The Deconstruction of Binary Ideological Structures in
Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman

Steffany Drozdo, University of Kentucky

Since its publication in 1976, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman has spawned much critical analysis and debate. The majority of contemporary research has concentrated on the possible goals of the author in writing this novel and on the structural methods he utilizes in attempting to realize this project. Critics such as David Bost and Jonathan Tittler have concluded that Puig’s purpose in creating his most famous work is to give voice and mainstream acceptance to previously marginalized groups. Although Puig focuses on members of two particular marginalized groups, the homosexual and the political revolutionary, his goal is much more universal than his selection of candidates would indicate. As will be explored in this study, the universal mainstreaming of all kinds of silenced, unprivileged groups, regardless of their country, era, or ideological basis, seems to prevail as the motivating force of the novel. Critics have concentrated their studies on two questions which arise from this conclusion: they have analyzed how the goal is approached and if, in fact, the goal has been achieved. However, much has been left unexamined as to how Puig attains this goal structurally. Some critics have discussed the pop culture that permeates the novel; others have focused on the recognition of binary systems within the novel and how Puig catapults the “inferior” component of the dichotomy into a position of superiority and acceptance.

According to some critics, including María Mercedes Velasco, Elias Miguel Muñoz, and Fernando Reati, there exists a strong binary system in Kiss of the Spider Woman, centered on the two protagonists of the novel, Luis Alberto Molina and Valentin Arregui. Both characters incorporate dual ideologies individually and when opposed to one another in a dichotomy of a larger scale. In her article “Marianism and Masculinity in Kiss of the Spider Woman,” María Mercedes Velasco argues that the protagonists Molina and Valentin appear as a “projection of Marianism and of masculinity in a radial reading, whose different signifiers point to the same signified.”[1] In other words, “Puig creates an ‘invariable’ stereotype of Woman and reflects its variable appearances onto the female protagonists of the movies.”[2] Velasco proposes the existence of a masculine/feminine dichotomy within the novel, with elements juxtaposed against one another to create an ultimate wholeness. This indicates her belief in order and completeness within the novel through the acceptance and perpetuation of bi­nary ideological sys­tems.

Elias Miguel Muñoz also proposes that Puig perpetuates the acceptance of a dual-centered ideology: “by the end of the novel, Valentin has liberated the ‘woman’ which he carries inside of him. His Utopian liberation plants the possibility of a new sexual being. Therefore, his unreality is probably sinful and subversive.”[3] Fernando Reati, although speaking in more universal terms, reiterates the ideas put forth by the aforementioned critics in saying that “the traditional homosexual who does not question the masculine/feminine dichotomy runs the risk of reproducing it and, ultimately, perpetuating it.”[4]

While these critics suggest that the interplay between dichotomies results in the creation of a harmonious totality which incorporates and thus equalizes both components, I intend to demonstrate that it is precisely this binary ideological structure that Puig destroys in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The present study will advance from this accepted position in contemporary criticism of the novel. It is not enough to identify the binary structures prevalent throughout the novel or simply to declare that the dominant ideology of the binary structure has been undermined. Jonathan Tittler merely signals the possibility of a deconstructionist reading within the novel as opposed to developing one in his article, “Odd Coupling: A Posthumous View”: “Each of the main themes is by itself potentially subversive regarding the dominant ideology—heterosexual, bourgeois, logocentric—of contemporary Western culture. Together they have the potential to function explosively, unsettling mainstream values and practices and, if reading is not yet totally irrelevant to other realms of our cultural life, threatening to destabilize the balance of power in society.”[5] In order to fully comprehend how the system is invalidated, which consequently works toward the acceptance of the cultural taboo, one must realize that it is not the simple catapulting of one half of the dichotomy from the position of inferiority to one of superiority which brings the author’s goal to fruition. Indeed, only the utter destruction of the system creates the opportunity for an authentic, open-minded acceptance of alternative lifestyles. If it becomes impossible to define either half of the dichotomy, then value judgments can no longer be placed upon either component.

