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Exile by Julia Alvarez

In her poem “Exile,” the Dominican-American poet Julia Alvarez shares her childhood memory of setting adrift from her motherly shores to a distant land, America. Alvarez, born in New York in 1950 and brought up in the Dominican Republic for ten years, had to leave her parental home due to his father’s involvement in the political affairs of his country. He was charged with the conspiracy to overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960. Hence, his family had to leave the country as soon as possible in order to save their lives. This poem shares the memory of that particular night when Alvarez left her motherland with her family.

  • Read the full text of “Exile” here, along with the analysis section.
Analysis of Exile by Julia Alvarez


Summary

Alvarez was merely ten-years-old when they had to leave their country. The adult matters were not comprehensible at this young age. All she knew was that they were heading to the beach for a cozy vacation. However, from the reaction of her parents and other members, it becomes clear that they were filing themselves away from their country. So, the poem “Exile” dives into a child’s perception of banishment or forced exile and her struggle to digest the contrast between reality and illusion. In this piece, Alvarez vividly portrays the happenings of that night. The experience was like plunging into unfriendly waters with the hope of being saved.

Structure & Form

Julia Alvarez’s “Exile” is a narrative poem that records the experiences of the night when the poet had to leave the Dominican Republic. This piece records the emotions of several characters and vividly depicts the setting. Alvarez writes this poem in free-verse. It means there is no specific rhyme scheme or meter. Besides, it is a long lyric poem consisting of a total of 17 quatrains or stanzas having four lines. Though the poet uses the quatrain-stanza form, the sense of a particular stanza gets completed in the following stanzas. It is written in an unbreakable flow that taps on each event that occurred on that night.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Readers can find the use of the following literary devices in “Exile.”

  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Alvarez uses this device to make readers go through the consecutive lines in order to get the hang of her ideas. For instance, it occurs in the first eight lines of the poem.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in neighboring words can be found in the following phrases, “worried whispers,” “highway, heading,” “dark, deserted,” “slim and sure,” etc.
  • Repetition: Alvarez repeats specific terms to display the emotional turbulence in the speaker’s mind. For example, in the first line of the ninth stanza, the speaker uses the term “until” followed by a pause (displayed through the ellipsis) and repeats the same term.
  • Simile: It occurs in the following lines, “my arms out like Jesus’ on His cross,” “escalators/ moving belts,” “a girl who looked like Heidi,” “Or like, Papi, two swimmers looking down,” etc.
  • Metaphor: In this poem, Alvarez uses the metaphor of swimming to describe the escape from Ciudad Trujillo. For instance, she uses this device in, “I let myself back in the deep waters … magically, that night, I could stay up.”
  • Imagery: Alvarez makes use of visual, kinesthetic, and organic imagery in this poem. She visually depicts their escape that night and conveys her internal feelings (of loss, absurdity, and sadness) by using organic images.


Themes

Alvarez explores the themes of displacement, alienation, loss, and detachment in her poem “Exile.” This poem is about an innocent speaker’s experience of being expelled from her motherland — the country where she was brought up till the age of ten. Her discovery of the fact that she could no longer reside in her home or go to the family beach house on vacations. The lies her parents desperately told her to feel safe and calm could not hold onto her emotional rampage for long. It was meant to become clear at some point that she had to leave her birthplace, once and forever. In the last few lines of the poem, Alvarez describes her struggle to fit in a new country and to mold herself according to cultural needs.

Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-8

The night we fled the country, Papi,

you told me we were going to the beach,

hurried me to get dressed along with the others,

while posted at a window, you looked out

at a curfew-darkened Ciudad Trujillo,

speaking in worried whispers to your brothers,

which car to take, who’d be willing to drive it,

what explanation to give should we be discovered …

Alvarez wrote the poem “Exile” based on her experience of leaving Ciudad Trujillo and settling in New York City in 1960. Everything happened so quickly that she could not even formulate whether she was drowning or floating awake, taken far away by the tide of banishment.

The memory of that night is still vivid in her memory. Her father (Papi) told her they were heading for a vacation to the beach. So, they needed to dress up quickly. In the meantime, his father stood at the window devising what would happen on the road. He was aware that the dangling knife of death was right above his neck. Why could he not be so tense? He was involved in the treason of overthrowing the military dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

However, he tried to look outside. He watched how the capital (Ciudad Trujillo, also known as Santo Domingo) looked in the utter darkness of the curfew. He spoke to his brother in whispers in fear that someone might hear their plot. They had to make sure everything was going right according to their plan of fleeing the country at dawn.

