Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Antônio’s conversion from good-time Charlie to man of commitment embodies the two main themes of Jubiabá, which, like Antônio’s two phases, seem somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, Amado celebrates the local color of Bahia, particularly its Afro-Brazilian culture. He refers to local history and waxes poetic about the city of Salvador, its environs, and the sea. He incorporates bits of local folklore—songs, superstitions, stories. The richest of this local culture seems to belong to the poor blacks who inhabit Capa-Negro Hill. They enjoy a sense of community, are fun-loving, and have a priest who wields the powers of African voodoo. All of these elements are combined in their religion, whose insistent drums roll out over the town below.

On the other hand, Amado pursues a political theme, championing the downtrodden poor (who include those happy blacks on Capa-Negro Hill). Beautiful Bahia, it seems, is rife with social injustice. Examples of victims abound, from assorted individuals to Antônio’s street gang to the tobacco workers to prostitutes to the dockworkers. Their plight is represented most poignantly by the near-bankrupt circus, whose performers go on display and risk their lives daily but rarely earn enough to make ends meet. If the poor worker’s life is a crazy circus, there is always a way out—Viriato the Dwarf’s way. Yet a better way, Amado suggests, is to fight back—to go on strike, shut down the city, and take power into one’s own hands. Why should the circus’s hungry lion cry, when it can eat its trainer?

The slumbering power of the poor is symbolized by the drums rolling out over the city, by the fervor of the macumba sessions, and, most of all, by the rippling muscles of Baldo the Negro. His fighting spirit is inherited from Africa and handed on to him by Jubiabá. For a long time, Antônio expends his energy in aimless loving and fighting, in boxing matches and circus acts. Yet even he eventually becomes aware of the lack of purpose in his life. In the end, he learns to love the suffering poor and to direct his fighting spirit at their oppressors.