Sacred Families

by José Donoso

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The Characters

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” pits men against women. The husbands, Anselmo and Ramon, regard themselves as the ones who set the rules and dominate the battle of the sexes. That is, however, a very simplistic evaluation. In fact, the women, Sylvia and Magdalena, are the ones who control the situation, in a very efficient and subdued fashion. They pretend to be the victims but are actually the opposite. The men are depicted as business-minded personages who believe that they get what they want when they want it in their dealings with women. The truth is that whether they get something or not, the quality and quantity will depend upon the women.

“Green Atom Number Five” is a thorough study of a couple, Roberto and Marta. They are well-characterized before, during, and after the crisis that tears them apart. Roberto, a very successful odontologist, is a man who knows what he wants in life, is sure about his priorities, and dogmatic and pragmatic to the point of thinking that a change in life must start with a change of address. Now that he has moved into his own place, he thinks that everything will be under control. The only disturbance in his apparently peaceful existence in the foreseeable future is the one empty room in the apartment, where he had planned on installing a studio for painting. His fondness for painting, which has been stimulated by Marta, diminishes when she, under the impulse of an angry reaction, tells him that his painting Green Atom Number Five is nothing extraordinary and that her choice of the painting instead of an emerald jewel was motivated more by kindness on her part than by any real talent on her husband’s part.

In this novella, as throughout Sacred Families, Donoso suggests that identity is unstable. Marta, Roberto’s sweet and unselfish wife of many years, who has been unable to bear children, has acted as Roberto’s mother as well as wife. She has never argued or protested, yet now she starts changing for the worse. Indeed, both Roberto’s and Marta’s behavior increasingly worsens, going from love to the most profound hatred. That modification in conduct is achieved slowly. Donoso has proceeded through episodes and incidents, the effects of which have rebounded on the characters. Other supporting characters have merely given a direction to the changes that occur in the main characters.

In the third novella, “Gaspard de la Nuit,” the theme is the obsession that affects the people in the story, especially two of them, although to different degrees. This obsession can be seen in Mauricio, the protagonist, in his endless search for identity; in Sylvia, Mauricio’s mother, the obsession is evidenced by her insistence on making him a part of her world. There are very few digressions, either in the novella’s structure or in Mauricio’s mind. Mauricio’s continual search runs through the story: When he finds himself, and the metamorphosis takes place, the obsession and the story are both over.

All the characters that appear in the novellas are interrelated in some fashion. The character of Sylvia is presented in two different lights: In “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” she is a plastic, faceless mannequin, while in “Gaspard de la Nuit” she plays a very concerned, flesh-and-blood mother.

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