The novel Iphigenia by Teresa de la Parra (Venezuela, 1889-1936; real name, Ana Teresa Parra Sanojo), popular with readers since its first appearance, scandalous in its day, has increasingly won the respect and attention of literary critics. Its author was a well-read, socially prominent young woman whose wit, winning presence, elegance, and above all her powers of verbal expression had placed her in demand on the Caracas scene as a speaker at social, diplomatic, and cultural events. She possessed a talent for writing pieces on demand for notable occasions. As was typical for a woman of her time, place, and social class, she had had to pursue on her own the extensive literary learning that she later put to good use in her celebrated novels.
From the outset of her career, the public was very insistent in attributing special qualities of femininity to de la Parra and her speech and writing. At the same time, the author often appeared to invite such an attribution by employing a type of writing that her public would tag as feminine. She exhibited in her work a preference for intimate and domestic subject matter, a mannered style of somewhat whimsical, teasing humor, and, broadly, a chatty, gossipy mode. Her first publications, the journalistic pieces she began publishing in 1915, were certainly in this vein. A critic dubbed her "Miss Frivolity" and her choice of a pseudonym, Fru-Fru, is a good clue that she had reached a similar judgment about her own work. The issue of a discourse certain to be perceived as feminine is an important one in her first full-length novel, Iphigenia. (Between her early journalism and her famous novel, de la Parra had pseudonymously published two short narratives with Oriental themes and backdrops.) Iphigenia makes a more purposeful use of a hyper-feminine discourse. The heroine, María Eugenia, is given to gushing, and her themes frequently run to personal adornment, household decor and entertainment, domestic intrigues and politics, and amorous involvements. This time, though, there is an important shift: the heroine's speech is utilized to make a critical examination of women, their role, and their ability to speak of important issues. The author had witnessed the spread of feminism in European intellectual circles and had considered how this movement might apply to the Spanish American context, particularly among women who had little if any chance to study progressive social thought. She found especially worrisome the case of young women who had, through travel or hearsay, glimpsed the possibility of greater freedom for women, but remained in a cloistered, sheltered environment. These concerns appear in Iphigenia (The diary of a young lady who wrote because she was bored), a novel whose five hundred manuscript pages were begun in 1922 and completed in less than a year. As de la Parra finished chapters, they appeared serialized in both Spanish and French-language literary magazines. Iphigenia appeared in its entirety as a book in 1924. When the first completed chapter appeared in the Caracas La Lectura Semanal (Weekly Reading), the magazine sold out its print run of six thousand on the day of publication, and Iphigenia has often been reprinted in book form.
Encouraged by the book's first-person form (the early pages are an immensely lengthy, soul-baring letter to an intimate friend; those that follow are a diary), the public tended to view Iphigenia as the direct, confessional outpourings of its author, unmediated by artistry or by critical, satirical awareness. Many readers of the novel without hesitation identified the author with her excitable, daydreaming heroine, María Eugenia Alonso. The linkage of the two is not entirely rational, since the author, who was much in the public eye, was known as an accomplished literary intellectual who could find the right words for any occasion. Her heroine, in contrast, is a half-educated young woman, confused by personal vanity and romantic fantasies, often floundering in her efforts to express a critical outlook on society and personal relations. De la Parra was well aware of the widespread perception of her work as a "confession" and complained that her readership was insensitive to its strong ironic component.
María Eugenia is a young woman of the upper class, though she has been despoiled of her fortune and now is seen as needing a wealthy match. She inhabits almost exclusively the personal and private sphere and has only the most tenuous notions of the feminism developing in the world at large. When, in her long letter, María Eugenia reminisces to a schoolmate about her education, Iphigenia offers a sharply satirical look at the options for learning open to the daughters of good families of Caracas. Despite her sketchy intellectual background, María Eugenia is intelligent and independent-minded enough, and eager enough to attain pleasure in life, to begin to develop her own version of feminism based on her experiences and observations. She can draw upon these insights to analyze, sometimes rather ingenuously and sometimes with surprising sophistication and humor, the situations in which she finds herself. María Eugenia's ability to set her new insights down in effective words fluctuates widely throughout the novel. In some passages she melodramatizes her own plight and falls into a self-indulgent lyricism; in others, she is a sharp observer of individual and collective behavior, as able to mock herself as to satirize those around her. From time to time she bursts into a stiffly didactic speech on society and morals; the reader must sympathize with her ardor even while cringing at the awkwardness of her expression.
