Who Would Have Thought It? Engl242
Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton: An Introduction
"Who Would Have Thought It?" was written by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, the first known Mexican American author to write two novels in English. Born in California to an influential "Californio" family, Ruiz de Burton's life did not follow an ordinary path, as she married Caucasian commander of the Mexican American War. Following her husband, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton migrated to the materialistic and surreal East coast, and was often caught in conflict over holding fast to her heritage and upholding her ideals. Her novels are viewed as a result of this inner conflict, as they showcase the her distaste for Democracy's hypocrisy and shortcomings.
An Unthinkable Divide
The novel "Who Would Have Thought It?" follows the trials and tribulations that not only affect, but surround Lola, a Mexican American girl born into Indian captivity who is eventually taken to live in the overtly racist North East United States.
The novel begins with the homecoming of the white Dr. Norval to his New England home. He brings with him specimens from his South Western expedition, and among them is Lola, dyed black from head to toe. It is quickly revealed that she was rescued from an Indian tribe at the request of her mother; who paid Dr. Norval very well for his troubles. While Dr. Norval wishes to follow Lola's mother's requests to their fullest, Mrs. Norval and the rest of the family are merely concerned with Lola's immense wealth and how to take advantage of it.
The obviously kind, but somewhat different seeming Dr. Norval is called away to Africa shortly through the novel, giving Mrs. Norval a golden opportunity to shift Lola's fortune into her own hands. She conspires with the amoral and apparent sexual predator minister Mr. Hackwell, but ends up almost falling prey to him herself as they begin an affair. Mr. Hackwell proposes marriage to the now supposed widow Mrs. Norval in order to secure his "right" to Lola's wealth. At the end of the novel it becomes apparent that although Dr. Norval has been assumed dead, he was actually in hiding to avoid social persecution from his Yankee community. He returns to the North when he hears the news that he is supposedly dead, and in the process demolishes the conspiracy to appropriate Lola's fortune.
Upon the Dr.'s return, Mrs. Norval succumbs to brain fever, uttering her infamous last words, "Who would have thought it?".
A Sensitized Reading
"Who Would Have Thought It" offers readers a look into history's discrepancies. Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's unique past and Californio lineage forced her to be considered an outsider, or to be othered, from western modernity. However, because "Who Would Have Thought It?" is written in English and involves many characters that embody northeastern ideals of the 1800's, its audience is implicitly those that subsist within the borders of western modernity. Ruiz de Burton's novel therefore becomes an opportunity to view the northeastern United States from the standpoint of one not included in its sphere of "success" and unable to comfortably fit within its social classes.
An important aspect (or even the key) to reading "Who Would Have Thought It?" from the perspective of being removed from western modernity, and one that the author makes readily available, is the central character of Lola. Her role is almost one of inaction, but it allows the other "white" characters to revolve around her, though they believe that they themselves are in fact each the center of all other character's orbits. The actions of the characters surrounding Lola highlight their strangeness and odd customs, instead of focusing the lens of difference of the beautiful Mexican American girl. By examining Lola's inactivity within "Who Would Have Thought It?" the reader gains a clearer sense of the reasons why she is othered and considered and outsider by a country who advertises equality for all, and how her story, and the stories of all those made to be different are not documented as those of "true U.S. citizens" are.
A Telling Lack of Intimacy
The practice of looking for the "missing link" in order to flesh out the history of a specific time is used not only in Ruiz de Burton's "Who Would Have Thought It?", but by many highly respected academics. Lisa Lowe puts the exercise to use in her famed essay The Intimacies of Four Continents. Lisa Lowe examines the figure, or lack there of, of the Chinese coolie in imperialistic history. She proposes that instead of searching for the story of the Chinese coolies and trying to bring it to light, it is more explanatory and exploratory to realize the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of their history and what it tells about the culture exploiting and attempting to manipulate theirs. Similarly, the character of Lola herself is never fully explored, but the reactions of the people around her are quite fleshed out.
Borders: A Continuing Theme
Throughout the story, there is a consistent theme of borders present. These borders present an interesting dichotomy in the values present of society at the time, and some of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's critiques of them. Because Ruiz de Burton was a woman who crossed many borders in her lifetime, she must have been especially sensitive to those surrounding her and others, whether those borders kept others at bay, or kept her as a person person locked away in a specific social position. As a Mexican American, Ruiz de Burton crossed racial, political and religious borders by marrying her U.S. military husband. She was Catholic and he was Protestant, she was a land holding Californio, he was a Yankee invader. When the couple moved to the North East she saw the transparency of abolition, and later in life crossed into a life of economic hardship and a never ending fight against social dislocation and abandonment. This allows a rather interesting perspective into our discussions of the modern, as one of the most common ways to negotiate the modern is to point out what is not modern. With Ruiz de Burton's experiences, she provides clear cases of modernity clashing up against something that is not.
The Norval family, with the exception of the Dr., immediately comes to the conclusion that Lola must be stupid because of her dark appearance, though they claim to be abolitionists fighting against racial inequities. Additionally, despite Dr. Norval's constant insistence that Lola is not African American, the rest of the family simply cannot comprehend this seemingly simple fact. Even as Lola's dye begins to wear off, many of the characters chalk the patchiness up to a disease rather than admitting that she may not be so different after all.
"But I often heard your mother say things by which I could plainly see she did not believe I was white. And when the dye began to wear off, and my skin got all spotted, she sent me away, because she thought I had some cutaneous disease, and she said that Mr. Hackwell thought I belonged to the 'Pintos,' and my skin was naturally spotted" pg100
Mrs. Norval holds an adamant position on Lola being raised (or not raised) Catholic, but has rather loose position on her own children and their morality and behavior. Additionally, there is a very clear division in the opinions of Catholics and Protestants, with Mrs. Norval going as far as calling Catholiscim an "abominable idoltry." pg24
"She did not object, however, to her sister and daughters going to a different church from her own- an inconsistency which had made the doctor smile. To him it seemed a laughable freak of his serious, dignified wife, to be so careful about the religion of the child she disliked so intensely, whilst she seemed almost indifferent about that adopted by her own daughters." pg 63
The hypocritical and conniving Mr. Hackwell at one point launches into a monologue on the troubles of a masculine United States, and the possible bettering of the country if women were given more power and education. One of the points made is that women are unlikely to have the same "brute arrogance and unblushing conceit" that men are likely to exhibit. Additionally, the sole reason that women are disallowed from being allowed to think for the future at the polls is because they are simply coerced into not doing so.
"I think the sooner we give over to women the management of public business, the better it will be. If we did not have such brute arrogance and unblushing conceit, we would long ago have seen the justice and propriety of hiding our diminished heads. But no. Because we have the physical force to beat women at the polls with out fists, we maintain that they have no right there as thinking beings. And because we make the polls indecent with our profane language and drunkenness, we reaming masters of the field..." pgs 271
The government is one of the main critique's of Ruiz de Burton's in "Who Would Have Thought It?". She compares the United States to a bureaucracy, as one of the main characters, Lola's love interest Julian, must go through masses of difficulties and paperwork in order to overturn a court martial. Throughout the entire novel, many characters reference the democratic government system as the greatest government in the world. However, Julian runs into many problems dealing with this so called "greatest government." Simple rumors about treason are enough to provide a credible threat to his status in the military, as well as his status as an American citizen. His attempts to talk to commander in chief are labeled as attempts "laboring under the delusion of old times, when the President held it to be his highest honor to be called the servant of the American people." No longer is the government working with its people as in integrated part, it is now a completely separate entity with an evident border between itself and the citizens of which it governs. Hackwell references this aspect of the government as well in his monologue. He questions just who or what the government of America is and leads himself to the conclusion that since the government will always operate under the tyranny of the majority, and individual interests can and most likely will be crushed. Despite modernity emphasizing the rise of a democratic nation state, Ruiz de Burton makes several pointed criticisms toward the governing system consistently.
"But I mean, speaking in general, what is a government? Ah! it certainly is a terrible impersonality if a republic- an irresponsible tyrant that can neither blush nor be guillotined. And for this reason we call ourselves a free people! And with perfect sang-froid we can see a cabinet officer make a cat's paw of a President! And we say we are the model government,' because, as long as the mob is cajoled, no matter how much individuals are tyrannized over, a cabinent officer can crush anyone opposing him and make ita all right with the President by telling him and the mob that it is done for the glory and interest of the people."... pgs 272
Physical borders are the result of all of the aforementioned non physical (but just as real) borders culminating in an act of fear; the raising of fences and the digging of trenches to keep those who appear different away. Such physical displays of anger and fear affect the prosperity and diversity of whole communities, while seeming to bolster the success of others. Not only do these physical boundaries propel and deter "progress" (a word used carefully, as it is laden with the burdens of modernity), but they perpetuate racism and ethnocentrism within the borders of countries. However, even Ruiz de Burton believes that there are some useful applications of physical borders in protecting civilians from 'uncivilized' savages. There are some aspects of modernity that permeate even critiques of modernity itself.
"If Mexico were well governed, if her frontiers were well protected, the fate of Dona Theresa would have been next to an impossibility. When it is a well known fact that savages will devastate towns that are not well guarded, is there any excuse for a government that will neglect to provide sufficient protection?" pg 201
- "Who Would Have Thought It?" on Google's book preview
- More information about Manifest Destiny
- A biography of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Further analysis of borders through the idea of hybridity
- Lisa Lowe: The Intimacies of Four Continents.
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