Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the striking first paragraph of the novel, Queiroz introduces the tragic vision which will color much of Dôra’s story: “And so, as the Captain used to say, it’s natural to be in pain. I was always in pain. Pain always hurts, and the only time it doesn’t is when you are dead.” This statement points to Dôra’s realization that she, like all human beings, has been doomed to suffer and to die in a harsh, mutable world. Dôra, in fact, sees the effect of time everywhere; for life, to her, is like a rock gradually crumbling to nothingness. She sees this truth through the deaths of the Captain, Senhora, Laurindo, her stillborn daughter, and Delmiro; through the perpetual changes of nature; through the slow deterioration of her ranch; through the deterioration of human beings from old age; and through the dissipation of human emotion, whether it be anger, hate, friendship, happiness, or grief. Her obsession with time is rooted in the everyday reality which Queiroz so successfully creates through her episodic, extremely concrete narrative.

Yet Queiroz’s artistic vision resists morbidity because it also depicts, with the same vivid detail, the characters’ deep-seated need to struggle against time. This struggle enlivens the novel, especially since Queiroz plays the comic second section off the tragic first and third parts. Dôra’s love for the Captain, Brandini’s vitality, and the Captain’s bristling masculinity are attempts to challenge the horrors which inevitably come. Even more important, throughout the novel, there is a kind of tragic exultation in Dôra’s persistent, unsparing, and honest attempt to remember and to confront her everfading past. By trying to rescue her memories—an act which brings more pain to her already desolate existence on the ranch—she rejects the temptation to give in to time. Thus, she keeps the rosebud that the Captain once gave her: “I still have it pressed between the leaves of the dictionary; and even if it turns to dust and disappears, the impression that it made on the pages of the book will never leave.”