«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
While in some ways the essay seems to champion American intervention, asserting that Americans gave more freedom to the oppressed masses, González does maintain that no colonial status can ever be truly good for the colonized and that Puerto Ricans must not look back to the Spanish era as the “good old days” but instead look forward to a Carribbean collectivity. This idea of collectivity, of striving towards a “Caribbeanness” is reminiscent of convictions held by Maryse Condé, who feels neither isolation from nor a return to Europe or Africa to be the answer but instead one must look to a collective Caribbean consciousness. This consciousness is steeped in Afro Antillean tradition, and in order to uncover this identity it is necessary to strip away the layers and search for the foundation, a foundation González claims makes up the first story of Puerto Rico’s history. Through Caribbean literature one can direct the focus to these traditions, and thus delve deeper toward the foundation. Rosario Ferré’s novel The House on the Lagoon is an attempt at exposing the “real” Puerto Rican society, a society that is not presented as a heterogeneous “happy family” but one that is conflict-ridden and filled with violence.
Binary Opposition in The House on the Lagoon It would be easy to create binary oppositions from elements of The House on the Lagoon: men versus women, statehood verses independence, English versus Spanish, history versus literature. There is even the temptation to link some of these elements together on one side and list them as opposing the remaining elements on the other side.
In the novel, many women support political independence, which may represent their desire for marital independence. Because Isabel is writing the novel and Quintín critiques it on the basis of historical accuracy, men could appear under the umbrella of history and statehood while women under literature and independence. As for the languages, the independistas want Spanish to remain the official language, whereas if Puerto Rico were to become a U.S. state, English would be the official language.
Therefore, Spanish could be placed alongside women, literature, and independence and English alongside men, history and statehood.
While these oppositions do exist, they do not neatly line up on either side, for Ferré creates components in her characters that cause these oppositions to overlap. For example, as noted in the chapter on motherhood, many women do not want to have children in order to be more independent, such as Rebecca and Isabel’s grandmother. But there are women like Isabel who want a large family, and Carmita deeply regrets her abortion and also would like more children. Many of the men in novel want many children, such as Buenaventura. He is happy that Rebecca eventually has several children, partly because it keeps his wife subservient to him. His son, Quintín, however, is satisfied with one child and insists that Isabel be sterilized to prevent further pregnancies. In both cases the men are dominant over their wives, even if their objective is different.
Though this novel is about Isabel’s independence from Quintín, an independence which represents women’s resistance to a patriarchal society, not all of the situations in the text develop this theme. For example, Isabel’s mother Carmita is not subservient to her husband. If anything, it is the reverse, for her husband is unable to control Carmita’s gambling, he is incompetent when he attempts to take over his wife’s family business, and he commits suicide. These facets of his life can be seen as emasculating. Similarly, Isabel’s son, Manuel, has no interest in politics, but because his love for Coral is so strong, he adopts her views and becomes a radical for the independence movement. It is under her influence that he abandons his family and is even violent against them.
Therefore, there are two contradictions to the opposition: first, Manuel, a man, supports the independence movement and blindly follows Coral’s lead. Second, while he is set up in contrast to his father, who supports statehood, they are linked together in violence.
And although Manuel’s views, albeit through Coral, become radically different from his father’s, the underlying violence is the same.
As for literature and history, the reader has greater access to Isabel’s story (literature) than to Quintín’s (history) scribbling in the margins of the novel. But some of his corrections are convincing, causing the reader to ponder the truth of Isabel’s stories.
In spite of the fact that Isabel supports independence, she does write the novel in English, therefore she cannot easily be placed on the side of those who support Spanish.
A simple dynamic is repeated in the novel: oppositions are set up then broken down. This is also what happens to the house on the lagoon. It is built up, broken down, and rebuilt several times in the novel. It is important to recognize that the house is not merely destroyed, but reconstructed. This action can be attributed to deconstruction theory and its critique of oppositions. Philosophers like Derrida claim that oppositions can be harmful because they set up dualities in which one is rendered superior to the other. For example, self and other or identity and difference can be seen as oppositions, in which self and identity are depicted as more valuable. These dualities should therefore be deconstructed, analyzed, and undone. As Derrida states, "Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness to the other.” 8 By setting up and then undoing several binary oppositions, Ferré’s novel can be seen as an act of deconstruction which makes way for the “Other.” An Artist in the Faking: Pavel’s Character An interesting character in the novel is the architect, Milan Pavel, whose work is admired by all the inhabitants of San Juan. The reader learns that Pavel’s designs are not original and that his works are actually copies of those of his former master, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This fact is unknown to the people of San Juan, whose
Buenaventura, who commissions him to build the house on the lagoon. The only reason Pavel agrees to the work for him is that he forms a connection with Buenaventura’s Vincent Leitch, “Jacques Derrida,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1824.
artistic wife Rebecca. He begins plans for the house on the lagoon, which becomes the main setting of the novel. As is his custom, he selects one of Wright’s beautiful designs for the house, but in his fervor Pavel begins to add several other designs that are uniquely
As he worked on the plans he grew inspired and added many new elements which would make the house more in keeping with life in the tropics. (43) It was the first time in his life he designed something truly original. He created the house on the lagoon as one would create a poem or a statue, breathing life into its every stone. (49) Every other time he drew plans for a structure, Pavel simply replicated what his master had designed. It is only through Rebecca’s artistic influence that Pavel breaks this cycle and creates something unique out his master’s designs. This action could be viewed as another example of what all the authors treated in this dissertation are doing: they look beyond the “masters,” of the dominant tradition and create a unique text out of what has come before. As the above quotation explains, Pavel’s changes are made in order to adapt the house to the tropics. In contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings in Chicago, a city that has an entirely different climate from the Caribbean. In similar fashion, the authors in this dissertation have created works that are in keeping with their tradition, and, for example, include the backdrop and culture of the Caribbean.
