Alienation and disorientation in a new country, complexities of family relationships, the place of women in Latino culture, and the politics of class and power in the Dominican Republic are dominant themes in Alvarez’s works. Her personal experiences form the core of her creative endeavors in her poetry as well as fiction.
In her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez draws upon her own experiences to capture the turbulent lives of the García sisters as they navigate the years of adolescence in the new land. In the process, Alvarez touches upon several of her dominant themes. Speaking with an accent, the four girls—Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia—are considered outsiders by their peers. Sometimes rejection comes in the garb of stereotyping, as Yolanda realizes in “The Rudy Elmenhurst Story.”
To complicate matters, the parents impose the island code on their daughters. They hold firm that training the girls to be subservient to men and guarding their chastity is the right way of preparing them for life. All around, the mainstream American culture tempts the girls with the vision of freedom and romance. Disorientation, resulting from conflicting expectations, no doubt, accounts for the anorexia of Sandi, nervous breakdown of Yolanda, and the outright rebellion of Sofia.
The tyranny of parental authoritarianism can be seen in “Daughter of Invention.” When Yolanda is assigned to give a speech on the Teacher’s Day, she writes in her authentic voice, only to be told by her infuriated father that the speech was boastful and showed disrespect to teachers. He tears the pages to shreds. The incident remains a painful reminder to Yolanda of her powerlessness as a daughter.
Disorientation, however, is not the province of the young alone. The older generation is lost, too, in the new land. In the absence of the old familiar environment, common language, and clearly defined roles for men and women, the parents also falter in coping with unpredictable situations. In “Floor Show,” at the family dinner with Dr. Fanning, the man responsible for helping the family emigrate, the father betrays his uncertainty and awkwardness in dealing with the inebriated Mrs. Fanning.
The macho culture in Dominican society encourages men to overlook one another’s transgressions yet guard their women’s purity zealously. This attitude is revealed in “A Regular Revolution.” When Sofia is sent to live on the island with her relatives, she is transformed into a “Spanish-American Princess.” She dresses like her fashion-conscious cousins and behaves like them in her relationship with a “nice” young man. Appalled by Sophie’s subservience and her suitor’s dictatorial manner, the sisters decide to rescue her by conspiring to get the lovers caught without a chaperone.
Alienation and complexity of family relationships lie at the heart of ¡Yo!, a sequel to the first novel. The work has been a called “the portrait of an artist,” for it focuses on Yolanda after the publication of her first novel. In addition to humorous episodes reflecting the family’s reaction to becoming characters in her work, her preoccupation with class and power in Dominican Republic gets a fuller treatment here. Her denunciation of the continuing exploitation of the underclass in Dominican society scandalizes her family and friends. Interspersed among the chapters are the issues of cultural differences, the risks involved in pursuing a life of creative imagination, and the lure of the old world that stands in the way of true assimilation.
With In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé, Alvarez experiments with historical fiction. Both novels are set in the Dominican Republic. In the Time of the Butterflies memorializes the lives of the Marabel sisters, popularly known as Las Mariposas (the Butterflies). In the Name of Salomé celebrates the life of Salomé Urena, a well-known political poet in the Dominican Republic. She employs the technique of using Camila, the daughter and editor of her mother’s papers, to present a panoramic view of political and moral issues of the period from the mid-1990’s to the late twentieth century. The book allows Alvarez to explore political and social issues affecting the lives of women in the Caribbean region.
Alvarez’s experimentation with plot and point of view in fiction often poses a problem for readers. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents seems more like a collage of interconnected episodes than a novel with a traditional plot. Alvarez’s handling of chronology of events in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Name of the Butterflies is also challenging. However, Alvarez’s later fictional works reveal more effective structures. She excels in the use of multiple points of view, an effective means of developing a complex character, though excessive shifts can sometimes overwhelm the readers.
The strength of Alvarez lies in her exploration of the themes of displacement and the painful process of cultural assimilation common to all immigrants. A widening of her sphere is discernible in the shift from personal to larger historical issues. She succeeds in engaging readers in the lives of her characters. Her historical novels, in particular, serve as excellent introductions to the cultural history of the Dominican Republic.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
First published: 1991
Type of work: Novel
Conflict between cultures of homeland and the new country leaves its mark on each García girl.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez’s first novel, has an episodic plot covering a time span of...
