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FEMALE IDENTITY IN ULISSES BETWEEN LOVE AND DEATH

Maria do Socorro Baptista Barbosa1

Ulisses between Love and Death is certainly one of the most important novels written
by the Piauiense writer O. G. Rgo de Carvalho. According to Monteiro (2007, p. 1)
Carvalhos novel Ulisses
follows the tendency of the psychological or introspective novel, of a interiorized
tension, in which the hero does not face the antinomies I/world by the action; he
evades himself, subjectivating the conflict. In other words: action, space and time
are mere support for the construction of the narrative, once the focus of interest is
not the outside world, but the world inside of the characters.

Dealing with the experiences of a young boy coming from childhood into adolescence
in such a psychological narrative, the story is full of female characters who, in one way or
another, influence Ulissess behavior, feelings, and actions. However, none of those women
have a life of their own, or act by themselves. They serve only as supporters for the male
characters. And their fate seems to be traced from the beginning of their lives: marrying,
having children, taking care of their homes and families. Their identities are constructed
through their relationship with the male characters, especially the main character, Ulisses,
who is, at the same time, the protagonist and the first person narrator. Narrating his story
through his view as a child, Ulisses can tell the reader only what he sees and feels. So, the
others characters ideas are seen only through Ulissess eyes, and the reader cannot be sure of
how reliable he is. The female characters, then, turn around him, and his description of those
women are limited by his youth, as well as by his maleness, being a boy in a patriarchal
society in which he is taught to consider women as satellites, as accessories.
In this article I intend to analyze each of the female characters portrayed in the text,
having in mind how their identity is being built according to the unreliable narrator, using as
theoretical background the theories of Ostriker, Gardiner and Hall in which concerns female
identity. I will be dealing here with six female characters, some of them apparently not very
important in the narrative, in order to show their relationship with Ulisses and / or how their
lives are dominated by the male characters to whom they are closely related.

1
Doutora em Letras pela Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, professora adjunta dedicao exclusiva da
Universidade Estadual do Piau.
In order to discuss female identity in Carvalhos novel, it is necessary, first, to
understand the concept of identity and how it is applied to female characters in literature.
Gardiner (1981, p. 347) says that the word identity is paradoxical in itself, meaning both
sameness and distinctiveness, and its contradictions proliferate when it is applied to women.
Those contradictions can be caused by the difficulty in defining the term, for even the
dictionarys meaning is contradictory. Identity can be seen both as someones self or the way
someone is seen by others. Each person can have more than one identity, according to the
circumstances, being those identities defined by the person himself / herself, by the
environment or by others wishes. As Hall (2000) points out, identity is something unstable,
dynamic, not fixed. However, in the 1940s, women were supposed to have their identities
clearly defined by the patriarchal society in which they were inserted. In Carvalhos novels, it
is possible to notice that the others wishes and the social environment interfere directly in the
building of female characters identity, and that their own wishes are not considered really
important.
Starting with the protagonists mother, whose name is not mentioned even once. She is
just the fathers wife and the childrens mother. The reader has no idea of her looks, for the
narrator only refers to her as the old woman, or mom, or mother. She represents the
stereotype of a woman of her time, who married early, had many children, and lived a live
that is not exactly hers, but the one she was supposed to live. She can be seen performing the
following roles: nurturing mother, nurse, caretaker, educator, all them related to Ulisses, his
father and his siblings. The first time the narrator mentions her, in the first chapter, she is
presented to the reader as the nurturing mother, the one who blesses and cares for her
children:

I wanted to be in front of my mother, to get her blessing, and go to bed


()
From the hill I could see the first lights of the town. The trail was arduous, breaking
brushwood, jumping puddles, and I came through it without fainting, anxious to
hug mom. She was at the door waiting for me.
Between the joy of seeing her, and the fear of a reprehension, I stopped undecided,
but it didnt take long. Coming to me, she dandled my untied hair and asked the
reason for delaying. (CARVALHO, 2009, p. 13 my emphasis)2

It is possible to notice that the mother is not described physically; she is just mom or
mother, that is, someone to take care of the boy, without any other function. The
protagonists entire relationship with his mother is based on his ideas, his feelings, for he

2
The quotes are taken from the original, in Portuguese. All the translations into English are my responsibility.
shows himself as a very self-centered boy, unable to empathize. From the beginning of the
novel, when his father is still alive, till the end of the narrative, when the family moves to
Teresina, the protagonist seems to believe that the mothers life turns around him and his
siblings. The only moment in the narrative when she shows a sort of reaction towards
Ulissess behavior, she is misunderstood by him, who does not admit having committed a
mistake, running away from home and facing a strong rain that endangered his already fragile
health. He only sees that she is not so nurturing for a moment, and the fact that she is hurt is
not important to him. As a male child / teenager, all that matters are his own feelings:
I came in silence to the room where I changed clothes in a fit of coughing. Then I
lay down, rolling the sheet up to her neck. "Why did she not scold me?"
I could not know, although looking deep into my heart.
()
Since that night, I'd rather die. All the tenderness I have devoted to my mother
disappeared, and in its place came a rising aversion. I could never forget the
abandonment to which she let me when I needed her care so much. (CARVALHO,
2009, p. 60-61).

