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MAGNIFICENCE

By: Estrella Aflon


There was nothing to fear, for the man was always so gentle, so kind. At night when the little girl and her brother were bathed in the
light of the big shaded bulb that hung over the big study table in the downstairs hall, the man would knock gently on the door, and
come in. he would stand for a while just beyond the pool of light, his feet in the circle of illumination, the rest of him in shadow. The
little girl and her brother would look up at him where they sat at the big table, their eyes bright in the bright light, and watch him come
fully into the light, but his voice soft, his manner slow. He would smell very faintly of sweat and pomade, but the children didnt mind
although they did notice, for they waited for him every evening as they sat at their lessons like this. Hed throw his visored cap on the
table, and it would fall down with a soft plop, then hed nod his head to say one was right, or shake it to say one was wrong.
It was not always that he came. They could remember perhaps two weeks when he remarked to their mother that he had never seen
two children looking so smart. The praise had made their mother look over them as they stood around listening to the goings-on at the
meeting of the neighborhood association, of which their mother was president. Two children, one a girl of seven, and a boy of eight.
They were both very tall for their age, and their legs were the long gangly legs of fine spirited colts. Their mother saw them with eyes
that held pride, and then to partly gloss over the maternal gloating she exhibited, she said to the man, in answer to his praise, But their
homework. Theyre so lazy with them. And the man said, I have nothing to do in the evenings, let me help them. Mother nodded her
head and said, if you want to bother yourself. And the thing rested there, and the man came in the evenings therefore, and he helped
solve fractions for the boy, and write correct phrases in language for the little girl.
In those days, the rage was for pencils. School children always have rages going at one time or another. Sometimes for paper
butterflies that are held on sticks, and whirr in the wind. The Japanese bazaars promoted a rage for those. Sometimes it is for little lead
toys found in the folded waffles that Japanese confection-makers had such light hands with. At this particular time, it was for pencils.
Pencils big but light in circumference not smaller than a mans thumb. They were unwieldy in a childs hands, but in all schools then,
where Japanese bazaars clustered there were all colors of these pencils selling for very low, but unattainable to a child budgeted at a
baon of a centavo a day. They were all of five centavos each, and one pencil was not at all what one had ambitions for. In rages, one
kept a collection. Four or five pencils, of different colors, to tie with strings near the eraser end, to dangle from ones book-basket, to
arouse the envy of the other children who probably possessed less.
Add to the mans gentleness and his kindness in knowing a childs desires, his promise that he would give each of them not one pencil
but two. And for the little girl who he said was very bright and deserved more, ho would get the biggest pencil he could find.
One evening he did bring them. The evenings of waiting had made them look forward to this final giving, and when they got the
pencils they whooped with joy. The little boy had tow pencils, one green, one blue. And the little girl had three pencils, two of the
same circumference as the little boys but colored red and yellow. And the third pencil, a jumbo size pencil really, was white, and had
been sharpened, and the little girl jumped up and down, and shouted with glee. Until their mother called from down the stairs. What
are you shouting about? And they told her, shouting gladly, Vicente, for that was his name. Vicente had brought the pencils he had
promised them.
Thank him, their mother called. The little boy smiled and said, Thank you. And the little girl smiled, and said, Thank you, too. But the
man said, Are you not going to kiss me for those pencils? They both came forward, the little girl and the little boy, and they both made
to kiss him but Vicente slapped the boy smartly on his lean hips, and said, Boys do not kiss boys. And the little boy laughed and
scampered away, and then ran back and kissed him anyway.
The little girl went up to the man shyly, put her arms about his neck as he crouched to receive her embrace, and kissed him on the
cheeks.
The mans arms tightened suddenly about the little girl until the little girl squirmed out of his arms, and laughed a little breathlessly,
disturbed but innocent, looking at the man with a smiling little question of puzzlement.
