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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 2
Título: 1998


Chilean novelist Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna (1989) can accommodate a variety of readings. It has been interpreted from a magical realist perspective (Hart), as fictionalized history (Otero), and as a form of picaresque narrative (Earle, Rotella, Gálvez-Carlisle). For other critics the novel’s main interest lies in its feminist vision (Hart, Rivero).1 Feminism has established gender as a legitimate category for the analysis of literary texts and other cultural products. There is, however, no single feminist theory, but various brands of feminist thinking, each of which may be distinguished by the main focus of its analysis and by the solution(s) it proposes.2 Balancing the differences between some of the major schools are the common foundations on which all brands of feminism rest: the recognition of women’s oppression, the critique of patriarchal assumptions and discourses and the promotion of women’s liberation. These themes, recurrent in both first- and third-world feminisms, are encoded in the human experiences recorded in Eva Luna.

In this essay I propose to examine the ways in which Allende’s fictional portrayal both connects with and diverges from some of the main currents of feminist thought. In order to better appreciate her ideological orientation it is useful to consider one kind of feminist literary practice that Lucía Guerra-Cunningham identifies in her introduction to a recent collection of essays on Latin American women writers. She comments on their “belligerent intention to tear up the garments of patriarchal power” (my emphasis), as part of the female self-liberation that their work advocates. According to Guerra-Cunningham, “the feminism in these texts is both an alternative and an aggressive challenge to phallologocentrism” (my emphasis; Guerra-Cunningham, 10). Rosario Ferré, one of Puerto Rico’s foremost feminist writers, illustrates this ethos, speaking in similar tones about her own creative impetus: “This destructive urge that moves me to write is tied to my need to hate, my need for vengeance. I write so as to avenge myself against reality and against myself; I write to give permanence to what hurts me and to what tempts me” (my emphasis; Ferré, 25). Such statements are suggestive of the radical feminist position outlined by Rosemarie Tong. Radical feminists, in Tong’s account, view the patriarchal system, characterized as it is by power, dominance, hierarchy and competition, as the source of women’s oppression. Since this system cannot be reformed it must be “ripped out root and branch” (Tong, 2-3).This position is explicit in Rosario Ferré’s feminist call to arms: “Turn back this weapon, the weapon of humiliating and hotly embarrassing sexual insult, brandished against us women for so many centuries, against that same society” (Castillo, 43). Despite the creative potential in this approach, Ferré’s metaphorical vocabulary indicates that she perceives her feminist mission in terms of violent retaliation against patriarchal oppression.

Like many other contemporary Latin American women writers Allende adheres to the central tenets of feminist thought. But Eva Luna contains unique nuances and emphases that distinguish her writing from the kind Guerra-Cunningham describes and Ferré espouses. I use the label “affirmative” in this essay to characterize the special tone and spirit in which Allende transposes classic feminist notions into her fictional universe. In Eva Luna the dominant imperative is neither lament over female victimhood nor denunciation of female oppression. The novel is neither born of anger nor sustained by the desire for revenge. It is a novel about female agency—a female agency that favors creative transformation as an alternate expression of dissent; it is a novel that deliberately affirms woman’s (and in particular the Latin American woman’s) ability to transcend her particular disadvantages and adversity in general.3

Debra Castillo has noted the heterogeneous nature of Latin American feminisms which have been developing in multiple directions, and which are not always compatible with directions taken by Anglo-European feminisms. This diversity, she notes, is reflected in a feminist literary practice that is “multiply voiced and tends to operate within a field of sinuous and shifting positionalities rather than from a single, fixed position” (Castillo, xxii). Allende’s feminism, accordingly, does not fit discretely into any of the existing schools, nor does her female subject conform to any one feminist model. The hallmark of her vision is its eclecticism as she draws on the insights of different currents of feminist thought while remaining firmly within the boundaries of her affirmative agenda.

One of the first signs of this affirmative emphasis appears strategically in the opening sentences of the novel, which preclude determinism as a factor in the psychological life of the protagonist: “Nací en el último cuarto de una casa sombría y crecí entre muebles antiguos, libros en latín y momias humanas, pero eso no logró hacerme melancólica.” (my emphasis).4 Her social development conforms to a similar pattern. There is a marked contrast between Eva Luna’s social origins, which could have made it her destiny to be a servant like her mother, and the famous writer that she eventually becomes. Although she is reared by two other servant women after her mother’s death, Eva makes a conscious decision not to accept their station as her fate (188).

