The Hour of the Star
The Hour of the Star
by Clarice Lispector
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the 1970s; published (as A hora de estrela) in Portuguese in 1977, in English in 1985.
A male narrator struggles to write the story of a poor, uneducated young woman from the rural Northeast who lives in the dockside tenements of Rio de Janeiro. While portraying her bleak existence, he wrestles with his own questions of ethics, meaning, and social justice.
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 in the Ukraine to a family of Slavonic-Jewish descent. Her family relocated to Brazil when Clarice was two months old, and she spent a happy childhood in the beautiful but poverty-stricken Northeastern city of Recife. In 1932 her family moved south to Rio de Janeiro, where, after completing law school, Lispector became one of her country’s most successful journalists and well-regarded writers. Her first novel, Close to the Savage Heart, was published to critical acclaim when Lispector was only 24 years old. The novel took a radical turn from the regional stories popular in Brazil at the time, and with its help Lispec-tor soon became known for her introspective fiction and its exploration of philosophical, universal themes. Because of her preoccupations with language and philosophy, she was accused at times of being indifferent to the actual plight of her fellow Brazilians. Perhaps partly in response to this criticism, Lispector wrote The Hour of the Star, which combines her “highly subjective fiction [with] certain sociopolitical themes of urgent importance for Brazil” (Peixoto, p. 89).
Lispector and Brazilian literature
When Lispector broke onto Brazil’s literary scene in the 1940s, it was dominated by realist writers who composed fictions that often featured Brazil’s poor, outcasts, criminals, or powerless women. This literary realism dominated Brazil’s second stage of modernism, the period from 1930 to 1945. Writers like Jorge Amado (seeGabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), Graciliano Ramos (see Barren Lives), Raquell de Queiroz, and Jose Lins do Rego produced documentary-style prose fiction “strongly committed to social justice and national development” and often concerned specifically with the Northeast (Fitz, p. 22). Brazil’s modernist literature in general was dominated by two main impulses: the desire to produce innovative new writing in the spirit of Europe’s post-World War 1 avant-garde movements, and the need to locate and create an “authentic Brazilian literature, one based on national themes, forms, and modes of expression” (Fitz, p. 22). Writers sought to discover characters and ideas indigenous exclusively to Brazil. It was the absence of any nationalistic or regional concerns in Lispector’s works that marked her fiction as different within the currents of Brazil’s literature. Lispector believed that social ills should not merely be fodder for literature—one ought to do something about them. Over the years she sustained a great deal of criticism from those who faulted her for not addressing these ills enough in her stories.
Lispector calls as much attention as possible to the fact that there is always someone writing any story, and that in The Hour of the Star Macabéa’s story is told by a male novelist of a higher social class than his subject. This reflects a real-life phenomenon, that of the socially-conscious authors prominent in Brazil when Lispector made her appearance on the literary scene. Most of these authors were relatively well-off men who wrote from the point of view of an unnamed, omniscient narrator. The narrators’ omniscience and invisibility left unexplored any question of his own complicity in the oppression he was describing, or his right in the first place to speak for his subjects.
by highlighting the very processes of creating narratives and characters, Lispector begins to question “how narrative itself [is] implicated in structures of domination and victimization” (Peixoto, p. xx). Her initial novel, Close to the Savage Heart, was praised as the first Brazilian work of fiction to make language not just a vehicle but also part of the subject matter (Fitz, p. 24). The 1950s saw the advent of the French nouveau roman (new novel), which focused on the relationship between language and reality, and Lispector’s work shares some of the new novel’s tendencies, though there is no indication that this form influenced her; her fiction shows more concern with the psychology of characters than that of the French writers. In fact, Lispector has been described as somewhat of an anomaly in respect to her novels’ preoccupations with language and other universal concerns, which continued to emerge in her fiction of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Narrating the oppressed
More than any of Lispector’s previous fiction, The Hour of the Star deals with a specific socioeconomic issue of the time—the plight of the young Nordestina (female from the Northeast), who struggles to eke out a living and an identity for herself in the poor tenements of Rio de Janeiro. While the novel evokes the time in which it is set, it is also deeply concerned with the act of writing itself. The male narrator, Rodrigo S.M., takes center stage as he consciously attempts to imagine the Nordestina, Macabéa—her feelings, character, and the events and meanings of her life.
