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Isabel and Quintín’s Feud in The House on the Lagoon One of the most interesting topics of Ferré’s work is the textual aspect that highlights the debate between literature and history. This argument is also linked to the role of gender in the text, whereby Isabel (female) represents literature and Quintín (male) history, and the two forces are opposed to each other. As stated in an earlier section, these oppositions are not mutually exclusive, but it is interesting to explore Quintín and Isabel’s relationship as representative of literature and history.
One of the reasons for Quintín’s frustration with Isabel’s novel is his vehement belief that her account of events is historically inaccurate. For Quintín, history is equivalent to absolute truth while literature is fictive. Isabel argues, however, that history is also fictive, and this point in particular lends a theoretical approach to the novel. The problem with accepting history as absolute truth, according to critics in cultural studies, is that the best known history is that of the dominant tradition. In González’s “The Four Storyed Country,” he opens his discussion by stating that in many societies there are at least two cultures that co-exist, that of oppressor and oppressed, and that it is the history of the oppressor that is passed off as “general culture”. Antonio Gramsci is another theorist who explores the role of culture in society, and he echoes this view. In his Letters from Prison, he writes about how cultural dominance can be driven by economical factors. Though Gramsci’s ideas are fused with Marxist beliefs, his notion of hegemony, a position that he believes is formed through a group’s economic and cultural interests, can be applied to today’s cultural studies in that the values of the hegemonic González, “The Four Storyed Country,” 3.
Gramsci, Antonio, Letters from Prison (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 245.
group are passed off as a general consensus. Gramsci’s idea that history is used as propaganda and as a way to create an appearance of a unified nation aligns well with González’s claim that Puerto Rico’s national identity did not exist until Americanization affected the island. The people of Other races and cultures, who belong to González’s “oppressed” group, are not included in this national history since their history does not belong to the dominant, hegemonic tradition. Glissant also attributes the generality of culture that the population accepts to the work of the oppressor, namely the West.
Glissant maintains that the desire for Caribbean cultures to assimilate to European norms, a desire that the West instilled in the Caribbean, is dangerous because it denies a history that is separate from the West. Though Glissant speaks mainly of French Caribbean islands, like Martinique and Guadeloupe, the same idea can be applied to Puerto Rico, where loyalties range from the desire to be independent, to remain a commonwealth or to become a U.S. state. Glissant claims that it is the role of the writer to reclaim the history that once belonged to the Caribbean, this is what Isabel attempts to do when she reveals the secrets of the house on the lagoon.
Isabel’s husband Quintín becomes increasingly angry with her because he sees
her novel as totally disregarding history, which he believes can only be based in truth:
She was manipulating history for fiction’s sake, and what was worse, she was putting words into his mouth as if the false information had come from him … all writers interpreted reality in their own way – and that was why Quintín preferred history to literature; literature wasn’t ethical enough for him. There were limits to interpretation, even if the borders of reality were diffuse and malleable. There was always a nucleus of truth. (71 – 72) Quintín is bothered by the fact that Isabel’s manuscript errs in historical facts such as dates and location and that she also distorts the “historical” truth of his family’s past. He does not feel that imagination is powerful enough nor is it necessary to describe his family’s history. Yet Isabel’s position is that history, like literature, does not necessarily equal truth. Often, as in the case of the many stories told in The House on the Lagoon, history consists of facts which are handed down and changed depending on what the person chooses to elaborate upon or leave out. In this novel, this idea is applied to Puerto Rico’s crisis with identity, partly because its history is left out: “The history of the United States was taught thoroughly at their school, yet Puerto Rican history was never mentioned. In the nuns’ view, the island had no history. In this they were not exceptional; it was forbidden to teach Puerto Rican history at the time, either at private or public schools” (91). History, like literature, can be used selectively to sway one towards one idea or away from another. By ignoring Puerto Rican history and focusing soley upon U.S. history, many could be swayed towards statehood. Isabel emphatically denies
that history, as Quintín claims, is “more important than literature” (312) by stating:
“History doesn’t deal with the truth any more than literature does. From the moment a historian selects one theme over another in order to write about it, he is manipulating the facts. The historian, like the novelist, observes the world through his own tinted glass, and describes it as if it were the truth” (312). Isabel’s statement indicates that history can actually be more inaccurate than literature, since history presents itself as factual whereas the novelist makes no such claim.
Though Isabel and Quintín are at odds, literature and history are connected, as most fiction has some historical value and many novels are based on historical periods or events. Isabel chooses to include Puerto Rican politics, Quintín’s family secrets, and the disadvantaged position of Afro Puerto Rican women in her manuscript. As previously stated, many of these elements would not be included if Quintín were author. If we accept that Quintín represents history, then we can view his desire to ignore certain unsavory events in his family’s past as the imperialistic self’s desire to ignore the marginalized Other. Since this Other is represented through literature, one can examine the influence of literature in an effort to understand why Quintín is so envious of this influence. Because Isabel possesses a gift for writing, the reader can be influenced by her words and have sympathy for her character. Therefore, a reader may be more inclined to believe her version of events (literature) than Quintín’s (history). As in the case of Paper Fish’s Carmolina and her memories of the past, the truthfulness of Isabel’s account is less important than the impact her text has on the reader. Quintín slowly begins to realize the power of literature and consequently the power that Isabel now commands, for he realizes that through her writing she is severing herself from him while creating something that will outlast him and his accomplishments. This possibility alarms him and Isabel (literature) achieves an immortality that Quintín (history) will never possess. Critic Julie
Barak comments on Quintín’s fear and his reaction to this fear:
Quintín is suffering because he knows that Isabel’s book will gain her a kind of immortality that his business will not create for him. He secretly believes that literature outlasts history. He wants her to admit him as a co-author of the novel so that they can be remembered together. He wants her to admit that literature needs history to survive. When he realizes she won’t do this, he begins to collect art – paintings and sculptures. These tangible pieces of the past that he sees himself rescuing from oblivion, saving for/from history, restore his confidence in himself.
His desire to turn his home into a museum is an attempt to metamorphose into history. 11 Isabel’s literature will not acknowledge that she needs history to survive, and Quintín’s attempt to preserve history in a museum-like way does not succeed, for the house and all its artifacts burn to the ground. In contemplating the relationship between literature and Julie Barak, “Navigating the Swamp: Fact and Fiction in Rosario Ferré’s The House on the Lagoon,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association (JMMLA) 31, no.2 (Winter 1998): 36 history, I am reminded of Irving Howe’s essay “History and the Novel.” Howe claims that as time moves forward, history loses its power. History, he implies, is eventually
I come to a disconcerting conclusion. History may be the rock on which the novel rests, but time crumbles that rock into grains of sand. The circumstances forming the matrix of fiction soon turn out to be inaccessible, distant, and perhaps no longer arresting: come to seem alloyed by values we can no longer credit; or decline into mere reflexes of social bias. 12 While this passage would seem to indicate that literature is therefore superior, Howe states that literature is also vulnerable. The passage of time that wears away the historical significance also affects the novel, for it will not have the same impact on readers of future generations. Howe laments that works such as Bread and Wine are “not likely to stir younger readers as it once stirred readers of my generation” or that The Sun Also Rises deeply affected him, but that his students now have a response to the novel that is “dismaying.” 13 Though the impact of a novel certainly changes, I cannot agree with Howe that literature sinks into the sand that was once history. Instead, a literary text is read with a new perspective on history. For instance, Jane Eyre can now be read with a more informed history of colonialism and a clearer idea of what Bertha’s life may have been before her journey to England. Critics such as Said insist that we must no longer ignore the imperial history that is present in literature. 14 Characters will still remain sympathetic and words will create an impression on future readers – the ebb and flow of time does not destroy, but merely transforms, the landscape of fiction. Writers such as Glissant and Irving Howe, “History and the Novel.” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leithch, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company), 1544.
Said, Culture and Imperialism, 6.
Condé, who focus on historical events that were once ignored, are examples of those who create changes that bring clarity and greater understanding to literature.
The house on the lagoon is burned to the ground, an event that can be compared to the rock/sand metaphor that Howe speaks of. It is important to keep in mind, however, that through the course of the novel the house was deconstructed and reconstructed.
When Quintín threatens to burn the manuscript, he also threatens to kill Isabel, but she says, “I’ll kill you first,” (375) and she is able to fulfill this promise. As author, she determines what will happen, therefore Quintín dies at the close of her novel. Also as author, Isabel is able to obtain freedom from male dominance and she explains this clearly to her husband: “ ‘My novel is about personal freedom, Quintín, not about political freedom,’ I said calmly. ‘It is about my independence from you. I have the right to write what I think, and that’s what you haven’t been able to accept from the start’” (386).
The manuscript survives, but Quintín does not, and the house on the lagoon falls victim to the flames. Is this to say that literature trumps history and that history is dead?
Or that literature can survive without history? On the contrary, the burning of the house, and all the history it contained, does not represent the death of history, but instead signifies a chance for a new future. Just as in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette burns down the “cardboard” house, which is a symbolic representation of the pages of Brontë’s fiction, in order to create a new literary work that includes the history of the Caribbean, Isabel destroys Quintín and his house on the lagoon. The destruction of the house results in the destruction of the ruling patriarch that dominates the female subject along with the imperialistic elite that inhabit it. What is to rise up from the ash? Perhaps a new literary and historical tradition that will provide more insight into Caribbean culture.
The idea of an emerging and diverse literary tradition is present in all of the works studied in this dissertation, and therefore it seems appropriate to focus the concluding pages on the endings of the novels. Many of the endings are open endings that leave the reader to interpret what the future has in store for the protagonists. For example, in Condé’s La migration des cœurs, one is left to wonder about later generations. In chapter two, I suggested that Irmine’s children could possibly diversify a European system, and that Anthuria, the child of Razyé II and Little Cathy, may continue a tradition that her grandmother had rejected. In The House on the Lagoon and Wide Sargasso Sea, the fires end one chapter of the protagonists’ lives but allows room for another, and this is most clearly shown when Antoinette wakes with determination and purpose. In Paper Fish, the novel also closes with destruction as Carmolina’s neighborhood of Little Italy is demolished. In the novels, there is special attention given to geographical space and landscape, and the destructions and reconstructions that occur in those spaces clear the way for new and different texts.