The Years with Carlos Fuentes: Feminist Reading and Critique of Carlos Fuentes’ “The Years with Laura Diaz"

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The common or notional defense is that, women are continuously oppressed throughout the years by many institutions, which are mostly patriarchal, and of course, the subjugation of the female body to the male body coerces an oppressive remark towards the female persona. Quoting Marilyn French in her novel, The Women’s Room, “Whatever they may be in public life, whatever their relationships with men, in their relationships with women, all men are rapists, and that’s all they are. They rape us with their eyes, their laws, and their codes.” The mentioned quotation is powerful yet liberating in the sense that it transpires the female liberation from the restrictive hegemony of patriarchal writing and showcases the ability of women to use the medium of literature as a worthy avenue of exemplifying the thoughts silenced by men through the vocal medium. What is intrinsic to the female liberation is of course her power not to be equal with men but her ability to be seen by both the male and female as not a “second sex” as articulated by De Beauvoir in which she emphasizes the role of the genitals as never an implication of one’s superiority over the other, but to be seen as a distinct sex from the male which she is not compared in a biased manner.

Esquivel’s Malinche showcases Malinalli, the great puta as she is coined by the Mexican history, as well as a traitor is continuously misunderstood by the Mexicans. Historically, she is seen as the translator of Hernan Cortes, as well as Cortes’ woman as they have also indulged in sex and was able to have a child. Esquivel tried to rewrite history not altering facts but still using the history as a backbone of the novel but rewrites the heroism of Malinalli. The novel is not an epic or a sage but it was able to not defend the guilt of Malinalli because she also had her own faults but the novel tried to rewrite how Malinalli is to be viewed: a woman capable of faults and wrong decisions. She should not be viewed as a weak woman who tried to denigrate the Aztec down to the particles of an ash.

In connection to this, though fictional in its very core, Carlos Fuentes uses his telescope to see the recorded history and uses it as a support to write his novel, The Years with Laura Diaz. He contextualizes the novel, or the epic or saga as referred by other people, to the history of Mexico by situating a woman who faces many experiences—love, revolution, family. The novel is quite lengthy, spanning over a hundred years and in its physical manifestation, over five hundred pages. Fuentes used the life of Laura Diaz over these years to portray history, which is one of the most important features of the politics of Latin-American writers throughout their works.

Feminism as a Framework

Magic realism as a literary trend has grown over the years and it has also manifested its own tenet as being able to be used as a literary theory in explicating texts. However, this paper would like to read Fuentes’ novel in a female perspective through a feminist reading. By means of a feminist reading, the critic wishes to gather different thoughts conceived by feminism in order to properly critique the novel not only through a formalistic (or new critical) method but also a text belonging to the feminine aspect.

Feminism in itself is a school of theory that “looks at how aspects of our culture are inherently patriarchal (male dominated) and …this critique strives to expose the explicit and implicit misogyny in male writing about women” (Brizee and Tompkins 2010). Tyson, in his book about theory, exemplifies the approaches to feminist criticism which is summarized in terms of: (1) oppression of women through the patriarchal ideology; (2) the othering of the woman; (3) the cultural determination of gender; (4) equalizing men and women; and (5) intersecting the issues of gender with literature.

The critic would not rely on the framework as a form of criticism but would also like to use the framework as a form of reading—a support in order to appropriate a richer use of feminist perspective in a text. However, the writer being a male can be a tad bit problematic, in which Fiona Tolan, in the book of Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory And Criticism: An Oxford Guide, articulated,

“The practice of approaching male authors through a feminist perspective became known as ‘phallocentric criticism’ because it sought to expose the masculine bias of a work…Millet demonstrated that a text could be something other than it was originally conceived to be. This led to the promotion of the role of the reader…From the moment phallocentric criticism was established, the text could no longer be assumed to be innocent of sexual politics (Waugh, 326-328, 2006).