In their migration to urban centers that could barely sustain them, the situation of Brazil’s Northeasterners was one of poverty and despair, and the novel reflects this reality; but more than anything it highlights the middle-class male who writes the story of an oppressed Nordestina. Critics who try to explain the use of a male narrator have said that he provides Lispector with a cold distance from which to treat a difficult subject. At the same time, however, “the male mask, by increasing the distance between narrator and character, also points up the outrageous presumption that writing the other, especially the oppressed other, implies”; in this way, “[Lispector] accuses writer, narrator, and reader of participating in and profiting from that oppression” (Peixoto, pp. 92, 89). Addressing the narrator and reader, Lispector, at a loss herself, ends her “Author’s Dedication” with a challenge: “[The Hour of the Star] is an unfinished book because it offers no answer. An answer I hope someone somewhere in the world may be able to provide. You perhaps?” (Lispector, The Hour of the Star, p. 8).
Nordestinos—Northeasterners in Brazil
One of the world’s largest countries, Brazil in 1980 had a population of 121 million in an area of 3,286,488 square miles (8,511,965 square kilometers). The vast territory is known for its intense regional diversity. Brazilians throughout history have, in fact, tended to define themselves based on their regional roots. Normally Brazil is divided into five distinct regions: the North, Northeast, South, Southeast, and Central-West. Of these regions the South and Southeast are dominant, while the Northeast is not only the poorest in Brazil but “one of the major underdeveloped areas of the hemisphere”—a region beset by poverty and social problems that seem almost unfixable (Burns, p. 419). Almost two-thirds of the Northeast is made up of the arid, interior sertão, an area especially afflicted by poverty, in part because of its irregular rainfall; the remaining third is made up of a transitional semihumid zone and a humid coastal strip where, among other things, planters grow sugar. Plagued by droughts, unemployment, high infant mortality, and illiteracy, the Northeast contained 21 percent of Brazil’s population and provided less than 10 percent of the country’s national product in 1965 (Burns, p. 420). Most of the region’s peasants lived in small clay structures with dirt floors and did not own the land they worked; ownership was instead concentrated in the hands of a few landowners in a manner that recalled the region’s colonial roots. Hunger was common, as were diseases, intestinal parasites, and other health problems.
In the 1950s economists recommended increased capital investment in the Northeast, and Sudene (Superintendency of the Development of the Northeast) was created to produce a development program for the region. The program encouraged industrialization, population dispersal, and increased production in agriculture. Though economic conditions improved in the 1960s as a result of these efforts, the fundamental problems haunting the region (poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, illiteracy, malnourishment) have for the most part remained unsolved.
The migration south
Urbanization in the 1930s and ‘40s prompted a massive wave of migration from Brazil’s rural areas to its cities. Because of insistent drought and poverty-related diseases like typhoid and tuberculosis as well as underemployment, the unemployed, uneducated, overwhelmingly illiterate refugees from these hinterlands moved cityward and southward in droves. The Northeasterners who migrated southward found themselves at a disadvantage because of their illiteracy and lack of job skills.
Migrants from the Northeast were measured against certain regional stereotypes. They were typically identified with the most underprivileged in society. The general population regarded them as lazy, unmotivated, and backward, guided by a primitive, irrational religiosity and an incurable nostalgia for their native region. In fact, poor Northeastern immigrants of the time had the same aspirations as middle-class city dwellers—better education and financial security for themselves and their children—but their access to the means for realizing these desires was usually far more restricted. Given their heritage of Indian, black, and white racial strains, Northeasterners often differed physically too, sometimes becoming targets of racism in the white-dominated South.
