Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response, Isabel Allende's "Portrait in Sepia"

ENG 358 Nonwestern Lit - WIU
Reading Response 2
February 9th 2006

While Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia is about relationships between people, it is also about relationships between people and culture: how cultures form relationships and relationships form cultures. Since I had to present cultural information for class, I had the opportunity to think about culture. I felt divided when I considered culture, because the word, culture, encompasses so much on multiple levels. There are elements of culture that are broad and easily identifiable, elements that might include famous artists, writers, dancers, and musicians, as well as famous artwork, dances, movies, businesses, museums, architectures, politics, and cuisines. Many elements of culture are dependent upon the socioeconomic status, class, location, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religious affiliation, and sexuality of each individual.

We, as readers, can generalize about culture, but it is not always sufficient to do so without recognizing its enormity and complexity. For instance, in Portrait in Sepia, family itself is a strong institution in which many characters interact with each other, playing off of and developing subcultures. Because the family subcultures dominate Allende’s story, I believe that the most important and substantial cultural details are afforded, not through dry, historical descriptions, but instead, through narration and character development.

As I read Allende’s narrative I was overwhelmed by culture, and so I am in the process of considering what culture is and how it functions in the book, as well as in society. Allende’s detailed narrative style is one that is infused with culture, but also one that creates culture. She casually includes historical and formal details, not as a background for, but as an accompaniment to the primary visual and momentary details of the narrative. Allende’s characters do not exist within a culture—they are not separated by their humanness from culture; they are their culture because they are the creators of subcultures. An example of one of Allende’s subcultures is Paulina’s household. Those who enter into Paulina’s home are forced to engage on some level in her extravagant lifestyle, but Paulina’s lifestyle is also transformed by those who enter her home. Subcultures exist within Allende’s families because each character brings elements of her culture to the table when characters interact, and as a result, characters combine elements of their cultures and create new subcultures. Although Allende includes details about cultures that are not revealed through the main characters and their lifestyles, her strongest cultural and sub cultural portrayals are those that are revealed through dialogue and between characters.

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