“The Youngest Doll”
“The Youngest Doll”
by Rosario Ferré
THE LITERARY WORK
An aunt creates a series of dolls for her nieces, the last of which literally becomes her youngest niece and exacts revenge upon the niece’s husband for her own and her aunt’s mistreatment.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1942 to a sugar industrialist family, Rosario Ferré grew up in a politically charged household. Her father, Luis, an engineer by trade, was one of the framers of the Puerto Rican Constitution (1950) and served as governor of the island from 1968 to 1972. After earning a Master’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico and a doctorate from the University of Maryland, Ferré herself became politically active. She founded the Puerto Rican literary journal Zona de carga y descarga (Loading and Unloading Zone), which from 1970 to 1976 served as a forum for young Puerto Rican authors. Published in 1976, her first collection of short stories, Papeles de Pandora, included “The Youngest Doll.” Ferré’s fiction focuses on the inferior status of women in Puerto Rico and their dual role as nurturer (wife and mother) and temptress (like Pandora, the dangerous female from mythical Greece who tempted a man into opening a box that released the world’s troubles). Ferré is credited with starting the feminist movement in Puerto Rico, of which she became, “if not its only voice, one of its most resonant and forceful spokespersons” (Rivera in Chapman, p. 168). “The Youngest Doll” tells the story of a woman seizing power in patriarchal Puerto Rico and describes the class and gender barriers that Ferré’s literature seeks to change.
Shortly after World War II Puerto Rican society underwent a dramatic transformation.
The U.S. government, which had managed Puerto Rico as a protectorate since 1898, implemented a far-reaching economic plan to reduce Puerto Rico’s dependence on agriculture and to build the island’s industrial economy. Up to that point Puerto Rico’s main industries were sugar, coffee, and tobacco, and the country was subject to the extreme volatility of those markets. Enacted in 1947, “Operation Bootstrap,” as the economic plan was called, provided significant tax incentives to all new industries. Specifically, it allowed any new business tax-free status for ten years. Many U.S. corporations quickly seized this opportunity and relocated manufacturing sites to Puerto Rico, creating a sea of sweatshops and employing thousands of former farmworkers, women, and children. As industries sprang up, cities grew and the population of Puerto Rico doubled to 2 million by 1960. Workers earned from 60Φ to $1.00 per day and initially appreciated the steady paychecks; the factory jobs offered welcome stability from the seasonal and erratic employment patterns of farm labor. According to one historian, “In the United States, the sweatshop is recognized as a menace to workers and consumers; in Puerto Rico it is thought of as the bearer of a kind of industrial salvation, and is welcomed by the government, business organizations and the unemployed” (Wagenheim, p. 148).
But industrialization came with a heavy price. Almost overnight wealth shifted dramatically from native sugar, coffee, and tobacco-producing families to foreign-owned companies, which severely altered the social structure of Puerto Rico. Landed families, such as that of the protagonists in “The Youngest Doll,” lost their income and influence. Women of this class were especially hard hit because they no longer had a role in society: they were neither members of the aristocracy nor part of the working class and found themselves, as the niece does in the story, without outlet for their creative or professional skills.
Further consequences of Puerto Rico’s transformation into an industrialized nation included severe environmental destruction due to lack of pollution controls on manufacturing and a total dependence on imports for basic daily necessities because farmers no longer grew foodstuffs but instead were encouraged to raise cattle for export. Puerto Rico essentially became “a trading post where we import what we consume and export what we produce” (Benitez in Fernández, p. 230). In fact, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, by the 1960s Puerto Rico had become the world’s largest purchaser per capita of mainland U.S. goods. The industrialization project acquired a sardonic name, “Urbanization Campbell,” because the people lived mostly on Campbell’s soup (Wagenheim, p. 223).
