Analysis of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman

The novel Kiss of the Spider Woman by Argentina’s Manuel Puig (1932–90) has become the author’s most popular work due in large part to its successful screen adaptation in 1985.

Kiss of the Spider Woman depicts the evolving relationship between two prison inmates: Valentin, a Marxist revolutionary, and Molina, a homosexual window display artist. Valentin’s crime is political subversion and Molina’s the seduction of a minor. Much of the novel takes place as a conversation between these two inmates. As a means of passing time while incarcerated, Molina relates to Valentin the plots of his favorite films—mostly 1930s and 1940s melodramas. While Valentin is initially critical of Molina’s romantic and “escapist” stories, he gradually comes to enjoy and find solace in Molina’s narratives. The title Kiss of the Spider Woman refers to Molina’s favorite movie star Aurora, whose roles include an evil spider woman who symbolizes death to Molina.

Manuel Puig / WikiMedia

In discussing the films, the men inevitably reveal themselves to each other, and their intimacy deepens. Valentin explains how his political ideas have rendered all other aspects of his life insignificant; he laments, in particular, having destroyed a relationship with a woman from a bourgeois background in favor of political activism. For his part, Molina is plagued by concerns for his mother and predicts that, in his absence, she is likely to become mortally ill. Their discussion progresses from the verbal to the sexual. Although Molina’s treatment of Valentin appears sincere (he shares his food and nurses Valentin when he is ill), his motives become suspect when the reader learns that Molina is a mole being used by the prison authorities. He hopes that his subterfuge will earn him an early release. Ultimately, however, Molina’s sympathy compels him to assist Valentin in the Marxist cause, and he agrees to deliver information to Valentin’s cohorts upon his release from prison.

Kiss of the Spider Woman portrays a collision of opposing values: human emotion and political activism. At the outset of the novel, the gulf between the two men is vast; Valentin considers interpersonal relationships to be insignificant in comparison to revolutionary activism, while Molina concerns himself almost exclusively with romance and sentiment. By placing these contrasting personalities in close quarters, Puig explores the limitations of their particular standpoints and intimates both means and motivation for compromise. Valentin and Molina, through long conversations in their cells, come to see each other’s point of view somewhat clearer. Puig is suggesting that when profound human relations are formed, the line between seemingly incompatible values becomes blurred. This blurring can be personally enriching, but—as demonstrated by the novel’s tragic conclusion—this enrichment comes with its own set of limitations and potential dangers. Molina is ultimately killed during his dealings with the revolutionaries.

Commonly situated within the “new” narrative movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Puig’s fiction is characterized by structural and material experimentation. Exploring the narrative possibilities of nontraditional literary forms, Puig incorporates letters, police and hospital reports, advertisements, song lyrics, and shopping lists into his fiction. He is one of the few novelists to employ paratextual devices; Kiss of the Spider Woman, for example, includes extensive footnotes, which provide a history of psychological and cultural interpretations of homosexuality. The novel furthermore favors dialogue over exposition as a means of advancing the plot and conveying character psychology. Perhaps the most stylistically inventive aspect of Kiss of the Spider Woman is its lengthy film synopses, which account for over half of the novel’s textual body.

Although Puig’s work has been criticized for drawing heavily upon “frivolous” melodrama, Molina’s film accounts function as much more than sentimental and sensational diversion. The combination of intensive dialogue and cinematic description transforms the prison environment into something of an extended psychoanalytic session. Molina’s description of a zombie-horror film, for example, prompts Valentin to voice his deeply guarded feelings about the love he has lost. Molina is recounting a moment in the film when a newlywed woman realizes that the zombie she has seen is her husband’s first wife, and Valentin suddenly interrupts the storyteller: “I’m very depressed . . . I’m just aching for Marta, my whole body aches for her.” Although Valentin’s current partner is a fellow political rebel, he misses his former love, Marta—and Molina’s narrative about a zombified (neither alive nor dead) former wife prompts Valentin to finally articulate his regret at her loss. Emotion erupts from the hitherto unsentimental Valentin, who goes on to dictate a letter for Marta: “Inside, I’m all raw, and only someone like you could understand. . . . The torturer I have inside of me tells me that everything is finished, and that this agony is my last experience on earth.” Thus, what may seem to be a solely experimental exercise in narrative style—Puig integrates cinematic, literary, and epistolary forms—is finally a strategy of psychological elucidation. Indeed, Puig’s fiction is concerned above all with analysis—of self, other, and society. Writing, in Puig’s estimation, “is an analytic activity, not a synthetic one.”

Bacarisse, Pamela. Impossible Choices: The Implications of the Cultural References in the Novels of Manuel Puig. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 1993.
Craig, Linda. Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 2005.
Giordano, Alberto. Manuel Puig: La conversación infi nita. Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo, Editora, 2001.
Kerr, Lucille. Suspended Fictions: Reading Novels of Manuel Puig. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987.
Marti-Pena, Guadalupe. Manuel Puig ante la critica: Bibliografi a analitica y comentada. Madrid: Iberomericana, 1997.
Tittler, Jonathan. Manuel Puig. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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