Many Northeastern migrants actually managed to find jobs, but in lowly positions as doormen or construction workers, earning minimum wages or less. Along with other former rural dwellers, they settled into tenements, favelas (shanty towns), cabeças-de-porcos (rooming houses), or hospedarias (flophouses). A few early-to mid-twentieth-century writers portrayed some of the dismal experiences of such lifestyles—Jorge Amado in his novel Suor (1934; Sweat) about the inhabitants of a tenement in Salvador, and Carolina Maria de Jesus in her diary Quarto de Despejo (1960; Child of the Dark) about life in a São Paulo favela.
Life in the tenements of Rio
Rio’s slums are legendary, some sprawling near the docks; others scrolling up the city’s hills. The slums stemmed from an imbalance between urbanization and industrialization. There were not enough jobs for the incoming migrants, but, rather than return to their destitute homelands, the underemployed refugees remained, squeezing into the colonial-style tenements of the dockside slums and, in the 1940s, building shantytowns. Much has been written about Rio’s favelas, or shantytowns, less about the tenement slums in which Macabéa lives in the novel. But their populations are demo-graphically similar—overwhelmingly non-white and uneducated. Together the slums and shantytowns formed the basis of Rio’s cheap work force. About half of all slum dwellers held jobs outside their own communities. For the most part, they labored to support the lifestyle enjoyed by the white elite, as construction workers, waiters, butlers, and chauffeurs. They constructed “the high rise buildings in which Rio lives and works and in which it takes such pride, and it is they, too who maintain and clean these buildings” (Perl-man, p. 29).
POPULATION GROWTH—RIO IN THE SOUTH RECIFE IN THE NORTHEAST
|Rio de Janeiro||800,000||1,157,000||1,781,000||3,372,000|
(Adapted from Burns, p. 4410)
Working women, whose numbers reached 6.1 million by 1970, held jobs as maids, cooks, nannies, and office or department store clerks. There was little job security for the working poor, since the number of willing laborers far exceeded the quantity of available positions. Many poor women, frustrated with the dearth of job opportunities or lack of control over working conditions, turned to the streets. In 1970s Rio, the dockside slums of Acre Street, where Macabéa lives in the novel, were in fact teeming with prostitutes ready to service the area’s sailors.
Some of these real-life prostitutes were mothers. Often at a young age, women in the slums started having many children. Single motherhood became the norm, and even a full-time job might not put enough food on the table for the family. To some of these women, prostitution seemed to offer the only means of closing the gap.
The Brazilian miracle
Following a military coup in 1964 Brazil experienced a celebrated economic boom, advertised the world over as the “economic miracle.” But beneath the glittering sheen of a hyperactive economy, the gap between the country’s rich and poor grew ever wider. Of roughly 105 million Brazilians in 1970, the top 10 percent prospered, earning nearly half the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50 percent were by all accounts worse off than ever before, barely garnering 15 percent of the nation’s income (Burns, p. 471). During the so-called economic miracle, four out of five Brazilians experienced a decline in income and living standards. At first, many clung to the allure of the “trickle down theory”—the idea that national prosperity would naturally be passed down to petty businesses and poor consumers—but after an oil crisis in 1973 the economy took a sharp turn for the worse, squashing these hopes. By the mid-1970s, when the novel takes place, it was apparent that the military government was placing national industrialization and economic growth above the well-being of Brazil’s poor and even its middle class.
The 1964 military coup was backed by the nation’s upper and middle classes, the Catholic Church, and the press. The military unseated João Goulart, a liberal whose social reformist politics were alarming the upper and middle classes. Aiming to slow his reforms, his opponents staged rallies, such as the “March of the Family with God and Liberty” in São Paulo on March 19, 1964. Tensions escalated with Goulart reprimanding the army’s generals for failing to support him and for lacking discipline. Meanwhile, economic problems proliferated under Goulart’s presidency, including a slowdown in growth and repeated labor strikes. Finally, accusing the president of being a communist, the army, with the approval of the U.S. government, moved to overthrow Goulart and marched into Rio to depose him on March 31, 1964.
