Monday, January 18, 2016

Disrupting Circular Narrative Identity in Alvarez's "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents"

In Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, time is moving backward, yet the narrative is moving forward.  From the very first tale of Yolanda and the guavas, to each family member’s recollection of the guardias raids, the reader is gaining information and understanding the development of each character through what seems like a traditional linear narrative; however, as each chapter travels further backward into the lives of the Garcia girls and the nonlinear narrative is more obviously exposed, the chronological feel of the narrative progression is reluctant to slow down—each detail belongs to the beginning of the story, the present-tense, yet these same details are also threaded throughout the narrative during each chapter as they dip into the past.

The plurality of each character’s stories—the telling and retelling of events witnessed through a variety of perspectives, personalities, and phases—constructs a narrative identity throughout the novel. David Wood believes that narrative “links together history, literature, and biography with the fragments of self-understanding by which we come to understand ourselves and our lives in conversation with our friends” (22). If narrative acts as a link between these three key components, then narrative identity can be understood as the personality of story-telling and perspective that emerges from the linkage—not just the who or what of history, biography, and literature, but the who, what, when, where, and why of any given story in conversation not only with itself, but with other texts and their readers.

David Wood argues that “narrative identity stresses the intelligible organization of events at the expense of the will, the ethical moment, the moment of decision, of impetus” (32). The reader witnesses these expenses several times throughout the novel. For example, in “The Blood of the Conquistadores,” a single event is retold several times. Each retelling focuses more on the organization—the details of what is happening in a chronological manner—rather than focusing on the individual moments or emotions of each character. Although there is specific character-driven personality in each section, the chapter is strung together not by these individual retellings, but by the “intelligible organization” of the entire guardias event as a whole.

The reader can also witness similar moments throughout earlier sections of the book, where characters reference to another event or situation that has appeared in the novel’s past, yet still lingers the reader’s future through the nonlinear narrative. When characters discuss something like Sofîa’s relationship with Papi or Yolanda’s poetry, they are in conversation with each other, organizing the narrative events that will later unfold through the novel’s progression. Although the reader is able to distinguish the differences in opinion and personality regarding each character, character development is not necessarily chronological; instead, the development is circular—the past has determined the present, but because the reader cannot establish the details of the past, one must assume the present has, in some shape or form, also contributed to the past. As the narrative continues to progress, the circular narrative identity pattern widens, placing readers in opposition with themselves. Rather than each character representing a specific “ethical moment” or “moment of decision,” the characters, through the circular narrative of nonlinear time, become one.


Wood contends that “narrative does not just heal, it opens new rifts—first, the irresolvable plurality of stories, and then the opposition between the organizing power of imagination, on the one hand, and the will on the other (32). In other words, narrative exposes the reader to a variety of stories that are often impossible to distinguish, especially when dealing with narrative that utilizes both thought and action. Near the end of the novel, Yolanda breaks the narrative wall to ask the reader: “You understand that I am collapsing all time now so that it fits in what’s left in the hollow of my story?... I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils” (289-90). Yolanda’s question comes after a retelling of the relationship with her kitten, a scene grounded in the past. Rather than ending the novel here, Yolanda’s inquiry thrusts the novel back into the present; however, there is no familiarity between the beginning of the book’s present and the concluding present confronting the reader.  

Yolanda’s question seems to function as both the “irresolvable plurality of stories” and the “opposition between the… power of imagination… and the will.” Yolanda is not only figuratively collapsing time, but as far as the timeline of the novel is concerned, she is also literally folding the stories inward.  The novel begins and ends with Yolanda—a further testament to the circular narrative identity pattern—and it becomes the reader’s task to understand the narrative morphing of each character’s specific stories rather than rely on Yolanda’s conclusion to determine what is happening. Once again, the narrative focuses on the organization of events, which Yolanda rehashes for nearly a page: “Then we moved to the United States. The cat disappeared altogether. I saw snow. I solved a riddle of an outdoors made mostly of concrete in New York. My grandmother grew so old she could not remember who she was” (289). Like the grandmother, the reader might have difficulty remembering the distinguishing qualities of each narrative thread and, as Laura always remarked, simply refer to one as something by “the four girls.”

Because Yolanda is collapsing time as a method of concluding the narrative, she is also collapsing the narrative itself. Time has been the foundation of each of the stories—moving forward, yet always moving backward—and the plurality of the stories, including the multiplicity of perspective, supports such a claim; however, by stepping outside of the narrative and informing the reader of her actions, Yolanda ends the narrative at the beginning.


  1. Completely missed the idea of Yolanda collapsing the narrative itself and time. This post helped me think back on the events of the story and really value what Julia Alvarez was doing within her novel. I had seen Yolanda breaking the fourth wall at the end of the novel as a means of bringing the reader back to the beginning and nothing more. However, given the context that you wrote about, I see that much more is at play than simply Alvarez writing a novel in reverse. By playing with time in this manner, it gives an extra layer to the story.

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  4. I'm glad you bring up that last line about Yolanda collapsing time. When I read it, I didn't know exactly what to make of it. I only had a broad understanding of it because I have been thinking about the reverse chronological order. Your discussion here makes sense. In the novel, the past and present inform each other, even if the characters don't realize it because the events haven't happened yet. It's a hard concept for me to understand because I am so rooted in the general consensus/thoughts about time.