Alvarez could hear their worrisome whispers lingering in the room. They discussed which car to take for not getting discovered, who was going to drive, and how they would lie when caught red-handed. She could remember each event of that night, no matter how fast everything happened. These broken pieces are worth jotting down as something to hold onto and share with the future generation. Thus, readers could revisit history and reevaluate the events by keeping her personal notes in view.

Lines 9-16

On the way to the beach, you added, eyeing me.

The uncles fell in, chuckling phony chuckles,

What a good time she’ll have learning to swim!

Back in my sisters’ room Mami was packing

a hurried bag, allowing one toy apiece,

her red eyes belying her explanation: 

a week at the beach so Papi can get some rest. 

She dressed us in our best dresses, party shoes.

No matter what kept sprinting in his head, Alvarez’s father had to alleviate the tension from her mind. So, he eyed her and told her what they would see on the way to the beach. Her uncles followed his lead and put fake smiles on their faces. They told him about the “good time” little Alvarez would have learning to swim. However, she could sense how hard they tried to fake their desperation and apprehension.

While in her sisters’ room, Mami was packing hurriedly. She allowed some of their toys. Besides, she told them another lie that they were going to the beach so their father could get some rest. But, her “red eyes” told something else. It was difficult to hide her real emotions when she knew what was waiting for them if they did not hurry. However, she dressed the children in their best dresses and party shoes in order to make them feel happy, somehow.

Lines 17-28

Something was off, I knew, but I was young

and didn’t think adult things could go wrong.

So as we quietly filed out of the house

we wouldn’t see again for another decade,

I let myself lie back in the deep waters,

my arms out like Jesus’ on His cross,

and instead of sinking down as I’d always done,

magically, that night, I could stay up,

floating out, past the driveway, past the gates,

in the black Ford, Papi grim at the wheel,

winding through back roads, stroke by difficult stroke, 

out on the highway, heading toward the coast.

In the fifth stanza of “Exile,” it becomes clear that the speaker (Alvarez) could sense “Something was off.” However, she tried to console her that nothing might have happened. As a child, she was not aware that adult things could go wrong and have harsh consequences. Afterward, they quietly left their house that they would not see again for quite a long time (probably for another decade).

In the next stanza, Alvarez uses figurative language in order to describe how she felt on the road. After she sat in the car, it felt like she was in deep waters. The image of crucified Jesus appeared in her mind. She could resonate with Jesus’ pain on the cross. When the car set off, she thought she would sink down in the waters. But, magically, she could stay up that night. Something deep down told her that it was not the end. She had to keep floating until she reached the shore.

In this way, Alvarez compares the car ride to the idea of swimming. As their black Ford was past the driveway and main gate, her Papi drove the car rashly. He chose back roads and managed to reach the highway. Then, the family headed toward the coast.

Lines 29-36

Past the checkpoint, we raced towards the airport,

my sisters crying when we turned before

the family beach house, Mami consoling,

there was a better surprise in store for us!

She couldn’t tell, though, until … until we were there.

But I had already swum ahead and guessed

some loss much larger than I understood,

more danger than the deep end of the pool.

When the car took past the checkpoint, they dashed towards the airport. Her father took a turn just before their beach house. It made Alvarez’s sisters cry. Her mother tried to console her, saying that a better surprise was there for them.

She could not explain until they finally reached there. Here, the poet hints at reaching the airport and leaving the country. Though she was a child then, she could understand the loss. She had already swum ahead of the deep waters. Staying in Ciudad Trujillo was more dangerous than the deep end of the pool. If they were caught, nobody could save them.

Lines 37-44

At the dark, deserted airport we waited.

All night in a fitful sleep, I swam.

At dawn the plane arrived, and as we boarded,

Papi, you turned, your eyes scanned the horizon 

as if you were trying to sight a distant swimmer,

your hand frantically waving her back in,

for you knew as we stepped inside the cabin

that a part of both of us had been set adrift.

