The feast of the goat

(Versión en español aquí)

Historical context

Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina was the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his death in 1961. Trujillo was the generalissimo of the army and he presided over the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1938 and again from 1942 to 1952. During the rest of the time he ruled indirectly by using figurehead presidents. 

Trujillo was the chief of the National Police in 1930 when there was an insurrection against the military president Horacio Vázquez . Surely the fact that the Dominican Republic was in a crisis was a factor in this, but lately it was discovered that Trujillo was also involved in it.  There was an election after Horacio Vázquez resigned and was exiled. It is not a surprise that this election took place in a climate of terror caused by Trujillo and his paramilitary band known as “la 42” or that it was a rigged election. This is how the political life of Trujillo started: tainted with chaos, blood and manipulation. A premonition of how the following 31 years would be in the Dominican Republic.

More than fifty thousand people were killed whilst Trujillo was in power. It is worth mentioning the Parsley massacre, a mass killing against Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. It is estimated that between five and twenty-five thousand Haitians were killed then. Even though the Trujillo Era happened at the same time as many other dictatorships in Latin America, it is known as one of the bloodiest, when  human rights were constantly violated.

One of the main characteristics of the regime was its strong opposition to communism, something which gained the USA as an ally. Nevertheless, due to the brutality perpetrated by the regime, USA ended by removing their support. In a similar fashion, the Catholic church was Trujjillo´s ally at the beginning, partly because the regime promoted Catholicism as an important part of the Dominican identity. But yet again, they changed their mind due to the cruelty shown.

Trujillo´s eagerness for theatricality was another distinctive trait of the dictatorship. As an example, he gave his eleven-year-old son Ramfis the rank of General, he changed the name of the city of Santo Domingo to Trujillo City,…

About the book:

The feast of the goat is a window to the past from which Mario Vargas Llosa shows us the most intimate reality of Trujillo´s dictatorship. The story has three points of view:

  1. The first one is that of Urania Cabral, who comes back to the Dominican Republic after thirty five years living in USA without any contact with her family.
  2. The second point of view is that of Trujillo during his last day of life.
  3. The last one is the point of view of Trujillo´s assassins.

By weaving these three stories together, Mario Vargas Llosa makes a tapestry full of contrasts, allowing us to delve into the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo Era, viewing it from the perspective of different social strata. Urania will be the conducting wire of the book, as well as the main contrast with the other two stories, as she is the only woman and the only one that speaks from the future.

Even though he uses colloquial language (in particular he uses Dominican Spanish), Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the feast of the goat with supreme grace and finesse. The book is full of little details that fuse the three stories together. The non-lineal narrative and the flashbacks help us to better understand the social problems of the moment as well as the psyche of the characters.

Such a sadistic dictatorship creates a vital duality, it makes people live“[…] a public lie and a private truth that could not be expressed”. The book deals with the existential unease caused to all the characters, including Trujillo.


Mario Vagas Llosa spent three years researching about Trujillo’s dictatorship in order to write the feast of the goat. He then chose to combine fiction and reality to make a fierce critic to it. Nevertheless, even though the book was created within the brutality of the Trujillo Era, it deals with universal questions. As a matter of fact, it also explores the moral and ethical boundaries that people are willing to cross to obtain power, or even just to have the illusion of it.  Urania reflects about that in the following paragraph:

[..] After so many years of serving the Chief, you had lost your scruples, your sensitivity, the slightest hint of rectitude. Just like your colleagues. Just like the whole country, perhaps. Was that a requirement for staying in power and not dying of disgust? To become heartless, a Monster like your Chief [..]

One of the main themes of the book is domination, linked to virility and the male chauvinism, and Urania will be a key point on the treatment of it. She is the only female protagonist and the conducting wire of the book, which starts and finishes with her. Vargas Llosa said the following about her:

Urania is a very moving character for me. She is a character I created with the idea that the book had not only a historical perspective, but also a contemporary point of view; so that the dictatorship, Trujillo´s death, the chaos and the violence that followed all that episode, they were written from a contemporary time, with all the accumulated experience since then; but also because I wanted that a female character were one of the protagonists of the story. The dictatorship was particularly cruel to women. Like any other Latin-American dictatorship it had a sexist component; sexism is a Latin-American phenomenon. That’s why, overlapped with an authoritarian regime, it really turns women into objects which are very vulnerable to the worst abuse. For Trujillo, sex was one of the symbols of power, of his virility, the supreme value for a male chauvinist society; hence women were objects to use: fathers gave his daughters to Trujillo, he humiliated his closest collaborators by sleeping with their wives… plenty of times just to show his power, his authority over some of them

Women belonged to their fathers and husbands who tried to buy Trujillo’s momentary approval with them. They were also objects that Trujillo used to humiliate and reaffirm his power. Orgies, parties without any control were normal in Trujillo’s life, and he used the rumours generated by them to reassert his virility. He saw sex as an extension of his power. For this reason people started calling Trujiilo “el Chivo”, which means “the male goat” which is a symbol of masculinity, sexuality, degeneracy and lust.

Urania, who was Trujjillo’s sexual abuse victim, represents women during the dictatorship. It is a way of remembering and giving voice to the previously disregarded suffering and humiliation that Dominican women suffered during the Trujillo Era. Urania’s name is not casual: in the Greek mythology Urania, the smallest of the seven muses, is the daughter of Mnemosyne, who personifies the memory.

