Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
Máximo Manso, as the first-person narrator, offers a unique approach to life. Convinced of his own good fortune and grateful for the support of his late mother, Máximo has become a professor and sometime tutor. He contracts with a neighbor, Javiera the butcher, to tutor her bright but lazy son, Manuel. Máximo is convinced of the young man’s intelligence but is honest about the many gaps in his education. Fortunately, he has a charming personality and is also quite handsome—qualities, the reader later learns, that Manso himself lacks, excelling only in intellect and honesty. He describes Manuel’s learning to appreciate poetry—which, Manso laments, they must read in Spanish because the youth knows no Latin.
[M]y disciple took genuine delight in our interchanges. . . . It took but a few early signals from me to make him understand good verse. . . . He was an artist, he had an ardent sense of beauty, and even seemed to value the excellence of style, this in spite of his almost complete ignorance of grammar.
Manso gradually comes to see that his own life would be more complete if he had a soul mate. (He lives alone in a rooming house.) He sees a young girl, Irene, growing up; she is the ward of a dreadful old lady. Although she had been a friend of his late mother, Candida is her opposite in every way. Having fallen on hard times, she tries to get money out of every acquaintance.
[S]he made a ridiculous comedy out of her unhappy state, and what she referred to as her decorum was a veil of lies . . . that was so transparent that even the blind could see through it. She wheedled money out of people by elaborate artifice and deceitfulness, thus descending to the level of actionable mendicancy.
As Irene grows up and starts attending the normal school (for teacher training), Manso develops respect and admiration for her, which he decides are solid reasons for a future marriage. However, his villainous brother returns from America, where he had gotten rich. Irene ends up in his immoral clutches, as her aunt encourages Jose Maria to make the girl a kept woman.
Manso fools himself for a while that Irene cares for him, but when he realizes that she is not really interested in either brother but in Manuel, he adopts a paternal approach and decides to help facilitate their match. Rather than view Irene as the duplicitous product that exposure to her evil relative had created, Manso prides himself on his detective-like discovery of her true, heartfelt, pure devotion to Manuel. He relates her own story to her, sometimes referring to her in the third person.
[M]y friend Irene was disquieted by a love now indomitable and overwhelming. Her soul now longed with thirsty fury for the satisfaction of her most burning desire. The person she had loved had left the realm of ordinary human beings and become supernatural. Your heart, your mind, your projected fantasies were all involved. Manuel was the angel of your dreams.