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.

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...

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was the first of a number of important and critically acclaimed women writers (among them Isabel Allende, Luisa Valenzuela, and Elena Poniatowska) to come on the scene in Latin American literature during the second half of the twentieth century.Family Ties (and particularly the stories that deal with female protagonists) clearly stands as the first important collection of short fiction of this group of writers, who have in common gender and, to one degree or another, gender-based concerns.

There is no question that most of the stories in Family Ties deal either with women’s issues or with more genderless issues from a woman’s perspective. Many of them, for example, at least touch on the female protagonist’s role as wife (“Love”), daughter (“Family Ties”), young woman (“Preciousness”), mother (“Love,” “Family Ties,” “Happy Birthday”), or lover (“The Buffalo”), and the lives of the characters as defined in large part by their relationships with men, including husbands (“Love”), sons (“Family Ties”), and lovers (“The Buffalo”). Often the epiphanies the female characters experience make them see their lives, including these relationships (and the men in them), more clearly. As mentioned above, however, most of the characters return to their everyday existence without, it seems, making any permanent change, either because it would not be socially acceptable to do so or because it would simply be too frightening.

Though many of the stories in Family Ties do indeed deal, to one degree or another, with women and women’s issues, not all of them do so (“The Crime of the Mathematics Professor” and “The Dinner,” for example). In fact, a more common thread in the collection than the treatment and situation of women is the experience of epiphany and self-discovery, which is common to the protagonists of virtually all the stories, regardless of gender. This fact does not diminish the role of women and women’s issues in Family Ties, but if one focuses only on the woman’s angle in the collection, one runs the risk of classifying the stories, at least with respect to theme and content, only according to that category. To do so would be unfortunate, since even though many stories in Family Ties clearly speak to the situation of women, these same stories, as well as the others in the collection, also speak to the human condition in general and to the very question of existence.

Finally, just as it would be unjust to view stories such as “Love” and “Preciousness” only as stories about women, it would be equally unjust to view Lispector and Family Ties only within the context of women’s literature. Lispector is not only a major Latin American woman writer; but also a major Latin American writer, period, without regard to gender. Family Ties is almost universally hailed as a masterpiece of Brazilian literature. Its stories did much to revolutionize the short-story genre in Brazilian literature, not simply for the women writers who followed Lispector but for all writers in this genre. Lispector’s place and that of Family Ties, then, are secure and deserved not only in the context of women’s literature but also within the broader scope of Brazilian literature and Latin American literature.

Historical Context

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The 1960s in Brazil
Brazil is a country whose economy has been largely dependent upon the world price of coffee. It did not obtain independence from Portugal until 1822, and coffee has carried the economy for the fledgling nation ever since, even though Brazil has recently diversified both its agricultural and its service products. Brazil was the only South American country to send troops to Europe to fight the Axis powers in World War II, having had the resources as well as a percentage of expatriate Europeans to encourage participation. The economy accelerated under relatively stable leadership during the late 1950s and very early 1960s. In 1960, President Juscelino Kubitschek established Brasilia as the new national capital in an effort to shift economic strength to the geographic center of Brazil. Clarice Lispector wrote several cronicas (chronicles) in the news applauding Brasilia and its architecture. In 1964, a military coup attempted to control the nation's political unrest (between communist, democratic, and republican supporters) and to ease economic uncertainty, but the move initiated twenty years of military rule and a reign of police terror against those seeking political reform.

Although women in Brazil had received political equity with the right to vote in 1937, they still struggled in the 1960s to shrug off the myth of the tanned, exotic, and willing female from the tropics. In Brazil as in other countries, women did not find equality in the job market and their status was reinforced through sexual stereotyping. Lispector was unusual in having completed a law degree in the 1950s and in having been the first female journalist at a major news agency. Lispector's stories do not actively engage in a critique of gender politics, but portray the urban Brazilian woman as imprisoned by her own inertia as well as by society. In a 1979 interview, Lispector said that the status of the Brazilian woman ‘‘still leaves much to be desired; she is still enslaved.’’

