Clarice Lispector Short Fiction Analysis
Although Clarice Lispector achieved fame as a novelist as well as a writer of short stories, most critics agree that it is the shorter genre to which the author’s storytelling talents, writing style, and thematic concerns are more suited. The bulk of Lispector’s stories (particularly those published before 1970, for which the author is most famous) are intense and sharply focused narratives in which a single character (almost always female) is suddenly and dramatically forced to deal with a question concerning an integral part of her existence, and, by extension, on a thematic level, human existence itself. Save for a single act that prompts the character to look inward, there is little action in Lispector’s stories, as the author seeks not to develop a plot but instead to capture a moment in her character’s life. The central event of each story is not nearly so significant as the character’s reaction to it, as he or she is shocked out of complacency and forced into a situation that will lead to self-examination and, in most cases, self-discovery.
Because Lispector’s stories focus on the rarefied world of her characters’ subconscious, many of the short narratives possess a dreamlike quality. Adding to this quality is the lyrical prose in which the stories are written, a prose in which not only every word but also the syntax seems to have been very carefully selected, frequently making the reading of the pieces more like reading poetry than prose.
In spite of the emphasis on the inner world of her characters and the subjective and highly metaphorical language, Lispector’s stories still maintain contact with the world that exists beyond the confines of her characters’ minds. While the characters’ reaction to a given situation is intensely personal, the theme dealt with in that reaction is always a universal one, such as frustration, isolation, guilt, insecurity, uncertainty, or the coming of age; in other words, fundamental questions of human existence. Also, the events that trigger these questions in the characters’ minds are everyday events of modern society. In this way, Lispector manages to examine both private and universal human concerns while still keeping her stories grounded firmly in reality.
Lispector’s first collection of short stories, Alguns contos (some stories), appeared in 1952 and was immediately praised by critics. In fact, this one collection not only placed the author among the elite of Brazil’s writers of short fiction of the time, but also it showcased her as a leader among the new generation of writers in this genre.
Alguns contos contains six stories: “Mistério em São Cristóvão” (“Mystery in São Cristoóvão”), “Os laços de família” (“Family Ties”), “Começos de uma fortuna” (“The Beginnings of a Fortune”), “Amor” (“Love”), “A galinha” (“The Chicken”), and “O jantar” (“The Dinner”). All six narratives are lyrical pieces that focus on the act of epiphany—that is, a single moment of crisis or introspection from which the character emerges transformed. The story most representative not only of this collection but also of all Lispector’s short fiction is “Love.” Its central character, Ana, is a basically satisfied, middle-class wife whose world is stable, controlled, predictable. Taking the tram home from shopping one afternoon, however, she spots a blind man chewing gum. For some reason, Ana’s world is totally and inexplicably shaken by the sight of him. Disoriented, she gets off the tram well past her stop and finds herself in the relatively primitive and hostile setting of a botanical garden. Feeling out of place and even threatened, she makes her way home and attempts to resume her normal patterns, but while she is happy to be back in the security of her predictable domestic lifestyle, she has been profoundly affected by her brief and confusing excursion into a world foreign to her own, and she wonders if she can ever be as happy in her world as she was before.
This story is a Lispector classic, both because it presents a single character whose normal existence is shaken by a seemingly insignificant event, an event that destroys the stable lifestyle of the character and takes him or her to a new level of awareness concerning life, and because, in large part a result of its language, the story takes on a dreamlike quality that reflects the disoriented state of the protagonist. This story, however, is not unique; it is simply the best of a collection of six similar tales.
As good as Alguns contos is, Lispector’s next collection, Family Ties, surpasses it. In fact, this collection, the high point of Lispector’s work in short fiction, is truly one of the masterpieces of Brazilian literature, regardless of period or genre.
(The entire section is 2006 words.)