As Ferré’s short story indicates, all classes were affected by Operation Bootstrap—and not just economically. “As one class lost its economic base and went into a state of decline, another was created: a dependent professional and commercial elite whose business ethos found expression in such sayings as ‘time is money’ and ‘everything has its price’” (Vêlez, p. 4). The protagonists in “The Youngest Doll” are from the old sugar-producing aristocracy and are rapidly losing their wealth and position in society. They are being replaced by men such as the young niece’s doctor-husband, who was so materialistic and superficial that the niece “began to suspect that it wasn’t just her husband’s silhouette that was made of paper, but his soul as well” (Ferré, “The Youngest Doll,” p. 5).
Public Law 600
Initially, however, the changes in Puerto Rico appeared to be very positive. The nation seemed to be gaining independence and stepping into the modern age. The United States had gained control of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War in 1898, making its inhabitants U.S. citizens in 1917 and imposing a half century of English education on them. Their status was ambiguous, however. In 1950 Public Law 600 enabled Puerto Rico for the first time to draft its own constitution. Its extremely popular and first-ever native governor, Luis Muñoz Marín (in office 1948-64), oversaw the framing of the constitution; Luis Ferré, Rosario’s father,
As Puerto Rico became more intertwined with and reliant upon the mainland United States—economically, politically, and socially—a split personality or identity crisis developed among many Pueño Ricans, Puerto Ricans speak Spanish but are citizens of an English-speaking country They are part of the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth but remain the poorest community of the United States, with unemployment at 16 percent and an average annual income of $6,200—half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union (Novas, p. 176; statistics for the early 1990s, when “The Youngest Doll* appeared in English). Puerto Ricans, especially those who migrate from the island to the mainland and back, receive mixed signals from both places, and maltreatment abounds:
They [Puerto Rican migrants! had been reminded in the United States that they were Puerto Rican, but here [in Puerto Rico] they are told that they speak Spanish with an English accent, that ‘’you are not really one of us,” The young Puerto Rican may well ask himself, not only “Where am I going—” but “Who am I?
(Maldonado in Wagenheim, p, 283)
The fractured personality extends to politics as well. Many, such as Ferré’s father, have favored Puerto Rico’s becoming a state, while others have lobbied for national independence However, Puerto Rico’s tax-exempt status and heavy reliance on duty-free trade with the United States, not to mention public assistance (75 percent of the population receives food stamps), make independence seem virtually impossible, But the debate remains heated, as it has been since the end of the Spanish-American War, when Puerto Rico was independent for less than a week. In 1993 Puerto Ricans voted on whether to remain a commonwealth, to become a state, or to seek independence. The results indicated that 48 percent preferred to remain a commonwealth, 46 percent favored statehood, and just 4 percent voted for independence.
was one of its authors. Meanwhile, the status of Puerto Rico changed. Neither a colony nor a state, it was a protectorate until 1952, when it became a commonwealth of the United States, gaining much greater autonomy.
While the constitution, native governorship, and commonwealth status allowed Puerto Rico to govern its internal affairs, ultimate authority remained with the government of the United States. While Puerto Ricans technically became citizens of the United States and were subject to the military draft, they did not have any congressional representation and could not vote in U.S. elections. They were exempt from taxation, however, and could work and travel freely in the United States, which millions began doing from the 1960s onward. According to the U.S. Census, 887,662 Puerto Ricans lived in the United States in 1960 and by 1970 that number had jumped to 1,391,463. In 1973 close to 5 million were traveling to and from the mainland for work, with approximately one-fifth settling there permanently (Thernstrom, p. 860).