Modernist and Postmodern Literature Movements
The Week of Modern Art of 1922 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, set off a modernist movement among the literati of Brazil that would last for fully fifty years, with a galvanizing effect on artists and writers comparable to the effect of the Impressionist Exhibit of 1874 on Paris. On one hand it introduced the art of Cubism, while on the hand other it inspired an interest in Brazil's folkloric history and native arts. A new artistic movement was spawned whose artists wanted to infuse their art with ‘‘light, air, ventilators, airplanes, workers' demands, idealism, motors, factory smokestacks, blood, speed, dream,’’ according to Brazilian poet Menotti del Pichia. Marxist and naturalist writers such as Jorge Amado and Graciliano Ramos wrote of the poverty and hardships of the barren northeast region of Brazil, setting a tone of political and social purpose in Brazilian literature. The 1960s was a period of literary "Boom" in all of Latin America, including Brazil. Modernism represented a break with traditional forms of writing, which had included romantic socialism, realism, and regionalism. The "new'' literature of Brazil was cosmopolitan, stylish, poetic, and"arty.'' Brazilian writers such as Mario Raul de Morais Andrade wrote of the urbanity of Sao Paulo, and Jorge Amado elevated the folkloric form to art. Clarice Lispector is often included among modernist writers because of her interest in consciousness and the poetic quality of her prose.

The postmodern movement was slower to come in Brazil. Postmodernist writing self-consciously exposes the act of writing itself, which involves a rejection of standard forms of plot and character and the idea of the "death of the author'' in a world of literary "exhaustion," where every story has been told. Postmodernists attempt to capture the illusory or relative quality of meaning through ‘‘playing with’’ narrative schemes, language, and genre. The focus therefore is on formal properties of writing and the act of writing itself more than content. Postmodern fiction also often involves the elevation of marginalized voices.

Brazilian writer Joao Guimaraes Rosa was a formalist, postmodern writer in the sense that he introduced ‘‘magic realism’’ to Brazilian writing, and he expanded on the unique language of eastern Brazil to fuse his own new language in a move similar to la negritude of the Caribbean. Rosa profoundly affected the future of Brazilian writing by demonstrating that literature did not have to have a socially reforming agenda. According to Antonio Candido, Clarice Lispector likewise influenced Brazilian literature, due to her "impressive attempt to elevate Brazilian Portuguese to a plane hitherto unexplored, by adapting it to mental processes imbued with mystery—whereby fiction was no longer a mere exercise or sentimental adventure but rather a genuine instrument of the spirit, capable of helping us penetrate the most recondite labyrinths of the mind.’’ Lispector straddled the modernist and postmodern movements. She was a modernist writer who also participated in the postmodernist concern for expressing states of consciousness and she experimented with narrative extensively.

Literary Style

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Point of View
Point of view, as defined by C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon in A Handbook to Literature, 6th edition (1992), is ‘‘the vantage point from which an author presents a story.’’ The vantage point takes into account several aspects, including the narrator's physical perspective (what she or he sees, as a camera would take it in), the narrator's emotional perspective (mood) and the narrator's related social or relational perspective (attitude toward what is seen). Thus a narrator will record physical observations of items seen, such as a hat, and the vantage point from which it is seen, on another character's head. The narrator would also speak of this item in a certain mood, which could be happy, as expressed in ornate or playful description, or miserable, as expressed in a flat tone and sparsely worded description. Finally, the narrator's reaction to the item as, for example, threatening or congenial, will also be evident. One may also speak of the focalization of a work. Focalization is formed by the triad of the narrating agent (who tells), the narrator's perspective (the vantage point), and the focalized (what is seen). The narrating agent may be omniscient, and be able to read the thoughts of the characters; a restricted omniscient narrator can only read one character's thoughts. Lispector employs a restricted omniscient point of view in ‘‘Family Ties,’’ but the perspective shifts after the first two-thirds of the story is told. It begins from the restricted perspective of Catherine, telling what she observes as well as what she thinks. Then after Catherine takes their son for a walk, the story is told from Tony's viewpoint, with his thoughts and observations narrated. The narration is "restricted'' in the sense that only one viewpoint is treated at a time. If the narration described thoughts from both Catherine and Tony (as well as Severina) at the same time, the point of view would be unrestrictedly omniscient.

A motif is a recurring image, phrase, or device that enhances the meaning of a story. Often, the motif takes on symbolic importance as part of the story's theme. For example, the Bible contains motifs of light and dark imagery as well as the devices of the prodigal son and the messiah, and these important elements contribute to the meaning of Biblical stories. A motif can be a seemingly minor detail that is repeated in a meaningful way, or it can be a commonly occurring story event around which the story coheres. In ‘‘Family Ties,’’ the motif of the window repeatedly occurs as an image that both separates and also joins family members. Another motif is that of departure, as symbolized by the taxi, train, and elevator. There is also a subtle motif in the form of the "gaze," which can border on tender, as when Catherine notices her mother's tremulous hand as she adjusts her hat, or hostile, as when Catherine watches the fumbled apology of her mother to her husband, or it can be fearful, as when Tony watches his wife take their son away for a walk. In all cases, the gaze is impotent, yet judging. The central, organizing motif is that of the relationship between mother and child, first exemplified in the tension between Catherine and her mother, and then the regeneration of that tense bond between Catherine and her young son. The motif of insects or a swarm of them appears just once in ‘‘Family Ties'' in a brief allusion to moths around the dinner table, but is a common one in the other stories of the collection Family Ties and in other Lispector stories and novels.

