House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre

House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre



House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre

Rosario Ferre

A critical paper by
Caroline Morgan

In the forward to House on the Lagoon, Isabel writes: “My grandmother always insisted that when people fall in love they should look closely at the family of the betrothed.  I refused to believe her, even after I saw Quintin whipping a sixteen-year-old boy for singing a love song to me after we became engaged.  There were many instances of violence in his family including the time his father flogged his wife, Rebecca, and destroyed the first house on the lagoon.  But I did not listen since I was so much in love!”

Rosario Ferre foreshadows what will happen to the marriage of Isabel and Quentin.  The house is the image of the family, and like the marriage of Isabel and Quentin falls apart. At the end of the novel, Isabel sees her life unreel like a film with  “Ignacio coming out of the operating room pale as a ghost; Quintin unleashing his dogs so they would attack his own sons and making me sign a will to disinherit them; Perla in her coffin.  And I told myself, nothing in the world could justify such violence. And there was Manuel standing guard on the golden terrace watching the house on the lagoon burn down.”

The House on the Lagoon is a saga which intertwines five generations of family history with a chronicle of the political history of Puerto Rico.  Set in San Jose and Ponce, this semi-autobiographical novel focuses on Quintin Mendizabal, a wealthy Puerto Rican importer descended from Spanish conquistadors and his wife, Isabel Monfort, a Vassar educated writer.  .Family history is the vehicle Ferre uses to portray the political history of Puerto Rico, a major theme. Like some other Latin American writers she uses the novel to express the region’s social, economic and political concerns. In Ferre’s case, a wide range of political views are expressed concerning independence, statehood and support of the island’s status as a commonwealth. Other issues include feminism and machoism; the Spanish language vs. English as a national tongue; and race and class relationships including that between the upper classes and their servants. The author paints a picture of a world in which the main preoccupations are sex, love, honor and unrepentant machoism.

In an innovative way, Ferre adds another dimension, telling the same story from different perspectives.  The story concerns how Quentin and Isabel interpret their families’ past.  At first Quentin and Isabel sound like an ideal couple, but their differences become apparent when Isabel begins to write a novel based on their two families.  When Quentin finds the hidden manuscript covering Part One: The Foundations and Part Two: The First House on the Lagoon, he decides to write his version pointing out that he is a historian with a Master’s Degree in History from Columbia University, and feels that Isabel had made up incredible things about his family and had manipulated history.  All writers interpret history in their own way. He was proud of his work, and had to be a daring spirit to be an entrepreneur.  Quintin loves Isabel and fears she would leave him if he destroys her manuscript.  Later he feels that Isabel is under Petra’s sorcery and also fears he is in some sort of danger.  They begin to distrust each other and their relationship is doomed.  Their clashing viewpoints are the engine behind the novel.  Critics such as Ivan Stavans of Amherst College believes that Ferre’s novel suffers from a “Macando syndrome”, an endemic sickness through which writers worldwide by a stroke of lightning duplicate One Hundred Years of Solitude since the novel’s structure is derivative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Does she also imitate Isabel Allende’s House of  Spirits featuring a novel within a novel, much like the scrolls of the gypsy Melquiades?

In simple unadorned prose the author describes Puerto Rico during the last century, mimicking the realism of Balzac.  Interwoven with fact is magical realism: fact and fantasy, reality and illusion, legend and superstition appear throughout the novel.  The title image of the house on the lagoon, a palace for his family, rests on the kitchen downstairs where black people are coming and going.  Here we encounter prophecy, sorcery, and Afro-Caribbean witchcraft.  Ferre’s fast-paced narrative comes to life because it is continually leaping out of fact into the mythical and the fanciful.  Colorful phrases flow like a river current. When writing about the affair between Kerenski and Estefonea Volmer, one of the biggest scandals in Ponce in the forties, Quentin says “gossip is like Spanish moss: it knots itself around every telephone pole and hangs from the house in no time at all.  Petra says that Carmelina was born during a thunderstorm and that the ‘spirit of fire’ entered her body”.

