Bearing Being Bared: How Women Handle Moments of Nakedness in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and The Maltese Falcon
At first glance, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents are radically different books. One is a hard-boiled detective novel dominated by male characters, the other an intimate portrait of four sisters, transplanted from the Dominican Republic to America. But the books each contain a chapter in which a male character makes a female character strip, then scrutinizes her body. In “The Russian’s Hand,” one of Gutman’s ten thousand-dollar bills goes missing; Spade strip-searches Brigid for the missing thousand-dollar bill and does not find it. In “The Human Body,” Mundín similarly searches his cousin Yolanda’s body for something exciting, but his search ends in “disappointment” (p. 235, HTGGLTA). Even though these moments seem very different—the characters in one story are jaded murderers, and in the other innocent children—the moments are actually eerily similar. In both, the female body is seen as an object that serves as part of a larger transaction. Both strip searches are turning points in the male-female relationship, irreparably breaking the bonds between Spade and Brigid and Mundín and Yolanda, respectively. Yet surprisingly, Yolanda’s moment of nakedness helps her empower herself and find her voice as a writer; on the other hand, Brigid’s moment of nakedness is absolutely disempowering, and ultimately breaks her.
Both moments of nakedness are about male eyes on the female body, but they are not the first times that Yolanda and Brigid are subject to the gaze of others. Both women are introduced on the very first page of their respective novels. The reader initially glimpses them through the eyes of other characters: “Yolanda sees herself as they will, shabby in a black cotton skirt and jersey top…like a missionary, her cousins will say” (p. 3, HTGGLTA). Meanwhile, Effie tells Spade that Brigid is “‘a knockout’” (p. 3, Maltese Falcon) before ushering her into his office. Not only are the two women very physically different—one plain, the other glamorous—but the vocabulary chosen to describe them is also very different. Alvarez uses subtly religious language, while Hammett uses unabashedly materialistic, slangy language. These differences in word choice gesture towards deeper, more philosophical differences between the two novels. Yolanda’s world and Brigid’s world operate according to completely dissimilar moral codes, and the women look and behave so differently because they are each acting according to those differing codes.
In a novel pervaded by Catholicism, Yolanda’s stern appearance reflects the omnipresent influence of religion and morality. Yolanda’s plainness has a “missionary”-like quality. Her clothing, all black, makes her seem like she is in mourning—there is a moral severity to her dress that marks her as physically and emotionally unavailable. Yolanda “looks like one of those Peace Corps girls who have let themselves go so as to do dubious good in the world” (p. 4, HTGGLTA). There is an implied trade-off here between morality and beauty. Girls must stop caring about their looks if they are to “do…good in the world.” Accordingly, Yolanda refuses to make herself an object of desire. By contrast, her cousin Lucinda’s looks do the opposite: “In her designer pantsuit and frosted, blown-out hair, Lucinda looks like a Dominican magazine model, a look that has always made Yolanda think of call girls” (p. 4-5). The “magazine model” and the “call girl” both monetize their bodies; their livelihoods depend on their seeming physically and sexually available.
Unlike Yolanda, Brigid has made herself up to be entirely an object of desire. Even her pseudonym, Miss Wonderly, implies that she is extraordinary, glamorous—a “wonder” to behold. The “Miss” also suggests that she is single, and thus sexually available, like Lucinda, the “magazine model[s],” and “call girl[s].” Her beauty and her cash are both forms of currency, and together they buy Spade’s cooperation. Everything about Brigid is soft and feminine, “without angularity anywhere” (p. 4, Maltese Falcon). She is the physical complement to Spade’s extreme angularity; his most defining physical feature is his pointiness, particularly emphasized by “the v motif” (p. 3) of “all the v’s in his face” (p. 4).
Everything about Brigid is calculated to emphasize her girlish innocence. In contrast with Yolanda’s all black outfit, Brigid wears all blue, expressly chosen to bring out her eyes. She too has cultivated an air of “dubious good[ness]”—although one very different than Yolanda’s. She smiles timidly, she murmurs softly, she pleads, and her lips tremble. She has a sob story about a sister’s lost virtue, and keeps repeating the words “Mama” and “Papa” like a child (p. 5). Yet underneath all the ingenuousness of “Miss Wonderly,” Brigid’s “white teeth glisten” (p. 4). She is not what she seems. “Miss Wonderly” is a glamorous façade, obscuring Brigid’s real motives and desires.
