Throughout much of history, women have been relegated to the margins of culture
and society. They have been obliged to fulfill roles as wives and mothers, and
while some women have used their authority to establish a degree of power and
within the domestic realm, only a minority have successfully extended their influence beyond the boundaries of the home. The standard of females as being primarily maternal figures persists not only in actual society, but in the world of literature as well. In
Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, all of the female protagonists are defined by their roles as mother figures. They are presented with varying levels of difficulty surrounding their status and function in the home, and all possess different attitudes towards the role. While in One Hundred Years of Solitude Ursula Buendia embraces her maternal duties and creates power for herself as the family matriarch, the heroines of Dom Casmurro and Surfacing are more ambivalent towards the responsibilities imposed upon them as a result of their domestic roles. Such differences in enthusiasm can be explained in large part by the differences in status that each woman occupies within her personal family hierarchy. In addition, the dissatisfaction of the female characters can also be understood in terms of the loss of voice or dialogue that they experience in the respective novels. Their marginalization also reinforces the subordinate position of women within the life of the family and in society in general. Although united by their
common identities as maternal figures, Ursula, Capitu in Dom Casmurro, and the narrator of Surfacing all manage their responsibilities and confront the problems that they face with different outlooks and varying levels of enthusiasm as a result of their differences in status within their respective societies and families.
Ursula Buendia epitomizes the traditional role of woman as a maternal figure.
She believes it to be her sacred duty to act as a stabilizing force for the
family, to keep order, and to control the events of the domestic sphere. She
"symbolizes stability and judiciousness" (Deveny and Marcos). In their
article "Women and Society in One Hundred Years of Solitude,"
John J. Deveny, Jr. and Juan Manuel Marcos assert that Ursula firmly believes
"that the duty of every good wife consists essentially of cooking, sweeping,
and stoically putting up with suffering; and that a good mother should give
the example of 'a century of conformity' without even permitting herself to
say a bad word" (Deveny and Marcos). Ursula raises and cares not only for
her children, but also for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, going
above and beyond the customary commitments, acting as a mother "for all
time." Ursula takes her duties in the domestic sphere quite seriously,
one of which is the arrangement of marriages other children. As a mother (and
especially one of a prominent family) she is concerned that her children marry
well, and so invests a great deal of time and energy in attempting to orchestrate
marriages, as she does in the case of Amaranta and Pietro Crespi. Another of
Ursula's concerns is maintaining the integrity and dignity attached to her family
name within the village of Macondo, and she is "continually concerned with
keeping the family together in the dynastic sense" (Solomon). Ursula focuses
most of her energies on issues within the domestic world, and she only becomes
involved in "outside business" if a family member is involved, or
if the family reputation is at stake. She intervenes during the civil war at
Arcadio's execution of Don Apolinar Moscote in order to ensure that Arcadio
does not blemish the family name by acting out a cruel and brutal plan. In addition,
Ursula's bakery business perpetuates the image of women as maternal figures
in society. Although an entrepreneurship, Ursula's business still falls within
the realm of the domestic world, and reinforces her motherly image. After the
death other husband, Ursula assumes a more powerful position in the family hierarchy;
however, her power is contained exclusively to the domestic sphere. Ursula is
extremely content and passionate about her role as the Buendia family matriarch.