The house is an important setting for the novel, one that evokes artistic creation and expression. Even when the house is demolished later in the novel, to make room for the new one, one important part of the structure remained: “The only section of Pavel’s house Buenaventura didn’t order destroyed was the terrace. The contractor said it might weaken the foundations of the new house, so the terrace was left standing and was made part of the Spanish Revival mansion (69).” The terrace was the main source of artistic creation in the house. Pavel created it specifically for Rebecca, who used the space for performing her dances and art. The fact that this space remained and was the central source of strength of the house is significant. While the novel informs us that later in San Juan, Pavel’s buildings were destroyed, a section of the house on the lagoon, which is his only original creation, has withstood the test of time. This idea of duration can again be extended to parallel the strength of the “Other’s” literature as work that is newly created from Western tradition. Yet, the work is original, has a strong foundation, and is now being recognized in literary circles. Pavel is usurping Wright’s authority and claiming it for his own when he surpasses his former master’s designs. This idea can also be extended to Caribbean literature, whose works usurp the authority of Western tradition in their appropriation of that literature. Because colonial violence is such a part of Caribbean history, the usurping of authority can be viewed as a master/slave relationship.
The appropriation of the dominant literature, and the changing of elements to incorporate it into Caribbean culture, is a revolt against the “master” tradition.
The interpretation of Pavel’s architecture can be applied to Isabel, who records stories from the house on the lagoon to create her own novel. Many of the events in the novel involve her husband’s family, to whom Isabel has been very obedient. She writes that she fears her husband, whose violent temper becomes more discernable throughout the novel. Quintín has the role of “master,” and like Pavel with Wright, Isabel usurps Quintín’s authority by appropriating stories from his family and describing them with her own details and point of view.
When her husband Quintín discovers the manuscript, he criticizes Isabel, claiming that she has distorted the facts of their family history. Yet, despite his uneasiness, he becomes captivated with her manuscript, and thinks, “He was discovering something important about Isabel and was examining his family’s history in a way he’d never done.” The effect that Isabel’s manuscript has on Quintín is similar to the effect that ethnic literature has on the literary tradition. When works surfaced from nontraditional authors, they provoked readers and urged them to observe heterogeneous cultures in a different light, one that was not limited to the dominant viewpoint. Of course, Isabel does not merely copy the family events in bland historical fashion (a style that irks Quintín, who is an amateur historian), she adds her own artistic flair to make her manuscript a work of art. This is, in fact, what Pavel does – he begins with a copy, but his enthusiasm with the design leads to an original creation.
In addition, Isabel’s novel offers historical significance to her island culture.
Caribbean writers such as Glissant have complained that the Caribbean has suffered from a non-histoire, since its stories were told and altered by the dominant West. Puerto Rico has endured the same fate, as Isabel reveals. The insertion of American culture on the island caused many changes, such as English being recognized as the national language and American history being the subject of study in Puerto Rican schools. The fact that U.S. history was the only historical education available had an effect on islanders such as Aristides, Quintín’s grandfather. This education convinced him to admire the U.S. and to be an advocate of statehood. The fact that the education system did not offer Puerto Ricans an opportunity to study their own history demonstrates that the U.S. wished to assert itself as a hegemonic force. Isabel’s manuscript offers a glimpse into true Puerto Rican culture while also revealing the dominant country’s desire to govern and draw people away from their own history. This is not unlike the colonial schools in the West Indies and Africa, who wanted their new pupils to speak the colonial language and essentially become European, yet also wanted power over the colonized land. Just as writers Condé and Rhys have done, the character of Isabel is writing back, fueled by a need to record her own history.
As Quintín notes, Isabel writes in English, which it something he criticizes.
Isabel’s use of English seems to contradict her independent views. The reader has to remember also that this work is a novel within a novel, and it is noteworthy that Rosario Ferré wrote this novel in English as well. If one supports Puerto Rican independence, and keeping the official language Spanish, then it seems justifiable to criticize the author for choosing the colonial language. Yet, as pointed out with all of the authors in this dissertation, to reach the goal of destabilizing the colonial power, one must appropriate it.
By writing in English, Isabel appropriates the colonial language, and uses it to write about her own culture, history and life experiences. In using English, she also reaches a wider audience and perhaps facilitates a dialogue with her Western readership that may lead to greater understanding. This same point applies to many Caribbean authors, such as Condé, who have been criticized for using French and providing Creole translations in the text, rather than using the native Creole tongue. If Condé wishes to educate and persuade readers of the validity of Caribbean culture and colonial violence, she writes in French so that the former colonizers may clearly understand the plight of the colonized subject.