Friday, November 7, 2014

Avellaneda's Sab as a Cuban Human Rights Narrative


Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda y Arteaga is a human rights novel published in 1843 about a “mulatto” slave on a plantation in Cuba who falls in love with the daughter of the plantation owner.  I recommend this thorough (and witty) blog post from Ms. Brigitte's Mild Ride if you’re in need of a plot summary:

...Sab is the son of Don Carlos de B-‘s brother, who is dead, and his Congolese mother (a slave) is also dead. Taken in by the de B- family, Sab is raised as a brother to his cousin Carlota and everyone pretends that they don’t know Sab is a blood relative because then it would be awkward that they’re keeping him as a slave… (read more here).

There are two dominant critical readings of the novel; Sab tends to be read either as an anti-slavery novel or as a feminist novel.  It's important to keep in mind that this novel differs from other 19th century novels that deal with slavery and Cuban identity such as the Autobiography of Manzano (1836) and Cecilia Valdés (1882) because Sab was written in Spain.  This means that the author can be more vocal in her criticism of slavery and it also suggests a heavy European influence in Sab.  Whereas Cirilo Villaverde is invested in re-creating a textual version of Cuban society and traditions, Avellaneda seems much more focused on the development of the subjectivities of the key characters.  I get the sense that the author is highly invested in getting the reader to identify with and feel Sab’s heartache on a basic human level.  The main character also mentions human rights in his criticism of slavery: “I belong to that unhappy race deprived of human rights…I am a mulatto and a slave” (30).  Another character, Teresa, seems to function as a literary stand-in for the reader.  When Teresa realizes that Sab is so passionately in love with Carlota she forgets his color and class and focuses on the fire in his heart; she seems to see him as a man, and her equal, for the first time at this point in the novel (100). 

In Inventing Human Rights (2008) Lynn Hunt argues that cultural change related to the birth of human rights is tied to the boom of the epistolary novel in the 1740s.  As an avid reader, Avellaneda likely would have been exposed to works such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) in which the protagonist is a maid and her employer tries to seduce her, and Rosseau’s Julie (1761) where a middle class woman tries to overcome her passions and lead a virtuous life (See Hunt 41-59).  In Dennis Diderot’s eulogy for Samuel Richardson “Eloge de Richardson” published in 1762, Diderot explains how Richardson’s writing caused him to identify deeply with the central character:

O Richardson! Whether we wish it or not, we play a part in your works, we intervene in the conversation, we give it approval and blame, we feel admiration, irritation and indignation. How many times have I caught myself, as happens with children being taken to the theatre for the first time, shouting out: Don't believe him, he's deceiving you ... If you go there it'll be the end of you.  My heart was in a state of permanent agitation. How good I was! How just I was! Wasn't I pleased with myself! When I had been reading you, I was like a man who had spent the day doing good.

It is this deep identification with Sab that, I think, Avellaneda is trying to rouse in the reader.  For this reason I don't read Sab as either a feminist or an antislavery novel.  Instead, it is a novel about the intrinsic humanity of even the most marginalized peoples and the natural human rights shared by everyone.  Lynn Hunt argues that the history and development of “self evident” and “natural” human rights is related to 18th century literature and I think Sab can be read as an extension of this European human rights literature.  Sab becomes part of a cultural change in Europe and in the colonies that inaugurates the literary discourse on human rights.  The best example of this discourse comes at the end in Sab's letter to Teresa:



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