Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

views updated

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

by Jorge Amado


A novel set in Ilhéus, a coastal city in Brazil, in 1925-26; published in Portuguese (as Gabriela, cravo e canela) in 1958, in English in 1962,


The on-again off-again romance between Nacib, an Arabic bar owner, and Gabriela, his mulatto cook and wife/mistress, unfolds against a backdrop of social and political developments in a changing Brazilian city.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born on a cacao plantation in 1912, Jorge Amado was the son of well-to-do landowners in the city of Ilhéus in the state of Bahia. Educated in Bahia, he worked on several student newspapers, and by 1928 he was a police reporter for the Diário da Bahia. Amado moved to Rio de Janeiro to finish his studies, entering law school there in 1931. His first novel, O país do carnaval (Carnival Land), appeared that same year, followed in 1933 by Cacau (Cocoa)—which was confiscated by the Brazilian government for its procommunist inclinations. The two novels mark the start of a prolific career, leading to about 18 more novels by Amado over the next six decades. Aside from writing, Amado was involved in politics early in his career: in 1937 he was arrested for his leftist political activities in opposition to the dictatorial regime of Getúlio Vargas. Upon his release, Amado fled to Argentina and Uruguay. Returning to Brazil in 1941, he was again arrested and ordered to remain in Salvador, a city in Bahia. After the fall of Vargas’s government in 1945, Amado was elected to the Brazilian Congress as a Communist candidate. The Communist Party was outlawed in 1947, and Amado moved with his family to Paris, where he remained until 1952. When Amado subsequently returned to Brazil, his political views were more moderate. His later works, including the 1958 Gabrida, Clove and Cinnamon, show less interest in politics than in the human comedy and aspects of daily Bahian life.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

From monarchy to republic—an overview

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is set in Brazil in the last years of the Old Republic” (1889-1930). A sense of the recent and not-so-recent past pervades Ilhéus, as the elaborate Nativity scene of the Dos Reis sisters demonstrates. Constantly refurbished and extended, this tableau—created by silent, motionless actors as if in a picture—depicts not only the birth of Christ but “a kaleidoscopic, growing world in which the most diverse scenes and figures, from the most divergent periods of history, mingled democratically with one another” (Amado, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, p. 55). One of these figures is Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s last emperor; in fact, allusions to the defunct Brazilian monarchy and to the political strife that plagued the republic since its inception appear throughout the novel.


The first chapter of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, entitled the “Languor of Ofenísia,” traces the infatuation of Ofenísia d’Ávila with the dashing Dom Pedro II, In the novel the Doctor, a scholarly character, devotes his intellectual life to a study of the chaste romance between Dom Pedro II and one of the Doctor’s ancestors, Ofenísia d’Âvria, whom the emperor met on a trip to Bahia. Although this alleged love affair consisted only of sighs and glances, the Doctor perpetuates through his writings the image of languid Ofenísia, refusing all men while pining for the emperor and “his black and scholarly beard* (Gabriela, p. 27). Photographs and contemporary accounts reveal that Dom Pedro II did indeed have a long and bushy beard* He was also very tall (six-feet four-inches), blue-eyed, and handsome—an undeniably romantic figure.

Brazil had been a Portuguese colony since its “discovery” by the explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500. Serious colonization efforts did not begin until more than 25 years after Cabral’s expedition, and Portugal kept strict control of Brazil’s resources and activities. Despite a number of attempts at rebellion, the colony remained under the aegis of Portugal. In 1808 Brazil became a refuge for the Portuguese monarchy when, after failing to persuade Portugal to join his alliance against England, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his armies into Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. Dom João, Portugal’s regent since his mother, Maria I, had gone insane, decided to remove the entire royal family—the mad queen, himself, his wife, and their six children—to Brazil. Escorted by the British navy, approximately 15,000 people took part in the exodus of the royal court, squeezing aboard some 40 merchant vessels. Along with Dom João came as many treasures as he could transport: art, jewels, and about 60,000 books, which became the foundation of Brazil’s national library. Beginning November 29, 1807, the journey lasted 52 days and was, by all accounts, a hideous ordeal, marked by storms, seasickness, and ever-dwindling rations.

The Portuguese royals soon established themselves in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian capital, and Dom João set about transforming the colonial city into a place fit for royalty, establishing a national library, an academy of fine arts, a royal school of medicine, a print shop, a national bank, a mint, and botanical gardens. He even oversaw the construction of an aqueduct that would keep the city supplied with fresh water. Altogether these improvements occurred within the relatively short span of 13 years. Dom João loosened Brazil’s ties with Lisbon, now controlled by Napoleon, and encouraged British trade.

