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Patterns of Female Entrapment and Escape in Three Short Stories by Amparo Dvila

Author(s): Erica Frouman-Smith

Source: Chasqui, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Nov., 1989), pp. 49-55
Published by: Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana
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Patterns of Female Entrapment and

Escape in Three Short Stories

by Amparo D?vila

Erica Frouman-Smith
Long Island University

In The Madwoman in the Attic, an innovative work of feminist literary criticism, the
authors (Gilbert and Gubar) discuss the struggle of British and American women writers
whose dilemma consisted of finding a way to express themselves within the oppressive
confines of nineteenth-century patriarchal society without compromising themselves as
women or as artists.1 Over and over, writers such as the Bronte' sisters, George Eliot, Jane
Austen, and Emily Dickinson channeled rage and frustration into the creation of dramatic
female characters who functioned as the authors' doubles. Because of the lack of female
role models, their struggle in isolation often felt like illness and madness and thus led to the
use of images of entrapment to convey their message:

Inevitably...the literature produced by women confronted with such anxiety

inducing choices has been strongly marked not only by an obsessive interest in
these limited options but also by obsessive imagery of confinement that reveals the

* For a general discussion of the problems of nineteenth-century women writers and patriarchal society, see
"Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship," Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan


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50 Patterns of Female Entrapment and Escape

ways in which female artists feel trapped and sickened both by suffocating
alternatives and by the culture that created them.2

Detr?s de la reja is an anthology of short stories that documents the situation for Latin
American writers of the 1960s and their struggle to find an acceptable means of self
expression while dealing with oppressive twentieth-century cultural institutions. The title
of the anthology is taken from a short story by the Mexican writer Amparo D?vila and is an
important indication of her connection to the problem of entrapment for women.

Although D?vila is not well known in the United States, she has been well received by
critics in Mexico. The author was shaped by her experience of growing up as a lonely and
sickly child in the stifling environment of the small and dreary mining town of Pinos,
whose description closely resembles the often fantastic atmosphere of her stories. In the
opening paragraph of a concise autobiographical essay, the author evokes her home town:

Pinos, el pueblo donde nac?, es el pueblo de las mujeres enlutadas de Agust?n

Y?nez, es tambi?n Luvina donde s?lo se oye el viento de la ma?ana a la noche,
desde que uno nace hasta que muere. Situado en la cima de una monta?a y rodeado
siempre de nubes, desde lejos parece algo fantasmal, con sus altas torres, las calles
en pronunciado declive y largos y estrechos callejones. Pinos es un viejo y fr?o
pueblo minero de Zacatecas con un pasado de oro y plata y un presente de ruina y


Yo nac? en la casa grande del pueblo y a trav?s de los cristales de las ventanas
miraba pasar la vida, es decir la muerte, porque la vida se hab?a detenido hac?a
mucho tiempo en ese pueblo.3
Thus, the author envisions herself in the role of a passive observer looking out from her
house and seeing death more than life pass by. Death, a major preoccupation of her
stories, is directly linked to her image of women as mujeres enlutadas indicating the
marginal and dreary reality for women. The image surfaces again when D?vila speaks of
her convent education in San Luis Potos?: "A pesar de mi salud tan precaria, a los siete
a?os me llevaron a San Luis Potos? a educar a un convento y as? segu? viviendo entre
mujeres enlutadas" (Los narradores, 132).
D?vila seeks an early escape from this suffocating atmosphere through her experiments
in alchemy and through her immersion in the world of literature, both as an eager reader
and a precocious writer of poems and short stories, begun at age eight. Though her parents
did not encourage their daughter's literary inclinations, D?vila was able to make good use
of her father's library where she very soon became acquainted with the kinds of writers
who influenced the development of her literary vision. Authors such as Dante, Kafka,
Efr?n Hern?ndez, Juan Jos? Arre?la, Juan Rulfo, Horacio Quiroga, and Jorge Luis Borges
suggest an evolutionary pattern that embraces fantasy and, therefore, coincides with the
author's experiences and perception of reality: "Nac? y he vivido en el clima del absurdo."4
D?vila's admiration for Julio Cort?zar, based on his formal skills and his constant link to
reality, indicates her concern that her writing not be purely imaginary but have a direct
connection to her own experiences. Such a trait in both authors makes their work chillingly
effective. Although she had not read Edgar Allan Poe until she published her three
Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 45-92.

