There is a Body Reclined on the Stern by René Marqués, 1960

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by René Marqués, 1960

René Marqués's "There Is a Body Reclined on the Stern" won the first prize in the Puerto Rican Atheneum short story contest in 1956. It was published in 1960 as part of the collection En una ciudad llamada San Juan (In a City Named San Juan). Of all of Marqués's stories, this is one of the most controversial. While rowing in front of a beach, a husband kills his wife, and he then castrates himself with a kitchen knife. The story unfolds in what is, for Marqués, a typical structure. A third-person omniscient narrative voice frames an interior monologue, time fluctuates freely between past and present, and the protagonist makes a decision that coincides with the ending.

The experimental handling of voice and time in the story creates a sharp contrast with the hostile sexism of the contents. The fast-paced industrialization of Puerto Rico's economy after the establishment of the commonwealth in 1952 brought an increase in women's participation in the island's workforce. In the story the social implications of this change are blown up by the main character into a fight between patriarchy and matriarchy. Women—the mother, the wife, the mayor—are described as controlling, manipulative, and resentful. Only black women and prostitutes are presented as being capable of sharing sexual pleasure and companionship without emasculating men.

The husband, who is a teacher, a profession associated in Puerto Rico at the time mostly with women, uses misogynist and racist stereotypes to justify his personal frustrations. According to him his white wife was an indifferent mother, and she is to a certain extent responsible for their son's death. Despite constant allusions to penis size and sexual proficiency, the husband is embarrassed by his lack of muscle and hair. Men are called "slaves" and women "man eaters." The story can be read as an antifeminist manifesto and, in that sense, calls to mind some of August Strindberg's infamous journal entries. Many critics have not been willing to disengage the character's voice from the author's, accusing Marqués of writing an apology for machismo violence. Some have suggested that the story's hostility toward women is no more than a mask to hide Marqués's self-hatred. (He was a closeted homosexual.)

Such explanations are not devoid of their own biases, of course. What counts in the end is Marqués's ability to encapsulate the horrors of a Greek tragedy within the challenging confines of a short story. The landscape—ocean, shore, sun—share with a Greek chorus the role of observing and commenting on the action. The sun—bright and blinding—overlooks the scene like a cosmic eye, a paternal disk of myth and ritual. Color contrasts—red silk over white skin, for example—function as semantic markers—death, blood. Sounds of wind and water create a tense counterpoint between nature's apparent neutrality and the husband's emotional chaos. Modernization—television, new homes, cars—is presented as a sign of decadence and materialism. The wife's reclining body ages in the husband's mind until it looks like his mother's corpse, an editing effect taken from filmmaking. When the husband compares his wife to a swan, he introduces a subliminal reference to modernismo, the Latin American literary movement. For Rubén Darío, the poetic leader of the movement, the swan was a favorite symbol, but here the swan is a negative, threatening image. The delicate, ornamental style of many modernista writers is parodied and rejected as being too "feminine," too "white."

The plot develops in a fragmented, mosaic-like pattern. The objective third-person narrative frame is interrupted and qualified by the husband's subjective first-person monologue. Despite this fragmentation, the interior monologue reconstructs the character's past in a more or less linear, chronological sequence. The character's voice is printed in italics in long paragraphs that are shaped into narrow columns, underlining its independence from the narrative frame. The monologue is almost too neatly organized, for it does not follow the random associations we are used to in stream-of-consciousness writing. It is obvious that the husband has planned his actions in advance; in fact, the monologue sounds like a well-rehearsed suicidal note.

Motivations and deeds are presented in the husband's mind with meticulous, obsessive detail. This accounts for the chilling effect the story produces. Readers witness a ceremony of self-destruction, the jump of reason into madness. Marqués's decision to resolve the story with a mythical sacrifice—a Wagnerian closing chord, the twilight of the phallus—tends to deprive his characters of a precise, concrete personality. We remember them as archetypes, not as people. The boat, disconnected from time and land, may represent a desire to regain the original void of nonbeing or perhaps the safe forgetfulness of the maternal womb. As conditioned as he is by a concrete social context, the husband ends by cutting himself outside of history and gender. His self-mutilation is a form of punishment, but it also implies a drastic liberation from the constraints of male-female dualism.

—Leo Cabranes-Grant