Only after talking to the doctor, a male character to whom he would listen, Ulisses
could, at least, understand his mothers attitude, but the idea that he has to forgive her, not to
apologize for his behavior, is still present in his narration:
You want to hurt your mother for not having taking care of you, the night you fell
ill. Do you think you deserved tenderness, after escaping?
I didnt run away I replied, annoyed and half sobbing.
()
But remember that your mother is not guilty.
()
My heart was already quiet, and I hoped that in time I would came to forgive my
mother (CARVALHO, 2009, p. 63).

It is very clear in his words that he does fill guilty for having disobeyed her mother and
got worse from his previous disease. In his selfishness he can only see himself, his feelings,
his ideas.
Another important aspect about the mother is her decision to go to Teresina with her
three children so that they could go to better schools, to have a future. This is perhaps the
most daring decision of her life: widow, with three kids, she had to find a way to guarantee
their future. As she says: Your father left us poor; it is necessary to study (CARVALHO,
2009, p. 51). Although taking a serious decision, changing her life and the childrens for
moving to Teresina, it is still considering the well fare of the family that makes her take such
a decision. It is quite clear, throughout the text, that she does not have a life of her own.
Nobody knows her opinions about any aspects of life, her only concern is her family, and,
after her husbands death, her children become the center of her world. Even when she seems
indifferent or upset it is because she is concerned with them, especially with the protagonist,
Ulisses. As Rgo (2008, p. 1) says, Carvalhos characters are all marked by neurosis, and, in
many parts of his remarkable literary work emerges clearly the mark of what psychoanalysts
call the Oedipus complex. This complex, although not strongly developed during the
narrative, would explain Ulissess feelings for his mother, and his very selfish behavior
towards her.
However, Ulisses is not his mothers only concern: her three children are the core of her
existence, and she everything possible, considering the historical period in which they lived,
to make them happy. It is Anlia, for instance, her only daughter, who insists on the need to
go to Teresina: Anlia is insisting so much to go to Teresina, that she [Ulissess mother]
finally agreed. I will arrange about that (CARVALHO, 2009, p. 46). Those words, by
Ulissess grandfather, his mothers father, show once more how dominated by the male world
is she: she decided to go to Teresina, but it is her father who will provide everything so that
she can go. As Ostriker (1986, p. 59) says, women have always been defined, and have
permitted themselves to be defined, by the world of masculine culture, and this exactly
what happens to most women in Carvalhos narrative.
Another concern of Ulissess mother is his brother Jos, who is a sad boy, very
depressive, and who attempts to commit suicide taking ant poison. It is possible to notice how
anguished she is because of that, and how, after saving his life by calling for help
immediately, she turns to religion as a way of understanding her sons attitude. Her faith has
probable influenced Jos, who decides to become a priest. This connection to religion is very
strong in women of that historical period, for they were supposed to teach their children about
God and salvation. Not having a life of her own, religion would help her to face her destiny as
a wife and mother.
The second female character to be discussed here is Aunt Julinha, Ulissess mothers
sister. The protagonist portrays her as good and helpful, and he likes her. She has a boyfriend,
and, although unwillingly, Ulisses takes him messages from her. Apparently, she is more
assertive, independent, than her sister. She has a profession, she is the primary school teacher,
so she makes some money, not being totally dependent on her parents. However, just like her
sister, she also wants a husband and children, and somehow manipulates her boyfriend so that
he proposes her:
My aunt narrowed her against her breasts, struggling to hide his face that mirrored
satisfaction.
I had not come to stay she said, refusing to seat. (). Bye and moved her
hand, not contain herself in the face with her own malice.
Mom took my aunts hand, moved, between hers:
Bride, finally - she murmured, as she saw the ring. How was it?
John was pretending to be indifferent, although he wanted me very much. I
started to avoid him, he endured two weeks, and yesterday he came inside the house,
making the proposal (CARVALHO, 2009, p. 36).

