Gertrudis started writing this first novel shortly after leaving Cuba in 1836. By 1841 it was published in Madrid, but because of its abolitionist content, it wasn’t until the slavetrade was already eradicated that it was finally released in Cuba in 1914. The tragic love story between Sab, an enslaved cuban mulatto, and Carlota, the white daughter of a cuban plantation owner, has been generally understood as a feminist antislavery text.
The novel is groundbreaking in many ways. For instance, it preceded Hariet Becher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by a decade in being one one of the first romantic novels written by a woman to create an analogy between the unfreedoms of enslaved africans and white women. In addition to being one of the first feminist abolitionist writings, the oppression of cuban criollos who were not large-scale landowners also presents a point of contention, making it also a work of anti-colonialism.
But perhaps the most ‘radical’ position taken on this novel is that by drawing an analogy between the profit-driven oppression of Africans, women, and colonial subjects, Gertrudis questions the civility of 19th-century Cuba’s growing mercantile society focused merely on economic ‘progress.’
The novel centers around Sab, whose mother was an enslaved African woman and whose father was the white brother of Don Carlos, Carlota’s father and owner of the plantation in which Sab is born. He is unfree despite being the son of a white man because of the ‘vientre’ law dictating that children of enslaved women inherit their mother’s rather than their father’s legal status. His identity is further complicated by the fact that Carlota shares her school lessons with him and he has not been forced to work in the field like other enslaved men. Nevertheless, he is afflicted by their suffering and struggles with the paradox of his position and his impossible love for Carlota. (387)
Carlota is similarly conflicted by the ambiguity of her status in society because despite her white privilege, as a woman she is limited in the decisions she can make. Unlike enslaved men who in some occasions can buy their freedom, she must forever remain married to the foreign investor, Enrique Otway, who her father has determined to be the most advantageous choice. Enrique’s father also advises him that marriage for a businessman is about convenience. Thus their union can be read as a critique of a growing culture of consumerism in the urban spaces like Puerto Principe, and of foreign economic investment and immigration from Europe that threatened local businesses. (387-8)
Criollos who were not large-scale landowners experienced a series of limitations during this time as well. Due to a fear of rebellion that could jeopardize landowners’ continued reliance on slave labor, the theater and press were strictly censored and congregations were not permitted. Nevertheless, a growing sense of nationalism and desire to break from these oppressive measures persisted.
It’s been argued that through the centering of güajiro (indiginous peasant) voices in the novel, Gertrudis participated in a national discourse that sought to incorporate marginalized ‘others’ as part of a larger modernizing project that was taking place all over Latin America in the 19th-century. (390) However, this source concludes that her project does not seek to ‘civilize’ those who have been kept out of a hegemonic cuban history like black and mulatto slaves, european and indiginous women, and güajiros, but to give agency and legitimization to their voice (391) through a national literature.
For instance, it is through the oral storytelling in the rural town of Cubitas, that Sab has acquired indiginous knowledge of Cuba’s fauna and history in addition to the scientific, European education he’s gained through Carlota in the urban space of Puerto Principe (Camaguey). Through this character then, Gertrudis not only blurs racial lines, but also the line between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civility’ (386) that legitimizes some and marginalizes others.
Ibarra, Rogelia Lily. “Gómez De Avellaneda’s ‘Sab’: A Modernizing Project.” Hispania, vol. 94, no. 3, 2011, pp. 385–395. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23032115. Accessed 29 Nov. 2020.
Rondríquez, Linda M. “Gertrudis Gómez De Avellaneda’s ‘Sab’: The Fate of the Slave in Nineteenth-Century Cuba.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 27, no. 3/4, 1994, pp. 402–404. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25613268. Accessed 29 Nov. 2020.