Dove’s History Lesson “Parsley” by Rita Dove is a poem that tells the story of true events that happened in the early 1900s in the Dominican Republic. Dove tells the story of how the dictator of the Dominican Republic had over 20,000 Haitian workers killed because they couldn’t pronounce the word “perejil,” which is Spanish for parsley, correctly. The poem is broken up into two parts; the first part is given from the Haitians’ perspective, while the second part is from the dictator Rafael Trujillo’s perspective.
This is a significant structural element of the poem because it allows readers to have it allows readers to understand the thought processes of the victims of the massacre, the Haitians, but at the same time understand the thought processes of the facilitator of the massacre, Trujillo. The first part of the poem is titled “The Cane Fields” and is the part which is given from the Haitians’ perspective. It starts out with the Haitians describing their work. The narrator talks about the sugarcane in the swamp and says that “we cut it down” (4).
Cutting sugarcane down was a job that most migrant workers from Haiti did. While they were doing their work the narrator describes how Trujillo “searches for a word” (5). The word he is searching for is “perejil,” and he kills everyone who doesn’t pronounce it right. This is a tough task for the Haitian workers because they “cannot speak an R. ” The Haitians pronounce the word “pelejil” because they can’t roll the letter “r,” so Trujillo kills them. This helps readers understand why the Haitians are getting killed and feel sympathy for them.
There are many readers who can’t roll the letter “r,” so those who can’t sympathize with the workers even more because they realize that if they were in the same predicament they would have been killed too. The fourth stanza shows that Trujillo had no mercy, not even for young children. This is shown in the line where the narrator says “The children gnaw their teeth” (11). This paints a picture of the children grinding their teeth out of fear because they know death is near.
This helps the readers understand the Haitians even more because the children gnawing their teeth lets the reader know that they are terrified because they know their death is near. The killing of children allows the reader to sympathize with the Haitians even more because everyone can sympathize with the death of a child, so the massacre of thousands of children makes readers more sympathetic. The fact that Dove has a first-person plural narrator to show the Haitians’ perspective also allows readers to understand them. Using terms like “us” and “we” instead of terms like “they” and “them” helps readers connect to the story better.
For example, when the narrator says “we lie down screaming” (7), it gives readers the ability to put themselves in the Haitians’ situation laying down and screaming with them. The second part of the poem is titled “The Palace” and is given from the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo’s perspective. It starts out with the new narrator discussing how the Trujillo thinks “of his mother, how she died” (23). This helps readers understand the dictator because everyone has had a family member that was close to them die, which left them a little mentally distraught.
In Trujillo’s case the death of his mother might have driven him so crazy to the point where he didn’t care about anyone’s life any more and completely lost his morality. A few stanzas later the narrator describes how “a startled tear” (66) came down Trujillo’s eye after someone calls his name similar to how his mother used to. This makes readers understand him more because it shows he is still hurt by his mother’s death. Even though he is a dictator who massacres thousands of innocent people, the fact that he still cries helps readers understand that he is so upset over his mother’s death that maybe it drove him to massacre innocent people.
The fact that Dove has a third person narrator for Trujillo’s perspective makes it easier for readers to understand him than if it were a first person narrator. This is because if it were a first person narrator using words like “I” and “me” it would have just seemed like Trujillo was trying to make himself look good by appealing to the soft side of readers. But since the narrator is a third person it is more effective in making readers sympathize with him a little because it shows that someone in the palace has sympathy for him and if someone in the palace has sympathy for him, then maybe readers should too.
The part from the Haitians’ point of view is only 19 lines long, while the part from the dictator’s point of view is 53 lines long. Dove used about three times as many lines on the dictator as she did for the Haitians because it takes more in order to get readers to understand a murdering dictator. Dove’s separation of the two different perspectives makes readers think about the feelings of both parties involved in the story. It allowed readers to understand the people being murdered, while also understanding he murderer and his reasons for killing at the same time. Separating the poem into two parts also allows readers to better understand what was going on in the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s. It shows that the Haitian migrant workers felt and how the dictator felt at the time of the massacre. Dove made sure that readers understood both parties involved to inform and create a better understanding of a crucial event in the history of the Dominican Republic which is seldom talked about in America.