In 1821, after Napoleon’s defeat, Dom João—who had succeeded to Portugal’s throne on his mother’s death in 1816—was recalled to Portugal. He departed reluctantly, leaving his eldest son, Dom Pedro, in Brazil as its regent. Back in Portugal, a legislative assembly known as the Cortes attempted to undo Dom Joao’s earlier work and to restore Brazil to its former status as a subservient Portuguese colony. On September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro received a transatlantic directive from the Cortes, diminishing his authority and ordering him back to Portugal. In response, Dom Pedro reportedly drew his sword and shouted, “Independence or death!” (Page, p. 52). A month later, a Brazilian convention declared him emperor, and he was soon crowned the new nation’s constitutional monarch. Within a year, the Brazilian rebels, after a series of battles in which they were aided by the British, achieved the complete withdrawal of Portuguese troops with surprisingly little bloodshed.

Despite his success in making Brazil an independent nation, Pedro I had a troubled reign. The constitution he established in 1824 lasted until 1889, but the emperor’s Brazilian subjects resented his “broad powers” as well as his reliance on Portuguese advisors. Revolts and riots broke out frequently, as various regional factions felt their needs were not being addressed. Pedro also made some unpopular foreign policy decisions, paying off part of Portugal’s debt in exchange for Portugese recognition of Brazil’s independence, and committing Brazil to disadvantageous trade agreements with Great Britain. In 1831, after street demonstrations erupted over a change in the imperial cabinet, Pedro I abdicated the Brazilian throne and returned to Portugal. In 1840, after a regency period, his fifteen-year-old son became Dom Pedro II.

Unlike his father and grandfather, Dom Pedro II was a very popular ruler, “intellectually curious, bookish, thoughtful, genteel, and romantic” (Page, p. 54). Fluent in many languages, Dom Pedro II was also an indefatigable traveler, whose energy and enthusiasm endeared him to his hosts at home and abroad.

Dom Pedro II’s reign was long and, despite a war with Paraguay (1865-70), fairly peaceful. It spanned an important transitional period in Brazil’s history—coffee replaced gold and sugar as the country’s main resource, massive immigration was encouraged, the pace of industrialization quickened, and slavery was abolished in 1888. However, despite Brazilians’ affection for their emperor as an individual and a symbol, many considered their monarchy to be an anachronism. In November 1889 the 63-year-old emperor and his wife were ousted by a military revolt and exiled to Portugal. The empress died less than a month later; Dom Pedro went to France, where pneumonia claimed his life in 1891.

Initially, Brazil’s new republican government consisted of an unstable collaboration between the positivists, who dreamed of transforming Brazil into a utopia; the military faction led by Marshal Manuel Deodoro de Fonseca, who became the republic’s first president; and the owners of large plantations. The positivists soon severed their connection to the government, their ideals having been thwarted by the reality of practical politics. Eight months into his presidency, the autocratic Marshal Deodoro dissolved the new congress and attempted to rule by decree, sparking a rebellion that forced him out of office in 1891. But his immediate successor, Floriano Peixoto, nicknamed the “Iron Marshal,” proved to be even more tyrannical: naval rebellions and a civil war in the South marred his administration. The next president, Prudente de Moraes, from São Paulo, had to deal with a “holy war” in the backlands of Bahia.

Eventually, the new republic stabilized—presidential candidates were selected at meetings of state governments and a candidate who garnered 80-90 per cent of the electoral vote was guaranteed victory. Not surprisingly, the larger states dominated the smaller ones. For many years, the presidency alternated by mutual arrangement between candidates from the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. This policy, known as “coffee and milk”—referring to the respective main resources of São Paulo and Minas Gerais—began in 1906 and lasted until 1930.

Brazilians wanted more than stability, though. The First World War (1914-18), and the resulting social agitation, impressed upon them the urgent need for social and political reforms. Universal suffrage, for example, was still denied, which undermined the Republic’s claims of democracy. During the 1920s more political factions emerged, and two new rebellions threatened the government. On July 5, 1922, the first centenary of Brazilian independence, 18 idealistic army officers at Copacabana Fort in Rio de Janeiro dismissed their troops and marched alone against government forces. Nearly all were shot and killed on the spot, but their deaths inspired another revolutionary movement in São Paulo on July 5, 1924. The second uprising was also defeated, after which the conspirators split into two groups, one finding asylum in Bolivia, the other in Argentina. The leader of one of the groups, Luiz Carlos Prestes, later became chief of the Brazilian Communists. Though shaken by these revolts, the republic maintained a precarious national stability until another rebellion swept Getúlio Vargas into office in 1930.