Fictional characters are tied to historical events.  Isabel’s story opens with the arrival of Buenaventura in San Juan in 1917, the year President Woodrow Wilson granted American citizenship to the islander, 19 years after the end of the Spanish-American War.  Buenaventura, like other immigrants to both Puerto Rico and the United States, was a dreamer in search of a new life and a fortune.  Although Buenaventura did not have a cent to his name when he arrived in San Juan, he brought with him a valuable asset: an old parchment in which his bloodline was inscribed.  He was descended from Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador of Peru.  Marriages were inscribed in two books, called the Bloodline Books by Spanish priests.  The books had been instituted to keep the blood free of Jewish or Islamic ancestry. Supposedly this practice was abandoned later by the Americans. 

Ferre describes the culture of the island in her description of Buenaventura’s future wife, Rebecca.  Puerto Rico’s elite would travel to the United States to shop and visit their children attending American universities.  Once they set foot in the United States they would speak to each other in perfect English. Even though they were Caucasians, their skin was never as white as that of the Americans.  Consequently they realized that wearing a genuine pearl necklace or carrying an alligator handbag made a difference.  Back home, they had their class institutions, such as the Spanish Casino, the place where young people from better families got to know one another.  It was here that the self-willed beautiful sixteen year old Rebecca, who was to be crowned Queen of the Antilles, met the handsome young Buenaventura.  Their wedding took place in 1917.  By the time Quentin was born in 1928, Buenaventura had become a wealthy shipping magnate due to his importation of dried cod from Newfoundland.  How his ships got through German blockades was questionable.  Ignacio, Libertad and Patria were born in 1938, 1939 and 1940.  Rebecca was exhausted.

Black culture as well as that of the white existed.  The poet Luis Pales Matas in 1929 published a collection of revolutionary poems in which black ethnic roots were regarded as fundamental to Puerto Rican culture.  The black insurrection of Saint Dominique at the beginning of the nineteenth century had kept Puerto Rico in fear of a slave revolt.  Slaves from Angola, home of Petra’s ancestors, brought with them their belief in Mbanza Kongo, mythical city of ivory minarets surrounded by a forest of date palms, with an imaginary river flowing beneath the city. The river separated the world of the living from the world of the dead, and was both a passage and a barrier.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, the black slave population of Puerto Rico totaled almost one forth of the inhabitants.

Petra, perhaps the most important character in the novel, “entrenches herself in the cellar like a monstrous spider and there spins a web of malicious rumors which envelops the whole family”.  Buenaventura had installed her in the cellar downstairs to work as a cook, and her husband, Brambon, was to become his chauffeur.  Strong as an ox with deep chocolate skin, Petra was from Guayama, a town famous for its sorcerers and medicine men.  Ferre uses Petra as a means of introducing magic realism with its components of sorcery and fantasy, and to show the relations of the different classes of society, a major theme of the novel.  Petra exemplifies the powerful black woman endemic to African culture.  Petra’s kingdom is the cellar where she reigns over two dozen servants and has a room full of magic potions.  She was Buenaventura’s marshal and took care of him by bathing him in the fresh spring water.  She gave special attention to Quintin but made it clear that his privileged status depended on his carrying out Buenaventura’s wishes.

The influence of William Faulkner is apparent in “The House on the Lagoon”, and can be seen in the author’s style ─ the shifting point of view between Isabel and Quentin.  Toni Morrison likewise emulated Faulkner’s style.  Ferre like Faulkner moves back and forth in time. The novel opens with the arrival of Buenaventura Mendizabal, Quentin’s father, in Puerto Rico in 1917. From there we go back and forth between the five generations. The novel has instances of foreshadowing such as the time when Isabel sees the Mendizabal Elementary School full of blue-eyed black children, foreshadowing Carmalina disappearing in the mangroves with Quentin.  William is the result.  As in Faulkner’s works, children were often born of the relationship between white upper class males and black mistresses, a subject never discussed.  Both writers had many of the same theses of loyalty, honor, class and race. The problems of the human heart were in conflict. 