In spite of this abuse, Urania gets to rebuild her identity, she grows up, continues with her life and becomes very successful. Nevertheless, she never really gets over it. Her only hobby is reading about the Trujillo Era and she explains that her only personal goal is to understand the mind of the people in the regime. She even says that she has a wound that she is not able to cure:

[…] My only man was Trujillo. It is true. Whenever one gets close and looks at me as a woman, I feel sick. Horrified. I want him to die, I want to kill him. It’s hard to explain. I’ve studied, I work, I earn a good living. But I’m empty and still full of fear. Like those old people in New York who spend the whole day in the park, staring at nothing. […]

The Dominican Republic is personified in Urania. As in the other Latin-American nations, it was still very young when Trujillo appeared. In fact, the same as the fourteen-year-old-girl, the Dominican Republic was vexed by Trujillo during its puberty, and it even lost its identity. When Mario Vargas Llosa wrote the book, the injury that Trujillo left was still open, just like Urania’s. During the year 2000 the Dominican Republic was still acknowledging the crimes perpetuated by the regime, compensating the victims as well as trying to build its identity again.

The 30th of May they celebrate “la fiesta de la libertad(the day of freedom) in the Dominican Republic. This day is popularly known as “the feast of the goat”, as it was the day that Trujillo was killed. That day hope was born again for those living in the Dominican Republic. It is worth highlighting that in the book they also talk about the night Urania had her encounter with Trujillo as the feast of the goat. It is in this moment that the decline starts for Trujillo in the book. His impotency when he tries to rape Urania is a clear symbol of how he is losing power and masculinity. Even Trujillo makes the same interpretation and gets obsessed with proving that he is still a real man. It is the beginning of the end for him, as it is this obsession that leads him into the street where he is killed.

Catholicism was an esential part of the Dominican Republic identity. Hence it is not a suprise that the book has some references to biblical stories. Trujillo is a sort of God, who gets sacrifices and who asks for offers from his followers. He is so obsessed with loyalty that he tests those who are the closest to him, sometimes in an incredibly harsh way. In a similar fashion to Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, Urania´s father is ready to offer his own daughter as a proof of his loyalty to Trujillo when the Chief tests him, even though Trujillo did not ask for that offering explicitly. Nevertheless, while God only wanted to check that Abraham was indeed loyal to Him, Trujillo wanted to humiliate, tame and prove his virility. Hence when he is incapable of getting an erection he becomes infuriated and mistreats Urania even more.

To sum up:

With the complete command of the pen that characterises him, Mario Vargas Llosa brings us a masterpiece that shows us a historical event which is as sad as it is fascinating. He does not want to present a historical document, as he considers history as

[…] an animated chaos which historians make look like ordered, an almost infinite contradictory multiplication of  events that -in order to understand them- social sciences reduce to arbitrary schemes and synthesis that are in every case a negligible version or even a caricature of the real history, that vertiginous totality of the human events that always overwhelms the rational  and intellectual tries of understanding.

The book tries to show us Trujillo´s dictatorship from the most intimate contradictions of the protagonists. We can see Vargas Llosa’s historian point of view through Urania.

I will finish up the post with one of my favourite quotes of the book:

Your cup of coffee or glass of rum must taste better, the smoke of your cigar, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, the movie you see on Satuday, the merengue on the radio, everything must leave a more pleasurable sensation in your body and spirit when you had what Trujillo had taken away from Dominicans thirty-one years ago: free will.

The Book of the City of the Ladies

The daybreak of feminism

(Versión en Español aquí)


Christine de Pizan was studying at home, like many other nights, when she ran into Matheolus’s Lamentations. At first, she was completely sure that all the misogynistic statements of the book were nothing but nonsense, but then, she remembered some other great writers and philosophers who said the same things. Hence, she wondered whether she was wrong in her perception of women, being herself one of them. This thought made her fall in despair. At that point, the Three Virtues (Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice) appeared to Christine to help her see that she was not the wrong one and build a city. One where any woman in the same situation of Christine could go and seek for refuge. This way, a long conversation between the Three Virtues and Christine started, where they refuted and explained all the male chauvinist ideas of that time.

Introduction to the book and influences

Firstly, I ought to mention that this book was written between the end of the year 1404 and the beginning of 1405. Even though it is more than five hundred years old, some of the topics treated are still ongoing and the perspective with which they are treated is very progressive, even for today’s society. Nevertheless, we cannot forget when the book was written, as some other ideas could look old-fashioned to us, but they were a complete breakthrough at the time.

The title of the book (in French just The City of Ladies) is a clear reference to the book The City of God, written by Saint Augustine. Even the concept of Christine´s work is clearly influenced by Saint Augustine’s, where he makes a defence of the Christianity by confronting a Christian city against a pagan one, and uses this to explain theological ideas. Christine also receives a strong influence from the exempla, books that started to become popular a couple of centuries before with the aim of lecture the reader in matters of faith. We see that the Book of the City of the Ladies drinks from centuries of theological thought to refute the sexist ideas spread mainly by the Church. As a matter of fact, Christine uses one of the major theological authorities, one of the four Doctors of the Church, to precisely dismantle the reasoning of bishops and priests, and even those of the same Doctor. It is simply brilliant.

The first thing that caught my attention when I started the book was the fact that almost all women that appear there were personalities of Ancient History , Christian or pagan. I was expecting for a collection of women contemporary to Christine, I was hoping to discover a lot of unknown women of the Renaissance. There is indeed a moment when Christine explicitly says that not only foreigners are to enter the city, and she mentions some contemporary women that she considers equal to the other she has mentioned before. This, however, is not a big part of the book. Why, if there were contemporary women who could serve as an example to refute these sexist ideas, does Christine refer to women so distant in time? Even though at first this was shocking, I can now understand that the impact of the book would have been smaller had Christine not used these figures.

First of all, being able to show this degree of knowledge of history, Greek and Roman mythology, biblical stories and the like gives Christine authority. She is not a woman saying that her neighbours are good people, she is a scholar giving us hundreds of examples that show how the established ideas are a nonsense.

Besides, bishops and theologist often used mythological or biblical examples to build sexist arguments, like Judith´s story or the myth of the Gorgon which we will discuss later. It makes sense to use the same source as the people she wants to refute. Same as she did with the simile with Saint Augustine’s book, Christine is showing her ability to pick up the weapons used against women and use them in their favour.

