The tough game of unspeakable interests

Dear Carmen,

In A Luta (‘The Struggle’, 1909), we have the unfolding of multiple struggles: Celina’s existential dilemma, as she is torn between her need for social acceptance and her longing for freedom; the dispute between two matriarch’s, D. Adozinda, Celina’s mother, and D. Margarida, Celina’s mother-in-law; and, finally, the conflict between two opposing value systems, and between tradition and change.

When the story begins, we are thrown in the middle of the preparations for a wedding, in a boarding-house in Rio de Janeiro. We are introduced to the house’s owner, D. Adozinda, a woman in her forties who had arrived in Rio de Janeiro with her three daughters and had soon managed to buy a small hostel in Santa Teresa.

She is described as a sensual and insinuating woman and the narrator implies that perhaps she is not what she is pretending to be: although she describes herself as widowed, no one knows for certain whether she was married, nor to whom. “As the position of the newcomer did not attract attention, and, besides, as she showed herself with some pecuniary resources, cheerful, insinuating, and of a noisy familiarity that pleases many people, no one doubted the state of widowhood she presented as a social label (…)” (my translation). The narrator also implies that D. Adozinda entertained love affairs with some of the guests, which was not looked favourably upon by society.

The plot then takes a leap into the past, as we get to know what happened before this wedding scene – which we then find out was the wedding between D. Adozinda’s daughter, Celina, and Alfredo, the son of one of her guests. This time-jumping technique was also largely used by other Brazilian 19th-century writers, such as Maria Benedita Bormann and Júlia Lopes de Almeida.

In A Luta (1909), Carmen Dolores also makes use of frequent changes in perspective – another technique used by Lopes de Almeida in the novel A Falência (‘The Bankruptcy’, 1901) -, as the third-person narrator swiftly moves through the perspectives of different characters, alternating between their points of view, so as to offer us a broader picture of the conflicts at stake in the story.

Celina, the eldest daughter of D. Adozinda, is 17 years old and has just graduated from high school. She spends her afternoons at her mother’s boarding-house, doing crochet and daydreaming. The guests are mostly single men, and the narrator implies that this is not seen as the best environment for young women, particularly when the owner of the boarding-house herself shows a somewhat morally dubious behaviour.

One of the house’s guests is Gilberto, a university student from Minas Gerais who had moved to Rio to be treated for tuberculosis. He soon falls in love with Celina, and the affection seems to be reciprocated. He courts her, but D. Adozinda opposes the relationship, since Gilberto has no money and no job – he is just a student living on an allowance sent by an uncle in Minas.

One day, a widow arrives at the boarding-house, to spend some time there while recovering from hepatitis. Dona Margarida is a stern and strict woman, always dressed in black. She had had five children, of whom only one is alive, Alfredo Galvão. Alfredo works as a civil servant, and visits his mother regularly at the boarding-house. Much like Gilberto, he ends up falling in love with Celina – and he finds himself plagued by the conflict between his filial duty and his love for a woman his mother does not approve of.

Reluctantly, D. Margarida ends up giving in to her son’s wishes. D. Adozinda is also in favour of the relationship, due to the fact that Alfredo seems to be a more affluent suitor. Celina and Alfredo then get married, and we briefly go back to the festive scene at the beginning of the story.

After the party, the couple moves in with D. Margarida at the Marrecas Street. As in Bormann’s novel Celeste (1890), in A Luta (1909) Carmen Dolores also gives a somewhat detailed description of the wedding night, in which Celina, much like Celeste, has no clear idea of ​​what will happen in bed with her husband – and, inevitably, feels disappointed. Carmen Dolores describes the scene in a way to make everything a rather pathetic event, in which Alfredo himself is feeling awkward to make noise, since his mother is sleeping in the next room: “Alfredo Galvão and Celina Ferreira’s honeymoon had been rather lukewarm, stripped of the voluptuous outbursts that should mark the husband’s enjoyment of a much desired wife. It had been a dull, but decent honeymoon, worthy of a very unimaginative and quiet civil servant who was frightened by the violence of passions in marriage and respected his mother’s sleep in the room right next to the marital bedroom”. (my translation)

The story then takes another leap, this time into the future, and we get to know what happened to the couple after the wedding. Celina, a dreamy, romantic girl, soon becomes disillusioned with the reality of married life, which she spends at her mother-in-law’s house according to a strictly regulated and monotonous routine. Celina feels also deeply annoyed by fact that Alfredo was not as wealthy as D. Adozinda had imagined, and, now that the couple have two children, they barely have any money to cover anything beyond their most basic everyday necessities. Above all, Celina is disappointed at the fact that Aldredo is anything but a romance hero – he is always clinging to his mother’s skirts and is unable to make a decision without first consulting D. Margarida.