Colonels, bandits, and politics

The Vargas regime is still several years away when Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon begins in 1925. In the novel the ambitious, reform-minded Mundinho Falcão faces the greatest opposition to his bid as federal congressman from the local coronéis or “colonels” in Ilhéus. While some colonels respond favorably to Falcão’s progressive agenda—especially his plan to dredge a channel through the sandbar in the Ilhéan harbor—Ramiro Bastos, the oldest and arguably the most powerful of them, remains violently opposed. Determined to defeat Falcão at all costs, he declares: “No one else is going to rule Ilhéus. . . . There’ll be an election a year from now and I’m going to win it… even if the whole world turns against me, even if Ilhéus has to become again a land of bandits and killers” (Gabriela, p. 242). Bastos is not making idle threats: colonels could—and did—exert a powerful influence over the hotly contested elections of the time.

Although the title of “colonel” apparently originated in the National Guard, the term soon acquired political as well as military connotations. Coronelismo, a term for which there is no literal translation, has been defined to reflect the different realms of life into which such a strongman’s power extended:

A monopolistic exercise of power by a coronel whose legitimacy and acceptance are based on and buttressed by his paramount status as the dominant element in social, economic, and political institutions such as prevailed during the transition period from a rural agrarian nation to an urban industrial one.

(Pang, Bahia in the First Brazilian Republic, p. 2)

Frequently, though not exclusively, colonels were wealthy landowners who controlled politics, especially elections, at the municipal level, although their actions had significant ramifications at the state and federal levels of government too.

When the social, political, and economic favors that were their stock in trade proved insufficient to win an election, colonels resorted to buying votes, filling out the roster with the names of phantom voters, and even inciting riots that could then be used as an excuse to cancel the results. In Amado’s novel, Colonel Bastos considers such strategies after Falcão attracts more supporters and his chances of victory improve. The colonel’s supporters plan to take matters into their own hands: “It was suggested that they set up the election in the old way—that is, that they take control of the electoral boards, the voting places, and the record books. An election made to order” (Gabriela, p. 301). And if political alliances and tampering with the electoral process still did not achieve the colonels’ ends, there was a more permanent solution: assassination.

To eliminate a rival permanently, colonels often hired bandits from Brazil’s Northeastern backlands. Drought, poverty, and other socioeconomic pressures had driven many Brazilian peasants into lives of banditry. They were not motivated by a particular political agenda, but by economics. Indeed, the bandits’ lack of an ideology made them ideal for the colonels’ purposes, especially during the very competitive elections of the 1910s and 1920s:

As a highly mobile group, bandits became sources of political intelligence for competing coronéis. Bandits were hired out as election enforcers, killed personal as well as public enemies of their employers, and received protection from legal prosecution. This mutually protective system, known as coiteirismo, kept the bandits available to but not totally under the control of coronéis.

(Pang, “Agrarian Change,” p. 131)

In Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Bastos’s allies try to assassinate the Mayor of Itabuna when he defects to Falcão’s side. Their hired gunman, Fagundes, has traveled with backlander outlaws in the past and is a skilled marksman. Fagundes eludes capture, and his employer, Colonel Tavares, on whose cacao plantation Fagundes works, later tells the outlaw that he will soon be needed for another shooting in Ilhéus.

Racial attitudes in the 1920s

Although slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, racial prejudices persisted. Until massive immigration began in the late 1800s, the three main racial strains in Brazil originated from a relatively small percentage of Portuguese colonists, and much larger populations of native Amerindians and African slaves. Contemporary European racist theories argued that a country inhabited by so many “non-white” races could never achieve greatness as a world power. In defense of their nation, Brazilian intellectuals reiterated the “whitening thesis” first proposed by abolitionists in the 1870s: “Abolitionists believed that miscegenation would gradually and inexorably ‘whiten’ and thereby ‘upgrade’ the Brazilian population. . . . Ergo: the whiter the better” (Skidmore, p. 9). An unsubstantiated belief that blacks and mulattos had a low reproduction rate lent credibility to the whitening thesis. Large-scale immigration, especially by light-skinned Europeans, was encouraged from 1888 to 1914, in the belief that several generations of miscegenation would result in a “whiter” people.


In the novel the Dos Reis sisters’ tableau features one of the most famous Northeastern bandits: Antonio Silvino (1875-1914?), who inspired the popular myth of the “gentleman bandit” After killing two men associated with the murder of his father, Silvino became an outlaw. His fame was rivaled by that of Virgulino Ferreira da Silva (1897-1938), popularly known as Lampião, “the Lantern” because his rifle gave off so much light in his rapid firing of it. Lampião and his two brothers likewise chose lives of crime after their father was shot by the Alagoas state police in 1921. Silvino and Lampião’s violent careers ended in 1914 and 1938, respectively. Silvino was wounded and captured by Pernambuco state police; Lampião and his gang were killed in a shootout with an Alagoas volante (a special police unit trained to respond quickly to such emergencies). The troops brought the severed heads of Lampião and his wife, Maria Bonita, to the town of Piranhas as proof of their deaths.

