Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
Esau and Jacob has 121 chapters and a brief preface. Some chapters are less than half a page in length, and none is more than six pages long. The novel is set primarily in the more fashionable neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro during the twenty-five-year era corresponding to the waning years of the Brazilian Empire and the beginning of the republic (1869-1894).
The preface states that the novel is the last of a seven-part manuscript written by the retired diplomat, Counselor Ayres, who thus serves as the author of the story. He is, however, also one of the principal characters. Ayres also plays yet another role: He is the narrator. In this role, he frequently addresses and questions the reader directly.
The epigraph from Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) at the head of the first chapter sets the tone for the entire novel. “Dico, che quando l’anima mal nata . . .” (“I mean, when the spirit born to evil . . .”) suggests that all characters have a flaw in their spirits or souls that will lead them as humans to do evil. As in the medieval literary epic, the reader of Esau and Jacob is led on a journey through hell in order to be instructed and purified.
The outer frame of the novel is concerned with an elaboration of the Santos family. The father is a highly successful businessman and director of his own bank who has acquired his great wealth through ruthless and questionable dealings. Natividade, his wife, consults the cabocla, a native fortuneteller, to learn what the future will be for her sons, the twins Pedro and Paulo. She is told: “Things fated to be!” “They will be great!” “They will fight!” Natividade’s life is consumed by the fate of her sons. She takes intense satisfaction in seeing Pedro and Paulo eventually becoming distinguished members of the Chamber of Deputies in the new republic. At the same time, however, she suffers the anguish of never having her sons live in harmony. They begin fighting while still in the womb and continue as young boys, with Paulo taking on the role of the liberal (his hero is Maximilien Robespierre) and Pedro being the conservative and champion of Louis XVI (both protagonists of the 1789 French Revolution); they hold similar opposing views when they serve in the government as adults. Their father is not concerned with this lack of concord among his sons. He is satisfied that they have attained status and prestige, since he cares only for the superficial approval of society.
A second family, the Baptistas, represents the political world of the times. Baptista, an attorney and party functionary, was formerly a governor of a distant province but because of some obscure political problems is forced to seek a new post. He is a rather reticent personality and must rely on the aggressiveness of his wife, Dona Claudia, to gain appointments for interviews for positions. However, since they are now living in a revolutionary era, there are no opportunities for members of his conservative party. To advance during these inauspicious times, Dona Claudia proposes that they become liberals, but he is equally unsuccessful trying to represent this point of view. Changing their political convictions is inconsequential for the Baptistas.
Their daughter, Flora, is totally unlike her parents. She is the same age as the identical twins Pedro and Paulo, is an accomplished pianist, and is described as a tender “flower of a single morning.” From age fifteen until her untimely death, Flora and Ayres share an unspoken, unrealized, and uncomplicated love for each other. It is, however, her relationship to Pedro and Paulo that is problematical. As a young woman, she is courted by both brothers whom she loves equally. As the twins become more competitive in their attempts to gain Flora’s exclusive love, she grows more incapable of differentiating between them. After an extended courtship, Flora one evening has a hallucinatory dream in which the voices and images of Pedro and Paulo become one, and she concludes that she must end her relationship with both.
There follows a short period of mysterious illness. With great compassion, Ayres and Natividade attempt to nurse her back to health, but without success. Flora withdraws from the world into a state of delirium. She is no longer able to acknowledge the reality of her environment, including the fact that Pedro and Paulo are two separate people. In perfect serenity, Flora dies “like a brief afternoon.”
At Flora’s grave, Pedro and Paulo swear everlasting accord, and Natividade is overjoyed that Flora’s life has brought this state of harmony for her sons. Yet their pact of concord does not last beyond the first month, when once more they resume their hostility at Flora’s gravesite.
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