2 The anthology is valuable because of the stories it contains and, also, for the two critical essays on Latin

American women writers that serve as an introdution to the collection. See Celia Correas de Zapata and Lygia
Johnson, eds., Detr?s de la reja (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1980).

3 This biographical information comes from an essay, written by the author, which was included in a book of
essays and/or lectures by Mexican writers who published in the 1950s and 1960s. See "Autobiograf?a," Los
narradores ante el p?blico (M?xico: Joaqu?n Mortiz, 1966), 129. For more biographical information on the
author, see the interview in this issue of Chasqui.
4 This statement comes from an unpublished essay by the author, "Mi actitud literaria."

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Erica Frouman-Smith 51
collections of short stories, D?vila shares a remarkably similar tendency of using an ever
present atmosphere of horror and violence.
D?vila states that her main concern is the human condition: "El hombre es el eje de mis
cuentos" ("Mi actitud literaria," 1). As a woman writer, she reveals a great deal about
growing up female in the small isolated towns of Mexico that serve as a microcosm of the
female condition. The results work against the stereotypical view that has been presented
in the past by male writers:

The portrayal of woman in twentieth-century Latin American literature by male

novelists is a different matter from her portrayal by female authors. The portrayal
of women by male authors tends to facile stereotypes, drawn more from the
dimension of myth than from that of actuality... The characterization of women by

female authors is more convincing because the outlines are less distinct, less

articulate. These women can no longer be readily identified as types.5

Because they live in a culture that deprives them of many opportunities, many women
writers in Latin America are forced to work in isolation.6 D?vila chose to separate herself
from other literary groups because of her desire to work independently and because of
Alfonso Reyes' influence.7 In her stories where women are the principal protagonists,
patterns of entrapment and escape can often be observed which establish a strong link to
British and American female writers of the nineteenth century.8 Unfortunately, what Sor
Juana lamented about the situation of women in the convoluted and oppressive world of
seventeenth-century Mexico, continues to be valid today.
"El hu?sped," from Tiempo destrozado (1959; D?vila's first collection of short stories),
is a powerful and representative story in what it says about the situation of women. That it
is presented by a nameless narrator is significant because of her archetypal position as the
womanly "other," a term created by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, to explain
women's secondary status in society.9 It also calls to mind Emily Dickinson's envisioning
herself as a "Nobody" locked away in a room in her father's house: "I'm Nobody! Who

are you?" (Gilbert and Gubar, 564). What was true of women's place in nineteenth

century America is just as true for the narrator in twentieth-century Latin America. Women

are often powerless, inconsequential beings trapped physically and emotionally within
patriarchal society.
The narrator leads an unhappy existence in a Rulfo-like, isolated town of Mexico: "Un

pueblo casi muerto o a punto de desaparecer."10 This dead life in a dead town is also

limited by her role as a wife and mother since she is additionally confined to engaging in
feminine activities within the four walls of her house. The restrictions of her physical
world establish a connection to nineteenth-century women writers and their preoccupation

with space:

In fact, anxieties about space sometimes seem to dominate the literature of both
nineteenth-century women and their twentieth-century descendants. In the genre

Ellen Moers has recently called "female Gothic," for instance, heroines who

characteristically inhabit mysteriously intricate or uncomfortably stifling houses are

Marcia L. Wells, "The Changing Face of Woman in Latin American Ficiton," Women in Hispanic Literature:
Icons and Fallen Idols, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 280.
For a discussion of the particular problems of Hispanic women writers, see Beth Miller's "Introduction," in
Women in Hispanic Literature, 1-25.
See D?vila's comments on this question in my interview with her in this issue of Chasqui.

Miller, "Introduction," 16.

