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Elegguá is one of the Orshia gods, which are deities worshipped by West African peoples. Petra’s ancestors are from Angola, a former colony located on the Western coast of Africa. In his article “Trickster at the Crossroads,” Erik Davis describes the qualities of these deities and how they embody human characteristics: “The orshia are regularly “fed” with animal blood, food, and gifts, and during rituals the gods frequently possess the bodies of the faithful. Their behavior draws from a full range of human experience, including sexuality, mockery and intoxication.” Davis goes on to describe that human gifts, such as blood sacrifice, provide sustenance to the gods and that these gifts show that gods need humans to exist. These attributes are similar to the gods found in Greek and Roman mythology, for they exhibit conduct that is innately human, often conduct that is negative in nature, such as pride, jealously, and infidelity. The Greek and Roman gods are also dependent on humans, whose action is a source of amusement to them. An example of this is the Trojan War, which according to myth originated from a quarrel over which goddess was the most beautiful. The subsequent violence of the war continued to serve as distraction for the gods, who took sides and often intervened on behalf of the humans they supported.
Though Elegguá is mentioned often in Isabel’s manuscript, there is no detailed description of the god. Though there are various forms of Elegguá in different African cultures and mythology, (Eshu, Elegbara, and Legba are some of the other names of Elegguá) the common thread among the variations is the idea of crossroads and Erik Davis, “Trickster at the Crossroads: West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex, and Deceit,” Gnosis (Spring 1991) : 2.
communication. Often compared to the Greek god Hermes, Elegguá is the god who relays information between the gods and mortals. In his article, Davis details a legend in which Eshu’s (Elegguá) mother gives her seven children power over different areas of the earth, assigning each a different language. Eshu however, remains with her and gives her information about her children. Eshu therefore knows all the languages, and acts as intermediary because the children, now speaking different languages, cannot directly communicate with their mother. In the same vein, humans must acknowledge Eshu before any other god, and must go through Eshu in order to contact other gods. It is interesting that Ferré chooses to include a god whose legend includes such linguistic abilities, since the subject of language and its connection to identity is such a prevalent theme in her novel. In his book The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates reflects on the tenacity of the myth of Eshu, which is widespread in African and Caribbean cultures,
and how it obviously survived the Middle Passage through the strength of oral tradition:
Nevertheless, this topos functions as a sign of the disrupted wholeness of an African system of meaning and believe that black slaves recreated from memory, preserved by oral narration, improvised upon in ritual – especially in the rituals of the repeated oral narrative – and willed to their own subsequent generations, as hermetically sealed and encoded charts of cultural descent. 6 As I have noted, particularly in chapter one, the oral tradition is seen as significant in The House on the Lagoon, once again through Petra’s family. It is through the oral tradition that the family learns about the history of their ancestors. Gates also explains that Eshu’s relationship between the humans the gods, one that requires the use of different languages, is representative of interpretation. Gates extends this reading to connect the meaning of Eshu to the literary critic who interprets a text, claiming that “as Hermes’ role as messenger and interpreter for the gods lent his name readily to hermeneutics, our word Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 5.
for the study of methodological principles of interpretation of a text, so too is it appropriate for the literary critic to name the methodological principles of the interpretation of black texts Esu-‘tufunaalo, literally “one who unravels the knots of Esu.” 7 In addition to being the god of crossroads and communication, Elegguá is also known as a trickster god and sometimes intentionally blurs the lines of communication in order to trick humans or to teach them a lesson. One such story involves a lesson in
Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and blue on the other. Sometime after he departed, the villagers who had seen him began arguing about whether the stranger's hat was blue or red. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the blue side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. They nearly fought over the argument, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers about how one's perspective can alter a person's perception of reality, and that one can be easily fooled. 8 There are many variations to this tale, but the underlying theme is the same: that perception can vary from one group to another. The texts studied in this dissertation point to the fact that in literature, the perspective is often that of the dominant Western tradition. However, as the story of Eshu reveals, there is often another side, a side that my studied authors are attempting to convey to readers, and Ferré does so by including an African point of view. Although in her novel these stories of Elegguá are not evoked, it is interesting that Ferré has chosen to include a god that represents communication, and unlikely coincidental that the quotation from book XI of the Odyssey treats communication.
Davis, “Trickster at the Crossroads,” 7.
In book XI, Odysseus must offer a blood sacrifice in order to speak with the dead.
These dead souls are not gods, however, it is not unlike a blood sacrifice and therefore, similar to the sustenance offered in order to communicate with African gods. Odysseus’ journey to the underworld is a privilege unavailable to most mortals, and he is able to see a different perspective, one that illuminates the depth of sorrow felt by the souls.
Achilles, for example, having chosen heroism over long life, laments his fate and thus Odysseus is able to see that being revered in the mortal world is of little comfort to the dead. Odysseus also shares qualities of Elegguá, for like the god, he is known for his cleverness and is often depicted as a cunning trickster. He is also known as a gifted orator, possessing the ability to smooth over arguments or talk his way out of difficulties, which corresponds to Elegguá’s capacity for communication. Odysseus’ trip to the Underworld is something of a crossroads; it is a journey he must undergo in order to return home safely. In order to get home he must receive communication from Theresias.
Though the integration of Homer’s Odyssey with the African god Elegguá is seemingly arbitrary, I believe that it was intentional on Ferré’s part. In addition to the passage quoted at the beginning of the novel, Ferré references Greek mythology in other ways: Part 8 of the novel is entitled “When the Shades Draw Near” and within this section is a chapter entitled “Petra’s Voyage to the Underworld.” The word “shade” is a reference to the dead soul, a term used primarily for the dead in Greek and Roman myth.
