On the Border: An Argument for Hybridity in Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda’s Sab

Below is a mock-conference paper that I wrote for a Master’s level class in 2013. It is not perfect and I use the word “indeed” way too many times, but it’s a useful roundup of some of the best scholarship on Sab that’s been written in English. I wrote it with a Latin American Women’s Writers conference (or something similar) in mind, which means the audience would be familiar with Gloria Anzaldúa’s work with Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. I don’t explicitly discuss her work (though I would in a longer piece), but my analysis of Sab as a character is grounded in Anzaldúa’s ideas on hybridity and a new consciousness. If you are in a scholarly rush I have included the abstract as well so you can quickly assess if the work is useful to you. If you’re in a huge rush the Works Cited is at the bottom. I hope it helps someone!


In the following I argue for a new treatment of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda’s often-problematic character, Sab. In the eponymous novel, Avellaneda presents a character that many have found troubling, the “mulatto” slave Sab who eschews freedom in order to be near his apparent-cousin and love interest, Carlota. In pervading criticism, the novel is treated from either an abolitionist or feminist point of view, with each viewpoint generally ignoring the other. Feminist readings of the novel tend to relegate Sab to minor character status in order to focus on the women within the text. Abolitionist readings focus on Sab’s soaring rhetoric and the novel’s censorship in Avellaneda’s native Cuba. While both readings of the text have validity, I present both an extension and intersection of these readings: one that reinterprets Sab as an intentionally hybridized character. Arguing for a reading of Sab as a bi-racial, bi-gendered character I present a survey of criticism with textual evidence to back up my proposed expansion of existing readings. I argue that it is important not to devalue either reading and to treat Sab, the center of the text, with the respect that he is due. A critique of the enslavement of women to men via marriage and a critique of the slavery of Africans are two important elements of the text, both of which are contained within the character of Sab. In this way Sab is shown to occupy a borderland between black/white and women/men, giving him the ability to see multiple viewpoints and speak out, with his unique authority, against the mutual stains of oppression that link the characters within the text.

On the Border: An Argument for Hybridity in Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda’s Sab

When compiling her collected works, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda chose to exclude her 1841 novel, Sab. Nina M. Scott, translator of the 1993 edition of Sab, writes of this in her introduction, stating that the work’s exclusion was “partly because [Avellaneda] had grown more conservative with age and partly because she was anxious to sell her book in Cuba” (xvii). Indeed, “the political climate in Cuba was still extremely repressive” while Avellaneda was compiling her collected works, and slavery – which Sab explicitly discusses – would not be abolished there until 1886, over a decade after her Literary Works appeared (xviii). Simply stated: Cuban “government officials would not have tolerated any book with openly antislavery views” (xviii). The novel is antislavery of course, but perhaps not only in the way that the Cuban government feared; the form of slavery critiqued most poignantly in the novel is in the form of women’s enslavement to men via marriage. While Avellaneda’s tumultuous personal life should be kept separate from analyses of her writing, it is important to note that when she was denied entrance to the Royal Spanish Academy, which did not admit women, she was outraged (xvi). Seven years after the insult Avellaneda was still fuming, as evidenced by her essay “La mujer” (“Woman”) wherein she rails against the system of exclusion that barred her from joining the Academy (xvi). This is relevant because it provides evidence for Avellaneda’s willingness to express feminist rage against systems of oppression based on sex, which indeed she does within the context of Sab. Avellaneda’s work was embraced by second wave feminists who brought the women’s struggle within the novel to the fore. Sab is not the sentimental story of forbidden love that it appears to be; Sab and Carlota could never be together. Even if a reader can overlook Carlota de B-’s consistent and total lack of romantic interest in Sab, one must acknowledge the fact that they are first cousins. As Catherine Davies explains in “The Gift in Sab” Carlota would have also needed parental consent to marry as she is under the age of 25 (51). Addressing the issue of their blood relation, Davies notes that, even “though marriages of this type did occur in Cuba and papal dispensation might be sought” Sab is a mulatto, for which “there are no mitigating circumstances” (51). In setting aside the sentimental love story reading, I will now present an extension of the work which intersects the two pervasive readings of the novel: feminism and abolition. Focusing on the character of Sab, I intend to delineate the ways in which his character represents a hybrid, not just of race, but also of gender.