For all María Eugenia's intelligence, it is a difficult task for her to generate a critical feminist analysis out of the scanty materials she has at hand. One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is that the reader frequently observes María Eugenia faltering and blundering in her efforts to think and act with a new freedom. In her mind, liberation is often confused with simply getting her own way. At various times in the course of the novel, the heroine appears to associate personal liberation with the wearing of low-necked gowns, dancing "American dances" in public, associating with worldly friends, and coming and going at less restricted hours and unchaperoned. María Eugenia persists in her reading despite the disapproval it raises in her household; yet, she reads only for pleasure and it never occurs to her to undertake a program of study.
The limited range of María Eugenia's aspirations not only has made this heroine seem frivolous to readers, as indeed she often is, but has at times brought the same judgment down on the entire book. Amaya Llebot, for instance, complains in 1974: "What's regrettable is that Teresa de la Parra, an intelligent and well-educated woman, raised in Europe, should limit herself to showing that oppression and only fight it in the name of banal and superficial motives." To state a perhaps self-evident point, readers of Iphigenia need to keep in mind that the heroine's thoughts and writing, which range from romantic effusion to petty gossip to stilted attempts at serious analysis, are all intended as the expression of a very young woman not well prepared to understand and comment upon the events surrounding her.
María Eugenia is partially successful in learning to articulate her concerns, but she finds no opportunity to create change. By the end of the novel, she faces only a choice between marriage to a family-approved candidate certain to make his spouse unhappy and life as the mistress of an appealingly imaginative and romantic, but married, man. In the sacrifice prefigured in the title, she must weigh her aspirations for freedom and personal pleasure against her need for security. Readers who have built up their hopes that María Eugenia will break free of her constricting environment will be especially horrified by those pages in which the heroine expresses satisfaction over her own domination by her stodgy fiancé, although María Eugenia quickly recovers from this paroxysm of submission. In the final passages, de la Parra has no scruples about resorting to melodramatic twists and turns as the heroine swings back and forth between her alternatives.
The link between the Greek myth of Iphigenia, particularly as Euripides elaborated it in his Iphigenia in Aulis, and the story of María Eugenia is charged with more of de la Parra's ironies. In an obvious contrast, Iphigenia's sacrifice gives her heroic stature, while María Eugenia's turns her into a figure of capitulation. Iphigenia offers herself to be sacrificed in order to bring justice and glory to Greece, while María Eugenia's motive is a desire for comfort and security. But even so, parallelisms emerge: in both Iphigenia's story and María Eugenia's, there is a comment on a society's willingness to sacrifice the well-being of its daughters. María Eugenia is a disappointing Iphigenia, but the reader is supposed to experience disillusionment over the outcome of the heroine's conflict. The important point is that the disappointment be aimed, not at the protagonist who was struggling spiritedly in an unsupportive environment, but at the society that headed her toward surrender.
While de la Parra was the object of a widespread public fascination during the time she was writing and serializing Iphigenia, she became the target of negative criticism after the book was published. While the complaints were many and varied—some local readers felt that Caracas was not described in its proper beauty—the dominant objection was that the novel was immoral and might harm young female readers. A number of readers were offended that the heroine considered her respectable marriage a defeat in life and criticized her as a light-minded creature obsessed with showing off her beauty and seeking pleasure. De la Parra vigorously defended her book; among other arguments, she stated that the book's detractors were men, while women readers recognized the accuracy of Iphigenia's vision of society.
Teresa de la Parra has been coming in for a rediscovery in recent years, principally for Iphigenia but also for her 1929 Las memorias de Mamá Blanca. Translated into English as Mama Blanca's Souvenirs (1959), the later novel offers a more lyrical and celebratory treatment of the culture of traditional upper-class women. Here a household full of women, with their feminine occupations and their intimate conversations, is nostalgically recalled by a narrator now well into adulthood.
