- Constructing Heroines:Rosario Ferré's Cuentos Infantiles and Feminine Instruments of Change
To my daughter Gabriela
Contemporary cuentos infantiles or children's stories in Puerto Rico are becoming an increasingly popular genre among established authors. Their potential as literature and as a way to express social concerns to a wider audience has inspired a number of interesting works including three collections by the acclaimed author Rosario Ferré: El medio pollito(The Half a Little Chicken, 1976), Los cuentos de Juan Bobo(Tales of Juan Bobo, 1981), and La mona que le pisaron la cola(The Monkey Whose Tail Was Stepped On, 1981). As opposed to the traditional type of children's tale on the island which relies almost exclusively on folklore or local tradition for its themes, Ferré's stories incorporate a wider variety of influences ranging from the ancient Oriental fable, Spanish picaresque and European literary fairy tales to Iroquois Indian folklore and Puerto Rican oral literature. The addition of contemporary "adult" concerns—political and cultural—make her stories "not for children only"; contrary to the opinion of some, however, they are also and most definitely necessary reading for Puerto Rican youngsters of today.
Critics have noted the affiliation of Ferré's work with the fairy tale in her 1976 collection of short stories, Papeles de Pandora(Pandora's Papers).1 Not only in the selection of the titles (one of the stories is called "Sleeping Beauty") but also in the tone and use of fantasy in her first work, "The Youngest Doll," one notes a strong influence of the genre in the author's creative process. Her essay on the fairy tale attests to this fact: "[I]n every reading I discover in them new lessons and satisfactions, a new way of understanding and reconciling myself with the world. . . . I have much to be grateful for in those readings. To them I owe the interest I have today in literature, and what I have developed since; but I believe I owe them even more" ("El cuento de hadas," 37).2 The genesis of her first "adult" short story is relevant, as Ferré has claimed that the heroines of subsequent children's stories descend from its female protagonist.
"The Youngest Doll" concerns a plantation-owning family suffering [End Page 83] the effects of a changing economic structure and a maiden aunt who lives with them. It opens with the aunt taking a swim in the river and being infected by a mysterious parasitic chigger. The prawn lodges in her leg causing it to swell, immobilizing her for many years. She stays at home tending to her nieces and creating life-sized dolls which she presents to each upon her marriage. The youngest niece marries an ambitious young doctor whose father had exploited the aunt's situation, making a fortune out of her leg. Upon marrying the doctor, the girl receives a doll from her aunt, a special one with diamond eyes, filled with honey. The relationship between niece and doctor deteriorates as he exhibits his wife like a doll to increase his prestige with patients who do not mind paying exhorbitant fees, "in order to get a look at a legitimate member of the extinct sugarcane aristocracy." In his greed, the young doctor plucks the eyes of the doll and sells the diamonds. Time passes and wife and doll become indistinguishable.
He noticed that as he grew older the youngest girl still kept the same firm and porcelained skin that she had had when he would call on her at the big house in the cane fields. One night he decided to go into her room and observe her in her sleep. He noticed that her chest wasn't moving. He then carefully placed his stethoscope over her heart and heard a distant swirl of water. At that moment the doll opened her eyelids and out of the empty sockets of her eyes he saw the furious antennae of the prawns begin to emerge.(167)
In any essay describing her artistic development, Ferré explains that "The Youngest Doll" was born out of her desire to be a creative artist as well as from her...