The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal characters differ from one another radically, but they are similar in that each has a terrible fear particular to himself or herself. For Martim, it is the fear of acting—a fear which explains why the crime that he committed, one which he cherishes as an act, is essential to his survival. The crime, the nature of which is revealed only toward the end of the story, represents Martim’s symbolic banishment from Eden. Yet to Martim, a man who was in his former life a statistician—whose life depended on the most abstract of occupations—the crime is the impetus that sets him on the road to salvation, or so he believes. Martim is destined to be disillusioned, however, as he goes from rocks to plants to vermin to cattle to children and eventually to adults once again. Having abandoned his wife, son, job, and friends and fled into this wilderness, he nevertheless falls back into an involvement with complex human beings.

Vitória has spent much of her life caring for her dying father, and as a result, she has never had or at least has never reached for, a love of her own. She now fears love and has hardened herself against all possibility of it. The confrontation with Martim finally forces her to face her empty and near-tragic existence. At the climax of the novel, which occurs rather melodramatically during a rare and violent rainstorm, Vitória, unable to bear her dearth of love, races to the woodshed where Martim sleeps. Martim, however, has fled into the woods during the storm, like King Lear, distraught and seeking cleansing and purification in nature. It is not long after this episode that Vitória calls for the authorities to come pick up Martim.

Ermelinda has an elliptical way of talking to people. Unlike her cousin, she embraces love; in fact, she falls in love with Martim almost at first sight, and before long they have become lovers. Yet her way of expressing her feeling for him is strangely indirect. She explains that if she comes up and says to him, “Look at that fern!” she is really saying, “I love you.” Indeed, Ermelinda is so frightened of death that she has retreated into a world of private symbolism.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Martim (mahr-TEEM), a middle-aged statistician from São Paulo. A heavyset, blue-eyed man, he is in hiding because he believes that he killed his wife in a jealous rage. He hides out for two weeks in a hotel in central Brazil that is occupied only by a German and a servant. When he thinks they have gone to report his presence to the police, he flees overland and finds a job doing manual labor on a small farm in exchange for board and room. He spends a long time on the farm, which is owned and run by Vitória. He is involved for a while with Ermelinda, Vitória’s younger cousin. Most of the action takes place in Martim’s mind, as he tries to understand who he is and how he relates to his circumstances.


Vitória (vee-TOHR-ee-ah), a tough woman in her fifties who inherited a farm from an aunt and uncle whom she had visited in childhood. She spent her youth caring for her father, and only after his death has she been free to choose to move out to the country and run the farm herself. The farm is an isolated one, and until Martim appears, Vitória has lived with only the company of her cousin Ermelinda, Francisco the hired man, and a female mulatto cook and her small daughter. Attracted to Martim, Vitória is impelled to explain her life to him and, in the process, come to a better understanding of herself. At first, she is afraid of living and...

(The entire section is 410 words.)