The Imitation of the Rose (A Imitação da Rosa) by Clarice Lispector, 1960
THE IMITATION OF THE ROSE (A imitação da rosa)
by Clarice Lispector, 1960
Clarice Lispector's story "The Imitation of the Rose" ("A imitação da rosa") can be read as a gentle sequel to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper." It tells the story of Laura, an urban housewife, upon her return from hospital treatment for a mental breakdown. Like "The Yellow Wallpaper" Lispector's story is widely seen as a critique of traditional gender and family roles, as well as a glimpse at the madness lurking just below the surface of an unnaturally constrained, creative female mind. It is one of the most extensive explorations of these themes in Lispector's writings. The story was first collected in Family Ties (Laços de família; 1960) and was the title story in a 1973 collection.
The Gilman story achieves its intensity by placing the reader squarely in the mind of the protagonist during her descent into madness. In this manner the reader can feel the claustrophobia of confinement in the room, in the marriage, and in the mind gone out of control. The success and the uniqueness of Lispector's story also derive from its method of narration. Rendered in a mix of limited omniscience, third-person narration, and free indirect discourse, the story hovers at the boundaries between Laura's mind and that of the narrative consciousness. This narrative technique, with its intentional blurring effects, highlights the process by which Laura struggles to define her subjectivity, her sense of self.
The reader, who has this same perceptual margin, follows Laura as she careens from one defining horizon to the next. In the context of her marriage Laura projects with pleasure the return to an "insignificant role," one that now frees her husband Armando to ignore her at dinner and converse freely with another man. Her friend Carlota imposes an "authoritarian and practical goodness" upon her, a bold and somewhat reckless sense of self that mocks the cautious piety and fastidiousness that Laura applies evenly to her religious faith and her household routines. Contradictory orders from the doctor force Laura into a perceptual contortion that will let her drink the prescribed milk and release herself from compulsive rituals. She solves the dilemma by sitting calmly in her living room while drinking the milk. Through these silent pressures Laura's family and associates conspire to forget her illness and to ease her back to a sense of moderation and wellness.
Each of these horizons, represented by individuals and enhanced by details of Laura's past, evokes a critical basis for reading the story. Among the most common is the issue of gender roles, a unifying concern in the Family Ties collection. Under such readings Laura's plunge into madness represents her only means of escape from the tyranny of a confining marriage. With irony the narrator casts marital intimacy as the freedom to ignore one's spouse.
Other horizons include those of religion, mysticism, and madness. When Laura read Thomas A. Kempis's The Imitation of Christ superficially as a child, she reacted with increased devotion to her faith. The state of alertness, mental clarity, and independence that characterize her madness also sets her apart in a manner often associated with mystics. All of these paradigms intersect in the motif of ritual, as Laura's penchant for detail spins into compulsion. Thoughts and actions that would be acceptable as religious devotion seem absurd when channeled to the rituals of domesticity.
The central object of the story, a bouquet of roses Laura has bought at the market, offers a legacy of figurative and thematic horizons as well. In the same way that madness and mysticism overlap, however, the roses inspire a number of competing impulses in Laura, each of which struggles to define her sense of self. Laura is not clear if she wanted the flowers or if the vendor intimidated her into buying them. Nor can she decide if she wants to keep them or send them to Carlota. As she arranges and admires the roses, she awakens into the heightened state from which she is trying to recover. The flowers themselves reverberate with multiple values: perfection, isolation, selfishness, and selflessness.
Plato's concept of art and imitation, expressed in the myth of the cave, might serve as the ultimate horizon of the story. As Laura seeks to imitate the roses, which have multiple and conflicting figurative values, the break between the object (or subject) and its ideal becomes apparent, if not to Laura then to the reader. Perfection is revealed as its own shadow, and it becomes apparent that Laura's obsession with being the model housewife has made her boring and petty. As Laura withdraws "like a train that had already departed," the reader is left abandoned with Armando. But the reader, unlike Armando, has the option to review the process through which Laura struggled to define herself.
The danger in assessing Laura's search for self, however, lies in relying too heavily upon any one thematic or structural horizon. Laura's emerging self clearly passes through all of the interpretive frameworks given here. Yet the method of narration prevents the reader from attributing any given thought to Laura herself. In one instance Laura contemplates the results of giving away the roses with a direct thought: "They would not last long; why give them away then?" This attributed thought is followed by an external observation: "The fact that they would not last long seemed to free her from the guilt of keeping them, in the obscure logic of the woman who sins." The next moment these thoughts fuse into free indirect discourse: "All right, but she had already spoken to Maria and there would be no way of turning back. Would it be too late then?" Although these comments build the image of a character wresting with important moral questions, the extent of Laura's conscious participation in this struggle remains unclear.
In her conscious thoughts Laura also comes to embrace inconsistency. Because the doctor has told her that she is well, she rationalizes her mixed feelings for the roses: "So she was not obliged, therefore, to be consistent, she didn't have to prove anything to anyone, and she would keep the roses." This is in spite of her announcement to the maid that she would give them to Carlota.
In combination the inconsistencies and the narrative blurring of consciousness serve as a warning against too simple an interpretation of Laura and of the story itself. To seize upon one theme or horizon would be to join the silent conspiracy of friends who would limit Laura's subjectivity or halt those excursions into boundless worlds upon which her well-being seems to thrive.