Sandra Cisneros: Hegemony within the wedlock

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5.2 Sandra Cisneros: Hegemony within the wedlock

In this chapter I am going to observe the way Cisneros portrays marriage in Chicano community and how this portrayal corresponds with above mentioned literary tendencies. In “Woman Hollering Creek” Cisneros reveals the story of Cleófiles, a girl who left her father’s house in Mexico to get marry and live on ''el otro lado''— the other side - in Texas. Her new existence in the U.S. land was supposed to bring her out of poverty in Mexico and assure good standard of living. However, when facing the reality, she found herself trapped in a desolate house with a violent husband and isolated from the rest of the society due to the language barrier. Cisneros launched the issue of domestic violence and abuse as a central theme of the story.

I argue that beneficial marriage put the women into unfavorable position straightforwardly. Economic dependence on her husband together with their inability to make any social contacts, makes them isolated in their domestic sphere. Moreover these women lose their touch with outer world and their identity is limited to being a wife as a complementary element to the husband. The first striking moment in the novel is when Cleófiles openly shared her feeling to her husband with us, as she commented: “…this man, this father, this rival, this keeper, this lord, this master, this husband till kingdom come.”(49) She designated his position primarily as a man, biological species, as if it was the most important feature of a being which defines his further privileges - the status of a man gives him also the position of a lord and a master, long before a husband. Contrariwise we can deduce Cleófiles self- perception as a woman, a mother, a servant, a property, a wife. Through this hierarchy Cisneros follows the stereotypical portrayals of a Chicana, in her traditional submissive role, as a meaningless being - even for her husband.

On the base of Cleófiles’ self-esteem we are not very surprised with her husband’s acting. He felt confident in his powerful position, well aware of the fact, that Cleófiles was completely dependent on him. He used his status of the breadwinner to justify his drinking excesses as the need to relax and to pick up energy for his important position out of the house and in the same time he hints her own domestic well-being: “…if she had any brains in her head she would realize he’s been up before the rooster earning his living to pay for the food in her belly and the roof over her head .”(49) Cleófiles on the other hand had no financial means to dispose with. In fact, it is not only the lack of finance but also the lack of personal freedom to arrange her own life, which contributed to Cleófiles dependence within the marriage. When she needed a medical check out she had to beg her husband to drive her to and to pay the bill for the doctor. When she was refused, Cleófiles attempted to suggest getting money on her own, but was not allowed to: “She could write to her father and ask maybe for money, just a loan, for the new baby’s medical expenses. Well then if he’d rather she didn’t . All right, she won’t.”(53) The husband is obviously acting here from the position of power, deciding about Cleófiles’ fate or destiny, controlling even her personal matters such as the visit of the doctor or contact with her parents.

Cleófiles herself was aware of her dependence on her husband and the reader is informed about the position society expected from her: “The towns here are built so that you have to depend on husbands. Or stay home.” (51) Both the lack of social contacts and the opportunities to utilize her potential outside the house led to identity confined in her domestic sphere. Thus, in addition to economic dependence Cleófiles experienced social isolation as well. Her social role then is limited to becoming a complementary element to her husband:

“…when she is invited and accompanies her husband, [she] sits mute beside their conversation, waits and sips a beer until it grows warm, twists a paper napkin into a knot … nods her head, smiles, yawns, politely grins, laughs at the appropriate moment.”(48)

Cleófiles simply remained in her passive, subordinate position, as if she silently accepted her pre-determined role. When she was beaten by her husband, she did not attempt to defend:

But when the moment came, and he slapped her once, and then again, and again, until the lip split and bled an orchid of blood, she didn’t fight back, she didn’t break into tears, she didn’t run away as she imagined she might when she saw such things in the telenovelas. … She could think of nothing to say, said nothing. Just stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame, this time and each. (47)

The inability to defend at least verbally is alarming, however rather common pattern in domestic violence issues. Physical violence is understood as the worst grade of masculine hegemony within male-female relationship and in the past, that simple episode in the novel would be considered as very daring literary act. Cisneros, however, does not stop here, but she suggests that the extent of domestic violence in Chicano community exceeds the limits of private matters and has become all-society problem - Cleófiles reports high number of women, who are physically, emotionally and psychologically victimized by their closest :

“It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car. This one’s cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle….”(52)

The fact she used newspapers as a source of information is giving the whole scene objective dimension. What makes the matters worse is a general acceptance or ignorance of such behavior – typical response of Cleófiles husband claimed that she was exaggerating. One of his friends went even further, when justifying the murder of his wife: “Maximiliano who was said to have killed his wife in an ice-house brawl when she came at him with a mop. I had to shoot, he said – she was armed.”(51) This is the example of what Rivera calls “cultural defense”, occurring as a consequence of submissive attitude towards aggressiveness. When women decide to tolerate the abuse, it provides the community with an excuse for ignoring and trivializing such behavior. Rivera calls this apologetic approach “cultural defense,” since it claims that violence against women (even the murder of one’s own wife) under certain circumstances, is normal in certain cultures and should be judged by the particular culture standards. (Rivera, 505)

Another problematic aspect of domestic violence Cisneros’ touches is the difficulty with providing the testimony. Victims are often too scared to accuse their spouses. Most women, just alike Cleófiles, simply decide to shield the aggressor: ”No, she won’t mention it. She promises. If the doctor asks she can say she fell down the front steps or slipped when she was out.”(53) Cleóflies decided to shield her husband so as not to make herself embarrassed; such attitude, however, prevented her from effective defense and it leads to general acceptance of victimization. This way Chicanas are trapped in a vicious circle which they are unable to escape on their own.

Not only Cisneros’ suggests that domestic violence grew up into all-society dimension, she also criticizes the insufficiency of the system of social service for Chicanas seeking help. The doctor who was asking her friend for a help for Cleófiles’ commneted: “You think they are going to help her? This lady doesn’t even speak English….If we don’t help her, who will?” (54) The failure of state organization is substituted by personal responsibility of doctors and other people who might be capable of help.


5.2.1The character of La mala mujer

As mentioned above, many contemporary writers include the character of La mala mujer (bad woman) in their works in order to contrast traditional perception of Mexican women as submissive wifes. This “bad woman” is depicted as independent, emancipated woman in accordance with western society standards. In “Woman Hollering Creek” Cisneros assigned these attributes to Felice - the woman who drives Cleófiles away from her violent husband. Felice is a Chicana as well, however her social status utterly contrasts with Cleófiles experience of life. Again, we are coming to different level of economic status and the importance of economic independence. We learnt that Felice is driving her own car as Cleófiles remarked in wonder: “The pickup, mind you, but when Cleófiles asked if it was her husband’s, she said she didn’t have a husband. The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it.” (55) It is hard to say which fact was more striking to Cleófiles - whether the sole existence of a single woman or the fact, she could afford to buy her own car, and even choose the car she liked. Felice further accented her level of emancipation with the comment: “I used to have Pontiac Sunbird. But those cars are for vieas. Pussy cars. Now, this here is a real car…” Cleófiles was startled by that comment itself as if the words alone would not befit to a woman mouth: “What kind of talk was that coming from a woman?”(55) To Cleófiles, Felice represented utterly new archetype of womanhood. She was startled by both Felice’s behavior and attitude. Up to the day of her escape Cleófiles perceived the name Woman Hollering mostly negative as “the woman [who] had hollered from anger or pain” (46) or as her husband called it “pain or rage” (47), but Felice took it as a chance to let her temperament out. When they were crossing the river, Felice produced loud yelling “like Tarzan”. However shocked Cleófiles seemed to be at the beginning of their journey, she was able to sympathize with Felice’s behavior and later on she found herself laughing aloud. The only laugh throughout the whole story is hopefully understood as a promise of better future for Cleófiles and in the same time crossing the bridge from one bank to the other might be perceived as a symbol of Cleófiles re-birth and her way to new identity. Since that moment we can understand the river as an imaginary border between subordination on one side and freedom and joy on the other one.

In her story Cisneros masterly described traditional female role within the marriage. Submissive woman, accompanied by aggressive violent man, is typically unable to resist her fate on her own. In the same time Cisneros marked this situation as alarming and she urges both the state and individuals to be more concerned in this problematic issue.

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