McKenna, Susan M. Crafting the Female Subject. Narrative Innovation in the Short Fiction of Emilia Pardo Bazan.
Even though the author of novels such as Los pazos de Ulloa, Insolacion and La madre naturaleza is also the most prolific writer of short stories in the history of Spanish literature, the cuentos of Emilia Pardo Bazan remain the less studied genre of her career as a writer. In Crafting the Female Subject, Susan McKenna highlights the literary sophistication -- the "craft" -- behind Pardo Bazan's short narratives by analyzing how the Galician countess breaks with the literary conventions of the short story of her time. Her specific focus is on the way the beginnings and the endings of Pardo Bazan's short stories subtly disrupt the reader's expectations and call for his or her active engagement. McKenna's thesis is that Pardo Bazan's subtle deviations from traditional literary design -- her "disruptive reappropriations" -- are carriers of a hidden feminist message. In these spaces of rupture an "authentic female subject" emerges (7). From McKenna's analysis we are convinced of the subtle power of rupture that Pardo Bazan made possible by her literary skills, insight into the minds of her readers and instinct for literary survival. McKenna puts this nicely when she says that "To communicate her nontraditional ideas and effect a unique construction of the female subject, Pardo Bazan worked within the very system she hoped to change" (10).
The five chapters that form Crafting the Female Subject are organized diachronically, and each one of them engages its object of study from different theoretical frames. Chapter 1 contains a brief outline of the history of the cuento genre in Spain. McKenna's study links Pardo Bazan's techniques to the literary and social context of her times, demonstrating how her innovations are sometimes conditioned by literary and extra-literary factors. For example, McKenna calls attention to the fact that many short stories during the second half of the 19th century in Spain tend to present just one decisive moment in one character's life, and that "a sensation of instantaneity predominates" (20). She also highlights the importance of Romanticism in the development of the genre and the influence in Spain of authors such as Poe or Hoffmann. Also conditioning Pardo Bazan's choice of style in her short narrations is the fact that they were designed to appear in the many periodicals that were avidly consumed -- mostly by male readers -- at that time. McKenna reminds us that the impact of these stories was considerable, and that short narrations such as "La sed de Cristo" were the source of bitter social controversy. This chapter is a brief and informative introduction to the history of the short story in Spain and it places the innovations that McKenna emphasizes in the work of Pardo Bazan in their literary context.
In subsequent chapters of the book, McKenna traces the "textual resistance" to traditional short story design in a total of twenty tales composed between 1882 and 1914. Chapters 2 to 4 deal with the disruption of narrative endings while chapter 5 deals with the ways Pardo Bazan dislocates traditional beginnings. The different analyses of Pardo Bazan's cuentos are always clear and interesting, and the way McKenna retells the stories and interprets them demonstrates the literary value of these works as well as McKenna's nimbleness and tact as a reader. McKenna's superb feminist analysis of the gothic short story "El comadron" in Chapter 2 is a perfect example of the book's thesis. What at first glance may seem a merely lurid tale of the birth of a deformed creature out of the dead body of a beautiful pregnant woman is interpreted by McKenna as a parable of the difficulties of female authorship.
At times the ambiguities that McKenna uncovers in some of Pardo Bazan's short stories speak more about the ingenuity of the critic than the subtlety of the artist. Claims such as that "[i]n the spaces between the unfinished sentences, the female subject begins to emerge" (53) are clearly on the outer limit of the demonstrable. In my opinion, it is difficult to find an emerging female subject in stories such as the ones analyzed by McKenna in Chapter 3 ("La novela de Raimundo," "En tranvia," "La nina martir," "La culpable" or "Por el arte"). Many of these stories present the death of a female protagonist as the only liberation possible. To read this pattern as a feminist strategy is paradoxical in ways that should be more directly confronted in the book.
The fourth chapter jumps to the analysis of ruptures at the level of content, or the subversions that can be seen in the plots of the stories themselves. McKenna supports the idea that Pardo Bazan "presents her readers with a new kind of female hero (...) rewriting the traditional feminine stereotype" because in these stories the female protagonists "effectively refuse, resist, or defy male power" (101-2). Unlike some of the earlier work, stories such as "La punta del cigarro," "La aventura" or "Los novios de pastaflora" easily lend themselves to a feminist reading and give the reader a glimpse into the "authentic female subject" that McKenna sees in Pardo Bazan's short narrative fiction as a whole.
Crafting the Female Subject will serve all students of Pardo Bazan's short stories both as a reference source and as a spur to more sophisticated and culturally aware reading. McKenna's treatment of the cuentos of Pardo Bazan provides the reader with a renewed interest in the subject and places her stories where they belong -- at the same level as her novels.
Irene Gomez Castellano
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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|Author:||Gomez Castellano, Irene|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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