See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans, and ed., H. M. Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.,



Amparo D?vila, "El hu?sped," Tiempo destrozado y M?sica concreta (M?xico: Fondo de Cultura Econ?mica,
1978), 19. All future references to this work and to "Detr?s de la reja" will be from this edition.

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52 Patterns of Female Entrapment and Escape

often seen as captured, fettered, trapped, even buried alive. But other kinds of
works by women?novels of manners, domestic tales, lyric poems?also show the
same concern with spatial constrictions. From Ann Radcliffe's melodramatic
dungeons to Jane Austen's mirrored parlors, from Charlotte Bronte's haunted
garrets to Emily Bronte's coffin-shaped beds, imagery of enclosure reflects the
woman writer's own discomfort, her sense of powerlessness, her fear that she
inhabits alien and incomprehensible places. (Gilbert and Gubar, 83-84)
Despite the restrictions of her world, the narrator speaks lovingly of her garden, the
physical and emotional center of the house, and how she tends it with great care. It is alive
with plants and flowers, and also with the activities of her two children who play in it:

Pero yo amaba mi jard?n. Los corredores estaban cubiertos por enredaderas que

floreaban casi todo el a?o... Mientras yo regaba las plantas, los ni?os se

entreten?an buscando gusanos entre las hojas. (20)

This creative, feminine center is a place where innocence and beauty, goodness and light
reign. It also serves as a dramatic contrast to the darkness that is about to penetrate this
female world, forcing the narrator to engage in further creative actions in response to her
forthcoming predicament.

The narrator's involvement in a loveless marriage is another indication of her

entrapment: "Representaba para mi marido algo as? como un mueble, que se acostumbra

uno a ver en determinado sitio, pero que no causa la menor impresi?n" (19) . The

husband's need to control and intimidate his wife becomes apparent with the introduction
of the "guest" of the title who is the embodiment of darkness, evil and violence and, also,
the husband's alter ego. That he accommodates himself in a dark, damp room where he
eats only meat, sleeps during the day, and prowls the house at night is more evidence of his
beasdiness. His cruel attack on the maid's innocent, sleeping baby is the pivotal step that
both underscores the scope of his brutal nature and forces the women to respond.
The narrator's desire for escape is impeded by her predicament as a woman living in a
man's world where she has no power or resources:

Pens? entonces en huir de aquella casa, de mi madrido, de ?l... Pero no ten?a dinero
y los medios de comunicaci?n eran dif?ciles. Sin amigo ni parientes a quienes
recurrir, me sent?a tan sola como un hu?rfano. (23)
But women's powerful creativity comes into play when the narrator joins forces with her
maid and both enact their feelings of anger and rage towards the monster who has dared to
invade their female domain and attack their children. By breaking the mold of passivity and

behaving unfemininely, the two women act out their ultimate fantasy of revenge. They
figuratively suffocate die forces of oppression by literally suffocating the beast and denying
him the air or freedom that they as women have been denied. The story's finale establishes
a direct connection to nineteenth-century women writers' creation of female characters who
also executed their authors' feelings of helplessness and fury:

But over and over again they project what seems to be the energy of their own
despair into passionate, even melodramatic characters who act out the subversive
impulses every woman inevitably feels when she contemplates the "deeprooted"
evils of patriarchy. (Gilbert and Gubar, 77)
"Detr?s de la reja," from M?sica concreta (1964; D?vila's second collection of short

stories), although a very different story from "El hu?sped," is remarkably similar in what it

reveals about the situation of women. Once again, a nameless narrator introduces us to a
narrow, female world within the stifling confines of a small Mexican town, made to seem
even more so because of the oppressive summer heat. That the narrator is also an orphan,
as in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, further accentuates her position as a "Nobody" in every
way. And like the story of Jane Eyre, this story also deals with a young girl's sexual

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Erica Frouman-Smith 53
awakening within an environment that has locked her into limited roles, thus creating the
desire for escape.11
The young, innocent, and rather passive young girl must contend with her older,
attractive Aunt Paulina, who has cared for her since she became orphaned, but who soon
becomes her rival in love. Paulina, in turn, has to deal with the difficult situation of
accepting the loss of her youth and beauty, especially apparent in her niece's budding
sexuality. Helene Anderson's view of the position of the spinster in Latin America in
connection with Rosario Castellanos' work, seems appropriate when discussing Paulina:

