What is literature for? As Alain De Button puts it, it is the greatest time saver that allows us to experience emotions and events that otherwise would take years, decades, or millennia to experience directly (What is Literature For?). Stephen Greenblatt invites us to look at literature as “mobile, complex, elusive, disturbing; founded on imaginative freedom” (Graff & Phelan 115). Therefore, literary artists can too engage political inferences in their work, even if they are controversial, like in Williams Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, where Prospero is symbolized as the island’s oppressor in the plot’s overview. His treatment of Caliban portrays Prospero as an authoritarian figure, where Caliban’s enslavement further exposes the play’s themes of imperialism as well as how he manipulates Miranda by magically putting her to sleep when Prospero feels it is convenient to shield her from gaining knowledge or information. And it is similarly difficult to ignore the embedded politics found in Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The novel portrays the island of the Dominican Republic as an imbalanced territory submersed in the thematic realms of sovereignty where Abelard’s seemingly promising life is ravaged by the prolific dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina and his goons; Furthermore, literary critics are employing a politicized reading of The Tempest such as G.A Wilke’s essay, The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism, which helps confer the underlying controversial elements in Shakespeare’s play, as he uses the inhumane treatment of Caliban to discourse the matters of the “imperialist invader” which further help contextualize appropriateness of political interpretations of classics alike (47). The battle between traditionalist readers and post-colonial readers argue whether William Shakespeare’s, The Tempest “draws parallels with the situation of Europe in the New World” (Graff & Phelan 93); In Diaz’s novel, Abelard’s conflict with Trujillo depicts ‘Old World’ versus ‘New World’ traditions which conflate the narrative’s sociopolitical affiliations towards the invasion of the Americas; Wilkes’s essay discourses how The Tempest excludes Caliban from being fully human—a concept that is emblematic in our colonial histories where dictators see the original inhabitants as less than. By examining these two texts in a light of a postcolonial framework, along with Wilkes’ politically inclined interpretations of The Tempest , we can observe how political conflict is injected through the use of magic to illustrate power imbalances, and we can further examine how women are traditionally reduced to oppressed roles within a patriarchal society.
Unequal Distribution of Power
Trujillo and His Goons
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Trujillo’s mandate to kill Abelard and his family draws upon the imbalance of power as presented by aspects of magic or “fuku.” In chapter four, Diaz alludes to the supernatural by quoting Trujillo’s “godlike power” in a mention of an episode of the Twilight Zone to describe what it was like to live in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato (Trujillato signifying the regime under Rafael Trujillo’s control); he references a ‘godlike power’ that rules over the town, that is “completely isolated from the rest of the world” (224). Emily A. Shifflette further explains the connections between the colonial aspect of the proposed magical denotations of power and legitimate rule in Diaz’s work. In, The Novel Mezclada: Subverting Colonialism’s Legacy in Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Shifflette suggests we must confront the use of the “fuku” in “order to demonstrate how colonialism has transformed a nation into nobodies, a curse attributed to the arrival of European colonizers in the New World” (Shifflette 4). This perpetually claims the lives of Abelard and his family which ends in the murder of his daughters, drives his wife to suicide, and turns Abelard into a “vegetable” who later dies days before Trujillo’s assassination (251). Abelard’s hide and seek relationship with Trujillo in the novel suggests his desire to escape the conformist attitudes of Trujillo’s dictatorships, but ultimately fails to do so when he is accused of making a bad joke in front of Trujillo’s goons, offsetting the curse on Abelard’s entire family. Here, power is attributed to Trujillo’s connection to the curse—to the “fuku.” In this way, magical allusions or “fuku” is seen as a way to infer political interpretations within the text. By including such supernatural particulars, Diaz depicts the unequal distribution of power between Trujillo and Abelard, a seemingly unconforming figure who in the end does nothing to save himself or his family, but comply to his impending end—or his “prophecy” further succumbing to the side of the oppressed (227).
