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Multicultural Literature: “Poisoned Story” Essay

Latino culture, specifically Puerto-Rican culture has changed through the course of history. Puerto Rico has witnessed a fusion of races and cultures spanning over many years, starting in 1898, after the Spanish-American war. Ultimately, Puerto Rico was annexed to the United States, the Puerto Rican people made United States citizens with limited restrictions and granted commonwealth status. The changes made during those eras did not come without consequences to the Puerto Rican culture. In “Poisoned Story”, author Rosario Ferre depicts the political and economic changing norms and tensions between the social classes of the Puerto Rican’s culture. In Ferre’s story “Poisoned Story” several major themes are prevalent through the story: opposition between the aristocratic and working class, literacy, interpretation of historicity and magic realism.

The overriding structure of the story is based upon a narrative conflict between the characters which dramatizes the issue of the actual “writer” within the story. The reason this is important is because the concepts of the Puerto Rican history is based upon experience of the individual Puerto Rican. The class structure between rich and poor at one time was clear. During this story, the class structure and culture of two generations against the backdrop of the United States relationship is developed. The characters within the story represent several classes of people in the Puerto Rican society. Also, Ferre uses a narrative style in the story that introduces different “writers” within the story or shall we say different perceptions of occurrences of history based upon personal experience within the Puerto Rican fusion of culture.

The Puerto Rican economy was disturbed with the United States intervention which led to classes of people being displaced within society, as was the case with the character of Don Lorenzo. Don Lorenzo was Rosaura’s father. After the death of his first wife, Don Lorenzo married his second wife named Rosa. An important issue of this story is the masculine character of Don Lorenzo represents and the fact that he married out of his class when he married Rosa, leaving behind his traditions and some of his culture. The character of Don Lorenzo transitions through the story. In the beginning, Don Lorenzo is viewed in high regard, with pride for his land and culture. As the story progresses Don Lorenzo looses his land, his home, and his heart as he and his aristocratic culture deteriorates before his very eyes with the help of his new wife Rosa and changing social structure.

Rosa is an antagonistic source and character in the story. Rosa is the representation of the lower class of society, or the “working class”. Good with her hands, the character of Rosa is represented as being cunning and resourceful by one of the writers, and bitter and cruel by another. Depending on who is writing the story, there is a like and dislike of this character on several levels in regards to the interactions with both characters Don Lorenzo and Rosaura.

Rosa is described as being from the working class, much different from Lorenzo’s first wife. The physical description describes Rosa as having “broad hips with generous breasts” who “reestablished” Don Lorenzo’s domestic comfort after the death of his first wife (p.9). Rosa is also described as coming from a different class background when being described by her customers:

“Whoever would have thought it; from charwoman to gentlewoman, first wallowing in mud, then wallowing in wealth. But finery does not a lady make.”(p.8).

This class jumping is important to recognize in the fact that Rosa was once Don Lorenzo’s wife’s caregiver, and now she has replaced the aristocratic mother and wife, defying the social system of poor vs. rich. Rosa’s character transitions from poor to rich, similar to a creative Puerto Rican rendition of a Cinderella story: rags to riches. Rosa is also instrumental in leading, or forcing the characters of Don Lorenzo and Rosaura to evolve or assimilate into the then current Puerto Rican culture.

The character of an aristocratic daughter named Rosaura is introduced in the first paragraph. Rosaura was the daughter of a once wealthy sugar cane plantation owner named Don Lorenzo. It can be assumed that Rosaura was fairly young at the onset of this story, but old enough to read and attend school. Her mother had recently died (reason is not specified) and her father quickly remarried to Rosa. This young girl loved to read books in a “dense overgrowth of crimson bougainvillea vines” (p.1). It should be noted that the color of crimson and red are repetitively used to describe associations with Rosaura. The red association is first in the flower on vine, then in the bloodlike guava compote which gets spilled on Rosa’s dress.