The heroine of Dom Casmurro, Capitu, reacts with markedly less enthusiasm
at being forced into a maternal role.1 At the beginning of the novel Capitu
is forceful and confident, much more so than the indecisive and timid Bento,
who goes so far as to
remark that Capitu is "more of a woman than I was a man" (de Assis 59). "In the beginning of Dom Casmurro [...] Capitu comes across as the outspoken leader who plots the two children's strategy to first avoid and then back out of Bento's mother's promise to send the boy into the priesthood" (Vessels). However, after her marriage to Bento, Capitu undergoes a significant character transformation after her marriage, becoming much less strong-willed and independent. She assumes "a more traditional role" as a wife and mother, and her husband, according to Gary M. Vessels in his article "I Am At your
Disposal: The Marginalization of Female Disourse in Dom Casmurro "becomes increasingly insistent on his authoritarian values" (Vessels). Capitu cares for her young son and makes sure that Bento has a pleasant home. While she dutifully carries out her obligations as a wife and mother, Capitu sacrifices her own happiness to cater to the whims of a jealous husband and child. At the end of the novel when confronted by her jealous and angry husband, Capitu does not deny his accusations or protest his premature conclusions, but simply says, "I am at your disposal" (de Assis 233). This is not what one would have expected from the outspoken and forthright adolescent girl, she seems to have lost her spark. The reader must wonder whether her new role suits or satisfies Capitu as she must suppress her passionate nature. Capitu's experience as a mother differs significantly from Ursula's in that while the role seems natural for Ursula, and is one that she readily embraces, it does not seem so innate for Capitu. At the conclusion of the novel Capitu seems miserable, exiled by a resentful husband to whom she sends
desperate letters of apology, begging him to return to her. A role so unnatural for her could never result in long-term happiness, and her downward spiral leads to her ultimate death, alone and an ocean away from home. Although by the social norms of the time, Capitu had little choice but to be an obedient wife, the position was not one that suited her.
The narrator of Surfacing struggles with her role as a mother as well,
but in a rather different way from Capitu. The narrator's ideas of motherhood
are surrounded by her own feelings of guilt, failure, and inadequacy. Atwood
"fictionalizes the problem of
[...] women's struggle within and against reified images of femininity" (Staels). The narrator believes that she can never live up to what she views as the faultless maternal image other mother. Her feelings of self-doubt as to whether she can be a caring mother are compounded by the remorse that the narrator feels over an abortion that she was compelled to have after being impregnated by a married lover. Although she was not prepared to take on the responsibility of single motherhood at the time, the narrator is ashamed of the abortion. She remains haunted by images of the fetus, "in a bottle curled up, staring out at [her] like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, [and] fish gills" (Atwood 144). These mental pictures are a constant reminder of the narrator's guilt over having murdered the baby. She believes that she failed at motherhood, and has fallen grossly short of the example set by her mother. At the conclusion of the novel the narrator becomes pregnant again and is faced with insecure feelings about her impending motherhood. This time, however, she makes a conscious decision to embrace her maternal role, and plans on allowing the baby a chance at life, and herself a second chance at motherhood.
In Surfacing, the narrator's struggles with the maternal role differs
from that both Ursula and Capitu. The narrator's struggles with the role do
not arise as a result of the relegation of females to the maternal role by a
patriarchal society, as is the case in One Hundred Years of Solitude
and Dom Casmurro but due to her own guilt and remorse over her failure
to be a caring mother. While Ursula embraces the role, and Capitu is forced
into it by her social and economic situation, the narrator of Surfacing
remains ambivalent about how she feels towards impending motherhood. At the
end of the novel she anxiously anticipates her it, resolving some of the doubts
that she experienced earlier. It seems that she wants to embrace maternity,
but is not sure how, or whether or not she is even capable of doing so.
Although motherhood and maternity are common themes in the three novels, the subject is addressed in a distinct way in each work. These distinctions can be explained largely by the differences in status that the female characters experience, both within the family and in society in general. Such disparities in status result in differences in the responsibilities that the women are required to assume in caring for the family and in participating in the social life of the community. Public values and beliefs significantly determine the value and status of women in a society. The status differences within the family influence how much power the woman is able to comfortably assume in family life. In the three novels being examined, the women with higher status within the family hierarchy tend to hold more power than do women of lower status.