The next evening, he came around again. All through that day, they had been very proud in school showing off their brand new
pencils. All the little girls and boys had been envying them. And their mother had finally to tell them to stop talking about the pencils,
pencils, for now that they had, the boy two, and the girl three, they were asking their mother to buy more, so they could each have
five, and three at least in the jumbo size that the little girls third pencil was. Their mother said, Oh stop it, what will you do with so
many pencils, you can only write with one at a time.
And the little girl muttered under her breath, Ill ask Vicente for some more.
Their mother replied, Hes only a bus conductor, dont ask him for too many things. Its a pity. And this observation their mother said
to their father, who was eating his evening meal between paragraphs of the book on masonry rites that he was reading. It is a pity, said
their mother, People like those, they make friends with people like us, and they feel it is nice to give us gifts, or the children toys and
things. Youd think they wouldnt be able to afford it.

The father grunted, and said, the man probably needed a new job, and was softening his way through to him by going at the children
like that. And the mother said, No, I dont think so, hes a rather queer young man, I think he doesnt have many friends, but I have
watched him with the children, and he seems to dote on them.
The father grunted again, and did not pay any further attention.
Vicente was earlier than usual that evening. The children immediately put their lessons down, telling him of the envy of their
schoolmates, and would he buy them more please?
Vicente said to the little boy, Go and ask if you can let me have a glass of water. And the little boy ran away to comply, saying behind
him, But buy us some more pencils, huh, buy us more pencils, and then went up to stairs to their mother.
Vicente held the little girl by the arm, and said gently, Of course I will buy you more pencils, as many as you want
And the little girl giggled and said, Oh, then I will tell my friends, and they will envy me, for they dont have as many or as pretty.
Vicente took the girl up lightly in his arms, holding her under the armpits, and held her to sit down on his lap and he said, still gently,
What are your lessons for tomorrow? And the little girl turned to the paper on the table where she had been writing with the jumbo
pencil, and she told him that that was her lesson but it was easy.
Then go ahead and write, and I will watch you.
Dont hold me on your lap, said the little girl, I am very heavy, you will get very tired.
The man shook his head, and said nothing, but held her on his lap just the same.
The little girl kept squirming, for somehow she felt uncomfortable to be held thus, her mother and father always treated her like a big
girl, she was always told never to act like a baby. She looked around at Vicente, interrupting her careful writing to twist around.
His face was all in sweat, and his eyes looked very strange, and he indicated to her that she must turn around, attend to the homework
she was writing.
But the little girl felt very queer, she didnt know why, all of a sudden she was immensely frightened, and she jumped up away from
Vicentes lap.
She stood looking at him, feeling that queer frightened feeling, not knowing what to do. By and by, in a very short while her mother
came down the stairs, holding in her hand a glass of sarsaparilla, Vicente.
But Vicente had jumped up too soon as the little girl had jumped from his lap. He snatched at the papers that lay on the table and held
them to his stomach, turning away from the mothers coming.
The mother looked at him, stopped in her tracks, and advanced into the light. She had been in the shadow. Her voice had been like a
bell of safety to the little girl. But now she advanced into glare of the light that held like a tableau the figures of Vicente holding the
little girls papers to him, and the little girl looking up at him frightenedly, in her eyes dark pools of wonder and fear and question.
The little girl looked at her mother, and saw the beloved face transfigured by some sort of glow. The mother kept coming into the
light, and when Vicente made as if to move away into the shadow, she said, very low, but very heavily, Do not move.
She put the glass of soft drink down on the table, where in the light one could watch the little bubbles go up and down in the dark
liquid. The mother said to the boy, Oscar, finish your lessons. And turning to the little girl, she said, Come here. The little girl went to
her, and the mother knelt down, for she was a tall woman and she said, Turn around. Obediently the little girl turned around, and her
mother passed her hands over the little girls back.
Go upstairs, she said.