In the tenth stanza of “Exile,” Alvarez describes the events that happened at the airport. It was dark when they finally reached there. In the deserted airport, they waited for the first light. While at night, the speaker had a “fitful sleep,” but in her mind, she kept swimming. At dawn, their plane arrived, and they boarded.

Her Papi looked back while boarding in and scanned the horizon for the last time. It occurred to the speaker as if her father was trying to find a distant swimmer. The swimmer symbolizes part of himself that was detached from her soul while leaving. His hand frantically waved her back, but she refused to get in. Both of them knew that part of them had already set adrift. They were going to stay there forever while the speaker and her father left.

Lines 45-56

Weeks later, wandering our new city, hand in hand,

you tried to explain the wonders: escalators

as moving belts; elevators: pulleys and ropes;

blond hair and blue eyes: a genetic code.

We stopped before a summery display window

at Macy’s, The World’s Largest Department Store,

to admire a family outfitted for the beach:

the handsome father, slim and sure of himself,

so unlike you, Papi, with your thick mustache,

your three-piece suit, your fedora hat, your accent. 

And by his side a girl who looked like Heidi

in my storybook waded in colored plastic.

From this stanza of the poem “Exile,” Alvarez starts to talk about her life in New York City. She had a completely new set of experiences there. Weeks later, after her arrival, she went out with her father. Her father tried to explain the “wonders” of the new city that including the escalators, elevators, and the people. He described the escalators as moving belts and the elevators as pulleys and ropes. People had blond hair and blue eyes for respective genetic codes. In this way, her father tried to simplify what they came across while wandering in the city.

They stopped before a summery display window at Macy’s department store. The advertisement depicted a family outfitted for the beach. There was a handsome, slim, and confident father, unlike her own father. Her father had a thick mustache. He was dressed formally in his three-piece suit and fedora hat.

Alvarez interestingly places the term “accent” alongside the garments worn by her father. For immigrants, their accent or the way they converse separate them from the native inhabitants. It acts as a barrier in the path of cultural assimilation. In order to fit it, one has to learn the accent of the majority.

There was a girl beside the handsome father in the advertisement. She looked like Heidi in her storybook. Heidi is the central character of the Swiss children’s fiction in two parts, Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning and Heidi: How She Used What She Learned. This fiction deals with the events of a five-year-old girl’s life, who lived with her paternal grandfather in the Swiss Alps. Alvarez specifically alludes to this character in order to compare her with her ten-year-old self. Both of them were alone. They tried to learn things on their own.

Lines 57-68

We stood awhile, marveling at America,

both of us trying hard to feel luckier

than we felt, both of us pointing out

the beach pails, the shovels, the sandcastles

no wave would ever topple, the red and blue boats.

And when we backed away, we saw our reflections

superimposed, big-eyed, dressed too formally

with all due respect as visitors to this country.

Or like, Papi, two swimmers looking down

at the quiet surface of our island waters,

seeing their faces right before plunging in,

eager, afraid, not yet sure of the outcome.

The last three stanzas of “Exile” further delve into the feelings of the speaker. After looking at the advertisement, they stood there for a while, marveling at America. They somehow tried hard to feel luckier. No matter how hard they tried, the void inside them could never be filled.

They pointed out the beach pails, shovels, sandcastles, and boats displayed in the advertisement. It made them think about the metaphorical “sandcastle” that they built. They thought no wave would ever topple it.

While they backed away, they saw their reflections superimposed on the summery display. Their reflection on the glass screen was in stark contrast with the image of a happy American family. She felt like a visitor to this country, not one of their own.

Moreover, they felt like swimmers. It appeared to her as if they were looking down at the quiet surface of their island waters. They could see their reflection on the still water before plunging in. Their eyes seemed eager to know about the new country. At the same time, they were unsure and afraid of the outcome. In this way, Alvarez describes their exile in America as plunging into unknown waters.

Conflicts

Alvarez’s “Exile” is a narrative poem. It contains several conflicts that help readers understand the emotional state of the speaker as well as her family members. The first conflict appears in the fourth stanza. In this stanza, the poet describes the conflict inside her mother’s mind. She was extremely sad, but she could not express her real emotions to her daughter. In the ninth stanza, Alvarez draws attention to the mental strife while leaving her paternal home. She was aware of the loss. However, she could not comprehend its magnitude. Another conflict occurs in lines 53-54. Here, Alvarez talks about the cultural gap between them and the Americans. She also hints at her feelings of alienation in these lines.