Welfare state—the 1970s
Running on a projibaro statehood platform, Luis Ferré was elected governor in 1968. The Puerto Rican economy was in shambles. Operation Bootstrap had failed abominably at making Puerto Rico more independent and instead had created an economy entirely dependent on the United States. In the process, unemployment shot up to nearly 20 percent and many manufacturing jobs moved from Puerto Rico to Malaysia, where wages were lower and land less expensive. Taking advantage of the tax-free opportunities, pharmaceutical companies moved in to take the garment manufacturers’ place, but employed a mere 3,000 workers, compared to the tens of thousands that had been laboring in sweat shops. Adding to the unemployment problem, the population soared to 2.7 million by 1970 and kept climbing to 3.1 million by 1980. Governor Ferré turned to U.S. President Richard Nixon for help with Puerto Rico’s ailing economy, and Nixon agreed to extend the newly created food stamp program to Puerto Ricans. About 75 percent of the population qualified. But instead of helping people on their feet again and moving the economy forward, the food stamp program encouraged the growth of an underground economy in which people worked “under the table” without reporting income so that they would not lose their benefits (Fernández, p. 224).
by this time Operation Bootstrap was seen as a “dismal failure” by nearly everyone familiar with Puerto Rican society (Fernández, p. 226). Agricultural and manufacturing work declined sharply, and Puerto Rico became wholly reliant on the United States for jobs, public assistance, and basic necessities. Chaos was the order of the day. Ferré lost the 1972 election and political leadership changed hands at every subsequent election. There was no long-range, coherent economic plan put forth, and continual debate over the statehood/commonwealth/independence issue only added to the disarray. In 1973 the gross national product began to decline two percent a year and net federal disbursements rose from $608 million in 1970 to a whopping $2.38 billion in 1977 (Morales Carrion, p. 313). The oil crisis and worldwide recession of the 1970s hit Puerto Rico hard, resulting in “inflation, and a deterioration in the quality of life, punctuated by an increase in crime and violence, drug abuse, environmental pollution, and a decay in public service” (Morales Carrion, p. 313). As “The Youngest Doll” indicates, society was literally crumbling: “In those days, the family was nearly ruined; they lived surrounded by a past that was breaking up around them with the same impassive musicality with which the crystal room chandelier crumbled on the frayed linen cloth of the dining-room table” (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 2).
Puerto Rican women’s movement
At the time “The Youngest Doll” was written (1976) the women’s movement on the U.S. mainland was firmly established and its impact was being felt worldwide. The National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1967, was petitioning Congress for an Equal Rights Amendment and in 1973 the Supreme Court (Roe v. Wade) legalized abortion, which some saw as a major victory for women’s rights. Women were sharing stories and rewriting history from their unique perspectives, effecting political and cultural change through the printed word. Ferré read the essays and prose of European and U.S. feminists, including Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan. Sharing their revolutionary spirit, Ferré spread the women’s rights message across Puerto Rico in the 1970s through writings like “The Youngest Doll,” which gave women a public voice, and control at least in fiction over their environment—two privileges clearly absent from their patriarchal society up to that point. By telling a story that exposed women’s limited role in society and promoted the notion of overcoming barriers, Ferré became a “forceful spokesperson” for the women’s movement in Puerto Rico; she became one of the writers “who are re-writing Puerto Rican history from the perspective of the oppressed classes: workers, peasants, women” (Vêlez, p. 4). Her efforts complemented the founding in 1972 of Puerto Rico’s first modern feminist organization, Mujer Integrate Ahora (MIA, “Woman, Become Involved Now, or Woman, Get Yourself Together Now” [Lovler, p. 18]). Its initial successes consisted of a report on the status of women in Puerto Rico and the founding of a commission to stop gender discrimination. Between the early 1970s, when “The Youngest Doll” appeared in Spanish, and the 1990s, when it appeared in English, MIA sponsored lectures on women and work, established consciousness-raising groups, and campaigned for abortion reform. With a spirit resembling the one conveyed by Ferré’s story, members of the feminist group bandied the slogan “Soy MIA”; a declaration of independence of sorts, the expression not only means “I am a member of MIA,” but also “I am mine” (Loveler, p. 18).
