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Iphigenia : the diary of a young lady who…

Iphigenia : the diary of a young lady who wrote because she was bored (1924)

by Teresa de la Parra

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When this book was first published, it 'hit patriarchal society like a bomb thrown by a revolutionary,' according to its forward. Maria Eugenia has lived most of her life with her father in liberated, Bohemian France. After his death, she must return to Venezuela, where she finds that her uncle has swindled her out of her inheritance, and she must live in seclusion with her grandmother and maiden aunt.

This beautifully written, insightful and amusing novel perfectly captures the voice and inner life of Maria Eugenia, from when she is a self-assured, but naive, teenager until several years later when she must decide whether to bow to the strictures of her grandmother's society. Here, at the beginning of the novel, is Maria Eugenia as she justifies to herself her schemes to escape, at least for short periods of time, the dreariness of her grandmother's house:

'I note that it is truly stupendous how rapidly and deeply this habit of lying has taken root in me....I believe that in life lying plays a rather flexible and conciliatory role worthy of consideration. In contrast, truth, that victorious and shining antipode of the lie, in spite of its great splendour, in spite of its great beauty...is sometimes rather indiscreet and usually falls upon the person who ennunciates it like a dynamite blast. Unquestionably it is also something of a wet blanket, and I consider it, on occasion, as the mother of pessimism and inaction. While the lie, the humble, denigrated lie, despite its universally wretched reputation, on the contrary often gives wings to the spirit...lifting the soul above the arid wasteland of reality..., and when we live in oppression then it smiles on us sweetly, presenting us with some shiney sparks of independence. Yes the lie stretches a protective wing over the oppressed, it discreetly reconciles despotism with liberty. And, if I were an artist, I would already have symbolized it...in the figure of a snowy white dove, wings stretched in flight as a sign of independence and displaying an olive branch in its beak.'

In short, she says of her duplicity: 'I was as satisfied as a general must be after having mapped out his battle plan.'

While the novel's theme of the social oppression of women could have been handled in a heavy-handed, humorless way, this is a delightful novel. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Jan 13, 2012 |
This review was first published in Belletrista.

Iphigenia was one of the first Latin American novels to depict Venezuelan upper class women early in the twentieth century, when they were expected to have no goal other than marriage and motherhood, to accede to their role as dutiful dependents of men, and to be bound by a strict social code. As expressed by Leal, the author's embodiment of Venezuelan mores:

...a woman's head was a more or less decorative object, completely empty inside, made to gladden the eyes of men, and adorned with two ears whose only function should be receiving and collecting the orders that men might dictate to them...

María Eugenia Alonso, writer of the "diary", was raised in affluence and independence in Europe by her father, who has died. Guardianship has passed to her Venezuelan grandmother, and her uncle has sent her 20,000 francs—about $15,000 (US) today—to cover clothes and travel. She spends this in a prodigal spree in Paris, transforming herself from a schoolgirl into a chic young lady, confident of making a splash in Venezuelan society. Upon arriving there, María is stunned to learn that the money was the last of her inheritance and that the plantation she thought was hers has been appropriated by her uncle. María finds herself dependent upon his charity and must live under the close supervision of her grandmother and maiden aunt, a theme of economic thralldom and control repeated as she learns that each woman in her new life suffers under it to some degree.

The story begins as satire as María presents an outsider's perspective. She is somewhat silly, very vain, and quite naïve, yet she has a good eye for what she sees. She is determined to recapture the freedom of Paris, just as her relatives are determined to mold her into a proper Venezuelan lady, resulting in many funny and ironic moments. As years pass, however, the satire takes on tones of tragedy. Her free spirit gradually conforms to expectations about behavior and marriage. As the final section of the novel begins, María faces a choice between Gabriel, the socially unavailable man she loves, and Leal, who offers a life of respectability in exchange for utter submission.

The social pressures placed on her give consequence to the book's title, drawing a parallel between two societies willing to sacrifice their daughters to further the social ends of their fathers. In the classic Greek tale, Agamemnon offers his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice rather than lose control because his men think he puts familial love before martial honor. So, too, is María expected to sacrifice herself in the name of a social order where men's honor and authority are paramount.

