Joel A. Hart
It is impossible to speak of the history of the Americas without speaking of
violence and conflict. Whole regimes on both continents have been based on violence,
dominating their states while destroying their opponents. This theme of conflict
repeats itself in each of the books, all of them inter-American pieces, that
this class has read this semester. The conflict in these works is very striking:
every novel, every short story seems to boil over with it. Of course, everyone
can acknowledge that all great literature must have some element of conflict
in it, else why tell the story in the first place? Without conflict, there is
nothing to drive the plot or move the action of a story. However, the inter-American
texts with which this class has concerned itself during this term have all seemed
to emphasize this need for conflict in a way that one does not encounter with
other genres of literature. Conflict does more than just drive the plot in many
of these stories, it dominates it, sometimes even at the expense of other
literary elements. This unique type of conflict is what sets inter-American
literature apart from every other genre.
Of course, one must understand that conflict in the literary sense does not
always mean bloody violence or angry words. As any good seventh-grade English
teacher can relate, literary conflict can be classified in one of three ways.
The first is man versus man, where one character is pitted directly opposite
another, in the classic protagonist-antagonist model. In addition, conflict
can be defined as man versus an outside force, be it society or nature, so that
a character must struggle against some overarching concept that defines the
world in which he lives. Lastly, conflict can be a man versus himself. In this
conflict, the character in question struggles most with the emotions, thoughts,
and feelings that he holds inside. Moreover, these three degrees of conflict
are by no means exclusive of each other. It is possible, and in these inter-American
pieces, quite normal, for a character in a work to face all three forms of conflict.
The struggles that a character faces bring life to the work, though only by
working in tandem with the other elements, such as characterization and style.
I propose to examine the role of conflict in three of the works encountered
this year: William Faulkner's The Bear, Gabriel García Márquez's
One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis' Dom
Casmurro. Each of the three novels possesses a radically different portrayal
of conflict, but each relies on it as the fabric with which the entire story
is sewn. Again, it is not that conflict is unique to inter-American literature,
merely that this genre seems to place a much greater emphasis on it than other
varieties. It is as if the characters and institutions in each story rose up
around the conflict, rather than the conflict happening as a result of the characters.
For example, in Faulkner's The Bear, one gets a sense even from the
beginning that the hunters and the bear are locked into an eternal struggle,
one that does not depend on the individual actors, merely on the tension between
them. The first line reads, "There was a man and a dog too this time."
The words this time immediately alert the reader to the fact that this
is a repeat of a scenario that has been played out before. Moreover, the result
does not seem likely (at least initially) to change, as Faulkner refers to the
hunting trip as "a yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even
intend to kill . . . [It is] the yearly pageant-rite of the old bear's furious
immortality." Thus, this is an age-old conflict between Old Ben and the
men, one that should continue long after General Compson and Major de Spain
are dead, and Ike is leading his own excursions into the woods. The men, though,
are finally able to slay him with the help of Lion.
However, the conflict with the bear is only a small battle in a much larger
war. The central issue with which this part of the novel is concerned is the
concept of man versus a greater force, i.e., nature. As J. L. Roberts, professor
of English at the University of Nebraska, writes in his book Faulkner's The
Bear, "The Bear will become the symbol of the wilderness, the embodiment
of the values associated with a life lived close to primitive nature" (Roberts
18). Thus, we see the foes in this conflict: civilized society on one side,
and the natural life on the other. The battle with the bear is just the final
fight between the two sides. In addition, when the men finally do triumph over
nature by killing the bear, it should not be a cause for celebration. In fact,
without Old Ben to draw them out there every fall, Major de Spain sells his
lands to a logging company, not realizing that the bear was a "preternatural
animal that symbolizes for them their relation to Nature and thus to life"
Ike McCaslin is called upon to deal with this conflict between civilization
and nature many times throughout the novel. When he first wishes to see Old
Ben, Ike has to leave behind everything that connects him to society, including
his watch, his compass, and his gun. Only then can he integrate himself into
nature long enough to catch a glimpse of the majestic bear. It is not any personal
trait of Ike's that allows him to access Old Ben, rather that he has separated
himself fully from civilization. Later, Ike again faces the encroachment of
civilization into the natural world. When he discovers that his family's lands
were ill-gotten from a corrupt Chickasaw chieftain, Ike chooses to forsake his
own inheritance as a way to right this past wrong. It is ultimately Ike that
must serve as arbiter between the two sides.
