Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda

Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda

I just finished putting the final touches on my mock conference paper on Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s 1841 novel Sab. I held off on my regular writeup until my assignment was finished, but I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t already covered this novel since I’ve been assigned it three times in the last six years. At this point I’m glad to have been able to re-read it at different points in my life because a lot of my frustration at the initial reading is gone. Also, as far as I can tell, the photo on the cover of this edition (which includes Avellaneda’s Autobiography) is the most upsetting thing about the novel, ironically it might also be the most antislavery part of the novel as well.

Someone in class asked me what the novel “was about” since they were considering writing about it. Basically I told them this: It’s a novel about a “mulatto” slave on a plantation in Cuba. He is clearly the son of Don Carlos de B-‘s brother, who is dead, and his Congolese mother (a slave) is also dead. Taken in by the de B- family, Sab is raised as a brother to his cousin Carlota and everyone pretends that they don’t know Sab is a blood relative because then it would be awkward that they’re keeping him as a slave (even though he is a slave supervisor himself). Sab is obviously in love with Carlota who has no interest in him and is planning on marrying Enrique, an idiot and jerk, but since he’s handsome and rich no one cares. Well, Sab and Teresa (the other orphan, taken in by the de B-‘s, is acting as Carlota’s companion, and who gets constantly reminded that Carlota is prettier, richer, and will be able to marry unlike herself) both care because Teresa has a crush on the moron Enrique. Why I have no idea, she probably hit her head on something. Meanwhile Sab drives himself crazy trying to get Carlota – who, again, is not interested in him – to fall in love with him, going to far as to refuse to leave the family after he is freed from slavery just because he freaking has to be near Carlota for some reason. Then Sab wins the lottery and you would think that, “free and rich,” he would want to stop supervising slaves and maybe help out the poor family that he allegedly cares so much about, but no. Instead he secretly gives Carlota the lottery ticket, and she marries the super dumb Enrique (who was about the leave her because she wasn’t rich enough) and Sab dies of a broken heart. Literally. It’s actually kind of gory. Teresa is like “screw this” and enters a convent, and Carlota gets married, doesn’t care that Sab died at all, and eventually ends up really unhappy because Enrique is so stupid that of course he can’t make anyone happy but himself. Teresa and Carlota become close friends though and Teresa ends up relatively happy, so that’s something.

Incidentally, halfway through the synopsis the person I was talking to was like, “Um, this sounds complicated,” which I’m sure it does. It’s confusing at least. It’s confusing because Sab refuses to not love someone who doesn’t love him, and it’s not just because he’s “mulatto,” Carlota is actually in love with the robot Enrique for some reason. Then, instead of being “free and rich,” as Teresa calls him, he decides to stay in a slave relationship just to be close to Carlota – who, again, does not love him – and then since he can’t have her ends up accidentally sabotaging any chance of happiness she might have by guaranteeing the greedy fool Enrique will marry her and make damn sure she’s miserable. Damn it Sab, you can’t do anything right! (In Sab’s defense, the text makes it clear that Carlota will never be happy because she believes in that poison apple of self-loathing: love. Burn on you love! The text is really down on heterosexuality in general though, literally every single mother in the text is dead by the end.)

Why am I harping on the Sab/Carlota dynamic so much? It’s because a casual glance at reviews of the book show me that people really don’t understand this dynamic. Someone called it a “forbidden love story,” for example. Is it forbidden because one of the parties is totally uninterested in the other? Because that’s what happens in the novel instead of, oh let’s say, your imagination. It’s clear that even if Sab was white Carlota would still not marry him because they are cousins and, oh, did I mention that she isn’t interested in him? Carlota views Sab as a brother, period, and even if the pope gave them the necessary permission to marry because they are first cousins, she still wouldn’t be interested. Sorry to burst your nonsense-bubble, but stop rewriting the text. At the end, when Teresa is dead, Carlota is miserable, and she finally gets to read Sab’s deathbed letter, the effect it has isn’t to make Carlota fall in love with him, all it does is make her finally mourn his death. That’s it. So much like the critic who shockingly claimed that Enrique was the main character of the story (seriously WTF), you have to stop imposing what you want on the text as though it’s really there. Moving on.

There are two main bents to criticism about the novel: antislavery and feminism. The antislavery views of the text are less in fashion now just because Sab is so problematic, plus Avellaneda heavily censored it so it would be published in Cuba (they still banned it), then left it out of her “collected works” completely, again, so it could be published in Cuba. It was really important to her that she was published in Cuba, way more important than Sab, at least to Avellaneda. So when the author herself is like, “Meh whatever, just leave it out, who cares,” it’s hard to argue for a fiery political reading of the text. Also, Avellaneda never wrote about slavery again. Ouch! Still the text is antislavery and Sab has some amazing speeches about how white people are literally going to have hell to pay for what they’ve done. The aforementioned mock conference paper that I wrote intersects these two main readings of the text. I, for one, think that the antislavery position of the text shouldn’t be swept aside just because Avellaneda didn’t care about it personally and was probably just using it as a plot device. People keep noting that Sab was published (in Spain) ten years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to which I respond by reminding them that so were a lot of things. The texts cannot be compared with one another, seeing at that slavery, as in back breaking plantation slavery, is barely even mentioned in Sab. Sab the character is a slave overseer, making him a difficult character, and there is only one other slave who speaks for himself in the entire text.

When I say slavery is a “plot device” I’m saying that “slavery” as a concept functions as a metaphoric vehicle for the feminism within the text. The brutality of actual plantation slavery is just not discussed and is barely alluded to. Feminism, on the other hand, was something that Avellaneda clearly, personally cared about. Avellaneda was not allowed to join The Spanish Academy (a writers organization and boys club) when the referendum to allow women, specifically her, to join failed catastrophically. She also hated marriage, wisely it seems, because she was terrible at it. I’m of the critical school that tries to leave author’s lives out of textual criticism as much as possible, but when you’re arguing about a historical or political context I think it’s important to look at who wrote the text to make sure it’s even a possibility. There’s no sense in a feminist reading of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (trigger warning for link: photo of dead lion and a way-too-proud-of-himself Hemingway after presumably “man”-ing it to death), a story about a man dying and when his girlfriend Helen tries to help he’s like “Get back in the tent’s kitchen bitch!” well I’m paraphrasing, but he does call her “bitch.” Did I mention that this is one of Hemingway’s most-beloved stories? Thanks for that entire world. Digression alert! Anyway, because of Avellaneda’s life the feminist reading of Sab comes to the forefront. The text calls women “slaves” who “choose masters for life” through marriage and illustrates, both overtly and sub-textually that marriage is the worst. Avellaneda herself, like Teresa, joined a convent for a period of time. Teresa is shown as happy because she opts out of the heterosexual exchange, Carlota is shown as miserable exclusively because of her marriage (she has everything else going for her), and every other woman in the book dies or is already dead. Carlota is the only woman left standing at the end of the text (for a novella there is a shockingly high body count though).

If you’re interested in a synopsis of the criticism and my own smartsy thoughts check out my conference paper. It’s riveting, riveting I tell you!

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