The Glass of Milk

by Manuel Rojas

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Historical Context

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Literary Heritage
The Roman Catholic Church exerted a great influence on the people of Chile. The Church came to South America with the first conquerors and, in addition to providing religious teaching for the Spanish conquistadors, it undertook an effort to convert the native population. Therefore the majority of the Chileans are governed by their religious affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church. The Church has been successful in imprinting its social and ethical value system on the country.

Additional social influences come from the indigenous people who still live in the area. These include the descendants of the ancient peoples, the Araucanians, who were living there when the Spanish first occupied the country. Mystical and animistic beliefs still exist in these peoples' local communities. In some instances these combine with the Roman Catholicism and create a hybrid religion that blends native rituals with Church festivals.

An important aspect of "The Glass of Milk" involves the role of machismo in the lives of Latin American men and boys. It is very important for male members of this society to maintain an attitude and bearing of strength, self-sufficiency, and pride in the face of any and all situations. For the lad, he is unable to acknowledge his hunger even as it causes him to double up from pain.

Political History
Chile was the object of Spanish conquest in 1536 and 1537, when Diego de Almagro made the first contact with the indigenous populations, the Araucanians. He was an associate of Pizarro and later was given jurisdiction over the area. After his death his successors divided the country into portions that were given to wealthy Spanish patrons and associates. However, the native populations were not included in the division of the lands. They did not enjoy the benefits of the resources that were taken from the country, a fact that would eventually lead to uprisings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Spain controlled the area until Napoleon invaded Spain early in the nineteenth century, diverting Spanish attention to a defense of their homeland. Chile was granted independence on September 18, 1810, but it was not fully established until 1818, after a series of skirmishes between the Chileans (indigenous people and colonial Europeans) and the Spanish. The issue was finally settled in 1818 when Chile formed a navy that could protect the coast from the Spanish fleet. Still the country was plunged into anarchy until 1831, when a republic was established. From then until 1891 a series of republican governments came and went.

The government in Chile from 1891 to 1918 was a parliamentary system. But this time was also a period of unrest as the ruling parties, both political and economic, resorted to fraud and bribery to maintain their status and to gain more political and financial control of the country. These nefarious maneuvers created an ever-widening separation between the upper classes and the lower working classes. Then in the 1910s foreign demand for the country's minerals decreased, as did the wages for the laborers. In 1912 the Socialist Party was established in a bid to garner support from the workers. Labor unrest was exacerbated by worldwide economic pressures created by World War I, which reduced the demand for Chilean exports. By September 5, 1925, the situation had deteriorated to the point where a military junta was established. This junta was replaced by another in October of 1925.

In that month a coup d'état was engineered by the minister of war, who ruled from 1925 until 1931. The worldwide Great Depression was in full swing by then, and in 1935 the...

(This entire section contains 1063 words.)

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Radical Party took control, which lasted until 1952. Carlos Ibañez was elected to the presidency as an independent and remained in office until 1958. In this year Jorge Alessandri narrowly defeated a five-candidate slate which included Salvador Allende, who was elected in 1972. After Allende's assassination in 1973, Augusto Pinochet took control of the country and ruled as a military dictator until he was voted out of office in 1990. The election of presidents has been orderly since then.

Literary History
It was in these unsettled times that Rojas began writing. His first works were written in the second part of the Naturalist Period of literature of Chile. The Naturalist Period (1890-1935) was first dominated by Lastarria and his novel, Salvad las aparencias! But Vicente Grez (1847-1909) was the most prominent novelist of the generation. The second part of this period was strongly influenced by the writings of Eduardo Barrios, who created the psychological novel out of naturalist techniques.

Rojas was one of the more important short story writers of the period. His writings were not as grotesque as other writers' works. He focused on the people from the low classes and their struggles in life, but his characters were more sympathetically presented. Rojas was the first Chilean writer to use the subjective narrator, a narrator who was involved in the action in part or in whole. (An objective narrator, like the one in "The Glass of Milk," tells the story without making judgmental comments about it.)

The latter part of the Naturalist Period included writers like Juan Marín and Salvador Reyes. These men voiced strong criticism and denunciation of the working conditions in the Chilean mining industry. Their works were condemned by the government when they were first published.

Early in his life, Rojas was an active participant in the opposition political party often called the Anarchists. Much of his early writings were contributions to the opposition’s newspapers and other publications. These efforts were his attempts to draw attention to the plight of the working classes and to achieve a better life for them. Many of his novels and short stories tell of the struggles of the working classes.

World Recognition
Rojas’ early writings exposed the lives and experiences of the lower classes, the rotos (the broken ones). His ability to create sympathetic characters from this part of society ‘‘earned him a vaunted place among Chilean novelists’’ according to Grafton J. Conliffe. Jaime Concha calls him ‘‘the outstanding Chilean writer of the first half of the 20th century.’’ He won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the Chilean setting for many of his stories, his writings received international admiration. He created characters that attain a universal appeal, teaching what Fernando Alegría calls ‘‘lessons about humanity.’’ Because of his universality, his stories have been translated into many languages, including English, and his short fiction has been anthologized frequently.