Like most of the world, Puerto Rico has been a patriarchal society in which men serve as the leaders in private as well as public life. Patriarchy in Puerto Rico has been punctuated by a “machismo” or “macho” attitude that conveys strength, bravery, and power; typified by a tough man who “struts his stuff and takes no guff (Novas, p. 125). In this atmosphere, sexism has, for much of the twentieth century, been accepted and promoted. Men are to work and be the public figures, women are to stay at home and sacrifice their personal ambitions for the family. Except for lower-class women who must work, women have not been encouraged to hold jobs. Extremely high birthrates through the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s made professional careers for women difficult to maintain. In the late 1980s, 59 percent of all Puerto Rican women over 16 were unemployed and many were overtly encouraged to stay in their “place” (Vêlez, p. 3). Ferré’s story, along with works by other Puerto Rican authors (Carmen Lugo Filippi, Mayra Montero, Carmen Valle, and Ana Lydia Vega) challenge these attitudes. “The Youngest Doll” shows a woman who exacts revenge on those who try to prevent her from living fully. Through its heroine the story challenges patriarchal hierarchies and suggests that Puerto Rican females must empower themselves.
In fact, the history of women in Puerto Rico shows that their status has been in transition since the publication of “The Youngest Doll.” A 1980s study on Puerto Rican women identifies some of the basic myths that have been foisted on colonized peoples: belief in the supremacy of male authority and high esteem for sacrifice and selflessness in the female, who sublimates her own desires to serve as daughter, wife, and mother. “The last three decades [1960s-90s],” reports the study, “have brought considerable social and economic changes” that have been “altering traditions, norms, and values within Puerto Rican society” (Margarida Juliá in Garcia Coll and de Lourdes Mattei, p. 119). Some scholars protest that the change is minimal; in many families, women still have no control over their personal growth. But the study in question reports that as many as half the women in its sample voiced their commitment to fulfilling their own ambitions, even if this created friction in the home, and the report furthermore indicates that their families were adjusting to this commitment.
The setting of “The Youngest Doll” is a decaying sugar plantation in rural Puerto Rico, where an aging dollmaker lives with her nine nieces. She is a member of the “extinct sugarcane aristocracy” and the story takes place as her family’s social position and wealth are rapidly disappearing (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 6). One day when the aunt, then a young woman, bathed in the river, she was bitten by a river prawn. The doctor treated her wound superficially, then told her that the prawn had embedded itself in her leg and that it would take years for him to treat the wound, which might never heal.
Once the prawn takes up residence in her body, the beautiful young woman refuses to see any male callers and devotes her life to helping raise her nieces. To fill her time she starts making dolls for each of them, one for each year of their lives until they marry and leave home. At first her dolls are quite plain and simplistic but as she improves at her craft the dolls become more ornate and lifelike. She makes molds of the girls’ faces to make the dolls absolutely realistic and constructs them of the finest mikado china and luxurious materials. She makes all of the components herself, except for the glass eyes, which she imports from Europe. However, she does not place the eyes in the dolls until she soaks them for a few days in the river where she was bitten “so that they would learn to recognize the slightest stirring of the prawn’s antennae” (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 3).
One by one the girls marry and leave home. Eventually the youngest is the only niece left. About this time the doctor who has been treating the aunt’s leg for so many years brings his son, who has just graduated from medical school, to see the aunt. The elder doctor shows his son her leg and the young man is greatly surprised upon seeing her affliction. He tells his father that he could have cured her immediately. The doctor replies: “That’s true… but I just wanted you to come and see the prawn that has been paying for your education these twenty years” (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 4).
The young doctor is attracted to the niece and begins calling upon the aunt in place of his father. He courts “the youngest,” bringing her flowers and drinking tea with her on the porch in the afternoons. He is a member of the new professional class in Puerto Rico that is replacing the old aristocracy to which she belongs, and she is intrigued by that. The youngest agrees to marry him, and for the occasion, the aunt makes the youngest her last doll. This doll is incredibly lifelike—more than all the others the aunt has made. She puts her niece’s baby teeth in it, places diamond studs in the eyes, and fills the doll with honey. The youngest takes it with her to her new home in the city.