We also have to take into account that she wrote the book in the Renaissance, when Roman culture and mythology were in the spotlight. Also, the value of these figures was unquestionable, so she could avoid any kind of clash of interests with the examples she is making to refute an idea. In addition, she is showing that women have been subdued to the same pressure since the beginning of time, and it is not related with their attitude or their religion.

Finally, Christine is also able to turn over some myths which were used to support the idea that women were evil. She reinterprets them to also show that a misogynistic interpretation is not the only way to see the world. Christine’s value as a historian by interpreting, analysing and reinterpreting myths and stories is incalculable. Besides, she is able to use all of it to defend her ideas, creating a book that after more than five hundred years is still on point.

Some of the themes treated

Due to the huge number of subjects treated in the book, I am not going to go in-depth in all of them. I will focus only in those I find more interesting. Nevertheless, I shall also mention some other themes treated, just to let us have an idea of what we will find in the book.

The book is divided into three parts, the three conversations with Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude and Lady Justice. Reason personified as a woman is an initial allegory to break down the idea that women were purely emotional beings and that they were unable to think logically, unable to use reason. It already shows us that Lady Reason will be in the charge of building the foundation of the City, i.e. she will be in the charge of breaking the main ideas society has about women. In this conversation, Lady Reason and Christine speak about why men want to slander the group of women. They mention some books which were specifically written to speak about how mean women are or even about the bad functioning of women’s bodies. Lady Reason points out that the fact that men did not allow women to read these books is an argument per se about how unconvincing these statements are, as any person who reads these books and knows a little bit about women would realise about the absurdity of what’s written.

Also, in this first part, Christine puts in the centre of stage the abilities that women are supposed not to have, such as intelligence, braveness, strength, leadership, creativity, … She fills the book with women who have every single one of these skills. Here again, I was surprised that most of the examples of good rulers are from Middle East or Merovingian Frank queens. It may have something to do with the fact that preislamic civilizations were matriarchies. Merovingian Frank society, on the other hand, was not a matriarchy, but their legislative body was not very developed, so the power of personal influence was sometimes higher than the power of a title. That left some accessible power for those women intelligent and ambitious enough who also had the luck of being born in a wealthy family; we can see examples of this in the figure of the «Queen Mother», a very respected figure who, in times of uncertainty or when there were weak kings, had complete power.

I think one of the arguments with Lady Reason is a good example of the mood of the book: Christine asks Lady Reason if there is some sense in the saying “women are only good for talking, crying and knitting.” Against all odds, the answer of Lady Reason is that the saying is completely true. Nevertheless, she also explains why those are not characteristics to be ashamed of, but on the contrary skills to be proud of. Lady Reason shows several examples (all of them biblical) where a woman got the favor of Jesuschrist over any man because of her tears or her talk (such as the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany…). In this way, Christine chooses to praise female characteristics instead of rejecting them.

The second part of the book is the conversation with Lady Rectitude, a rhetoric figure created by Christine. In French, Christine chooses to call her Droiture and not Rectitude like in the English translation, as rectitude can be associated with religious rigidity, and she wanted to avoid that. Droit means straight, erect and so Droiture is a reference to the straight lines of the buildings that form the City, which in this analogy is a reference to the persistence and the good sense. In the conversation with Lady Rectitude, they discuss about the skills of the women who will be allowed to enter the city: filial, maternal and conjugal love, persistency, chastity and fidelity among many others. Christine also makes a statement in defence of marriage, and she tells us that she had a happy marriage full of respect, although she is aware that she was incredibly lucky for that. Again, by defencing marriage and those skills, Christine is praising characteristics associated to women. Even though she is constantly speaking about examples of women who do not conform to the stereotypes, she choses to recognise women as a collective with common qualities that are different from those of men, and she decides to make a case for these skills.

In this part, Christine also speaks about abuse and rape. When she is speaking about marriage, Christine says that there are women who have to suffer abuse from their husbands in a daily basis, and she lauds those women that continue with their role as a wife and mother in the family unity, as they are able to leave their sorrow and choose the maternal and conjugal love instead. This is obviously something crazy to say today, (please, if somebody is in this situation you have to get out of there, ask for help and leave as soon as possible*) but in 1405 it was a complete break down with all the ideas they had. Firstly, Christine is showing the reality that some women have to live in, and also, she is making the statement that, even though the situation is brutal for them, those women chose to honour the sacrament of marriage. With this, she is stressing again that women are persistent, full of maternal and conjugal love, and that they are true to their responsibilities as Christians, honouring the will of God.

The ideas Christine presents about rape could form part of a book written today. First of all, she refutes the idea that women do enjoy being raped by showing examples of women who committed suicide after being raped. The most interesting example is that of Lucrecia’s rape which led into the fall of Roman Monarchy. With this example, Christine also makes the point that clothes or attitude have nothing to do with being raped, as Tarquinius met Lucrecia when she was knitting with her slaves, wearing demure clothes and she did not even notice Tarquinius presence. This last point is also addressed to women who believe that whenever they maintain the “proper” attitude they will not suffer vexations from men.

Christine also makes the point that we should not judge a woman because she wants to feel beautiful. As an example of how appearance should not be judged she speaks about Bartholomew the Apostle. He enjoyed dressing in silk, and this fact has nothing to do with all the good acts performed by him when he was following Jesus. I think she makes an interesting point here, and it is related with nowadays society, where the title “feminist” is given or taken according to whether you decide to wear make-up or wax yourself, same as the title of “respectable women”, which is more related with the length of the skirt.

Before going to the third part, I would like to speak about the reinterpretations of biblical or mythological stories made by Christine. There are more than those I mention within the book, but I am going to focus on two of them: The story of Judith and the story of the Gorgon, both used to make the point of how evil and dangerous women are.