Of the three women being examined, Ursula Buendia unquestionably exerts the
most power within her family and in her community. The Buendia family founded
the town of Macondo, and so for a significant portion of the town's history
were one of the most prominent and dignified families in the community. The
people of Macondo turned to Jose Buendia, the original patriarch, for guidance
and leadership, and other family members followed in his footsteps by helping
to govern the small community for many years. Only with the introduction of
industry and the banana company did the power of the Buendia family begin to
wane. In addition, the family was without a doubt one of the wealthiest in town
for many years. While most of the citizens of Macondo lived in similarly styled
houses, the Buendia home was elaborately constructed and decorated, and numerous
additions were added before the structure was complete. Their financial supremacy
also assisted the Buendia family in reaching a position at the top of the Macondo
social hierarchy. Her family's position in the community afforded Ursula a
great deal of power. Although they might gossip about the dilemmas faced by her family, no one in the town would ever contradict Ursula or question her actions. She was free to condemn and criticize the presence of the gypsies in the town, and spoke openly about her disgust concerning their interactions with the residents of Macondo. No one in the community questioned Ursula when she decided to open her own business, something rather unusual, as aristocratic women generally did not work. Ursula also occupied a rather unconventional position in her own family. As the original family matriarch she was generally revered and respected by her descendants. She held the family together, and kept everyone in line. In addition, she refused to be completely subordinate to her husband, as she spoke to him as an equal. She even has the audacity to yell at him at one point when he upsets her: "If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!' she shouted" (Marquez 5). Jose Arcadio Buendia allowed his wife a great deal of freedom to run things as she wished within the domestic sphere. Ursula enjoyed a high status in both her own family and in the community of Macondo. It is likely that Ursula enjoyed her
role as a wife and mother so much because of the freedom and power that she was afforded by virtue other status.
Capitu's status in Dom Casmurro contrasts drastically with that which
Ursula enjoys. She is a member of a much lower social class than Ursula in One
Hundred Years of Solitude, and lower than her lover Bento as well. As children,
Capitu and Bento were not aware of the class differences that separated them,
Bento being from a much more aristocratic family than Capitu. Their ignorance
of class distinctions allowed them the opportunity to speak openly to one another,
and for Capitu to assert her opinions and exercise a degree of control over
the meek Bento. However, as they grow up, the differences in their social statuses
become more apparent. When Capitu marries Bento, a member of a more elite social
class, she becomes more subordinate, "assuming a more traditional role
in that society, and [...] doing what was expected of someone in her socio-economic
position and in her time" (Vessels). In addition, she moves in new social
circles, ones that she did not grow up in, and this puts her in the uncomfortable
and awkward position of being an "outsider." In addition, as a female
in a strictly patriarchal
society Capitu has no authority within the community. Although she married into an aristocratic family, Capitu never feels completely accepted by the people and circumstances into which she is thrust. In addition, Bento's jealous nature causes him to
be more controlling of Capitu than social standards prescribe. "Bentinho gives importance to suggestions that the wife should be submissive in marriage" (Vessels). As a result, Capitu does not enjoy a position of high status within the family, and as a result
cannot truly claim any authority or power. She is completely at a loss in terms of controlling her destiny. Her low status, helplessness, and powerlessness likely contribute to Capitu's dissatisfaction with her role as a wife and mother. She is never able to make the role her own, and is confined to the expectations and patterns of her patriarchal family and society.
The narrator of Surfacing faces a situation different from that of both
Ursula and Capitu. As a citizen of a twentieth century democracy, she does not
grapple with a powerful institutionalized class system. However, women still
do occupy a lower position in the social hierarchy than do men in her society.
In the case of the narrator this is compounded by the chauvinistic attitudes
and comments of David, one other traveling companions. He holds on to the belief
that the woman's place is in the home. While the rest of the world is swept
up in the feminist movements, David holds on to outdated traditions. He "talks
down" to the narrator, and treats her as an inferior person. His disrespect
of women is especially evident when he attempts to take advantage of the narrator
(Atwood 152), and when he forces Anna to pose nude for his film against her
will (Atwood 137). The narrator's memories other own parents further trap her
in a mindset of female subordination, as her mother acted as a stereotypical
but content housewife for much of her life. In the narrator's personal experience,
women occupy a relatively low position on the family hierarchy. The narrator
of Surfacing seems to feel oppressed; she does not believe that she can
express her own ideas, opinions and criticisms freely. The suffocation and subordination
that the narrator is subjected to, and
the low status of the woman's position in the family is most likely the reason for her dissatisfaction with her role as a wife and mother. There is no freedom in the station, and the narrator cannot assume power or leadership roles in her family or community. She is further handicapped by a lack of confidence and low self-esteem as a result of her perceived inferior status. The narrator's experience with her maternal role closely parallels that of Capitu in that both women are not completely satisfied with the responsibility, and both have low status both in the family and in the community as a whole.
Regardless of the status that the female characters occupy in each novel, they
all, with the exception of the narrator of Surfacing, experience a similar
marginalization of voice and dialogue. In the case of Ursula this is best explained
by her aging, and for Capitu it comes as a direct result of her low status within
the family. The narrator of Surfacing is the exception to this pattern.
It is impossible to marginalize the voice of a narrator, especially in a first
person narration, as is the case in Surfacing. In addition, the novel
itself is about the narrator's person journey and self-realization. However,
the voice and dialogue of the female protagonists in both One Hundred Years
of Solitude and Dom Casmurro are marginalized as the novels progress.
As Ursula ages she is casually pushed to the periphery of family life. Her
authority wanes and her opinions are ignored by family members. Fernanda del
Carpio assumes Ursula's role as the family matriarch when she marries into the
family, and this
further forces Ursula to the sidelines. Ursula's marginalization primarily manifests itself in two ways. First of all, as she ages, Ursula does not have as much actual dialogue as she enjoyed earlier in the story, and even her actions are not described in great detail. Secondly, Ursula gradually looses her sight as she ages. While she cannot see anyone or anything, it also seems that her family members are blind and ignorant of the old woman wandering the halls. They ignore her, and even forget that she is in the room at times. They even mistake her for being dead at one point:
"Poor great-great-grandmother," Amaranta Ursula said. "She died of old age " Ursula was startled.
"I'm alive!" she said.
"You can see," Amaranta Ursula said, suppressing her laughter, "that she's not even breathing."
"I'm talking!" Ursula shouted.
"She can't even talk," Aureliano said. "She died like a little cricket" (Marquez 368).
In the marginalization of the female voice, and especially that of Ursula,
the author makes a profound statement concerning the importance of women, and
their role in the family. Clearly, it is not the woman's duty to speak out,
or express her own feelings,
opinions or desires. The woman's role is to be subordinate and accommodating. Capitu experiences a similar marginalization of voice in Dom Casmurro. "In the first half of the novel [she] is granted more liberty to speak her opinions" (Vessels). She
is clearly more outspoken than Bento, and is not intimidated by males or elders, readily sharing her ideas and attitudes. However, after her marriage, Capitu has much less dialogue. "When [Capitu's voice] appears to threaten Dom Casmurro's control, he progressively relegates [it] to the periphery before [it] is silenced" (Vessels). The reader learns what Capitu thinks and feels through Bento's biased interpretations instead of through her own words. Due to his jealous and unstable mental state, his judgments and interpretations are somewhat unreliable. It is impossible for the reader to exactly gauge what Capitu thinks and feels without direct dialogue. Capitu's marginalization is completed when, in a fit of jealous rage, her husband forces her to leave the country. This effectively removes her from the story; once she is gone it really is impossible for the reader to know what Capitu is doing or thinking. As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the marginalization of the female voice in Dom Casmurro comments on the role of the woman in the home and society. The female characters are relegated to subordinate roles as wives and mothers, where their feelings and opinions are secondary to the concerns of the family patriarchs. Capitu and Ursula both live in strictly patriarchal societies, where women are marginalized from the mainstream life of the community. This
marginalization carries over into the home in such societies as well.
Women are characterized as wives and mothers throughout literature. Atwood,
de Assis and Marquez all make use of the archetype in their novels, but in decidedly
different ways. Motherhood is the desirable path for Marquez's Ursula, while
it is less natural for de Assis' Capitu, and the narrator ofAtwood's Surfacing
doesn't believe that she has the ability or qualities that would make her a
successful mother at all. The relative happiness with which the female character
embraces her role as a mother depends in large part upon the role that she occupies
in society and in the family hierarchies. In addition, the subordinate role
of women in literature is reinforced by the marginalization of the dialogue
of female protagonists throughout a novel. The archetype of woman as a subordinate,
maternal figure spans time and space, as writers around the world and throughout
history have portrayed women in such roles.
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