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  • Patterns of Fiction and Desire: Childhood Reading in Carmen Martín Gaite’s Retahílas

Reading is a private experience inevitably structured by social relations. This friction between the collective and the personal charges the act of reading with its peculiar power to engage the reader in social discourse. Gender is one aspect of this complex response to reading that, although still too little understood, has gained increasing critical attention in the past decade, especially since the publication of Flynn and Schweickart’s collection of essays, Gender and Reading (1986). Jean Wyatt’s Reconstructing Desire: The Role of the Unconscious in Women’s Reading and Writing (1990) examines the “revolutionary and transformational potential of the preoedipal in novels by women” (2) and “the interactions between the fantasy structures of literature and the unconscious fantasy structures of readers” (24). 1 Wyatt attempts to explain women’s persistent attraction to certain books and kinds of fiction, such as Jane Eyre and Little Women, that they read repeatedly as children and often return to as adults.

Similarly, the reevaluation of the significance of so-called women’s “sub-genre,” such as the “novela rosa,” to women readers and writers [End Page 182] has been part of Carmen Martín Gaite’s literary project. 2 And in most of her novels and many of her essays, she explores the wider relation between literature and life, going so far as to assert: “. . . si me dejaran contestar en profundidad a esa pregunta tan reincidente: «¿Qué literatura le ha influido a usted?», . . . el primer gran enigma a desentrañar es el de dónde está la frontera entre lo que llamamos vida y lo que llamamos literatura” (“Mujeres noveleras” 69). Childhood reading, she observes in another essay, makes the greatest impression on the reader:

When one experiences the dazzling impact of reading at an early age, the effect is akin to that of an arrow wound. Reading provides insight into a secret world that liberates one from the hostile pressures of the environment, from the routines and deceptions that the confrontation with reality produces . . . The sense of a lair or tabernacle, within which the blows of time are resisted, is the prize awarded by reading.

In Retahílas (1974), the author addresses the problem of the entanglement of life and literature by portraying scenes of youthful reading that illuminate the novel’s narrative concerns. Wyatt’s account of women’s reading helps us to analyze Martín Gaite’s description of her protagonist’s childhood reading, its role in the young girl’s psychological development, and its implication in structuring social relations through the power of oedipal and pre-oedipal fantasies. 3 Furthermore, the author’s evocation of childhood reading calls into question the status and practices of the reader(s) of her own novel.

Chapter One of Retahílas is the protagonist Eulalia’s introduction to her interlocutor, her nephew Germán, of the major themes of the night’s discourse: death, since they are waiting for the death of Eulalia’s grandmother; and time, figured by “la ruina,” the decay which affects the house as well as the protagonists. She argues for adult reading as a form of communication, a state of “endiosamiento” in which a dialogue is established between author and reader, “. . . como si de repente le hubieras visto la cara al autor que lo escribió o le hubieras oído la voz y él a ti la tuya” (69–70). A reader’s subconscious psychological involvement—the arousal of desire and fantasy structures—is key to the practice of reading, as well as the reader’s more conscious, personal investment of memory and shared, [End Page 183] cultural experience. 4 Eulalia recalls, for example, that when she was young, she cared nothing for the historical or political articles in the magazines she eagerly purused, but sought out instead the “folletines,” the romantic stories that fascinated her. Now, as she contemplates acquiring these volumes as part of her inheritance, she believes that both genres, printed side-by-side, as if to demonstrate their similarity (both types of “story” are appealing to readers) and their difference (the presence or absence...

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pp. 182-200
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