Allow me to provide background for the remainder of this talk by stating that a binary system of thinking about gender is as negative as a binary system of thinking about race. Even though slavery is emasculating, that does not mean that it is feminizing. Masculine and feminine are set up as binary opposites in culture with the absence of one necessitating the presence of the other. Setting that social construction aside, I believe that it is important to read the character of Sab not as feminine because he is systemically emasculated, but because he is an intentionally hybridized character. Brígida M. Pastor touches on Sab’s feminine characteristics in Fashioning Feminism in Cuba and Beyond: The Prose of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Pastor declares Sab an “ambiguously gendered character” who Avellaneda uses to “expose patriarchal culture’s failure to give equal value to the feminine and the masculine” (68). Sab is unable to achieve happiness within the novel not only because of his enslavement – which notably ends within the novel’s time frame – but because of the feminine aspects of his personality, which have internalized destructive patriarchal values, as I will illustrate.  Sab is described within the text itself as “an amalgam,” but notably one that is imperfect (Avellaneda 28). Pastor explains Sab’s physical description as a “conjunction of symbols” that are used to “illustrate how the masculine and feminine principles are encapsulated” within his character (74). Pastor suggests that Sab’s feminine characteristics are due only to his slave status, but I disagree. Instead I contend that Sab is intentionally written as a hybrid character by Avellaneda, to serve the dual purpose of having both “male” and “female” voices decry women’s oppression, and also to have an acknowledgement of mutual oppression pass between women and slaves.

Sab as a bi-racial character will be examined first. Many scholars find the abolitionist aspect of Sab to be lukewarm, with Pastor stating her belief that Avellaneda wrote Sab as the women’s “‘other,’ represented by the slave” (68). I do not believe that Sab is an “everyman” meant to stand in for slaves as a whole; his character is too problematic. Rather, Sab’s character is a balance of African (specifically Congolese) and white. He has not constructed an identity that blends the two, but one which contains elements of both. When Sab describes his mother he uses a language that distances him from her racially; by noting “her African heart” and her beauty “In spite of her color” Sab places himself outside of her African lineage with his careful racial notation (31). This passage comes immediately after Sab announces himself to be a mayoral, communicating that he is a person who would have been in charge of slaves on the plantation (31). In this same passage Sab expresses pride that his mother was a princess who was delivered from misery by the love of Sab’s father, who is clearly her “master” Don Félix de B- (31). The conflict between white and African ancestry is clearly illustrated by Sab’s way of speaking about his mother. Amplifying this is the feigned ignorance of his father’s identity that is representative of his respect for his mother and, in turn, her loyalty to Sab’s white father. Throughout this section Sab is portrayed as a character who is, indeed, an amalgam. Sab is proud of his mother yet expresses the master culture’s intractable, negative obsession with her race. An argument can be made that Sab, who is speaking to the white Enrique in this conversion, is intentionally mentioning race, but the text contains more evidence for Sab’s problematic self-identification. After he is free the narration still speaks of Sab hearing “his master’s voice” and being “ordered by his master” to sit at the table, when “two weeks earlier [he] had still been his slave,” thus intentionally noting that Sab was no longer a slave when these events took place (Avellaneda 83-4). The failure to change “master” to “Don Carlos” subtly informs the reader of Sab’s persistent self-identification as the de B- family’s slave. Many critics overlook the fact that Sab is bi-racial and I believe that this is a critical mistake because Sab cannot stand in for the slaves whom he supervises. Indeed, despite expressing sympathy for slaves, Sab is willing to continue “to be the overseer of Bellavista,” a job offered to him by Don Carlos de B- (82). At this point in the text Sab is a free man who objects to slavery, but he accepts a job as a supervisor of slaves because of his wish to stay close to the de B- family. Sab’s loyalty to his white family is unquestionable. Let us not forget that, after he is freed, he rides his black pony to death in order to deliver a letter, the very black pony to which he said: “You are the only being on earth willing to caress these rough, sunburned hands; you are the only one not ashamed to love me” (58). Mirroring his own conflicted mental state, Sab continues: “No voice cries from within you that you deserved a more noble fate, and so you endure yours with resignation” (58). So too does Sab lack the voice that cries out within him for him own freedom, for as he states in the novel’s opening passage: “I am [Carlota’s] slave, and I wish to live and die in her service” (32). In The Cambridge Companion to the Spanish Novel Lou Charnon-Deutsch states that the text’s “insistence on the ambivalence of Sab, and its failure to vindicate black women, demonstrates Avellaneda’s allegiance to the dominant order” (127). There is, however, a multitude of textual evidence which illustrates Sab’s passionate objection to slavery. In “A New Look at the Strains of Allegory in Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab,” Julia C. Paulk points out that “Sab’s final words and his capacity to speak them for himself form an unmistakable antislavery position” (232). Indeed Sab’s antislavery speech bookends the text, opening with his lament that slaves are “that unhappy race deprived of human rights” to which he belongs, though he then conspicuously notes that he is mulatto (Avellaneda 30). Sab’s “apocalyptic vision” appears at the end of the text within his letter to Teresa. In it he states: “It is men who have imposed this dreadful fate upon me, they are the ones who should fear to appear before God: because they have a terrible explanation to give, because they have incurred an immense responsibility” (Avellaneda 144). Throughout the text, Sab’s loyalty to his white family/masters comes up against his fury at the institution of slavery. Sab cannot blend these two conflicting forces into one, unified course of action, and so Sab remains a border character, containing both. As he dies he curses slave masters in one breath and pities Carlota in the next. Sab is both the servant and the mayoral, occupying the border between slave and master, just as he is mixed blood, the border between black and white. Like the black pony, who deserves a more noble fate, Sab resigns to death, the only path left open to him.