Contemporary queer and deconstructionist theories are a useful tool for exposing the mechanisms through which Puig attacks the predominant binary ideologies of Western, and specifically Argentine, society. In Puig’s view, these binary oppositions inevitably privilege one half of the dichotomy, and punish the other. Thus, this novel does not invert the dichotomy, but rather advocates a system of infinite multiplicity, wherein the oppressor/oppressed relation is invalidated.

Deconstructionist theory, as proposed in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, proposes a drastic overhaul of ideology based on systems of duality. It begins by rejecting the semiotic and structuralist linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure; Derrida suggests that the signifier/signified system (a system based on duality) is as inaccurate as it is inadequate in representing worldviews. First, Derrida argues that there are infinite possibilities in a signifier/signified coupling because, in fact, they are not directly related. A sign, in itself, is arbitrary, and therefore contains a myriad of possible “meanings.” This argument alone exposes the treachery of ideological structures based on the binary because it must be concluded that any one half of a dichotomy can juxtapose itself against an infinite number of “opposite” meanings.

Derrida continues to repudiate this binary system by asserting that structuralists cannot continue to have faith in a system which has not been put “under erasure.” To illustrate this, Derrida again undermines the signifier/signified dichotomy. Putting a sign “under erasure” implies acceptance that any sign’s meaning is inherently inadequate and incomplete. However, since the sign is necessary, it remains legible. Many people, in an attempt to resolve the inadequate meaning of a sign, often juxtapose it with another sign of equal inadequacy. This is exemplified by the most prevalent dichotomies of Western civilization: man/woman, good/evil, heterosexual/homosexual, etc. One half of the dichotomy necessarily relies on the other for its definition. According to Derrida, “The notion of the sign always implies within itself the distinction between signifier and signified, even if, as Saussure argues, they are distinguished simply as the two faces of one and the same leaf.”[6] Therefore, “the difference between the signified and the signifier is nothing.”[7]

During the past decade, the emergence of queer theory has embraced the deconstructive matrix in order to legitimize and validate the presence of homosexuality in a predominantly heterocentered world. In her book Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick not only mimics Derridean theory, but uses it specifically to defend the homosexual position: “In fact, the dichotomy heterosexual/homosexual fits the deconstructive template … [because] it is, rather, sexual orientation, with its far greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness, that would offer the apter deconstructive object. An essentialism of sexual object-choice is far less easy to maintain, far more visibly incoherent, more visibly stressed and challenged at every point in the culture than any essentialism of gender.”[8]

As Kosofsky Sedgwick demonstrates, it is the myriad of possible ambiguities associated with the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy which adroitly associates itself with deconstructionist theory. It is precisely these models which I intend to utilize in the present study. A deconstructionist reading of a text first demonstrates that a set of binary oppositions can be found within the text. Next, the privileged/non-privileged hierarchy must be established so that it can be neutralized through reversal and displacement. In a literary analysis, this is accomplished by finding ambiguities and evidence of obscure moments that collapse the system. The result of this collapse is that the violent hierarchy is reduced to nothing; an entirely different conceptual worldview has been created. This nothingness, according to Derridean theory, is a closer approximation of the inherent chaotic and arbitrary nature of reality. Consequently, value judgments of a previously marginalized figure and the oppression they incur become impossible; the previously privileged and unprivileged are on an equal footing once the system that had initially separated them has been annulled.

One of the most impressive violent hierarchies witnessed in Kiss of the Spider Woman is that of political affiliation: the political conservative ranks higher than the revolutionary. On a preliminary level, Valentin confronts the problems inherent within this established dichotomy, but as will be seen with this particular hierarchy as well as others, strict delineation and separation of each “side” become impossible due to the constant intermeshing that occurs. Each established hierarchy works in conjunction with the others of the novel to create a complete deconstruction of an entire system, rather than of specific elements of an otherwise functioning ideology.