The mothers voice was of such a heavy quality and of such awful timbre that the girl could only nod her head, and without looking at
Vicente again, she raced up the stairs. The mother went to the cowering man, and marched him with a glance out of the circle of light
that held the little boy. Once in the shadow, she extended her hand, and without any opposition took away the papers that Vicente was
holding to himself. She stood there saying nothing as the man fumbled with his hands and with his fingers, and she waited until he had
finished. She was going to open her mouth but she glanced at the boy and closed it, and with a look and an inclination of the head, she
bade Vicente go up the stairs.

The man said nothing, for she said nothing either. Up the stairs went the man, and the mother followed behind. When they had
reached the upper landing, the woman called down to her son, Son, come up and go to your room.
The little boy did as he was told, asking no questions, for indeed he was feeling sleepy already.
As soon as the boy was gone, the mother turned on Vicente. There was a pause.
Finally, the woman raised her hand and slapped him full hard in the face. Her retreated down one tread of the stairs with the force of
the blow, but the mother followed him. With her other hand she slapped him on the other side of the face again. And so down the
stairs they went, the man backwards, his face continually open to the force of the womans slapping. Alternately she lifted her right
hand and made him retreat before her until they reached the bottom landing.
He made no resistance, offered no defense. Before the silence and the grimness of her attack he cowered, retreating, until out of his
mouth issued something like a whimper.
The mother thus shut his mouth, and with those hard forceful slaps she escorted him right to the other door. As soon as the cool air of
the free night touched him, he recovered enough to turn away and run, into the shadows that ate him up. The woman looked after him,
and closed the door. She turned off the blazing light over the study table, and went slowly up the stairs and out into the dark night.
When her mother reached her, the woman, held her hand out to the child. Always also, with the terrible indelibility that one associated
with terror, the girl was to remember the touch of that hand on her shoulder, heavy, kneading at her flesh, the woman herself stricken
almost dumb, but her eyes eloquent with that angered fire. She knelt, She felt the little girls dress and took it off with haste that was
almost frantic, tearing at the buttons and imparting a terror to the little girl that almost made her sob. Hush, the mother said. Take a
bath quickly.
Her mother presided over the bath the little girl took, scrubbed her, and soaped her, and then wiped her gently all over and changed
her into new clothes that smelt of the clean fresh smell of clothes that had hung in the light of the sun. The clothes that she had taken
off the little girl, she bundled into a tight wrenched bunch, which she threw into the kitchen range.
Take also the pencils, said the mother to the watching newly bathed, newly changed child. Take them and throw them into the fire.
But when the girl turned to comply, the mother said, No, tomorrow will do. And taking the little girl by the hand, she led her to her

little girls bed, made her lie down and tucked the covers gently about her as the girl dropped off into quick slumber.

This is an analysis of the short story Magnificence by Estrella Alfon. It is a stylistic analysis, specifically a feminist and gender
oriented semantic analysis. It is based on my paper entitled "Taming Man in Magnificence: A Semantic and Gender Analysis"
submitted in a Stylistics Class. Please cite properly or contact me for citation purposes.)
The descriptions of the mother and Vicente are contrastive not only against each other but also against stereotypes of their genders.
The story opens with Vicente being described as so gentle, so kind, a phrase usually used for women. Vicente is a dark little man
whose voice [was] soft [and] manner slow. On the other hand, the mother is a gloating mother whose eyes [held] pride. She is
barely described at the start, as absent as the father except for short delivered lines, which are also in a tone not in sync with stereotype
mothers. Only later is the mother completely revealed: a tall woman who spoke in a voice very low, very heavy and with an
awful timbre. The contrast emphasizes the darkness of Vicente and the mothers magnificence.
This contrast is also displayed in the metaphor of light or illumination. At the start, Vicente was described as slowly advancing into
the circle of light. During the crucial moment, the mother is transfigured [by a] glow (note the connotation of Jesus/God, images of
magnificence). She had been in the shadow literally, and figuratively, about Vicentes queerness that crouched inside him. In
her anger, she advance[s] into the glare of light and reveals her magnificent self. Vicente is then forced out of the circle of light
and into the shadows that ate him up.