World War I helped undermine the prestige of such ideas, leading some Brazilians to consider the possibility, expressed by writers such as Alberto Torres, “that racist thought was in fact an instrument used by industrialized countries to destroy the self-confidence of weaker, darker peoples whose natural resources they wished to plunder” (Skidmore, p. 19). During the early decades of the century, most of the Brazilian elite steered a middle course between enthusiastically embracing the nation’s, and sometimes their own, African heritage—as some of their country’s writers were doing—and espousing Nazi Germany’s theories of a white Aryan “master race.” Still, the whitening ideal remained in place. People expressed their shared belief “that Brazilians were getting whiter and would continue to do so” (Skidmore, p. 19). The mestiço (or mixed-race) “problem” thus appeared to be solving itself, a hypothesis seemingly borne out by the results of subsequent population censuses. In comparison to the census of 1940, the 1950 census showed a rise in the pardo, or mixed-race, population—from 21.2 percent to 26.5 percent—and a corresponding drop in the black population—from 14.6 percent to 11 percent. There was, nonetheless, a continuation of social distinctions; even today, say historians, there tends to be a correlation between race and social status in Brazil: “[M]ost on top are white, most blacks are on the bottom and mixed-bloods are largely in between,” although mulattos, especially those with paler complexions, “have considerable opportunity for upward mobility” (Skidmore and Smith, p. 162).

In Amado’s novel a fairly tolerant racial attitude prevails. Fair-skinned women, like Jerusa, Colonel Bastos’s blond, pale-complexioned granddaughter, are still prized, but beautiful women of all races are admired. The desirable Gabriela is a “mulatto,” a term loosely applied to anyone of partly African heritage. The novel never fully identifies her racial heritage, which ultimately becomes secondary to her beauty, charm, and culinary talents.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is divided into four parts—“The Languor of Ofenísia,” “The Loneliness of Gloria,” “The Secret of Malvina,” and “The Moonlight of Gabriela”—which chronicle the events of a single year in the coastal town Ilhéus.

The novel begins with a leisurely description of a 1925 spring day in Ilhéus, which is dominated by two seemingly unrelated incidents: a powerful colonel fatally shoots his wife and her lover, and a local bar owner finds himself without a cook. Not surprisingly, the first incident attracts more attention as the citizens of Ilhéus argue among themselves about the cuckolded husband’s justification. According to the unwritten law of the land, Colonel Jesuíno Mendonça has avenged his honor by killing his betrayers and few in Ilhéus expect him to be punished for his actions.

Nonetheless, the colonel’s detractors believe his conduct reflects badly on Ilhéus, which many hope will become a civilized metropolis like Salvador or Rio de Janeiro. Ilhéus’s rich history is celebrated by its inhabitants. The scholarly Doctor Pelopidas de Assunção d’Ávila labors to complete a book about the chaste romance between his ancestress, Ofenísia, and Dom Pedro II, while every Christmas the Dos Reis sisters incorporate past and present figures into their ever-expanding Nativity tableau. Once a rural outpost fought over by bandits and lawless landowners, Ilhéus is now showing signs of progress. Although a sandbar in the town’s harbor prevents the direct exportation of cacao to foreign markets, new businesses have been founded, local newspapers started, and a bus route between Ilhéus and Itabuna established.

Several “old-time” plantation owners, such as the 82-year-old Colonel Ramiro Bastos, regard these innovations with suspicion. Bastos, who considers himself the unseen power in Ilhéus, is particularly wary of Mundinho Falcão, an ambitious young cacao exporter who advocates further reforms and modernization: “This Mundinho Falcão, recently come from Rio, avoided his control, never came to call on him or consult him, decided matters for himself, did what he damned well pleased. The colonel felt vaguely that the exporter was an enemy who in time would give him trouble” (Gabriela, p. 68). Falcão returns from Rio that day with more big plans, which include his running for Congress as Ilhéus’s representative.

Compared to Colonel Mendonça’s crimes and Falcão’s return, the domestic crisis of the bar owner, Nacib Saad, a naturalized Brazilian of Arabic origins, goes almost unnoticed. Nacib, proprietor of the moderately successful Vesuvius Bar, is at his wits’ end when his cook, Philomena, goes to live with her son the day before he is to give a big dinner party for 30 people.