U.S. influence on cultural values
The Hour of the Star’s narrator attributes only a few characteristics to Macabéa, among them her preference for Coca-Cola and her desire to look like Marilyn Monroe. With hundreds of thousands of Brazilian tourists visting the United States, and with U.S.-headed firms dominating advertising in Brazil, status symbols in the two countries became indistinguishable: fancy cars, luxurious apartments with a view, summer homes, designer clothes, and mass-produced home fashions. Affected by advertising and media saturation, many Brazilians avidly consumed nonessential products like cigarettes or cola. Meanwhile, though people mimicked the United States in certain respects, they also blamed it for much of what was wrong in Brazil at the time, pointing to its support of the unpopular military regime. As early as 1965 Brazilians grew disenchanted with the regime (Burns, p. 455). Its policies became anathema to workers, intellectuals, and democrats, from its freezing of wages in the face of rising prices, to its censorship, to its increasingly authoritarian rule.
Military dictatorship to democracy
Atrocities committed by the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-85) did not receive as much worldwide attention as those enacted by its Argentinean or Chilean counterparts, but life under the generals was nonetheless oppressive, particularly in the early 1970s. Censorship and torture were widespread. Left-wing intellectuals were persecuted. While a number of opponents to the regime expatriated to Europe or the United States, others resisted; a violent antigovernment guerrilla opposition formed and, beginning in 1969, staged daring actions, including the kidnapping of foreign diplomats. According to some historians, the guerrillas were trying to provoke the military government into committing such blatant human rights violations that Brazilians would rise up in protest. Gunfire erupted in the streets of Rio in 1970 because of the government-guerrilla conflict; by 1973, however, the guerrilla forces were depleted. The middle class felt betrayed by the military leaders whom it had helped bring to power, but took no organized action. And the poor continued to fester in their already squalid slums. Those who wished to organize in support of the underprivileged met with so much bureaucracy and bad faith at the highest levels of government that their hands were effectively tied. But the situation would not be tolerated in Brazil for much longer.
The Hour of the Star appeared in print at the end of the 1970s during a period of change. The decade brought the slow transition from military rule to democracy, a process denoted by the term abertura (“opening,” referring to the loosening up of the political and cultural scene). While students were rioting for social justice, clashing violently with the state police at São Paulo’s Catholic University in 1977, members of the various underprivileged classes were slowly mobilizing their forces.
The abertura meant that radical democratic themes—religious, feminist, localist, but chiefly ‘humanistic’—were encountered in new ways (or for the first time) as social movements appeared to articulate them. For many people… the new social movements provided the first political experience of their lives.
(Yudice, p. 103)
The year 1978 saw the founding of the Movimento Negro Unificado Contra Discñminacao Racial (MNU), Brazil’s most important organization of the contemporary black movement. Citizens began pressing for a return to civilian instead of military government. At the same time, the United States under President Jimmy Carter was taking a stand on human rights issues around the world. In Brazil, the seeds of resistance, which had been sown decades earlier, were given new life by international attention. None of this, however, affected the pervasive problems in the Northeast or stemmed the tide of migrants that continued to surge into the urban centers in the decade following the release of the novel (1977-87). Another 15 million rural dwellers crowded hopefully into cities, which were as unequipped to handle them as they had been in the character Macabéa’s day (Burns, p. 481).
