The Hour of the Star

by Clarice Lispector

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Last Updated on August 17, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Clarice Lispector’s posthumously published novel, The Hour of the Star, was published in 1977 shortly after the author’s death. Inspired by street markets in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil selling wares from Recife, a city in northern Brazil where Lispector spent her childhood, the story takes place in Rio. However, Lispector relies on images of Recife to tell her story, transplanting north-eastern scenes into her urban environment. In her characteristic style, The Hour of the Star unfolds frantically, written in a choppy, aphoristic style that finds meaning in even the most mundane moments and objects. Lispector’s final novel tells the story of Macabéa, an uneducated young woman living in poverty in Rio de Janeiro and makes her living as an unsuccessful typist. She is a creature of passive acceptance and lacks the barest agency and self-determinism.  The novel follows as she absent-mindedly questions the value and meaning of her existence, desires, and sense of self, watching as the narrator, Rodrigo—a masculine-figured veil for Lispector herself—struggles to convey the quiet but poignant nuance of her desperate life.

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The novel begins as Rodrigo addresses the reader. In verbose, florid language he discusses the act of writing Macabéa’s story, explaining how it must be done and why he is compelled to do so. Writing parallels the natural order of things and spirals out from the logical structure of the universe’s origins, he explains. Into this aphoristic view of life and literature enters Macabéa, and Rodrigo introduces her character in bare, bleak terms. Though he is painfully dismissive of her—noting how unattractive she is, pointing to her flaws and social insignificance, readers realize that he has trapped himself in a one-sided conflict of portrayal and desire. Her story is his conjuration, yet she has become more real than him. She is impoverished and ugly and an inadequate typist who offers little to the world around her, yet she is more valuable than he is, for all he can do is follow behind. 

Rodrigo sets aside his musings to detail Macabéa’s background, explaining that her parents died when she was two years old. She then spent the rest of her childhood living with a cruel aunt who regularly and unfairly punished her and only received three years of formal education. Her aunt sent her to a typing class, and although she is a poor typist barely capable of producing legible work, it was enough for her to land a job. With this backstory in mind, Rodrigo finally begins to tell the story he feels compelled to tell. At the story’s onset, Macabéa is nineteen years old and just about to get fired from her typing job. In a confrontation with her boss, with whom she is secretly infatuated, her pitiful acquiescence to her firing inspires lenience, so he decides to let her off with a warning instead.  

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Later, Macabéa takes a day off of work and spends it at home in the apartment she shares with four other women, all named Maria. After they leave for work, she spends the day luxuriating in the space and isolation. She looks at an advertisement for face cream and imagines eating it. In her moment of freedom, readers see the tragedy hidden beneath the surface of her conscious mind: she does not eat enough, for she cannot afford to; she feels ugly and sallow and wishes to be different; and she allows herself to acknowledge her weariness, which feels like a luxury.

On the next day, the “seventh of May” in the “month of bridal veils,” Macabéa meets Olímpico, who becomes her first boyfriend. He treats her poorly and soon leaves her for one of her coworkers, Gloria, who Macabéa feels is everything she is not: successful and sensual, plump and pale. Feeling guilty, Gloria recommends that Macabéa visit a fortune-teller, Madame Carlota, and loans her enough money for a reading. Shocked by the life Macabéa has led thus far, Madame Carlota prophesizes that she will lose her job, but her life will soon take a turn for the better, for she will marry a foreigner named Hans and become rich and happy.

Madame Carlota’s reading deeply impacts Macabéa, as she had never realized the tragedy of her life. She had simply accepted her struggles with poverty, her aunt’s abuse, and her isolation; it “had never occurred to her that her life was so awful.” Certain that happiness awaits her just around the corner, Macabéa leaves Madame Carlota’s in a bubble of dazed clarity. She sees her past as it collapses behind her and her future unfurls just ahead. Reeling with hope and passion, she sets out for a future she had never considered, a self she had never imagined. In this moment of nauseous glee, she begins to cross the road and is hit by a yellow Mercedes. 

As life slips away from her—just as she had begun to reach for it—the narrator reflects on Macabéa’s tragic life and what it means. Her slow, drawn-out death transforms her, granting her the knowledge and surety she lacked in life. Lying in the gutter, bleeding out before crowds of people unwilling to help her, she is present and visible. In death, she is viewed and understood in a way she was denied in life.

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