The Smallest Woman in the World Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The action plot of the story is quite simple. An explorer, Marcel Pretre, while on an excursion into equatorial Africa, comes across a tribe of extraordinarily small pygmies living in the forest. These pygmies tell him of an even smaller race of pygmies living deeper within the jungle. He travels even deeper into the heart of the luxuriant tropical forest and there discovers the smallest race of pygmies in the world. Among these minute creatures, he discovers “the smallest of the smallest pygmies in the world,” a tiny woman no more than forty-five centimeters (twenty-six and one-half inches) tall. She is mature; indeed, she is conspicuously pregnant, and she is quite black. She does not attempt to speak, and the reader learns that the tribe, the Likoualas, has only a very limited language and that its members communicate primarily by gestures.

The explorer is awed by this unique creature, considering her the rarest and most extraordinary creature on the earth because of her diminutive size. He takes photographs of her, prepares a description, and sends the photograph and article on to a newspaper, which publishes the life-size photograph, together with the article, in its Sunday supplement.

As readers of the Sunday newspaper see the photograph, they react in different ways, and these reactions and the comments they make are explored in the story as the next part of the narrative. The scene then shifts back to the jungle, where the explorer...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

The Smallest Woman in the World Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“The Smallest Woman in the World,” a story in the Family Ties collection, has a combination of realistic and surrealistic elements that is frequently called Magical Realism. Marcel Pretre, a French explorer, finds a tiny pregnant woman in the Congo. She is one of the remaining members of a race that has been almost completely destroyed by predators. There is a tension between the finder and his discovery, whom he names Little Flower. He finds her both attractive and repellent: repellent because of her strangeness and her primitive qualities and attractive because of her odd dignity.

The discovery, when reported in the newspaper, sparks a variety of responses, from the desire to make a pet of Little Flower to total rejection of her. Some readers are scientifically interested in her; others fear some element in her. The explorer is amazed to find her laughing: She laughs because she has not, as she expected, been eaten. She loves him because he did not eat her. He does not know what to do with the tiny woman’s profound love.

At the end of this brief tale, the explorer is keeping his baffled feelings at bay by distancing himself with scientific observation. The other observers, those who look at the phenomenon only through the news stories, dismiss the marvel. They say such things as: “Well, as I always say: God knows what He’s doing.”

This story can be read as an allegory about oppressors and oppressed, and about the profound strangeness that people find in each other. It describes the process of otherizing—making a person into a thing—that people frequently substitute for an attempt at understanding. It makes a comment on sexism, too, as the little woman remains resolutely human and individual. She ends the tale in possession of herself, despite the odds against her.

Lispector’s short stories are a good introduction to her work because they are clearly structured and direct. Many of her stories examine moments of discovery in the lives of women, mostly urban women, who come to positive or negative conclusions about themselves after the insight provoked by some incident. In “The Smallest Woman in the World,” the expected unhappy exploitation of Little Flower does not take place; instead there is a positive recognition of her humanity and of the possibility of safety.