Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barren Lives is both a portrait of a place and its people and a critique of a system. The place is the backlands, or the northeastern interior of Brazil; the people are the backlanders, rugged, hardworking, simple folk who struggle against all odds for survival. The system is that of landowners and their hired hands. The backlands are known for their cruel cycles of drought and flood. The backlanders are known variously as simple or stupid, ignorant or innocent, superstitious or devout, as likely to die from lack of water and food as by drowning. They are tenants on the land of others, working for landowners who provide them with housing and supplies in exchange for labor, paying them for that labor in cattle that they cannot afford to keep. The laborer must sell his profits to the landowner at unfairly low prices. The backlander is subject to the cycle of drought and flood and the cycle of debt peonage, always working and always owing, never able to move forward. Told from the perspective of each of the characters and especially from Fabiano’s point of view, the novel portrays a social determinism from which the characters cannot escape, and a fatalism with which they view the events of their lives.