Clarice Lispector gives a woman’s perspective on existential angst. This is the anxiety or uneasiness that comes from the sense that an individual is free to choose, and that what he or she becomes depends on these choices. To the existential thinker, one does not have an essential nature that is followed and fulfilled by the choices one makes, but rather one simply is, or exists, before being anything in particular. This sense of total freedom, the freedom, one may feel, of the void, causes nausea and paralysis. The existential thinker must get beyond this initial paralysis to take self-creative action. This notion is explored by the French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, among others. Lispector gives readers a woman’s attempt at resolving the existential dilemma in An Apprenticeship and elsewhere. In An Apprenticeship, Lori, the main character, begins with feelings of physical nausea and mental paralysis, but she goes through various stages of enlightenment or self-awareness until she is free enough to have a love affair with Ulysses, her tutor. He is going through a parallel process of learning to live.
Another of Lispector’s major themes is the tangled relationship between words and life. Many of her stories ask the question: Do the words of things alter their nature? The answer seems to be, to a greater or lesser extent, that yes, words affect their referents. In The Hour of the Star, the young woman Macabéa is on the lowest level of awareness because she knows so few words, and her rare moments of understanding come from words. Her creator Rodrigo is so entangled with the words of her existence that he claims he will not survive her. In The Apple in the Dark, Martim is running from the police—but the prison he finds himself in, the prison of self, has words for walls. Lispector uses innuendo and double meanings in ways that are difficult to translate. Language becomes both the means of self-awareness and the obstacle to it.
Allied with both these themes are Lispector’s social and political concerns. Her novels and stories usually focus on the lives of women in a society that has clearly defined female roles. Her women struggle with their limitations and either transcend them or fall victim to them. Their success is often linked to their ability to use words powerfully, to articulate themselves—as the impoverished young woman in The Hour of the Star could never do.
Poverty and oppression are found in her stories and novels, too, sometimes in the margin, as in the references to the poor schoolchildren that Lori clothes as well as teaches in An Apprenticeship, and sometimes at center stage, as in the description of the poverty-stricken heroine of The Hour of the Star. The hardships Lispector observed and lived during her first years in Brazil were not forgotten.
What most sets Lispector’s work apart is its style. Its violation of the conventions of fiction owes much to the French New Novel. In this revolutionary kind of antinovel, expectations of chronological development, consistent point of view, and clear causality in a coherent plot are intentionally not met. The New Novel also tends toward a flat, emotionless surface. Words are subjected to punning and fracture. With intuitive leaps and a focus on moments of development within a consciousness, Lispector’s work violates expectations of plot development. She emphasizes the free forming and reforming of self in her flowing, long sentences, in images of water and wind, and in violations of the conventions of punctuation. She also uses the pun, although her wordplay is diminished or lost in translation. In The Hour of the Star and other later work she also affects some of the flat tone of the New Novel, although usually if passion is not on the surface, it is evident beneath.
Lispector’s novels are more flowing and unstructured than her short stories, which tend to conform more to tradition. In the typical Lispector short story, a moment of self-awareness comes to the female main character through the medium of a chance event. In the novels, the main characters, usually but not always women, reach self-knowledge in stages. Lispector’s descriptions of a distinctively female consciousness through works structured according to intuition and laced with a rich symbolism make her a startlingly original writer.
“The Smallest Woman in the World”
First published: “A menor mulher do mundo,” 1960 (collected in Family Ties, 1972)
Type of work: Short story
Everyone reacts differently to the reported discovery in a remote jungle of a tiny pregnant woman, and her discoverer feels a mixture of attraction and repulsion.
“The Smallest Woman in the World,” a story in the Family Ties collection, has a combination of realistic and surrealistic elements that is frequently called Magical Realism. Marcel Pretre, a French explorer, finds a tiny pregnant woman in the Congo. She...
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