Perhaps because of its genteel setting, upper-class heroine, and the subtly ironic way it presents ideas, Iphigenia was not fully perceived as a work of social criticism until after the 1960s-1970s resurgence of feminism, which affected the reading of many existing literary texts. The novel is now especially prized for its early recognition that Latin American women living in conservative environments, while no less in need of change than their counterparts in fast-moving European and U.S. cities, would necessarily approach the issues of women's role and status from a different background and perspective and face a different set of obstacles.
At last I'm writing to you, dear Cristina! I don't know what you must have thought of me. When we said goodbye on the station platform in Biarritz, I remember that I, full of sorrow, sighs, and packages, told you while I hugged you, "I'll write soon, soon, very soon!"
I was planning to write you a long letter from Paris and I had already started drafting it in my mind. However, since that memorable day, more than four months have gone by and except for postcards I haven't written you a word. Have you at least received my last postcards? I ask because I didn't mail them personally and I don't know if the people I sent really mailed them.
Actually, I can't tell you why I didn't write from Paris, and much less why I didn't write you later, when, radiant with optimism and looking like a very elegant Parisian, I was sailing for Venezuela on the transatlantic steamer Manuel Arnús. But, I will confess, because I know it all too well, that if I still haven't written you from here, from Caracas, the city where I was born, even when time has weighed on me horribly, it was a pure and simple question of hurt and pride. I know how to lie very well when I talk, but I don't know how to lie when I write, and since I didn't want to tell you the truth for anything in the world, because it seemed very hutniliating to me, I had decided to say nothing. But now I've decided that the truth to which I refer is not humiliating, but instead is picturesque, interesting, and somewhat medieval. Therefore, I have resolved to confess everything openly, trusting you are capable of hearing the pain that cries out in my words.
Oh, Cristina, Cristina, how bored I am! Look, no matter how you try you can't imagine how bored I've been this past month, locked up in this house of Grandmother's, which smells of jasmine, damp earth, wax candles, and Elliman's Embrocation. The smell of wax comes from two candles, that Aunt Clara has burning continuously before a Jesus of Nazareth dressed in purple velvet, about a foot-and-a-half high, which since the remote days of my great-grandmother has been walking, carrying his cross, under a sort of glass dome or bell jar. The smell of Elliman's Embrocation is due to Grandmother's rheumatism, for she rubs it on every night before going to bed. As for the smell of jasmine and wet earth, which are the most pleasant of all, they come from the entrance patio, which is wide, square, and full of roses, palm trees, ferns, geraniums, and a huge jasmine vine that spreads out green and very thick on its wire arbor where it grows like a heaven full of jasmine stars. But oh! How bored I am breathing these odors singly or combined, while I watch Grandmother and Aunt Clara sew or I listen to them talk. It's beyond explanation. Out of delicacy and tact, when I am with them I hide my boredom and then I chat; I laugh; and I show off the tricks of Chispita, the woolly lapdog, who has now learned to sit up with her two front paws bent very gracefully, and who, from what I have observed, in this system of imprisonment in which they are holding us both, constantly dreams of liberty and is as bored as I or even more so.
Naturally, Grandmother and Aunt Clara, who know how to distinguish very well the woven threads of fine drawnwork or lace, but who absolutely can't see the things that are hidden behind appearances, have no idea of the cruel and stoic magnitude of my boredom.
Grandmother has this very false and out-of-date principle deeply rooted in her mind, "If people get bored it's because they're not intelligent." And of course, as my intelligence constantly shines forth and it's impossible to doubt it, Grandmother consequently deduces that I am amusing myself at all times in relation to my intellectual capacity, that is to say, very much. And I let her believe it for the sake of delicacy.
Oh! How many times I have thought in an acute crisis of boredom, "If I told Cristina this, it would relieve me so much." But, for a whole month I have lived a prisoner to my pride as well as a prisoner within the four old walls of this house. I wanted you to imagine wonders about my present life, and, a recluse in my double prison, I was silent.
Today setting aside all pretense of pride, I'm writing to you because I can't keep quiet any longer, and because, as I have told you, I have recently discovered that this situation of living walled in, as pretty as I am, far from being humiliating and vulgar, on the contrary, is like a tale of chivalry or the legend of a captive princess. And see, sitting now in front of this white sheet of paper, I feel so delighted with my decision, and my desire to write you is so, so great, that I could wish as the poem says "that the sea were ink and the beaches paper."