For Castellanos, spinsterhood within the confines of a small Mexican town is the
constant recollection of time, the constant aspect of time slipping away and death
slipping in... Solter?a is the absolute opposite of everything that constitutes energy,
activity and affirmation of life.12

In D?vila's story, the two women battle to be the fairest in the eyes of the dashing
Dar?o, the young man to whom both are drawn. The interplay between them shares a
striking resemblance to the clash between Snow White and the Queen in the Grimm tale:

"Little Snow White"...should really be called "Snow White and Her Wicked

Stepmother," for the central action of the tale?indeed, its only real action?arises
from the relationship between these two women: the one fair, young, pale, and the
other just as fair, but older, fiercer; ...the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other
both artful and active; the one a sort of angel, the other an undeniable witch.
(Gilbert and Gubar, 36)
At one point in the story, Paulina, after years of not being involved with men, changes her
appearance to become more appealing to Dario, an event of which the narrator takes instant

and anguished notice.

The narrator inevitably seeks her escape from a monotonous life through her sexual and

romantic involvement with Dar?o, during a time when her aunt is away. Once Paulina
returns, Dar?o decides that the aunt, the more interesting of the two women characters
because of her masculine-like aggressiveness and overall complexity, must be made more
femininely passive through the use of drugs. Such an action allows the two young lovers
to continue their relationship every night in the living room of the women's home. When
the older woman finally discovers what is going on?that her sweet, innocent niece has
proven to be more desirable to Dar?o?she, like the Queen in the Grimm tale, cannot accept
not being the fairest. The once tender relationship between the two women turns to bitter


It is true, of course, that in the patriarchal Kingdom of the text these women inhabit
the Queen's life can be literally imperiled by her daughter's beauty, and true.. .that,
given the female vulnerability such perils imply, female bonding is extraordinarily

difficult in patriarchy: women almost inevitably turn against women because the
voice of the looking glass sets them against each other. (Gilbert and Gubar, 38)

This story of seduction and betrayal reaches its shocking and horrifying ending when
Paulina proves to be too clever and too powerful to be considered a match for her niece.
The narrator's figurative entrapment becomes a literal one when she is institutionalized.
There she is drugged and put behind bars, (again, made more femininely passive) as a

result of Paulina's manipulations. She remains trapped in her feelings of anger,

frustration, and rage over her powerlessness, left to be driven mad by her thoughts of her
* * For more information on Jane Eyre, see "A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress" in Gilbert and

Gubar, 336-371.

*? 2 Helene M. Anderson, "Rosario Castellanos and the Structures of Power," Contemporary Women Authors of
Latin America: Introductory Essays, Doris Meyer and Margante Fern?ndez Olmos, eds. (New York: Brooklyn

College Press, 1983), 28.

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54 Patterns of Female Entrapment and Escape

aunt?whom she had loved, admired and trusted?who has deprived her of Dar?o. The
irony of the situation of two women betraying one another because of a man is even more
apparent if we compare D?vila's story to that of Borges' "La intrusa," where the situation is

exacdy the opposite.13 The two brothers' rivalry over the affections of the young woman
who lives in their house as a servant/lover, leads to various measures: sharing her, selling
her off to a house of prostitution, bringing her back. The final solution, murder, is
enthusiastically embraced by both, and is indeed a sad but powerful commentary on
women's inconsequential status within a primitive and machista world.
"El ?ltimo verano," is from Arboles petrificados (1977; D?vila's last collection of short

stories), in which the author's gloomy and despairing vision is accentuated by its

increasingly surrealistic style. The ominous title is an indication of the hopeless condition
of women within the confines of patriarchy. The nameless protagonist confronts an ironic
situation: she is coping with middle age and inevitable sterility just as she discovers her

pregnancy. As in "Detr?s de la reja," the story once again takes place during an

oppressively hot summer and opens with the wife looking into the mirror and seeing the
sad reality of a woman of flesh destroyed by time and her female condition. The use of the
mirror as a means of self-evaluation underscores the problem of women and aging in Latin
America, an issue commented upon by the Argentine writer, Marta Lynch: "El asunto este
del machismo es una cosa fatal porque imag?nate que el tiempo pasa para todos, se va
perdiendo la juventud, se va perdiendo la belleza y entonces cada d?a te encontr?s con
menos armas para defenderte.. ,"14
The wife compares a picture of what she once was at the age of eighteen?young,
fresh, pretty, and hopeful?to what she is now:

...una mujer madura, gruesa, con un rostro fatigado, marchito, donde empezaba a
notarse las arrugas y el poco cuidado o mas bien el descuido de toda su persona: el

pelo opaco, canoso, calzada con zapatos de tac?n bajo y un vestido gastado y
pasado de moda.15

This split vision of herself anticipates her descent into a state of fragmentation and explains

the dread she feels: "...'claro que no es posible sentirse contenta y animosa cuando una no

es ya una mujer sino una sombra, una sombra que se ir? desvaneciendo lentamente,
lentamente..."* (59).
For a mother of six, with limited means and an insensitive husband who does little to
lessen her burden, pregnancy is another form of entrapment since: ".. .pregnancy replicates

the confinement of society" (Gilbert and Gubar, 89). An indifferently conceived life
becomes a parasitic condition, draining its world-weary victim, and making the following
applicable to the Wife, just as it is to Catherine in Wuthering Heights: "Birth is, after all,
the ultimate fragmentation the self can undergo, just as 'confinement' is, for women, the

ultimate pun on imprisonment" (Gilbert and Gubar, 286). Despite the eventual

miscarriage, the process of fragmentation cannot be stopped. The burying of the fetus in
the garden symbolically anticipates the mother's actual death (as opposed to her present
living-death situation) as she seeks an escape from her oppressive condition. By setting
herself on fire, she is surrounded with flames of hope, since self-destruction is the only
way a powerless woman can exert control in a patriarchal society.
In all three stories, the rather dreary portrait that emerges is one of women begging to
be set free. Here, the female protagonists are reduced to their most traditional and essential
* 3 The similarities between the two stories were suggested to me by Juan Bruce-Novoa when I read a paper on
D?vila at the La Chispa Conference on Hispanic Literature in February, 1987. See Jorge Luis Borges, "La
intrusa," El Aleph, 7th ed. (Buenos Aires: Emec? Editores, 1967), 171-176.

1* Eliana Moya-Raggio, "Conversaci?n con Marta Lynch," Letras Femeninas 14 (Primavera-Oto?o, 1988),


15 Amparo D?vila, "El ?ltimo verano," Arboles petrificados (M?xico: Joaqu?n Mortiz, 1977), 58. All future
references to this story will be from this edition.

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Erica Frouman-Smith 55
roles, leading unsophisticated lives in oppressive surroundings. All share in their feelings
of solitude and alienation and in what they lack: power, love, options, and hope. Only in
"El hu?sped" does hope ever emerge, however temporarily, in the form of an alliance
between the wife and her maid. All seek escape from extreme situations in extreme

ways?through murder ("El hu?sped"), betrayal ("Detr?s de la reja"), and suicide ("El
?ltimo verano"). They, like their nineteenth-century, fictional predecessors, enact the

frustration of their creator who sought escape from her own personal entrapment by means

of the liberating power of her imagination. The universal appeal of these stories as a
commentary on the female condition is clear despite their physical location in the small,
isolated towns of Mexico. D?vila's use of reality and fantasy is the logical method to

describe the often illogical situation of women. The powerful results link her to nineteenth

century women writers of England and the United States. Together they create a similar
vision that eventually will work towards altering patriarchal society where women no
longer feel entrapped.

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Cultura Econ?mica, 1978.

_. "Amparo D?vila." Los narradores ante el p?blico. M?xico: Editorial Joaqu?n

Mortiz, 1966.

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Gilgen, Read G. "The Short Story of the Absurd: Spanish America's Contribution to
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