Greg C. Severyn

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Máximo Soto Hall’s 1899 novel El problema raises several debates: Is this Costa Rica’s first novel, despite the fact that Soto Hall was originally from Guatemala? Is this the first anti-imperialist novel in Latin America? Is this novel anti-imperialist at all, or is it pro-Yankee?1 Literary critic Álvaro Quesada Soto approaches these questions with a lighthearted one of his own: “¿No será la ambigüedad parte misma de un problema ideológico-discursivo que genera y da título al texto?” (“Aporías” 126). Quesada Soto refers, in part, to the ideological crisis facing Costa Rica in the novel, where the viability of the oligarchy’s political and economic liberalism comes into question as a sound representation of the nation since the adopted discourses are foreign—European and North American—and have not been adequately adapted to the Central American context. The central problem of the novel for Quesada Soto thus treats the difficulty of creating a national identity when faced with a colonial past and a neocolonial present, which leads to the question of whether or not autonomous, national states could exist in Central America at the time and, if so, if they could have their own voices despite employing foreign discourses (126-30). While most critics of the novel concentrate on these ideas, I propose an alternative reading of the text’s political allegory, one that moves beyond the simplistic parallel between the protagonist Julio’s sexual impotence and the external ideological discourses shaping Costa Rica’s concept of nation. I argue that the crisis of masculinity evident throughout the novel is, rather, a reaffirmation of the institution of marriage, an attempt to regain control over women at a time when modernity was extending freedoms beyond traditional gender roles. The dominant masculinity in the novel, interpreted here as a “masculinidad viril” that demands a departure from, and an oppositional positioning to, all qualities that are considered “feminine” (including Julio’s romantic sensibility), may be understood as a symptom of and reaction to the broader structural weakening of patriarchal society.2 My specific focus on marriage throughout the novel is twofold: marriage perpetuates women as objects within the economy of symbolic goods and a strategic matrimony likewise ensures the transmission and continuation (via inheritance) of male power and privilege (Bourdieu 47-48). As such, we observe how dominant notions of masculinity are constantly being renegotiated in tandem with ever-changing social circumstances such as national independence or, in this case, modernization, a process that consequently repositions (male) social subjects and necessitates ideological pivoting in order to perpetuate patriarchal power structures (Peluffo 7).