(The entire section is 2390 words.)
"A woman's work is never done".
"Woman's work" by Julia Alvarez opens the subject of the domestic role of women in family life. The author tells the story of her mother’s obsessive housekeeping that influenced the speaker’s future life. Julia Alvarez (or the speaker) depicts and criticizes her mother’s active domestic role but admits it has influenced her becoming a “woman working at home” herself.
The daughter, the protagonist and the speaker of the poem, starts with a rhetoric question: “Who says a woman's work isn't high art?” This was probably one of her mother’s favorite phrases while the latter performed her domestic chores:
Who says a woman's work isn't high art?
She'd challenge as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles.
Keep house as if the address were your heart.
The last line of the first stanza addresses the speaker’s father or talks about the whole family, whose hearts embody the address of the house her mother cared for so much (emphasizing that the mother’s care and love was embodied in the housekeeping chores).
The speaker’s mother was most probably not employed, and focused all her attention to keeping a perfect house. The daughter was engaged in doing woman’s work from an early age: she was frustrated to hear her friends play outside while she was obliged to clean the house:
We'd clean the whole upstairs before we'd start
downstairs, I'd sigh, hearing my friends outside.
Her mother calls a woman’s work “high art”, the author calls it “hard”. Concentrating merely on domestic chores made the speaker unhappy and, becoming a grown-up, she complains about her mother’s strictness and obsession with keeping the house clean:
Doing her woman's work was a hard art
to practice when the summer sun would bar
the floor I swept till she was satisfied.
She kept me prisoner in her housebound heart.
Despite disliking the routine of the housekeeping, the speaker admits her mother was an artful housewife:
She'd shine the tines of forks, the wheels of carts,
cut lacy lattices for all her pies.
Her woman's work was nothing less than art.
The speaker also admits that because of her wit, she was considered her mother’s masterpiece. She felt her mother’s love and care through all kinds of attention and her mother instructed her to keep the house better than her personal life:
And I, her masterpiece since I was smart,
was primed, praised, polished, scolded and advised
to keep a house much better than my heart.
Eventually, the daughter, tired of constant dutiful housekeeping (“I did not want to be her counterpart!”), “stroke out” but ended up ended up working at home, writing, creating poems and loving her housebound creative work:
I did not want to be her counterpart!
I struck out... but became my mother's child:
a woman working at home on her art,
housekeeping paper as if it were her heart.
Julia Alvarez is very good at literary images: the reader’s imagination immediately begins to draw pictures of a housewife who cares a great deal about keeping a perfect house. To depict the artful but hard work her mother used to perform, the author uses the powerful descriptions: “she scrubbed the bathroom tiles”; “she'd shine the tines of forks, the wheels of carts, cut lacy lattices for all her pies”. From these descriptions the reader gets the notion of a scrupulous woman who cared for every inch of her house and meant it to be clean.
The author also addresses the theme of heart which stands for the symbol of love and relationships: in the first stanza the heart (the father’s or her own) of the family is compared to the house her mother cared about, the following allusion talks about the speaker’s private life, feelings and relationships; and the denouement talks about writing (housekeeping papers) as the poet’s greatest love.
According to Julia Alvarez’s official site, her mother was alternate representative to the UN with the Dominican mission; however, she might have served as a fervent housewife. In any case, the author depicts the protagonists very colorfully. The images she uses enable the readers interpret the messages hidden between the lines using their own imagination. For example, “when the summer sun would bar the floor” draws a beautiful picture of the evening, implying the speaker swept the floor till late until her mother was satisfied. “Housekeeping paper” is another example of the literary language the author uses to name her future career. The latter has obviously been influenced by her mother’s activities. In “Woman’s Work” Julia Alvarez made a great work describing how the mother’s obsessive housekeeping and playing merely a domestic role influences the life of the younger women in the family.
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Alvarez, J. (2003). Literature for Composition, Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 6th edition. New York Longman.
More news. (2009). Julia Alvarez official site. Retrieved on December 12, 2009 from http://www.juliaalvarez.com/news/