Literary Heritage
Lispector is considered one of the leading Latin American writers of the twentieth century. The literary heritage of her fiction can be understood in the historical context of Latin-American literature, and more specifically Brazilian literature. Before conquest and colonization by European forces, particularly Spain, the native Indian cultures of Latin America had a well-developed tradition of written and oral literature. After colonization Latin-American literature emerged from the narratives of the conquered native Indian peoples as well as the European conquerors themselves, and later from the struggles of native peoples against colonial domination, a ‘‘literature of oppression.’’ Brazil produced the first Latin-American novel in 1844, with A moreninha (‘‘The Little Brunette’’) by Joaquim Manuel de Macedo. Latin-American fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century developed a concern with experimental narrative and linguistic style as a means of expressing social concerns. Lispector herself served as a forerunner to the flowering of Latin-American fiction by women authors that developed in the 1960s.

Compare and Contrast

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1960: In Brazil, President Juscelino Kubitschek encouraged nationalism through public works projects sponsored by the government, but his spending on these improvements resulted in a higher national debt and inflation, such that the cost of living tripled in Brazil during his presidency. He was also accused of graft and corruption, a not-uncommon problem in Brazil and other Latin American nations. The weakness of his successor, Jânio Quadros, nearly led the country into civil war.

Today: After a period (from 1964 until 1985) of military rule rife with corruption and police terrorism, increased demands for democratization resulted in local elections (1982 for states and 1989 for president), but the two succeeding presidents were impeached for alleged corruption. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an academic rather than a military leader, came to power in 1994 on a campaign platform of democratic reform. His measures have resulted in progress in human rights (against Brazil's police force), economic reform, and education.

1960: The cost of living tripled in Brazil during a period of high inflation under President Kubitschek. Over two-thirds of the population subsisted on agriculture in rural areas. A small percentage of wealthy people controlled the government and the arts.

Today: Radical economic reforms instituted by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, including a radical devaluing of the real (the currency of Brazil) in 1999, have succeeded in holding back inflation where other South American countries have gone into deeper and deeper recession. Currently Brazil's economic strength outweighs all of its South American neighbor nations together. At the same time, currently 75 percent of Brazil's population now resides in cities. A handful of wealthy influential people still govern the masses, however, who continue to suffer from high rates of illiteracy and poverty.

1960: Modernist literature either sought social change or expressed a sense of pessimism and exhaustion through flat characters who move relentlessly through a complex and absurd world.

Today: Postmodern literature attempts to express the uniqueness of the individual through the theme of relative values. At the same time themes' transcendence are on the increase, as writers reassert the presence of shared values and experiences.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Ayer, A. J., and Jane Grady, eds., A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, Basil Blackwell Reference, 1992, pp. 401,404.

Borelli, Olga, Clarice Lispector: um esbocopara umpossivel retrato, Nova Frontiera, 1981, p. 66.

Cook, Bruce, ‘‘Women in the Web,’’ in Review, Vol. 73, Spring, 1973, p. 65.

Fitz, Earl E., New York Times Book Review, Winter, 1982, pp. 195-208.

Herman, Rita, review of Lacos de Familia, in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, June, 1967, pp. 69-70.

Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, 6th edition, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992, p. 366.

Lispector, Clarice, Selected Cronicas, New Directions, 1992, p. 55.

MacAdam, Alfred J., review of Lacos de Familia, in New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1967, pp. 22-23.

Moises, Massaud, ‘‘Clarice Lispector: Fiction and Cosmic Vision,’’ translated by Sara M. McCabe, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1971, pp. 268-81.

Pontiero, Giovanni, "The Drama of Existence in Lacos de Familia,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1971, pp. 256-67.

Popkin, Richard H., ed., The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 730.

Swanson, Philip, The New Novel in Latin America: Politics and Popular Culture after the Boom, Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 135.

Williams, Raymond L., The Postmodern Novel in Latin America: Politics, Culture, and the Crisis of Truth, St. Martin's Press, 1995, p. 118.

Further Reading
Cixous, Helene, Reading with Clarice Lispector, University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
A transcription and translation of French feminist Cixous' lectures about Lispector's fiction.

Fitz, Earl E., Clarice Lispector, 1985.
The first full-length biography of Lispector in English.