This story differs from its namesake in one significant way. Iphigenia is part of her culture: "To be a light to Hellas didst thou rear me, and so I say not No to death...I freely offer this body of mine for my country...." In contrast, María does not identify with hers: "...in order to save this ship of the world that, manned by I know not whom, races to sate hatreds I know not where, it is necessary for me, branded by centuries of servitude, to yield up my docile, enslaved body as a burnt offering." While Iphigenia is portrayed as heroic, María appears only pitiable.

The book caused a sensation when it was published in 1924. In Europe it won prizes and sold out rapidly. The prominent Spanish literary circle known as the Generation of '98, especially Unamuno, praised it heavily. In Venezuela, however, the sensation was different. Society was outraged by a story seen to encourage young women to a life of immorality, and book publishers refused it.

Although important as a pioneer feminine perspective—even, perhaps, a feminist one—it is not a perfect book. The author's style is smooth and rhythmic, but at times her loquacity transfers some of the subtitle's boredom to the reader. Bertie Acker, the translator, notes that de la Parra was concerned that the novel was too long and might require editing. Unfortunately, this was not done in this translation.

Despite this, I found the author's perspective worthwhile. She describes her other novel as having "no Iphigenia scent" since it does not indulge in social criticism. I have to say, though, that the social criticism is the best part of Iphigenia ( )
  TadAD | Nov 4, 2010 |
First published in 1924, Iphigenia is a frank portrayal of patriarchal society. The title is a reference to Greek mythology, where Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, is the victim of human sacrifice brought about by her father. In this book, the main character, Maria Eugenia, is abruptly transported from Paris to her native Caracas after her father's death. There she lives under the watchful eyes of her protective grandmother and aunt. She is young and self-centered, aware of her own beauty but very naive -- both about relationships with men, and the constraints placed on women of that era. Her grandmother and aunt do all within their power to limit Maria Eugenia's contact with men, except for men specifically selected for their suitability.

While her female relatives aim to keep Maria Eugenia in a cage, her Uncle Pancho strives to set her free. He introduces her to a woman friend, Mercedes Galindo, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage but makes the most of it by hosting dinner parties full of intellectual conversation. Pancho also teaches Maria Eugenia about what he calls the "second religion" in Latin American culture: men.

"Like almost all the women in Caracas ... generally a single religion is not enough for them and they have two. One they practice at church ... The other they practice at all times and in all places, and it is what they call 'having a heart and feelings.' The God of this second religion is one of the men in the family. It may be the father, the brother, the son, the husband, or the sweetheart, it doesn't matter! The essential element is to feel a masculine superiority to whom they can yield a blind tribute of obedience and subjection." (p. 75)

Like most women of her time, Maria Eugenia does not have the option to live as an independent woman; marriage is the only path available to her. Over the course of this novel Maria Eugenia considers relationships with two very different men: one appears to offer happiness and adventure, but she would be shunned by society. The other offers financial security, material possessions, and little else. And when the time comes to choose, Uncle Pancho, who has been the voice of reason throughout the novel, is not available to guide her decision. Either way she must sacrifice herself.

Iphigenia was a pioneering feminist work, and is an excellent read for anyone interested in women's history. ( )
4 vote lauralkeet | Apr 12, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0292715714, Paperback)

"...I didn't want to tell you the truth for anything in the world, because it seemed very humiliating to me..." The truth is that Iphigenia is bored and, more than bored, buried alive in her grandmother's house in Caracas, Venezuela. After the excitement of being a beautiful, unchaperoned young woman in Paris, her father's death has sent her back to a forgotten homeland, where rigid decorum governs. Two men—the married man she adores and the wealthy fiancé she abhors—offer her escape from her prison. Which of these impossible suitors will she choose?

Iphigenia was first published in 1924 in Venezuela, where it hit patriarchal society like a bomb. Teresa de la Parra was accused of undermining the morals of young women with this tale of a passionate woman who lacks the money to establish herself in the liberated, bohemian society she craves. Yet readers have kept the novel alive for decades, and this first English translation now introduces its heroine to a wider audience.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:13 -0400)

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