Historical Context

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950. She lived the next ten years of life in the Dominican Republic. In 1960, she had to flee to the US after her father conspired to overthrow the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Alvarez revisits her experience of leaving the country in her poem “Exile.” This piece was published in her first collection of poetry, The Homecoming, in 1984. In this poem, she shares how they hurriedly fled the country at night. Besides, she also talks about her initial reactions after settling down in America.

Questions and Answers

What is “Exile” by Julia Alvarez about?

Julia Alvarez’s “Exile” is about the poet’s departure from her country (Dominican Republic) due to her father’s involvement in the plot against Rafael Trujillo. In this poem, she describes how her family fled to America and her feelings throughout the journey.

How is the conflict in the poem “Exile” by Julia Alvarez resolved?

The conflict of the poem is neither resolved. In the ending lines, Alvarez talks about plunging into an unknown future with apprehension and eagerness. At that time, she did not know how things would unravel. So, she kept swimming metaphorically, hoping to reach the shores finally.

What is the theme of the poem “Exile”?

This piece taps on the themes of exile, alienation, loss, and detachment. In this poem, Alvarez shares her painful childhood memory of leaving her country. For further details, refer to the Themes section.

Who is the speaker in “Exile”?

The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet Julia Alvarez herself. She uses the first-person narrative technique to tell the story of her exile.

What does the speaker in “Exile” mean when she says she is “floating”?

When the speaker says she is floating, she talks about fleeing from her country to America. In the car heading to the airport, she felt floating on water, not knowing where the waves would lead her.

What does the poem tell us about the speaker’s feelings about America?

The speaker’s feelings resonate with the sense of alienation and detachment. In the new country, she felt like an odd piece. The way she dressed and spoke was in stark contrast with the Americans.

What is the extended metaphor in “Exile”?

In “Exile,” Alvarez uses the extended metaphor of swimming in order to hint at her exile to America. While leaving her home, she felt like floating on unknown waters, not knowing where she was heading to.

The amount of time that is expressed throughout “Exile” is?

The amount of time expressed throughout the poem is from midnight to dawn. Alvarez describes the events that occurred on the night of leaving her country.

Why is “Exile” considered a narrative poem?

Alvarez’s “Exile” tells the story of her metaphorical exile to America using her own voice and the voices of other characters (her parents and uncles). It contains a setting and the plot is driven by the conflicts inside the characters’ minds. Besides, the poem begins immediately without a formal introduction of the speaker. For these reasons, it is an ideal example of narrative poetry.

In “Exile,” the family’s fear is depicted using which figurative language phrases?

The family’s fear is depicted using the following figurative phrases: “curfew-darkened Ciudad Trujillo,” “worried whispers,” “chuckling phony chuckles,” “there was a better surprise in store for us,” etc.

Which statement best summarizes the story told in “Exile”?

The first line, “The night we fled the country” best summarizes the whole poem. While the essence of the poem lies in the line, “some loss much larger than I understood.”

What can you infer about the speaker in “Exile” from the description in lines 49-56?

From lines 49-56, readers can infer that the speaker felt alienated in America. The advertisement of a happy American family outfitted for the beach reminded her of the fact that she did not belong to that country.

In “Exile,” where do the adults tell the speaker that the family is going?

The adults told the speaker and her sister that they were going to a beach for vacation. Her father needed some time off from work.

Where does the family actually go?

The family actually went to New York City by taking an early flight from Ciudad Trujillo in 1960.


Similar Poems

  • “Crossing the Border” by Joy Harjo — Refer to this piece for a comparative analysis of the themes of alienation, detachment, and immigration.
  • “I, Too, Sing América” by Julia Alvarez — In this poem, Alvarez talks about how she celebrates her American identity, amalgamated with her Dominican roots.
  • “Rehabilitation” by Shankha Ghosh — This poem alludes to the partition of India and describes how several people were forced to leave their homes.
  • “Death of a Young Son by Drowning” by Margaret Atwood — This piece shares a mother’s pain for the death of her only son in a new country.
  • “Housing Targets” by Kelwyn Sole — This poem taps on the theme of feeling lost and hopelessness.


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