In Evil Hour

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Gabriel García Márquez sets In Evil Hour in an indefinite time and place, but given his description of the mysterious setting, we can assume it to be a town in his native lowlands along the Caribbean coast of Colombia during the late 1950’s. The action thus occurs during that tempestuous period of Colombian history known as La Violencia, a period of anarchic struggle between factions roughly paralleling the traditional Colombian Liberal and Conservative parties. Most of the novel, however, takes place during a long lull in the hostilities while the town is experiencing an uneasy peace and wondering when the general killing will begin anew. This foreboding, in the effective imagery of García Márquez, pollutes the very environment of the unnamed community which suffers from the humidity, rains, and floods of its tropical climate. The floods leave carcasses strewn about the town, at one point befouling the air with the stench of a dead cow. The foreboding is such that even in the church a dead mouse is found floating in the holy water.

Within this ominous environment García Márquez develops his plot around the mysterious appearance, on doors throughout the town, of posters lampooning the unmentionable “secret” sins of the inhabitants. These lampoons, though seemingly innocuous gossip, so terrorize the townspeople that their fear of the posters becomes synonymous with their fear of the impending civil strife. Subliminally, the townspeople know that open criticism such as the lampoons represent could lead to violence because individuals and groups will go to any length to avoid or avenge public humiliation. Exposure of imperfections or supposed imperfections forces the targets of such criticism to compare their public image of themselves with “reality,” a comparison that can prove psychologically unbearable when it reveals an apparent disparity. The reaction of individuals and groups to such public shame, especially their political reaction, is the central theme of In Evil Hour.

Dealing as he does with the psychology of a community, García Márquez presents us with a cross section of the town’s population: laborers, shopkeepers, aristocrats, professionals, and government officials. While this multitude leads to some confusion and shallowness in characterization, the major figures—the mayor, Father Ángel, Judge Arcadio, and the dentist—achieve a good degree of complexity despite the brevity of the novel. Structurally, these figures, together with some of the minor characters such as the doctor and the barber, functon, by nature of their occupations, as links between the town’s different social groups and, consequently, between the novel’s different episodes. Presented as the townspeople engage in their daily activities, these realistic episodes each center on the lives of two or three characters and reveal the reasons why these individuals do or do not fear the mysterious lampoons. The plot, therefore, while superficially exhibiting the episodic quality of daily life, is unified by the common concern over the posters and builds to a climax as everyone wonders what will be done about the lampoons and whoever is posting them.

The first important incident to result from the posters occurs early in the novel when César Montero, a rich lumberman, who reads of his wife’s “infidelity,” openly murders her alleged lover. Publicly shamed by the lampoon placed on his door, Montero reacts violently because he finds an ostensible and unbearable discrepancy between his image of himself as a man and the “reality” of himself as a cuckold. Ironically, his wife has actually been faithful, but this only serves to show the power that public humiliation can have over its victim. While the lumberman and his family suffer the shame in this incident, his open murder of a fellow citizen threatens to shame the authorities who during the lull in La Violencia have been trying to restore the people’s confidence in the local and national governments’ abilities to maintain the peace. Thus, the lampoons indirectly threaten the image that the political establishment has projected, an image of a lawful system, itself resorting to violence only when absolutely necessary.

The members of the town’s political establishment are among the novel’s major characters: the mayor, Judge Arcadio, and, since the Catholic Church remains a strong political institution in Colombia, Father Ángel, the priest. At first, even after Montero’s crime, they dismiss the lampoons as a silly prank, changing this attitude only after the tension in the town becomes intolerable. Until...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)