English 358 - WIU
Dr. M. Allison
February 21 2006
Defiant Characters that Challenge Gender Stereotypes in Isabel Allende’s
Portrait in Sepia
As humans, we often assume that deviance is dichotomous—humans are either deviant or normal, but it is more realistic and inclusive to examine deviance in terms of a continuum where each person and behavior has a place. In order to expose and comment on the struggle that humans face with social norms, writers often create fictional characters that embody high degrees of deviance. Writers use defiant characters to critique social norms and stereotypes, as well as to create a balanced fictional population of characters in which there exist varying levels and types of deviance.
Isabel Allende challenges traditional gender roles by constructing characters that defy and deviate from their prescribed roles. In her novel, Portrait in Sepia, female characters challenge gender stereotypes in different ways and to varying degrees. Whereas Paulina challenges gender stereotypes through her entrepreneurial drive, Nivea challenges gender stereotypes through her quest for and attainment of information, as well as through her political work and active pursuit of a relationship with Severo. As defiant characters transform the story, they simultaneously transform society because they challenge our assumptions, as readers, about the relationship between gender and behavior.
Paulina del Valle stands out in the midst of other characters in Portrait in Sepia as a powerful matriarch, corporate commander, and legend. She is legendary because Allende’s narrator, Aurora, describes her as being larger than life for most of the novel. Paulina’s physical enormity and spectacle is in accord with her extravagant energy and spiritual presence, brusque voice, immovable stubbornness, and ambitious capitalist competence. Nineteenth Century expectations for women to be docile and nurturing do not stop Paulina from acting upon her ambitious urges and corporate talents. Aurora describes her grandmother’s defiance when she recalls that Paulina “defied the males in her family to marry Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz, the man she had chosen for herself” (21). Paulina also “launched her husband in a commercial enterprise linked with the transcontinental railroad—one that made them enormously wealthy” (7). Allende constructs and conveys Paulina through the eyes of a female narrator. If one of Paulina’s sons was describing his mother, it isn’t likely that he would describe her in such an affirmative manner, but Aurora describes Paulina from her perspective as a woman and granddaughter who is, of course, at a genetic and generational distance from her grandmother. Aurora describes Paulina as being defiant because she practices agency (making decisions on her own behalf) and as entrepreneurially talented because she possesses the power of persuasion.
Allende does not describe Paulina’s entrepreneurial role as passive, but as active. Paulina does not convince or influence her husband, but “launches” him into the railroad industry. Here, Allende’s word choice emphasizes Paulina’s power, not as a persuader, but as more of a dictator. While Paulina’s aggressive and dominating personality may render her unlikable, it, more importantly, renders her defiant. Paulina’s relationship with Severo exemplifies her role as an authoritarian leader. When Severo first arrives in the United States, Paulina greets him by insulting the statue of Christ that he carries in his arms, saying, “the first thing we do will be to get rid of that monstrosity” (27). Although Paulina grew up surrounded by Catholicism in Chile, she instinctively and deliberately insults the religious statue. Her disrespect for Catholicism and religion in general is evidence of her deviance. She doesn’t deliberate before speaking, she just speaks her mind. When she disrespects the statue, she also disrespects the religious institution. This is an extreme form of defiance because Catholicism is a notoriously patriarchal institution.
By rejecting the statue, Paulina rejects her prescribed gender role as a subservient, devout woman. But she goes one step further than rejecting the statue—she symbolically spits in the institution’s face when she calls it a monstrosity. Paulina’s rebelliousness implies that she rejects the gender role forced upon her by a culture inundated with patriarchal religiosity. The bold nature of her words suggests that secularism is a part of her capitalist ambition. Paulina’s ambition is evident in the way that she conducts and manages her personal relationships as though they are business deals. She looks for opportunities for financial gain when Severo comes to live with her because he is a man, and therefore, has the potential to expand her enterprise. The strategy that Paulina uses to recruit the men in her life is to be overbearing and candid. When she recruits Severo, she notifies him, “I’m not asking you to think, that’s my job. You keep your mouth shut, watch, listen, and report to me” (32). She does not present or propose, but dictates her plan for Severo’s future. Paulina’s voice dominates her conversation with Severo, just as it does every conversation in which she participates. Her personality is aggressive and overpowering.
Paulina is a transgressor because she behaves in a way that is associated with another—male—gender role. Even today, ambition is a quality that is traditionally valued in men and scorned in women. A male authoritarian may be unpopular because of his corruptness, but he is not out of place. Paulina, on the other hand, has an authoritative personality that is out of place because she is a woman. Her defiance as an authoritarian individual is magnified by her defiance as a gender-transgressor. Isabel Allende challenges gender stereotypes by giving Paulina so much power and allowing her voice to dominate other characters’ voices, as well as the text itself.
Paulina, however, is not the only defiant character in Portrait in Sepia that challenges traditional gender roles. Although their voices do not dominate the novel, both Sor Maria Escapulario and Nivea challenge gender roles. Nivea, in particular, is a character that exemplifies what it means to live according to her own interests and standards rather than thoughtlessly following the guidelines of appropriateness that have been dictated by a patriarchal society. Despite contrary influences, she takes an active role in her destiny by making choices, being conscious of her surroundings, and taking advantage of accessible resources.
With encouragement from Sor Maria Escapulario, Nivea discovers her inner voice and realizes her desire to become involved in the struggle for women’s rights and suffrage. Nivea’s curiosity is so unusual and poignant that Escapulario “violated the rules of the school, which had been created for the specific purpose of turning students into docile creatures” by engaging with Nivea in progressive conversations (25). Both characters are defiant because they think for themselves. They do not allow fear to keep them from exploring their interests, and they commit an act of great defiance by embracing and sharing their ideas. In an environment that subjugates women by suppressing their ability to voice their opinions, the act of exchanging ideas is remarkably rebellious.
Allende’s voice comes through Sor Maria Escapulario when she warns Nivea that “the path of rebellion is strewn with danger and sorrow; it takes a great deal of courage to travel it” (26). Allende includes this warning to suggest that defiance is risky, and that each of her characters have to decide how much they can afford to lose. Paulina, Sor Maria Escapulario and Nivea are all defiant characters, but they are defiant in different ways. For most of the novel, Paulina is willing to risk losing her place in heaven (if such a place exists), but she is not willing to risk her life and financial credibility by conducting business without men involved. Escapulario risks engaging in conversations with Nivea, but she is not willing to leave the convent and the protections that it offers women who do not wish to marry. Nivea is willing to risk rejecting the institution of marriage for the sake of engaging in the struggle for women’s suffrage, but she is not willing to give up marriage after she realizes that she loves Severo. Defiance is a personal process, requiring that each individual decides what she is willing to sacrifice in the process. Allende makes this point by including a variety of defiant characters, characters that are similar in certain qualities and degrees of defiance and different in others.
As a character that defies the traditional gender role prescribed to women, Nivea is highly conscious of her position and deliberate in the decisions she makes. Nivea takes an active role in her relationship with Severo—she initiates their romance, marriage and erotic explorations. Sensing that Severo is hesitant and awkward, she takes charge, asking, “Do you think you could ask me humbly to marry you, Cousin? Tell me, for example, that I am the one woman in your life, your angel, your muse, or something in that vein? Invent something, man” (118). Nivea knows what she wants from Severo, and she isn’t afraid to ask for it. She does not wait passively for him to propose or desert her, but instead proposes marriage with charm and cleverness besides. Nivea is a free spirit. She follows her own instincts and rationality rather than blindly following the rules and standards of passive behavior that are traditionally valued in women. Allende’s construction of Nivea as an active character challenges the gender stereotypes that separate men and women into active and passive roles (as well as into public and private spheres).
Defiance is inevitable in societies where social norms, governance, and laws exist. Sometimes defiance is manifest in deviant actions, while at other times defiance is manifest in abstract forms, such as symbolism and metaphor. Just as different forms of deviance exist, there are also degrees of deviance that influence and challenge social expectations for human behavior. Paulina directs her energies to money-making endeavors, Sor Maria Escapulario directs her energies to education, and Nivea directs her energies toward political, educational, and personal fulfillment. By creating defiant characters that rebel from traditional gender roles, Allende’s novel becomes a critique of those gender roles. The critique not only serves to dismantle patriarchal assumptions, but also to transform those assumptions through role reversal.
Allende, Isabel. Portrait in Sepia. New York, NY: Perenial/HarperCollins P, 2001.