Iphigenia: The Diary of a Young Lady Who Wrote Because She Was Bored Summary/Response
I recently finished reading Venezuelan author Teresa de la Parra’s 1924 novel Iphigenia: The Diary Of A Young Lady Who Wrote Because She Was Bored* as a part of this independent study. I was pleasantly surprised to find the book, an English translation, to be both well-written and poignant. Though beautiful Maria Eugenia, the protagonist, can be frivolous and shallow, she also is a greatly sympathetic character as her esteemed uncle cheats her out of her fortune and as she goes from discovering herself in Paris to sewing in a closed room. Forced into mourning by her father’s sudden death, Maria Eugenia finds one misfortune after another, but remains eloquent and intelligent, if not always likeable.
As a twenty-first century reader and feminist, I found myself angry on Maria Eugenia’s behalf with regards to her relationships with male characters. First, a poet makes her uncomfortable on her return to Venezuela by presuming that because she likes to hear him recite his works, she must love him, and acting as such; as stated before, her uncle takes advantage of Maria Eugenia’s solitary state to claim her wealth as his own; she is spurned by the first beau she is interested in; her beloved Uncle Pancho, though slightly more modern, still considers himself her superior; and worst of all, César Leal, her fiancé, imposes rules upon the free-spirited Maria Eugenia, asserting that she must not wear low-cut dresses or makeup, that she may never go dancing. Through all of this, Maria Eugenia maintains her personality to some extent, modifying behaviors to please people, but still reading and writing, thinking and dreaming.
The end of the novel is less exciting. Maria Eugenia, though having fallen thoroughly out of love with her fiancé and back into it with Gabriel Omedo, her formerly forgotten first love, ultimately chooses to marry the man with her ailing grandmother’s approval. Comparing herself to a figure from Greek mythology– Iphigenia– she forces herself to write a scathing letter to Gabriel explaining that she has chosen Leal. Frustrating as it is, I think that Teresa de la Parra intended the ending to be unsatisfactory. Perhaps that’s the point, that the reader isn’t satisfied, and neither is Maria Eugenia.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Iphigenia, as I was before last week, Iphigenia was a young Greek girl of noble blood. Legend has it that Agamemnon, her father, killed one of the goddess Artemis’ sacred deer, and that, as punishment, Artemis stopped all winds. The only way to persuade Artemis to allow his people to sail again would be for Agamemnon to sacrifice his first daughter: Iphigenia. Agamemnon was caught in his lie that Iphigenia was to marry the hero Achilles and Iphigenia and her mother discovered that, instead, he was planning on sacrificing Iphigenia. However, Iphigenia still gave herself up to Artemis in order to benefit the greater good. That Maria Eugenia would compare herself and her marriage to a human sacrifice– a martyr– shows exactly how trapped and unhappy she felt before her marriage even began.
Teresa de la Parra, author and inventor of Maria Eugenia, was slightly more grounded than her novel’s protagonist, and slightly less invested in appearances of glamour and grandeur. However, her progressive beliefs shine through Maria Eugenia’s voice: women are equals to men and should be treated as such. It’s that simple.
* In some translations, ‘Lady’ is replaced with ‘Girl.’
Image from http://www.lacuadrauniversitaria.com