In the second part of the novel, news of the murder reaches the house in which Gloria, concubine to an elderly and jealous colonel, is established. Pining for true love, Gloria sees in the tragedy of Mendonça’s wife a reflection of her own situation. Meanwhile, a group of migrants, driven from their backland homes by drought, arrive in Ilhéus in search of work. One worker, Clemente, seeks employment on a cacao plantation, hoping that Gabriela, his mulatto lover, will join him. But Gabriela refuses—she plans to become a cook or laundress in Ilhéus. That evening, at the “slave” market, a place where plantation owners and other prospective employers could find cheap sources of migrant labor, Nacib encounters Gabriela. Although dubious of her professed skills as a cook, he hires her on trial.

The events of that spring day shape the course of the next year in Ilhéus, as shown in Part Three of the novel. Two days later Nacib takes Gabriela, who has skin the color of cinnamon and smells alluringly of cloves, as his mistress. Once customers sample Gabriela’s splendid Bahian cooking, the Vesuvius Bar prospers. The young woman’s sensual beauty, as well as her cooking, attracts admirers, and Nacib grows jealous. Fearful of losing Gabriela as a mistress and a cook, he proposes marriage. Although Gabriela is content with her present situation, she agrees to marry Nacib.

Meanwhile, Falcão pursues his plans to improve Ilhéus, much to the displeasure of the colonels. Bastos is incensed to learn that Falcão has brought an engineer to solve the sandbar problem. The engineer, a married man, creates a scandal when he becomes infatuated with Malvina, Colonel Tavares’s intellectual daughter. Tavares ruins the romance, intimidating the engineer into leaving, but he also sparks a rebellion in Malvina, who plans—and later successfully effects—her escape from Ilhéus.

Despite the scandal, the sandbar project is a success. Plans are made to dredge a channel through the sandbar so ships may safely enter the Ilhéan harbor. Bastos and the other planters scheme to undermine Falcão’s reputation, paying some plantation workers to set a public bonfire with copies of the Ilhéus Daily, a newspaper founded by Falcão. But Falcão scores a coup when several of Bastos’s allies offer to support Falcão in his congressional bid.

The last part of the novel focuses on the problems of the newly married Saads. Although Gabriela loves Nacib, she eventually chafes under the restrictions of being a proper, middle-class wife and regrets having changed the situation that suited her so well: “It was lots better before. She could do everything then. . . . What good were all those dresses, shoes, jewels, rings and solid gold earrings, if she couldn’t be Gabriela? She hated being Mrs. Saad” (Gabriela, pp. 340-41). Tensions mount as Gabriela’s discontent and Nacib’s disapproval of his wife’s nonconformity increase. The political situation likewise grows more volatile—the defection of Aristóteles Pires, mayor of Itabuna and an erstwhile Bastos crony, deals a severe blow to the old man’s dominance of Ilhéus. Later, shots ring out when Falcão and Pires meet at the Ilhéan harbor. Falcão escapes unhurt but Pires is seriously wounded and a futile search for the shooter ensues. The gunman, a black man named Fagundes, takes refuge in Gabriela’s house. Fagundes, who now works on Colonel Tavares’s cacao plantation, was one of Gabriela’s fellow travelers on the journey to Ilhéus. Remembering Fagundes’s kindness to her on the road, Gabriela helps him escape.

Gabriela and Nacib’s marital problems escalate as Gabriela resists her husband’s attempts to change her into a docile, conventional wife. The tensions between them come to a head when Nacib learns that, before and after their marriage, Gabriela has taken lovers. When Nacib surprises his wife in bed with Tonico, Colonel Bastos’s womanizing son and a man he considered a friend, he hits Tonico and throws him out, then beats Gabriela and throws her out too. Although the unwritten law of the land expects a cuckolded husband to kill his betrayers, Nacib cannot bring himself to do this. An influential friend finds a way to have the Saads’ marriage declared invalid. Nacib no longer has to kill Gabriela or Tonico, who is made the scapegoat and pressured to return to his own domineering wife, Olga. Although Nacib fears his neighbors’ contempt, the Ilhéans profess their admiration for his ingenious solution to his predicament. His main problem is, once again, the lack of a cook. After a French chef fails to please his customers, Nacib is persuaded to rehire Gabriela, who is pining for her kitchen and for him. With Gabriela reinstated as his cook, Nacib’s bar and his new restaurant thrive. Shortly after her return, Nacib and Gabriela resume their sexual relationship.

The mistress of the elderly colonel, Gloria, meanwhile, has discovered true love with a scholar named Josué. Her colonel discovers the affair, but he too deviates from custom by merely evicting his unfaithful mistress and her lover from the house.

On the political front, Colonel Bastos suddenly dies, thus removing the last obstacle from Falcão’s path. Colonel Leal, Bastos’s main ally, pledges his support to Falcão, agreeing to no longer oppose his candidacy. The novel ends with Falcão about to be swept into office; the completion of the sandbar project and subsequent arrival of a Swedish steamer, the first boat to carry cacao directly from Ilhéus; and the renewal of Nacib and Gabriela’s romance. A postscript reveals that a jury later finds the cuckolded husband Colonel Mendonça guilty of murder: “For the first time in the history of Ilhéus, a cacao colonel found himself sentenced to prison for having murdered his adulterous wife and her lover” (Gabriela, p. 426).