The mothers sense of control with Vicente is set against her inner disposition once with her daughter. Her touch is
heavykneading, eyes with angered fire, her actions almost frantic.
The reversal of gender assignments is not only incidental. The story is not just about one magnificent woman but of all women and
mothers who have been in shadows but raise [their] hand[s] against male abuse. This is shown in how throughout the story the
mother is referred to as mother but at the moment she was punishing Vicente, she is called woman.
When she gets back to her daughter, she is seen as mother again, but in exploring her disposition and rage she is again woman.
Finally, upon calming down, she becomes mother and tucks her child in.

ESTRELLA ALFON
by Thelma E. Arambulo
Undoubtedly, Estrella D. Alfon holds center stage when one talks of Cebu women writers. From her first published story in the
Graphic in 1935 to the numerous literary prizes she won, she asserted herself in a field where even the finest of women writers (e.g.,
Edith Tiempo, Aida Rivera-Ford, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Kerima Polotan, Linda Ty-Casper, Ninotchka Rosca) tend to be underrated
and simply outnumbered. CCPs Ani magazines feminist issue (Vol. II, No. 1, 1988 (is dedicated to her as writer, mother, sister,
friend. Why, then, have there been very few anthologies of her works? Magnificence and Other Stories, published in 1960, is about
all that comes to mind when one thinks of Alfon. How many of the existing critical works, as well as mixed anthologies on Philippine
literature in English, actually failed to include her?
Alfon makes the task of the critic less difficult because she is primarily a storyteller who doesnt allow considerations of craft to stand
in the way of her narration. There is a simple, guileless quality in her fiction. This is in contrast to Gilda Cordero-Fernando, who is the
more craft-conscious, sophisticated writer. Alfons characters, mostly drawn from the lower middle class, have fewer masks. They are
simple, common folk observed as they go through their day-to-day struggles to keep heart and soul and body together. The sense of
community is very strong in an Alfon story. This gives a special warmth to the stories. It is largely absent in the Cordero-Fernando
stories, where the characters tend to be isolated individuals living in urban settings. The strongly autobiographical elements in Alfons
works, especially in the Espeleta stories, produce straight from the heart effects which make her fiction that much more personal and
intimate, especially to the female reader.
The Alfon fictional world is defined by family relationships: between parents (especially the mother) and children, women and lovers,
wife and husband, women and their female friends. Where Alfon explores the mother-child relationship, her stories become most
powerful and intriguing. Magnificence is unmatched for its quiet intensity, its ability to stop short of spelling out its potential
horrors. The mother grows larger than life. Anguish explores the notion of contamination, and not just of leprosy, as do a number of
other stories dwelling on children paying for their fathers sins. Perhaps because Alfon lived in Compostela, where the leprosarium
used to be situated, the common fear of contamination frequently surfaces in her stories. But it is not just leprosy. It is, at times,
licentious men infecting their wives and childrens lives; war conceived and fought by men infecting domestic life, separating wives
from husbands, fathers from children, sisters from brothers, mothers from sons; small-town moral values alienating young people.
An added dimension is provided by her use of Espeleta as a community which functions not just as place setting but as character, too.
The Espeleta neighbors become a Greek chorus in the life unfolding before the eyes of Alfon, who grew up in that recognizable San
Nicolas/Pasil district of Cebu City.
Alfon was one writer who unashamedly drew from her own real-life experiences. In some stories, the first-person narrator is Estrella
or Esther. She is not just a writer, but one who consciously refers to her act of writing the stories. In other stories, Alfon is still
easily identifiable in her first-person reminiscences of the past: evacuation during the Japanese occupation; estrangement from a
husband; life after the war. In the Espeleta stories, Alfon uses the editorial we to indicate that as a member of that community, she
shares their feelings and responses towards the inidents in the story. But she sometimes slips back to being a first-person narrator. The
impression is that although she shares the sentiments of her neighbors, she is still a distinct personality who detaches her self from the
scene in order to understand it better. This device of separating herself as narrator from the other characters is contained within the
larger strategy of distantiation?that of the writer from her strongly autobiographical material.