Yolanda is also called “Miss” in this first scene, but in her case the moniker reveals more about her than it obscures. Her cousins greet her, “‘Here she comes, Miss America’” (p. 4, HTGGLTA). The term “Miss America” conjures images of swimsuit contests and beauty queens, a far cry from Yolanda’s actual physical appearance. The title refers not to her dowdy exterior, but to what she represents. She is the cousin visiting from America. To her little cousins, she signifies prosperity, glamor, liberty, and freedom from dictatorship. They do not understand the ways in which her struggle to be and not be “American” is complicated, fraught, and painful. Yet in calling their Dominican-born cousin “Miss America,” they have deftly and unwittingly hit upon the heart of Yolanda’s internal struggle.
The vastly different tones and moral codes of the two novels are perhaps most evident in the respective goals of the strip searches; the different things the male characters seek speak to the different worlds in which they live. When Mundín asks Yolanda to “‘Show me you’re a girl’” (p. 233, HTGGLTA), he is seeking some sort of forbidden knowledge. He knows there’s something secret about girls’ bodies, but he doesn’t know exactly what. Even the Human Body doll he’s received as a gift refuses to tell him; it is chastely “smooth between [its] legs” (p. 230, HTGGLTA). In The Maltese Falcon, Spade orders Brigid, “‘Take your clothes off’” (p. 195, Maltese Falcon). His words uncannily echo Mundín’s injunction to “‘Take them down [her pants]’” (p. 234, HTGGLTA). However, Spade is not after any secret, biblical knowledge; he is after his thousand-dollar bill. Everything in his world comes down to money. His only moral code is self-enrichment.
This mercenary, callous quality in Spade extends beyond him, saturating the whole atmosphere of The Maltese Falcon. Hammett sets his novel in bleak, foggy San Francisco, and the cold, impersonal city is the perfect psychological backdrop for Spade. Hammett’s San Francisco has little to no greenery—nothing friendly or natural. The streets are hard, gray, and hostile, full of “iron-railed hatchways…bare ugly stairs…a blank grey sidewall…bounded by a waist-high fence, horizontal strips of rough boarding” (p. 12-13, Maltese Falcon). The iron railings, the blankness of the wall, the high fence, and the “rough boarding” all have one message: keep out, or else.
Spade strip-searches Brigid in the bathroom of his own apartment, a space perhaps even more harsh and unwelcoming than the city itself. Hammett first introduces the reader to Spade’s quarters in the middle of the night, at the top of Chapter Two, “Death in the Fog.” The first thing Hammett notes is the “darkness” (p. 11, Maltese Falcon). When the light does finally flick on, it is “a white bowl hung on three gilded chains” (p. 11). The “chains” have an ominous ring to them, and the singleness of the light is reminiscent of the light in a prison cell or interrogation room. Indeed, through the open windows comes “cold steamy air…[and] the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning” (p. 11). Alcatraz—the infamous federal prison—is the ultimate symbol of crime and punishment. On Spade’s bedside table lies only one book: Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America. The book is “face down” (p. 11), as if Spade has finished it, closed it, and set it down without bothering to flip it back over. His living space is the living space of a man obsessed with crime and its punishment.
The setting for the strip search in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents could not be more different. Instead of in a city, the search happens in “an incredible Eden of a garden” (p. 229, HTGGLTA), and the story is replete with religious imagery, often paralleling that of Adam and Eve—immediately before pulling down her underwear, young Yolanda even remembers “how God clothed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden after they had sinned” (p. 234). The children have a prelapsarian innocence about them. Compared to Spade’s heightened awareness of crime and its consequences, Mundín and Yolanda have no grasp of real-world dangers. As the older Yolanda-narrator reflects on the guardia’s routine searches, she asks: “But what did we kids know of all that back in those days?” (p. 227). Young Yoyo and Mundín have a disjointed, childlike understanding of violence and its real consequences. They have not quite learned to link cause and effect. They watch a violent, poorly-dubbed TV show and fail to properly connect the guns with the deaths; even when they hear the gunshots and see the blood, they have to “crane… [their] necks forward, wanting to make sure that the bad guys were really dead” (p. 227).