The novel opens with the discursive musings of its male narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who begins to construct a narrative around “the unremarkable adventures of a girl [from the Northeast] living in a hostile city” (Hour of the Star, pp. 12, 15). The narrator is highly self-conscious and involved in much more than a description of his characters and their lives. Discussions of writer’s block, creative frustration, and the difficulty of his subject form a significant portion of the book so that Rodrigo S.M. and his own act of writing Macabéa’s story becomes as important within the novel as the story he tells. Throughout a long introductory section Rodrigo S.M. muses on words—God, history, faith, life, and death—that will emerge as the novel’s major themes. The story of Rodrigo S.M.’s fictional character Macabéa meanwhile begins, hesitantly, to unfold. Aiming to maintain his “cold impartiality,” the narrator tries at times to hide behind the socially enforced division between his situation and Macabéa’s—“There are those who have. And there are those who have not. It’s very simple: the girl had not. Hadn’t what? Simply this: she had not” (Hour of the Star, p. 25). Despite these attempts to distance himself, Rodrigo S.M. ends up professing to have merged with his character to such an extent that their lives and deaths intertwine. When he makes the decision to let her die, he claims to have “died” alongside her: “Death is instantaneous and passes in a flash. I know, for I have just died with the girl. Forgive my dying. It was unavoidable” (Hour of the Star, p. 85).
This movement of the narrator toward his character appears to occur only after much resistance and struggle. The difficulty Rodrigo S.M. encounters in trying to write Macabéa’s story perhaps reflects the difficulty with which society’s elites confronted the prospect of leaving their perches and engaging themselves in society as a whole. To some extent, it may also reflect their foolhardiness in speaking for the impoverished. “In order to speak about this girl,” writes Rodrigo S.M., “I must acquire dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep: dozing from sheer exhaustion like a manual laborer … to put myself on the same footing as the girl from the North-east” (Hour of the Star, p. 19).
As imagined by Rodrigo S.M., Macabéa lives in the tenements of Acre Street, in the heart of Rio’s dockside red-light district. Here countless prostitutes, mainly other young Nordestinas like Macabéa, hawk their wares to sailors for the price of a good dinner. Meanwhile, Macabéa takes the bus each day to her job as a typist for a pulley company, a job she performs poorly since she is nearly illiterate. At the opening of the novel, she narrowly escapes being fired when her boss, struck by her docile reception of the bad news that he is letting her go, has a change of heart.
Macabéa and her four roommates (all of whom are called Maria and all of whom work at the local department store) share a small tenement room with thin walls and no hot water. The Marias do not figure prominently in Macabéa’s life, except as obstacles to privacy, since the living quarters are so close. Their situation is so common it might be copied from a sociological text—one can only imagine that in the rooms next to theirs are other groups of struggling women, trekking off to work each day either in shops or offices or on the streets to sell their bodies.
In early May, as spring takes its first steps and brides begin shopping for their veils, Macabéa unusually takes a day off work, lying to her employer about a toothache. What freedom awaits her, alone for once at home without the omnipresent Marias! She waltzes around the room to the strains coming from a transistor radio; she begs some instant coffee and boiling water from her landlady, then savors the luxurious liquid as it warms her belly and sweetens her lips. She has never been so happy in her entire life. The following morning, this withered, undernourished virgin awakens, her entire body gripped by “an unforeseen ecstasy” (Hour of the Star, p. 42).
That afternoon Macabéa meets her future boyfriend, Olímpico, whom she immediately recognizes as a native Northeasterner. The two share the same unmistakable physical traits; when Olímpico first speaks, his singsong intonation further betrays his origins. They begin a shortlived romance of sorts—she is infatuated; he is aggressively condescending. Their relationship consists largely of walks peppered with frustrating conversation, and characterized by the ever-present downfall of rain.
Olímpico is in many ways a typical Northeastern street thug, of illegitimate birth, with no prospects. Raised by his stepfather to be deceitful and opportunistic, he feels destined to become a politician, but presently labors as a lowly metal worker (a title he inflates in conversation to metallurgist). He harbors two demonstrations of his manliness: a gold tooth, and the secret knowledge of a murder committed in his youth, when he stabbed his rival to death during a backwoods duel. He has a penchant for attending the funerals of strangers and regularly weeps over newspaper obituaries, an act that undercuts his pretended machismo. He also carves wooden statues of Catholic saints, which he cannot bear to sell because they are so well crafted. Nevertheless, the narrator concludes that Olímpico is “wicked to the core” (Hour of the Star, p. 47). Macabéa, however, who has never had a boyfriend before, loves him and hopes for a marriage proposal.