I will now shift my discussion to examining the ways in which Sab is also a hybrid character in terms of gender. In “Stranger in a Strange Land: The Discourse of Alienation in Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab” Stacey Schlau begins with a catalog of the romantic conventions within Sab, such as the tragic hero/ine, sentimentality, and “the portrayal of an idealized female character as an icon” (495). Schlau goes on to point out the way in which this reading of Sab becomes problematic, stating: Avellaneda’s “abolitionism is in fact no mere sentimental theme, but one element in a complex vision that links all of the characters” (495). By linking the characters together, the “narrative equates and integrates all forms of slavery, […], thus analyzing the condition of all those marginalized into assuming a colonized status” (495). My analysis of Sab reads him as a purposefully created hybrid, which is done in order to specifically critique this system of colonization, for to understand one type of slavery gives one the ability to understand the other. Sab and Carlota reference the tragic hero/ine by existing in a place of moral elevation, so too have both characters embraced the idea that the only thing that gives life meaning is love. Schlau points out that Sab “displays characteristics typically expected of women; he is a superior being by virtue of his absolute consecration to love,” a trait which is mirrored in Carlota (498). So too are both characters doomed by their choice of the wrong person: Carlota’s choice of the inferior Enrique and Sab’s choice of the unattainable Carlota. Only the orphan Teresa, who was raised without delusion, is able to act in a way that brings her some happiness: by opting out of the romantic exchange altogether. Sab draws a comparison between himself and Teresa in the letter that closes the text. Of the two Sab writes: “within me there is an immense ability to love: you have the courage to resist, and I the energy to act; you are upheld by reason, and I am devoured by emotion. Your heart is the purest gold, mine of fire” (Avellaneda 141). In this letter Sab narrates a mirrored relation between himself and Teresa, one that places him on the feminine, emotional side of gender, and Teresa on the masculine, reasoning side. As Pastor points out, Sab “only expresses his anger, feelings and ambitions, […], when he is in dialogue with a woman,” most notably through his dialogues with Teresa (70). In regards to Sab’s feminine element Schlau writes: “the only actions he can take as an individual are self-destructive,” “he dies heartbroken, as women stereotypically do” (497). Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the pronouncement, through Sab’s adoptive mother Martina, that “all the chambers of Sab’s heart had burst” (Avellaneda 127). Sab quite literally dies of a broken heart. Teresa implies that death brought on by heartbreak would be Carlota’s fate if Sab’s original lottery plan were executed when she states that Carlota’s “love is her existence, to take away the one is to take away the other” (106). Before Sab dies he is, as Teresa points out, “free and rich,” but, like Carlota, Sab is so unable to conceive of loving someone other than his chosen love-object that he gives up his freedom, wealth, and life. This is, as Schlau points out, “typical of both the romantic hero and the dominant ideology of how women were supposed to experience love” (498). However, in Sab’s hands, these acts of “ennobling self-destruction” bring about the solidification of Carlota’s unhappy marriage (498). As Davies points out, “it soon becomes clear that Sab is not the resigned victim of injustice; he is the author, the mover, the controller of events” (51). But it is in a female-coded, love-centered idea of happiness that Sab and Carlota are united. Because of their inability to see a world outside of their internalized idea of happiness as conditional on their love-object, both are condemned to be miserable. For Carlota, for whom this type of love is socially acceptable, it is a living death that she faces, as foreshadowed by Sab’s statement that Carlota will be shackled to “a corpse” (Avellaneda 109). For Sab, for whom this type of love is deemed inappropriate, (as further evidenced by Theresa’s pleas for him to find “another love, a wife worthy of [his] heart,”) the fate is death (107). The feminine side of Sab cannot live in this world because he cannot be with his love-object. Teresa illustrates that this way of thinking can be rejected when she uses her dowry to join a convent, an act that allows her to find the “calm and grave happiness which virtue bestows” (135). The text leaves no room for interpretation: by investing in love, Carlota will never find happiness. The positions of these two women are juxtaposed directly as the narration turns to examine Carlota, immediately after the passage discussing Teresa’s ability to find some happiness: “Carlota, on the other hand, was unhappy, and the more others believed her to be happy, the more wretched she became” (135). The investment in this sort of love condemns both characters who believe in it, yet it is Sab who dares to lament women’s position in society. In his letter to Teresa he writes: “Oh, women! Poor, blind victims! Like slaves, they patiently drag their chains and bow their heads under the yoke of human laws. With no other guide than an untutored and trusting heart, they choose a master for life” (144). Paulk points out that understanding the relationship “between Sab, Carlota, and Teresa helps the reader to identify a strong commitment at the literal level of the text to both antislavery and feminist messages rather than a subordination of one to the other” (231).