So, the legend of Judith tells us that, trying to stop the siege of Betulia, her home city, Judith seduced Holofernes, the leader of the enemy army. After getting him drunk, she cut his head off. It is clear how this story was used to warn men against beautiful women. Nevertheless, Christine focuses on how brave was Judith, as she risked her life by going to the enemy camp and seducing Holofernes. She also focuses on the wittiness of Judith. Besides, she stresses the fact that God was with Judith, as she succeeded with her plan, and so, she saved God´s chosen people. Then, Christine presents Judith as a hero, and not as an evil seductress. About the Gorgone, a figure that was used to warn men against women seductive weapons, Christine explains that the origin of this myth was a woman with such deep eyes that made all who look at them to stop breathing for a moment, and due to jealousy people made up the legend.

In the third part of the book, Justice shows Christine who is going to rule the city and who shall be living in the most beautiful towers: the Virgin Mary and all the (female) Saints. It is only logical that is Justice who should speak about this, as at that time justice was linked with religion. Again, Christine is sending a message to the Church: now the city is full and ruled by worshiped women.

Finally, I think is very interesting to mention that the book is full of Christine´s monologues where she demands to those ungrateful men to shut up and to stop slandering women. In these one can appreciate the weariness and the unease Christine is feeling:

[…]Let them be silent! Let them be silent from now on, those writers who malign women and who talk about them in their books and poems. Let them be silent, all their accomplices and supporters! They should lower their eyes in shame for having dare to express criticism in the face of the truth, which contradicts their words […]

It is worth saying that she always mentions priests and bishops in these parts, so we can see that in her eyes they lead the oppression against women.

To finish

To finish this entrance of the blog, I would like to leave some parts of the last chapter of the book:

Most honourable ladies, praise be to God: The construction of our city is finally at an end. All of you who love virtue, glory and a fine reputation can now be lodged in great splendour inside its walls, not just women of the past but also those of the present and the future, for this city has been founded and built to accommodate all deserving women. My dearest ladies, the human heart is naturally filled with joy when it sees that it has triumphed in a particular endeavour and has defeated its enemies. From this moment on, my ladies, you have every reason to rejoice -in a suitable devout and respectable manner- at seeing the completion of this new city. It will not only shelter you all, or rather those of you who have proved yourselves to be worthy, but will also defend and protect you against your attackers and assailants, provided you look after it well. For you can see this is made of virtuous material which shines so brightly that you can gaze at your reflections in it, especially the lofty turrets that were built in this final part of the book […]

I would like to finish the post by thanking Christine de Pizan for everything she started, even though today is still not near the end, and thanks to Victor for all our conversations that little by little are helping me to build my little city.

Christine de Pizan

(Versión en español aquí)

In this post I am going to speak about Christine de Pizan, who was considered one of the precursors of feminism. I am not going to analyse her work, though, in spite of the interest of it, as the idea of this post is just to introduce this great woman so future immersions in her work can be more accessible and comprehensible.

Who was Christine de Pizan?

She was born in Venice in 1364. Christine and her family moved to Paris when she was only three, as her father, Tomas de Pizzano, was hired as Charles the V’s court physician, counsellor and astronomer. This allowed Christine to have access to the court library, as well as having contact with some of the most prominent humanists of that time. Her father gave Christine an education in science and humanities personally, although he could not go as deep as he wanted because Christine´s mother was completely opposed to her having a “boyish” education. She got married when she was 15, and she herself described her marriage as happy. Nevertheless, it did not last for long, as ten years later she became a widow. Her husband’s death followed by her father’s made Christine the only provider of the family (her mother, her three children and a niece). This fact changed her life, as she had to face social rejection when she was trying to make a living as a writer. In spite of all the difficulties, she became the first professional known female writer, becoming the first chronicler of the court of Charles the VI, king of France, which finally made her gain the respect of the writers community.

Her participation in “The woman question”

Around 1401 the first French literary debate took place, discussing about the poem “Roman de la Rose” and lasting for two years. The most prestigious people of France took part on this debate, and among all them, Christine. Even though in the beginning the debate was about the merits of the writer of the poem, in the end the debate turned into arguing about its misogynist stereotypes and the dignity of the women. A turning point in the history of women was when Christine decided to copy all the arguments of the debate and send them to Isabeau de Baviera and the bishop of Paris, among other people. This act made the political and religious power get involved in the subject of the dignity of the women for the first time in history. It may look like this was not a big thing, but nothing could be further than the truth: For the first time in forever, what looked like another conversation among intellectuals, became a public subject, known as “The rose question”. The dignity of women was in the spotlight, and it was set out that a debate about literary stereotypes was not about just literature but about an oppressed collective which, as Christine remarked several times, did not even have the possibility to publicly defend itself, as the access to humanities was completely forbidden to women. Christine was the first person to speak from a gender perspective, saying that women face in a daily basis the hostility of men almost everywhere, and, very importantly, she did so by referring at her authority as a woman in a world controlled by men.

Qu’il ne me soit imputé comme folie, arrogance ou présomption d’oser, moi, femme, reprendre et contredire un auteur si sutil, quand lui, seul homme, osa entreprendre de diffamer et blâmer sans exception tout un sexe!

“ And do not reproach as madness, arrogance or presumptuousness my dare, me, as a woman, to criticise such a subtle author when he, a single man, dared to badmouth and condemn the whole female sex with no exception.”

