Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The themes of Face are, from the beginning, symbolic and metaphysical in nature. Although the Brazilian setting, as manifested in Rio de Janeiro and Rio Piedras, is scrupulously drawn, such realistic features are not of the essence in this book. There is little conventional suspense in the action; readers are aware of Helio’s plight from the beginning, and there are at least hints of the course the novel will take. What is central to the novel is the examination of psychological issues of identity that Helio’s experience provokes. Without a face, Helio is without an identity. Even those who once loved him cannot now recognize him, even though he is still the same person inside. The way in which Helio carries on without a face and succeeds in making himself a new one, however, implies that faces are not indices of truth and authenticity; they are essentially disguises, additions to true identity that people make in order to function socially. Helio’s loss of his face calls attention to the conventional, rather than natural, origin of the selves people present to one another.

Helio’s self-reconstruction is reminiscent of existential themes of isolation and arbitrary self-projection. Yet, Helio is not seen purely as a victim powerless to alter his fate. In reconstructing his face, he displays not only a will to live but also an entrepreneurial assertiveness. Not content to play the role of victim that European philosophies would assign him, Helio reacts to his situation with a committed spirit of Third World resistance. This political and ethical undertone is all the more powerful because of the novel’s meticulous avoidance of obvious political themes.