Explosion in a Cathedral

by Alejo Carpentier
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

Explosion in a Cathedral (Spanish: El Siglo de las Luces) by Cuban writer Alejandro Carpentier was published in 1962. Its primary themes include revolution and slavery.

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The novel follows three orphans from Havana, Carlos and Sofia (brother and sister), and Esteban (their cousin), who become involved to varying extends with the French Revolutionary Victor Hugues (a historical figure whom Carpentier fictionalizes). When Hugues comes to settle the father's estate, he also articulates his unique brand of revolution to the bereaved children. Victor promotes egalitarianism and universal fraternity, and he seems to be scientifically enlightened. Eventually, Victor is targeted by local authorities for his subversive ideas, but Sofia offers him refuge in their family home.

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Latest answer posted June 23, 2021, 3:19 pm (UTC)

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The circumstances on the island involve a Spanish presence which is trying to quell revolutionary spirits, as well as the imminent slave rebellion on the neighboring island of Haiti. While Victor Hugues and his associates promote an end to slavery, oppression of blacks persists in the very same manner under the banner of revolution. While Carlos pursues business opportunities in Havana, Esteban and Sofia travel to Port-au-Prince alongside Victor, who is ousted from Cuba. While Sofia stays in Santiago (after a sexual encounter with Victor), Esteban is seduced by Hugues to travel to Paris amid the French Revolution. The guillotine is symbolic of the atrocities that result in the name of revolution. Esteban and Sofia are the exemplars of the trajectory of alternate seduction and digest experienced by so many people who are presented with charismatic revolutionary leaders such as Victor.

Esteban and Sofia, each in their own time, eventually realize the brutal ramifications of Victor's regime and end up together in Spain, where they die fighting.

Slavery is another of the novel's primary themes. The Caribbean and Africa are the epicenters of the slave trade, and blacks are consistently oppressed by the very liberators who claim to espouse egalitarian principles. The idealistic Sofia laments that the newly manumitted slaves in Africa who are implicitly marginalized when forced into a capitalist system. As Victor dies in French New Guinea where he is fighting against a black population, he is presented as akin to the very oppressors from which he claimed to seek to liberate the Caribbean. Slavery (more generally the oppression of blacks) is the index by which revolution is shown to be of the same substance as oppression.

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