Monday, January 18, 2016

Feminism in Time, Dialogue, and Structure in "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents"

          Although there are many thematic elements within How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, one of the most prominent is the use of feminist language, elements, and motifs. It is impossible to deny that the novel is absolutely laden with their use, and it is certain that author Julia Alvarez used it for a reason. It is also impossible to hide the fact that made sure to incorporate her understanding and ideals of feminism and, in the most basic understand, what it means to "be a woman." Alvarez uses linear breaks (incorporated into her reverse-linear timeline) and character focus to demonstrate the changing "womanhood" of the four daughters both as individuals and collectively as a family. As time moves backward (and the novel moves forward), the sisters gradually gain and lose their independence as women both from their family and the people around them. The reader begins to know more about the women as the novel progresses, even though the women (linearly) know less and less about themselves; although the characters are regressing in age, knowledge, and language, they become more and more complex (although they may not understand it yet).

          Right from the start, the four women (well into adulthood) are treated and referred to simply as "girls" or more specifically "the girls" and "you girls." During her visit to the "old country," Yolanda endures extreme sexism, cultural ideologies, and hidden resentment from her extended family (more specifically, her aunts and female cousins). Her aunt, Tia Flor, right away starts the barrage during her visit, stating "It's not good... you four girls get lost up here... So how are you four girls?" (7). Right away, Yolanda and her sisters have their individual identities stripped from them by their own flesh and blood, but they also have their adulthood and womanhood stripped from them. The four are referred to simply as "you four girls" rather than Yolanda as "you" herself or the sisters as "your four women" or even simply "you four sisters." Even when Yolanda notes she can look after herself and take public transit, the aunts and cousins scold and laugh at her, stating, "Can't you see it?!... Yoyo climbing into an old camioneta with all the campesinos and their fighting cocks and their goats and their pigs!" which is followed simply by the words "Giggles and head shakings." (9-10). Yolanda, a grown woman, is laughed down by her own aunts and cousins simply for the sake of trying to be an independent, strong woman that she has always tried to be growing up (a fact we, the readers, will find out later in the novel). This same sexist, anti-feminist sentiment is echoed by the guards in the area who hurt a boy, Jose, who they believed were lying to them about what he was doing, stating that "The guardia hit me. He said I was telling stories. No dominicana with a car would be out at this hour getting guayabas" (22). It is so unbelievable in the Dominican Republic that a woman would (or even could) go out by herself when she wanted to do anything, let alone "get guayabas" that a guard hits a child for thinking he was lying.

          This same set of old-world ideals and patriarchal sexism is also echoed later in the novel (albeit earlier in the Garcia girls' lives) when Sofia (nicknamed Fifi) begins a relationship with a distant, illegitimate cousin named Manuel Gustavo. Manuel, like the rest of the men the reader has seen in the Dominican Republic, is centered around machismo and ideals of male superiority. Although his father is actually Tio Orlando's illegitimate son, a different uncle, Ignacio, instead takes responsibility for him because "he's never married and is always getting ragged about being homosexual. So two men are off the hook with one bastard" (119). Machismo and heterosexuality are revered to the point that a man (who may or may not be homosexual) will take responsibility for some other man's infidelity rather than be thought of as homosexual. And to top it all off, it is noted that "According to Fifi, the alta sociedad, the high-class ladies of the oligarchy who form a kind of club, not unlike a country club, are delighted by this juicy bit of gossip" (119). This mention by the narrator (Yolanda) calls back to the age-old commentary of the "gossiping woman." This commentary has been in major works of literature for multiple centuries, including works of Chaucer (the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales), Eliot (Mrs. Cadwallader in Middlemarch), or Atwood (the Marthas in The Handmaid's Tale).

