Not Just One, Many: Emasculation, Foreign Impositions, and the Crisis of Masculinity in Máximo Soto Hall’s El problema (1899)

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Decimonónica : Journal of Nineteenth-Century Hispanic Cultural Production / Revista de producción cultural hispánica decimonónica.


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? ... 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. 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. 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.