Although there were obviously some intellectual figures (males) defending that women were not a malicious collective before the appearance of Christine, nobody ever thought it was an idea that could be interesting in a social, political or, even less, religious level. It was Christine who took that first step, and she defended her arguments in such an eloquent, vehement and intelligent way that generated a debate about the women figure which lasted for two hundred years, known as The woman question. She herself took part on it, and brought one key book: The city of the Ladies. In this debate, intellectuals around all the world were arguing about the social status assigned to women and about their intellectual capacity. Nevertheless, they did not only spoke about women, but also about men, and some subjects as diverse as the marriage, adultery, chastity, work, sexuality and celibacy, violence, laws… They even treated some theological issues, such as God or Heaven and Hell. Christine´s legacy forms the first rock in the building of feminism, as most of the intellectuals that talked about it in the first place drank from Christine´s work and the ideas exposed in The women question.

Christine de Pizan, la Querella de la Rosa


(Versión en español aquí)

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

This is the beginning of Lolita, and the quality of the writing does not decline the slightest until the very last sentence of the book, which, exactly as the first one, made my jaw drop. I started the book because two of my friends recommended it to me, although the fact that the theme was the paedophilia made me feel reluctant to start it. Nevtertheless, I suddenly found myself reading a fascinating book, with a writing style that could make an otherwise disgusting situation (like an adult ganking a twelve-years-old girl to touch her leg) sounds like the most beautiful of the poetries. A novel where the way of thinking of a paedophile is so well described that made me look if the writer was one himself, and no, Nabokov was just an spectacular writer.

Lolita is a classic of the twentieth century written as the memoirs of Humbert Humbert (a made-up name) from the jail, where he tells us his story with Lolita, a twelve-years-old girl.

Humbert is a French, middle aged literature professor who moved to the United States. He is manipulative, selfish, self-centred and, before any other trade, a paederast. He is aware of all of these problems and while he tries to justify his behaviour, he usually ends up punishing himself. Nabokov shows us the duality of this character during all the book, and, even if Humbert himself thinks about him as a monster and it is not hidden at any point, the book is written in a way that makes the readers empathize with him.

Lolita, on the other hand, is the daughter of Humbert´s landlady, Charlotte. According to Humbert, Lolita is a nymphet, but not a mere nymphet, the most perfect nymphet alive, and that is why he falls for her since the very first moment they met. Nevertheless, Dolores is but a twelve-years-old girl, a little bit neglected by her mother.

Nymphet is a term made up by Humbert to describe the kind of little girls who attract him:

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many timesolder than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

Humbert blames the girls themselves for his attraction to them, as it is their magic and their attitude which make the bewitched travellers to fall for them. According to what he tells us in his memoirs, the root of his weakness for the nymphets is due to his first love relationship with a girl named Annabel, when they were both twelve. This relationship was never consummated, which generated on Humbert this obsession for the nymphets. Nevertheless, as I already mentioned, Humbert is completely aware of how bad it is to feel sexual attraction for little girls, and that is why during a part of his life he tries to stop the monster inside him.

The duality with which Humbert treats his paedophilia is one of the things that took my attention the most. He refers to himself as a monster because of his condition, but at the same time he looks for references of other big men who were also paedophiles, such as Lewis Carol or Dante Alighieri. The book is full of references to other writers, and references to Lewis Carrol stand out among all the others. The first of these references to Lewis Carrol is the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, a name with a sonority very similar to Humpty Dumpty, a popular British character who appears in some of Lewis Carrol’s stories dedicated to his particular nymphet, Alice Lidell. Also, same as Humpty Dumpty, Humbert gets broken.

Humbert sees Lolita for the first time when he goes to her house to rent a room. Before seeing Lolita, Humbert was trying to somehow “control” his predatory instincts, by settling for prostitutes who look childish or by watching nymphets in parks or outside the school. Nevertheless, since he sees Lolita for the first time we see a downward spiral. He is letting his obsession to take control of himself, reaching a point where he is planning to drug both mother and child to be able to abuse Lolita while they are sleeping.

According to Humbert, Lolita´s mother is jealous of her and the attention she gets from Humbert, and that is the reason she sends Lolita to a summer camp. While Lolita is there, Charlotte and Humbert get married, as Humbert thinks this is a way of gaining power over Lolita. As a matter of fact, he starts planning a way to kill Charlotte in order to get Lolita’s custody. Nevertheless, in a becoming twist of fate, Charlotte accidentally dies ran over by a car. Before going on, I have to say that we are reading Humbert’s memoirs and, even if I also took it for granted at the beginning, we really do not know whether what he is telling is true or whether he had something to do with the accident. Either way, the fact that this death is given as an accident is crucial, so the reader can still empathize with Humbert.

After Charlotte’s death, a living hell starts for Lolita. After arranging all the bureaucracy, Humbert picks up Lolita from the summer camp, who still does not know anything about the wedding or the death of her mother. Then they start a road trip across the United States and during most of it, Humbert hides from Lolita her mother’s death, telling her she is in a hospital. During this trip Humbert and Lolita have sex for the first time, again according to Humbert because Lolita wanted, and it was she who seduced him. Since this moment, the manipulative and controller part of Humbert takes control: he buys things to Lolita, at the same time he makes her responsible for what is happening. When Lolita suggests that she might want to finish with the relationship Humbert tells her that the police will consider her guilty too, as she was the one who wanted to start. Also, she will become an orphan and she will get into the U.S.A. foster care, which is not known for being a nice place to be, and even less for a beautiful girl who agreed to had sex with her stepdad. The obsession and manipulation reach a point where the only moment Lolita is allowed to be alone is when she goes to the toilet.

Even if the writing style is wonderful, even if the book is written from Humbert’s perspective in a way that is looking for the empathy of the reader, I do not understand how people can say the theme of the book is the love, not even unrequited love. Humbert is not in love with Lolita, Humbert is obsessed with her. He is an abuser, and, in the words of Lolita, he has destroyed her life. Also, the perversion and decadency of Humbert is so huge that he is dreaming with having a baby girl with Lolita, so he can have another nymphet for his appetite when Lolita becomes too old. He dreams with having a biological baby with a twelve-years-old girl so he can abuse this baby too. Humbert is terribly obsessed with the idea of the nymphets, and he personalises this obsession in Lolita. Nabokov himself never understood how the people could conclude that the theme of the book was love, and even less, how people could conclude that it was Lolita’s fault. Nabokov presented In the 50’s a clear and wonderful critic to the rape culture who always blame the victim, making it clear even from Humbert´s perspective:

Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges. 

Humbert’s relationship with Lolita lasts for years, while she is in her developmental age. Despite the great love Humbert is claiming, sometimes he discovers himself thinking about how disgusting the more feminine shapes of Lolita are and he is constantly measuring her, as if doing that would stop her growth.

When they finally settle down and Lolita starts going to the school, the level of harassment of Humbert increases even more if possible, controlling and manipulating her more and more. Nevertheless, Humbert explains how it was Lolita the one who was controlling him, as, according to him, she used sex to achieve some privileges. Nevertheless, there is once scene that even told from Humbert´s perspective dismantle what he is telling us. In this scene, Lolita is sick, and despite the girl is moaning in pain, Humbert starts getting closer with clear sexual intentions. Even though he actively knows that Lolita has a fever of 104 (Fahrenheit degrees) we have the following scene:

I undressed her. Her breath was bittersweet. Her brown rose tasted of blood. She was shaking from head to toe. She complained of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae — and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her in a laprobe and carried her into the car.

To reinforce that the relationship is abusive, we also have the end of Lolita. She tries to run away twice, succeeding thanks to the help of a theatre director who promises to take her to Hollywood. He tries to use her to film porn, and when Lolita refuses he kicks her out of his house. Then, Lolita, at that time 14 years old, alone and helpless and without even somewhere to sleep, does not come back to Humbert, she leaves, alone. When Humbert meets her again, she is 17 years old and she is pregnant and about to move to Alaska with her husband.

In the last chapters we discover why Humbert is in jail: he killed the guy who helped Lolita run away. Humbert writes a poem explaining that he is going to kill this guy because thanks to him Humbert lost the years of innocence of Lolita, because it is his fault that Lolita abandoned him. Same as he blames the nymphets for his paedophilia, he externalises the culpability of Lolita running away in the theatre director, showing us again that Humbert is an unstable character unable to assume the responsibility of his own acts.

Lolita is not only a critic to the rape culture, but also a critic to the society as a whole, because of the way people tries to elude responsibilities and the way people turn their face before some situations. During all the novel there are characters that notice there is something wrong with Lolita, and some of them even reach the conclusion that it has to do with her familiar environment. Nevertheless, all of them turn a blind eye, avoiding the subject by saying “it must be the age”.

The book itself was a challenge for the literature because of the main theme and they way it is treated, and it has been a misunderstood book from the beginning. Only one French publisher which was specialised in erotic literature dared to publish it, and it was forbidden during years in UK and France. Also, even though the book gives us all the hints to understand that Nabokov never wanted to romanticize the paedophilia, the book has been understood in that way, and there are even people who want it to be forbidden again. (I shall treat the subject of literary censorship in another entry of the blog, as it is something long…)

I will finish this post with the end of the book, as I think it is as good as the beginning, a perfect end which gives a closure at the same level of the rest of the book:

Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant,and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C.Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of au-rochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Mrs Dalloway

(Versión en español aquí)

About Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) was born in London on the 25th of January of 1882. Thanks to her parents (her father was a well-known writer and mountaineer and her mother a famous model) she had the chance to meet personally some of the most famous Victorian writers, which she always thought they were very narrow minded. While her two brothers received and education in Cambridge, Virginia and her sister received a private education at home. Her mental health was very fragile: she had her first break down when her mother died, when she was aged 13. The death of her step-mother and step-sister and the sexual abuse committed by her two step-brothers were not helpful for her mental health issues. When her father died, the Stephen family moved to Bloomsbury, where they created the homonymic artistic and literary group. She got married in 1912 with Leonard Woolf. Together, they decided to buy a hand press and after a while, in 1917, they created the famous Hogarth Press. She published a great amount of her job in this publishing house and it also allowed her to make contact with the work of foreign authors that were still not translated to English, as they were in charge of making these translations. The precarity of her mental health was a constant in her life, and it was because of it that they decided to move to Sussex in 1940, to avoid the stress of the life in London. Nevertheless, she committed suicide in 1941, drowning herself in the river Ouse.

Virginia started her career as a journalist, although afterwards she wrote novels and essays. She broke down all the preconceptions in literature in her search for a way to express forgotten subjects such as mental illness.

Historical context

Virginia started writing Mrs. Dalloway in June 1923, just five years after the end of the First World War. The Great War was a huge blow for the British society. It deromanticized all the concepts before associated to the war and traumatized the public opinion. Men with PTSD (in that time known as Shell Shock) were counted as thousands, and obviously the society was affected in a very negative way when, instead of the war heroes they were expecting, the men who came were emaciated with hallucinations and convulsions, and, in some cases, they were not even able to walk straight. In addition, none of the parts involved in the war won anything. In fact, in the case of England, the economy entered in a deacceleration process, among other things because of the debt that was generated by four years of conflict. All of this caused and existential crisis which always tends to arouse questions and transformation. Grandiloquent questions, such as “What is happening with us?” “What is going to happen with London, with England or with the Empire?” But also more pragmatical questions: What are we going to do with those with Shell Shock? In this matter, even though it was indeed recognised as an illness, it was thought as something physical and not psychological, and, even with that, the official position in UK was to leave it out. The situation was completely unfair for those with Shell Shock in the front: if they had a panic or anxiety attack and because of that they were not able to carry on with an order, they would face a martial court, and the sentence was death in not few cases. Another important thing happened during that time: the female suffrage was approved in UK during 1918, although women were allowed to vote only if they were over the age of 30 while men could vote if the were over 21. Also, most of the universities in UK accepted to award women with “equivalent” degrees to those of men. The paper of the women in society was strongly called into question, and with it, the one of men. Finally, we have to think that “modernity” was appearing in the everyday life. Cars were replacing horse carriages, cinema, that had appeared only twenty years before was arriving to big cities, airplanes were a brand new thing… A lot of now quotidian things were still unknown in many places of the world, and they were starting to take part in the life of people who lived in cities such as London.

