Study Guide

Barren Lives

by Graciliano Ramos

Barren Lives Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barren Lives is an episodic novel divided into thirteen chapters, each with its own title. Set in the northeast of Brazil, the novel follows the lives of Fabiano and his family as they struggle for survival in a region known for its drought cycle, with periods of severe drought killing cattle and making agriculture impossible, eventually followed by torrential rains and life-threatening floods. Though the novel is told by a third-person-omniscient narrator, the point of view shifts from character to character.

The story opens with Fabiano, Vitória, the two boys, their dog, and their parrot on the road during the drought season, in search of a new home. Exhausted, thirsty, and starving, with no food in sight, Vitória kills the family bird out of necessity. As an occasional cloud begins to appear in the sky—signaling possible rain—they come upon a deserted ranch house. Fabiano contracts work with the landowner, herding his cattle. The landowner pays him in cattle and goats, but since Fabiano raises no feed, he must sell his earnings to his boss at bargain prices. He is thus never able to get ahead and is always in debt to the landowner. He goes to the market in town to stock up on staples such as flour and salt. He wanders from store to store, certain that he will be cheated by the town folk, who understand sums better than he does. When a policeman invites him to a game of cards, he accepts, primarily because the policeman is a figure of authority. Both he and the policeman lose all their money at cards. The policeman then provokes Fabiano, who finally responds by insulting the man’s mother. Fabiano quickly finds himself in jail for the night, though he has committed no crime, and his fear of...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Barren Lives Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

De Oliveira, Celso Lemos. Understanding Graciliano Ramos. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Provides an overview of the author’s life and work and a bibliography. Chapter 5 examines Barren Lives.

Dimmick, Ralph Edward. “Introduction.” In Barren Lives, by Graciliano Ramos; translated by Ralph E. Dimmick. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965. A general introduction to the author, along with an analysis of the novel.

Ellison, Fred. Brazil’s New Novel: Four Northeastern Masters. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. An introduction to the novel of the Northeast and four of its principal authors. Chapter 4 is dedicated to Ramos.

Martins, Wilson. The Modernist Idea, translated by Jack E. Tomlins. New York: New York University Press, 1970. An overview of Brazilian modernism, with a chapter on Ramos as one of modernism’s exemplary authors.

Mazzara, Richard A. Graciliano Ramos. New York: Twayne, 1974. An excellent introduction to Ramos and his work, with a chronology and a bibliography. Barren Lives is discussed in several of the thematically arranged chapters.

Willem, Linda M. “Narrative Voice, Point of View, and Characterization in Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas Sêcas.” Mester 16, no. 1 (Spring, 1987): 18-26. A thorough discussion of Ramos’s use of a narrative strategy that seems to present the novel through the thoughts of illiterate, nearly inarticulate characters.