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Barren Lives Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barren Lives is an episodic novel divided into thirteen chapters, each with its own title. Set in the northeast of Brazil, the novel follows the lives of Fabiano and his family as they struggle for survival in a region known for its drought cycle, with periods of severe drought killing cattle and making agriculture impossible, eventually followed by torrential rains and life-threatening floods. Though the novel is told by a third-person-omniscient narrator, the point of view shifts from character to character.

The story opens with Fabiano, Vitória, the two boys, their dog, and their parrot on the road during the drought season, in search of a new home. Exhausted, thirsty, and starving, with no food in sight, Vitória kills the family bird out of necessity. As an occasional cloud begins to appear in the sky—signaling possible rain—they come upon a deserted ranch house. Fabiano contracts work with the landowner, herding his cattle. The landowner pays him in cattle and goats, but since Fabiano raises no feed, he must sell his earnings to his boss at bargain prices. He is thus never able to get ahead and is always in debt to the landowner. He goes to the market in town to stock up on staples such as flour and salt. He wanders from store to store, certain that he will be cheated by the town folk, who understand sums better than he does. When a policeman invites him to a game of cards, he accepts, primarily because the policeman is a figure of authority. Both he and the policeman lose all their money at cards. The policeman then provokes Fabiano, who finally responds by insulting the man’s mother. Fabiano quickly finds himself in jail for the night, though he has committed no crime, and his fear of authority is again confirmed. He later runs into the same policeman in the country; he nearly kills him, but his respect for authority prevents him from acting.

The younger boy admires his father greatly. Watching Fabiano break a horse, dressed in the typical leather clothing of the herdsman—chaps, chest protector, jacket, and hat with a chin strap—he decides to imitate him. Unfortunately, the goat he chooses to tame is uncooperative, and the boy lands on his stomach in the dirt with his shirt torn.

The older boy overhears a neighbor mention the word “hell,” and he asks his mother what it means. Vitória, like the rest of the family, is illiterate and inarticulate; in frustration at her inability to answer her son’s question, she slaps him in the head.

The entire family goes to town for their yearly attendance at church. Fabiano and the boys have new suits; Vitória has a new dress. The boys walk comfortably in sandals, while Fabiano and Vitória struggle in their town shoes, finally taking off their fancy shoes and stockings until they come to the edge of town, where they bathe their feet and again put on their shoes. Fabiano’s fear of townspeople returns. He considers them evil cheaters who look down upon country folk like him. He makes the same mistake he made the last time he was in town: He buys a drink of rum. The rum makes him bold, and he considers gambling again, but Vitória casts a disapproving glance. He refrains from gambling but treats himself to another shot of rum, more than he can handle. The dog becomes ill. She is thin, with patchy hair and sores on her mouth. Though she has been a loyal member of the family, Fabiano decides he must kill her in order to protect the children. While Vitória huddles in their dark bedroom with the two boys, trying to cover their ears,...

(The entire section is 915 words.)