Yet in this Edenic garden lies temptation. Young Yolanda desperately wants Mundín’s toy clay, which he has rolled into one long, pink coil. Yolanda refers to the tempting clay multiple times as “the snake” (p. 232, 233, 234), and when Mundín offers to trade her for it, “He [holds] the snake out to [her]” (p. 233). In this moment of temptation, Yolanda’s word choice takes a turn for the sinful. She is full of “desire” (p. 233); his smile is “staining” (p. 233). A “stain” cannot be removed, and the reader gets the sense that something dirty and irreversible is about to happen.
The shed where the transaction takes place is already sexualized and out-of-bounds—“a dirty place” (p. 237) full of dirty magazines and hoses “coiled like a family of dormant snakes” (p. 234). The “dormancy” of the snakes mirrors the dormancy of the children’s sexuality. Although lust has not yet awakened in them, it soon will. In this sexualized space, Mundín’s clay becomes more than serpentine; it becomes phallic. As he waits for Yolanda to show her body to him, his “hands nervously work… the snake” (p. 234). He is “nervously” and unconsciously playing at masturbation. For now, sexuality is still a game to him, and puberty—like the guardia—is an external threat to his innocence that he cannot yet understand.
In fact, both novels’ moments of nakedness are overshadowed by such larger, external threats. In “The Human Body,” the guardia are a godlike force, seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent. Yolanda invokes them to save herself and Mundín from punishment at the hands of Tía Carmen, because she knows “that in [her] family the least mention of the guardia got instant, unmitigated attention” (p. 237). Her aunt is a higher power than herself (Tía Carmen’s “punishment voice” [p. 233] rings out across the garden, reminiscent of God’s wrathful, punishing voice during the Fall), but the guardia and Trujillo are the highest powers of all, able to strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest adults. Indeed, young Yolanda confusedly associates Trujillo with God: “we believed the slogan… ‘God and Trujillo are taking care of you’” (p. 227).
The police in The Maltese Falcon serve a similar function. “The Russian’s Hand” begins with Spade, Brigid, Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer all gathered in Spade’s apartment. Gutman has just agreed to sacrifice Wilmer as their “fall-guy” (p. 186, Maltese Falcon). Spade uses the threat of the police to coerce Cairo into agreeing, too: “‘If the answer is out we’ll give you to the police with your boy-friend’” (p. 188). In fact, Spade invokes the threat of the police on almost every page of the chapter, continually insisting that they must all get their story straight so that the police will accept Wilmer as their “fall-guy.” Every time Spade invokes the police, he manages to coax more of the true story out of Gutman; like Yolanda, he is using the external threat of the police to his own advantage.
Both “The Human Body” and “The Russian’s Hand” begin with their principal characters organized into couples. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade and Brigid form one unit, Cairo and the boy another (Gutman is alone). The way the characters enter Spade’s apartment demonstrates their pairings: “Spade and the girl went in together. The boy and Cairo followed them in” (p. 172). At the start of “The Russian’s Hand,” in addition to calling the boy Cairo’s “boy-friend” (p. 188), Spade also mocks the pair when they fight, pointing at Cairo’s bloodied face and remarking, “‘The course of true love’” (p. 199). These comments identify Cairo and the boy as a couple, even if their relationship is not actually romantic or sexual. Meanwhile, Brigid and Spade do have a romantic, sexual relationship.
At the start of “The Human Body,” the cousins are even more explicitly paired off. “Every kid in the family was paired up with a best-friend cousin. My older sister, Carla, and my cousin Lucinda…Sandi had Gisela…Baby sister Fifi and my sweet-natured cousin Carmencita…cowboy Mundín and cowgirl me” (p. 225, HTGGLTA). In this prelapsarian state of alliances, every cousin has his or her “other half” (p. 233), and together the two cousins make a whole. Mundín and Yolanda are each other’s other halves, and also the only boy-girl couple.
This idea of a boy and a girl being halves of one another traces all the way back to Plato’s explanation of love in Symposium. As Plato would have it, male and female used to be one being—one “whole” human. But they were too powerful that way, so Zeus split the “whole” human into halves: the male and the female. Those halves are eternally seeking to become “whole” again through sex. Whether intentionally or not, the arc of “The Human Body” echoes Plato’s story of this original male-female separation. Yolanda describes how, as she and Mundín approached puberty, their mothers “encouraged a separation between us. But that was hard to effect” (p. 225). Their mothers are afraid that their boy-girl relationship will become improper, or perhaps that Yolanda will not outgrow her tomboy phase and will fail to become a “proper” girl. Here again, as in the very first chapter, Yolanda’s femininity is compared—unfavorably—to Lucinda’s. Lucinda, one of the two oldest cousins, has a perfect “girlfriendship” (p. 225) with Carla, and the mothers pressure Yolanda “to stop playing with Mundín and join the other young-lady cousins in their grownup beautician games and boy gossip inside the house” (p. 235).
By the end of the chapter, after Mundín has seen Yolanda naked and then failed to corroborate her story, the Human Body breaks irreparably. The gardener ends up carrying the broken “halves of the cracked-open Human Body” (p. 238). Mundín’s clay snake is likewise split in half between Yoyo and Fifi, who become competitive over the size of each other’s halves. Mundín and Yoyo have finally been separated—halved, like the Human Body—and “though Mundín and I tried using the diagram, there was no puzzling the whole back” (p. 238). Alvarez uses traditionally gendered colors to emphasize the gendered nature of their split; the pieces that Mundín and Yoyo cannot fit back into the Human Body are “the blue kidneys” and “a pink lobe of brain” (p. 238).
Similarly, the initial pairings in “The Russian’s Hand” do not survive the chapter. Wilmer and Cairo are the first couple to “break up.” Almost immediately, Spade invokes his threat of the police, forcing Cairo to betray Wilmer and ruin the boy’s life. Understandably, Wilmer does not forgive Cairo; throughout the scene, he physically distances himself from the older man, and eventually punches him in the mouth. Meanwhile, Spade talks to Gutman and ignores Brigid, excluding her from the negotiation. Gradually, she begins to physically align herself with Wilmer rather than with Spade. She sits down “by the unconscious boy’s feet” (p. 188, HTGGLTA), keeping her distance from Spade. As the five of them wait out the night, she and the boy are the only two who manage to sleep.
Even linguistically, Brigid and Wilmer work as a pairing: he is “the boy” and she “the girl” (p. 194). Interestingly, although Brigid is often referred to as “the girl” in the beginning of the novel, after she sleeps with Spade and he searches her apartment (p. 90) Hammett stops referring to her as “the girl.” For a good eighty pages, Hammett and her fellow characters refer to her by name only. She seems to have grown up, or come into her own. Then, when she and Spade enter his apartment on the night of the strip search, she suddenly reverts to being “the girl”: “The girl cried out and clung to Spade” (p. 171). She is again young and weak, clinging to her man for safety.
After Spade strip searches Brigid, the two physically and emotionally separate. She silently takes her clothing back from him, and for the rest of the scene the reader hears her speak only three times to him. Each time, she is distant and hurt. “She replie[s] in a cool voice, not raising her head” (p. 197), or she gives him a clipped reply then returns straightaway to the kitchen. As they all settle in for the night, she and Spade have a few unheard “wide-spaced desultory conversations” (p. 200). The “wide-spaced” talk signals that there are long silences between a remark and its response. Perhaps they have nothing to say to each other, or perhaps they have too much to say to each other, or perhaps their hearts are not in what they are saying to each other. Regardless, the wide sonic space between their words indicates a widening psychological and emotional gap between them—one that conversation cannot bridge.
Brigid’s physical retreat to the kitchen only underscores this new emotional distance. When she re-emerges from the bathroom, she “t[akes] a step towards the living-room, turn[s] around, [goes] to the kitchen, and turn[s] on the light” (p. 197). She almost comes into the living room, where all the men are, but she cannot handle being near them at that moment. Instead, she retreats to a traditionally female space. She no longer even tries to be present for the negotiation; she just makes food and serves coffee.
In both novels, the male character surveys the stripped-down female body in almost exactly the same way. Yolanda says, “I steeled myself against his intrusive glances. But all Mundín did was shrug his shoulders with disappointment. ‘You’re just like dolls,’ he observed” (p. 235, HTGGLTA). Mundín expects to see something wildly exciting on Yolanda’s body. He wants to finally lay eyes on a girl’s “hidden treasure” (p. 235). But there is no visible “treasure,” and he thinks he is looking at nothing. His final words to her are an “observation,” not an exclamation or complaint. He has already emotionally detached himself from the situation; as soon as he discovers there is no exciting “treasure,” he loses interest. Overly preoccupied with what is not there, he fails to see what is there—the actual girl in front of him.
Spade is similarly unresponsive to Brigid’s nakedness. He watches her strip with “unblinking yellow-grey eyes” (p. 196, Maltese Falcon), concerned only about the thousand-dollar bill (the suspected “hidden treasure” under her clothes). The “yellow-grey” eyes are like a hawk or falcon’s—predatory, sharp, and searching. Birds of prey have famously excellent vision, and he scans her body like a tract of land, ready to swoop in on the money. “He picked up each piece and examined it with fingers as well as eyes. He did not find the thousand-dollar bill. When he had finished he stood up holding her clothes out in his hands to her. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Now I know’” (p. 196). His parting words to her are clipped, peremptory—dismissive in the same way that Mundín’s “You’re just like dolls” is dismissive. His words contain no apology or sympathy. In fact, like Mundín’s “observation,” they contain no emotion whatsoever. Once Spade knows that the money is not there, he has no interest in acknowledging the upset human being in front of him.
Spade and Mundín’s dispassionate parting remarks objectify the girls in a sexist—yet nonsexual—way. In refusing to recognize the emotional distress of the girls before them, Spade and Mundín are treating the girls “just like dolls:” like mere bodies, devoid of thoughts or feelings. In their turn, both girls fight against this objectification, trying to maintain their dignity and humanity. After Mundín “order[s]” (p. 235, HTGGLTA) her to expose herself, Yolanda responds with “a defiant look as I lifted up my cowboy skirt, tucked it under my chin, and yanked my panties down” (p. 235). Her verbs here are extremely active; she moves fast; she “tuck[s]” and “yank[s].” She has some fight in her.
Brigid also “remove[s] her clothes swiftly, without fumbling” (p. 196, Maltese Falcon), but she does it “without defiance” (p. 196). She does not have the same fight in her that Yolanda has. Her undressing is not an act of rebellion, but of submission. Her verbs are much more passive than Yolanda’s. She “let[s her clothes] fall down on the floor around her feet” (p. 196). Once naked, she “step[s] back from her clothing and st[ands] looking at” (p. 196) Spade, waiting for his direction. She defers to him at every turn. He has all the power. His all-consuming interest in the dollar bill and lack of interest in her naked body disempowers her; her sexuality was one of her most potent weapons, and in this moment he seems immune to it. She is stripped not only of her clothes, but also of her womanly powers.
Spade’s decision to make Brigid strip turns her into a helpless pawn in Spade and Gutman’s negotiation-game. “‘I’m not ashamed to be naked before you, but—can’t you see?—not like this. Can’t you see that if you make me you’ll—you’ll be killing something?’” (p. 196) she pleads to Spade. Her broken language mirrors the breaking-up of their relationship. In general, Brigid is not an innocent character. She is a conniving murderess. But in this instance, she is innocent. She did not take the money, and therefore has nothing to hide. She has no reason to refuse the search other than the one she articulates. She is not pretending anymore; for once, she is being honest and vulnerable, because she really is afraid of Spade “killing something.”
