Form and Content

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Clarice Lispector’s Family Ties is a collection of thirteen stories, six of which had been published in a previous collection, Alguns Contos, in 1952. Like much of Lispector’s fiction, and particularly her early stories, these tales are intense and sharply focused narratives in which a single character (almost always female) is suddenly and dramatically forced to deal with a question concerning an integral part of her existence. Save for a single act that prompts each story’s character to look inward, there is little action in the stories, as the author seeks not to develop a traditional, action-filled plot but instead to capture a moment in the character’s life and, much more important, the character’s reaction to that moment, as she (and occasionally he) is shocked out of complacency and forced into a situation that will lead her to self-examination and, in most cases, self-discovery. The epiphany-centered content of the stories, combined with Lispector’s subjective, highly metaphorical, even lyrical prose, produces a collection of stories that read and communicate to the reader more like poetry than prose.

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Arranged in no apparent particular order within the collection, the stories that make up Family Ties are “The Daydreams of a Drunken Woman,” “Love,” “The Chicken,” “The Imitation of the Rose,” “Happy Birthday,” “The Smallest Women in the World,” “The Dinner,” “Preciousness,” “Family Ties,” “The Beginnings of a Fortune,” “Mystery in São Cristóvão,” “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor,” and “The Buffalo.”

Perhaps the most representative of them is “Love,” which is also one of Lispector’s most famous and most anthologized stories (one critic, Earl Fitz, has called it prototypical of all Lispector’s short fiction). Its protagonist, Anna, is a contented middle-class wife whose world is stable, controlled, predictable, happily based on order. Taking the tram home from shopping one afternoon, however, she spots a blind man chewing gum. Inexplicably, Anna’s ordered world is shaken by the sight of the man. Disoriented, she gets off the tram well past her stop and finds herself in the relatively primitive and hostile setting of a botanical garden, where the inauthenticity of her world is stripped away. She makes her way home and attempts to resume her normal patterns, but though she is back in the security of her predictable domestic lifestyle, she has been profoundly affected by her epiphany and wonders if “the experience unleashed by the blind man [will] fill her days” or if the stable, controlled, predictable, ordered routine of her domestic world will protect her from “the danger of living.”

Another notable story in Family Ties that follows much the same pattern is “Preciousness,” in which a girl going through puberty experiences fear, confusion, and, most important, an altered sense of self after an ambiguous encounter with some boys. In “Happy Birthday,” an eighty-nine-year-old woman, surrounded by her family on her birthday, observes the offspring she has produced and, much to the shock of those in attendance, spits on the floor to show her lack of respect. Other stories of note include “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor,” whose protagonist buries (and later exhumes) a stray dog he has found dead in a desperate attempt to relieve himself of the guilt he feels for having once abandoned his own dog; “Family Ties,” in which a woman struggles with both positive and negative aspects of the love that binds families together; and “The Buffalo,” in which a woman whose love has been rejected by a man roams a zoo in search of an animal that will show her how to hate.


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Clarice Lispector was the first of a number of important and critically acclaimed women writers (among them Isabel Allende,...

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