Quiroga’s Vampiric Masterpiece:”The Feather Pillow”

Posted by Ilse Marie Bussing on June 04, 2009 in Blog tagged with

   The very prolific Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) wrote one of the most memorable Latin American Gothic tales, "El almohado’n de plumas," or "The Feather Pillow," originally published in Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (1917).  For those of you who would like to read it, it is available in the following link in Spanish as well as in translation into English :  http://sayberklas.tripod.com/anthology_short_stories_in_english/id33.html.  If you do not want me to ruin the surprise with a plot summary, you should go into this link before reading the following synopsis.  In the story, a timid young girl marries a cold and inexpressive man and goes to live in a beautiful yet equally cold house.  Once there, she begins exhibiting symptoms of extreme exhaustion and anaemia which eventually lead to her premature death.  When the housemaid makes the bed of the deceased girl, she suddenly drops the pillow to the ground, since it is unusually heavy and bulky.  Upon cutting the pillow open, the maid and the terrified husband watch terrified, as a large, spider-like creature crawls out, swollen with the blood of its victim.

    As you can see, the story is wonderfully Gothic and grotesque.  I would like to point out three elements that, in my view, characterize it as a Gothic story; one of these elements, however, also points to a characteristic of Quiroga’s work that is shaped by his Latin American reality and experiences.  The first of these elements is the issue of vampirism.  The obvious source of vampirism in the story is the awful creature that inhabits the pillow and that sucks the blood of its victim, initially as she sleeps at night,and towards the end of the story, as she is immobilized completely from lack of energy; at this latter stage, the creature’s thirst and draining capacity are horribly increased, echoing the classical case of Dracula, where,towards the end, Lucy’s condition worsens dramatically while Dracula’s appetite drastically increases.  The other source of vampirisim in the story is the draining nature of the relationship between Alicia and her husband, Jorda’n.  Even though the reader is given hints that the husband cares about his wife (by pacing up and down, waiting for the result of the doctor’s diagnosis), we are also told that he is unable to transmit any feelings towards his wife, and that she languishes under his indifference, as she later does under the creature’s parasitism.   

   The second element that characterizes this story as Gothic is the portrayal of the setting as a place full of death.  First of all, the house is described more as a mausoleum than as a home, since "la blancura del patio silencioso–frisos, columnas y estatuas de ma’rmol–produci’a una otonal impresio’n de palacio encantado" ["The whiteness of the silent patio–friezes, columns, and marble statues–produced the wintry impression of an enchanted palace"].  The adjective "enchanted," however, does not refer to a place full of wonders, but rather to a place where time is suspended and where life itself has frozen.  The house also mirrors the couple’s situation, with silence and emptiness recreating the sterile relationship between them.  We are told, for instance, that "al cruzar de una pieza a otra, los pasos hallaban eco en toda la casa, como si un largo abandono hubiera sensibilizado su resonancia" , ["As one crossed from one room to another, the echo of his steps reverberated throughout the house, as if long abandonement had sensitized its resonance"].  The reference to muffled steps, and vague echoes bouncing off empty and endless walls (but never reaching their destination) illustrates the lack of communication between Alicia and Jorda’n, and the death of their marriage. 

  The last element that I wanted to refer to is the presence of the grotesque in the story, as a further indication of  the story’s Gothic status.  The spider-like creature that has become the girl’s parasite, feeding and living at her expense, is undoubtedly an excellent representative of the grotesque.  While rereading this story it reminded me of M.R. James’s story "The Ash Tree" and its equally grotesque and disturbing "spiders."  The description of the creature when it is finally unveiled produces sensations of disgust and horror, as we are told that it is "una bola viviente y viscosa" ["a living, viscous ball"] and that it was so swollen that "one could barely make out its mouth."   The discussion of the grotesque and Gothic, as well as what it is about parasitical creatures that generates a sense of the grotesque, warrant a separate and much lengthier piece, but it is still interesting to briefly consider its function in this story.  

  Lastly, I would like to say that this last element, that of the grotesque, and most particularly the portrayal of the grotesque through this spider-like creature, is not merely a classic Gothic characteristic.  It also points to Quiroga’s Latin American reality.  As an official photographer on an expedition with the poet Leopoldo Lugones, Quiroga traversed wild jungles and endured extreme conditions.  This would mark his work forever and produce one of his most recurrent topics, the threatening and hostile presence of Nature in the Latin American context.  I have previously discussed how this topic is also present in Carlos Fuentes’s work; its presence in Regionalist works by various Latin American authors proves how it is one of the main themes that haunts the regions’ literature and that accentuates the Gothic nature of some of its tales.

  There is so much to say about this story and Quiroga’s work that it seems almost a crime to detail elements, point by point, as I have done in this entry. However, this is at least a beginning that lets us consider how the Gothic is, once again, successfully employed by Latin American writers who present universal Gothic elements while still offering unique, regional characteristics.

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