«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Dash’s description of Martinique’s inability or refusal to relinquish certain European advantages in favor of a more solid Caribbean identity is a stunning parallel to Puerto Rico’s situation. The island is divided on sacrificing their U.S. security for the difficulties that independence may cause. Similarly, women in the novel who marry are giving up a part of their independence and identity for comfort and financial security.
Rebecca is forced to give up her artistic endeavors for her husband, yet has nothing to worry about financially. Isabel, who is independent at first, gets married and lives off the riches of her husband. It is only through her novel that she reclaims her independence.
Though she is passive when Quintín mistreats her, she exposes his nature through the written text, and in so doing, regains a sense of identity.
The idea of women giving up their identity through marriage in Ferré’s novel is represented in all the works studied in this dissertation. Antoinette loses her name as well as her association to the island when she marries Rochester, Cathy denies her African heritage and her love for Heathcliff when she marries into a lofty white society, and Carmolina’s mother sacrifices her ties to her Lithuanian culture when she marries into an Italian family. In some of these novels there is reclamation of what has been lost, for Carmolina represents a generation of Italians who is able to maintain identity and culture but also progress in a modern world. In an act of revolt, Antoinette takes revenge on Rochester by setting fire to his estate; and the text itself encourages the reader to reconsider events in Brontë’s text. Condé’s novel focuses upon the despair and alienation that is felt when one denies or is denied their origins, and her incorporation of island elements in a text that is representative of the British culture is a way to bring Caribbean authority to the forefront. Similarly, Ferré’s character, Isabel, uses her authorial power in the text to free herself from her husband. While the women of the Caribbean novels have unhappy marriages that are to the detriment of the self, in Paper Fish Carmolina experiences a rather unusual marriage which validates the self, and this “marriage,” paired with her authorial power, clears the way for an Italian American female identity.
A Marriage to Self: Carmolina’s Autonomy in Paper Fish Tina De Rosa’s extraordinary yet overlooked novel is a largely autobiographical work which focuses on the complexities of being Italian American. As explained in the introduction, the novel centers on the relationship between young Carmolina and her Italian grandmother, with whom she has an intensely close relationship. She does not experience the same closeness with her parents, Marco and Sarah, who are silent yet nonetheless significant figures in the work. Marco is Italian American but Sarah is Lithuanian, which the reader learns late in the novel. This multi-cultural background is the same one in which De Rosa grew up, but her identity was defined more by her Italian side not only because of her relationship with her grandmother but also because she knew virtually nothing about her Lithuanian heritage. Edvidge Giunta explains this in more
detail in the afterword of the novel:
De Rosa’s silence about her Lithuanian ancestry depends not only on the fact that her paternal grandmother kept alive her italianità in the family, but also on the seeming reluctance of her maternal relatives to discuss their origins and the reasons for the family’s emigration. Her mother’s lore, which fascinated the young De Rosa, remained vague, almost mysterious. By contrast, she was exposed in her daily life to the Italian language and customs, both in her household and in Little Italy where she grew up. 23 Though this crossing of cultures (Lithuanian and Italian) is not the main focus of the novel, it does appear in fragments and takes on special significance because it facilitates a Edvige Giunta, “A Song from the Ghetto,” in Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa (New York: Feminist Press, 1996), 124.
comparison of Sarah’s feelings of displacement and loss with Carmolina’s, and the final scene in the work reveals Carmolina’s ability to overcome that feeling by merging selfidentification with her cultural background. In other words, Carmolina is able to preserve her italianità without sacrificing her independence, something her mother is unable to achieve.
A glimpse into Sarah’s thoughts reveals that she longs for her past, which included
her identity as a Lithuanian:
Sarah did not find it easy, at first, living with the old mother and three sisters and brother. The house was set on a corner in the Italian neighborhood on the other side of the city from where her own family lived, from where her mother spoke Lithuanian over the sweet blue bed sheets and the crocuses of her neighbors who laughed and responded in Lithuanian…Now she had left behind her the small white houses of the south side of the city, the picket fences between the yards; the gutteral and minced Lithuanian in the throats of her family, her neighbors, was stilled. (48-49) In these reflections there is an emphasis on Sarah’s original language and ethnicity, which is no longer available to her when she marries into the Italian culture. The Lithuanian language is described tenderly in Sarah’s memory, and it is paired with other pleasant images from her past. There is particular attention paid to the language’s sound, which is now silenced for Sarah. She enters the BellaCasa family but has trouble adjusting to the new language, and wonders how it will affect her unborn child. “In the mornings they exchanged slow Italian over cups of thick black coffee. Sarah could never quite catch up and wondered which language the baby would speak. In silence she sat at the breakfasts where large bowls of pastina and butter were passed and felt the cold hand creep up from her chest and snap her words in two” (46). Sarah’s fond memories are linked to language and she is nostalgic for her mother tongue, which is connected to her real mother, who speaks Lithuanian. When she changes languages she is uncomfortable and feels as if she is forced into silence, illustrated by the almost violent image of a hand that breaks her words.
This silence eventually supersedes her Lithuanian identity and she remains silent for most of the novel. In fact, the small fragments that disclose her longing for the past provide the most revealing look into Sarah’s thoughts. The fact that she wonders which language the child will speak is significant because, as the reader is well aware, the baby speaks no language. Doriana is born with a mental handicap and is unable to speak, a main example of the silence that pervades the novel. Silence is a subject I will return to further in this dissertation, but for now I will focus on the representation of marriage in the work.