Prospero and His Spirits
Similarly, The Tempest depicts the colonial legacy through the character of Caliban, who lived peacefully with his mother on their native island until Prospero and Miranda arrived, turning him into a slave and taking away his rightful reign over the island. In, The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism, Wilkes explains how “Caliban is reduced by being fitted to the mold of a expropriated native” (55). Wilkes’ text credits Caliban’s account of the “curse” to showcase how colonialism is accepted in the play’s motif by crediting Caliban’s learned language and behaviors to Prospero and Miranda yet discourses imperialist behavior almost immediately:
You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! (1.2.365-368)
The concept of human or humane treatment of Caliban discourses the matters of the “imperialist invader” which further contextualize Prospero’s reasons for claiming sovereignty on the island (Wilkes 47). This implies that The Tempest can be readily seen as a text which is complicit with colonial power, where the natives are labeled as “savage” and the imperialist invader is dubbed the “civilized” (Wilkes 42). Prospero’s use of magic is further symbolized as a means of power in the way he uses Ariel, his spirit servant, to carry out his tricks on the other characters on the island:
Prospero: Hast thou, spirit,
Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?
Ariel: To every article.
I boarded the King’s ship. Now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement. (1.2.193-197)
I must mention, the moment Ariel arrives on the scene, Prospero applies a spell on Miranda so that she falls asleep so that Ariel may begin his account of Prospero’s commands. If we analyze how Prospero tasks Ariel to influence his role as the oppressor, magic is fundamentally a symbol of power used to maintain social hierarchy, placing the oppressor at the top of the order. Prospero’s manipulation of Miranda further employs the idea of power manipulation more specifically the unequal distribution of supremacy.
Women’s Oppressive Roles
Beli’s Link to the Past
Elizabeth Manley’s, Intimate Violations: Women and the Ajusticiamiento of Dictator Rafael Trujillo, 1944-1961 explains how maternalism plays an important role in the gender history of the Dominican Republic during the reign of the notorious Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Manley calls attention to key aspects of the anti-Trujillista’s revolutionary movement which was led by the mothers, daughters, and the women of Cuba who congregated to represent “the mourning of our beloved Dominican people, every day more oppressed, humiliated and enslaved” and comments on the “oppressed and humiliated crimes committed by the regime” (Manley 3, 62). Within her essay, Manley explains that as a result of the pressure the Cuban people exerted on the Trujillo regime, the outdated colonial super structures resting on the shoulders of women were exposed.
In Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we see comparable themes surrounding the female response and oppressive systems as seen through Hypatía Belicia Cabral, Oscar’s mother (better known as Beli). Beli’s childhood takes place during the era of Rafael Trujillo’s reign which colors the indignities of its women, the same women Manley’s article represents– “Hers was the generation that would launch the Revolution, but which for the movement was turning blue for want of air” (Diaz 81). Beli’s family, having been dissolved by the abusive powers of Trujillo, left Beli to be sold and enslaved by distant relatives who forced her to perform hard labors until she was about nine years old; removing her from school and living in Azua, Beli suffers a terrible disfigurement after boiling oil is poured onto her back. The
chapter continues by following Beli through one of her greatest challenges as an adult where she is disillusioned by one of Trujillo’s ‘ponds,’ the Gangster who would leave her and their unborn child for dead, having her beat like a slave in the canefields (Diaz 147). Beli’s dramatic realization denotes the treatment of women during the ajusticiamiento of Trujillo:
“La Inca gazed down at [Beli]. I wouldn’t call him either. That night Beli drifted on a vast ocean of loneliness, buffeted by squalls of despair, and during one of her intermittent sleeps she dreamt that she had truly and permanently died and she and her child shared a coffin and when she finally awoke for good, night had broken and out in the street a grade of grief unlike she’s encountered before was being uncoiled, a cacophony of wails that seemed to have torn free from the cracked soul of humanity itself. Like a funeral song for the entire planet” (Diaz 154).
Diaz effectively dedicates one of the longer chapters, narrated by Yunior, in his novel to demonstrate how Beli’s position is disregarded by the imperialist dictatorship of her island. In the novel, the conventions of colonialism is manifested by Beli’s willingness to put herself in the same subordinate position against her male counterparts, like when Beli sleeps with the Gangster again after her brutal beating and when Beli is made a single mother by her children’s father. Beli is ultimately entwined with slavery as the violence depicted to her in the sugar canefields and the scars on her back link her to the past, when Spanish colonizers brought slaves to the Dominican Republic in order to harvest sugarcane (Manley 12). Additionally, in chapter three, Diaz’s use of Yunior as the narrator reveals a patriarchal function that provides an allegorical interpretation of the female figure that is a contributing factor to the book’s politically-driven ethos which further subjugates women.
Sycorax & Miranda Get a Bad Rap
Manley highlights how the woman and the woman’s narrative goes often ignored; their contributions omitted in literature and textbooks. This is representative of Sycorax’s character in the play. By the time we are introduced to Caliban, we learn that his pregnant mother was exiled onto the island for practicing sorcery but subsequently dies just a few years before Prospero and Miranda arrive, however when Prospero is exiled to the island for similar actions, Prospero manages to control the island and reigns over its inhabitants. Sycorax is obscured from the rest of the play, yet Prospero remains the focal emphasis of the story. This can be seen as an oppressive viewpoint against our female character Sycorax, while in turn allowing our male protagonist Prospero to escape it. Sycorax is traditionally reduced under the eye of colonialism in terms of exploration of “these issues,” emblematic of our colonial histories where the imperialist sees the natives as ‘savage’ (Wilkes 42). Sycorax, like her son Caliban, though not as prominent in the play as she was in the past, is representative of the “natives” encountered by European travelers and adventurers during that period (Graff & Phelan 117).
The same can be seen in the way Miranda’s mother is omitted from the play, despite being of royal means. Prospero is positioned as Miranda’s only parent—placing Miranda in the guidance of a patriarchal figure:
Prospero: I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who
Art ignorant of what thou art, naught knowing
If whence I am, nor that I am more better (1.2.16-19)
Shakespeare demonstrates the erasure of female activism and gendered ideals by providing a narrative that portrays Miranda’s mother’s involvement while simultaneously removing her from the play at the very beginning, which frames the debate on patriarchal readings of the piece. The maternalistic discourse is distanced from the play but not entirely removed, which invites us to question Shakespeare’s intended use of the female figure to comment on the patriarchal systems of his day, thus further allocating a political reading of the play. To a greater extent, the lack of knowledge about Miranda’s mother highlights the excess of male characters and the marginalization of women’s roles; additionally, Leah Marcus adds that “everything we know about Sycorax is secondhand information,” suggesting that Sycorax’s information is further “edited” by Prospero and Ariel (Graff & Phelan 251).
It goes without dispute that critics agree that The Tempest is regarded as a “fully unified work of art” (Graff & Phelan 265). Artistic excellence must be characterized by a sense of “formal and thematic unity” as staged in Shakespeare’s plot points and use of central figures (Graff & Phelan 265). In Junot Diaz’s work, ancient problems are revived in a contemporary setting that contrasts Old World and New World perspectives to declare the threatening limitations of oppressive super-structures.
In essence, the use of ‘magic’ confronts the misuse of power by the oppressor to conflate the argument of the story’s fundamental political implications in The Tempest; by illustrating Prospero’s treatment of Caliban, one can piece together as to why Caliban does not invite us to take his rebellion so seriously but suggests that the conflict is a symptom of the structures in which he cannot escape (Graff & Phelan 267). The same would go for Abelard under the reign of the Trujillato. Doomed from the beginning, Abelard’s intellect would ironically situate him against Trujillo’s imperialist fist, which would ultimately result in his death, reflecting a deeper connection between the colonizer and his population. In our post-colonial readings of The Tempest and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we identify fundamental oppressive systems represented by women such as Miranda, Sycorax, and Beli; our aim is to frame the oppressive belief systems and institutions that existed and continue to exist presently.