Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392
Cuban novelist Alejandro Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (Spanish: El Siglo de las Luces), published in 1862, follows three family members: Sofía and Carlos (brother and sister) and Esteban (their cousin). At the beginning of the novel, the three cohabit in their family mansion (left to them by their...
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Cuban novelist Alejandro Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral (Spanish: El Siglo de las Luces), published in 1862, follows three family members: Sofía and Carlos (brother and sister) and Esteban (their cousin). At the beginning of the novel, the three cohabit in their family mansion (left to them by their deceased father). Victor Hugues, a French revolutionary who has merchant business in Cuba, steps in as a surrogate father and brings them over to his revolutionary cause.
Carlos is the oldest and has revolutionary sympathies but feels compelled to take over his father's retail business. He remains in Havana while his sister and cousin travel around the Caribbean and Europe following Victor Hugues. At the end of the novel, Carlos travels to Madrid, where his sister and cousin died.
Sofía is a well-meaning idealist who falls in love with Victor and consummates their (brief) romantic relationship on a boat from Cuba to Haiti. Though she succumbs to Victor's advances, she is sufficiently aware of the violence caused by revolutionary activity to have misgivings about the cause. She eventually marries a Cuban named Jorge, who dies, leaving her to raise a child alone. She travels to Cayenne to be with Victor after her husband's death, but she abandons him to reunite with Esteban before their death.
Esteban, sickly as a child but vigorous as an adult, is enthralled by Victor's rhetoric. He travels around the Caribbean and then to Paris, but, aghast at the violence taking place there, he resolves to remain on the sidelines of Victor's increasingly brutal regime. Eventually, Esteban returns to Cuba but is subsequently exiled for his revolutionary ties. He dies alongside his sister in Madrid.
Victor Hugues is the primary antagonist of the story. He is a historical figure cast in high relief in Carpentier's fiction. Born in Franch, Victor comes to Cuba allegedly on mercantile business but with fervent revolutionary ideals that lead to his exile from the island (where the Spanish presence is wary of rebellion). Hugues changes from an eccentric, polarizing figure in Cuba (where he meets Carlos, Sofía, and Esteban) to a cruel tyrant when he returns to Paris during the French Revolution. Eventually, Hugues dies in Cayenne (in French Guiana), where he is championing the bourgeois interests and furthering the oppression of the local black population.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
Victor Hugues (ewg), a robust self-made French entrepreneur and revolutionary living in the Caribbean. He is a man of action who likes to be in charge, whether it is in the Havana household he enters on a trip from his home in Saint-Domingue (future Haiti) in 1789, or, later, as an agent of various French governments in Caribbean colonies. Victor helps organize the business of his recently orphaned young Cuban hosts and familiarizes them with the latest liberal ideas. An opportunist, he adapts to the successive stages of the French Revolution, from initial libertarianism through various phases of repression. He is modeled on the historical personage of the same name.
Sofía (soh-FEE-ah), a wealthy young woman brought up with her brother, Carlos, and male cousin Esteban in a wealthy Havana home situated next door to the retail establishment of her father, who has died just before the action of the novel begins. A spirited woman, she becomes imbued with Enlightenment ideals and stays loyal to them throughout. Sofía’s maturation into womanhood is encouraged by Victor’s advances, to which she eventually yields before he leaves Cuba. She breaks off their later intimate relationship in French Guiana because she is disgusted with Victor’s repression of the black people there. Sofía finally goes to Spain to be near Esteban, who loves her and has been imprisoned there. At Sofía’s urging, they join the revolutionary crowd on the day of the Napoleonic massacre in early May, 1808, and are not heard from again.
Esteban (ehs-TEH-bahn), the initially frail, asthmatic younger cousin of Sofía and Carlos who from early childhood has lived with them. He has a penchant for the imaginative and the fantastic. After his cure, Esteban blossoms into an inquisitive, intellectual young man who is, however, never as independent and self-willed as Sofía. In the Caribbean and in France, under Victor’s tutelage, he becomes an enthusiast of the revolution. Later, he becomes disillusioned when the revolution and Victor lose their ideals. Esteban’s experiences make up the longest part of the novel. He loves Sofía. He saves her when she is pursued because of her beliefs by the authorities in Cuba and is finally united with her in Madrid.
Carlos, Sofía’s brother, a teenage boy when his father dies. His strongest boyhood interest is the flute. When he is orphaned, he is obliged to replace his father in the retail business, for which he initially has no taste. Carlos develops into a successful businessman and over the years retains his enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution. It falls to him, traveling in Madrid, to piece together the fate of Sofía and Esteban from accounts of those who knew them there.
Dr. Ogé (oh-HEH), a broad-shouldered mulatto from Saint-Domingue who is a friend of Victor Hugues. Ogé combines traditional beliefs in biblical myths and mystical doctrines with the progressive liberal credo. He practices folk medicine and cures Esteban of his asthma. A freemason like Hugues, Ogé has to leave Cuba with him to escape monarchist repression. Returning to Port-au-Prince, Ogé learns that his brother Vincent (a historical figure) has been killed by the French in the 1789 rebellion there. Ogé encourages Hugues and Esteban to leave Saint-Domingue for their own safety, but his farewell embrace is stiffer than usual: White and black will no longer mix there.
Don Cosme (kohs-MEH), who is also called the Executor because of his role in looking after the financial affairs of Sofía and Carlos’ deceased father. He initially acts as guardian for the orphaned young people but is effectively displaced in this surrogate father’s role by Victor. Don Cosme is a conventional religionist and monarchist, opposed to Hugues’s progressivism. When Carlos takes over the retail business, he dismisses Don Cosme, replacing him with Jorge.
Jorge (HOHR-heh), a slim, handsome Cuban of Irish descent, educated in England, who marries Sofía and works in the family business with Carlos. He brings some decorum into the hitherto disorderly household. Jorge falls ill in an epidemic and, despite his fragile constitution, fights desperately for weeks against fever and asphyxia, which finally kill him.
Caleb Dexter, a North American sea captain and master of the Arrow, a freemason and a friend of Hugues and Ogé. The captain is a realist: Against the lovesick Esteban’s pleas, Dexter respects Sofía’s wishes and agrees to take her from Cuba to French Guiana to be with Hugues after her husband dies.