About Mrs. Dalloway.

I have to say that Virginia’s writing style is very dense. Mrs Dalloway is a book incredibly full of critic and symbols, and the language used on is at the same level. Each sentence has been written down there for a reason, and it gives you more than you could think at first. All of this make reading the book extremely interesting, but it can also make the reading slow at some points. About the technical aspects of the novel, I think the most significant one is that there is no division by chapters. The way Virginia sets the rhythm of the book is by using the bells of the different clocks that appear during the book. Also, in the English versions there are twelve little spaces, one for each hour of the day, showing again that the only structure of the book is the passage of time.  

The book takes place in a summer day during a heat wave in London. Being able to transmit that feeling of being in London during a heat wave is vital for Virginia, as the city plays the role of the link between all the characters, it is a mean to get rid of all the gender, class and even age differences. As there is no omniscient narrator and we only have the inner monologues of the characters, the city forms part of the book as a living being, constantly moving, where all the characters move with her, running into each other which gives a natural way to change from one to another. Again, those same clocks that before were setting up the rhythm of the novel, they are now used to let us see that London is continuously moving, evolving at the same time all her inhabitants evolve. The use of inner monologues is a very interesting resource that also shows us one of the main differences between the interwar literature and its predecessor, the Edwardian literature. While the first one focuses in the inner perspectives, the introspection, the personal memories, etc, the later puts the attention on the external details that surround and affect people. For Virginia this is nothing else but superficial, and it does not allow you to understand the human mind.

Is also because of the usage of inner monologues to tell us the story that is so important to see what the characters generate in other people. Peter, Richard, Sally, Hugh, etc they help us understand Clarissa, they show us all the associations they have with her, while the doctors and Rezia help us understand Septimus. In addition, the casual encounters between characters are very meaningful, as they set up the mind of two characters in the same place, so it is easier to see their different perspectives.

Another resource that is used by Virginia to make a point in how important is to understand the mind of the different character is the plot, or better said, the absence of such a plot. The book tells us the day of Clarissa Dalloway while she is preparing a party she is going to host that night. We can see this is an everyday situation, in which there is nothing extraordinary. Nevertheless, the fact that the situation is so common give us the chance to understand ordinary people of that society and the realities of the society as a whole. In that sense, Clarissa Dalloway is a 52 years old high-class woman; the stereotypical educated, quiet, strict woman, the perfect Victorian dame. Richard Dalloway, her husband, is a conservatory politician a little bit older than her, again the perfect Victorian gentleman, while Peter Walsh is a socialist son of landowners in India who is not able to find his spot in the society. While Clarissa is the image of the sanity and the sense of proportion, Septimus is the image of the madness. He is going to be the mirror image of Clarissa during all the book, showing us the other side of the coin. He will make the contrast with the sense of proportion of Clarissa and all her guests. Also, he is going to be the nearest part to the Great War, as he is a veteran with Shell Shock who suffers from hallucinations due to the horror lived. His wife, Rezia, is an Italian woman overtaken by the events of her marriage. Sally is Clarissa’s childhood friend, and she shows us the empowered side of women, as, even if she is not a de facto activist, she refuses to just follow what she is supposed to do, at least not without asking questions.

The title of the book is already a statement. It is not the first time that a book has the name of the main character, but this is not her full name, but her married title, Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa explains explicitly how she feels invisible to the world, that she is no longer herself, but an extension of her husband. There are even situations when people address to her as Mrs Richard Dalloway, not even by her name. She lives in a constant inner contradiction: on the one hand, she feels that the only way of living is to accept and follow the ordinary roles, on the other, she is not truly happy with that. Clarissa admires and is jealous of Sally’s spontaneity and happiness, but she does not allow herself to be like that, she is completely dominated by the sense of proportion, the excessive Victorian moderation. Sally is also why Clarissa doubt about her sexuality, although she reaches the conclusion that there are two kind of passions: the one a woman feels for her husband and the one a woman feels for another woman, being this last one the only one that truly creates a fire in her. Having into account that the book was written in 1923, the fact that women´s sexuality is a subject is something very pioneering, and even more when they are speaking about a sexuality out of the stablished.

In his role as mirror image of Clarissa, Septimus is the male character that make us doubt the most about the male roles. Septimus himself speaks about the sentimental congestion he was feeling. As a matter of fact, he could not even mourn Evan, his best friend, as he had to continue with his duty in the front. He never showed any feelings related with the war, even though it was a dreadful experience. In fact, these shocking experiences make him have an existential crisis: Septimus wonders what is the meaning of living in a world so full of wickedness, he cannot stop thinking about the nightmares he has seen, and he even doubt if it is worthy to have a child in a world like this. Even with that, he still maintains the face of a strong man, until one day, in the middle of an argument with Rezia he explodes, and all those feelings he had never managed end up as a PTSD outbreak. Then, if the values associated to the masculinity can derive in such an extreme situation like this, are they so good? Again, the rigidity of the Victorian principles arises.

