Themes of the “Absence” Story by Daniel Alarcon
The short story, Absence, focuses on the life of Wari when he visited his friend Eric in New York. The beauty of the town, the diversity of its residents, and infrastructural developments have convinced Wari that the city is the capital of the world. A critical analysis of the story presents various themes as presented by actions and statements made by different characters. However, this essay will focus on feminist criticism as a major theory and a theme in the story. According to Kindig, “Feminist criticism is concerned with the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women.” The story helps to understand the current role of women in society and how they are perceived based solely on their gender.
Thematic Analysis of the Story
Feminist criticism as a literary theory has gained massive popularity in the recent past. Russell observes that this theory advocates for women’s rights on the basis of equality of gender (41). The story Absence helps in defining the role of women in society and the perception that men have of them. The main character in this story is a man, which makes it easy to understand how men view the role and position of women in society.
Reinforcement of Socio-Cultural Position and Role of Women
The short story reinforces the socio-cultural position and role of women in American society. Russell explains that one of the traditional roles of women in society is to take care of household chores (76). They are expected to take care of children, clean the house, prepare meals, and such other domestic tasks even when they are working just as much as their spouses. Brazier and Adagha say, “Wari found Leah, his host’s girlfriend, making pasta. It was still light out, and Eric wasn’t home yet,” (2). This statement reaffirms the fact that despite the progress that has been made in empowering women in American society, most of their traditional roles have not changed. She was home, ready to receive the guest and prepare a meal for him. It is a role that women have played for centuries, and even in modern-day America, they are expected to maintain this role.
The story also brings out the perception that women should always serve men. Kindig observes that for a long time, women were perceived as being inferior to men. Wives were expected to serve their husbands. In this story, Leah-Eric’s wife demonstrates the need to serve when she receives their guest, Wari. Although she cannot engage him in a meaningful discussion, she presents him with all that she feels he needs, even sacrificing her comfort. Brazier and Adagha say, “She didn’t speak Spanish but made up for it by smiling a lot and bringing him things. A cup of tea, a slice of toast. He accepted everything because he wasn’t sure how to refuse” (2). She made an effort to make him happy by maintaining a constant smile and providing him with all that could make him comfortable.
It is important to note that Eric was the host to Wari. He had made the invitation and would have been expected to take care of him for the entire period that he was in New York. However, Eric does very little to ensure that his host is comfortable. He goes to work as usual in the morning and comes back in the evening without caring about the interest of a friend from Peru. However, Leah is committed to ensuring that her husband’s guest is comfortable. She goes out of her way to find someone from Peru who Wari could easily talk to while in New York. She takes him to Fredy, an Ecuadorian who she had thought was a Peruvian.
The warm and caring nature of women is another unique trait that is presented by Leah in this story. As explained above, Eric did not care much about the comfort of his host and continued with his work unperturbed. When Leah took Wari to his countryman, Fredy, the two men pretended to care about each other and shook hands to reassure her that they were happy about the meeting. When Leah left them to have a chat, the mood changed immediately. Fredy did not want anything to do with Wari, and he made it clear to him. He felt that Wari wanted a job opportunity at his business. He pointed out that he would be unable to help.
The sexual appeal expected of women is another them, which is part of feminist criticism as a theory. For a long time, women were viewed as sex objects, and their sex appeal was highly valued (Russell 56). The same story is presented in this story. Wari was unamused when she encountered a stern woman at the airport who never smiled at him. However, he felt comfortable around Leah because of her constant smiles. When he and his hosts visited a club, he was attracted to a pretty lady named Ellen. Brazier and Adagha say, “Ellen had a sweet smile and lips he could see himself kissing. His hand had fallen effortlessly on her knee,” (10). He was already visualizing a sexual encounter between Ellen and him.
The story also presents the intrusion of privacy of women by men, a sensitive issue in feminism. Brazier and Adagha say, “Leah reappeared and Wari made sure to touch her, thoughtlessly, as if it meant nothing at all. He could feel Fredy watching them, studying each of their movements.” (7). Wari knew that it was not right for him to touch Leah in that manner, but he never cared at all. The issue of men touching women inappropriately has become a sensitive issue in American society today. It is viewed as a form of sexual abuse. Traditionally, women are neither expected to complain nor report such abuses, which explains their inaction toward Leah. Brazier and Adagha say, “He closed his eyes and pictured her naked body,” (8). This statement further confirms that the actions of Wari were sexual in nature.
The story also reaffirms the important role that women play in society. At the club, Wari was attracted to Ellen, and he felt the desire to remain in the United States. If he had to remain in New York, he had to call back home and inform his family about the decision. Brazier and Adagha say, “I should call my mother, he thought, and tell her I’m alive. I should call Elie and tell her I’m dead,” (11). He felt that he had to call two important people. He had to inform the mother that he was well and that she should not worry about him. He also had to call her Ex-wife, Elie, and inform her not to expect him back in Peru.
Reinforcement of Economic Position and Role of Women
The short story also reinforces the economic role and position of women in society. The character Leah has been used to effectively present this story. She took care of household chores when the husband was away at work, but that did not mean she was unemployed. Brazier and Adagha say, “She held a hammer with authority, she was a woman with purpose. It was a powerful display” (4). Just like her husband, she was skilled in artwork. She would make pieces of art and sell them in the market. Brazier and Adagha say, “Then she and Fredy talked business, haggling in a teasing way that seemed more like flirting, and of course, Leah won (6). The visit to Fredy was not just a social call. It was a successful business engagement. Leah uses her sexual appeal to win a business deal with Fredy. It meant that Fredy could not exploit her on the basis of gender superiority. It was an indication that she was a breadwinner in the family, just as much as the husband.
The story shows that Leah was a hard-working woman who was committed to making her family financially secure. She took two jobs just to ensure that she earned enough. After spending time making and selling her artwork, she would also work as a waitress in the afternoon. Brazier and Adagha say, “It was early afternoon and Leah readied herself for a waitressing job,” (8). After spending time doing the household chores and delivering her artwork, she would then go to work as a waitress. Her husband is a teacher and also a specialist in art. However, he focuses more on teaching than making pieces of art. His wife, on the other hand, has to remain committed to the two jobs.
The story demonstrates the changing role of women in the business environment. Leah has ventured into the business of art, which was for a long time considered a domain of men. She is successful at this business, and Wari admits that she is a good artist. At the airport, Wari encountered a security officer who was a woman. Brazier and Adagha say, “His shoes examined by a plastic-gloved woman who refused to return his weak smiles,” (2). Traditionally, such roles would be played by men. However, that is not the case in this story. The officer was a woman, and as Wari admits, she undertook her role diligently. She did not present any weakness, and Wari felt uncomfortable in her presence, which was important given the nature of her job.
The trip to New York that Wari made exposed him to the American lifestyle and the changing role of women. He realized that the socio-economic role and position of women in this society are changing. Although women are still expected to take care of household chores, they are also becoming actively engaged in the economic sphere. The phenomenon can effectively be explained using feminist criticism theory. Although women are still subjected to physical and verbal attacks both at work and in their private lives, they are making steady progress towards achieving economic and social freedom.
Brazier, Chris, and Ovo Adagha, editor. One World Two: A Second Global Anthology of Short Stories. ProQuest Ebook Central, 2016.
Kindig, Jessie. The Verso Book of Feminism: Revolutionary Words from Four Millennia of Rebellion. Verso, 2020.
Russell, Legacy. Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso, 2020.