The story represents Rosaura as an educated daughter, a part of the “aristocracy” who was described to possess the ability to read in a country where the illiteracy rate was very high. It can be assumed through Puerto Rican history and through the narrative description in the story, that unless you were of the wealthy class, education was not an option: “…she was forced to leave school because of his poor business deals” (p.9). The literacy rate was very poor in Puerto Rico which was a farming country. The characters that were literate in the Poisoned Story also represent the idea of who usually writes history, which is the literate, or the rich.

The structure of the story is centered on the narrative theme of the concept “poisoned story”. The introduction starts with an excerpt from a book or story by A Thousand and One Nights, author unknown:

And the King said to Ruyan the Wise Man:

-Wise Man, there is nothing written.

-Leaf through a few more pages.

The King turned a few more pages, and

Before long the poison began to course rapidly through his body. Then

The King trembled and cried out:

-This story is poisoned.

This poem sets up the overwhelming major theme of the writer being in control of the story, and those words or interpretation being poison. The rising action of the story is centered around the different perspectives of the interpretations of the “history” of the story that is being commented on through the writers.

Within the story there is the perception of several writers. Several parts to the story are written in a fairytale manner, with eloquently chosen words and beautiful descriptions of days past when the aristocracy led the social class structure and everyone seemed magically fantastical. Exquisite dolls, fancy dinners and luxuries were of the excess for the aristocracy while the working class struggled to put food on the table. The opposite perception of that same time is written in a language that seems to be sympathetic to Rosa and her hardships as being from the working class, trying “honestly” to work her way up the entrepreneur ladder in the fashion industry. The third voice in this story is that of Rosa herself who discriminates what is being written, the historicity and the interpretation of the situations being described within the story. Rosa’s voice is harsh and cutting, with a choice of very expressive language that invokes a cynical commentary on the paragraphs written previously.

All three voices within the story represent different views of the same situations or conflicts within and through the relationships of the characters. The conflict within the story is the relationship between the two classes of society making the adaptation to the changing societal norms. The concepts of the societal system have been shaken with the changing Puerto Rican political commonwealth. Don Lorenzo has been taken from his days of glory, with “patriotic zeal” and diminished to a “small town-writer” through the course of the story. What is interpreted by one is a fairy tale, is interpreted by another as a lie.

The climax in the story is when Don Lorenzo agrees to allow Rosa to burn Rosaura’s books, after the sale of the plantation and house. Don Lorenzo had sold the house and plantation to benefit the dress shop opened by Rosa in the house. As the shop put them into more and more debt, Lorenzo was forced to sell the plantation and then his land. When he sold the house, he was under the pretense that the mayor was going to “restore the house as a historic landmark, where the mementos of the sugarcane-growing aristocracy would be preserved for generations”(p. 15). Lorenzo had sold his home, then his heart when he conceded in allowing Rosa to burn his daughter’s books, the last tie he had with his culture that he seemed to value in the story.

The last part of the story and resolution depicts the funeral of Don Lorenzo and Rosa finally reads the poisoned story at the end of Rosauras book. The book was the last gift given to Rosaura by her father. The resolution is in the reading the poisoned story by Rosa. Through out the story, Rosa never reads anything, as it was not in Rosa’s culture, most of the working class was illiterate. The shifting political powers and class jumping has brought Rosa to a new level in the culture of the aristocracy, education and the power of the written word, or better known as the poisoned story. The story has come full circle with Rosa’s character progression and metamorphosis to the upper class.

Don Lorenzo lived by the romantic ideas and notions of an aristocratic society:

A man could sell everything he had-his horse, his cart, his shirt, even the skin off his back- but one’s land, like one’s heart, must never be sold. (p.8).

Symbolically, Don Lorenzo had sold out the culture he had for so long cherished and been proud of. He had lived through the first changes in hi s heritage when he began to work the plantation, and his house became decayed:

It was there that the criollo’s first resistance to the invasion had taken place, almost a hundred years before. Don Lorenzo commemorated the day well, and he would enthusiastically re-enact the battle scene as he strode vigorously through the halls and parlors… thinking of those heroic ancestors who had gloriously died for their homeland…however he had never considered selling the house or the plantation (p. 13).