In the realm of gender characterization, Allende holds up a new model of womanhood for celebration. Genetic inheritance accounts partially for Eva’s identity: she is born that way, having inherited her essential nature from her mother, Consuelo. Strength appears to be an innate trait in both Consuelo and Eva. As a newborn baby, Eva is described as “fuerte y... gritona” (24), and throughout her life she tends to defy the odds against her. But her character is not merely the product of passive inheritance; it is also the result of socialization. In the first chapter of the novel, Allende establishes the primacy of the notion of gender identity as ideologically constructed rather than given: the protagonist’s mother names her Eva (which we are told means life) “para darle deseos de vivir” (31). In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Eve, the first woman, is the prototype of the evil woman, made to bear responsibility for the “Fall of Man.” By choosing this name for her protagonist and investing it with new meaning, Allende demythifies the Eve model of womanhood, and inferentially, the myth of feminine evil. The deliberate choice of a name for its meaning also signals the importance that will be given to conditioning in the formation of Eva’s personality. Her mother-teacher deliberately shapes her behaviour and attitudes, and her lessons (both verbal and by example) begin to mold Eva into a non-traditional woman. The process of growing up exposes Eva to more conservative female characters, but it is her mother’s influence that prevails and is most abiding.

In her interactions with others Eva’s thinking frequently diverges from theirs. She is also assertive and self-assured without being arrogant (195), and has a fiercely independent spirit. Her spontaneous response to the offer of free accommodation by Mimí is: “creo que debo buscar mi propio camino” (193). Even though Mimí eventually persuades her to accept the offer, she does not relinquish her will to control her life: “acabé de hacerme mujer y aprendí a conducir el timón de mi existencia” (195). In order to contest the age-old binary association of man with reason and woman with emotion, the author deliberately endows her female protagonist with rationality. She promotes this idea through Eva’s frequent recourse to reflection, as she analyzes her life periodically, and makes reasoned decisions (149, 153, 188).

Psychologically and emotionally Eva appears to be a continuation and extension of her mother. This idea is expressed metaphorically through an important moment in the birth process when there is a delay in the severing of Eva’s umbilical cord. It is a moment that foreshadows the novel’s celebration of a strong mother-daughter bond that continues beyond Consuelo’s death. Allende’s representation of the mother-daughter relationship is reminiscent of Nancy Chodorow’s psychoanalytic description of the girl child’s pre-Oedipal relationship with her mother as charcterized initially by “prolonged symbiosis” and “narcissistic over-identification” until she undergoes the separation complex to identify with her father (Tong 154-5). In her depiction of the relationship between Eva and Consuelo, Allende modifies this theory, which refers originally to the restricted context of the traditional family in Western societies. Eva does not undergo the separation complex to identify with her father, who disappears before her birth. In fact, her lack of a paternal surname implies the eschewing of a patriarchally-defined identity. Even Luna, the name of her father’s tribe, represents the archetypal female principle and therefore enhances the woman-centered focus of the novel. By celebrating the strong emotional attachment between Eva and Consuelo, Allende provides an alternative for the perception (or projection) of an unmitigated alienation between mother and daughter.5

Her view of the bond between mother and daughter expands into a broader celebration of solidarity between women. Allende rejects the notion of a natural hostility in female-female relationships through her portrayal of the warmth and caring in the interactions between Eva and Zulema. It is the young Eva who succeeds in awakening Zulema’s interest in life and in mitigating the unhappiness of her marriage. Later they become rivals for the attention of Kamal. Although Eva had suffered the pain of watching Zulema’s success in seducing him, when he disappears and Zulema sinks into an extreme depression, Eva forgets her own pain to care for her (155). A similarly orchestrated demonstration of solidarity between women is to be found in the account of the two sisters who fall in love with their cousin Rolf. Their solution to this “problem” is exemplary: “Hablaron del asunto entre ellas.... estaban acostumbradas a compartir el cuarto, el baño, la ropa y casi todo lo demás, de modo que no vieron malicia alguna en repartirse también al amante” (90).