Alfons fictional world is largely a world of women and children, elements traditionally marginalized by literary criticism. The female
protagonists in Alfons stories range from the madwoman on the steeple who blames God for her stillborn baby, to the ignorant
servant girl who clings to her romantic notions of an ideal man; from the magnificent mother who saves her daughter from a sexual
pervert to an Espeleta woman on whom the gods choose to pour down one misfortune after the other.
All of these women have one thing in common?they can be perceived as victims in that they are treated more as objects rather than as
subjects. In many stories, this perception comes from the women themselves. The cultural tradition of male domination has fostered
the distinction between male as subject (superior, active agent) and female as object (inferior, passive object of mans action and
intention), a distinction which has been accepted as part of the natural, even divine, order by most men and women. Consequently
women tend to measure themselves in terms of their acceptability to men. Overtly, women do not question the validity of such
notions. They take comfort in the notion of women and men complementing each other; it is seen as a form of equality.
Alfon offers the reader women characters: some strong, some weak, most stoic; many victims, a few overcoming initial disadvantages
bequeathed to them by nature and nurture. Understandably, she narrates these womens lives with minimal authorial intervention. Her

narrators are sympathetic, but just as reconciled to these womens lot. Because her characters do not question, do not protest (except
the madwoman on the steeple), neither does the narrator. She can only weep for them and tell their stories with quiet understanding.
But a rereading of the Alfon stories can ferret out the more intricate questions underlying the dilemmas of her women characters. The
questions lurk within the stories, but the narrators never allow them to surface. Could the motives behind their attitudes and their
responses to life situations perhaps be found in a psychological order reinforced by a Spanish-Christian feudalistic tradition? If the
Filipino has been a colonial subject for generations, how much more so the Filipino woman? What dichotomies between male and
female are at play in these stories? Are these dichotomies real or artificial? Does one require the other for distinction, even definition?
Such a re-reading of Alfons stories reveals certain insights that tend to be glossed over in more traditional interpretations. Her female
protagonists are examples of woman as a damaged culture. Maring in The Gentle Rain suffers the loss of a mother, the betrayal of
a lover, the ostracism of the neighborhood, but the narrator sees her story as not the story of a girl who was not moral. It is the story
of a girl who was not happy. In Mill of the Gods Martha offers a prayer of thanksgiving when her father, a habitual womanizer,
dies. She prefers the role of a mistress to that of wife, seeing as how her mother had suffered all her life. In Water From the Well,
Tinang exchanges an independent life for the security of marriage; this elicits an ambivalent response from the narrator. In
Compostela, while the narrators soldier-husband assumed the supposedly nobler task of defending the motherland, she is left with
the perceived to be less glorious task of ensuring her familys survival. But she draws strength from being both mother and father to
her son. War, a traditionally male preoccupation, is seen as senseless and brutal. It disrupts, even destroys family and community life,
as well as devastates the physical landscape, reducing cities to rubble and the towns to evacuation centers.
Magnificence, Alfons most popularly anthologized story, is a finely woven text which provides excellent insights into the primacy
of the mother-daughter bond as well as into the psychological oppression of women and children, especially daughters, which emerges
into the light of consciousness once the mask of false chivalry is wrenched away.
For centuries, women have been lulled into a false sense of security by a chivalric code (the origin of which can be traced back to
feudal periods in history), which claims to protect the helpless woman even as it deepens her psychological, political and economic
dependence on the man. The subservience of woman is the price she willingly and even happily pays for the attention and protection
of man.
A similar deception takes place in Magnificence. The mans quiet, gentle, sincere, benevolent manner masks his sexual perversion.
