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  • Lesbian Trajectories in Sylvia Molloy’s En breve cárcel
  • Marcia Stephenson

Sylvia Molloy’s novel, En breve cárcel (1981), stands as one of Spanish America’s most prominent explorations of lesbian sexuality published to date. The novel is not the story of the narrator’s “outing” even though the title might create such an expectation in the reader who first peruses the work. There is no “inner” lesbian psyche that “comes out” to the public and, notably, the word “lesbian” never appears in the novel. Instead, Molloy’s narrative continually destabilizes the notion of a fixed or essential identity through the strategical use of imitation or repetition and fragmentation or decomposition. This destabilizing process has an important bearing on the textual construction of the coming-to-being of lesbian subjectivity because it continually disputes its ontological status. The novel suggests that identity is not to be found in the recovery of or even the positing of a whole, unified self. Rather, identity is articulated in the provisional act or practice of fragmentation. Speaking with Magdalena García Pinto, Molloy explains how her own work on Borges proved to be of great benefit for this creative project:

Uno de los descubrimientos fue que Borges no compone un personaje, sino que lo fragmenta, lo descompone. Y a través de esa idea de descomposición empecé a interesarme en la idea de hacer yo una ficción . . . una manera de ver el mundo roto, de detenerme en las partes, y después tratar de juntar los fragmentos, o ver las cosas descompuestas. Me reconozco mucho en este tipo de visión del mundo.

(García Pinto 133–34)

The process of fragmentation in the narrative, often violent, exposes the “real” as a construct that appears as if it were natural or expressive [End Page 253] of an inner substance. Molloy’s narrative radically revisions lesbian subjectivity to posit it instead as both provisional and discontinuous.

This textual emphasis upon provisionality, fragmentation, and repetition anticipated many of the now current directions of lesbian theory such as Judith Butler’s work on the denaturalization of the categories of gender that derives from philosophical and psychoanalytic readings of Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Monique Wittig, among others. Butler has demonstrated persuasively how compulsory heterosexuality establishes itself as the original law or norm that “determines the real” such that “‘being’ lesbian is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality which will always and only fail” (1991 20–21). This “compulsory” or “naturalized” heterosexuality functions as a law that acts covertly “through the constitution of viable subjects and through the corollary constitution of a domain of unviable (un)subjects—abjects, we might call them—who are neither named nor prohibited within the economy of the law. Here oppression works through the production of a domain of unthinkability and unnameability” (20). In Molloy’s novel, the law functions as a set of learned behaviors that must be faithfully imitated again and again. 1 For the narrator as a young child, adherence to the law, to rigidly set guidelines and rules of behavior, provided security and reassurance: “. . . sabe que su necesidad de reglas era tal que alguna vez preguntó si para rezar había que pensar en Dios—en la cara de Dios—o pensar en las palabras que decía. Una cosa excluía la otra, y ella quería hacer lo correcto” (29). Adherence to rules or “borrowed behavior,” she believed, protected her from the unnameable—madness—which she perceived to be all around her (28). 2 [End Page 254]

In contrast to the desire to live correctly, the narrator confesses to secretly indulging in transgressive behavior: “De adolescente le confió a alguien las dos cosas que siempre había querido hacer: robar y herir” (32). For Molloy’s narrator, violence—her desire to hurt (and be hurt)—metaphorizes a textual potential for a kind of excess, one that destabilizes the boundaries between that which lies inside and outside the law. From the beginning of her text, Molloy’s narrator links violence with writing to ask: “¿Cómo sacar fuera una violencia, cómo escribirla...

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pp. 253-268
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