Allende translates yet another of the major themes of psychoanalytic feminism into her novel: the importance of psychic transformation in the struggle for female liberation. Its implication for Eva is seen explicitly and very poignantly in the way Allende allows her to construct an identity for herself: “Al acercarme a los diecisiete años mi cuerpo alcanzó su tamaño definitivo y mi rostro adquirió la expresión que me acompañaría hasta hoy. Entonces dejé de examinarme en el espejo para compararme con las mujeres perfectas del cine y las revistas y decidí que era bella por la simple razón de que tenía ganas de serlo. No le di un segundo pensamiento a ese asunto” (172). Obliquely, Eva’s response offers an alternative to the submission to alien and alienating aesthetic ideals to which many women have recourse for the validation of self. In this way the author points us to the need for the process of liberation to begin in the psychic domain. The autonomy evident in this gesture is an important sign of Eva’s character as it develops. Later, when she is given a choice, she opts for education rather than beautification (111). Eva’s orientation is also a repudiation of the supposedly empty-headed woman’s preoccupation with beauty rituals.

This facet of Allende’s vision coincides with the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir, the chief exponent of existentialist feminism, who encouraged women to assume the role of subjects by redefining their roles and creating their own identity. De Beauvoir also stressed the liberating function of work in general and intellectual activity in particular for the woman. In a similar spirit, Allende makes female self-empowerment an important part of her fictional project. She gives Eva a voice to speak for herself; she endows her with strength, makes her play an untoward role as active political mediator between the guerrillas and the government. But by far the most important area of her empowerment is the development of her creative ability. Female creativity has most commonly been associated with procreation, with the biological capacity to create new life. Elena de Jongh notes that patriarchal Western culture has represented literary creativity as a fundamental male quality, which has important implications for women’s writing: “because women in patriarchal societies have historically been reduced to characters and images imprisoned in texts generated by male expectations and designs, women’s writing necessarily involves “the process of self-definition”(De Jongh, 416). Allende engages Eva in this process by making her creative talent one of her distinguishing personality traits. This tendency emerges in Eva’s early years through an ironic juxtaposition of Riad’s advice to her: “Las mujeres tienen que casarse, porque si no, están incompletas, se secan por dentro” (173), and her own inclination: “Yo devoraba los libros que caían en mis manos” (173).

Consuelo’s most valuable legacy to Eva are the lessons about the creative use of her imagination, and Eva puts them into practice from an early age. In the boredom and confinement of the professor’s house in which her mother works and lives, it is Eva’s creative imagination that affords her excitement and freedom:
en media hora yo podía dar seis vueltas alrededor del globo terráqueo y un fulgor de luna en el patio podía llenarme los pensamientos de una semana..... El espacio se estiraba y se encogía según mi voluntad;.... Una palabra mía y ¡chas! se transformaba la realidad. (28)
Her creativity is not just a gift. Eva consciously cultivates and develops it through the stories about saints and gods that she hears from La Madrina (48), those she hears on the streets (60), and radio dramas (63, 69-70). She makes creative capital out of what she hears, sees and reads, but is discriminating in selecting from her sources. The festivities she witnesses at the home of the Minister of State provide her with the raw material for her Modernist-style description of a royal fiesta (104). She learns the art of her Yugoslav mistress, but is careful to guard against its addictive influence (101). Eva’s creativity is not contingent upon material possessions. It inheres in her ability to make use of her resources, however limited; in her disposition to adapt what is at hand and to make it work for her. Resourcefulness marks Eva from her early years and allows her to escape her “destiny.”

Female creativity, the novel imples, can express itself not only as originality, but also as the transgressive appropriation of what already exists. Eva exhibits this form of creativity in her ability to transform her sources. Movies and radio dramas are the models for her stories, but she re-tells them and changes their conventional endings. Her creative capacity distinguishes her from Mimí, who, as an actress, merely interprets ready-made roles, and from others who are passive consumers of cultural products. For Eva, the act of literary creation is a mystic-erotic experience, with undertones of orgasmic ecstasy:
Preparé un café negro y me instalé ante la máquina, tomé una hoja de papel limpia y blanca, como una sábana recién planchada para hacer el amor y la introduje en el rodillo. Entonces sentí como una brisa alegre por los huesos, por los caminos de las venas bajo la piel (230)
Implicit in this representation of creativity is the author’s will to widen the range of possibilities for female self-fulfilment. Eva’s storytelling is also a supreme form of empowerment, for it is an innocuous means of constructing and manipulating reality and of preserving or disposing of memories at will. She uses her talent for many purposes: to survive adverse circumstances, to provide mental escape from confinement, to embellish reality, as well as for the benefit of others. She invents stories to console the lonely and dying professor, brightening his last days and helping him to die in peace. Similarly she creates a fiction for Rolf to change the painful reality of his memories (238-239). With Elvira she begins to capitalize on her creative skill by exchanging stories for special privileges (58, 68). This process culminates in her rise to the position of scriptwriter for national television.