Through hints made during the course of the prolonged dialogue which constitutes the novel, the reader surmises that Valentin has been imprisoned due to his subversive political activities. While the Marxist nature of Valentin’s political ideology is mentioned fairly early in the novel,[9] the reader is never able to pinpoint exactly which historical fascist regime is persecuting him. Of course, it may be deduced based on the date of publication of the novel and the nationality of the protagonists (they speak with a Porteño accent typical of residents of Buenos Aires) that the diegetic space of the novel is framed by the post-Perón military regime. However, Puig purposefully leaves this matter indeterminate, which helps to develop the universality of the novel in an attempt to set up the mechanism for a universal dismantling of all binary ideological structures.

The imprisonment of Valentin and the severe torture to which he is subjected during the course of the novel demonstrate that a violent hierarchy of political ideology exists which privileges the “political conservative” half of the dichotomy; it is the politically conservative force within the novel that tortures the politically radical Valentin. The only way in which the reader can perceive the eventual deconstruction of this hierarchy is by analyzing its interaction with others in the novel.

Perhaps the most striking violent hierarchy that emerges from Kiss of the Spider Woman is the sexual one. Molina initially exemplifies the victim of oppression caused by the exclusive nature of the privileged—that is, heterosexual—half of this dichotomy. Through the stereotypically “feminine” traits found in his speech patterns (excessive use of diminutives, emotive morphological affix usage, emotionally charged outbursts, etc.) the reader perceives Molina’s otherness even before he specifically mentions it to his cellmate: “Well I told you what I’m in for, corruption of minors, and that tells it all, so don’t start playing the psychologist now” (KSW 17). Again, through his imprisonment, it can be established that the component of the hierarchy that Molina represents, homosexuality, is the unprivileged half of the dichotomy. As with the political conservative/ revolutionary juxtaposition, this particular dichotomy will unravel itself only when aligned with the others found in the novel.

The culminating dichotomy, the one which encompasses the violent hierarchies of politics and sexuality, is that of reality versus fantasy, exemplified by the incorporation of movie narrations and dreams throughout the entire novel. David Bost’s excellent article, “Telling Tales in Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña,” thoroughly analyzes Molina’s narration of pop culture films. Bost sees this narrative activity both as an escape from the harsh environs of the two protagonists and as a structural device on the part of Molina, as the plots, characters, and conclusions of each film actually mimic the reality from which he attempts to escape; one parallels the other.[10] In reality, it is difficult to assign a position of privilege to either half of this dichotomy, because by the novel’s end, fantasy and reality become so intertwined that it becomes virtually impossible to define either term, much less to privilege one over the other. In fact, the ultimate coupling of Molina and Valentin and the aftermath of their union symbolically destroy each of these dichotomies.

Molina and Valentin’s unique relationship is the catalyst for, and also the end result of, the interplay of these dichotomies. The reader fully realizes the inescapable connection between the two men and, consequently, between their particular ideologies, when both are first mentioned within a few paragraphs of one another. Molina’s perceived feminine nature—“Say it, like a woman, that’s what you were going to say” (KSW 29)—immediately follows Valentin’s Marxist declarations: “My ideals … Marxism” (KSW 28). From this preliminary moment in the novel, the intricate interpolation of revolutionary/homosexual occurs along with the other established hierarchies.