She places the doll on the piano and each day her husband makes her sit on the balcony “so that passersby would be sure to see he had married into high society” (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 5). She begins to suspect that her husband is very materialistic and shallow and soon her suspicions are confirmed. He sells her doll’s eyes for a gold pocket watch and plans to sell the porcelain hands and face also but the youngest thwarts his plot. She says that ants discovered that the doll was filled with honey and devoured her.
Over the years the doctor becomes a millionaire and the youngest remains locked away in her apartment, sitting in a rocking chair on the balcony; she is an ornament that helps her husband acquire clientele who wanted “to see a genuine member of the extinct sugarcane aristocracy up close” (“The Youngest Doll,” p. 6). The doctor is quite happy, but one day he notices that, although he is aging, his wife is not. He goes into her room to examine her while she is sleeping. Her chest is not moving so he places his stethoscope on it. Suddenly her eyes open and hundreds of prawns’ antennae emerge from her hollow sockets.
From the doll to larger society
“The Youngest Doll” portrays Puerto Rican society after Operation Bootstrap from a woman’s perspective, showing the effects of industrialization and its attendant materialism on certain women’s lives. It illustrates this using a familiar literary convention: the doll. But, instead of the women being dolls manipulated by men, as in Heinrick Ibsen’s play The Doll House, Ferré’s dolls are made and ultimately controlled by women.
Aside from promoting female empowerment, the story points to the ill effects industrialization and colonization have had on all Puerto Rico. Ferré’s story portrays a crumbling society in contemporary Puerto Rico. The sugarcane aristocracy is becoming “extinct” in a society deeply divided and confused by the myriad influences exerted upon it throughout history. For centuries the Spanish controlled Puerto Rico, heavily affecting language, cuisine, culture, and religion. Then, in 1898, just as Puerto Rico broke free of its Spanish overlords, the United States took control. Once Puerto Rico became part of the United States, it underwent rapid change. Puerto Ricans were “Americanized,” inundated with U.S. products and encouraged to migrate to and from the mainland. The combination of Spanish roots and U.S. modernization made it difficult for Puerto Ricans to recognize their own particular cultural identity. Puerto Ricans have been dominated by forces that impose on the islanders the ideals and languages of others. The time of the story, post-1950s Puerto Rico, finds them in disarray.
The decay of society is prevalent in the imagery of the story: the crumbling chandelier, the aunt’s rotting leg (which could be fixed by the wealthy and newly middle-class doctor but is not because then he would not make money on it—a clear analogy of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico), the sightless doll, whose diamond eyes have been despoiled by the money-grubbing doctor. There is also the image of ants devouring parts of the honey-filled doll, alluding perhaps to the destruction wrought by industrialization and Operation Bootstrap on Puerto Rico’s old sugar aristocracy and social structure.
Describing the disarray of Puerto Rico in the modern age is nothing new—everyone from Governor Marín to U.S. President Gerald Ford openly admitted the failure of Operation Bootstrap. But an illustration of the disarray as perceived by a woman and of its effects on a certain class of women is revolutionary. The niece in “The Youngest Doll” is nothing more than a relic, a symbol of the regal past who has no future. She sits on her balcony all day so people can see that her husband married well but she herself has no occupation and no money. She dies within this confined space and is replaced by the doll, but it takes her husband years and years to notice the switch. The suggestion is that women like the niece have no role in the new industrial society and that their plight has been ignored and overlooked. However, the story also suggests that women themselves can change the situation. The niece loses her identity by becoming a doll, then seizes it back by defying her husband, a revolutionary prescription that promises hope to female readers, as fantastic tales of Puerto Rican folklore often do.
Puerto Rican folklore
In “The Youngest Doll,” Ferré writes a fantastic tale that in many ways resembles folklore, drawing on the reality of Puerto Rican society and conveying revolutionary ideas to conquer the “evils”—sexism and materialism—in it. Written in Spanish (not English, the much-resented language of instruction in public schools from 1898 to 1948), Ferré’s story can be viewed as a traditional folktale, told by a late-twentieth-century woman, which makes a strong political statement to a society very familiar with the genre.