Brigid’s objectification continues straight to the end of the chapter. The five characters have finally gotten hold of the Maltese Falcon, only to discover that it is a fake. Gutman strips the falcon of its black enamel—another strip search—revealing only “bared lead” (p. 202). There is no “hidden treasure” under the enamel, only naked, worthless metal. As Gutman leaves, disappointed, he directs his last words to Brigid. He has already given Spade a thousand dollars—exactly the amount for which Spade searched Brigid. Now Gutman says, “‘And to you, Miss O’Shaughnessy, adieu. I leave you the rara avis on the table as a little memento’” (p. 204). He is essentially leaving Brigid with nothing; the bird is worth nothing. (Yolanda, too, gets the Human Body doll in the end in exchange for stripping—but by then it is broken, worthless.) Stripped, flightless, and no longer of any value to the men, the bird and Brigid are both mere objects, totally at the mercy of Gutman and Spade. Ultimately, Spade will hand Brigid over along with the bird, treating girl and statuette like equally trivial pieces of evidence. He will physically push Brigid towards the police, saying callously, “‘Here’s another one for you,’” and quickly adding, “‘And I’ve got some exhibits’” (p. 215). This is the very last the reader sees of Brigid.
As the “fall-guy,” Brigid takes the “fall” for Spade and the others. Her “fall” is actually a Fall, in the same way that Yolanda’s moment of nakedness in the garden is a Fall. Yolanda loses her innocence because she discovers that Mundín fails to help her “just when I needed him to bring in the cavalry and rescue my besieged story” (p. 238, HTGGLTA); she becomes forever emotionally separate from him. Brigid also loses whatever innocence she had—literally, because she will be found guilty and go to jail, and emotionally, because she loses her faith in Spade. The “fall” she takes for him also involves a story: the story invented for the police, which absolves him and pins everything on her.
In The Maltese Falcon, the male character is the one inventing the story. Spade keeps insisting to the people in his rooms that they all have to “get the details fixed” (p. 189) for the police. He is storytelling to save their skins (or rather, all but one of their skins). Once everyone but Brigid leaves, he starts doing all the talking. He admonishes her, “‘Wait til I’m through and then you can talk’” (p. 214). He is absolutely adamant that to show her any mercy would be a sign of weakness. He repeats six times: “‘I’m not going to play the sap for you’” (p. 212 x2, 213 x2, 214, 215). Once he is through, there is nothing left for her to say: “She looked at him, saying nothing” (p. 215). She is voiceless, both literally and metaphorically. She has lost all control of the situation, and all power over him.
By contrast, in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents the female character is the one doing the storytelling in order to save both characters’ skins. Yolanda invents the guardia’s presence on the property, thereby saving herself and Mundín from further punishment at their parents’ hands. In an exact inversion of what happens with Spade and Brigid, after Yolanda finishes speaking Mundín remains mute: “Mundín stood silent” (p. 238, HTGGLTA).
Earlier in the chapter when Mundín received the Human Body as a present, Yolanda received a book with the story of Scheherazade. By the end of the chapter, Yolanda is clearly following Scheherazade’s example. “The girl pictured in bra and slip” (p. 232) has become her role model of female storytelling. Young Yolanda thinks that the “name…looked like a misprint—Sche-hera-zade, I sounded it out” (p. 232). Earlier in the book, Yolanda’s boyfriend, John, mispronounces her name, sounding it out “Joe-lan-dah” (p. 71). The mirrored sounding-out of “Scheherazade” and “Yolanda” further links the two women.
Through storytelling, Yolanda turns her Fall into a victory. She finds her voice, using it to advocate for herself and take control of her surroundings. Her moment of nakedness becomes just that—a moment, one episode of many. It is not the turning point of her story in the way that Brigid’s moment of nakedness is for her. Rather, Yolanda’s moment of nakedness is just one minor part of the “violation that lies at the center of [her] art” (p. 290, HTGGLTA). From that “violation” or “infraction” (p. 238) comes “art”—a story, and then later a book. Why does Brigid’s strip search and objectification leave her voiceless, whereas Yolanda’s teaches her to use hers? Is it because in Brigid’s case there is love at stake, and not just friendship? Is Brigid finally broken by the relentless materialism and selfishness that power her world? Or has Brigid always been too dependent on men—dressing up for the male gaze, relying on her sexuality to get her what she wants—and is it just now catching up to her? Even though young Yolanda emerges empowered from her strip search, the older Yolanda eventually ends up broken in many ways, just as Brigid does. Her world—although so different from Brigid’s—eventually breaks her, too. Is this inevitable? Must women always be broken? One hopes not. But for now, at least there seems to be some solace in writing and storytelling.