The tenuous balance within Sab results in a character who appears to be inconsistent, but it is my assertion that this seeming inconsistency plays an important role within the text. With Sab’s implosion, an act which cements Carlota’s misery, the text shows that a hybrid character like Sab cannot exist in society. This is because Sab exists within a binary system, one which does not allow for hybridity like his. Sab is not allowed to be abolitionist and slave, female and male, or African and white, yet it is his status as a border character that allows him to see the systemic oppression of others. Sab may, as Pastor states, provide a voice that “challenges the dominant male discourse,” but this is not because he is a man, it is because he is a hybrid (70). Sab can speak with white, male-coded authority of women’s slavery because he knows both privileged and oppressed viewpoints.

Works Cited

Charnon-Deutsch, Lou. “Gender and Beyond: Nineteenth Century Spanish Women Writers.” The Cambridge Companion to the Spanish Novel. Eds. Harriet Turner and Adelaida Lopez de Martínez. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 122-137.

Davies, Catherine. “The Gift in Sab.” Afro-Hispanic Review 22.2 (2003): 46-53. Print.

Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, Gertrudis. Sab and Autobiography. Ed. Nina M. Scott. Austin: U of Texas P, 1993. Print.

Pastor, Brígida M. Fashioning Feminism in Cuba and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2003. Print.

Paulk, Julia C. “A New Look at the Strains of Allegory in Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab.” Revista Hispanica Moderna 55.2 (2002): 229-241. Print.

Schlau, Stacey. “Stranger in a Strange Land: The Discourse of Alienation in Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab.” Hispania 69.3 (1986): 495-503. Print.

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