----, ‘‘Clarice Lispector,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 113: Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers, edited by William Luis, Gale, 1992, pp. 197-204.
A brief biography of Lispector.

Lindstrom, Naomi, Women's Voices in Latin American Literature, Three Continents Press, 1981.
Lindstrom examines the narrative techniques used in Family Ties to demonstrate the confines of the expected female social roles and women's reactions to those roles.

Lowe, Elizabeth, ‘‘The Passion According to C. L.,’’ in Review, Vol. 24, June, 1979, pp. 34-37.
An interview that focuses on Lispector's writing habits and her interest in social issues.

Lucas, Fabio, ‘‘Contemporary Brazilian Fiction: Guimaraes Rosa and Clarice Lispector,'' in Contemporary Latin American Literature, edited by Harvey L. Johnson and Philip B. Taylor, University of Texas Press, 1973.
An assessment of Lispector's place in modern Brazilian literature.

Nunes, Maria Luisa, ‘‘Narrative Modes in Clarice Lispector's Lacos de Familia: The Rendering of Consciousness,’’ in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1977, pp. 174-84.
Nunes applies the various and somewhat contradictory terms for interior narration to Lispector's Family Ties.

Pontiero, Giovanni, "The Drama of Existence in Lacos de Familia,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1971, pp. 256-67.
Pontiero, translator of many of Lispector's works into English, discusses the philosophical underpinnings of the stories in Family Ties.

Severino, Alexandrino E., ‘‘Major Trends in the Development of the Brazilian Short Story,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1971, pp. 199-208.
Puts Lispector into the context of other modernist writers in Brazil.


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Fitz, Earl E. Clarice Lispector. Boston: Twayne, 1985. The foremost authority on Lispector’s fiction devotes roughly eleven pages of his chapter “Novels and Stories” to Family Ties (and Alguns Contos, in which six of the stories were published earlier). Fitz provides an excellent overview of the stories that make up the collection, which he calls “one of the most original and powerful books of its time in Latin America.” The critic concentrates his discussion on the internal nature of Lispector’s stories and the skill with which she renders it. “Love” receives almost seven pages of meticulous analysis. Titles and most quotations appear in Portuguese with English translation.

Herman, Rita. “Existence in Laços de Família.” Luso-Brazilian Review 4 (June, 1967): 69-74. Herman discusses what she views as the “essential paradox” in Family Ties: “In spite of the fact that existence is viewed as totally negative, conditioned by interior disunity, according to the author, this very situation must be maintained in order for one to be a human being.” This, Herman implies, is why Lispector’s protagonists achieve a new state of awareness only to return to their everyday existence instead of “making any sort of metaphysical leap.” Their limitedness is what makes them human. Titles and quotations in Portuguese.

Lastinger, Valérie C. “Humor in a New Reading of Clarice Lispector.” Hispania 72 (March, 1989): 130-137. Lastinger contends that while much attention has been paid to Lispector’s existentialist leanings and her use of epiphany, the presence and function of humor in her work has been overlooked. The critic examines humor in several stories in Family Ties before concluding, in part, that humor in Lispector’s works is “a very effective way for her to mark her idiosyncrasy and independence from the authors to whom she owes so much, allowing her to introduce the feminine presence in philosophical discourse.” Titles and quotations in English.

Nunes, Maria Luisa. “Narrative Modes in Clarice Lispector’s Laços de Família: The Rendering of Consciousness.” Luso-Brazilian Review 14 (Winter, 1977): 174-184. Using the examples provided by several stories in Family Ties, Nunes examines how Lispector renders the consciousness of her protagonists. She contends that the Brazilian writer employs “certain traditional techniques,” these being “style indirect libre or narrated monologue, interior monologue, internal analysis including sensory impressions, direct discourse in the form of ‘asides,’ and the mixture of many of the above techniques.” Nunes explains each technique and shows how each is deftly used by Lispector to convey the inner workings of her characters. Titles and quotations are in Portuguese.

Peixoto, Marta. “Family Ties: Female Development in Clarice Lispector.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983. Peixoto concentrates on the female protagonists of the stories in Family Ties, which she believes “can be read as versions of a single developmental tale that provides patterns of female possibilities, vulnerability, and power in Lispector’s world.” Peixoto shows how the protagonists, through an epiphany, usually break out of “metaphoric prisons formed by their eager compliance with conforming social roles,” only to return to the roles that imprison them. She views “The Smallest Women in the World” as an ironic exception to this pattern of a “predominantly bleak view of female possibilities.” Titles and quotations in English.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide