Friday, December 11, 2009

The Character of Ilhéus

Janet Burroway starts off her chapter in Writing Fiction (Longman, 2003) on setting with Elizabeth Bowen’s maxim that “nothing happens nowhere” and reminds readers of Jerome Stern’s statement that a scene that happens nowhere often seems not to happen at all. (Writing, p198) While setting in some novels is more significant than in others, setting is an essential aspect of all stories. And, like other key aspects such as character and theme, it must be carefully woven in and dimensional. “Like dialogue, setting must do more than one thing at once, from illuminating the story’s symbolic underpinnings to such practical kinds of ‘showing’ as reflecting emotion or revealing subtle aspects of a character’s life.” (Writing, p 198)

The city of Ilhéus is the primary setting for the romance of Nacib Saad and Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s GABRIELA, CLOVE, AND CINNAMON (Vintage, 2006). The struggle taking place there between the old established cacao growers and the new growers seeking to modernize is more than a vibrant backdrop; the city itself is a character with desires, ideas, and conflicts. Throughout the novel, Amado weaves in these desires and ideas, sometimes by pulling together the characteristics of individual characters. By doing so, he accomplishes at three things at once: 1) individual characterization 2) collective characterization of the city of Ilhéus, and 3) the development of the conflict of the old and new cacao growers which echoes the conflicts Nacib and Gabriela face. The passages detailing the citizen’s of Ilhéus’s response to Nacib’s murder of his wife and her lover are an excellent example of a passage which accomplishes this.

The impact on the town was tremendous, for the shooting stimulated emotions associated with the old days. For the moment, Nacib forgot his terrible problem, the Captain and the Doctor forgot their political concerns, and Colonel Ramiro Bastos even forgot his hatred for Mundinho Falcão. The news, spreading like wildfire, increased the respect and admiration that already surrounded the planter’s thin and somewhat somber figure. For this was how it was in Ilhéus: the honor of a deceived husband could be cleansed by blood. (p104)

The tragedy of Sinházinha and the dentist was passionately discussed. Opinions varied as to exactly what had happened, there were conflicting details, but on one thing all were agreed: the colonel had done the right thing and deserved praise for performance of his duty as a husband and as a man. (p105)

This dimensional approach is consistent throughout the novel and impacts all characters to varying degrees. The more closely a character is tied to the city, the more the city affects them. This can be seen in Gabriela’s storyline.

The relationship of Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus shows how significantly the city functions as a character. In the beginning of the story she was less impacted by the city’s desires and ideas, yet as she becomes part of Nacib’s life she becomes more influenced and challenged by Ilhéus. The resulting conflict between Gabriela and the city of Ilhéus can be seen in the passage when she realizes that with Nacib’s sister in town Nacib will not agree to her dressing as a shepherdess in the pageant of The Three Kings.

Now it was all over, impossible. With his sister in town, eager to see him ashamed of Gabriela, Nacib would never consent to her parading through the streets, bearing the standard with the Baby Jesus on it. And he was right. To displease him that much, hurt him that much, she just couldn’t. (p350)

What would the people of Ilhéus say, especially his friends at the bar, the ladies of good family, and Colonel Ramiro, who had distinguished her so? Impossible, Gabriela; he never heard of anything so absurd. Bié must realize that she is no longer a poor servant girl with no family, no name, no date of birth. Can you imagine Mrs. Nacib Saad leading a street pageant, with a crown of gilt cardboard on her head? Can you imagine a woman of social distinction swinging her hips and dancing along the street, dressed in blue and red satin, carrying a banner and followed by twenty-two other shepherdesses carrying lanterns? Impossible. (p351)

Although Gabriela doesn’t seem to realize the change in her relationship to the city, it is there, guiding her actions, shaping her identity and emotions. Her response to the city’s desires and ideas is realistic because as we are all shaped by places we are a part of. “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment mellow or harsh. And it alters what happens to us.” (Writing, p202)

The city of Ilhéus not only challenges the characters in the novel to change, the city itself, like all complex characters, changes as well. This change can be seen in the final page when the trial of Colonel Jesuíno Mendonça is recounted. Here the story is brought full circle by showing that instead of embracing the murder of an adulterous wife the city of Ilhéus condemns the act.

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