Women in a changing society

After her marriage ends, Gabriela wonders, “why did men suffer so much when a women with whom they lay, lay also with another man? She couldn’t understand it. If Mr. Nacib wanted to, he could have gone to lie with another girl and sleep in her arms. … If both of them wanted to, why shouldn’t they?” (Gabriela, p. 374). Gabriela’s sexual philosophy reflects Amado’s own repeated advocacy of women’s sexual freedom. Indeed, the novel subtly advocates a woman’s right to choose her own destiny. Each of its four parts (“The Languor of Ofenísia,” “The Loneliness of Gloria,” “The Secret of Malvina,” “The Moonlight of Gabriela”) revolves around a woman, with a verse prologue that details her situation preceding that section. The first chapter evokes the spirit of Ofenísia, the languid maiden who loved Dom Pedro II from afar. Ofenísia refuses her suitors, declaring to her brother, “I want no count or baron, / I want no sugar planter… / I want only the beard, / So black, of the Emperor!” (Gabriela, p. 4). Deprived of her desire, Ofenísia can only fulfill her threat to “die in this hammock / Of languor” (Gabriela, p. 4)


Using ingredients such as dendē palm oil, fresh ginger, dried shrimp, and coconut milk, the African-influenced cuisine of Bahia has attained a fame that is reflected in the novel. The guests at Nacib’s restaurant eat “appetizers like those of the old days and wonderful Bahian dishes with seasoning somewhere between the sublime and the divine”; and Gabriela’s culinary expertise prompts Mundinho Falcão to declare, “There was no food in the world to compare with the Bahian (Gabriela, pp. 414, 415).

The living women of Ilhéus seem equally trapped and passive. The novel’s second part depicts the plight of Gloria, the beautiful concubine of an elderly colonel whose violent jealousy has frightened away rivals. Shut up in a house filled with expensive possessions, Gloria yearns for true love: “I am the colonel’s Gloria, / Within my breast a fire; / On snow-white linen sheet / I lie in loneliness” (Gabriela, p. 96). Next, Malvina, Colonel Tavares’s daughter, voices her discontent with the life she sees being mapped out for her: “Help! they want to marry me, / In a house to bury me… / On the bed impregnate me” (Gabriela, p. 170). Strong-willed and intelligent, Malvina dreams of independence: “I’ll work, I’ll find myself / I’ll sail away forever” (Gabriela, p. 170). The last part of the novel belongs to Gabriela after her marriage. Content and fulfilled as Nacib’s cook and mistress, she loses her bloom as a wife. In the prologue to this part, an unnamed speaker laments, “Oh, Sultan, what have you done / With my blithesome girl?” Unmoved by this sultan’s boasts of having given Gabriela “a royal palace” and “emeralds and rubies,” the speaker exhorts him, “Send her back to her kitchen… / To her innocence, / To her sighs in bed. / Why would you change her?” (Gabriela, p. 276). Initially free and uninhibited, after her marriage Gabriela becomes as constricted as Gloria and Malvina.

Fortunately the progress that transforms Ilhéus also provides these women with the opportunity to determine their futures. The change in Malvina’s situation is the direct result of the town’s modernization. Infatuated with the engineer of the sandbar project, Malvina plans to elope with him. Tavares thwarts the romance, but Malvina finds the courage to take control of her own life: “Malvina saw clearly the mistake she had made in thinking that the only way to get away was on the arm of a man, whether husband or lover. . . . Why not leave on her own two feet, alone? That is what she would do” (Gabriela, p. 256). Sent away to boarding school, Malvina escapes during the holidays; the Ilhéans later learn she is working and studying in São Paulo.

Subtler but equally significant social changes affect the lives of Gabriela and Gloria. In the case of the former, the mulatto woman’s unquenchable spirit helps work a transformation in society. The law that would sentence her to death for betraying her husband is miraculously circumvented to preserve her life without destroying Nacib’s honor. Long-established customs yield to reunite Nacib and Gabriela on their old footing, a resolution that would have once been unthinkable. Equally unimaginable to the Ilhéus of the past is the happy conclusion to Gloria’s predicament. After the lonely concubine finds true love with a scholar, many expect the worst when their affair is discovered by the colonel. But the old man does nothing more than throw Gloria, her lover, and her belongings out of his house. One Ilhéan attempts to explain the reason for this violent man’s nonviolent reaction to his mistress’s betrayal: “Why? Because of the bus line, the library of the Commercial Association, the dances at Progress Club. . . . Because of the death of Ramiro Bastos. Because of Mundinho Falcão. . . . Because of Malvina. Because of Nacib” (Gabriela, p. 399). No longer passive playthings, the women of Ilhéus have become agents of positive change, a vital part of the new order: “[I]n the end it is they, as much as the planters, merchants and politicians, who effect the social changes requisite for greater material and cultural progress” (Luis, p. 13).