After Lorenzo moved to the city, he began to write a book on the “patriot’s of our island’s independence” (13). The interpretation of the “history” of the invasion in 1898 is recollected by both Lorenzo and Rosa. Lorenzo describes the Civil War between the plantation system and slavery, but Rosa describes the same situation in terms of disregard. Rosa interprets the truth of the history in a different light, describing the rich of the island as a “plague of vultures” (14).

The relationship between Rosaura, her father and Rosa weave magical realism through the interaction. Fictional and historical happenings are mixed with the fantastical in Poisoned Story. Examples of the magical realism start with the introductory poem where the set up to Rosa’s possible demise is introduced. The beginning of the story begins with a story about a poisoned story, or story book that poisons the reader. As the story progresses Rosaura reverts to an almost fantasy every time she indulges in her stories. The vivid description of the “fantasy world” that Rosa claims Rosaura lives in produces elements of fantasy mingled with realism:

The house, like Rosaura’s books, was a fantasy world, filled with exquisite old dolls in threadbare clothes, musty wardrobes full of satin robes, velvet capes, and crystal candelabra which Rosaura used to swear she’d seen floating through the halls at night, held aloft by flickering ghosts (9).

The author also uses repetition to create a tension around this story book, fantasy focus. Rosa is continually referring to Rosaura as a girl who does not “earn her keep” and who “lives in a storybook world, while she had to sew her fingers to the bone in order to feed them all” (12 & 16). The only time Rosaura is not referenced to her storybooks is when she cooks her father a meal and after they move to city. It is ironic that Rosaura stops reading her stories after the move to city which would symbolize Rosaura and Don Lorenzos paradise lost.

The impression you get from the speaker is that Rosaura has stopped reading her birthday present storybook because she is busy with her friends. However, as the story progresses, Rosaura has a dream about a tale of a poisoned story which has the mysterious power that would immediately destroy its first reader which is described to have frightened Rosaura. Yet, when the poisoned story is discovered, it is discovered by Rosa and written in a “thick guava-colored ink”, the same guava based ink Rosaura had spilled on Rosa’s dress. It should be noted that a wealthy man would have built up his library in that last century of Puerto Rican history. A culture that values education would have a strong tie to the impact of books. Coincidentally, Lorenzo agrees to give up his daughter’s books and last ties with his aristocratic culture at with Rosa’s insistence. The spilling of the compote symbolizes two things: the aristocratic culture that Lorenzo cherished so much and the death of that culture.

In comparison, Rosa is never used in any whimsical or fantastical terms unless referring to her outward appearance and dresses or when she is referred to selling the “family heirlooms” (10&11). Rosa in presented much like the evil stepmother in fairy tale literature which adds to the dramatic effect and magical theme. The marriage between Lorenzo and Rosa is not based upon love on her part as she describes marrying him “out of pity” (9). The evil stepmother is also referred to as miserly, unless it has to do with her own dressings and wardrobe. The appearance of richness is far more important to Rosa than self worth. She also uses the appearance of education to further her desires in the story as she calls her store “The fall of the Bastille” and pretends to read at the funeral (10 &17).

The success of Rosa’s store fulfilled her wishes of becoming an entrepreneur. She describes herself as being rich, yet she was very much in debt. Her idea of being rich could very well be interpreted as being “a free woman” as described on page 11. The mythical tone of the story is even carried over to the “salvation through style” philosophy, where the writer compares her work to a possible religious experience (11). The lavish materials and designs Rosa is described to put together are compared to the style and design of her pompous clients who dress like “witches” (12).

Lastly, Rosa incorporates the fairy tale or magical qualitative of ultimatums which further the action of the story. Lorenzo on several occasions is co-coerced into doing whatever Rosa wants. The lust and bountiful bosom is a safe haven for Lorenzo, but in return Lorenzo must pay with his life. Lorenzo pays with his honor, plantation, home, and then heart. The end result is the poisoned story, a story whose interpretation is subjective, not necessarily objective. A story based upon history, written by an unobjective writer may write a “poisoned story”, with the possibility that truth in writing is subjective.

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