Sunday, October 7, 2012

Notes on "Dead Stars"

Many literary experts believe that Paz Marquez Benitez’s story gave birth to modern Philippine literature in English. In Benitez’s time, many writers were still either trapped by Spanish literary traditions highly dependent on writing and metaphoric conventions steeped in religious imagery and diction or copying thematically and stylistically the works of popular American short fictionists such as Anderson, Saroyan, and Hemingway. English was still a young language in the Philippines, and many of the writers using the language were still struggling with it. 


Although there had been a considerable number of short stories that came before “Dead Stars,” it was Benitez’s short story that exhibited a Filipino temperament through the masterful use of English. In addition, it broke away with literary traditions that established highly romanticized views on love and courtship
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The story’s protagonist is Alfredo, a lawyer engaged to Esperanza. In the very beginning of the narrative, it is implied that Alfredo is not in a hurry to get married. 

Carmen sighed impatiently. "Why is he not a bit more decided, I wonder. He is over thirty, is he not? And still a bachelor! Esperanza must be tired waiting."
Even though Alfredo admits he pursued Esperanza initially with “great hunger,” his feelings seemed to have mellowed and are being replaced with doubt. He asks himself if he missed true love as he has become bored with the “insipid monotonies” of his relationship with Esperanza. Love as viewed by many was something divine and magical, a “puzzle” that will forever ensnare a person’s fancy. 

Was he being cheated by life? Love--he seemed to have missed it. Or was the love that others told about a mere fabrication of perfervid imagination, an exaggeration of the commonplace, a glorification of insipid monotonies such as made up his love life? Was love a combination of circumstances, or sheer native capacity of soul? In those days love was, for him, still the eternal puzzle; for love, as he knew it, was a stranger to love as he divined it might be.
For Alfredo, the eternal puzzle was Julia. In one of their conversations, Alfredo somewhat implies that his relationship with Esperanza was like a “road” that is “too broad, too trodden by feet, too barren of mystery.” He proceeds by comparing his meeting with Julia as a “road, upturned to the stars” where “the fireflies glimmered, while an errant breeze strayed in from somewhere, bringing elusive, faraway sounds as of voices in a dream.”

Though Julia was quite verbally coy with her feelings, it was obvious that she had fallen in love with Alfredo. When Julia tells Alfredo that she was going home and that this would be their last meeting, she is disappointed by Alfredo’s subdued reaction.

"I am going home."
The end of an impossible dream!
"When?" after a long silence.
"Tomorrow. I received a letter from Father and Mother yesterday. They want me to spend Holy Week at home."
She seemed to be waiting for him to speak. "That is why I said this is the last time."
"Can't I come to say good-bye?"
"Oh, you don't need to!"

Julia, at that time, has yet to discover Alfredo’s engagement to Esperanza. As a result, Julia felt angry as to why he would not follow her, rebuffing Alfredo’s attempt to meet her before she goes home. Alfredo defends his indecisiveness, admitting to Julia that he could not get rid of “old things, mistakes, encumbrances, old baggage.”

A few days after, Alfredo meets Julia where he is congratulated by her for his “approaching wedding.” Alfredo, noticing Julia’s nonchalant tone, indirectly implores for some sympathy. After inviting Julia to come to his wedding, Alfredo asks if whether she had in the past been forced to choose between something she wanted to do and something she had to do. Alfredo’s attempt works.   

"Julita," he said in his slow, thoughtful manner, "did you ever have to choose between something you wanted to do and something you had to do?"
"No!"
"I thought maybe you had had that experience; then you could understand a man who was in such a situation."
"You are fortunate," he pursued when she did not answer.
"Is--is this man sure of what he should do?"
"I don't know, Julita. Perhaps not. But there is a point where a thing escapes us and rushes downward of its own weight, dragging us along. Then it is foolish to ask whether one will or will not, because it no longer depends on him."
"But then why--why--" her muffled voice came. "Oh, what do I know? That is his problem after all."
"Doesn't it--interest you?"
"Why must it? I--I have to say good-bye, Mr. Salazar; we are at the house."
Without lifting her eyes she quickly turned and walked away.

Alfredo was able to penetrate Julia’s defenses. Though Julia strongly rebuffed Alfredo, she could not help but salvage what was left of their relationship. Julia once again puts her heart on her sleeve and asks Alfredo whether this “man” was sure of what he will do. Unfortunately for Julia, all she gets is Alfredo’s indecisiveness. She bids him goodbye, and Alfredo is left wondering whether the “final word” had been said.

In the next part of the narrative, Alfredo is being confronted by Esperanza. In the preceding parts of the story, Esperanza has been much maligned by Alfredo, describing her as “no longer young,” “literal-minded,” and “intensely acquisitive.” Here, Esperanza breaks from the Maria Clara image that is imposed on her. She shares to Alfredo that she is not “blind or deaf.” She challenges Alfredo to “speak out frankly” that he does not have to think of what she or other people would say. Alfredo once again exhibits his characteristic indecisiveness struggling to air his side. Esperanza storms out before telling Alfredo that if he wants to break off the engagement because he has grown tired of her, do so. This time Alfredo knows that the “final word” had been said.

Eight years later, Alfredo is travelling to Julia’s town, Sta. Cruz. Although Alfredo was still thinking of Julia, he was not unhappy being married to Esperanza.

He was not unhappy in his marriage. He felt no rebellion: only the calm of capitulation to what he recognized as irresistible forces of circumstance and of character.  

In Sta. Cruz, Alfredo unexpectedly met Julia. However it was not long before he realized that--though Julia has barely changed--“something had gone.” He analyzes the situation, trying to point out whether it was him or Julia who lost that “something.” He attempts to rekindle his feelings for her but it only reinforces his conclusion that his love for Julia for the past eight years, he imagined still burning, has long been extinguished.       

“So all these years--since when?--he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens.”
The story ends with a tinge of sadness. Readers can’t help but sympathize with Alfredo, a man who gave up a dream because he has grown to accept the life that he has, a life prescribed to him by society. One can’t help but pity Julia as well, who seemed to still harbor some special feelings for Alfredo and to some extent, for Esperanza who felt at times her husband as “immeasurably far away, beyond her reach.” Even with the closure presented in the story, readers are compelled to ask questions. Will Alfredo become a better husband after realizing that he no longer has feelings for Julia? Did Alfredo’s epiphany come from the fact that he is somewhat satisfied with his marriage with Esperanza? If Alfredo married Julia, would he be thinking about Esperanza?

The three main characters of the narrative appear to be trapped in a fate not of their own choosing. “Dead Stars” is not your typical love story wherein love that is burning with passion overcomes all the obstacles thrown against it. In the tradition of romantic tales, people are destined to be with other people. Love is supposed to be written in the stars, and if a person is meant to be with another person then no matter what happens that person will always end up with that other person. But Benitez’s story reveals the complicated at the same time humdrum aspect of “real” love. For thousands of years, humans have looked up to the night sky and saw their ancestors, gods, and goddesses. Now these heavenly bodies have been stripped of their magic and mythology, they have become mere large balls of gas that will someday expire. In “Dead Stars,” the same treatment is given to love. It is stripped of its decorations, hyperboles, and illusions. In the story, love does not choose the person; it is the person who chooses to love, regardless if it turns out to be an “exaggeration of the commonplace” or “a glorification of insipid monotonies.” 

2 comments:

Yuki Shirase said...

Hi!

I am a Contemporary Literature Teacher and this blog entry was very insightful. I learned so much and I was able to share the deeper meaning of the text. Dead Stars was the first Philippine Literature (written in English) short story I read when I was still a Literature major. Your post reminded me of my great professor's discussion about it. Thank you!

Leodigario said...

I too am teaching Literature and only at this point I was able to understand the nuances of Dead Stars, it brings to light answers to the questions that haunted my mind in discussing it.
Thank you for this.