In a less extreme way, Peter Walsh wonders himself if the perfect gentlemen idea makes any sense, and we can see how he despises it, although it looks that it is because he does not fit in that image. On the other hand, Richard also shows us the lack of emotional management men have to deal with. There is a moment when he is bringing flowers to Clarissa, and all the way back home he is thinking in how much he loves her, and that he should tell her about that more often. During all the path, he looks like a romantic man, dreaming with telling his loved one everything he feels. Nevertheless, when he arrives home the situation is completely different of what he was dreaming of: he is not even able to put word to his feelings, probably because he has never seen anybody doing something like that, and he stays quiet, helpless, hoping that his silence and the flowers are enough for Clarissa to understand. Containing your feelings is something fundamental to be a true British gentleman, and that is too high a price to pay, even if these people were not aware of it.

Speaking about women, I must mention the flowers and the attic. Different flowers are constantly appearing in the book. In fact, it starts with Clarissa going to buy flowers in Bond Street. They are a symbol of the body of women as well as a symbol of femininity. In that time, menopause was related with the lost of womanhood, and Clarissa is a 52 years old woman, probably already menopausal. That is why we see the roses about to wither. In the same fashion, houses are associated with the human body, and even more when they are related with female characters. Then, the charmless attic almost empty where Clarissa has been sleeping for a while is again a sign of her womb, which is empty too. But regarding to the attic, there is something I found more interesting than that. In her feminist essay “A Room of One´s Own”, Virginia speaks about the need of women of having a room for themselves if they want to create. It was very meaningful for me to see how Clarissa says that, even if the attic is grey and unattractive, at least is a room where she read without giving any explanations. We can see how the main character of the book values that room of one´s own of which Virginia would speak some years later.

The book is so full about feminist allusions that if I mention all of them I would never finish. Nevertheless, I would like to speak about one part that felt too close with nowadays’ situation. In a moment, Sally makes a comment that makes Hugh feel embarrassed, and he decides to kiss Sally as a revenge when they are alone. (We have to think that the connotations of an unwanted kiss were even stronger at that moment than they are now). When she reports it, the general reaction is saying that she is laying, as Hugh is a perfect gentleman that would never do such a thing. Nowadays, almost one hundred years after this novel was written, we see situations too similar to this one, reaching a point where even if the victim presents audio-visuals proofs her word is still questioned. The fact that injustices described in a hundred-year-old book are systematically repeated today is very significant and should make us think about the path we are taking (or choosing not to take) as a society.

Even though the main character is Clarissa, my favourite character was Septimus. First, finding a case of Shell Shock in a book exposed in such a human way is very interesting. With Septimus and all the character that are surrounding him, Virginia shows us the way society saw mental illness, something that she suffered herself. As a matter of fact, the doctors did not treat Septimus as a sick person, but as an attention seeker that is just physically exhausted. They do not understand why Septimus is not able to wake up from bed, and they compare his situation with having a bad day. All this generates a lot of negative feelings from Septimus towards the doctors, as they only make him feel worse. These feelings are the cause of his suicide in order to avoid seeing them again. Septimus himself does not understand what is wrong with him, and in the moments of sanity he wonders why he is not able to give Rezia what she deserves as his wife. Finally, Rezia is a woman divided and completely confused about the situation: on the one hand she can see that his husband is having a hard time, and that he is not able to react by himself, on the other hand, doctors are constantly denying that there is anything wrong with Septimus, and so she feels that her husband is just a selfish person who does not love her. With this four characters, Virginia is not only showing the situation that mental ill people suffer, but she is clearly stating her opinion on that: the situation is so wrong that none of the people involved is improving.

Septimus is feeling alone, neglected, far from all the people that are surrounding him. He feels even castrated because of the experience he lived: he does not want to bring children to this world, but he is not even able to bring this topic with Rezia, as he would be denying her the miracle of being a mother, and also, he would be failing in one of the most important tasks as a man. Nonetheless, he is not an isolated case at all. As I mentioned before, there were thousands of men with PTSD, the problem is that they were abandoned, they were forgotten on purpose by the society. It says a lot about Virginia’s courage and how she could not stand injustices the fact that she included a character with Shell Shock in a book written only five years after the end of the Great War, trying to reproduce as truly as she was able how he was feeling.

Being able to speak faithfully about mental illness was a key part in Virginia´s work. I have to say that the way everything is treated in this book is impressive. Septimus’ setbacks are so human, so easy to empathise with… The last scene when Septimus is finally able to laugh again with Rezia but then he receives the doctor´s visit and he commits suicide is simply devastating. One can really understand the anxiety and all the doubts he is having, the need of committing suicide even if he does not really want to die, he wants to live. I think it is one of the best moments I have read in a lot of time, and one of the most accurate regarding to how a mentally ill person feels for sure.

Some ideas such as the Empire, the colonies, british politics, religion, class differences were fundamental in the interwar british society, and so it is normal that they are treated in a book which wants us to know the depths of its characters. Sometimes Virginia choses to show us in a subtle way, for example with the contrast between Peter Walsh and Richard, Clarissa and Rezia or Clarissa’s daughter and her teacher, but there are some other situations when Virginia is more straightforward and she questions an idea in a more accessible way by using a soliloquy of one of the characters.


To sum up, I have really enjoyed reading Mrs Dalloway. I believe it is a very demanding book, though. Not only because of the vocabulary used, but also because of the amount of details and her writing style. It is not a book to read when you are tired, and I also think that it asks for the reader to have some historical notions, in order to really understand the importance of some details, for example, how relevant and pioneering was to include a character like Septimus. For those who like to read between the lines and who enjoy to overthink and analyse, I would say this is their kind of book, as it is a book with two stories: the story you can read and the story you can infer from all the comments and thoughts the characters have about their society.

In my opinion, the stronger thing of the book are the characters. They are so real and strong that even way after finishing the book they stay with you. Septimus is a modern tragedy, a subversion of the classic war hero; he is a character treated so humanly that encourages you to rekindle his story again and again. Clarissa, on the other hand, is the speaker of a whole period, of all women who feel forgotten, of all women who felt and feel out of place, waiting for a change that never comes.

For there she was