Olímpico soon becomes bored with Macabéa, repulsed by her ugliness and annoyed by her constant barrage of questions for which, despite his pretensions to superior knowledge, he has no answers. Their walks become less frequent and their conversations more abusive, until finally Olímpico leaves Macabéa for her seductive of-ficemate Gloria. “A cunning vixen but nonetheless goodhearted,” Gloria is everything that Macabéa is not—lower-middle-class, well-fed, and very aware of her feminine powers (Hour of the Star, p. 64). She has fair skin and dyed blond hair, attributes that mark her as a carioca (native of Rio), clearly superior to Macabéa in Olimpico’s eyes.
When her persistent chest cold proves to be tuberculosis, Macabéa is unfazed by the news. She does not understand what the doctor is telling her, and so informs no one of her condition. So when Gloria sends Macabéa to seek the divining skills of a clairvoyante, it is not out of concern for her health but rather out of guilt over taking away her boyfriend, Olímpico.
Armed with a loan from Gloria, Macabéa sets out by taxi (the first in her life) to see Madame Carlota. Carlota welcomes Macabéa into her gaudy home with all the ingratiating sweetness befitting a charlatan, but everything she divines about the poor girl’s past is remarkably accurate. In fact, she sees the grim facts as being much worse than Macabéa ever imagined, and sends Macabéa into a state of shock: “Macabéa turned pale; it had never occurred to her that her life was that awful” (Hour of the Star, p. 75). Up until this point, Macabéa has been sanguine—insofar as she was aware of her hopeless circumstances, she accepted them—and Madame Carlota’s description of her wretchedness may be the closest Macabéa has ever come to seeing her position from an outsider’s point of view.
Carlota then predicts that Macabéa will be fired from her job after all, and ends up feeling so sorry for the girl she offers to waive her normal fee. But as a dejected Macabéa is about to leave, Carlota suddenly changes her tune, telling Macabéa her luck is actually about to change for the better. Not only will she keep her job and win back Olímpico, but something even better lies in store for her—a rich and handsome foreign gentleman named Hans is about to appear and sweep her off her feet. They will be married and she will have all the satin and velvet she could ever dream of—even a fur coat.
Macabéa, who has made it a habit not to think about the future—“to have a future [is] a luxury”—is beside herself when the prophetic ex-prostitute sends her off to meet her destiny (Hour of the Star, p. 58). Within minutes, Macabéa is struck down by a luxurious yellow Mercedes driven by a fair-haired foreigner, who doesn’t even look back to acknowledge his victim. Her death is long and drawn out; people gather to watch and Rodrigo S.M. refers to her at this point as “the film-star Macabéa” (Hour of the Star, p. 82). In Macabéa’s final moments, she remembers the prostitute-lined docks of her slum, and “[t]he docks [go] to the heart of her existence” (Hour of the Star, p. 82). When Macabéa dies, the narrator claims to die with her, announcing, “Macabéa has murdered me” (Hour of the Star, p. 85). He cannot, in other words, continue telling her story because she is no longer, nor can he prevent her death. At this point, Rodrigo S.M. comes finally to understand the story he has just written: It is the story of “the greatness of every human being” (Hour of the Star, p. 85).
Key relationships—author, narrator, and characters
Throughout the novel Rodrigo S.M. constantly forces the reader to acknowledge his presence and status as narrator, and in so doing forms imtraditional relationships with both the reader and his own characters. In the same way that imagining Macabéa demands the active participation of the narrator, The Hour of the Star requires the active participation of the reader. Especially when he gives in to the temptation to blame Macabéa or to exculpate himself completely, Rodrigo S.M. writes in a way that challenges the reader, often by asking direct questions:
CLARICE LISPECTOR AND FRENCH FEMINISM
Though Lispector had been an acclaimed writer in Brazil ever since the 1944 publication of her first novel, Close to the Savage Heart, only in the late 1970s and early 1980s did she become the “object of extensive international criticism” due, in large part, to the French feminist Hélène Cixous’s “celebration of her work as a model of écriture feminine” (Peixoto, p. xviii), Cixcous is one of many feminists who sought to locate a uniqueness in women’s writing, those intrinsic qualities of women’s writing that set it off from men’s. Ecriture feminine refers broadly to women’s writing, but, more than this, suggests a writing “based on an encounter with another—be it a body, a piece of writing, a social dilemma, a moment of passion—that leads to an undoing of the hierarchies and oppositions that determine the limits of most conscious life’’ (Conley, p. vii).