Sarah’s wistfulness in regard to her Lithuanian heritage is brought on through her marriage into an Italian family. The idea of marriage and its meaning in regard to culture and identity surfaces in the novel through an unusual juxtaposition: Sarah’s own marriage and Carmolina’s symbolic one. Both scenes involve a bride and a maternal figure: Sarah is wearing her wedding gown, gazing into a mirror while her mother observes her. Carmolina is also before the mirror in a gown with Grandma Doria. What renders the scene unusual is that while Sarah is preparing to marry Marco, Carmolina has no groom – she is only doing this so her grandmother, who does not have much time to live, can envision Carmolina on her wedding day. In Sarah’s wedding scene her mother appears unhappy; Sarah implores her mother to tell her she looks beautiful but her mother cannot do so, saying only: “You look like a bride” (46). Sarah’s mother understands that Sarah will give up part of her identity through marriage. In contrast, Carmolina’s grandmother is joyful: “her old mouth repeated, repeated in Italian, that Carmolina was beautiful, was beautiful” (114). In marrying Marco, Sarah leaves her mother and her mother language, but Carmolina’s “marriage” is different because throughout the entire novel she is in search of an independent self which is often denied to women in the Italian tradition. Carmolina is not getting married to a man to then leave the family but instead she undergoes a marriage to self. Critic Fred Gardaphé comments on Carmolina’s symbolic marriage: “De Rosa’s presentation of this scene signifies a defiance of the Italian tradition. Carmolina achieves her adult identity not by attaching herself to a man, but by taking it from her grandmother, who acknowledges it through the blessing she gives her granddaugter.” 24 Tina De Rosa also clarifies the marriage scene in her interview with Lisa Meyer.
She comments on how Carmolina’s marriage is not about becoming a traditional Italian wife but instead about pursuing other opportunities. However, De Rosa notes that
Carmolina will not desert her family and that she will return:
She’s marrying her future. She knows that her life will not be traditional. She’s not necessarily going to have a man at her side. And when Grandma Doria gives Carmolina those three little coins that she used the first time she ran away, the grandmother is telling her to run away. “This time I give them to you on purpose..” …She knows the grandmother is going to die soon. And she sees this little shadow that is her sister. Carmolina knows that eventually she is going to have to come back and set her sister free. 25 In the other three novels, marriage has signified disaster for the protagonists: Antoinette is broken down and imprisoned by her husband, Cathy turns her back on her true love Razyé and her ancestral past, and Isabel’s marriage defines her as a submissive wife and she loses one of her sons. As I remark in later chapters, some of these protagonists redeem themselves, but in order to do so they leave the marriage.
In Paper Fish Carmolina’s “marriage” is not to her detriment but instead serves as a way to solidify her identity as a woman without sacrificing her identity as an Italian. In Italian culture the daughter leaves home when she gets married, and this marriage symbolizes her entrance into adulthood and her independence as a woman. However, Gardaphé, Italian Signs, American Streets, 57.
Meyer, “Breaking the Silence,” 64.
these women are merely changing over from one patriarch to another, as in the case of Rebecca in The House on the Lagoon. The fact that Italian women immigrated with men, and never alone, further defined their role as wives and mothers, as Helen Baroloni points
Italian women who came to this country did so as part of a family – as daughter, wife, sister, or “on consignment,” chosen, sometimes by picture or sometimes by hearsay from an immigrant’s hometown to be his wife. But always in the context of a family situation. There was no pattern of the independent Italian woman emigrating alone to better her lot as there was, for instance, of Irish women who, advantaged by having the language, came over in droves to be hired as maidservants, many then living out their lives unmarried and alone. But an uneducated Italian woman could not exist, economically or socially, outside the family institution which defined her life and gave it its whole meaning. She came bonded to the traditional role. 26 Carmolina, however, breaks from tradition by entering into a marriage of self; it is a marriage that solidifies her autonomy as a person. The marriage also affirms her identity as Italian, which is shown through mirrored images of the past and present: Grandma Doria and Carmolina get ready separately and are each looking into a mirror. Doria sees herself and her mother’s picture in the mirror; Carmolina looks into a mirror and sees herself, her mother, and even her sister, who occupies the corner of the glass. When Doria comes to see Carmolina in her gown, they both speak to each other in the mirror. It is a reflection of generations, and when Doria tells Carmolina that it is her turn, she is urging Carmolina to seek out her independence but also to keep her memories alive. Fred Gardaphé explains that the third generation, free from some of the struggle endured by the first and second, is responsible for preserving the history of their ancestors: “While the earlier battles were fought and won on the economic and sociological front, the battle for the grandchildren of the immigrants has moved to the cultural front.” In Paper Barolini, Chiaroscuro, 152.
Gardaphé, “We Weren’t Always White,” 189.
Fish the relationship between the first generation (Doria) and the third generation (Carmolina) is what secures the immigrant’s story in the literary tradition.
Hansen’s Law and the Grandmother Figure in Paper Fish Many Italian American critics point specifically to the third generation as accomplishing goals that the first and second generations were either unable to or wary of doing. The success of the third generation was a topic of study for historian M.L.
Hansen, whose theory on the third generation immigrant is referred to as “Hansen’s Law.” In his essay “The Third Generation in America,” Hansen first details the difficulties that the sons and daughters of immigrants (the second generation) faced, as they were a target of criticism from both cultures. Not only were they considered foreigners by the Americans that surrounded them, but their parents were dissatisfied with how their sons and daughters were, according to them, becoming Americanized.
With this, as Hansen labels it, “strange dualism,” the second generation embodies the displacement felt by the Caribbean characters in the novels of this dissertation who do not fully belong to one culture but instead partly belong to two. This partial belonging was not enough for the parents of the first generation, who believed that “language, religion, customs and parental authority were not to be modified simply because the home had been moved four or five thousand miles to the westward.” What is the result for the second generation, then, who are equally condemned by both their parents and the society in which they live? According to Hansen, the response is to eradicate any element of
their ancestral past: