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.