Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 321
Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (or The Century of Lights) is a historical novel set in the late eighteenth century, a period marked by widespread revolution and political turmoil.
The novel tells the story of Carlos, Sofia, and their cousin Esteban, three Cuban Creole children left orphaned after Carlos and Sofia's father dies. Left unsupervised, the children live as they please. They even use crates to turn their home into a complex maze—a child's wonderland shielding them from the political chaos occurring in Havana.
However, their fun ends when the executor of Carlos and Sofia's father's will arrives. Haitian businessman Victor Hugues takes authority over the children and brings an end to their games. Victor is an educated man and a revolutionary, and he teaches the children about the ideologies that are suppressed by the Cuban government.
The arrival of Victor into their lives marks the beginning of the children's journey into adulthood—a journey marked by revolution, enlightenment, and loss. When Victor is threatened with arrest, Sofia suggests that he and his friend Ogé, also a fugitive, hide in the family's home in the countryside. Sofia and Esteban stay with the two men for a time and learn more about politics, liberalism, and civil rights.
Victor and Ogé are forced to flee Cuba, and Esteban and Sofia follow, eager to aid in their revolutionary cause. Their adventures take them around the world, to Haiti, France, and Spain, where they all take part in several revolutions. Victor dies fighting in Cayenne, while Esteban and Sofia die in Madrid fighting against Napoleon's invasion.
Carlos had stayed behind in Cuba to manage what was left of his father's estate. When he learns of Esteban's and Sofia's deaths, he carries on their memory by promoting their revolutionary ideas in Cuba. A wealthy man, Carlos uses his influence to ignite a revolution in Cuba and becomes a leader in the war of independence.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
A wealthy Cuban merchant dies in Havana, leaving behind an orphaned son and daughter, Carlos and Sofía, and a nephew, Esteban, also an orphan who grew up with Carlos and Sofía. In the absence of paternal authority, the three adolescents are free to pass the time as they wish. They eat and sleep at odd hours and transform the family mansion into a house of “perpetual games,” a disorderly labyrinth of unpacked shipping crates. Their harmonious existence in the midst of external chaos is brought to an abrupt end, however, when Victor Hugues, a cosmopolitan businessman from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, arrives one stormy Easter Sunday. Victor, executor of their father’s will, restores order to the house and assumes the role of surrogate father. He restores the old values of their deceased father and introduces both Esteban and Sofía into the world of adulthood. He also introduces the young people to the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. When Victor, a Freemason, is threatened with arrest by the colonial authorities because of his subversive ideas, Sofía offers the family’s country home as a refuge to him and his friend, Ogé, a mulatto doctor from San Domingo. Sofía and Esteban accompany the two men to the estate. There they become fascinated by heated political discussions about revolution, class war, liberty, and equality.
Although Victor and Ogé use the same language in their discussions about the necessity for social change, Victor, though he upholds the egalitarian principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, is primarily concerned with business. For him, the advanced ideas of the New Age are important because they challenge the colonial monopoly of trade in the Americas. He is one of several Creole merchants who set up a contraband organization to circumvent specifically the Spanish monopoly. His mission in Havana is to contact local merchants sympathetic to Freemasonry and to form a secret organization to combat the economic tyranny of Spain, but he finds little active interest in social issues among the Cubans.
In contrast to Victor, Ogé, though a man of science, espouses a form of revolutionary mysticism that aims at bringing about change by awakening the transcendental powers of the human spirit. Sofía and Esteban are more attracted to Victor’s scientific views of human progress and most of all to his powerful personality as an energetic man of action. When Victor and Ogé are forced to escape the island, they invite Sofía and Esteban to accompany them on a trip to Port-au-Prince. Esteban eagerly joins in the revolutionary adventure that he hopes would be his initiation into manhood. During the sea voyage, Sofía yields to Victor’s sexual advances.
Shortly after their ship docks at Santiago de Cuba, Victor, Ogé, and Esteban leave Sofía in that city and proceed on to Port-au-Prince. There, they find the city in flames and Victor’s business establishment burned to the ground. Despite the destruction of his property, Victor feels a sense of freedom, of being on the threshold of a new life. The uprising puts an end to his friendship with Ogé, however, whose younger brother was executed by white settlers in Cap Français. Ogé becomes bitter toward all whites and warns Victor to leave before he is killed by the black insurgents. Victor and Esteban decide to sail for revolutionary France. In Paris, Victor quickly aligns himself with the new government and begins to rise to power as agent of the Revolution of the Americas. Though infected in Paris by the fervor of the early days of the Revolution, Esteban is content to witness rather than to participate in the struggle. He perceives it in terms of a stage in the spiritual human progress toward domination over more selfish and violent instincts. After witnessing the Terror, he begins to see the contradictions of the revolutionary process and the threat it poses to those who dare to dissent. Esteban grows increasingly disillusioned and returns to Havana.
After her husband dies in an epidemic, Sofía seeks out Victor and joins him in Cayenne. Sofía’s hope of lending herself to an epic struggle that will give meaning to her life fails even more quickly than Esteban’s did in France. Victor is transformed from a libertarian to a ruthless tyrant as he leads a catastrophic campaign against the rebellious black population in Cayenne. Abandoning Victor, Sofía sails for Spain. There she secures release for Esteban, who was deported from Cuba to Spain for concealing subversive propaganda and who now engages once more in the revolutionary struggle. Victor dies defending the interests of the new bourgeoisie in Cayenne; Esteban and Sofía join the first revolution to challenge those values and die anonymously in the streets of Madrid fighting Napoleon’s troops.
At the end of the novel, Carlos, who remained in Havana tending to his deceased father’s businesses, reconstructs the last day of Esteban and Sofía in Madrid. He begins to carry on what Sofía and Esteban began. Wealthy, but with the liberal ideas acquired through his contact with the revolution, he will be the one to bring about the wars of independence in Cuba.