Barren Lives was Graciliano Ramos’s fourth and last full-length work of fiction. Later works were principally autobiographical, though he did publish some children’s stories. Unlike his other novels, which are narrated in the first person, this novel has an omniscient third-person narrator; however, the clever shifting of point of view nearly erases the presence of the narrator.
Like all Ramos’s novels, Barren Lives originated as a short story. Ramos first told the story of the death of an unusually intelligent female dog, then added pieces about her owners. When asked by his publisher for a new work of fiction, he added some chapters to the pieces already published separately, which may account for the episodic structure of the narrative. With the exception of the first and last chapters, the individual chapters seem much like self-contained short stories; the order could be changed without damage to the work itself, yet together they form a unity of vision. Nevertheless, the novel has sometimes been criticized for its episodic nature.
Ramos portrays elementary characters such as Fabiano and his family by revealing their psychology and simplifying textual language to approach the linguistic level of his characters. Even the dog is an empathetic character.
Ramos was an exemplary regionalist writer, locating all of his works in northeastern Brazil. Indeed, the landscape is a constant, if harsh, presence in Barren Lives, often in contrast to the corruption of town life. Ramos remains one of the most important authors of the modernist period in Brazil, and Barren Lives remains essential reading for students of South American literature.