Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Esau and Jacob is a biting critique of all major aspects of Brazilian society during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The men in the two families represent the exploitative nature of the economic life and the shallow hypocrisy of the politics of the times. Natividade’s strong belief in the prophecy of the fortune teller exemplifies the questionable and mysterious influence of the indigenous Indian, the Afro-Brazilian, and the Portuguese heritage on contemporaneous attitudes. The lack of a moral authority is illustrated by the absence of any positive agent of the church. Even the minor characters symbolize the existence of the evil spirit cited in the epigraph: “Brother of Souls” uses the money contributed for masses for souls to enrich himself, Professor Placido advocates spiritualism as a scientific theory of knowledge, and Custodio illustrates how a small shopkeeper will finagle during a period of crisis and change.

The only major character that does not directly represent some element of Brazilian society is Flora. She is the symbol of timelessness and goodness, but thereby she also exemplifies a person incapable of living in that or any other human society.

With the exception of a few inevitable minor references to life at that time, such as travel by horse and carriage or an oblique mentioning of the name of a political personality, Esau and Jacob is an exploration of the human condition, a timeless and universal theme investigated by all major writers of Western literature.