Literary context

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon grew out of the Regionalist, or social realist, movement in Brazilian literature during the 1930s and 1940s. Like Amado, the New Regionalists, who include Graciliano Ramos (see Barren Lives , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), José Lins do Rego, Rachel de Quierós, and José Américo de Alemeida, described geographic areas, problems, and people they cared about in works that often include hints of the writers’ own bittersweet moments in the past, as well as suggestions for social and political reform. In keeping with this focus, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has been described as “an appealing three-way mix of politics, sex, and local color” (González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 177).

Yet, unlike Amado’s early novels, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon de-emphasizes the “political and partisan” in favor of the personal and comedic aspects of Brazilian life. The reasons for Amado’s shift in direction have never been fully explained, not even by the author himself. Giorgio Marotti speculates that World War II and Amado’s disillusionment with Stalinist communism prompted this change: “Amado… saw for himself the reality of the communism he had always dreamt of. … [T]he invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union saw the collapse of many illusions” (Marotti, p. 335). Abandoning his former political orthodoxy, Amado then made “a return to life, to his roots, to mulatto Brazil, to the joy of life” (Marotti, p. 335). Whatever the reason for his change in aesthetics, Amado’s decision would help earn him the reputation of being “a great writer who, without losing any of his art, has managed to be popular” (Marotti, p. 325).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The end of coronelismo

In 1930, after a flurry of military action in the capital, Getulio Vargas became Brazil’s president. In the promising early years of his presidency, Vargas narrowed the gap between rich and poor by establishing a minimum wage, a maximum work week, and equal wages for men and women. He also abolished child labor and set up unions in city factories, endearing himself to the Brazilian masses. In 1932, to appease the democrats who wanted free elections and an end to networks of political bosses, Vargas introduced some electoral reforms—the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, and representation of all classes in government. These reforms, along with Brazil’s increased urbanization and improved communication and transportation, contributed to the weakening of coronelismo in the New Republic.

Coronelismo did not completely end under Vargas’s presidency or even his dictatorship (1937-45). Rather, it survived in a more moderate form. There was, however, a concerted effort by the Vargas regime to confiscate the weapons and ammunition of those colonels who had supported Washington Luiz, Vargas’s immediate predecessor. Among these colonels was Horácio de Matos of Bahia, who was assassinated in May 1931, possibly in retaliation for the mysterious shooting of an army officer who had arrested de Matos the previous December. The colonel’s death anticipated significant changes for coronelismo in Bahia: “With the death of Horácio, the tradition of violence in politics was gone … a new era of politics was ushered in” (Pang, Bahia in the First Brazilian Republic, p. 188).

In 1945 Brazil held its first election since 1934, and the nation’s new commitment to democracy further weakened the tottering coronelismo power structure. Elaborate systems of voter registration and election supervision kept fraud to a minimum, and as the number of distinct municipalities multiplied (they doubled between 1946 and 1963), power shifted from the old families to other sectors of society (Butler, p. 450). Prominent among these sectors were urban dwellers and those made newly literate by the nation’s aggressive (though still inadequate) educational reform policies.

Mid-century modernization

Brazil was motivated to improve its quality of education by the nation’s post-World War II desire to modernize. In part linked to the rise of democracy and to a surge in nationalism, the country experienced an explosive growth in its economy, developing an industrial base and infrastructure that required the training of Brazilian experts to manage it. Meanwhile, along with the rising nationalism and growing economy, came an anti-foreign sentiment. Many Brazilian leaders felt it was necessary to reduce the nation’s dependence on outside (mostly North American) capital and goods, and thus encouraged factories and small businesses to produce essential services. Also encouraging Brazil to become economically self-sufficient was the vastly depleted condition of its post-World War II foreign exchange reserves. Vargas reappeared as president (1951-54) and, in line with this trend, established the Brazilian national petroleum company, Petrobrás, in 1953. It joined the National Steel Company (which Vargas had founded while dictator in 1946) in becoming one of the mainstays of the Brazilian economy. Following Vargas’s suicide in 1954, and a chain of caretaker governments, Juscelino Kubitschek became president in 1956. Kubitschek, grandson of a Czechoslovakian immigrant, promised Brazil fifty years of progress in five, and generally fulfilled that promise, although graft and overspending marred his term in office. During his administration (1956-61), foreign capital poured in and major industrialization began: an automobile industry developed; new highways connected parts of the country; an international airport was built; and huge dams were constructed to increase Brazil’s electrical power supply. Most spectacularly, Brazil constructed a new capital, Brasilia, in four years of round-the-clock labor. Completed in 1961, the same year Kubitschek left office, the airplane-shaped city rose on a plateau 600 miles from Rio de Janeiro, a “futuristic city of modernist architecture that captured the imagination of the outside world” (Skidmore and Smith, p. 177). Although Kubitschek failed to solve the chronic problems of poverty—especially in the Northeast—and economic mismanagement, his presidency helped Brazil take its place in the modern world. The major strides made under his leadership may well have influenced aspects of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, especially the character of Mundinho Falcão. Like Kubitschek, Falcão is a prosperous businessman with political ambitions, and his drive and determination transform Ilhéus. Also like Kubitschek, Falcão is regarded as an outsider. Kubitschek was the first descendant of an immigrant to serve as Brazil’s president; Falcão is a newcomer from Rio whom several colonels regard with hostility because he is not an Ilhéan by birth.

