Vision and Division: Voyeurism in the Works of Isabel Allende

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Author: Elizabeth Gough
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 16,170 words

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[(essay date summer 2004) In the following essay, Gough investigates Allende's use of voyeuristic storytelling in her works, claiming that these voyeuristic episodes add to the artistry of Allende's texts by furthering the storylines, exposing social divisions between characters, affording the observers a means by which to gain insight, and adding humor to the narratives.]

Voyeurism as a dramatic device can be found throughout the writing of Isabel Allende, yet has been virtually ignored by her critics. When using the term "voyeurism," I do not limit myself to its psychoanalytic meaning of obtaining erotic gratification by secretly observing sexual objects or acts. Following the English literary tradition, I also include any kind of intense, hidden or distant spying or gazing. Interestingly, Allende's name itself alludes to this broad idea of voyeurism, as it means "on the other side" or "outside of in Spanish--as if on the other side of a divide.

Allende's novels are full of hidden voyeurs who listen at doors, witness crises from a distance or through some kind of obstacle, and sometimes enter the scene without permission. These characters see exciting or disturbing things through a hole in a wall, a crack in a door, an opening in a window shutter, or the lens of a camera. They observe private or foreign worlds on television or from rooftops, hilltops, clouds, the top of a staircase, the top of a box, the corners of alleyways, the edges of balconies, the undersides of a bed and a cart, as well as from the other side of shadows, darkened taverns, iron gratings, curtains, trees, crystal balls, and magical eggs. The frequent use of voyeurism in her writing (over ninety instances in her novels to date) suggests its importance to her.

In fact, although Allende may be unaware of the extent of the repetition of hidden or distant gazes in her writing, interviews have implied her interest in voyeuristic storytelling. This conclusion may be drawn from the author's explanation of her discontent with "And of Clay We Are Created" until its third draft. Allende has said that while she worked on the short story, she first changed the narrator's perspective from Omaira Sánchez, the girl dying in the scene, to the firefighter who arrived on the scene to help her, and then to a distant television viewer of the tragedy, Eva Luna:

In 1985, there was a volcano eruption in Colombia and a little girl was trapped in the mud, and she died there after four days of terrible agony. I saw her on television in Venezuela, and I wrote this story. When I finished. ... , I realized that I had tried to tell the story from an intellectual point of view, very passionate but it was my mind working. And then I realized that it wasn't the story of the little girl; it was the story of the man who was holding the little girl. So I rewrote the story once more, and when it was finished, I...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100088062