Derived from the original Taino inhabitants, African slaves, and Spanish colonists, and handed down through the generations, folklore is a strong component of Puerto Rican culture. Stories abound that incorporate the beauty of the land and people, and the dreams and longings of a conquered nation. The stories concern the oppression of the poor peasant, or jibaro, and the search for identity, a particular concern of Ferré who, shortly after publishing her first short stories, published a few collections of folktales for children. One of the tales, “Arroz con Leche,” concerns the inequality between women and men. A man searches for a wife, testing candidates by asking them impossible questions. They are all unable to provide answers, but one clever candidate responds with an impossible question of her own that stumps the prospective groom. He takes her as his wife, but the marriage is unhappy because he focuses on material possessions and she wants love. In the end he plans to murder her because she outsmarted him, but the wife kills him first in self-defense. Based on a children’s rhyme that is popular in Puerto Rico and comes from a Spanish ballad, “Arroz con Leche” is a tale of good versus evil in which the good triumphs, as is typically the case in such folklore. Such tales not only give voice to the oppressed; they also bolster hope that change can occur in the future. They are a “complex working out of wishes” that promote social change and enable the underclasses to vent frustrations (Vélez, p. 2).
Sources and literary context
There are similarities between Ferré’s story and “Las Hortensias,” a 1949 tale by Felisberto Hernández of Uruguay. “Las Hortensias” features a man who creates dolls modeled on his wife; they are life-size and can even satisfy his sexual desires. In contrast to “Las Hortensias,” “The Youngest Doll” has women, not men, make the dolls. The nineteenth-century novel La muñeca (The Doll) by a Puerto Rican woman, Eulalia Sanjujo, may have also been an influence.
The influence on Ferré of feminist writers of her era has already been noted, as has the influence of folklore. When she was young, her father and her nurse used to tell her Puerto Rican tales, which would later find their way into her children’s books. Her adult tale, “The Youngest Doll,” takes the myth of Pandora and sets it on its ear. According to Greek mythology, when Pandora’s Box is opened, it lets loose a torrent of misfortunes and misery on mankind. Ferré’s story lets loose a torrent of emotion and ideas from a female perspective, challenging patriarchal conventions and female stereotypes not only by her characters and plot lines but also by being the work of a female writer of short stories. “For women in Latin America, setting down a short story is like screaming out loud; it breaks the rules, violates the code of silence into which we were born” (Correas de Zapata, p. 5).
Ferré was the first Puerto Rican woman—and among the first of all Latin American women—to challenge through literature the patriarchal models of social behavior. Until her work was published, Puerto Rican literature, with very few exceptions, had been male-dominated. “The world was run by men and written about by men who, consequently, wrote us, our role and our place in their world” (Correas de Zapata, p. 5). Due to Ferré’s work and that of others like her, characterizations of Latin American women are now more varied and their stereotypes have been replaced with realistic portraits of multi-faceted human beings.
The publication of “The Youngest Doll” in 1976 greatly advanced the feminist movement in Puerto Rico. The story was hailed as “defiant magic feminism [that] challenges all our conventional notions of time, place, matter and identity” and rewrites “Puerto Rican history from a woman’s perspective” (Hart and Rivera in Chapman, p. 168).
A translator of her own stories, Ferré supports writing in English. The defiance of her tales, however, has been described as more passionate in the Spanish versions than the English translations. In Spanish, the stories subvert language, especially vulgarities used by men in reference to women; the vulgarities become a tool used by the heroines to break down the patriarchal society and liberate themselves from it. The English versions are thus remarkable, but less so than their Spanish equivalents, in part because cleaner substitutions were made for the vulgarities, originally included by Ferré to turn everyday sexual insults against Puerto Rico’s brazen biases (Ferré in Luis and González, p. 133).
—Diane R. Sneva
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