Sacred Families

by José Donoso

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Chattanooga Choo-Choo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

Sylvia Corday

Sylvia Corday, a tall, slender professional model with the perfect artificial beauty of a mannequin. While her husband is away, she enters Anselmo’s room without eyes, mouth, or arms. After they make love, Sylvia asks Anselmo to give her a mouth by cutting one out of red paper. She then directs him to draw in the rest of her face on her head, which resembles a featureless egg. After they make love a second time, Sylvia removes Anselmo’s penis with vanishing cream. She becomes a friend of Magdalena, Anselmo’s wife. Sylvia teaches her how to disassemble her husband, pack him into a suitcase, and reassemble him at will. She also initiates the swapping of their husbands’ penises.

Anselmo Prieto

Anselmo Prieto (pree-EH-toh), the narrator and Magdalena’s husband. He is obsessed with the need to control women. He becomes attracted to Sylvia when he finds her incomplete and helpless in his room. Giving Sylvia a mouth and creating her face with makeup demonstrates to him that a woman’s being depends on man’s will. When he realizes that his penis is gone, he attacks Sylvia and removes her face with vanishing cream. He considers psychiatric treatment to restore his virility, but guilt and fear of revealing his impotence make him decide against it. He ignores Ramón’s warnings and is disassembled by Magdalena without his knowledge. After she reassembles him, he discovers that he is whole again but still does not realize that his wife can disassemble him again at will.

Magdalena Prieto

Magdalena Prieto (mahg-dah-LEHN-ah), the seemingly timid and submissive wife of Anselmo. She learns from Sylvia the technique for dismantling Anselmo. She packs the pieces of Anselmo’s body in a suitcase, safeguarding his penis in a small velvet bag in her purse. She takes the suitcase with her when she meets Sylvia for coffee.

Ramón del Solar

Ramón del Solar (rrah-MOHN dehl soh-LAHR), an architect and Sylvia’s husband. He tries to warn Anselmo about what Sylvia is teaching Magdalena.

Green Atom Number Five

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Roberto Ferrer

Roberto Ferrer (feh-REHR), a middle-aged dentist, the husband of Marta Mora. He fancies himself to be a talented amateur painter. He has just bought a new apartment, built and decorated to reflect his marriage to Marta and their identity as a couple. When Marta shows indifference to the disappearance of Roberto’s best painting, Green Atom Number Five, he confronts her with her major shortcoming: She is barren. As their possessions disappear from their apartment, he fears that if he leaves the apartment he will be unable to find it again. He no longer attempts to hide his dissatisfaction with his marriage, and his relationship with his wife deteriorates rapidly. His final effort to recover their missing possessions fails, as does all hope of saving the marriage.

Marta Mora

Marta Mora, Roberto’s wife, who cannot have children. She admits to Roberto that she does not think highly of his artistic talent when his favorite painting disappears. She despises Roberto for his love of the art objects in the apartment. She runs into traffic and is hit by a car while trying to retrieve her mother’s cabinet from a moving van. After her hospitalization, the condition of the apartment deteriorates in pace with her relationship with Roberto.

Gaspard de la Nuit

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Sylvia Corday

Sylvia Corday, a model who did not want motherhood to interfere with her professional life. Mauricio’s rejection of her maternal overtures of friendship greatly upset her. She wants to become a part of his life and acquire his affection by giving him material things. When he finally warms up to her and wants to have the things she wants him to have, she is overcome with joy.


Mauricio (mow-REE-see-oh), Sylvia’s thin, pale, adolescent son. He resists his mother’s attempts to make him a part of her freethinking, materialistic lifestyle. He walks the streets of Barcelona whistling tunes from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, hoping his music will connect him with someone on the street and give him an identity. In the Vallvidrera forest, he meets a street urchin who looks just like him. They change places. The urchin puts on Mauricio’s clothes, returns to Sylvia’s apartment, and obliges her in everything. Mauricio puts on the urchin’s clothes to start a new, independent life, free of the adults who have been trying to mold him in their image.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240

Finnegan, Pamela May. The Tension of Paradox: José Donoso’s “The Obscene Bird of Night” as Spiritual Exercises. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992. Finnegan examines the novel as an expression of man’s estrangement from the world. The novel’s two alter egos, Humberto/Mudito, perceive and receive stimuli, yet they regard the world differently, even though they are interdependent. In a series of chapters, Finnegan follows Donoso’s intricate treatment of this idea, showing how the world composes and discomposes itself. A difficult but rewarding study for advanced students. Includes a bibliography.

McMurray, George R. Authorizing Fictions: José Donoso’s “Casa De Campo.” London: Tamesis Books, 1992. Chapters on Donoso’s handling of voice and time, his narrative strategies (re-presenting characters), and his use of interior duplication and distortion. Includes a bibliography.

McMurray, George R. José Donoso. Boston: Twayne, 1979. An excellent introductory study, with chapters on Donoso’s biography, his short stories, The Obscene Bird of Night, and Sacred Families. Includes chronology, detailed notes, and annotated bibliography.

Magnarelli, Sharon. Understanding José Donoso. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. See especially chapter 1: “How to Read José Donoso.” Subsequent chapters cover his short stories and major novels. Includes a bibliography.

Mandri, Flora. José Donoso’s House of Fiction: A Dramatic Construction of Time and Place. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Chapters on all of Donoso’s major fiction, exploring his treatment of history and of place. Includes detailed notes and extensive bibliography.

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Critical Essays