. 116).

  2. Jacoba Koene, ‘Entre la realidad y el sueño: la parodia como subversión en “Tosca” de Isabel Allende.'

  3. Susana de Carvalho, ‘Narration and Distance in Isabel Allende's Novels and in Cuentos de Eva Luna’, Antípodas, 6-7, (1994/1995), 55-75 (p. 58).

  4. Verónica Cortínez, ‘El pasado deshonoroso de Isabel Allende’, Revista Iberoamericana, 60:8, (1994), 1135-1141, (p. 1136).

  5. Nuala Finnegan, ‘Isabel Allende and the Importance of Being Feminist in La casa de los espíritus’, Viajes por España y America Latina: Essays in Honour of John C. McIntyre, ed. by Miranda Stewart (Glasgow: Division of Spanish and Latin American Studies, University of Strathclyde, 1999), pp. 72-91 (p. 72).

  6. Loc. cit. For a discussion of the terms ‘Boom’ and ‘post-Boom’ see Donald L. Shaw, The Post-Boom in Spanish American Fiction (New York: State University Press, 1998), passim.

  7. Margaret Munro Clark, ‘An Interview with Isabel Allende: Love, Life and Art in a Time of Turmoil’, Antípodas, 6-7, (1994/1995), 15-27 (p. 22).

  8. Cortínez, op. cit., p. 1136. See also the quotation which begins Finnegan's article: ‘Cualquier cosa sentimental, amorosa o maternal es rechazada como cursilería por culpa de los valores impuestos por una cultura masculina, y yo, aunque vomiten los críticos, seguiré por ese camino’, op. cit., p. 72.

  9. Furthermore, in her article, ‘La magia de las palabras’, she describes her role as a writer as a communication channel: ‘Escribir ya no es sólo un placer. Es también un deber que asumo con alegría y orgullo, porque comprendo que estoy en posesión de un instrumento eficaz, un arma poderosa, un ancho canal de comunicación. Siento que soy, junto a otros escritores latinoamericanos que, como yo, tienen la suerte de ser publicados, una voz que habla por los que sufren y callan en nuestra tierra’. Clearly, she sees that fiction as an act of communication is not without political implications for author and reader alike. Isabel Allende, ‘La magia de las palabras’, Revista Iberoamericana, 51:132-33, (1985), 447-52 (p. 451).

  10. Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, ‘Conversando con Isabel Allende’ in Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende's Novels, ed. by Sonia Riquelme Rojas and Edna Aguirre Rehbein (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), pp. 193-97 (p. 194).

  11. Janice Radway, ‘Reading the Romance’, in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. by Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993), pp. 551-85 (p. 574).

  12. In her study of a group of romance readers in the pseudonymous Smithton (USA), she found that some women had fairly rigid expectations of what was permissible in a romantic tale and would express disappointment and even anger when those conventions were violated. This discovery clearly parallels Allende's own early experience of translating romances where she found that any violation of the accepted formula led to reader dissatisfaction and revolt.

  13. Radway, op. cit., p. 558.

  14. Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (London: Routledge), p. 14.

  15. Ibid., p. 26.

  16. Ibid., p. 14.

  17. Bridget Fowler, The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Literature in the Twentieth Century (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 47.

  18. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey, Romance Revisited (London and New York: New York University Press, 1995), p. 24.

  19. Stevi Jackson, ‘Women and Heterosexual Romance: Complicity, Resistance and Change’, in Pearce and Stacey, op. cit., pp. 49-62 (p. 51).

  20. Like Jackson, Bridget Fowler in her own separate study of romance readers in Scotland emphasizes the potential ability of the romance to evolve. However, like Radway, she concludes that the romance ‘anaesthetises rather than defamiliarises contemporary reality. The traditional romance colludes with patriarchy, expressing its rhetoric not as fatalistic common sense but as ideal principles’, op. cit., p. 175.

  21. Debra Castillo, Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism (London: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 52.

  22. Loc. cit.

  23. Jean Franco, ‘Going Public: Reinhabiting the Private’ in On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture, ed. by George Yúdice, Jean Franco and Juan Flores (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. 65-83 (p. 73).

  24. Jean Franco, ‘Afterword: From Romance to Refractory Aesthetic’ in Latin American Women's Writing: Feminist Readings in Theory and Crisis, ed. by Anny Brooksbank Jones and Catherine Davies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 226-37 (p. 228).

  25. Ibid., p. 236.

  26. Pearce and Stacey advocate the employment of discourse theory, particularly of Foucault, as well as Bakhtinian dialogics in the analysis of romance because both are theoretical models which emphasize the material situatedness of the genre as well as acknowledge its provisionality: ‘The lover's discourse may still be ‘always already’ textual, but both the texts which inform the discourse and the discourse itself are in a constant process of transformation’, op. cit., p. 38.

  27. Terry Threadgold, ‘Talking About Genre: Ideologies and Incompatible Discourses’, Cultural Studies, 3:1, (1989), 101-27 (115).

  28. Finnegan, op. cit., p. 72.

  29. Loc. cit.

  30. Carvalho, op. cit, p. 58.

  31. Koene, op. cit, p. 2. She claims that in ‘Tosca’, for example, Allende presents ‘una inversión y una parodia de la imagen tradicional de la mujer abnegada en una sociedad patriarcal’.

  32. Isabel Allende, ‘Niña perversa’, in Cuentos de Eva Luna (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1989), pp. 23-34 (p. 23). All further references to this edition will be given after quotations in the text.

  33. For structuralist readings of the romance see the aforementioned studies by Radway and Modleski as well as Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

  34. Elena even appears to progress through the ‘mirror stage’ in the ceremonies in which she vicariously performs the role of lover in front of the mirror in Bernal's bedroom, where she may be seen to be ‘caught in a misrecognition of [herself] as Other’. See Marie-Claire Boons-Grafe's explanation of the ‘mirror stage’ in Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, ed. by Elizabeth Wright et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 297-98.

  35. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Culture (London: Verso, 1984), p. 566.

  36. See her article ‘The Social Construction of Sexuality’ in Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader, ed. by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp. 62-73.

  37. Ibid., p. 64.

  38. Loc. cit.

  39. This encounter may be interpreted also as a version of the primal scene which, according to Freud, is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father. See J. Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac Books, 1988), p. 335.

  40. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (London: University of California Press, 1978), p. 78.

  41. Chodorow, pp. 79, 82.

  42. Chodorow, pp. 113, 117, 125.

  43. Chodorow, p. 140.

  44. Dinah Birch, ‘Gender and Genre’ in Imagining Women, ed. by Frances Bonner et al. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), pp. 43-55 (p. 55).

  45. However, for a discussion of the possible tensions in the mother-daughter relationship see Steph Lawler, ‘I Never Felt As Though I Fitted: Family Romances and the Mother-Daughter Relationship’ in Pearce and Stacey, op. cit., pp. 265-78.

  46. Indeed, a study of reader's response to this collection would be a useful addendum to this work. Meg Brown has already produced such an addendum for La casa de los espíritus in her article ‘The Allende/Mastretta Phenomenon in West Germany: When Opposite Cultures Attract’, Confluencia, 10:1, (1994), 89-97.

  47. Radway claims that the romance depicts ‘women […] as they often are not in day-to-day existence, […] happy and content’, in Radway (1993), ‘Reading the Romance’, p. 574.

  48. Loc. cit.

  49. Furthermore, this might be seen as what Castillo described as the ‘death of love’ at the end of the romance.

  50. Franco (1992), ‘Going Public …’, p. 75.

  51. Fowler, op. cit., p. 26.

0 thoughts on “Madrese Feminism Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *