The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril,
sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head
jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could
hear. Elbows bent, hands on her shoulders, she flailed her
arms in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating
the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void
it could not reach - could not even see - but which filled the
valleys of the mind.
I'm sure many of you recognize this passage from the end
of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye - and you're probably
wondering what it's doing at the beginning of a piece Ana
Castillo, don't worry, we'll get there - in this passage, we
see Pecola Breedlove wandering, lost and alone, through a
garbage dump. She has, in Morrison's words, "stepped
over into madness."
The author's allusion to a beating, flailing, grounded bird
sweeps us back to the eve of the twentieth century, 1899,
and the final pages of Kate Chopin's The Awakening.
Edna Pontellier, certain she cannot live a truly independent
life, returns to Grand Isle to take her final swim.
All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living
thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the
air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down
to the water.
Edna's desire for independence invites her husband and social
circle to perceive her as mad, and the ostracism that ensues
drives her into that very madness. The bird, broken, disabled,
is, of course, a metaphor for Edna herself.
These two texts, one published on the eve of the twentieth
century and the other published in the 1970s, bookend nearly
three-quarters of the twentieth century and remind us that
the recurrent trope of madness Gilbert and Gubar observed
in especially Victorian literature extended into, indeed dominated,
the female literary tradition of our twentieth century American
women writers. From Lily Bart to Esther Greenwood, from the
narrative voice of Sylvia Plath to the narrative voice of
Anne Sexton, madness symbolized the impinging constraints
of Althusser's ideological state apparatus, of Foucault's
Recent novels, however, reveal that the trope of madness,
at least in the work of some American women writers, is evolving
into the trope of disability; the disability has moved from
the body of the bird, as Chopin used it, on to the body of
the female protagonist herself. These protagonists, manifest
the crippling pain of the past, of their othered status, of
their societal repression, oppression, suppression, not through
madness, but through a literal crippling. Prominent among
these novels is Ana Castillo's latest: Peel My Love like
Very early in the novel, Carmen, the protagonist, muses:
You put on your new cross-trainers assembled in a foreign
land by women and children at slave wages so you try not
to think of what you paid for them, and begin to walk the
streets of your city at sunset. You say your city the way
some Americans say this is their country. You never feel
right saying that - my country. For some reason looking
Mexican means you can't be American. And my cousins tell
me, the ones who've gone to Mexico but who were born on
this side like me, that over there they're definitely not
Mexican. Because you were born on this side pocha is what
you're called there, by your unkind relatives and strangers
on the street and even waiters in restaurants when they
overhear your whispered English and wince at your bad Spanish.
Still you try at least. You try like no one else on earth
to be in two places at once. Being pocha means you try here
and there, this way and that, and still you don't fit. Not
here and not there.
This liminal space, the space of Anzaldua's borderland, traps
Carmen and metonymically stands in for the borderland space
she must face as a survivor of polio. Not fully crippled,
she is, after all, able to dance the flamenco, yet not fully
healthy either, Carmen lingers in the interstices, the cracks
caused by race, gender, class, and disability oppression.
Indeed, her disability is a physical manifestation of those
But why would the trope shift? Why would writers, more and
more - and we are thinking specifically of Fe in So Far
from God, Lauren in Parable of the Sower, and Pearl
in The Kitchen God's Wife, rely on a physical disability,
like polio, like voicelessness, like hyperempathy syndrome,
like multiple sclerosis, rather than a mental disability,
like madness, to indicate, to designate, to symbolize society's
Perhaps the phenomenon is occurring because we are living
in the age of political correctness in which disability is
accepted and even, at least hopefully, accommodated. Perhaps
women writers, acutely aware of their othered status, albeit
improved, hope to pull other "victims," as bell
hooks phrased it, from margin to center. Perhaps the Bloomian
anxiety of influence drives writers to look for new tropes,
new techniques. Perhaps madness allows for an escapism that
women, as a result of their improved status, no longer need.
While I believe all these points have merit, more importantly,
the trope of madness has become the trope of disability in
many texts because the endings of women's novels have changed.
Let me explain what I mean.
While not a novel, Crimes of the Heart made its New
York premier in 1980 and, with that premier, announced a new
narrative trajectory. The three sisters, Babe, Lenny, and
Meg, face the same obstacles as their antecedents, and certainly
face madness along with their antecedents, but this plotline
ends with the three coming together, solving their problems,
and forming a supportive sisterhood. Toni Morrison's Jazz,
Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Ana Castillo's So Far
from God, Olivia Goldsmith's First Wives Club - influenced
by the positive changes made by the civil rights movement
and the feminist movement, these new novels end with optimism,
pragmatic solutions, hope for the future - a trend we have
been calling the new literary idealism. No longer capitulating
to repressive ideologies and value systems, these protagonists
struggle, change, heal, and grow. The new heroines cannot
be mad in the end because they will need all their mental
faculties to solve their problems and move into a happy, healthy,
whole existence. As madness begins to release its stranglehold
on the female literary tradition - indeed we believe it has
not yet completely let go - women writers face one grim reality:
things are still not perfect. So how does a writer represent
that imperfection while leaving her protagonist a sound mind?
She finds a new trope. Fe, Lauren, Pearl, and Carmen are certainly
proof of this.
So we have good news and bad news to report to you today.
The bad news first, of course. The bad news is that we still
need a trope, a symbol of the crippling societal forces on
women's lives. The good news is, at least for the most part,
we have relinquished the madwoman and the tragic ending.
Things are looking up.
For instance, when Carmen's polio relapses and her lovers
abandon her, according to the logic of the older female literary
tradition - which as we stated earlier still exists, if we
think of Callie Khouri's 1991 Thelma and Louise for
example - we might expect our heroine to fall into a deep depression
and commit suicide on the last page of the novel. True, she
does become depressed, but she does not go mad; if she can
no longer dance, she will sing. Indeed, Carmen launches a
successful singing career, attends group meetings, meditates
in the desert, goes to a licensed hypnotherapist, and decorates
her new condo "gold and blue-blue like [her] aura."
Both her lovers, Manolo and Augustin, return to her, and she
decides to keep them
yes, both of them. Carmen has worked
through her demons and grown whole. In the final paragraphs,
she tells us:
And when I don't want to see anyone I don't answer the
telephone at all, pull the shades down tight, put on my
own CD on the new stereo with six speakers around the apartment and just dance. I dance and dance and dance.
Magically, on the final page of the book, her polio seems
to disappear, or should we say she transcends it, as she overcomes
the hurdles in her life. Listening to the sound of her own
music, the beat of her own drum as it were, Carmen heals.
So we write this piece to announce the possible death of
madness as the dominant trope in the female literary tradition.
We can't be certain yet; we are still searching, watching,
waiting, like many of you.
While women may no longer be driven into madness, the fact
that the waning trope has at least four times been replaced
with the waxing trope of disability unveils the deep disturbance
women writers still feel vis-à-vis women's position
in the world. Thus, we must conclude
may be ready to ask the question, "what do I need feet
for when I have wings?", we don't think Ana Castillo,
or her fellow American women writers, are ready to ask the
same question quite yet.