In this manner, Tolan articulates that there is something different in reading a female authored text in a feminist perspective and a male authored text featuring a female hero[ine] in a female perspective. This would only lead in the exposition in the biases where the male author may write against the woman and only portray her as someone of the stereotypical notion.

Finally, the criticism would use several general questions rooted in the feminist theory to exemplify other parts of text aside from the major theories to be used. These questions will serve as a guide in unlocking the feminist themes of the work. Also, the questions will seek to understand the political standing of Laura Diaz as a woman.

Male Writer, Feminist Perspective

The foremost argument that may stem from many critics is how a male writer was able to present a woman considered as a heroic figure throughout the years of her life. She is basically grounded in a mural, but how was she able to hold such power and present it to the world? Carlos Fuentes as a male writer also hold his own masculine politics that would categorize Laura Diaz to be present of masculine politics as well. This was evident in the sex escapades of Laura Diaz. Seeking the colonial mind, colonizers often embark not only a world of exploration but also of sex. They either fell in love with the women of the land they are colonizing (such is the story of Malinalli and Hernan Cortes and the people of the Philippines with a rich Spanish descent) or of course, subjugate their bodies to the colonial power of rape. This is not to say, however, that Laura Diaz was able to present male power of rape or colonialism, but this is to say that Laura Diaz also had a rich sexual experience which should not be denoted as a representation of a Mexican woman through Fuentes’ eyes.

Laura Diaz primarily had many lovers, similar to a male who will most likely to have one. Fuentes might regarded Laura Diaz as a masculine figure and tried to subvert her femininity to a woman who will be ready to indulge love with other men. In a patriarchal culture, men who indulge in womanizing are not crucified like someone who has done a grave sin. Many husbands are philanderers and they indulge in love-making with different woman because they either: (1) need more experience in sex; or (2) they are not satisfied with the sex they get from their lover/s. If we see other cultures, there are even those practicing monogamy as permitted by religious or cultural laws but presents that one must be able to provide a living for the women and the children produced. On the other hand, when female “masculinize / menize”, they are treated like harlots or puta. Such is the lives of women in biblical times, or even in other cultures that when they commit adultery, they are stoned to death.

Next we can see the role of Laura Diaz in the revolution or rather, the abundance of the novel with politics. We can see the interest of the author to depict a lot of political information which is sometimes not needed much and enough background would be sufficient. Because of this issue, the presence of the interest of the male psyche in the political world becomes evident. The political abundance found in the novel somewhat deterred the life of Laura Diaz from what should be the focus. From the title, we can see that it is about this woman: the years that have gone by for almost a hundred years she was able to experience a lot of things. However, this seems not to be the case. Laura Diaz is basically a witness only of such events and this deters her from the usual course of a novel or what the novel must be: the life of Laura Diaz. The author seemed to delineated from the course and instead, rendered only Laura Diaz in a form of a spectacle: the ever-spectator who is only watching. Being a spectator is oppressive because it silences—you can only watch but you can never interfere. This is like watching a movie: you can only watch but you can never interfere with the decisions being made by the characters.

Going back to the political abundance of the novel, it is also oppressive in the sense that Laura Diaz’ important is neglected. Instead, the novel transforms itself like a discourse about the political status of Mexico and how it is an intrinsic aspect in the historical foundation of it. At first, these political explanations can serve as an important background. But as a reader witnesses more political explanations that seem to deter the reader from Laura Diaz’ life, the manifestation of patriarchy is visible both in the side of the author (who is a male) and of the novel (which is now becoming masculine instead of feminine). Truly, it is assumable that Fuentes did not intend the novel to be feminine or read through a feminist perspective. The novel itself might just be really a novel of patriarchal influences; that, the novel only uses Laura Diaz as an object—objectifying her through the oppressive and silencing lens.