Psychoanalytic feminists have been criticized for neglecting the social roots of women’s oppression. Allende escapes this charge by being attentive to both the psychic experience and the social circumstances of her protagonist. In the context about which she writes there are millions of poor women who live and die as victims of unjust social and political systems. Concern with these specific conditions is one of the distinctive marks of the work of many Latin American feminist writers. Eva Luna reflects and responds to a wide spectrum of the social and political problems associated with Latin American history and, in particular, with the problem of poor women. In shaping her social vision Allende has drawn on a familiar and seemingly incongruous literary model: picaresque fiction. Traditional picaresque fiction is characterized by its emphasis on the worst tendencies in an epoch, its denial of the possibility of true transcendence, its association of low morals with low birth, and its outlook of deterministic pessimism. Allende is careful not to stray too far from the picaresque prototype in both the form and content of her novel. The novel’s autobiographical form, informal style, episodic structure, low-life setting and panoramic scope are picaresque essentials. Eva Luna’s lower class origins, the unusual circumstances of her conception and birth, her “apprenticeship” with various masters, and her “rags to riches” journey are also standard picaresque situations. Her resourcefulness in transcending her limitations is also reminiscent of a similar talent in the true pícaro. In fact such resemblances between Eva Luna and the picaresque lead Pilar Rotella to conclude that “the overall implied message of Eva’s story, as of all picaresque stories, is a lesson on human error, vice and corruption, punctuated by rare examples of good will and tenderness.” (Rotella, 130). However, any attempt to fit the novel into the traditional picaresque mold ought not to minimize the qualitative transformation that accompanies Allende’s imitation. Although the picaresque provides many of the novel’s motifs, the coincidences between Eva Luna and this genre are superficial and deceptive. Allende has invested this familiar mode with unfamiliar meaning and refashioned its conventions to suit her purposes. By inserting copious elements of romantic idealism she undermines the satirical potential of Eva’s story and creates a unique literary product.

In both tone and intended effect Eva Luna also diverges from the original picaresque. Unlike the picaresque author, Allende does not intend to merely disturb or depress the reader. Missing from her portrait are the antiheroism of the true picaresque protagonist and the predisposition to immorality which derives from the combination of heredity and early socialization. The true pícaro is a victim of the system who nevertheless exploits the system through resourcefulness and unprincipled pragmatism. Eva triumphs without loss of moral principles. The classic pícara, like her male equivalent, is a model to be avoided: corrupt and ruthlessly materialistic, motivated by self-interest and without moral scruples, she commands neither respect nor admiration. Allende holds up her protagonist as a feminist model to be imitated. Through a parodic inversion of the picaresque Allende discovers cause for affirmation in Eva’s experiences as a servant. Relegating the conventional protest against “the oppression of poor women” to the margins of these episodes, she places at the center of her focus a celebration of the means that one such woman uses to survive and to overcome her adverse circumstances. And it is not mere survival that is celebrated, because Eva actively seeks to learn something positively useful from each bad experience. The author does not dwell on the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s liberation and progress. She opposes the reality of deprivation and oppression with the will to transcend misfortune that characterizes her protagonist. And even though Eva Luna may not be a stereotypical representative of a putatively homogeneous community of Latin American women, she functions as a model of what poor women of the Third World can achieve and become despite their disadvantage.

Allende has recourse to those aspects of the picaresque that allow her to expose the evils of the Latin American woman’s condition but she simultaneously subverts this mode, eschewing its deterministic world view in order to remain faithful to her feminist project. By deliberately presenting the story of Eva’s social, economic and psychological triumph she has refused the dominant representation of the Latin American woman as a passive or compliant victim and discloses the possibility of another female posture. Allende acknowledges this as the spirit in which she creates her female protagonists:
Cada una a su manera encuentra la forma de vencer la mediocridad y sobreponerse al manto gris que a menudo envuelve la existencia cotidiana. No creo que esto sea un romanticismo de mi parte. Corresponde a la realidad de tantas y tantas mujeres que he conocido en mi oficio de periodista y en mi vocación por la amistad. (Gálvez-Carlisle, 169)
At the heart of many of the different feminist schools of thought are the psychosexual dynamics of male-female relations. Allende develops the character of her protagonist in this context. Eva’s first experience of love takes the form of her adolescent infatuation with Kamal, the incredibly attractive cousin of her protector Riad Halabí. She nurtures a secret, unrequited, all-consuming passion for him, which leads her to experience feelings of jealousy (149). But reason finally prevails in her response to these feelings:
Era la primera vez que experimentaba celos y ese sentimiento adherido a mi piel de dia y de noche como una oscura mancha, una suciedad imposible de quitar, llegó a ser tan insoportable, que cuando al fin pude librarme de él, me había desprendido definitivamente del afán de poseer a otro y la tentación de pertenecer a alguien. (149)
Her second love relationship is more profound in its impact. Eva’s sexual initiation takes place in circumstances that contain echoes of the Electra complex. She seduces Riad Halabí who had been a father figure in her life. The circumstances are very unusual, a travesty of the clichéd Romantic “first love.” But the unspeakable ecstasy of their sexual encounter counteracts Riad’s horrible physical deformity (185). However, their relationship is short-lived and Riad, in a self-denying gesture, decides to send Eva, against her will, to a boarding house in the city. This brings Eva to a very critical juncture in her life. On the way to the city, when her sexual awakening threatens to overwhelm her, she sets aside her emotions to think dispassionately:
tenía la mirada vuelta para dentro, todavía deslumbrada por el descubrmiento del amor.... Sin embargo, durante esas horas traté de librarme de la languidez de los recuerdos y lograr la frialdad indispensable para revisar el pasado y hacer un inventario de mis posibilidades. (187)
The moment of discovery of love coincides with the moment of the discovery of self. Eva reviews the course of her life and decides to take control of it rather than allow it to be determined by others:
Había vivido hasta entonces a las órdenes de otros, hambriento de afecto, sin más futuro que el día de mañana y sin más fortuna que mis historias.... Repasé una a una cada palabra de la noche anterior y comprendí que ese hombre a quien amé durante cinco años como un padre y ahora deseaba como a un amante, era un proyecto imposible. Miré mis manos maltratadas por los trabajos domésticos, me las pasé por la cara palpando la forma de los huesos, hundí los dedos en mi pelo y con un suspiro dije basta. Repetí en alta voz basta, basta, basta. Luego saqué de la cartera el papel con el nombre del pensionado de señoritas y lo lancé por la ventana. (187)
This last act is a symbolic gesture which evokes psychoanalytic feminists’ advocacy of the woman’s need to “probe the depth of her psyche in order to exorcise the original primal father from it. .... Only then will she have the space to think herself anew and become who she has the power to be” (Tong, 172). The discarding of the paper is a metaphor for Eva’s rejection of Riad, the figure of the patriarch in her life, and marks an important first step in her journey to selfhood.

Her third relationship, with the guerrilla fighter, Huberto Naranjo (Comandante Rogelio), subjects Eva’s character to a severe test. On the one hand, her feminist inclination makes her reject Huberto’s attempts to impose on her the double standard of sexual morality that is immanent in machismo: “Cuando me interrogó sobre mi virginidad, le contesté qué te importa mi virginidad, puesto que tampoco puedes ofrecerme la tuya” (211). But as their relationship deepens she nurtures the traditional Romantic dreams and wants to be the domestic woman: “Soñaba con un lugar para nosotros dos, deseaba cocinar su comida, lavar su ropa, dormir con él cada noche” (210). The intensity of her love rises to irrational heights:
la relación con Huberto Naranjo alteró mi existencia, andaba desesperada, urgida, trastornada por el anhelo de conquistarlo y retenerlo a mi lado. Dormía mal, sufría atroces pesadillas, me faltaba el entendimiento, no podía concentrarme en mi trabajo o en mis cuentos. (211-212)
At this point Eva is brought to a very delicate stage in the development of her character. So far she has been nearing the feminist ideal of being in control, of not allowing her emotions to obscure her reason. Now her feminist stance wavers. But eventually her rationality returns and she learns to accommodate her love for Naranjo in the regular routine of her life:
Pero pasó el tiempo y finalmente el fantasma de Huberto Naranjo se encogió, se hizo menos omnipresente, se redujo a un tamaño más cómodo y entonces pude vivir por otros motivos, no sólo para desearlo. (212)
More importantly she learns to accept the reality of their relationship rather than yearn for what she did not and could not have:
Huberto Naranjo estaba comprometido con una causa que debía ser para él más importante que nuestro amor. Me propuse entenderlo y aceptarlo. Cultivaba un sentimiento rómantico hacia ese hombre que iba tornándose más seco, fuerte y silencioso, pero dejé de hacer planes para el futuro. (212, my emphasis)
Eva’s relationship with Huberto serves two purposes: it humanizes her (she has a heart, she can love, her emotional strength can flag). But it is clear that to have made her follow the path of the woman who, like Zulema, lives and dies for the love of a man, would have weakened the novel’s feminist intent. As feminist heroine, Eva must illustrate another way of being. She finally realizes that there had been no basis for anything more than a platonic relationship with Huberto and so she comes to regard him as a brother. Her most interesting realization about Huberto comes after this: she detects the uneven development in his way of thinking. Naranjo spouts a great deal of rhetoric about his struggle to build a just society of equal and free people. But his Marxist ideology does not have any application to the position of women:
Para Naranjo y otros como él, el pueblo parecía compuesto sólo de hombres; nosotras debíamos contribuir a la lucha, pero estábamos excluidas de las decisiones y del poder. Su revolución no cambiaría en esencia mi suerte. (214)
These sentiments mirror those of radical and other feminists who distance themselvesfrom the traditional Marxist feminist notion that woman’s liberation is contingent upon the replacement of the capitalist system by socialism.

Her love relationships serve to show Eva as incredibly strong and phlegmatic. But the author also seems to want to make the point that the possession of strength by a woman is not necessarily a sign of a loss of humanity; a strong woman is not necessarily an “Iron Lady.” In order to affirm her protagonist’s humanity, she allows her to eventually find her true love at the end of the novel. It is a romantic storybook affair. Rolf Carlé is the perfect partner for Eva. Unlike Huberto, he does not conform to the macho stereotype. Though brought up to suppress these “feminine” qualities, he is innately soft, tender and loving. It is Eva who initiates their relationship, but it grows on a foundation of sharing, communication and spiritual engagement. This final illustration of the possibility of a positive heterosexual relationship based on mutual understanding places Allende’s feminism on a liberal-humanist plane.

As one of the domains in which the binary gender opposition has been imposed, sexuality is a centerpiece of feminist discourse. For radical feminists the sex act in heterosexual relationships is the supreme expression of male power. Sexual aggression is the archetypally masculine act. The feminine woman has been represented as the passive, powerless object of male desire. Female sexual power has traditionally been constructed as dangerous and emasculating. Allende dismantles these stereotypical representations of female and male sexuality. In her representation of the woman’s sexual role she privileges female agency over female victimhood. When Eva faces the threat of sexual harassment from the influential colonel, she confronts him openly, disconcerts him with her frankness but relinquishes her job in the face of his persistent pursuit. Implied in this response is the idea that refusal to play the role of victim is a form of feminist reaction against patriarchy.

In other instances the author reverses the patriarchally constructed sexual roles, divesting the man of sexual power and replacing the traditional representation of the sexually uninhibited woman as witch with a new image of female sexuality that is assertive but not destructive or castrating. Repeatedly, the novel shows the woman taking the initiative in love, playing the part of the “huntress,” while the man is reduced to a powerless (but satisfied) “victim.” However, the author is careful not to reproduce the process that she sets out to negate. She does not merely reverse sexual roles so that the balance of sexual power may lie with the woman; instead she appropriates the patriarchal discourse of sex as power, divests it of its usual negative associations and transforms it into a celebration of eroticism. In the novel, female sexual aggression is the aggression of a game. The sexual advantage of the women in the novel is distinguished from patriarchally-conceived sexual power, for they use it to benefit and give pleasure to the men, rather than to control or subordinate them. Zulema stalks and captures her prey but only to transport him to a sexual heaven:
Kamal gimió vencido.... Zulema le tomó la cabeza y lo atrajo hacia su regazo, donde sus grandes senos lo devoraban con un borboriteo de lava ardiente.... él se abandonó con los ojos cerrados, mientras ella lo acariciaba hasta hacerlo desfallecer por completo, tragándolo con sus arenas movedizas, devorándolo, exprimiéndolo hasta su esencia y conduciéndolo a los jardines de Alá donde lo celebraron todas las odaliscas del Profeta. (151)
Rolf experiences a similar fate at the hands of his two cousins, who, metaphorically, “kill him with love.” While he vacillates, they are bold. He is sexually timid, they abandon themselves to the pleasures of sex. He is a believer in monogamy, they are willing to maintain a respectable façade of marriage and seek happiness and excitement in an extramarital affair with him. They experience no guilt over the affair, while he is guilt-ridden. While they thrive on intense sexual revelry, he grows thin and debilitated. With this episode Allende has turned the myth of the weaker sex on its head.

Celebration of erotic pleasure as mutual engagement is an organic dimension of the novel’s meaning. It is seen, for example, in Eva’s first sexual experience. She is not the proverbial deflowered virgin; she shares her sexuality willingly:
Riad Halabí era sabio y tierno y esa noche me dio tanto placer, que habrían de pasar muchos años... antes que volviera a sentirme tan plena. Me enseñó las multiples posibilidades de la feminidad.... Recibí agradecida el espléndido regalo de mi propia sensualidad, conocí mi cuerpo, supe que había nacido para ese goce. (185)
In the story of the Carlé family Allende acknowledges the existence of the dominant type of heterosexual relationships in which man has the upper hand and which radical feminists describe as exploitative, alienating and oppressive, she but also opposes it with an alternative heterosexual engagement in which the woman plays an assertive but non-threatening sexual role. She has therefore transformed the uninhibited expression of female sexuality from being a sign of danger into a fountain of pleasure.

Allende’s vision also seems to be refracted through postmodern feminist lenses, specifically in her view of women as sharing common cause with marginalized and minority groups. In her survey of feminist thought, Rosemarie Tong makes a comment on the humanist significance of postmodern feminism, which seems to reflect the thrust of Allende’s message:
We humans could do with a new conceptual start. In our desire to achieve unity, we have excluded, ostracized, and alienated so-called abnormal, deviant, and marginal people. As a result of this policy of exclusion, we have impoverished the human community. We have, it seems, very little to lose and much to gain by joining a variety of postmodern feminists in their celebration of multiplicity. For even if we cannot all be One, we can all be Many. There may yet be a way to achieve unity in diversity. (Tong, 233)
A tolerance of difference underlies the selection and portrayal of characters in Eva Luna. The author’s refusal of gender stereotyping implies a refusal of discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudice in any form and on whatever grounds (sexual preference, class, occupation, race, or physical appearance). Her project involves the promotion of a human goodness that transcends difference. Such goodness resides largely in characters who are marginalized, deviants, or social pariahs. Allende’s choice of secondary characters separates her even further from the picaresque convention. Not only the pícaro’s life but the entire picaresque world is characterized by its anti-heroism and ugliness. However, though many of the characters with whom Eva comes into contact are reminiscent of the ordinary, unheroic picaresque types, they do not exhibit the selfishness and lack of compassion normally associated with characters who inhabit the picaresque world. The two women who mother Eva after the death of Consuelo belong to the marginalized Afro-Latin American minority. Huberto Naranjo, her savior, is a street urchin. La Señora runs a prostitution business but exudes a countervailing warmth and goodwill. She takes Eva in and shows her kindness and love. Allende is generous in her treatment of this woman’s occupation, even in the face of her misdemeanors, which has the effect of deconstructing the stereotype of the exploitative, heartless and materialistic Madam. Riad Halabí, the Turkish shopkeeper who takes Eva off the streets and into his home, suffers from the terrible deformity of a cleft palate, but is an incurable “good Samaritan.” Once again readers of Latin American literature who have come to expect exploitation to result in this relationship are frustrated in their expectations. Riad becomes instead a father-substitute for Eva and it is he, ironically, who instils in her the lesson about the importance of schooling and of economic independence as the basis of freedom for a woman (172). Melecio is the most extreme case of “deviance.” A transvestite, he shows great generosity to Eva and eventually influences her to become a successful television scriptwriter. Born with the body of a man, Melecio has the soul of a woman. Allende’s presents him not from the perspective of sexual deviance but from the perspective of his humanity. Of this character the narrator says: “ningún dolor, ninguna violencia, han conseguido destruir su esencia íntima” (197). This portrayal seems designed to counteract the prejudice often felt against such individuals and to suggest that sexual difference is not human defect.

