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Corregidora (Gayl Jones)

April 5, 2010

This novel made an interesting statement about history. Ursa’s position in life is compressed by the collective histories of her Great Gram, her Grandmama, and her mother and their relationships with men (most significantly, the Portuguese slave owner, Corregidora). Instead of being able to live her own life, Ursa’s life is driven by the women in her family and their instructions to her to produce “generations” and pass their histories down to those generations. However, because of this history that is constantly bearing down upon her, she’s unable to truly give herself over to love. Granted, I wouldn’t really deem the men in her life as being worthy of her love, but it seems like she’s unable to love fully even when she thinks she wants to. Jones’ decision to (plot spoiler!!) put Ursa in the situation where she is physically incapable of bearing her generations complicates her life by bringing into question not only her purpose in life, but also the way she lived her life up to the point at which Mutt’s abuse caused the loss of her womb. By putting this particular character into a situation that prohibits her from passing on her history, her origins, Jones’ novel interrogates the significance of history in the lives of contemporary African American people. Ursa’s character has been damaged by her history; she lives her life simultaneously attached to the man who enslaved her great-grandmother and her grandmother (Corregidora, whose name she retains even in marriage and whose photograph is one of her few possessions) and also hating him (spreading word of his misdeeds and evil ways to those in her life). However, when Mutt’s jealousy results in the loss of her womb (and her unborn baby), she is forced to reevaluate her life and the relationships she’s had. She eventually seeks out her mother’s history, which has also been buried beneath the Corregidora history, as a means by which to find a way to live her life outside of Corregidora-history. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ursa’s life is a testament to the need to move forward, even though her family history is important and shouldn’t necessarily be forgotten or erased.

On another note, I must admit that Ursa’s character was a bit difficult to get along with. She reminded me of Alice Walker’s character, Celie, in The Color Purple in that both Ursa and Celie often fail to react visibly to the people around them. However, where Celie gave the reader an indication of her emotions, Ursa’s character is far more distant and often remains frustratingly impenetrable even to the reader, leaving us as much in the dark about her emotions as the other characters are. While this was somewhat unpleasant to endure (especially as a reader who likes to have a close relationship with the protagonist), it did seem to serve a purpose: the reader had no more insight into Ursa’s interior than Mutt or Tadpole or Cat. In fact, while Ursa was relatively likable, she was also somewhat irritating (in a manner similar to Arvay in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee) in that she seemed to have some closed-minded views (especially regarding Cat and her sexuality) that were in such stark contradiction to what the other characters deserved that it was sometimes difficult to follow her through her life. Overall, though, I think Ursa’s lack of transparency further illustrates the way she was raised to fulfill a singular purpose: make generations, pass on the history of Corregidora. Her emotionless style of living reflects the history she’s supposed to rail against, but has actually allowed to become part of her. Just as her Great Gram was forced into prostitution by Corregidora and her Grandmama was forced into concubinage by the same man, so Ursa has — like her mother before her — given up the part of her that can allow her to freely give her love and resigned herself to a life of sexual captivity. The men in her life use her sexuality against her, and eventually she comes to realize that she’ll have to play their game. This makes me uncertain of what to do with the ending. I’ll admit that it seemed…out of place. I didn’t think she’d ever (mega plot spoiler!!) go back to Mutt, and I certainly didn’t think she’d do it in the way she did. I’m not sure if I should be happy because I think she might have regained control of her own sexuality, or if I should be unhappy because Mutt’s still getting her to do what he wants her to, and she’s still stuck trying to figure out what it is that will please him. I want to say it’s the former, but I think it might actually be the latter.

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