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Marginal Subjects: Gender and Deviance in Fin de siècle Spain by Akiko Tsuchiya (review)

From: Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies
Volume 16, 2012
pp. 346-348 | 10.1353/hcs.2012.0025

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Marginal Subjects: Gender and Deviance in Fin de siècle Spain takes as a point of departure major and lesser known works of the 1880s and 1890s in Spain. It conducts an inquiry into the forms of discourse that shaped ideas about gender and deviance and their literary representations during that period. In her analysis of selected novels, Tsuchiya identifies and investigates the “fissures”—those hitherto invisible “breaks” or “gaps” in normal patterns of thought and behavior—that appear to have determined the fictional lives of certain female and male characters. She marks the obsessive nature of Spain’s preoccupation with deviance—prostitution, vagrancy, criminality, adultery—and examines the causes of this obsession, tracing its imprint in the discourses of physicians (among whom are precursors of modern psychiatry), criminologists, anthropologists, and specialists in public health. Tsuchiya’s purpose is to illuminate the ways these pervasive cultural assumptions mark the artistic creation of fictional texts. She shows how “deviant” female and male characters “resist normativity” in order to open “new spaces of subjectivity (if not always agency).” Within these new spaces, “deviant” characters succeed in “redefining the limits of what the dominant culture takes for granted as ‘reality’” (3).

Foundational to research and argument are the ideas of Foucault and of other cultural critics (e.g., Labanyi et al), each of whom emphasizes that the aim of the realist project is to contain disorder and deviance. At the same time, Tsuchiya departs from their insistence that an economic, social, and political determinism drives and shapes the ethos of the realist project. She finds the ideas of Michel de Certeau about space in narrative to be equally productive and proceeds to conceive anew the analysis of gender and deviance. She shows conclusively how novels like La desheredada (1881) and Fortunata y Jacinta (1886–87) by Benito Pérez Galdós (1843–1920), Su único hijo (1891) by Leopoldo Alas (Clarín) (1852–1901), Memorias de un solterón (1896) and Insolación (1889) by Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851–1921) all, in diverse and significant ways, contest “gender norms and hierarchies” (164). Whether the focus is on “deviant” women or on “feminized men,” Tsuchiya argues that “an equally powerful impulse to resist normativity opens up new spaces of subjectivity (if not always agency) and redefines the limits of what the dominant culture takes for granted as “reality.” ”

The originality of Marginal Subjects is owed to three, basic factors: 1) The interdisciplinary nature of the subject; 2) Tsuchiya’s scholarship, which is based on original archival research; 3) persuasive close readings of the text that complicate and illuminate the categories (gender, class, race, nation). In effect, the balance of her approach, which combines the analysis of the text as art and as a cultural sign, results in the perception and articulation of new ideas. This approach, which asserts, for example, that “A” is “equally [as] important” as “B” (8), also appears to be both “spatial” and “visual”; thus, in a discreet way, Tsuchiya’s critical approach coincides with the aesthetic of realism itself. On the one hand, she offers “vertical” insights, as when she speaks of what is “behind” or “under” the “surface” or “level” of an act, a word, a gesture; on the other, her analyses often acquire a broad, comparative and “horizontal” reach, as when she situates the literature of Spain within the contexts of European history. This delicate “mirroring” of the dual axes of late Spanish realist narratives plays no small role in communicating to the reader the originality and authenticity of Tsuchiya’s ideas and conclusions.

Tsuchiya’s style of writing is lucid, devoid of jargon, and negotiates the complicated steps from text to context with precision and finesse. She maps ideas that cross from canonical novels to lesser known works (those of López Bago, Palacio Valdés, Matilde Cherner) and gives a renewed focus on two, lesser read novels by Emilia Pardo Bazán, Spain’s great feminist writer. The book poses critical questions, e.g, how did the fear of deviance become translated into anxieties about gender? What were the issues at stake in the transformation of gender deviance into “a trope”—a pervasive, privileged metaphor...



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