Ramos, Graciliano (1892–1953)

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Ramos, Graciliano (1892–1953)

Graciliano Ramos (b. 27 October 1892; d. 20 March 1953), Brazilian novelist. A member of the literary generation of 1930, Ramos is one of Brazil's most eminent writers. His works have been widely translated and have received international critical acclaim. Three of his narratives have been made into highly successful films.

Ramos was born into a modest family in a small town in Alagoas and spent much of his childhood on a farm in the sertão (backlands) of Pernambuco. There he witnessed the poverty and misery caused by unequal patterns of land ownership and by the periodic droughts that afflict the region, all of which would later be incorporated into his narratives with masterful artistry. Ramos never finished secondary school and began his adult life working in, and subsequently managing, his father's dry goods store. In 1928 he was elected mayor of the small Alagoan town of Palmeira dos Índios, following which he held numerous appointed posts in the state bureaucracy, notably as director of the government printing office and head of the Department of Education.

In March 1936, following the unsuccessful revolt of the Aliança Nacional Libertadora, a popular front organization, Ramos was arrested because he was suspected of being a Communist, and thereafter was held in various prisons until February 1937. Formal charges were never brought against him. Ramos recounted the humiliation and degradation of this experience in Memórias do cárcere (1953), one of the most eloquent condemnations of authoritarianism written by a Brazilian.

In "Os bichos do subterrâneo," Antônio Candido suggests that the actual events of 1936–1937, plus their subsequent fictional elaboration, made Ramos go from a view of the world as a prison to one of prison as the world. All of Ramos's major fictional works focus on his characters' inability to escape from or transcend the limitations imposed by their own psychological makeup and social situation. His first three novels offer a complex exploration of the dark corners of the human psyche, which has led some critics to see Ramos primarily as a psychological writer. Yet his characters are always portrayed in terms of the social situation of the Brazilian Northeast in a period characterized by the onset of modernization, a technique that identifies him as a social novelist. Ramos thus combines psychological and social analysis as few other Brazilian writers since Machado de Assis have been able to do.

The first three novels, all written in the first person, take the form of fictional memoirs. Set largely in a boardinghouse in a small town, Caetés (1933) deals with self-interest and the relativity of human moral values. The narrator-protagonist, João Valério, seduces his boss's wife, an act that eventually drives his boss to suicide. Valério is writing a novel about the Caeté Indians, who, through explicit comparison, serve as a metaphor for humanity's underlying primitive, egotistical, and barbarous self. Ramos's second novel, São Bernardo (1934), is structured as the memoirs of Paulo Honório, who has risen from worker to owner of a large fazenda. The story of his violent rise to wealth and power is also the story of his fall as a human being, for his ultimate financial, ethical, and psychological failure exposes the reification of human beings under capitalism, then rapidly expanding in Brazil. In its dense soundings, reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, Ramos's third novel, Angústia (1936), published while he was in prison, reconstructs the psychological disintegration of petit-bourgeois intellectual Luís da Silva, the scion of a decadent fraction of a previously dominant class of rural landowners. Together, these three novels constitute a complex portrait of what Valentim Facioli has called the contradictory and chaotic dynamism of a dependent capitalist Brazil.

Many critics see Vidas secas (1938), Ramos's only novel written in the third person, as the high point of his career. The novel, circular in structure, portrays the suffering of an impoverished family during a period of drought. Through their strength and determination in the face of overwhelming odds, the family—composed of the cowherd Fabiano, his wife Vitória, their two sons, and the memorable dog Baleia—reveals a level of human dignity that is largely absent from Ramos's previous work. With his economical, harsh style, in a literary tour de force Ramos manages to penetrate the minds of his illiterate characters, and even of Baleia the dog, providing a haunting and moving portrait of the personal impact of environment and social tragedy.

With the exception of a few short stories, after Vidas secas, Ramos turned almost exclusively to journalistic and memorialistic writing.

See alsoLiterature: Brazil .


Fred P. Ellison, "Graciliano Ramos," in his Brazil's New Novel: Four Northeastern Masters (1954).

Antônio Candido, Ficção e confissão (1956).

Russell Hamilton, "Character and Idea in Ramos's Vidas secas," in Luso-Brazilian Review 1 (June 1968): 86-92.

Richard A. Mazzara, Graciliano Ramos (1974).

Antônio Candido, "Os bichos do subterrâneo," in his Tese e antítese, 3d ed. (1978).

Randal Johnson, "Vidas secas and the Politics of Filmic Adaptation," in Ideologies and Literature 3, no. 15 (1981): 3-18.

Valentim Facioli, "Um homem bruto da terra (Biografia intelectual)," in Graciliano Ramos, edited by Valentim Facioli et al. (1987), pp. 23-106.

Additional Bibliography

Leitão, Cláudio. Líquido e incerto: Memória e exílio em Graciliano Ramos. Niterói: EdUFF, Editora da Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2003.

Rezende, Marcelo. Literatura brasileira: Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, Guimarães Rosa. São Paulo: Editora Bregantini, 2004.

Santos, Vasco dos. Graciliano Ramos: Vida e obra. São Paulo: Editora Nova Aldeia, 2003.

                                     Randal Johnson