Maximo Manso meets his neighbor, Dona Javiera de Pena, one night in the summer of 1878, when a fire alarm forces the residents to leave their building. Dona Javiera is a warm, expansive woman who owns a lucrative meat business. She takes an interest in Maximo and stops by his apartment often to talk or to bring him a cut of meat. A woman of low origins and little education, Dona Javiera is in awe of Maximo’s vast knowledge. He, in turn, is impressed with his neighbor’s perceptiveness and common sense.
Dona Javiera asks Maximo to take charge of the education of her twenty-one-year-old son, Manuel, whose indolence has his mother worried. Dona Javiera does not expect Manuel to become a scholar, but she would like him to receive a basic education in the humanities that would allow him to function in society. Maximo soon charms Manuel with conversations and excursions; the two become good friends and the boy makes excellent progress. Although he does not care for philosophy and never displays talent for writing, Manuel enjoys history and expresses himself well orally.
Dona Candida de Garcia Grande is another frequent visitor to Maximo’s apartment. Her husband, now deceased, had been a businessman and minor politician. With his death, Dona Candida fell into dire economic straits. Vain and pretentious, she talks constantly of her aristocratic friends and her property, while at the same time begging Maximo for handouts. Maximo, who feels obligated to the woman because of her former friendship with his deceased mother, gives her money. Often Dona Candida does not come in person but sends her orphaned niece Irene, who lives with her. Irene is a well-mannered child who shows interest in Maximo’s books, although the teacher soon realizes that her primary preoccupation is far more basic: food. Frequently, he gives her reading materials and candy, and on one occasion he buys her a pair of shoes. As time passes, Irene grows up and stops frequenting Maximo’s house. She enters a teachers’ institute, where she excels at her studies.
Manuel becomes involved with a young woman from the Vendesol family and begins to spend more time courting her than...
(The entire section is 889 words.)