Gradually, Puig works at unraveling these dichotomies, first by uniting them as two sides of the same “leaf” and then by neutralizing them through the presentation of ambiguities concerning the hierarchy. This is masterfully achieved through the complex and increasingly familiar interlocution of Molina and Valentin and their individual actions. Although both men declare an indifference towards and even a denial of the other’s personal ideology on several occasions, Valentin proclaims the following to Molina: “I think that I have to know more about you, that’s what, in order to understand you better. If we’re going to be in this cell together like this, we ought to understand one another better, and I know very little about people with your type of inclination” (KSW 59). Conversely, when Valentin initially attempts to recruit Molina into his political movement, Molina firmly refutes him: “Valentin, I’m telling you. I don’t want to hear a word of it. Not where they are, not who they are, nothing!” (KSW 251). Of course, Molina attempts to distance himself from Valentin’s political activities not only out of indifference, but also for Valentin’s own protection. Valentin is completely unaware that the warden of the prison has coerced Molina into extracting political information from him, in return for an early release. Molina, however, is unable to carry out the plan because he has fallen in love with Valentin.

Puig presents the gradual mutual seduction of both men; Molina seduces Valentin physically through the narration of his metaphorical movies and through his maternal care-giving, whereas Valentin seduces Molina into acting in his movement through the promise of real love between the two men. Puig thus brings the intertwining of all of these dichotomies to a culmination with the sexual union of Molina and Valentin. The fact that it happens on several occasions—at one point Molina utters the revealing phrase: “Each time you’ve come to my bed” (KSW 236)—together with the fact that the couple seal their union with one final, intimate kiss at the point of their departure suggest that each component of every violent hierarchy personified by the two protagonists is finally annihilated through the acceptance of the innate incompleteness of meaning of each separate component, and their subsequent absorption of the other.

However, this symbolic assimilation of one half of the violent hierarchy into the other is only the first step in deconstructing the entire system. Once the physical union of Valentin and Molina occurs, the union of all other hierarchies also takes place: oppressor/oppressed, conservative/revolutionary, heterosexual/homosexual, reality/fantasy, etc. The next step is the disclosure of each hierarchy as an indefinable and completely displaced construct.

This can be witnessed through the myriad of uncertainties found in the actions of both men during and after their relationship. In the Derridean concept of “erasure,” the actual sign is inadequate and incomplete, but also necessary. Therefore it is accepted in its original, yet inadequate form. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, both Molina and Valentin accept the “inadequate” meaning of the other’s ideology. Valentin, a heterosexual, enters into a homosexual union with Molina without “becoming” a homosexual. Molina, although uninterested in political subversion, agrees to take part in Valentin’s political activity without actually subscribing to his particular ideology. This is only one ambiguity present with regard to all violent hierarchies: the actions of both men contradict their personal identities and beliefs.

The keenest series of ambiguities can be found at the end of the novel, when a prison nurse gives Valentin, who has suffered severe torture, a hallucinogenic drug to help ease his pain. The internal monologue that follows occurs in a dreamlike state, in which all components of each dichotomy are rendered meaningless and thus chaotic.

The first dichotomy proven to be inadequate during this episode is Valentin’s own sexuality. The fact that he, a heterosexual, willingly enters into a homosexual relationship creates many questions for those trapped in a binary worldview. Was Valentin truly a heterosexual? Did he experience a homosexual awakening? But asking such questions in the attempt to position Valentin on one half of the dichotomy only perpetuates binary ideologies. However, Valentin completely obliterates both heterosexuality and homosexuality during this interior monologue, when he begins to combine invocations of his lover, Marta, with those of Molina. While declaring his love to Marta, Valentin interjects with, “Marta, how much I wish it with all my heart, let’s hope that he may have died happily” (KSW 279). Later, Valentin envisions a question asked by his lover: “And what would you like to have most to eat this minute?” (KSW 279). It remains unclear who has asked him the question, Molina or Marta, because it was Molina who fed and nursed Valentin during his sickness in their jail cell. The substantial number of sexual ambiguities in this passage precisely represents Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theoretical approach. In the end it is impossible to discern not only that which is homosexual or heterosexual, but also that which is masculine and feminine, as genders become confused and as the merger of Molina and Marta creates a new sexual being.

