‘The Obedient Ones’ by Clarice Lispector

The Obedient Ones by Clarice Lispector, 1964

The magic trick:

Creating a strange tonal mix of sadness, humor, middle-class satire, and tragedy that ultimately makes the reader feel nothing

We’ve got a week of Clarice Lispector stories for you, and we begin with one that I’d say is very representative of her work.

“The Obedient Ones” is tough to get a handle on. Its characters and themes could be called normal. Certainly they are recognizable. A married couple finds their lives drifting into the mundane as time drifts by. Nothing weird there. Lispector delivers incisive insights about their marriage, which, again, is certainly nothing out of the ordinary for literary fiction.

But the tone is off. You can’t quite figure out if you’re supposed to laugh or feel sympathy for the couple. Maybe both? The third-person narrator is cold. The editorial observations come across more as judgments, but it never feels like straight social commentary. Meanwhile, the plot developments serve to confirm those judgments, which makes them feel more like impartial observations again. It’s very weird.

The result is a set of characters and events that should make you feel very sad, but ultimately make you feel nothing. By design. This story makes you feel nothing by design. And that’s quite a trick on Lispector’s part.

The selection:

All this never quite created a circumstance for the couple. In other words, something they each could tell themselves when turning over in bed toward one side and, for a second before falling asleep, lay awake with their eyes open. And people need so badly to tell their own story. They didn’t have anything to tell. With a sigh of comfort, they’d close their eyes and sleep fitfully. And whenever they calculated the balance of their lives, they couldn’t even reckon this attempt to live more intensely, and deduct it, as with income tax. A balance that they gradually started to calculate more frequently, even without the technical equipment of a terminology suited to thoughts. If it was a circumstance, it never managed to become a circumstance for ostensible living.

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