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Rosario Ferré, The Youngest Doll. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991. 169 pages. pb.

The Youngest Doll is a translation, by Rosario Ferré and various collaborators, of Ferré's first book of stories, originally published in Spanish in 1976 under the title Papeles de Pandora. The English title is better, because the theme of woman-as-doll in a patriarchal society surfaces repeatedly throughout the collection. These women belong, for the most part, to the declining sugar aristocracy of Ponce, a city smothered by "the constant dust which rained down from the chimneys of the nearby cement plant."
For Ferré the short story is not so much narrative as art form; she rarely tells a simple story. Rather, through devices like allegory, irony, stream-of-consciousness, and overlapping points of view, she forces us to try to create the narrative ourselves, often on different levels-physical, mental, emotional—simultaneously.
"The Poisoned Story" is among the best of those which use conflicting points of view to create ambiguity. Rosa, the principal character, is a middle-class woman who had earned a reputation as a high-fashion dressmaker before she married Don Lorenzo, an amiable but ineffectual widower whose sugar estate and finances were in ruins. The story opens at Don Lorenzo's wake, where Rosa, to avoid having to talk to the society ladies whom she despises, is reading a very unsympathetic account of her marriage with Lorenzo written by a "small-town, two-bit writer" not otherwise identified. As Rosa reads this account, we read it with her, and we are witnesses to her reactions, denials, self-justifications. In addition to these conflicting voices, a third voice enters near the end to bring the story to its structurally brilliant conclusion.
Multiple point of view is also used in "Sleeping Beauty," which follows the life and death of ballet dancer María de los Angeles Fernández through the social columns of El Mundo, a correspondence between María's father and Reverend Mother Martínez, and italicized passages of María's own impressions. The social columns and the correspondence, which distort and trivialize María de los Angeles, reveal a considerable talent for social satire, a talent also drawn upon in "The Seed Necklace."
In contrast, "The Other Side of Paradise" experiments with restricted point of view. Its narrator, a gay butler, tells how the daughter of the family he works for fell in love with him and how he deflowered her on her wedding day, leaving her at once bride and adulteress. The interest here lies less in the objective facts than in the narrator's perceptions and psychology.
Other stories seem intended to hide rather than elucidate underlying meanings. "The Youngest Doll," with its archetypal maiden aunt, doll-wife, and exploitive husband, reads more like a fairy tale than a social statement. In "Amelia" the themes of incest and developing sexual awareness barely rise to the glittering surface of wealth, uniforms, ceremony, and dancing dolls. The same problem of intelligibility comes up in "The Glass Box," "Marina and the Lion," and four very short pieces.
Ferré is often categorized as a feminist writer, but that label must be applied with reserve to this collection. The doll-like women in these stories are clearly anachronistic. Much more conspicuous today are the dynamic middle-class women who work as public administrators, entrepreneurs, and professionals. The Youngest Doll has nothing to say about these women. It relates rather to a romantic tradition in Puerto Rican literature which looks back nostalgically to an era of class privilege and great estates. Its feminism lies in its criticism of certain values of that tradition. In it art outranks statement.

Eugene V. Mohr

Copyright ©  Rosario Ferré
 
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