He exploits the childrens fondness for pencils, as well as the familys limited means, in order to successfully win their trust. The
deception is so clever and complete (perhaps even to himself, since he could very well have genuinely liked them and turned to them,
having no family of his own) that even the mother is initially fooled. Only the father feels irritated by the mans gestures, not because
the suspects the latter of being ill-motivated, but perhaps because the father is made more painfully conscious that he cannot afford to
buy those things for his children. His male ego is twice threatened: his wife approves of this other man and even initially defends him
against her husbands suspicions; and his role as chief provider of his familys needs is undermined, no matter the fact that only
pencils are involved here. Both his wife and his children enjoy this mans visits.
That the man is a sexual pervert makes the incident even more significant. The sexual relationship between male and female has been
seen as the basic ground for the physical and psychological domination of the male over the female. Freuds theories on sexuality and
gender-formation are essential to his larger theory on the development of personality. Feminists have always seen in the phenomena of
sexual abuse (e.g., rape, prostitution, pornography) open manifestations of the oppression of women and children in a patriarchal
social order. The extent of the mans sexual perversion in the story is not made explicit; it is not his story to begin with. But the
implications of pedophiliac tendencies are sufficient proof.
The magnificence of the mother, who protects her daughter from not only a premature but also a perverted initiation into the sexual
dimension of the male/ female dynamics, is that which is permanently impressed on the daughters mind. It can only serve to deepen
the mother-daughter bond which starts in the warm, safe, secure womb, continues with life-sustaining milk from the mothers breast
which nourishes the baby, and permanently sustains her with the consciousness of women bound by a world of shared experiences.
The traditional chivalric motif of a knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress is discarded; the father is not only a
peripheral figure in the story, but he is also rendered as one who is incapable of protecting his daughter because he has misread the
other man, blinded as he is by his own concern with protecting his image as male/head of the family.
Certain stories can be read in terms of Estrella Alfons reflections on her position as a woman writer in a Philippine literary scene
largely dominated by male writers. Man with a Camera and The Photographed Beggar revolve around the same story of a
photographer who wins a prize for his photo of a beggar, with the first story told from the photographers point of view, and the
second, from the beggars point of view. The fact that Alfon repeated exactly the same story in two separate texts is more interest to
me than the stories themselves that tend to deteriorate into sentimental and melodramatic effects. One gets the impression that perhaps
this woman writer is at pains, not just to improve her craft (i.e. experimenting on different narrative voices), but to prove herself just
as technically adept as her male counterparts.

Alfons fond portrayal in English of a laborer who struggles to learn English which, to him, is the doorway to success, can perhaps
be read as her unconscious justification of her choice of English over her native Cebuano in most of her own fiction. (She wrote some
fiction in Cebuano, too.) During her time especially, literature in English was the mark of distinction. Alfon could not just have turned
to writing in English because of its snob appeal. She must have truly believed in the language, in much the same way the laborer in her
story did.
In O Perfect Day the narrator nostalgically recalls a perfect summer day spent with friends in Cebu when she was young. Her friend
Bebe admonishes her for writing stories with unhappy endings. This story becomes her attempt to prove Bebe wrong. But in the end,
she has to admit her failure?she says she cant write about this perfect day because the experiences are just too personal and intimate.
But in fact she does; we have this story. Alfon is not really playing coy with her readers. The subtext reveals, not a fear of writing
stories about personal experiences, but a fear of not being able to write the heavier stuff. Did Alfon perhaps occasionally wonder
whether or not her stories suffered in comparison to those of the literary giants of Philippine fiction in English?What Alfon
unfortunately did not live to see was the development of feminist literary criticism that finds in stories such as hers dramatic examples
of womens various strategies for survival within, and subversion of, an oppressive patriarchal order. Alfon would have appreciated
how feminist literary criticism privileges the shared experiences of women; the distinct marks of the woman writers craft; the
celebration of the achievements of women writers (both the recognized and the neglected ones), made more remarkable given the
context of a predominantly male literary tradition.

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