Literary Style

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Literary Style
Manuel Rojas began writing at the mid-point of the Naturalist Period in the history of Chilean literature. Naturalism is an extreme type of Realism in which the writer portrays the most grisly aspects of human nature. The characters in such stories usually come from the lowest stratum of society and their behavior is often unsavory.

Point of View
The storyteller in "The Glass of Milk" is a limited third-person narrator, sometimes called a non-participant narrator. A third-person narrator is one who is able to see all the actions of all the characters, all the time. But in this tale, it is limited because the narrator does not reveal what is happening inside the mind of every character, only that of the youth.

The setting for the story is the waterfront of a seaport on the Chilean coast. This area includes the wharf, some of the streets nearby, and a small milk bar on a side street. Rojas does not provide detailed descriptions of these areas but he includes enough for the reader to know that this is a rough part of town.

Rojas' writings are filled with irony, which is a way of writing in which the intended meaning is contrary to the meaning seemingly expressed. For example, in "The Glass of Milk" the youth says he is not hungry when in fact he is painfully hungry. He says this in an attempt to maintain his dignity.

A symbol is an object in a story that suggests something else. The pile of burlap is a symbol of the working world to which the youth returns at the close of the tale. The eyes of the youth, the woman, and the old man are symbols of entrances or portals through which their souls may be seen or shown.

Compare and Contrast

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Early Twentieth Century: In the 1920s and 1930s, economic and political life in Chile was in turmoil. By the middle of the 1930s the worldwide Great Depression was at its worst and had left its mark on the country, especially the working classes. This often led to violent political upheaval and the beginning of a series of ineffective presidencies.

Late Twentieth Century: In the 1990s, the political situation in Chile had begun to settle, beginning with the removal of the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990. Democratic elections were held in 1999 and the freely elected government was installed in early 2000.

Early Twentieth Century: In the 1920s and 1930s, the literary culture in Chile was just beginning to expand. Manuel Rojas was the most important writer of the times.

Late Twentieth Century: In the 1990s, more writers emerged who have made significant contributions to the body of Chilean and world literature. A new generation of writers is focusing on the political events in Chile between 1973 and 1985. Their works deal with issues of internal repression and exile. In the 1990s folk literature has found an audience in Chile and elsewhere.

Early Twentieth Century: In the 1930s, the working classes were oppressed by both the political powers and the upper-class owners of the businesses in the country.

Late Twentieth Century: In the 1990s, political stability has been established. The economic situation in the country, while not as strong as many would like, has begun to produce a larger middle class. The workers receive higher wages and have more opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their incomes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cannizzo, Mary, in Hispania, Vol. 41, May, 1958, pp. 200-01; collected in Modern Latin American Literature, edited by David William Foster and Virginia Ramos Foster, Frederick Ungar, 1975, pp. 273-77.

Castro, Raoul Silva, Historia crítica de la novela chilena (1843-1956), Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1960, pp. 319,326-27; collected in Modern Latin American Literature, edited by David William Foster and Virginia Ramos Foster, Frederick Ungar, 1975, pp. 273-77.

Concha, Jaime, "Manuel Rojas," in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, edited by Verity Smith, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997, pp. 724-25.

Conliffe, Grafton J., trans., Introduction to "The Man and the Rose," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 18, No. 36, July/December, 1990, pp. 78-86.

Goic, Cedomil, "Chile," in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, edited by Verity Smith, Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997, pp. 195-201.

Lichtblau, Myron I., in Modern Latin American Literature, edited by David William Foster and Virginia Ramos Foster, Frederick Ungar, 1975, pp. 273-77.

----, "Ironic Devices in Manuel Rojas' Hijo de ladrón," in Symposium, Fall, 1965, pp. 214-25.

Lindstrom, Naomi, "Realism and Naturalism," in Twentieth Century Spanish American Fiction, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994, pp. 52-3.

"Manuel Rojas," in An Anthology of Spanish American Literature, edited by E. Herman Hespelt, F. S. Crofts and Co., 1946, p. 707.

Richardson, Maurice, in Modern Latin American Literature, edited by David William Foster and Virginia Ramos Foster, Frederick Ungar, 1975, pp. 273-77.

Scott, Robert, "The Psychological Conflict in Manuel Rojas: El vaso deleche," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 49-56.

Waag, Michael, Chairman, Department of Foreign Languages, and Professor of Spanish Language and Literature, Murray State University, interview conducted March 28, 2000.

Further Reading

Fleak, Kenneth, The Chilean Short Story: Writers from the Generation of 1950, Peter Lang, 1989. Chapter Two contains a section of general information on Manuel Rojas and his impact on Chilean short fiction.

Goic, Cedomil, "Chile," in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, pp. 195-201. This section from the Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature contains information that gives a broad overview of Chilean literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century up to the end of the twentieth century.


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