Literary convention as a feminist strategy : the nature and function of the picaresque in selected novels by women authors from Latin America and South Africa, 1970-1990
Wenzel, Martha Jacomina
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The emergence of the picaresque in some contemporary women's novels from postcolonial countries has focused the attention on the nature and function of the picaresque and the manipulation of modes as a subversive strategy. As a cultural construct, the novel represents and interacts with the mores and concerns of a society but it is argued that women's issues have been absent from mainstream literature. This occurrence is attributed to the difference between male and female experience which evolved into a personal and domestic sphere for women and a public domain for men. Difference was perceived as a binary opposition and reinforced through culture with the result that women became marginalized - similar to the colonization of minorities. The first chapter attempts to contextualize the situation of women and indicate the problems they have to face. It is argued that a certain common ground exists between women from different cultures and ethnic groups and it is further postulated that by uniting their forces they might effectively oppose a male-dominated society. Furthermore, the postmodernist concept of the dissolution of boundaries is discussed with regard to the close relationship between fiction and history. As the aggressive feminist stance in society and literature has mostly been rejected by contemporary feminists and many now support a conciliatory agenda, their strategies in combatting domination and inequality have also changed. They have realized (and begun to exploit) the subversive potential of literature and language. In particular, they have become aware of the effectiveness of structural and formal codes in the reinforcement of meaning. Their writing displays a subjective preoccupation as they evince a predilection for autobiographical writing like the testimonial and the picaresque. The picaresque has a political connotation because of its inherent social critique but it is also situated within the autobiographical paradigm and is therefore an appropriate mode for feminist subversive strategy. This mode is discussed in the second chapter and its most prominent aspects, which also occur in the selected texts, are defined: its testimonial character, its element of social critique and the self-conscious or metafictional aspect of the mode are identified. The four novels which have been selected are Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, A sport of nature by Nadine Gordimer, Die swerjjare van Poppie Nongena by Elsa Joubert and Hasta no verte JesUs mfo by Elena Poniatowska. It is very fortunate that although the four novels all manifest picaresque traits, each also emphasizes a particular aspect more than the others. This difference also indicates an interesting progression in the evolution of women's novels from the personal testimonial to the picaresque as a moral corrective with political implications, to a metafictional/self-consciousness. All the novelists manipulate traditional conventions, whether social or literary. In Chapter 3, I discuss mainly Poniatowska with Joubert in counterpoint because Die swerjjare van Poppie Nongena cannot be classified as picaresque according to the criteria used. Poniatowska creates a testimonial of an authentic washerwoman named Jesusa Palancares in the text. She recounts her life to Poniatowska who acts as facilitator and reconstructs the life of a courageous and independent spirit. The chapter on Gordimer, Chapter 4, features Hillela Capran as a protagonist who seems to epitomize the image of the contemporary pfcara. She inverts the role of the pfcaro and thereby illustrates the double marginalization of women. The fifth chapter depicts Eva Luna, whose independence prompts her not only to reconstruct her past but also to construct her future. She illustrates that history has a double face and women need to assert their right to rein scribe themselves in history. The main theme which emerges from these novels is that of female assertion in various ways and by different means. What has emerged most persuasively from this study is that women writers have resorted to an effective, quietly devastating subversion of the traditional stereotypical roles ascribed to women by asserting their independence and rewriting literature and, by implication, history - and thus finally and irrevocably (re-)inscribing themselves into history.
- Humanities