A popular perception of feminism is that misandry is its natural corollary: that to be feminist is to be anti-male. It is an impression that is often based on the radical feminists’ most pointed accusation of men specifically (rather than society or “the system”) for the oppression of women. In Eva Luna Allende carefully guards against any suggestion of misandry. She embraces instead a vision of the complementarity of male and female reminiscent of the liberal humanist version of feminism, which proposes cooperation between men and women for the changing of societal values. Although the novel invests authority in the female voice it also incorporates a range of male types and positions, from the misogynistic sadist Lukas Carlé, to the idealist and incorrigible chauvinist Huberto Naranjo, the androgynous Melecio, and the tender-hearted Rolf Carlé. Even the macho Huberto is portrayed sympathetically and his chauvinism does not detract from the earnestness of his political intentions. Although this balanced perspective is consistent with Allende’s desire to avoid the extreme positions of radical feminists, she embraces at least one of their more subversive propositions: the deposing of the Christian God, who, in their eyes, is the epitomé of all patriarchs, dictatorial, remote and aloof. These ideas are transmittted through Consuelo’s strong and instinctive rejection of the Catholic representation of God and her favoring of an alternate deity with human attributes that traditionally have been associated with the feminine: “Nunca logró aceptar ese dios tiránico que le predicaban las religiosas, prefería una deidad más alegre, maternal y compasiva” (13).

One of the criticisms that have been leveled at traditional liberal feminists is that they stress women’s ability to make it in the system and, inferentially, deny their pressing need to overthrow patriarchy and capitalism. Allende’s account of the individual woman’s triumph and transcendence does not translate into complicity with the system. It does not blind her to the need to eliminate patriarchy, nor does it imply that she advocates the sufficiency of individual triumph. The liberation through individual will demonstrated in the novel is not incompatible with the movement for social change.

Allende has projected her feminist view against the background of a still thriving patriarchal system, and like other feminists she seeks a corrective to this social arrangement. She defends the feminist cause by deflecting her focus from the evils of patriarchy, and by illustrating how feminist energies may be directed into creative channels. Her novel evinces her great awareness of the specificity of Latin American society. But she also realizes that although they have arisen in a specific socio-cultural settings, feminist theories have implications for and can be applied, albeit in modifed form, to the situation of women in other contexts. By focussing on the psychological, social and human dimensions of the woman’s situation, she also indicates her unwillingness to subscribe to any monolithic feminist theory. Eva Luna illustrates eloquently instead that the goal of women’s liberation from historical subordination is a multifaceted undertaking to be pursued simultaneously on different fronts.

Literary texts do not merely mirror reality. They frequently create myths that become fixed and that sometimes displace reality. Literature has been one medium through which damaging female stereotypes have been disseminated and institutionalized. In creating her positive model of womanhood, Allende may be charged with having created a Romantic myth, for good luck features too prominently in the story of Eva’s rise from obscurity to fame, and there are too many unbelievably good characters who, through their spirit of altruism, help her to succeed. But as García Márquez has shown in Cien años de soledad, there are pernicious myths (those designed to delude), and there are harmless myths (those designed to entertain or inspire). Isabel Allende’s myth-making falls into the latter category.

In a reference to the work of María Luisa Bombal, an earlier Chilean novelist, Linda Gould Levine notes:
Bombal makes no attempt to provide viable alternatives to the stagnant existence which constitutes the female reality. In fact, ...she seems to reinforce the traditional vision of the woman’s subordinate role, and thus she confronts us anew with the societal limitations of the Latin American woman. (Gould Levine, 148)
Though the mode in which Allende writes can hardly be described as prescriptive, it is clear that her novel offers the “viable alternative” sought by Levine. Eva Luna functions to create a new female consciousness and a new way of being for women who are still struggling to transcend and eventually break down the barriers of race, class and gender. This message of liberation is an especially important one for the poor women of Latin America and the rest of the Third World.