Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Modernity and Femininity in 'He and She' by Julia Lopes De Almeida

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Modernity and Femininity in 'He and She' by Julia Lopes De Almeida

Article excerpt

Although she is not widely read today, at the beginning of the century Julia Lopes de Almeida was one of Brazil's most important writers of fiction. Her fourth novel, A Falencia (Bankruptcy), published in 1902, was ranked alongside two other books appearing that same year, Euclides da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands and Graca Aranha's Canaan, both of which are now considered classics of Brazilian literature; and she was hailed by historian and critic Jose Verissimo as a successor to Brazil's most distinguished novelist and short-story writer, Machado de Assis (15). With the passage of time, however, Almeida's writings gradually fell out of favor with the critics, who regarded them as unoriginal in form and void of any important social theme.(1) To a large extent, Almeida's exclusion from the literary canon can be directly related to the subject matter explored in her fiction. Most of her stories and novels are about a somewhat recondite or privileged world of bourgeois manners and mores, and they tend to focus on a rather domesticated and genteel aspect of women's experiences. For most critics, her charming portraits of wives, mothers, and life in the home seemed irrelevant and quaint,' especially when compared to the deliberately shocking or disorienting formal experimentations of early modernism, or the committed social realism of the 1930s and 1940s. By mid-century, Almeida's works were no longer in print, and over the decades she was rarely mentioned in scholarly discussions of modern Brazillian literature.

Today, it is possible to look back at Almeida's work with different interests in mind, and to see it in another perspective. As a result of feminist literary scholarship, themes such as those addressed by Almeida, which have been dismissed by academic criticism for years, are now at the center of critical inquiry and debate. In fact, the process of recovering Almeida's works is underway in Brazil: her epistolary novel, Correio da Roca (Letters from the Countryside [1913]), has recently been reprinted, and several essays have appeared on her fiction and journalistic writings in Brazil and the United States.(2) She deserves further critical attention chiefly because she foreshadows the emergence of a specifically feminine version of literary modernism that has yet to be explored in the Brazilian context.

Almeida's particular formal and thematic concerns are especially evident in one of her most engaging works, Eles e Elas (He and She [1910]), which is comprised of 37 brief monologues and dialogues alternately spoken by husbands and wives. In these vignettes, men and women register complaints about their respective spouses and the opposite sex in general; however, their criticisms are always couched in the context of a loving relationship, and the tone of the book seems only mildly satiric, like a comedy of manners. On the whole, the narrators are good-natured and often humorous, although the male speakers tend to be slightly more satiric or mocking, and - as I hope to indicate - there are some dark ironies concealed beneath the calm surface. There are no discussions of poverty, illiteracy, or economic hardships; on the contrary, the speakers are chiefly preoccupied with leisure-class activities, such as reading, traveling, and going to the theater. Yet despite the insulated world Almeida describes, a close study of the alternating male and female voices reveals a "struggle" between husbands and wives that stems from the different ways they think and communicate.

A particularly interesting feature of the narratives in this last regard is Almeida's implicit rejection of sexual difference as a biologically determined fact. The various allusions to men's "public" and women's "private" worlds emphasize the socially constructed nature of gender. Although the volume as a whole merits consideration in terms of this theme, I shall limit my discussion to two of the best monologues in the collection, "Did You Notice? …

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