In connection with oppression, it is also arguable as to why Laura Diaz’ life is so dominated by a patriarchal rule. Her life is very dramatic, emotional, and oppressive. The novel may try to repress the false notions of any negativity within the Mexican context however it does not fully try to repress the emotional life of Laura Diaz. First, she is neglected by her husband. They are married and also, they had children but their life is very dull. They do not inflict any spark of love between each other. In the end, it was Laura who left and if it will be coined in the modern context, it would appear Laura is the one who is the oppressive one because it is always men who leave, and now in the novel, we see Laura being the lover who left the supposedly ‘loved’ which is again a medium of a male lens that tries to picture Laura Diaz as a masculine figure. There are many more events in the life that would be too many to enumerate but with its abundance of bad luck in life, we can picture that Laura Diaz is oppressed in terms of her life experience. It’s too much of a bad picturing of a woman especially using the medium of literature because Laura Diaz can be rendered as a representation, and a bad representation at that. What constitutes the novel somehow feminine is the ability of Laura Diaz to withstand everything—but doesn’t it go down to a hypermasculine strength Laura Diaz manifests?

Approaching the Text in Feminist Criticism

As articulated before, there are some approaches to the texts that would be important in discerning how the feminist and anti-feminist aspect of the novel. Primarily, it is obvious that Laura Diaz is oppressed in the patriarchal ideology of the author. This novel is the first novel of Fuentes to make the hero a female (thus a heroine) of his novel. The problem with his writing rest on the engendering of the text which is very masculine while the heroine is a feminine. The patriarchal ideology lies in the many aspects of masculine interest: the ideology of politics. Politics in itself is patriarchal because only in the recent times we witness female icons in the political world. If we see the years the novel is divided, we can see the earliest time it is contextualized in the early 1900’s.

We can witness the “othering” of Laura Diaz when she is considered to be only a spectacle; a lens that is a witness only and who almost can’t do anything. Laura Diaz’ reduction to a spectator strips of her the ability to speak and of course, the ability to have a participative role in the novel. She is presented to be   an ‘other’ or a stranger who can only watch as things go by. And that presents that however biologically female she is, the ideology of patriarchal rule cannot equate the oppressed voices of the feminists because of the culture presented in the book is too masculine that emasculation of Laura Diaz also happens, though never awarding her any privileges that a male can manifest.

The portrayal of men and women relationship is also present in the novel. Laura Diaz, in her case, cannot communicate with men easily. Primarily, she wasn’t able to have great terms with her husband (though in the later part of the novel they reunited) and with also her sons. Also, her most valuable male companion will be her brother, who dies early, depressing her more. What’s really problematic in this aspect is that Laura Diaz seems to be stripped of having a good harmonic relation with men.

Work is of course, an important aspect in the female psyche because this is a showcase of their strength as well. The work of Laura Diaz, which becomes evident in the latter parts of the novel are very feminine or a job requiring artistic talents rather than a work requiring the strength of a man (carpentry and others). The job of being a secretary and photographer is able to resist patriarchy in terms that Laura Diaz does not reduce herself to a housewife grounded only in home. The ability to work and being free to work constitutes already a large part of Laura Diaz that her work is able to rewrite how the strength of the feminine is also available in Fuentes’ novel.

Concluding: Feminist or Masculine?

It is obvious that the text is a masculine one even it features a female heroine. As stated by the aforementioned thoughts, the text is embedded in a patriarchal ideology and embodies masculine perception of politics and also incorporates the politics of the writer being a male. Although the text is masculine, there are still tinges of feminine aspect that depicts Laura Diaz as a female representation though it is solely embedded in her idea of being locked into a spectator’s lens.

Works Cited

Brizee, Allen, and J. Case Tompkins. “Feminist Criticism (1960s-present).” Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Purdue Online Writing Lab, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 25 Feb 2013.

Fuentes, Carlos. The Years with Laura Diaz. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999. Print.

Tolan, Fiona. “Feminisms.” Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. By Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. N. pag. Print.


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