The narrator never misses the opportunity to describe Alfredo in the most derisive way possible, since this is how he is seen by Celina after their wedding: “Ah! no! It was so boring and so lonely! Alfredo looked like a machine: he would get up, lie down, eat, pick his teeth, go out, come back – everything with the regularity of a pendulum. And I never had money for an outing, a play, anything unforeseen, nothing! The days dragged on, always the same, heavy, and slow; and, on top of that, there was her mother-in-law bossing around, keeping her inside, lecturing her, as the real mistress of the house…” (my translation)

Celina – who had imagined that after her wedding she would enjoy an intense, passionate love affair and be able to travel and buy new dresses all the time – is faced with the reality of living with no money, stuck at home in the care of her children. She soon starts to envy her younger sisters, Julieta and Olga, who live freely in their mother’s boarding-house, leaving the house whenever they want, and constantly flirting with boys. Celina begins to envy what she sees as her sisters’ freedom, whom the narrator describes as true coquettes.

To make matters more complicated, Gilberto returns to Rio de Janeiro, now a wealthy man, and begins to tempt Celina: first, by flirting with her sister Olga, just to make her jealous; and, finally, by offering to keep her as his concubine, hidden away in a suburban home. There appears also a third suitor, Colonel Juvenato, who had been D. Adozinda’s lover in the past, while also harbouring an affection for Celina.

The stage is set for a fast-pacing, dramatic plot, marked by a heavy dose of social satire, especially with regard to Dolores’ criticism of the hypocrisy of the Brazilian clergy and of the way everyone disguises vanity and pecuniary interests behind an appearance of moral behaviour and religious purity. It is a priceless piece of satire, in my opinion.

Dolores makes a direct reference to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), when describing Celina’s dissatisfaction with her marriage: “This Bovary of the Marrecas Street dreamed of a broader existence and longed for the independence of an elegant and wealthy lady, finely dressed, who can go out alone to the theatre, and is ardently courted by many suitors.” (my translation)

The struggle that unfolds in the book is not just Celina’s internal struggle between stability and social acceptance, on the one hand, and passion and freedom on the other; the struggle also takes place in the confrontation between Celina and Olga, in their dispute for Gilberto; and in Alfredo’s internal conflict between his need to impose his authority as a husband, on the one hand, and, on the other, his respect for his wife and his determination to win back her love for him.

Finally, we have also the struggle expressed in the conflict between mother and daughter, between D. Adozinda and Celina – in which the mother feels jealous of her daughter’s youth (which is stealing away Colonel Juvenato’s attention), and, at the same time, tries to make use of such youth and to entice her daughter to attract wealthy customers to her boarding-house.

Furthermore, the struggle also expresses itself in the confrontation between the two matriarchs, D. Adozinda and D. Margarida, as a representation of the clash between change and tradition, between two opposing set of values and social expectations. An interesting aspect of the book is the fact that this clash takes place between two women: husbands are absent, either because they died, in the case of D. Margarida, or because nothing is known about them, as in the case of D. Adozinda; or because, in Alfredo’s case, he is a withdrawn man who always prefers to give in either to his wife or to his mother (and, even when he needs to win back his wife, he asks his mother for help…).

The struggle is also the representation of the dilemma experienced by a woman who was unhappy in marriage, at a time and place where she was denied not only the right to divorce, but also the access to education and the right to equal salary and opportunity to work – a legal situation that, if existent, would give this woman a much needed autonomy of choice.

The most common reading of the ending of Dolores’ novel suggests a conservative choice on her part – which, in a way, is also consistent with the ambivalent stance she adopted in many topics regarding women’s sexual behaviour. However, I see the ending in a slightly different way: not exactly as a conservative option, but as the emblem of a lack of option on the part of the protagonist.

It is a disenchanted ending, in which the heroine does not find the freedom she had been brought up to expect from marriage, and is then confronted with her lack of real alternatives: either way she chooses, she is bound to be dependent on a man. And it is only when Celina becomes aware of the narrow limits of her expectations and her freedom, that she is finally able to make a conscious choice – albeit a very limited one.

What the book does is neither to suggest a radical change, nor to blindly conform to tradition, but rather to take a step back and bring to light the existential dilemma of a woman deprived of basic rights in a particular time and place – and the questions such dilemma is able to stir up in us.

Yours truly,

J.


Schoolgirl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1911)

“In such environment, the struggle never ceases: it always goes on, between the exploiters and the exploited. It is the terrible, endless, eternal struggle! It is the tough game of unspeakable interests!” – Carmen Dolores, A Luta, my translation


About the book

  • Editora Mulheres, 2001, 190 p. Goodreads
  • Originally published in instalments in the newspaper Jornal do Comércio, in 1909
  • Posthumously as a book byEditora Garnier, in 1911
  • My rating: 4 stars

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