Contemporary women

The Latin American notion of machismo, which idealized masculine strength and virility persisted in 1950s Brazil, and continued to be matched by marianismo (after the Virgin Mary), which exalted traditionally feminine qualities, such as piety, propriety, and motherhood. Significantly, none of the major female characters in Amado’s novel conform to the ideal of marianismo. Ofenísia and Malvina both reject, albeit for different reasons, arranged marriages and domesticity. Gloria, the colonel’s concubine, hungers not for wedlock and respectability, but for true love with a man nearer her own age. Finally, Gabriela flourishes as Nacib’s mistress but wilts as his wife, and she displays no maternal yearnings. She, like Malvina and Gloria, transcends prevailing social and sexual strictures. In real life, women would find that transcending these strictures in Brazil was a slow process.

By the 1950s, when Amado was writing Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, women had gained rights such as the vote and equal-wage status with men. However, their progress in society continued to be gradual. Brazil was still considered “a man’s country.” Upper-class girls whose families could afford to educate them were usually sent to parochial schools, then married off at age 17 or 18 (Bishop, pp. 116-17). The life that Malvina scathingly describes in the novel—“In the kitchen, cooking,/In the rooms, atidying,/At the piano playing,/At the church, confessing” (Gabriela, p. 170)—continued to be the lot of most young women of her birth and upbringing. Meanwhile, a small but rising number of middle-class women attended the universities and entered the work force as secretaries, teachers, or clerks. Women organized quasi-political groups, such as the Brazilian Women’s Federation, which primarily addressed problems of daily living and grew into a national network that held its first countrywide meeting in 1949. In 1956 President Kubitschek, in response to pressure from conservatives, outlawed this federation and a number of other women’s groups. The setback illustrates the halting nature of progress for women in early to mid-twentieth-century Brazil.


Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon was described by Juan de Onis as “an exciting and enjoyable romp of a book, rich in literary delights and … a record-smashing runaway when it first appeared in Portuguese” (Juan de Onis in Davison, p. 22). The English translation likewise achieved critical and popular success in the United States in 1962. Reviewers praised the colorful setting and exciting plot. Fanny Butcher declared, “[T]he merry-go-round of love, politics, and a Brazilian port’s prosperity … are sure to make this big, lusty… tale welcome in any language” (Butcher in Davison, p. 22). The quality of the translation itself was lauded as well: “The translators have done full justice to the novel’s rollicking nimble style—no easy task” (Harriet de Onis in Davison, p. 22).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Amado, Jorge. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. Trans. James L. Taylor and William L. Grossman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Bishop, Elizabeth, and the editors of Life. Brazil New York: Time Incorporated, 1962.

Butler, E. Bradford. A History of Brazil 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

William Luis, ed. Modern Latin-American Fiction Writers.1st series. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 113. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Davison, Dorothy P. Book Review Digest 1962. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1963.

González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker, eds. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Marotti, Giorgio. Black Characters in the Brazilian Novel Trans. Maria O. Marotti and Harry Lawton. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, 1987.

Page, Joseph A. The Brazilians. Reading, Penn.: Addison-Wesley, 1995.

Pang, Eul-Soo. “Agrarian Change in the Northeast.” In Modern Brazil Elites and Masses in Historical Perspective. Eds. Michael L. Conniff and Frank D. McCann. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

_____. Bahia in the First Brazilian Republic: Coronelismo and Oligarchies, 1889-1934. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1979.

Skidmore, Thomas E. “Racial Ideas and Social Policy in Brazil, 1870-1940.” In The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1940. Ed. Richard Graham. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Skidmore, Thomas E., and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

About this article

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

Updated About content Print Article