          Even the sexuality of femininity becomes a major factor for the sisters and, most importantly, for Yolanda, the narrator, who can give a first-hand account of her own sexual awakening / discovery, one that is individual and unique to her (rather than her and her sisters being lumped together once again). This femininity and sexual awakening goes hand and hand with her upbringing and the cultural ideologies that come with it. During her courtship with Rudy (aka Rudolph Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third), Yolanda begins to discover what she is (and more importantly what she isn't) comfortable with in a relationship. She begins to hate or even loathe her own ideals and upbringing for the fact that she couldn't be a "typical American teenager (95). Trying to fit in, she seemingly curses her own existence for the fact that she can't be who or what Rudy (or any other "college man") wants in a relationship without going against her own ideals. She is so in love with Rudy that she can't let herself realize what kind of man he was, even though she gives her own commentary that she "would drink only a sip or two of the Dixie cup he offered, and [she] wouldn't dare touch the drugs. [She] was less afraid of what they would do to my mind than [she] was of what Rudy might do to [her] body while [she] was under the influence" (95). Although this narrative is being given from a presumably later date, one must consider the importance of Yolanda's own understanding of the situation (even if understood later in life). Yolanda is willing to go against her ideals and push her own limits, but only at her own discretion; she is not willing under any circumstance to allow herself to be put into a position to do something she isn't willing to do. This is absolutely important to Yolanda's personal growth and development mentally and sexually, both as an adult and a woman. This growth is expanded upon further when Rudy attempts to once again make his way into Yolanda's life. This time, however Yolanda doesn't leave, hoping he would chase him. Instead, Yolanda throws him out, noting, "Catholic or not, I still thought it a sin for a guy to just barge in five years later with a bottle of expensive wine and assume you'd drink out of his hand. A guy who had ditched me, who had haunted my sexual awakening with a nightmare of self-doubt" (103). This chapter focusing on her sexual and romantic growth comes after a chapter in which she talks of her marriage with a different man, John. Although her relationship with John comes chronologically after her relationship with Rudy, it isn't until the chapter with Rudy (earlier in her life chronologically) that the reader begins to understand the complexity of Yolanda's character. The chapter with John instead focuses on a more poetic love, a "typical" love, one she is looking for with Rudy but doesn't receive in return.

          Even when she was young, Yolanda had "girliness" and femininity and cultural ideals pushed onto her. With her cousin Mundin, Yolanda would often play and do things that would be considered "not lady-like," such as playing like they were in the "old West" as cowboy and cowgirl (225). This femininity was, for the most part, ignored and spoiled by her grandmother. She notes, "My American cowgirl outfit was an exact duplicate--except for the skirt--of Mundin's cowboy one." When her mother disapproved, thinking it would lend to her being a "tomboy," Yolanda uses the logic that is presented to her. Even though it was a copy of a cowboy outfit, it included a skirt. She points out, "But it is for girls... Boys don't wear skirts" (228). This amuses her grandmother because Yolanda has simply used the basic, imposed understanding of "girls wear skirts, boys don't" to argue her mother's worries. Yolanda is correct, showing that even at an early age she has a complex understanding of the world she lives in even though she has very simple ideologies placed on her early in her life. This complex understanding comes to Yolanda early chronologically but is shown to the reader near the end of the novel's own narrative. One must question why Alvarez structured the entire novel this way. It would seem to make more sense to narrative structure that the complex character be presented after the complexity has been reached or developed, chronologically later (earlier in the novel), but instead Alvarez presents it in the complete reverse. As the sisters' age gradually decreases throughout the novel, their complexity and self-understanding increases. This motif correlates directly to the ending of Atwood's Happy Endings, stating "That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why." While the novel can be placed chronologically A to Z with the complexity of characters and plot gradually increasing through the novel, much can be said for the reversal. For example we learn about Yolanda's want and need for a poetic type of love, a love that is grounded in her ideals and her passions, a major plot point. But it isn't until the chapter following that we learn why Yolanda is the way she is in her relationship with John or how she got to be that way.


  1. I am left wondering what your personal thoughts are about Alvarez's reasoning to have a reverse chronological timeline. I agree with you that as the girls get younger, they do become more rebellious and adamant in their feminism, but what does that say about the girls, American Culture, and immigrant culture (in general or Dominican specifically)? How does it guide readers to their own thoughts about these topics?

  2. You write, "Yolanda endures extreme sexism, cultural ideologies, and hidden resentment from her extended family (more specifically, her aunts and female cousins)." What, then do you make of Yolanda's potential decision to stay in the Dominican Republic, rather than going back to the United States? It seems, now that she has tasted life in both very different places, she chooses the DR. Looking back, after finishing the novel, I am surprised, because the Yolanda throughout the middle of the text is very strong-willed, a feminist, and not afraid to call anyone out on their BS. Out of all the sister's, I would have thought she would be the last one to want to "come home." Of course, maybe that reaction is why this scene comes first? So that we don't have that reaction? I'm not sure.

  3. I'm wondering how (or if) you think the passage when Mundin has Yolanda pull her pants down fits into what you're talking about? Initially, I just viewed the scene as curiosity between the two because of the human doll, but it seems now that it might be more than that. Are there any implications because of that scene? I want see it as a pivotal moment of Yolanda's development, but there was more of a reaction from Mundin when he acts disappointed because Yolanda doesn't have something like his own.