Another area of conflict within the story regards race relations, which also
fall into the category of man versus a greater power, though this time that
power is society. Both Ike's father and uncle spent their lifetimes trying to
free all the slaves they had inherited from their father, Ike's grandfather.
Clearly, neither one can tolerate the notion of enslavement of another human
being, and they choose to offer the slaves a chance to work for their freedom.
Slavery, though, was a commonly accepted social practice at this time, setting
the two McCaslins squarely in the minority. Roberts links this clear refusal
of the brothers to accept an evil in their lives to Ike's future repudiation
of his inheritance. Both generations are working to correct the mistakes of
the past. Perhaps Ike's ultimate rejection of the lands to which he is entitled
is simply the final step in a process that has stretched across multiple generations
Similarly, the Buendía family of García Márquez's One
Hundred Years of Solitude faces the issue of conflicts that span generations.
From the beginning of the novel, it is apparent that much of the conflict within
the story will be violent in nature, as opposed to the conflicts in the The
Bear. As the story opens, Colonel Aureliano Buendía is standing in front
of a firing squad, reflecting on his childhood before his imminent execution.
And though the colonel may escape this time, there are a great many violent
deaths throughout the novel, including seventeen of the colonel's own children
murdered in one night. At one point, thousands of people are murdered while
protesting the practices of the banana company, and the bodies fill a train
that is 200 cars in length.
It is difficult to categorize such conflict in one of the three models listed
earlier. Any time that thousands of people die, there is clearly man versus
man conflict. However, the people of Macondo are rebelling not simply against
one person, for example the CEO of the company, but against what the banana
company has done to their town. In this sense, much of the conflict of the novel
is man versus a greater power, though it would be hard to label that greater
power as "society" or something equally as neat. The banana workers
are not pleased with the sub-human working conditions that they face, and simply
want moderate improvements in the workplace. The banana company, symbolizing
the exploitation that many Latin Americans faced-and in some places still face-under
U.S. corporations, denies all the pleas of the people. It is therefore not surprising
when the situation turns violent, though unfortunately at the expense of the
However, the biggest source of conflict in Macondo is man versus himself, a
battle that the people ultimately cannot win. The Buendías and their
fellow Macondo residents pride themselves on their isolation and solitude. Carl
Senna, a professeor at Harvard College, writes that in Macondo "solitude
pervades and permeates everything" and the town "[lies] outside civilization"
(Senna 14). And no one can doubt that this solitude is a good thing, for when
newcomers arrive they often bring problems for the residents of Macondo. For
example, the arrival of young Rebeca brings with it the strange illness of insomnia,
where none of the residents has any need to sleep, though their memories start
to fade away at the same time. The introduction of Pietro Crespi, an Italian
pianola teacher, leads to an irreparable break between Rebeca and Amaranta,
as both compete for his love. The arrival of the banana company is a virtual
death sentence for the town, for while the town may initially prosper, with
the company's eventual departure comes economic ruin.
Yet while solitude is a blessing in that sense, it is also a curse. Too much
isolation spurs the rate of incest, since with each successive generation, there
are fewer and fewer non-related sexual partners. This constant incest among
Buendía family members eventually leads to the realization of Úrsula's
greatest fear: a pig-tailed baby, born to the last generation and dying soon
after birth. Thus, it is impossible for the small town to thrive in the vacuum
it hopes to establish for itself, but at the same time, opening the town up
to outsiders has proved dangerous in the past. In this sense, each resident
of Macondo is in conflict with himself, since he must decide for himself to
what degree Macondo's isolation and solitude should be maintained.
In Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro, we again see very clearly the role that conflict against one's self plays, this time embodied in the title character, the son of an upper-class Brazilian family retelling his life's story via the narration of the novel. "Dom Casmurro" is the nickname assigned to Bento Santiago in the later years of his life by friends who thought him reclusive and introspective. The story revolves around his childhood love for his next-door neighbor, Capitú, and their ultimate marriage together. In the end, Santiago decides she is guilty of adultery and separates himself from her, until she finally dies alone. However, as the reader digests the novel, he soon realizes that Capitú's adultery is not as apparent as Santiago would have him believe. Instead, the reader learns that Santiago is driven by the conflict inside of himself and this ultimately leads him, Santiago, to make the choices he makes.
Since the entire narrative is told from the first-person perspective, the reader
is never fully able to escape Santiago's mind. Thus, it is difficult for the
reader to receive a complete and unbiased assessment of the events of the story
as they occur. Rather, the reader must often "read between the lines"
to determine the truth of an event. For example, in the second chapter of the
novel one learns that Santiago has constructed a house that is an exact replica
of the house in which he lived as a child. Santiago writes of the house, "Clearly
my aim was to tie the two ends of life together, and bring back youth in old
age. Well sir, I managed neither to reconstruct what was there, nor what I had
been. Everywhere, though the surface may be the same, the character is different
. . . I myself am missing, and that lacuna is all-important. From this, the
reader can surmise that Santiago feels as if somewhere along the path of life,
he has missed something. He attempts to bring both ends of his life into one,
and in doing so, realizes that his life has no middle, the most important part.
It is therefore up to the reader to establish, in the course of the novel, where
that middle has gone.
This missing middle can be found, so to speak, by examining the conflict Santiago
goes through. In this book that Helen Caldwell refers to as "perhaps the
finest of all American novels of either continent," it is possible for
one to see "the struggle of love and jealousy for possession of a man's
heart, with love going down to tardy but complete defeat (Caldwell 1). The conflict
of the novel is completely internal, with Bento Santiago wrestling not against
Capitú or Escobar, but against the passions and desires of his own heart.
He does not have to stand up to the evils of society nor to some physical opponent,
only to himself. Of course, the self is often the most tenacious challenger,
incapable of being defeated by external actions or words, as Santiago discovers.
One such time that Santiago encounters this jealousy he feels vis-à-vis
Capitú, is not as the old and mature Bento, but rather as the young and
naïve Bentinho, home from the seminary in order to visit his ailing mother.
He is standing beneath Capitú's window, looking out toward the street,
when a very dapper young man (a "dandy") comes riding by on horseback.
Instead of merely passing by without incident, the dandy turns to look at Capitú
and continues to stare at her as he rides off. Santiago's mind is immediately
turned to an earlier conversation with José Dias, wherein Dias claims
that Capitú has any number of beaux just waiting to snatch her up in
marriage. Of course, the dandy is instantly transformed into one of these suitors
in Santiago's mind's eye, and he gets agitated as the "fangs of jealousy"
bite into him.
Interestingly, Caldwell here asserts that Bento's jealousy is directed at the
dandy only superficially. She argues that in reality Santiago is developing
his first signs of jealousy toward Escobar, since Capitú has just commented
on him ("Who's the great friend then?"). The dandy only serves as
a more convenient target for that anger for the younger Santiago, and Bentinho
is not aware that he is learning to hate Escobar. Instead, it is the older Santiago,
the narrator of the story, who insinuates that it was indeed Escobar of whom,
even then, he was jealous, and not the passerby (Caldwell 7).
And this jealousy grows in the novel until it consumes Santiago. He battles
back and forth with it, never able to trust fully the love of those around him.
After Capitú and he have enjoyed their honeymoon in Tijuca, Capitú
is eager to return home with him, or, as Santiago says, "a little too impatient
to go down [from Tijuca]." Capitú claims it is so she can see her
parents again, since she is afraid they may get worried with no word from the
newlyweds. However, Santiago immediately assumes that she only wants to go down
so she can be seen with him, seen as the wife of a wealthy man. "It was
not enough for her to be married between four walls and a few trees: she needed
the rest of the world, too," writes Bento. Of course, when he falls into
this same routine as well, this routine of walking about town to be seen, he
naturally does not assign any blame to himself.