Cixous felt that Lispector put into practice exactly this kind of writing. The Frenchwoman imagined a writing that would disrupt social boundaries, and the violence accompanying them, by effacing as much as possible the subject, or self, and instead presenting an emptied-out subject whose contact with the other would be fluid and open. By being always exposed to other people in this fluid relationship, the self is never unified or solid, but, rather, always being born anew. Thus, “Cixous, with Lispector, strives toward a mode of reading, writing, and speaking” in which the other person is “other without being thought of in merely negative or positive terms” relative to oneself (Conley, p, xi). Whereas the self is traditionally defined in opposition to another, then, Cixous sought to blur any solid divide between self and other. She believed that women writing intuitively might be able not only to produce a distinctive women’s literature, but also to call into question many of the notions upon which traditional Western culture is founded. By making Lispector a prime example of écriture féminine, Cixous positioned the Brazilian writer in the international spotlight; Lispector became required reading for many scholars engaged in women’s studies.
“But why should I feel guilty? Why should I try to relieve myself of the burden of not having done anything to help the girl?” (Hour of the Star, p. 23).
[I]t is true that when one extends a helping hand to the lower orders they want everything else; the man on the street dreams greedily of having everything. He has no right to anything but wants everything. Wouldn’t you agree?
(Hour of the Star, p. 35)
The emphasis on these twin struggles—that of the writer/narrator and that of the reader—may be Lispector’s way of returning some worth and dignity to the lives of girls like Macabéa, who struggle in silence, “for there is no one to listen” (Hour of the Star, p. 14). At the same time, Lispector, already calling attention to the narrator’s position as a middle-class man writing the story of a lower-class woman, directly implicates the reader in the processes of oppression she sees working both in the social and textual worlds. As Rodrigo S.M. moves from moments of supreme sympathy for Macabéa to others of cold detachment and irony, the reader, who almost assuredly identifies more with this narrator than with Macabéa, is forced into self-consciousness.
Rodrigo S.M. is in an extremely powerful position and has complete control over Macabéa. Not only is he the narrator and she his subject, but he is both a man and an educated member of the middle classes. As he imagines her, Macabéa is almost a nonentity throughout the text—ugly, impoverished, beaten-down, and almost completely devoid of self-awareness. At times Rodrigo S.M. romanticizes her and her plight, imagining her as pure and having found “grace in simple, authentic things,” while at others he almost seems to take pleasure in her suffering: “Yes, I adore Macabéa, my darling Maca. I adore her ugliness and her total anonymity for she belongs to no one. I adore her for her weak lungs and her under-nourished body” (Hour of the Star, pp. 62, 68). This power relationship between Macabéa and her oppressive narrator is played out within the story itself, in the shortlived affair between Macabéa and Olímpico, who plays “master” to Macabéa’s “slave.” Though Olímpico is also from the lower classes, he, like the narrator, develops a condescending, ex-ploitive relationship with Macabéa, based, in Olimpico’s case, on his gender in a male-dominated society. Thus, Lispector links authorship with class and gender oppression, and even, by using a narrator like Rodrigo S.M., calls into question her own position as an urban female writer in relation to a suffering Nordestina. The novel leaves open the question of any one person’s being able to form an authentic relationship with another person, especially when class or gender differences structure that relationship.