Writers are at their best when they write about what they know.  Rosario Ferre lives in rather small social circle, consequently it is difficult to write a novel about people everyone knows. William Faulkner, upon the advice of his friend Sherwood Anderson, wrote about what he knew, and had the same problem.

The House on the Lagoon is a principle character in this family epic. By 1925 Buenaventura decided to move to a place more in keeping with Mendazabal & Company. He had long admired the work of Milan Pavel, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright.   Pavel had a questionable reputation when he left the United States for Puerto Rico.  It was beautiful Rebecca who finally persuaded Pavel to accept Buentura’s commission to build a house. “He created the house on the lagoon as one would create a poem, or statue, breathing life into its every stone.”  Rebecca wanted a masterpiece with tiffany glass windows, alabaster skylights, and floors made of capa wood from the coal forests of the island.  Underneath the house was the kitchen and a large number of rooms, and a special chamber for the spring on which the house rested.  Rebecca liked to dance and after a performance of Salome, when she appeared naked, her husband saw her and took off his cordovan belt, livid with rage, and flogged her until she fell unconscious to the floor.  A few days later, Buenavenura called in a demolition crew and had Pavel’s house razed to the ground.  In its place he built a Spanish Revival mansion with granite turrets, bare brick floors, and a forbidding granite stairway.

It was Quentin who decided to restore the House on the Lagoon and found Pavel’s plan of the house.  He had by then acquired a massive art collection and was persuaded by Mauricio, an art dealer, to build a house worthy of his collection.  Artisans were brought from Italy and they restored the Tiffany glass windows, the alabaster skylights, and the burl wood floors.  In 1964, the restoration was completed.  But on Buenaventura’s death bed, he whispers to Petra, “I had no right to build my house over a public fountain. My whole life was built on water and should be because it comes from God”.

The themes of feminism vs. machoism and arts vs. business and commerce are visible in the novel’s principle characters.  Rebecca, Buenaventura’s beautiful wife, loved the arts-poetry readings, dance recitals, and concerts.  She maintained that a man’s kingom is his business and a woman’s is her home.  Buenaventura said “a man’s home is like a chicken coop.  Women may speak when chickens get to pea.”   Buenaventura’s grandson Quentin believed feminism to be the curse of the century.  When  Quentin comments on his wife’s manuscript, he is tinged with resentments because of her development as an artist.  He was an historian and could have developed this artistic side, but he developed his business.  Like all men who were responsible heads of households, he hated the ballet.

The novel chronicles the different viewpoints toward independence, statehood and dominion status through the voices if many of its characters.  Pedro Albizu Campos, the son of a hacendado from Ponce and a mulatto woman, founded the Nationalist Party in 1932.  Quentin and Isabel never see eye to eye politically.  Aristides, Quentin’s great grandfather, Chief of Police`and loyal to Governor Winship, was ordered to fire on the Nationalist Cadets on Easter Sunday, 1937.  His daughter Rebecca, had difficult relations with her father.  Perhaps this is the reason she advocated independence.  Quentin believes that Isabel may have inherited her grandmother Dona Valentina Monfort’s traits: fantasies of social justice and independence as well as her Corsican bad temper.  A large percentage of the island’s population was from Corsica, including Isabel’s ancestors.


Source: http://www.thenovelclub.org/papers/lagoon0503.doc

Web site to visit: http://www.thenovelclub.org

Author of the text: indicated on the source document of the above text

If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly. Fair use is a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work. In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use)

The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.


House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre


The texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.

All the information in our site are given for nonprofit educational purposes


House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre



Topics and Home
Term of use, cookies e privacy


House on the lagoon by Rosario Ferre