During the same dreamlike state, Valentin obliterates the political conservative/political revolutionary juxtaposition that centers on Molina. What is left enigmatic is whether Molina truly believed in what he was doing on Valentin’s behalf, or whether he just fulfilled the request out of love. Valentin comments that “the only one who knows for sure is him, if he was sad or happy to die that way, sacrificing himself for a just cause, because he’s the only one who will ever have known” (KSW 279). Additionally, it becomes impossible to draw the line be­tween the two dichotomies, due the contradiction between Molina’s professed beliefs and his actual behavior.

Finally, Valentin appropriates the cinematic discourse, so prevalent in Molina’s behavioral patterns, in this final interior monologue to help him escape from the present reality of his torture and pain. He envisions himself on a beach, where he encounters a beautiful woman who is holding and comforting him. This “Spider Woman” evokes qualities of Molina and Marta. Valentin himself admits that the end of his movie is impossible to complete, because “the ending is enigmatic” (KSW 280). Reality and fantasy become so intertwined that it becomes impossible to delineate and, consequently, to define either one.

The final lines of the text further erase the differences found in each of the violent hierarchies. Valentin terminates his interior monologue with the following words: “Marta, oh how much I love you! That was the only thing I couldn’t tell you, I was so afraid you were going to ask me that and then I was going to lose you forever. ‘No, Valentin, beloved, that will never take place, because this dream is short but this dream is happy’” (KSW 281). Marta, Valentin’s true love, was the woman whom he left to pursue his interests in the revolution. As he declares his regrets at having done this, the reader is unable to clearly pinpoint Valentin’s political ideologies. Did he regret leaving Marta or entering the revolution, or both? The two sides are accepted as incomplete and undefinable. The blending of Marta’s and Molina’s identities thus renders it impossible to distinguish between the homosexual and the heterosexual. Finally, Valentin terminates this dream with a quote from Marta/Molina. She/he is telling him that the dream that he is experiencing is short but happy. What is unclear is that which constitutes the dream and that which constitutes reality. They too become indefinable. The entire system of binary structures has thus been destroyed.

In this manner, the deconstruction which takes place in the novel is complete. A feeling of nothingness and incompleteness remains. The constant intermingling of all entities during Valentin’s dreamlike state is chaotic and multiplicitous. In this way, Puig has achieved his goal of creating a new dialectic with regard to the mainstreaming of previously unprivileged, marginalized groups. It is not by catapulting one half of the dichotomy to a position of superiority. Rather, Puig systematically dismantles the entire binary ideological system, and this deconstruction remains as one of the most enigmatic, ambiguous elements of the novel. Puig proposes that the irrational state is a closer approximation of reality than the rational state, because binary systems falsely perpetuate oppressive dichotomies. Ambiguity, attained through deconstruction, is the recontemplation of rational thought that enables the reader to find and consider a new dialectic.


[1] María Mercedes Velasco, “El marianismo y el machismo en El beso de la mujer araña,” Cuadernos Americanos 5.25 (1991): 182. My translation.
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[2] Velasco 182.
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[3] Elias Miguel Muñoz, “El discurso utópico de la sexualidad en El beso de la mujer araña, de Manuel Puig” (Utopian Discourse on Sexuality in Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig), Revista Iberoamericana 52.135–36 (1986): 364. My translation.
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[4] Fernando Reati, “Hay amores que matan: ortodoxia política y transgresión sexual en El beso de la mujer araña y Arturo, la estrella más brillante” (There are Loves that Kill: Political Orthodoxy and Sexual Transgression in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Arturo, the Most Brilliant Star), Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4.1–2 (1992): 21. My translation.
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[5] Jonathan Tittler, “Odd Coupling: A Posthumous View,” World Literature Today 65.4 (1991): 602.
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[6] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1976) 11.
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[7] Derrida 23.
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[8] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) 34.
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[9] Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman, trans. Thomas Colchie (New York: Knopf, 1979) 28. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text after the abbreviation KSW.
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[10] David H. Bost, “Telling Tales in Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña,” South Atlantic Review 54.2 (1989): 93–106.
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