Sources and literary context
Lispector, like Macabéa, grew up a Nordestina, but differed from her in other ways. The author was not as poor as her character and had both a supportive family and a happy childhood. Lispector always had fond memories of her childhood in Recife, and as she grew older, her nostalgia for the place intensified. This nostalgia, in part, motivated the writing of the novel, and is reflected in the characteristics of the heroine and more explicitly in the musings of its narrator.
As indicated, this novel may also have been a reaction to long-standing criticism of Lispector’s work, which claimed that it was not socially relevant enough. The woman whose childhood observations of the Northeast’s abject poor caused her “to tremble and rage” was baffled by the remarks of her detractors: “It would indeed be strange if I were to remain indifferent to life in my own country. 1 may not write about social problems, but I live them intensely” (Lispector, Discovering the World, p. 29).
After the onset of the military regime in Brazil in 1964, Lispector and other Brazilian novelists confronted a decade of censorship. When censorship began to end in the mid-1970s, they entered into a period of literature “remarkable for its radical questioning” (González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 199). Forgoing simple description, novelists wrote stories that highlighted the very act of creating the narrative, as in Ivan Ân-gelo’s The Celebration (also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times) and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star.
The Hour of the Star was published shortly after cancer claimed Lispector’s life at the age of 57. Her detractors notwithstanding, Clarice Lispector has always been a critical favorite, winning the prestigious Graça Aranha prize for Close to the Savage Heart. Her posthumous novel was no exception to the rule. The Hour of the Star was favorably received both in Brazil and in the United States, where the New York Times wrote “[Lispector] is studied by the scholars, but has never managed to reach a reading public. The Hour of the Star could change all that” (MacAdam, p. 27). John Gledson drew attention to the way in which Lispector captures the true circumstances of her characters by de-sentimentalizing them:
Poverty is a difficult subject for anyone…. Who could deny its crushing importance and visibility in the continent? Nevertheless, it is easy to feel that, like the Guatemalan earthquake, it has been “sponsored” for consumption at home and abroad. Desenti-mentalizing is part of Clarice’s solution: Macabéa, I suspect, is the poor as no one would want them to be, whatever their political views.
(Gledson, p. 587)
Always a voracious reader, Lispector was influenced by the Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos among others. Clearly, her innovative conception of The Hour of the Star broke drastically from the realism of Ramos. Along with her equally experimental contemporary João Guimarães Rosa (see The Devil to Pay in the Backlands , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times), she pushed Brazilian literature into new paths of linguistic and structural innovation as well as philosophical and psychological exploration. Outside Brazil, Lispector was influenced by various foreign writers, including Germany’s Hermann Hesse and France’s Jean-Paul Sartre.
Writing for the Luso-Brazilian Review, Earl E. Fitz commented on the unfulfilled promise of the novel’s author: “Given the vigor and innovative-ness of what we see here [in The Hour of the Star], one must wonder about the wonderful stories we could have expected from Clarice Lispector had she not died so prematurely. With her untimely passing, one of Latin America’s most original and powerful voices has been stilled” (Fitz in Olendorf, p. 251).
—Anna Moschovakis and Carolyn Turgeon
Conley, Verena Andermatt. “Introduction.” In Reading with Clarice Lispector. Ed. and trans. Verena Andermatt Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Fitz, Earl E. Clarice Lispector. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Gledson, John. “The Poor As No One Would Want Them to Be.” Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1986, 587.
González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Lispector, Clarice. Discovering the World. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. Manchester: Carcanet, 1992.
_____. The Hour of the Star. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York: New Directions, 1992.
MacAdam, Alfred J. “Falling Down in Rio.” The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1984, 27.
Olendorf, Donna, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol 139. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Peixoto, Marta. Passionate Fictions: Gender, Narrative, and Violence in Clarice Lispector. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
Perlman, Janice. “Rio’s Favelados and the Myths of Marginality.” Institute of Urban & Regional Development, University of California Berkeley, 1973. Working paper.
Yudice, George, ed. On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.