I have found and cleaned the text. I wrote it off the cuff in 1989 or 1990. I had read the novel so as to teach it, and laughed all the way through (you are supposed to cry) because it was so … overt. Then someone wanted to fill a conference slot in a related area, so I wrote this up, fleshed it out with a handout containing some quotations to discuss, and spoke for 15 minutes. I did nothing more with it since I was supposed to be doing other things, but the text bothers me still.
I am going to try to modernize it. I have to get rid of that Eagleton citation, I believe, and see whether this cognitive/emotive distinction is even useful or even applies. I do not agree with what I say here, at least not in the way it is stated, about the title character as an emblem of a new society in the Americas.
I would say that this character is not the stone on which things are built, but the pool in which they sink (but not that, either, I am just being arch; Karla Zepeda says it is about the loss on which the hero’s identity is built). There is much else I am not sure of, or that I would not say now even though I do not quite disagree. What I am interested in is what I claim the novel does with racial difference: “embrace to erase,” evoke and elide. Those are the intuitions I still want to work with.
Identity and Difference in María
Responding to what, following Terry Eagleton, (Terry Eagleton, “Ideology, Fiction, Narrative,” Social Text [Summer 1979]: 62-80) I shall call the novel’s cognitive discourse — its self-presentation as a sentimental love story embodying the definitions o nobility and innocence it takes from its predecessors Paul et Virginie and Atala — the poet Gutiérrez Nájera called Jorge Isaacs’ María (1867) “un libro casto, un libro sano, un libro honrado” (J. Isaacs, María [México: Porrúa, 1984], frontispiece). A reading of the novel at this level, however, does not account for the constellation of half-submerged anxieties about sex, cultural identity, race and class relations which informs its structure. In this paper I attempt to excavate this emotive discourse and to show how it works to inscribe but also to destabilize the values of a patriarchal and slave-owning society in the text of this novel.
The narrative, told in the first person by the hero, Efraín, revolves around his ill-fated adolescent romance with his adopted sister, María. Its shape and style seem to be generated out of a strong compulsion to present a coherent, unified world. The plantation where most of the action takes place is represented as a kind of patriarchal Eden in which slaves, small farmers, and large landowners contribute mutually to each others’ happiness and well-being. Efraín takes great pains to insist that this world functions harmoniously; he insists upon the moral rectitude, the commitment to justice, and the sincere Christian faith of his wealthy landowning family.
In this context the heroine María plays a pivotal role. As mirror of virtue and feminine submission, she affirms Efraín’s position as hero and conscience of the novel. Her much touted “purity” (including the fervor of her faith and her obvious association with the Virgin) serves to confirm the purity of the motives and actions of her adopted family and the society they symbolize. Finally, María, who has converted from Judaism to Christianity, is at least metaphorically a woman of mixed race. As such, she can be seen as the positive emblem of a new, “authentically American” society. Thus María is in a strong sense the stone on which the world that the novel presents is founded; interestingly, this world is founded in an act of embracing, and then erasing, “impurity” or cultural difference.
In fact, María’s double nature as Christian and Jew, as well as virgin and lover, sister and wife, reveals the dualistic structures upon which this novel is based. The novel’s effort to unite these dualities or at least to keep them in balance — to make the Other revert back to the Same — masks a deeper series of contradictions which, in my reading, are the novel’s repressed preoccupations. These are the contradictions of class and race that are the real foundations of a slaveowning society.
Thus, the treatment of sexuality and the Jewish leitmotif in the character María function to elide the issues this novel inscribes within itself but dares not face: first, the denial of slavery as the basis of the world María evokes, and more generally, a secret uneasiness about the possibility of founding a society that is both plural and based on an erasure of difference.