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How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Julia Alvarez

The Four Girls

The Rudy Elmenhurst Story

Summary

Yolanda stood in the window of a mental institution, watching a man with a tennis racket. Yolanda named the objects in her room and described her relationship with John, her husband, to her doctor. She imagined them flirting on a riverbank amid the constellations, saying, "I love you." She remembered when they played word game while relaxing next to a pond. Yolanda insisted that John was a pond and she was the sky. John pointed out that her nickname Yo does not rhyme with the word sky. But she pointed out that Yo, pronounced Joe, rhymes with cielo, which means sky in Spanish.

She began to mistrust John when he said she was crazy and needed a shrink. She also distrusted that he made lists of the pros and cons of marrying her. She was hurt that he thought she was too intelligent for her own good and might be crazy. She got angry when he tried to kiss her and screamed, "No!" She also got upset when he tried to make love to her. When he brought her irises, she could not understand what he said anymore. When he spoke, she only heard, "Babble babble." She had trouble writing a good-bye note, but finally left to go to her parents' house.

With her parents, she spoke only in quotations or misquotations of literature she had read or songs she had heard. Her therapist, Dr. Payne, suggested that she check into a mental hospital and her parents agreed. Yolanda cried as she was taken to the hospital, but she decided that Dr. Payne would help her get better. She also thought she was falling in love with him. When her parents visited, she awkwardly told them she loved them, and that she and John just did not speak the same language. She thought her nicknames fragmented her sense of self. She also felt allergic to certain words like love or alive, and had physical reactions when she said or heard them.

While she watched Dr. Payne carrying his tennis racket, she felt something coming up out of her throat. It was a big black bird, which perched on her bureau and reminded her of Edgar Allen Poe's raven. She watched the bird fly through the window screen like smoke and then attack Dr. Payne. She screamed as the bird's beak and claws tore at his chest. The bird flew away and blended into dark clouds in the distance. She then saw that what she thought was blood was just a red towel Dr. Payne was holding.

Yolanda then repeated the word love and her own name, hoping to overcome her allergy and be able to use words again the way she used to. She searched for words to describe the sky, and then words that rhymed with those words. As she used more words she regained some faith in the power of words to describe the world.

Analysis

Yolanda's descent into madness and her inability to communicate with other people, especially the ones she loves the most, reflects the dissolution of her sense of self. Yolanda used to define herself as a poet, and a person for whom words had a particular and very important significance. Her inability to understand the words that John spoke represents their problems communicating on a personal level. This gap between what he said and what she understood led to the breakdown of their marriage. This communication problem is symbolized through the transformation of language into meaningless and garbled babble.

The destruction of the meaning behind language represents Yolanda's inability to connect with other people in meaningful ways. Her failure to relate to John on deeper interpersonal levels is rooted in her distrust of his love, and his difficulty understanding her Dominican culture and heritage. Her cultural identity is represented by the Spanish language, which John cannot understand. When Yolanda points out that her name rhymes with sky in Spanish, she highlights the fact that he cannot access or appreciate her first language and her deeper cultural connections to the Dominican Republic.

The fragmented narration of this chapter reflects both Yolanda's disjointed thought processes related to her mental breakdown, as well as her fragmented sense of identity. Her national and cultural identity is split between the Dominican Republic and the United States, and her personal sense of self is also fragmented. This fragmented sense of self was brought on by the heartbreak of divorce, yet also indicates ongoing problems relating to other people. The bastardization of her name from Yolanda to Yo to Yoyo to Joe to Josephine throughout her relationships with John and her family members represents the dissolution of Yolanda's sense of identity. Her later insistence on being called only Yolanda reflects her desire to heal by integrating her various emotional and psychological parts.

The raven that emerges from her throat and attacks Dr. Payne represents her fears that language, and specifically her own words, could hurt the people she cares about. Her affection and attraction to Dr. Payne is threatened by the aggressive and ugly words that could come out of her mouth, symbolized by the bird. The bird freely moves from the room through the window screen, just as Yolanda might be able to freely speak her own mind if she were able to stop misquoting others. The allergy that she develops to certain emotionally charged words like love also symbolizes her fear of the damage she could do to those she cares about should she use language to convey her feelings.

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