It seems, at first, that Julinha has her life in her own hands, but, allowing him to
propose, waiting for his decision, she acts just like it was socially acceptable, and doing what
was expected from her. Her profession itself, for instance, was the only one open to women in
that period in small town like Oeiras. Being a primary teacher was considered as a female job,
since the first schools for girl were created in Brazil in 1827. By the end of the 19th century,
some trends of thought (biological determinism, for instance) that certainly influenced the
educational decisions adopted by the Brazilian government pointed that there were
natural differences between men and women. And that it was the women, for their natural
constitution, responsible for socializing the children, as part of their maternal functions. So, as
Schaffrath (2007, p. 4) says, as the primary teaching was understood as an extension of the
intellectual and moral formation the children got at home, it was easy to admit that childrens
education would be better if in the hands of a woman, the teacher. It is not by change that
this is the career chosen by Julinha.

The third female character is Ovidia, Ulissess neighbor, mentioned only a few times in
the novel. Her relationship with Ulisses is that of an older sister, she protects him, not
quarrelling for the umbus he used to steal. Affectionately called Vidinha, her role in the novel
is just as Ulissess supporter on difficult moments.

A fourth female character, Joana, is also mentioned very few times. She is described as
mad, and, as the novel develops, Ulisses finds out that she has gone that way for having lost
her child. Through Joanas madness it is possible to notice how motherhood is important in
that social context, and how losing a child should be problematic. Joana does not have a
husband, which indicates that her pregnancy was already unacceptable in that patriarchal
society, in which only married women could have babies. The loss of her child is her
punishment for breaking the rules, and her madness is the ultimate consequences of her
action. As Foucault (2000) says, madness is a social construct, and not always a mental
illness. Joana is labeled as mad for having breaking the rules, but no one really examines her
to diagnose the disease.

The fifth female character is Conceio, Arnaldos cousin, who becomes Ulissess first
date, his first love. Her behavior, at first, is just like any other romantic girl, promising eternal
love to the boy. He does not understand, however, when he overhears Conceios
conversation with her father and she denies their relationship. As a girl of the 1940s, she
would never defy her father, she did not want to be punished, including physically, as parents
used to punish children back then. Ulissess selfishness is so strong that he fails to notice that
Conceio loves him, but it not strong enough to dare defying her father. She is just a very
young girl who is still looking for her place in the world, and, following the rules of her time,
she acts as an obedient girl. She allows herself to be defined by the male world, as most of the
girls of her age would act then.

The last female character to be discussed in this article is Ulissess sister, Anlia.
Different from the other women, she is the only Ulissess female relative whose relationship
with him is not totally nurturing and protective. She deals with both him and Jos in equal
terms. She does not appear, in any moment of the novel, as dating or being in love with
someone. She is the one who really supports her mother during her fathers disease and
subsequent death, she is the one who insists on moving to Teresina so that they would have
better opportunities in life. She shows, as any sister would, some concern for the fact that Jos
is missing classes, but this happens because she understands the importance of studying to
have a profession, to find a job, to follow a career. Jos mentions that she has different
boyfriends, but this is only his way to defend himself from her accusations. Ulisses himself
has not seen any evidence of that. As a first person narrator, what he does not see the reader
cannot see as well. Analias reaction and the tears in her eyes may be a proof that Jos is not
telling the truth. Even if it were true, the fact that he mentions different boyfriends indicates
that she has not been dominated by someone in particular.

So, it is possible to conclude that most of the female characters act just like society
expected them to act, with the exception of Joana, who is severely punished, and Anlia,
whose future is uncertain. The other ones did not have the right to decide their own lives, and
allow themselves to be defined by the male world, as Ostriker points out.

REFERNCIAS

CARVALHO, Orlando Geraldo Rego de. Ulisses entre o Amor e a Morte. 14 ed. Teresina:
Renoir, 2009.

FOUCAULT, Michel. Histria da Loucura. So Paulo: Perspectiva, 2000.

GARDINER, Judith Kegan. On Female Identity and Writing by Women In.: Critical
Inquiry vol. 8, 1981, p. 347-361.
HALL, Stuart. A identidade cultural na ps-modernidade. Trad. Tomaz Tadeu da Silva,
Guaracira Lopes Louro- 4ed. Rio de Janeiro: DP&A,2000.

MONTEIRO, Dilson Lages. Ulisses entre o Amor e a Morte: Um Romance Caleidoscpico.


In. Entre-textos Ano. 6, n 60. Postado em 07.07.2007. Disponvel em
http://www.portalentretextos.com.br/colunas/ensaio-critica/ulisses-entre-o-amor-e-a-morte-
um-romance-caleidoscopico,199,270.htm Acesso em 05/12/2010

OSTRIKER, Alice Suskin. Divided Selves: The Quest for Identity Stealing the Language:
The Emergence of Womens Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. p. 59-90.

RGO, Jos Expedito. O Complexo de dipo na obra de OG Rego de Carvalho. In.


FUNDAO NOGUEIRA TAPETY. Portal do Serto. Postado em 04/04/2008. Disponvel
em: http://www.fnt.org.br/memorias.php?id=249 Acesso em: 05/12/2010.

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