Erendira’s Grandmother

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Erendira” is a frustrating story. It is full of beautiful images, fascinating characters, and puzzling events. The frustration lies in trying to figure out why the characters behave they way that they do. Why does Erendira’s grandmother prostitute her granddaughter instead of forgiving her debt? Why does Erendira stay with her grandmother after she has put her through such awful experiences? And why, when finally granted freedom by her grandmother’s death, does Erendira not run away with her lover? The seduction of the text lies in attempting to answer these questions. The text employs certain narrative techniques to confound and challenge the reader. The story’s tone is very matter-of-fact. There is very little judgment placed by the narrator on any of the character’s actions. This makes it difficult for the reader to know where to place one’s sympathies. Whatever commentary there is, comes in the form of ironic descriptions. Erendira’s forced prostitution is repeatedly referred to as “Erendira’s love” throughout the story. The story never reverts to a tragic tone and that is one of its strengths. Evil is hard to categorize in the story. Clearly what the grandmother does is cruel; however, she goes about it in such a nonchalant manner that it is difficult for the reader to hate her. She is fascinating for her twisted logic. There is a suspense element to the story as well; the reader is kept wondering how the story will shape up. The complexity of the story is that one is never sure how the characters will behave. Erendira’s acceptance of her grandmother’s decision, while troubling, also blurs the line of predictable behavior. She offers very little resistance to her grandmother’s iron will and thus the reader is torn between sympathizing with Erendira or chastising her for not taking initiative for her life and leaving. Since she continues to stay with her grandmother, the reader can not fully demonize the grandmother because Erendira is also a party to her own exploitation. Part of the experience of reading this story is the surprising reactions the reader feels while deciphering these enigmatic characters. It is difficult to hate the grandmother because she has such a powerful presence. She manages to subdue the reader’s distaste for her much in the way she subdues the resistance of everyone she comes in contact with in the story. She has an uncompromising nature. In the story she is referred to as both a whale and an ox; she has the menacing calm of a whale and the patience of an ox. No one can argue with her logic. The one person who does resist her will is the photographer when he refuses to pay for the music. Very soon after that he is shot because he is implicated in Erendira’s escape. Erendira acknowledges her grandmother’s disturbing power of influence. That is why she does not leave her. She chooses to go back to her grandmother after the missionaries have saved her because of the grandmother’s stubborn solitary vigil outside the mission.The only time Erendira takes action against her grandmother is when her grandmother talks about Erendira’s future as a respectable woman. Though the text says “Erendira was not listening to her,” her grandmother’s words do have an effect on her because in the next scene she attempts to kill her grandmother by pouring boiling water in her bath. She does not actually do it because the grandmother, with her clairvoyant powers, shouts her name and distracts her from her task. In this scene Erendira glimpses at the incredible power her grandmother has over her. She realizes that despite what she may desire, she can not and will not be able to kill her grandmother because they are connected. It is also hard to dismiss the grandmother as simply a villain because she also suffers in the story. Based on her actions, one would assume the grandmother to be cold-hearted and devoid of feelings. Yet she clearly contains emotional complexity as evidenced by her sleep-induced ravings. Her memories follow her and torture her at night. She is not immune to emotional turmoil. This makes her treatment of Erendira all the more puzzling. There is the idea of the circularity of time in the story. In a way, the grandmother is subjecting Erendira to the same fate she endured. She was a prostitute herself and she has no problem prostituting her granddaughter. The granddaughter is destined to relive the experiences of the grandmother. Employing an odd sense of logic, the grandmother believes it will have a positive outcome for Erendira’s future. “You’ll be a noble lady,” she told her, “A lady of quality, venerated by those under your protection and favored and honored by the highest authorities.” (302) This scene is difficult because the grandmother’s thinking is so warped. It is possible that the grandmother is simply delusional and believes that Erendira can attain a position of respect after “loving” half the desert towns. It is also possible that the grandmother realizes the folly in this but continues to entertain these false notions as a way to cope with the pain and disappointment in her own life. The grandmother’s life is sad and dysfunctional and she subjects her granddaughter to those horrors as well. The story presents an extreme picture of the possibly irrational familial obligations that plague the human experience. Erendira is obligated to her grandmother simply because she is her grandmother and is family to her. Objectively, Erendira’s grandmother does a terrible thing to her granddaughter. The story could have had her force Erendira to work some other way to pay back the debt and perhaps the reader would not feel such disgust with the grandmother. But instead the story uses prostitution to viscerally move its readers. One shudders when reading about the young and innocent Erendira “loving” a long line of men while chained to a bed with a dog chain. The story forces the reader to examine the nature of familial obligations by presenting a morally repulsive situation of familial exploitation.Throughout the story there is the recurring presence of smuggling and smugglers. Erendira is the child of smugglers and falls in love with the son of a smuggler. She is smuggled out of her grandmother’s possession by the missionaries and Ulises attempts to smuggle her across the border to escape her grandmother. “We’ll cross over like smugglers,” he promises her. The nature of smuggling is that it is deceptive and that it blurs the boundaries of truth. Nonsense takes on a legitimacy of its own in the world of smuggling. Ulises’s father’s oranges are indeed worth fifty thousand pesos each; a grandmother can prostitute her granddaughter and not feel any remorse about it. The story raises this idea of truth masquerading as nonsense as a way to view the deception inherent in familial obligation. Sometimes familial relations can be one’s worst enemy. In the story, the characters either work against nature or ignore the signals that nature sends out. Three times “the wind of misfortune” visits Erendira and her grandmother and all three times Erendira does not pay attention to it or does not recognize that it is misfortune. While she is with the missionaries, Erendira notices that “the mission was dedicated to fighting not against the devil but against the desert.” Nature plays a large role in the events of the story and the characters all act according to certain rules of nature, yet they persist in their indifference towards the forces of nature. This is where the story becomes frustrating. On one hand, it could be suggesting that natural impulses, such as remaining loyal to a cruel relative could be destructive forces. On the other hand, the story could be suggesting that when one ignores nature and the subtle signs it sends out to warn (about misfortune, for example), then that too can be negative. The question of what exactly is “natural” for human relationships seems to be the issue of the story. It is not “natural” to subject a relative to the terrors of prostitution. It is also not natural to feel loyal to a grandmother that subjects her granddaughter to awful things. Yet nature is rarely rational and Erendira’s inability to kill her grandmother makes sense; one can not kill one’s own relative. The only time the text alludes to Erendira’s reasons for staying with her grandmother is when she chooses to go back with her instead of staying with the missionaries: “Erendira found herself once more under the spell that had dominated her since birth.” (287) The story is pointing to this “spell,” or sense of obligation, and forcing the reader to evaluate the nature of this obligation. By labeling it a “spell” the story suggests that Erendira can not help but be subject to this fact of nature. Therefore the story is highlighting this belief and asking the reader to judge its legitimacy. Erendira’s “sad tale” is the result of believing too much in the “spell” of family.