The Haunting Letter: Presence, Absence, and Writing in Sab

Emmy Herland


Written expression allows for communication across absences both spatial and temporal. In fact, Jacques Derrida argues in his essay “Signature Event Context” (1988) that absence is an element of every communication and, because of this absence, meaning shifts with new contexts and displacements. When the titular character of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s 1841 Cuban-Spanish Gothic novel Sab – a black slave in love with his white mistress – dies immediately after finishing a letter, he imbues the writing with his presence by way of his first-person expression and personal narrative, while simultaneously ensuring his irreversible absence from his text by death. That his letter outlives him allows for the reiteration of Sab’s final words and thoughts each time his letter is reread. This play between absence and presence inherent in Sab’s letter is the same essential paradox of the specter as described by Derrida in Specters of Marx (1993). Sab’s combined presence and absence in his letter turns him into a kind of ghost that haunts those who read his words.

In this paper, I analyze Sab’s letter and its rippling effect throughout the story. The letter acts to identify Sab — and through him the institution of slavery that he both represents and protests against — as the haunting figure of the novel. This haunting, by its very existence, critiques the remembrance of history.


Ghost; Haunting; Gothic; Cuban Gothic; Caribbean; Epistolary; Derrida; Sab

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