But my immense need to write you has other causes also. One of them is, of course, my great affection for you; another is the dreadfully sad conviction that I will never see you again. As for the third, much more complicated than the other two, I will explain to you in words that will serve as an exordium or introduction to what I plan to write, because I don't want this letter where I will pour out my heart to ever seem impromptu or ridiculous to you.
As you know, Cristina, I have always been quite fond of novels. You are, too, and I now believe that without a doubt it was our common interest in the theater and novels that caused us to become such close friends during the vacation months, just as during the school year a common interest in our studies drew us together.
You and I were obviously intellectual and romantic little girls, but we were also abnormally timid. Sometimes I've reflected on this feeling of timidity, and I now believe we must have acquired it by seeing our reflections in the glass of the windows and doors at school, with our wide foreheads, bare and framed by the black semicircle of our poor straight hair pulled back so tightly. As you will recall, this last requirement was indispensable, in the opinion of the Mothers, to the good name of the girls, who, besides being very tidy, were intelligent and studious as we two were. I became convinced that straight hair really constituted a great moral superiority, and yet, I always looked with great admiration at the other girls whose heads, "empty inside," as the Mothers said, had on the outside that attractive appearance that came from the curls and waves they used in defiance of all the rules. In spite of our mental superiority, I remember that I always basically felt very inferior to the ones with loose hair. Heroines in novels also were placed in this group of girls with their temples covered, which clearly constituted what the Mothers called with great disdain "the World." We, together with the Mothers, the chaplain, the twelve daughtets of Mary, the saints of the Christian year, incense, chasubles, and prayer benches, belonged to the other group. In reality I never had true Partisan enthusiasm. That wicked "world" so abhorred and despised by the Mothers, in spite of its vile inferiority, always appeared dazzling and full of prestige in my eyes. Our moral superiority was a kind of burden to me, and I recall that I always bore it filled with resignation; thinking sadly that, thanks to it, I would never perform anything except obscure and secondary roles in life.
What I want to explain to you is that in these four months I have completely altered my ideas. I think I have switched bag and baggage to the abominable band of the world and I feel that I have acquired an elevated rank in it. I no longer consider myself a secondary character at all. I am quite satisfied with myself, and I have declared myself on strike against shyness and humility; I have, moreover, the presumption to believe that I am worth a million times more than all the heroines in the novels we used to read in the summer—novels which, by the way, must have been very poorly written.
In these four months, Cristina, I have lived through many periods of sadness, I have had some disagreeable impressions, some revelations that caused despair, and, nonetheless, in spite of everything, I feel an immense joy because I have seen a new personality emerging in myself that I didn't suspect and that fills me with satisfaction. You and I—all of us who, moving ing through the world, have some talents and some sorrows-are heroes and heroines in the novels of our own lives, which is nicer and a thousand times better than written novels.
It is this thesis that I am going to develop before your eyes, relating to you in minute detail and as they do in authentic novels, everything that has happened to me since you disappeared from view in Biarritz. I'm sure that my story will interest you greatly. Besides, I have lately discovered that I have a gift for observation and great ease in expressing myself. Unfortunately these gifts have been worthless to me up to the present. Sometimes I have tried to demonstrate them to Aunt Clara and Grandmother, but they can't appreciate them. Aunt Clara hasn't even taken the trouble to notice them. As for Grandmother, since she's very old she has some terribly old-fashioned ideas; and yes, she has noticed my abilities, because twice she's told me that my head is full of bugs. As you can understand, this is one of the reasons why I'm bored in this big, dreary house, where no one admires or understands me, and it is my need to feel understood that decidedly has spurred me to write you.
I know very well that you will understand me. I feel no reserve or embarrassment at all in sharing my most intimate confidences with you. In my eyes you have the sweet prestige of a past that will never return. Any secrets I may tell you can have no disagreeable consequences in my future life and, therefore, I already know that I'll never repent having told them to you. Yes, in our future they will be like the secrets that are buried with the dead. As for the very great affection that it takes to write you my secrets, I think that it is rather like the tardy flowering of tenderness, when we think about those who have gone, "never to return."