Caldwell cites more such signs that Bento is losing the battle against his
own jealousy. "Six years after marriage (he confesses) 'I came to be jealous
of everything and everyone. A neighbor, a partner in a waltz, any man, young
or old, filled me with terror and mistrust'" (Caldwell 141). From this,
it is apparent once again that Santiago is his own worst enemy. Yet he cannot
seem to stop himself, even though his wife gives no concrete evidence that she
has betrayed him. Indeed, all Santiago truly has are his suspicions. In chapter
113, he arrives home early from the opera to find Escobar at his door, who claims
he was only coming over to meet with Santiago. There is of course the matter
of Ezequiel, ostensibly Capitú and Bento's son. He bears a striking resemblance
to Escobar, a resemblance Santiago only notices after Escobar has died. The
only reason this could arouse any suspicion of Capitú is because Bento
and his wife had been seemingly unable to have children. Bento cannot help but
wonder if Escobar is the true father of the child, conceived in an act of mercy,
so to speak, to give Santiago the son he wanted. Again, there is nothing concrete
in any of this to arouse suspicion; Santiago's mistrust is the only thing that
prevents him from fully loving his wife.
Finally, the situation is brought to a head. After seeing Shakespeare's Othello,
Santiago is finally driven to act by his own "guilty Desdemona." He
purchases a substance, a poison, which he intends to dissolve in some coffee
and consume, since he feels he can no longer live with the lie that surrounds
him. When the morning arrives, Bento has the cup at his lips, when suddenly
at the door to his study appears Ezequiel, his young son. When he sees the boy,
Santiago is persuaded not to drink the coffee, but only so he can force the
boy to drink it! Santiago puts the cup to the child's lips and prepares to pour
it down his throat. However, indicative of the conflict within himself, Santiago's
conscience wins out over his jealousy, and he drops the cup, saving the child.
Bento confesses to Ezequiel that he is not his father, a statement he later
repeats to Capitú after she enters the room. Capitú's natural
reaction to this shocking accusation is so believeable that Bento writes, "[it]
would have made the first eyewitnesses in our law courts doubt what they had
seen." However, Bento believes his eyewitness is still reliable, as "nature
itself swore on her own behalf, and I had no wish to doubt her." He and
Capitú agree to a separation, and Bento lives alone for the remainder
of his life. Thus, the reader discovers that the "missing middle"
of the Santiago life story was destroyed by Santiago himself, in the battle
between him and his own stupid jealousy.
Upon reading these three very different novels, yet finding that each relies
so heavily on the role of conflict, one is forced to consider, at least cursorily,
the role of conflict in inter-American literature. What is it about the Americas
that compels authors to employ conflict and discord to such a degree in their
novels? I assert that conflict is perhaps at the foundation of American culture,
and as such, cannot be escaped in literature, which is the "voice"
of culture. The American nations were founded in bloodshed and revolution, from
the conquistadores on. Moreover, violence and conflict still dominate in many
parts of Central and South America, as seen by the recent presidential coup
in Venezuela. An historical example of this conflict can be found in Márquez's
work. Some might argue that when Márquez writes of the damage the banana
companies have done to Macondo, he is in effect making a universal statement
of the damages the banana companies have done to all of South America. The dead
of Macondo speak for the dead of South America.
This attitude of conflict dominates in Macondo, just as it dominates in Faulkner's
Mississippi, just as it dominates in Machado de Assis' Brazil. Beyond merely
driving the plot, conflict dominates the story line, becoming more central to
the tale than even the characters themselves. Whether it is the conflict of
man against man, man against a greater power, or man against himself, it cannot
be avoided. The characters of these novels cannot escape the conflict that surrounds
them and penetrates them, dictating the direction the stories will take. Ike
McCaslin must struggle against nature and against society, the residents of
Macondo must struggle with society and with themselves, and Bento Santiago struggles
always with himself and his passions. Whatever the reason for this overarching
conflict, be it historical or otherwise, one cannot afford to ignore the importance
of inter-American works on the stage of world literature in the years to come.
Overview | Scope
Carrillo | Davis | Haaga | Hart | Montague | Pugh
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