In this section Isabel gives her manuscript to Petra to put in Elegguá’s care in hopes that the offering to the god will in turn earn protection for her sons. Isabel also reflects on her
past and thinks about the people, the shades, that she has lost:
Fitzgerald, Homer’s Odyssey, book XI, p. 201: Achilles says: “Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over all the exhausted dead.” “Looking at the Atlantic was comforting. The living and the dead were held fast by its embrace: Abby, Mother, Father, and Manuel on one side; Willie and I on the other. It made me think of what Petra had said when she died; she had insisted that water was love, that it made communication possible, and she was right (380).” The important element of water, along with the title of the chapter, evokes mythological themes. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew are aboard a ship lost at sea, and he must pass through the Underworld to complete his voyage home. The Underworld is surrounded by water and includes a series of five rivers, and souls must be ferried across one of these rivers, the Acheron. The chapter Petra’s Voyage to the Underworld describes Petra’s wake, during which she is submerged in water and is then carried across the river on a boat, a scene bears a resemblance to the ritual of the dead crossing the Acheron in Greek and Roman mythology. In the text, there are a procession of boats, filled with mourners, which link two places: “The caravan of boats that followed was so long it reached all the way from Almares to Morass Lagoon, cutting across mangrove swamp. For one brief moment the procession linked our elegant suburb to the slum of Las Minas” (384). Water facilitates a connection between two worlds that are so diverse and often at odds. The European elegance of the house on the lagoon, proud of its Spanish ancestry, is now tied to poverty stricken Las Minas, an area inhabited by Afro Puerto Ricans. As I have noted, African and European traditions have already merged in the Mendizabal family, for Petra’s blood relative, Willie, is also of Quintín’s blood. This merging of blood was also Mark R. Besonen, George (Rip) Rapp, and Zhichun Jing, “The Lower Acheron River Valley: Ancient Accounts and the Changing Landscape.” Hesperia Supplements, 32 (2003): 199.
done in water, for Quintín took Carmelina while they were swimming in the mangroves.
Willie knows that he has Aviles blood in his veins, as he so confesses to Isabel:
Because we live on an island there is no mass of mountains, no solid dike of matter to keep us from flowing out to others. Communication is possible, Mother. Through water, we can reach out an love our neighbors, try to understand them…Water permitted the Avilés family to travel from Morass to Alamares Lagoon in the first place,” he said. “After all, I was conceived in the swamp, isn’t that right, Mother?
And it was in the mangroves that Carmelina Avilés fell into Father’s arms.” (260) Blood, water and communication are all tied together in the novel, and Willie understands how water played a part in his conception. His notion of island culture is also interesting, for because there are no physical boundaries blocking the land from the sea, there is a propensity for more people to come and go, as well as the propensity for cultural and racial mixing. This observation about water recalls Glissant’s notion of a Caribbean consciousness that connects the various islands of the Caribbean Sea and is facilitated by the sea itself. In particular, Willie is struck by the potential for better communication among peoples. It is perhaps because of this attitude that Petra wills the statue of Elegguá, god of communication, to her great-grandson. More importantly, among Elegguá’s sacred toys lays Isabel’s manuscript. The manuscript is Isabel’s form of communication, a novel that among other things, expresses how important Petra and Elegguá were to the house on the lagoon. In fact, the demise of the house occurs a few short chapters following Petra’s death, indicating that the structure was vulnerable without her presence. Though Petra has passed on, Willie’s existence will perpetuate a new family saga, one that includes a mixing of the elite and the oppressed. The same is true for Esmeralda and Coral, who, like Irmine’s children in La migration des cœurs, will change the landscape of the class system and perhaps shape it into a system that is far less segregated. Although in Ferre’s novel Petra is a strong figure, she is a rare example of women who, like Antoinette, can break out of their metaphorical and literal cellars and attics to emerge from cloistered sections of the text.
Petra and Christophine: Stereotypes or Real Figures?
In the novels Wide Sargasso Sea and The House on the Lagoon, Christophine and Petra share many characteristics. They both are medicine women, faithful servants in a household, and they possess a shrewdness that seems to elude other characters in the novels. Despite their intelligence, many critics claim that both Christophine and Petra are saddled with the same tiresome stereotypes found in many works of colonial literature.
In this section, I explore the views of two critics: Gayatri Spivak, who is critical of Rhys’ depiction of Christophine, and Mary Ann Gosser Esquilin, who evaluates Ferré’s portrayal of Petra. In examining these critics’ claims, I argue why Christophine and Petra are more than merely tangential to the narratives.
In her essay, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Spivak
claims that Jean Rhys’ novel reduces Christophine to a marginal figure:
We can, however, look at the scene of Christophine’s inscription in the text.
Immediately after the exchange between her and the Man, well before the conclusion, she is simply driven out of the story, with neither narrative nor characterological explanation of justice: “ ‘Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know.’ ” She walked away without looking back.” (133) 11 Spivak also concludes that because Christophine is from Martinique (and not Jamaica, where the novel takes place) she embodies the stereotype of the good servant rather than the black native, and is therefore not a “self” in the novel. I disagree with many of Spivak’s complaints, for many reasons. Though Christophine is from Martinique rather than from Jamaica, there remains a sense of Caribbean identity and unity, an argument Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” 246.
that Maryse Condé supports. Christophine is native to the black Caribbean and her ancestry provides sufficient means for her to identify with island culture.