Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

What girl doesn’t love a good story about a woman breaking free from society’s bonds of stereotypes and strict definitions of duty? I know I do. But it’s so easy for people (writers in particular) to treat such a topic distastefully, usually by creating a clichéd image: an estrogen-fueled, predictable story about coming of age or overcoming a social obstacle. (I hope I haven’t turned off any of our male readers yet! As you’ll see, that’s not my intention.) But Isabel Allende has broken the mold of the free-minded female character in her 1999 novel Daughter of Fortune, and she has done exceedingly more than that; she has beautifully and effectively made use of the literary quest. Yes, I’m a bookworm. And yes, I love a good book simply for its being a good book; but the best books of all are the ones in which readers can see themselves. My life hasn’t been adventurous like that of Allende’s heroine Eliza, but I have done some of the same general things. I’ve chased after things that were never meant to be, and I’ve stumbled over things that were meant to be.

While I don’t wish to “give away everything,” a basic knowledge of the book will be helpful… (The novel is worth every moment of time spent reading it and then some.) Eliza Sommers is born an illegitimate child, an orphan, in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile. A well-meaning and wealthy spinster adopts her and grooms her for a proper lady’s life in society. Against the wishes of her adoptive mother, Eliza falls in love with a flighty, unimpressive man, Joaquin Andieta, who leaves her for the Gold Rush in California. Eliza feels she must follow Joaquin because he is her true love. She sneaks aboard a ship, befriends a kind Chinese doctor named Tao Chi’en, and sneaks back off the ship in San Francisco while pretending to be Tao’s younger brother. She lives for a significant amount of time pretending to be a man in this man’s world of gold mining and drinking and debauchery, so far removed from her previous home and way of life. Tao continues to aid Eliza in her search for Joaquin, but the two become inseparable friends along the way. Eliza finally realizes that underneath the man’s clothing, she is still a woman. With this realization comes another realization in regard to her desire to be with Joaquin and her relationship with Tao.

The most intriguing aspect of Eliza’s story is that she has the bravery to make the story happen in the first place. She could have sat idly by while the man she loved, or thought she loved, walked out of her life forever; but instead she defies the social pressures of her day and makes a run for it, leaving behind the family that had cared for her and all their best intentions. Some might argue that her actions are selfish and careless, but Eliza simply finds the inner strength to chase what she desires most, a life with Joaquin.

Haven’t we all – either bravely or stupidly – chased after things we wanted, or thought at the time we wanted? If you read my last post (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), you’ll know that like Eliza, I spent a great deal of time and energy futilely chasing a dead-end relationship, but the most recent example is the end of my teaching career. I pushed forward throughout college with a major in education, and even though I thought it was a good choice for me at the time, something never was quite right. When I graduated and found my first job teaching ninth grade social studies and English, I was elated. But that didn’t last long; I don’t mind admitting that I’m a terrible teacher: I couldn’t control my own classroom, I dreaded phone calls home, I disliked spending literally all my waking hours on it, I came to dislike the “system” as many other teachers do, among other things… It came to the point that I had to quit; I couldn’t take it. I was an extreme introvert doing a job typically best suited to an extravert. So despite the pressure of finishing the year I’d signed for on my contract, and the pressure to maintain a steady income, I gave it up for a part-time job. Some might argue that I acted rashly and unwisely, but a number of my friends have congratulated me on my bravery. Like Eliza, I simply had to make a run for it, or I’d never be satisfied.

When Eliza sets off on her journey, she unwittingly stumbles upon two things which she later could not live without, the first of which is a best friend in Tao Chi’en. From the time they meet on the first day of Eliza’s journey to San Francisco, she and Tao become inseparable. Tao, whose name literally means “the way,” is a guide for Eliza, a young woman in a dangerous world of men without morals. He teaches her how to live a peaceful life in the midst of the madness around them. He faithfully helps in her search for Joaquin. He advises her in his wisdom. He is simply the best thing that happens to her, and she would never have even made if off the ship to San Francisco without him. When I think of Tao Chi’en, I think of my own friends who have helped me through quitting my teaching job… Just as Eliza would never have survived the trip to San Francisco without Tao nursing her back to health, I would never have made it through many of my troubles without my friends and family.

The second thing that Eliza discovers in San Francisco is her own freedom. She’d been bound by so many social rules and by her family’s expectations, and in San Francisco, thousands of miles away and living as a man, she comes to enjoy casting off those restraints. Allende says, “[Eliza] fell in love with freedom…. She had grown up clad in the impenetrable armor of good manners, trained from girlhood to please and serve, bound by corset, routines, social norms, and fear…. Now she doubted that she could give up those new wings beginning to sprout on her shoulders.” Eliza eventually makes the decision to live as a woman once again in order to be her true self, but she also leaves her corset in her suitcase when she dresses, symbolizing that she keeps her womanhood but rejects the social norms that she finds binding and unnecessary. She decides consciously that nothing will stand in her way to true happiness any longer.

When I quit my teaching job, I was incredibly afraid. I had just moved out of my parents’ home – for the second time – and desperately wanted to maintain my independence; I had student loans to pay off along with my regular bills. It was time to be an adult full-time. But how was I to do that with no regular income? Like Eliza, I had made a desperate move, knowing that it was unlikely that I could turn back. And just like Eliza discovered her freedom thousands of miles away from her first home, I discovered my freedom thousands of miles away from teaching. My paycheck did take a serious hit, but I am blessed enough to be able to maintain my independence with my current job; and the best part of all is that I ENJOY my work now, and I don’t have to take it home with me. I have time to do things I love again – reading, writing, visiting my friends and family. I’m also anticipating the ultimate freedom of possibilities still to come my way. I can do whatever I want with my life. I can go to grad. school; I can write a novel; I can research literature until my heart’s content. Without a lesson planner, a gradebook, or even a corset, for that matter, in my way.

I hope that I’ve spared you a thick “literary analysis” that so easily comes through my English-teacher brain and that I’ve shown you a genuine connection with a text that I truly love.

Remark: I also hope that I have offended no teachers. 🙂 I have nothing but respect and admiration for teachers. You build our state and our nation. You do what I could not. Thank you for all you do.

Total pages: 399  FOA pages: 7044 (Total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)

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